Tuesday, January 3, 2017

an uplifting story about this one radically different thing I did that changed my life

                                     (I want these shoes)

Last night my husband asked me the single question I needed to hear on the eve of a new year.
We had just returned from a brief outing to a new, oceanfront restaurant where we sat in a dark corner—before the partying crowds were out---drinking red wine and joking with our bearded, Swiss-born waiter who later informed us, that he was only two weeks away from leaving the States and returning to his birthplace because, “here in the United States, people live to work, it’s too much work and not enough time to relax and spend time with family and friends.”

His buoyant, cheerful mood aside, here it was again. Another reminder of how we’re all searching for that magical sweet spot in our lives, that ‘right’ balance between our work life and our relationships and our mind/body health.

With all this to think about, Jim's question made me pause.

“So Les, what do you want outta 2017?” he asked.

And suddenly like Aladdin’s golden lamp, all my answers seemed to rise out of this one powerful experience I’d had in 2016.
Have you done this already? 

Have you reflected on some of the key events of your life this past year and thought about how you reacted- with your heart, your mind and your body?

As I go into this New Year I find myself asking,

 “Am I responding to my life in ways that will
help me grow into the person I aspire to be?

And of course my answer is always a humbling one.
But this past year I did something radically different and uncomfortable for me--and I want to tell you about it, because it’s changed my life for the better.
Some of you may remember a short post I wrote recently, Becoming the person you’re meant to be,  in which I shared the uncertainty I was living with in the months following my yoga teacher training.

Coming off what felt like an invigorating personal challenge, I now felt directionless. I was left grappling with questions about my life’s purpose without any idea about what I wanted to do next. In the meantime—my inaction and lack of clarity left me with a nagging sense of confusion.

I described it as feeling “stuck.”
I ended that post with a teaser interview that I never fully explained; yet it was an invigorating meeting that had helped me take stock of my life—and it provided me another chance to get outside my comfort zone.

This is what really happened.

For the first time ever, I decided to do something totally foreign to me---instead of prematurely plowing through this situation as a way of reassuring myself that I was moving forward, I decided to lean-in to all these uncomfortable feelings to get my answers.
I basically decided to take Sheryl Sandberg’s intriguing concept and apply my own version of lean-in to my life.

Did it work?

Honestly. Surprisingly. It did. And here are three things I felt were helpful.

1.      Adding mindfulness meditation or mindful breathing in my day

During these months of feeling emotionally “stuck,” I kept up my yoga practice and I began to experience the noticeable effects of pranayama—the mindful breath awareness that is part of the practice of vinyasa yoga; it’s this kind of breath control that literally helps us create a calm, inner space in which to observe our racing thoughts and feelings, or what the Buddhists refer to as our “monkey mind.”

Once you allow these inner experiences to simply be there for your curious examination, an amazing window into your deeper awareness and creativity is accessible.
Think about those times when you got a great idea in the shower. It’s a similar principle.

Except I’m not simply talking about ruminating on things and letting your mind run wild. I’m talking about a mindfulness-meditation experience. For those of you who are hesitant about this topic because of the Eastern religious associations, I do understand.
But you might be interested to hear about the MIT-trained microbiologist John Kabat-Zinn who designed a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MNSR) eight week course that was secularized, meaning without religious undertones.

Later, a Harvard study found that people who took this eight week course actually saw exciting changes in their brain’s gray matter in the areas of awareness, compassion and stress reduction.
And what’s fascinating is how the neuroscience world continues to share research showing us that simple mindfulness techniques can positively change our brains—no matter what our ages--with or without the religious undertones. It make us happier people and according to the Silicon Valley tech world practicing mindfulness makes us better leaders.

Did you get that last part friends? No matter what our ages, our brains can continue to change in positive ways in reaction to mindfulness techniques.
The best part is, you don’t need any fancy, expensive program to begin to find this connection to your breath.

For me, it really began with the breathing awareness that occurred during my time on the yoga mat.

2.      Self-honesty

I really think this is where it all starts.
Yes, it’s true that making time for “mindfulness moments” really helped me, but without a willingness to be frank and honest with myself, the flashes of insight might not have happened.

When you choose to lean in to your struggles you can’t tip toe around what they are. It requires a healthy desire to strip away the polite smiles and get down to the heart of the matter.
And sometimes this is facilitated by events happening around you.

Since we located to our new city, we’ve experienced the empty nest, we’ve lost the empty nest, and now we’re back into it again. And throughout this period I’ve grappled with levels of worry I don’t remember having when my boys were little and when the choices seemed so wonderfully uncomplicated.

I think of it as mother’s angst, and it was expressed perfectly by my relative at her son’s 30th birthday dinner.

She was reflecting back on her son’s toughest times during his twenties and said,

“I always thought that the minute the kids were eighteen, the hard part was over. I was done. And it was so confusing when he moved back home, all of sudden I had to realize,
“Wait. This is not gonna go the way I always thought it would.”

Not only were her words refreshingly real, but it was such a beautiful description of what real life parenting is like. And just like that, I felt an instant kinship with her.  

Later I found one of my earliest posts about my anxieties almost four years ago when I opened up about my worrying at night, and I still remember how nervous I felt about hitting the ‘publish’ button on that post. Wondering if I would sound like a crazy person.

3.  Connecting the dots in your life

For me, the best part of re-reading an old post like this one is that it’s a reminder that we keep repeating the same old emotional dramas until we work through them in a healthy way.
It’s the real reason I signed up for my yoga training in the first place.

What looked like a positive, happy lifestyle choice from the outside, actually happened after a long and difficult year with one of my kids in which I was forced to confront my anxious mindset. And like a lot of decisions born out of a hard period, it was tinged with some desperation. I needed to do some real growing and to stop blaming the circumstances around me for my Woody Allen-like reactions. I knew that.
And it ended up being the best decision I could make at that point in my life.

While I’ll never be a poster child for calmness-in-a-crisis, I have managed to grow a bit, and most importantly, I’ve stopped being so dismissive about my worrying. In fact, I used to joke that I was like the boy in the movie, The Sixth Sense, except instead of seeing dead people my superpower was seeing all the possible problems that could happen, especially when it came to my kids.  

Now I catch myself when I’m making light of my feelings. I know the Buddhists refer to my worries as a kind of “suffering” that happens when we attach ourselves to things that are impermanent and fleeting. And there’s pain there, when we’re trying to hold on and control and insist things remain a certain way in a world that is always changing.

During these months of leaning in to my feelings, I was quietly observing my life in a –mostly—nonjudgmental way, and something definitely happened.

Call it a spark. A tiny green bud.

I can’t say I felt these changes on a daily basis but I did notice that once I stopped trying to label myself (directionless, stuck, wasting time) I turned my passive situation into an empowering momentum.
Watching the ebb and flow of my daily life, observing how I treated others, how I got my bursts of creative inspiration, how I behaved in certain situations, it taught me a lot about myself, some of it good (I laugh a lot) and some not-so-great (man I'm quick to panic) and what emerged was this glaring area that I need to work on.

Letting go.

Yes, if you’ve lived long enough, I’m sure you can apply your own situations to this one.

So after months of feeling like a “sleeping caterpillar” without a clear direction, things finally began to feel different for me one afternoon when I asked myself this question.

“What better way to learn about letting go and loss then to be around death and dying?”

 What if your biggest weakness leads you toward your greatest strengths?

And this was how, on a sunny, October morning I found myself sitting with the Director of a hospice program in Orange County, California.
“Why would you wanna be with dying people?” the Director asked me with a beaming smile.

“To be of service.”

“Tell me about your biggest weakness” he said.

Hmm. Excessive worry. A hard time letting go and trusting things will work out translation: I'm controlling. Fears of loss, especially something bad happening to my kids. A terrible sweet tooth.
OK, so I really didn’t say any of this.

But as I sat in the conference room that day and listened to the Director ask me enthusiastic questions about my therapy background, it occurred to me that once again, I was getting outside my comfort zone as a result of what I considered to be my biggest weaknesses.

I began to feel the dots connecting in my head.
What started out as a decision to help me deal with my worries and anxieties ended up introducing me to a world of yoga. Mindfulness. Breathing. And a new world of like-minded friends.

Now I was realizing that without my anxieties I would never have been at this interview. I wouldn't be hearing the Director’s excited plans for a bereavement camp for children that’s now in the works, or about his search for people with therapy backgrounds and artistic abilities who might be part of his team.
Without my annoying habit of instantly imaging the worst possible thing that might happen to my kids, I would never have heard this Director share his hope of offering grief yoga (are-you-hearing-what-I’m hearing?) to the families in his hospice program.

Or heard him ask about my interest in joining him in his support groups.
And later when we walked to the glass doors and shook hands, I felt it. 

If it hadn’t been for my struggle with letting go, I might never have heard him say with a smile,

“We’ve been waiting for you.”

Needless to say, as I walked away in the sunshine, I found myself shaking my head and feeling oddly appreciative of the very parts of me that I wanted to be rid of. Go figure.
And while I honestly have no idea how this new endeavor will unfold, I promise to keep you posted.

Although I am entering this New Year with a few interesting thoughts from 2016. Here they go:
Our biggest weaknesses. Our glaring flaws.

Those bumpy times when we lack direction and clarity about where we’re headed?
I think it's these obstacles that force us to pause, get us asking the right questions so we can find our way back to our most authentic path.

Because whatever it looks like, it should be our path.

  January morning on the beach

Wishing you a New Year filled with insatiable curiosity, kindness and love!



sharing this post with friends at:
French Country Cottage

 (p.s. Check out my mindfulness experience below)

In case you’re interested, I jotted down what I did during my mindfulness moments:

How I leaned-in to my discomfort and found insight and direction

It begins with this question:

What if instead of wasting all your mental energies judging your struggles and feeling bad-discouraged-insecure-and/or repelled by what you consider your ‘flaws’ or ‘weaknesses,’ what if you did the exact opposite?

You did this instead:

1.      Identify an emotional ‘struggle’ you want to work on

   (ex: I wanted to focus on my tendency to react with worry to     various situations)

2.  When situations arise that evoke these emotions instead of dread, greet them with your version of insatiable curiosity.

3.   Replace your self judgement with compassion

4.  Remember. Lean-in means to stay awhile. Pema Chodron calls it relaxing into the emotion and riding it out. A typical emotion last 90 seconds in the brain, anything longer is because you’re choosing to rekindle it. While it’s there, become fascinated about everything you’re experiencing.

5.      Observe your thoughts. What are you telling yourself when you’re in the full expression of this experience?  As you start to identify your private ‘self-talk” say these words out loud and keep going, see what free flowing thoughts come out of your mouth.

6.   Sharing these moments with a supportive person can be helpful. I use my husband as a sounding board as I catch myself starting to go off into a worrying mode. “Ok, I’m feeling this right now because I’m assuming this will happen….”

7.   Be curious to see how these emotions and sensations   are felt in your physical body.

8.  Finally, focus on your breathing. Observe your inhales  and exhales as you draw your attention to the present moment. If this is hard, you can begin by simply noting, “I am inhaling now. I am exhaling now.”

Again, these can be the equivalent of little pauses during your day. Whenever you catch yourself falling into your negative mindset. The goal is simply to become fully aware. I know this is hard to believe, but this was how I got through my period of uncertainty with a newfound clarity and yes, feeling more contentment. And again, this is just what worked for me, it's a blend of different teachings I’ve gathered along the way.


Carla from The River said...

Thank you!! I appreciated this post and I have read it 3 times!! So much to take in and learn from.
Thank you Les!
Happy New Year,

mdickson said...

Great post Les. I remember you telling me about this new adventure... looking forward to hearing how it is going. Miss you!

JoanMarie said...

Your posts are so meaningful to me and each one provides an opportunity and the support to look at things differently. The thoughtfulness and sharing of information in your words is so refreshing and makes one eager to try new ideas. I believe life truly is a journey and with each lesson learned comes a time to reflect before moving provide the courage and vision to do just that. Thank you!

Karen said...

I'm beginning to feel like Charlie Brown...visiting Lucy for wisdom! Somehow your posts are so often spot on in their timing for me personally. After 10 years in a company I loved working for, yesterday I was asked to retire. I felt my world was shattered. Time at home yesterday, regrouping, helped me understand that I can create options for myself. Between reading on my own and your enlightening posts, I can breathe and know in my heart that I've just entered a new chapter and it's up to me to find the path that I'll walk for this next adventure.
Best to you, the organization you may (already have?) joined will be lucky to have you and it sounds like this is the idea situation for you.

Art and Sand said...

Nothing like a Gwen Moss post to get my mind going this morning.

I'm going to save comments 'til we meet later this month because I know we'll talk about it.

But, I have to share Steve's story with you. As I read your post I thought about Steve and his worries. He was so worried about JP when he came home to live about 4 years after graduating from UC Berkeley. Steve went to a therapist to get ideas on how to help JP.

The doctor asked for me to come to the third session - JP had gone to the second session. She asked how I felt about JP and I said, "He'll be fine, he just needs to make his own mistakes - that's his way. I don't worry about much, I'm shallow". She laughed and told me not to bother to come to back.

And then, she turned to Steve and said, let's work on your worries. She pushed Steve to pursue his art, he signed up for art classes at VC, his teachers urged him to begin showing - (he has been in many shows with his former teachers) , he sold a few pieces and the rest is history.

Just to tell you how JP did, he went back to school for a teaching credential and taught at one of the worst high schools in the US, added an MA in Educational Leadership, taught at UCLA in the School of Education, went back to school for an advanced math degree, entered the tech world, is teaching once again and just got an advance on a book proposal. All Steve's worry was for naught!

Leslie Harris said...

Hi Mare, thanks for reading this. I really hesitated writing anything about the hospice experience because it felt sort of awkward. I don't like the feeling of announcing any kind of 'charity' i'm doing in case it get's misconstrued. I'd normally keep silent about it but I thought the mindfulness part might be helpful for others to hear about and there was no way of telling this story without tying in the hospice part. Anyway I was telling Michael about it and he's so funny. He said "Mom stop. I'm gonna stop you every time you start apologizing about your writing." Boy, he's going through this interesting period of self growth, I'd love to tell you about him. I wish we could sit at your kitchen counter and just catch up about our kids and life.
I miss you too.

La Contessa said...


Simply LKJ said...

Leslie, you are always insightful. But, I love you even more for you heartfelt honesty. I could totally relate to your friend. The kids are can stop worrying now...never gonna happen. You come to realize as they get older that your worries now are about bigger things, things that take on great consequences. Life changers, not just a skinned knee. Something I've promised myself this year is to just take time and be, be still, listen, be open. My doctors are huge proponents of any form of meditation, even if it's just putting on your favorite soothing music and listening for 10 minutes, no interruptions. I think we all need that in this world we are living in, all this busyness. Thank you for sharing.

Leslie Harris said...

JoanMarie, thank you for such supportive words. I can't tell you how uplifting it feels to hear that you might find some little kernel of insight from something I share on my blog. I'm only partially kidding when I say that these kind of posts are always a lesson in self esteem--My OWN !  I'm still learning how to share what feels like vulnerable material with my readers and not feel some trepidation afterwards. It's something I'm getting better at thanks to friends like you!

Leslie Harris said...

Karen I've been thinking about you ever since I read your comment. It does sound like you were caught off guard and maybe that's another reason why your retiring felt so 'shattering'. Gosh I'm so sorry you had to go though all that, after 10 years it sounds like it could have been executed with more sensitivity. Although it does sound like you're feeling better now. Know what I think? I think we should get together for a coffee, I know you're in Orange County and that's so close. I'd love to talk in person instead of write my response here.

Leslie Harris said...

Hello Carla you inspiring beam of light--i'm so glad you liked my post.
when are you going to visit Huntington Beach?

Sonny G said...

So happy I found your blog and this post. Its so very kind of you to share the awareness with us.
I've thought many times about joining a Laughin Yoga group. Perhaps I will.

thank you.

Mary Ann Pickett said...

This felt so timely for me, Leslie. I just went to my second yoga class at a new studio ...after not having been for a few years (and a bad dislocated ankle injury). I was trying be "mindful" as a cable car went by outside and the instructor said "guide your mind back to your breathing" hard to stay focused! But your post is so encouraging. Look at your positive results. Thank you.
Happy New Year!

Van@Luxuria said...

OMG Leslie!!! What a brilliant post which resonated with me on so many levels.
Firstly I so get the "Swiss" thing. I have family in Switzerland and I see how they work smarter not harder. I know in the village where my Aunt lives they are not even allowed to hang clothes outside on a Sunday!!!! They believe there should be one day where no work of any kind happens.

Now for the mindfulness, I try and add yoga and meditation to my morning routine but I still can't stop the monkey-mind. Would you believe me if I said I just went and ordered some audible books by Prema Chödrön to help me? I have read so many articles on the benefits of meditation, and having a science background I often need "evidence". So the more I read about how meditation actually increases the grey matter of the brain and staves of Alzheimers and Dementia etc makes me really want to crack this because like you I worry incessantly.

I am SO excited to hear more about what happens with the hospice centre but I applaud you for always asking questions to yourself something few of us do. Your authenticity and vulnerability are also SO humbling. Sending BIG hugs, Van xxx

Splenderosa said...

Very insightful post for all of us. It never hurts to re-evaluate our directions, ever if we are older. We should all be mindful of this. I set out to help. Help people some how. I started smiling, and speaking to everyone, even if it was a quick shout out. It works. Somehow the giving of happiness brings it all back to you. Brilliant post !!! I read the entire thing.

Calypso In The Country said...

So much to take in from this post, Leslie. I may have to go back and reread it just to make sure I absorbed it all. One thing that really stuck out to me was this paragraph - "Hmm. Excessive worry. A hard time letting go and trusting things will work out translation: I'm controlling. Fears of loss, especially something bad happening to my kids. A terrible sweet tooth." - It's like I wrote it myself because this is so me! Just today, we were driving home from Vermont after leaving my 13 year old son up there with my best friend and her family to ski all day today. We have done this before and my friend knows to text me every now and then with updates (basically so I know my son hasn't gotten hurt). Well, the whole 4 1/2 hour ride home, I didn't hear from her. I kept imagining the worst - that he got hurt or even killed and that's why she hadn't texted me yet. I was miserable the whole ride home but didn't mention it to my husband because it's not the first time I have felt this way. Finally after getting home, I got her text casually mentioning that she thought her phone wasn't working earlier. They were done skiing and were packing up the car and heading home in a few minutes. Whew...relief! But afterwards I thought about how I basically wasted that whole time in the car worrying about the worst case scenario - again! So, like I said, I am going to reread your post... Stopping by your blog is therapeutic!

michele said...

you are amazing. it's refreshing to read about your personal growth and this journey which is all your own. and it's so therapeutic to write about experiences and questions because you discover as you write, yes? and in a sense you become a teacher for yourself which is such a miracle isn't it? working with hospice will be incredible - sharing thin space with souls leaving their bodies. how much more honorable does it get? ietting go of worry is huge and i don't ever want to retreat to that pattern. increasing capacity for love and the divine through spiritual practices (contemplative prayer) has been transforming for me, and i can relate to reading past blog posts and marveling at personal growth and stuck patterns! and remember, unless we blow up our blogs, our kids will have all this commentary! keep stretching and leaning and shining light on the shadowy parts! i'm right here journeying with you, friend. xox

Leslie Harris said...

Shelley the best part of what you shared about your worrying on your care ride is your awareness of it. I've found that kind of awareness about what i'm experiencing to be the first step in changing my reactions. It's sort like creating space between the situation and your worry, a healthy distance so you can react in a more balanced way. That's what the mindfulness pauses do for me. Your kids are at the age where there's going to be more and more of these experiences where you as a Mom will be letting go and trusting. And I can totally relate, especially once they start driving. One of my favorite views on worrying lately is by Eckhart Tolle who says calls the habit of worrying a useless process of projecting ours fears into an imaginary future. "There's no way that you can cope with such a situation because it doesn't exist, it's a mental phantom."
BTW--thank you so much Shelley for sharing your own experience here, I write what I do... in case someone else might be able to relate and hopefully get something from it.. hugs to you

Splendid Market said...

Very interesting, I can't wait to try this. Thank you.

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