Can We Experience Flow Even in Crappy Times?

In spiritual circles, when someone says they’re experiencing a state of flow, they usually mean things are going well. Or, put another way, things are going the way that they want them to.

But can we experience flow when things are unpleasant? Or does unpleasantness signify that we’re disconnected from flow?

Flow, in my mind, is a neutral term. It doesn’t preference a pleasant flow over an unpleasant one. It simply means that things are, well, flowing.

Google tells us that the verb flow means to “move along or out steadily and continuously in a current or stream.”

So, flow implies movement of some kind. Movement of what? Energy. Energy in the form of our body, our thoughts, our emotions, the events we’re experiencing, and anything and everything in between.

If flow itself is neutral, how do we experience flow when events are unpleasant? The same way we do when events are pleasant: by allowing.

Is Allowing Weak?

The concept of allowing is often a hard one to cozy up to, especially in a culture that emphasizes taking action–even rash, dangerous action–over stillness, where stillness is seen as a weakness. But allowing is, at its core, an acceptance of reality.

Think about this: When we are in a situation, whatever we’ve experienced has already happened. So what we’re really debating is whether or not we want to allow something that has already happened to happen. We can debate this all day long, and the experience has already taken place. It’s done. Whether we choose to “allow” it or not is really just an illusion of control.

When we allow, we accept reality at face value. This happened. Now what?

Now, we can choose how to respond, and this is where our power truly lies. Not in wishing the past hadn’t happened. Not in pretending that if we don’t allow something into our reality it ceases to exist (this is called delusion).

This brings us to the two important skills that enable us to engage in flow. Think of these as the on/off switch for your personal life flow. If you’re feeling stuck, flip the flow switch on by engaging these two skills.

1. Observe what is.

This is a big part of contemplative practices from many spiritual traditions, the practice of simply observing reality.

Imagine that you are a reporter and your only task is to describe what is occurring as objectively as possible. You don’t need to add your subjective interpretation (“This is bad,” “She’s being mean”); simply stick to observable, factual occurrences. This might be external or internal.

  • There’s a baby crying in a row behind me.
  • My heart is beating faster than it was before.
  • That driver switched lanes without using a turn signal.
  • The grass feels cool between my toes.

The above told from a subjective, interpretive position might look like:

  • That baby is driving me nuts! Why aren’t the parents doing anything?!
  • I can’t believe he just said that to me! What an asshole!
  • Well, la di da–look who feels they don’t need to use their turn signal! *honk*
  • Oooh, that feels nice…

It might seem robotic to take in life through observations, but there’s immense power to be had in this process because it allows us to take in more of life than what our subjective filters allow. We’re able to receive details that don’t match up with our interpretations, and thus, our picture of reality and our place within it expands.

This practice is especially powerful when combined with…

2. Feeling our feelings.

In addition to our objective awareness, we also have our emotional experience, and when we learn how to tap into this skillfully, it becomes a wonderful asset.

Quite simply, feeling our feelings is just what it sounds like: allowing ourselves to have the emotional experience that is arising, as it arises. There is a vast difference between feeling our feelings and acting out or reacting to our feelings, and we are aiming for the former. I am not advocating lashing out in anger or giving someone the silent treatment–both are examples of acting out our feelings.

Feeling our feelings is an inside job. When anger arises, we sit with it. We feel the accompanying sensations in our body, and we can use the tools of observation to name them, if we need help staying present. “My heart is beating faster. I feel a warmth in my throat. My hands are clenching.”

We resist the urge to tell other people about our feelings in the moment, waiting until we ourselves have felt the feelings first. This allows us to truly integrate our emotional experience, rather than distancing ourselves from it by venting, creating interpretive storylines, casting blame, etc.

This Is How We Flow

With these two skills–observing what is and feelings our feelings in response to what is–we are working with reality. We are allowing reality to be what it already is, and we are receiving information from both our objective mind and our subjective emotions with the purpose of choosing a mindful response, in contrast to mindlessly reacting to events and resisting reality.

This is flow. This is allowing life to occur as it occurs, and mindfully choosing how we want to respond.

And allowing, again, is not merely passive. When we choose how to respond, we alter the path of flow, and we experience that altered flow as the next batch of life experiences.

Thus, allowing and mindfully responding are the foundation for living in a state of ease. Not necessarily a state of easy, but ease. Rather than trying to force reality to be what it is not, we are accepting reality for what it is, and this ushers in a feeling of ease.

When we resist allowing reality to penetrate our awareness, we delude ourselves into a state of dis-ease. We feel disconnected from ease–we feel dis-eased– because, deep down, we know reality is not as we are pretending it to be, and we can never quite shake the discordance without fragmenting our psyche to a greater or lesser degree.

But when we allow reality to be as it is, we’re no longer funneling our energy into the impossible: changing what has already occurred. We’re laser focused on using the information gleaned from past occurrences to choose how we want to shape what is yet to be.

And this, my friend, is what it is to flow.

Enough Is Enough

Even seemingly straightforward situations have a lot of moving parts.

Think about it: You’re ordering a coffee, and you have a 30-second exchange with the barista. Simple, right? Yes…and all of your past experiences led you to this particular moment in time, as did the past experiences of the barista, the other people working at the cafe, the people who grew and processed the coffee beans, made the cups, delivered the almond milk, and on and on it goes. Countless factors converging in every moment in time.

Why on earth does this matter? Well, it’s easy to get caught up in an unproductive thought pattern when we overlook the underlying complexity of life, the thought pattern of, “I should be able to figure this out!” whenever we’re faced with a problem.

When we take this approach we often feel overwhelmed, because our ability to take action is tied to our ability to “figure it out.” If we can’t do the latter, we feel paralyzed and scattered.

It can be helpful simply to acknowledge that there are far more moving parts than we can ever conceive of, much less address, no matter how long we brainstorm, hash things out with our friends, or stay up half the night obsessing.

How is this perspective shift helpful? For starters, it’s based in reality. This is generally a good place to start.

It’s hard to make effective changes when we’re skewing what we see to fit a neat and tidy explanation that exists in our head. Life generally doesn’t care about our explanations and continues doing whatever it was doing before we developed our clever little plan.

It also requires that we set more realistic expectations for ourselves (and others). Instead of coming up with grandiose plans that rely on everyone and everything around us changing to fit our agenda, we stick to what we can actually impact: our self.

We let go of trying to convince and control others, followed by acting like the Plan Police, making sure everyone’s sticking to the plan (and judging them in our heads when they aren’t). These things don’t work. Or at least, they don’t work well, and they completely drain us of energy while generating a lot of resentment from the people around us.

When we recognize that there are far more moving parts than we can address at any one time, we make choices.

I can’t change all 9,999 things by Friday, but I can pack a lunch today instead of eating out.

I can’t change all 9,999 things by Friday, but I can call my representative this morning and ask her to support such-and-such legislation.

I can’t change all 9,999 things by Friday, but I can take a bath tonight and turn off my devices by 9 pm.

Sometimes we use the larger-than-life plans as a distraction. We use them to justify staying immobilized. Just a little bit more planning and analyzing, and then I can take action. Or If I can’t do all 9,999 things, what’s the point?

The point is that all change, even those epic, sweeping changes that seem like they happened overnight, are the result of tiny, often un-glamorous choices adding up, one after the other, after the other.

We can’t take part in the grand, sweeping changes if we’re telling ourselves we have to know everything, see everything, do everything before we take a single step.

We take part by doing our best to stay informed, by doing our best to tune into our inner guidance, and by making the best choices we can with the limited knowledge we have.

That’s the best we can do.

And you know what? That’s enough.

Are you missing important movement vitamins?

I recently read–and loved the crap out of–a book called Movement Matters by biomechanist Katy Bowman. When you’re done with this post, I highly recommend:

  1. Checking out her books.
  2. Checking out her blog and her podcast. (Bonus: Listening to the podcast while you move.)
  3. Checking out her videos. I bought Nutritious Movement for a Healthy Pelvis and it’s fab-u-lous.

But first, let’s talk about movement vitamins, a phrase I picked up from Bowman. Most of us are familiar with the idea of eating a variety of foods as a way to increase our chances of getting the diversity of macronutrients and the vitamins and minerals we need. If you only eat bananas, your body would be very sad. And by “sad” I mean “totally deficient in a whole bunch of super important nutrients that support life.”

In the same way, it’s possible to have a movement diet that is higher or lower on the diversity scale. Many of us think about movement mainly in the context of exercise (and possibly in the context of feeling bad that we’re not getting enough). So, as long as we’re hitting the gym a few times a week for an hour, or whatever our personal goal is, we can check movement off our list.

Bowman brings up two ideas that turn this thinking on its head. One, if you look at how much “couch potatoes” move versus how much regular exercisers move as a percentage of total time in a week, the numbers aren’t that different. Even if you’re working out an hour every single day, that’s still only 4% of your week spent moving.

And two, when we do work out we often stick to the same things. For me, that’s usually yoga and hiking. For you it might be biking. Or swimming. Or treadmilling. The point is, when we engage in pretty predictable movements, we’re moving pretty predictable parts of our body in pretty predictable ways, and this can lead to areas of our body that are rarely, if ever, moved.

Movement is a requirement for health, even down to the cellular level, so if, for example, you wear shoes that allow for very little foot movement, you now have areas of your foot–specific joints, for example, of which your foot has many–that pretty much never move. Same is true even if you’re walking around barefoot but you’re always walking on, say, asphalt or flat trails.

The point is, just like we can’t survive on a diet of bananas, our bodies need a diversity of movement, and all of the parts of our body, not just the predictable chunks, like our abs or our biceps, need a wide range of movement.

Now, when I learned this my first reaction was, well, hellwhat’s the point of exercising then? After my temper tantrum had run its course, though, I realized that there are many reasons to continue exercising (it feels great, I can do it with people I love and build community while I move, etc), and just as importantly, getting more movement vitamins doesn’t mean not exercising. It simply means looking at my entire day as an opportunity to move, not just the hour I spend in yoga class.

For example, I can squat while I read a blog post instead of sitting at my desk, I can do a silly walk around my apartment while I brush my teeth, I can climb a tree while I’m out hiking, I can hang from the monkey bars at the park–in short, I can consciously inject a variety of movements into my daily routine, in the same way that I consciously choose to eat more foods besides bananas.

I want to leave you with two takeaways:

    1. A blog post from Bowman, “13 Ways to Make Your Walk More Nutritious” that will help you up your movement diversity in simple ways.
    2. A super short (less than two minutes) video from Tom Myers, one of my bodywork idols, about the importance of varied movement:

How to be a Light Worker When You’re Pissed

I was flipping through one of my old journals when I came across an entry that really grabbed me. I’d been struggling with anger toward one of my parents at the time, and in my journal, I wrote that even though I knew the anger was detrimental to my well being and was fueling self-destructive behaviors, it was hard to let it go.

I had a subconscious belief running in the background like a tired, old soundtrack that said, “If you stop being angry, you’re saying that what your parent did was okay.”

And this insight wasn’t necessarily anything new. I’ve known for awhile that a major roadblock to forgiveness is equating forgiveness with condoning someone’s behavior, when, in fact, the two are quite distinct. You forgive in order to free yourself. Forgiveness is not the same as condoning past hurtful behavior, nor is it an invitation for future hurtful behavior.

Even so, something was keeping me stuck.

It took hearing about an acquaintance’s work drama to flip the switch for me. The situation was this: “Karen” was in a supervisory position over “Pete,” and for months, the two had been engaging in a power tug o’ war. Pete procrastinated on work projects, and Karen ripped him a new one every chance she got. From the outside, coworkers were wondering 1) Pete’s a smart guy–why on earth doesn’t he just get his stuff done on time to prevent the bi-weekly blowouts? and 2) Why doesn’t Karen find a more productive way of dealing with Pete because this strategy clearly isn’t working?

Both very good questions. Where my interest lies, though, is in Pete’s situation, because this is one that I’ve found myself in many times with my family. As an adult, I’d find myself doing things that felt like Teenage Me rebelling, and even though they made little to no sense in the current situation, it was hard to stop.

Why? Well, there are many reasons, of course, but here’s a juicy one: I wanted to prove that my parent was “bad,” and one way I could do that was through triggering their bad behavior by deliberately doing things I knew would set them off. As a kid, I imagine that a big part of my subconscious motivation was that I needed help. I was no match for my parent’s domineering anger, but perhaps if I could trigger them to act out, someone who could stand up to them, like a teacher or a relative, would see how bad things really were and come to my rescue.

As a kid with limited options and life skills, this made sense. As an adult, however, there are far better ways to get my needs met, and provoking bad behavior in the hopes of dragging other people to my rescue is far from a good strategy. In Pete’s case, this tactic is leading him down the road to termination, and I can bet that Karen isn’t going to be the one who feels punished in that scenario. Pete is punishing himself.

What Can We Do?

One of the most transformative steps for me is recognizing what my needs are. Until I know what I need, it’s hard to consciously choose healthy ways of getting those needs met, something I’ve written about extensively in the past.

If you find yourself reacting on autopilot (which sometimes takes the form of chronic complaining), use this as an opportunity to press the pause button and take stock.

What do you want from this situation?

What do you need in this situation in order to feel [safe, supported, etc]?

And the question for the win: How can you take responsibility for getting those needs met?

This doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help; sometimes taking responsibility for our needs means asking for support from the right people (i.e. people who are actually in a position to support us and who are willing to do so).

And even if getting our needs met does involve other people, it inevitably circles back to us. We must be meeting our own needs before the support of others can have a significant impact. If we’re not supporting ourselves, other people’s efforts to support us are either rejected or they’re never enough–we just need more and more to feel okay.

When we start by supporting ourselves, which might look like establishing healthy boundaries, getting a massage, validating our feelings, and other forms of self-care, the support of others is like the cherry on top. We’re not desperately relying on it to feel okay, but it sure is nice to receive.

When we get clear on what we need and want, we can go about getting those needs and wants met in the light of consciousness, rather than taking a back alley through the subconscious, resulting in behavior that’s baffling even to ourselves.

In New Age circles, there’s a lot of talk about being a Light Worker. If you ask me, more so than putting a positive spin on everything and keeping it “light,” this is one of the Light Worker’s primary tasks: To bring the heavy stuff out of our closets into the light of consciousness so we can forge ahead with mindful awareness.

Who’s with me?

Feeling Imbalanced? Try This.

My yoga teacher said something in class today that really made me think. We were prepping for standing bow pose, which looks like this (image source):

Before you get into the pose on the far right, it’s helpful to find your balance in various intermediate poses, like the ones on the left.

My teacher explained, “We often don’t take the time to first find our balance before asking our bodies to move.” Word.

On and off the mat, how often do we charge ahead before we’ve caught our breath or found our balance?

Oftentimes, when we find ourselves feeling imbalanced, whether that be physically, emotionally, or otherwise, we immediately seek to rectify it by any means available. Imbalance triggers fear of the unknown–we’re not sure where we stand, and we don’t like it. We might also feel ashamed that we’re not perfectly poised, so we try to rush on to step five to cover up the fact that we’re not on sure footing with step one yet.

It’s tempting to think we can just skip the foundation and bypass straight to the happy ending with rainbows and cupcakes, but getting up close and personal with the areas where we feel imbalanced has so much to teach us.

Here’s an example. Since graduating from massage school, I’ve been working to develop new skills in areas beyond the scope of my school program, and recently, I hit a wall with my self-study. I felt like my efforts weren’t having an appreciable impact on my skills and I was feeling discouraged, which led to less confidence in sessions and procrastinating with my studies.

Enter, this book:

I was reading it for an entirely different reason–not to improve my massage skills–but about halfway through a chapter on visual processing, I felt inspired to start drawing, and I decided to use my massage study ennui as the focus. Woah, baby, am I ever glad I did.

A stack of paper and a crowd of jaunty little stick figures later, I realized that I had a knowledge gap that was draining away my motivation: Specifically, I have a lot of massage facts, techniques, and other information in my brain, but I sometimes struggle with knowing when to use what, which then leads to sticking with the same old tried and true out of fear.

This became clear while I was mapping out a list of resources for each study area and, if you look in the bottom right corner, I was left with nothing but a big ol’ question mark for the “know when to apply” section:

I then asked my husband, who’s a paramedic, “How in the world do you take all of your medical knowledge and know what to apply when?” He immediately replied, “Oh, there’s the something-something protocol. They drill it into us in school.”

A protocol. Duh. Surprisingly, we’d never learned anything like that in school, so my knowledge gap makes sense.

What does this have to do with imbalance? Well, one of the things preventing me from seeing this gap (and thus being able to address it) was my fear of truly looking imbalance in the face because I was afraid of what I might find. Some of my ego’s many distractions to stall me from getting curious about the imbalance included:

  • Shame: “You should already know this. What’s wrong with you?”
  • Perfectionism: “You need to know how to do all of this perfectly…by tomorrow.” Hello, overwhelm (followed immediately by defensive procrastination).
  • Denial: “You’re overreacting. You just need to be more confident.”
  • Bravado: “Whatever! We’ve got this! We don’t need to study!”
  • And on and on it went.

It can be hard for me to admit that I don’t know something in areas that I really care about (my massage practice being a prime example), and being in a wobbly state of imbalance is a painful reminder of the gap between where I am and where I want to be. But…it’s also so much more than that. Imbalance is an invitation to slow down, take stock, and see where your foundation might be missing a brick or two so you can take the time to fill the gaps and pave the way for a more stable future.

I’m happy to report that, even though my ego was convinced exploring my imbalance was a recipe for utter annihilation, instead I now have a clear game plan for my studies, which creates a snowball effect of positive results and increased motivation. And bonus, I now know that my ego sometimes uses shame to wall off knowledge gaps, so when I’m feeling ashamed about something, I can open up a giant can of self-compassion and get curious.

When we get curious about areas where we’re feeling a little shaky (or a lot), we’re slowing down and saying to ourselves, “What you’re feeling matters. This shaky feeling, this off-kilter sensation–it matters. I’m listening. How can I help?”

And, hand in hand with our imbalance, we find our way home.

One wobbly yet curious step at a time.

Past Lives and Chipmunks

Swan reflections

Since Christmas, I’ve become acutely aware that my time with my grandma, at least in this current physical form, is limited. She’s still in great health, thankfully, but…well, she’s preparing–giving away her books, sifting through photos and letters, and making arrangements. And it’s hard. Man, is it ever hard.

Last week I read this book, and the little great-grandmother-Buddhist-nun character had me weeping.

I called my grandma and it all came spilling out: how afraid I am of losing her, is she afraid of dying (she replied “Ohh, no” and with such serene confidence that I completely believe her), and how much I love her.

We talked about the book, which led to a conversation about physics and multiple universes (all part of the story, and I don’t want to spoil it by saying more), and our beliefs of the afterlife. While I wouldn’t say that I believe in any one view of the afterlife, since I’ll hardly have definitive proof until I’m there, my spiritual path leads me more in the direction of reincarnation. My grandma, a devout Catholic, believes her future is in heaven with my grandpa, and I so want that to be true for her.

And that got me thinking…what if they’re both true? It’s not hard to believe that the universe and its workings are far vaster than anything I could conceive of, so why not?

Before we got off the phone, my grandma reminded me of one of her sayings that she uses, especially when she’s going through a rough patch, “Be happy, just for today.”

And that planted a seed. The result: This story, which is my search for peace in the possibility that truth is so much bigger than I know.

What Your Freak Outs Can Tell You

A friend recently asked, “I wonder if freaking out about little things is related to downplaying experiences that are truly damaging and scary, like trauma?”

Bingo! A light in my brain switched on.

I’ve done a lot of self-work (and continue to do work) around codependency in my relationships. One of the features of codependency is focusing on, and often trying to “fix,” other people’s issues as a distraction from looking at your own. This is usually accompanied by resentment if the other person 1) doesn’t appreciate your efforts at meddling in their affairs and/or 2) doesn’t take your advice and change what you think needs to be changed.  (And if that sounds familiar, get thee to a library or hip, indie bookseller and obtain this valuable tome.)

How is this connected to freaking out over trivial crap?

While my friend and I were talking, I got an image of my brain that looked something like this (and no, I don’t know why the ego was wearing a hat that looks like a loaf of bread; it just was, okay):

The ego has a never-ending list of things to potentially freak out about. How to choose, how to choose…?

I’m imagining the ego knocking on the door of the subconscious and asking, “Hey, how much material do you have on this particular issue?” If the subconscious comes back without so much as a post-it, the ego thinks, “Excellent, I can safely freak out about this without dredging up anything really serious.” If, however, the subconscious comes back with a stack of files larger than Trump’s megalomania, then the ego is like, “Woah-ho-ho. Shut ‘er down! I’m not going anywhere near that one!”

To use my friend’s example: Rather than freaking out about a recent incident that dredged up memories of his childhood trauma, his ego found it much safer to fixate on–and totally freak out about–the bowl of raspberries he’d eaten during his sugar detox.

“You did WHAT?! How could you! An entire bowl of raspberries!!!! I can’t even look at you right now…”

In other words, rather than deal with scary emotions that are actually connected to significant experiences, we can freak out over the little stuff that, deep down, we know isn’t that big of a deal, like the codependent person focusing on other people’s issues to steer clear of looking at her own.

To our ego this feels safer, and, indeed, there are times when it probably is. If we don’t have a good support system (internally or externally), if we’re a child, if we’re already feeling overwhelmed, or if we’re otherwise feeling unequipped to cope, it might be a good idea to postpone a potential dark night of the soul until we do have the support we need.

But as a way of life, routinely avoiding the stuff that goes deeper than the bowl of raspberries leads to major build up–emotional, mental, energetic, spiritual, and physical. Our life loses its sense of flow, and we’re losing our shit over raspberries.

The Energetic Anatomy of a Freak Out

This, then, got me thinking about another aspect of freaking out and why we do it. There are many reasons, no doubt, such as seeing our parents or caregivers freak out and learning it from them, getting habituated to the cascade of chemicals surging through us when we freak out, and so on, but what interests me here is looking at this from a spiritual-energetic point of view.

Let’s work from the assumption that we all have spiritual energy coursing through us at all times. Call it chi, prana, rauch–whatever you like. As long as we’re alive, this energy is flowing through us. We create energetic channels within ourselves based on our past experiences, and not all of those channels are equally awesome.

Some of these channels allow for a free flow of energy, some are partially backed up with energetic hairballs, and others are blocked up completely. And some of them flow quite freely, but they don’t channel our energy into pursuits that are meaningful or life enhancing (one example: addiction–lots of energy, destructive results).

On the flip-side, some of those channels are associated with using our energy in ways that empower us: they enable us to home in on experiences that are personally meaningful and to use our resources to cultivate those experiences consciously. In other words, they help us create a meaningful life.

When our energy is flowing through these empowering channels, it becomes clear that we have the ability to make an impact, not only on our own life but on the world, and as much as we consciously think this is what we want, making an impact can also feel scary, because when we’re truly working in our “zone of genius” (to use a term by Dr. Gay Hendricks), there’s more at stake. Now, we’re living from a place that really matters to us, thus making the possibility of failure much scarier.

If we fail at the office job we hate–sure, it might bruise our ego or our budget, but it probably won’t shake us to our very core. Our ego, however, is certain that failing at something that really matters is the end-all-be-all and must be avoided at all costs. And this brings us back to our original idea: Rather than allow energy to flow through deeply empowering channels that could potentially trigger fears of a greater magnitude, the ego plays it safe and keeps us busy freaking out over the bowl of raspberries.

What Can You Do?

So, if you find yourself regularly freaking out, worrying, or engaging in other common distractions of the ego, like chronic complaining, judging yourself and others, and endless planning in lieu of doing, here are three resources that can help. They’re all engaging, easy to read, and majorly transformative.

The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks

Playing Big by Tara Mohr

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

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Breaking the Grip of Perfectionism Through Yoga

In yoga, as in life, it’s easy to get tangled up in the net of perfection. We see someone in the “fullest expression” of a yoga pose, and this becomes our end goal. Anything short of achieving this end goal is viewed as merely a way station to getting there.

But where, exactly, are we getting to? If we really stop and think, is it realistic to assume that once we’re finally able to get our leg over our head into bendy-pretzel pose, then, for real this time, we’ll be complete?

Of course not. Because life will continue on even after we’ve mastered bendy-pretzel pose. We’ll still have bills to pay and dentist appointments. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield’s book title captures this well: “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.”

But if we’re not reaching for perfection, what then? How do we approach yoga, and life, without the endless drive to attain some imagined end goal?

Attachment to Form

About a year ago, I was struggling with fear over starting a new business, because I was worried it might take away from my first business, which I still loved and had no intention of closing. My guides gave me a useful tool to help explore this fear and to transform it: the idea of attachment to form.

They explained that everything we perceive in the manifest world (i.e. the things we can perceive through our five senses) is a temporary form–our bodies, our jobs, that rock over there, my business that I was so afraid of ruining. Energy flows through these forms and is temporarily housed in these forms. As physical beings, it’s often easier for us to perceive the forms than it is for us to perceive the energy within them, just in the same way that it’s probably easier for you to feel your skin than your aura.

What this means is that we’re predisposed to thinking that reality consists of the form and the form alone. It’s harder for us to see that, even when the form passes away, the energy still exists, available to enliven another form. And thus, we get really, really attached to particular forms. For example, with my business, I was really attached to a specific form of experiencing the energy that was temporarily housed in my current business, and I was afraid that if that form changed, I’d lose my connection to this energy. In truth, the things that I love about my business can be experienced in a multitude of forms if I am open to that possibility.

When we become overly attached to specific forms, we often blind ourselves to the possibility of experiencing that energy in any other way, but by working on the fear and attachment, we liberate ourselves and see that we can experience that energy over here and over here…and over there, too.

What’s this got to do with yoga?

If we shift our thinking, we can see that physical yoga poses are forms. They are temporary forms in which energy can be experienced. Let’s think of down dog for a moment and pretend that the “ideal” version of the pose looks something like this (image from YogaJournal.com):

Think of this image like the container of the pose. You are not restricted, however, to only experiencing the energy flowing through this pose by achieving a posture that looks exactly like that. If you use the pose as a way to explore energy, perhaps your energy flows into your legs and you notice that you want to bend your knees. Or maybe you want to lift your heels off the mat. Or you want to feel the elongation of your spine but instead you want to drop down and do it on your mat, in child’s pose.

All of these are ways to experience the energy flowing through you in relationship to the container or temporary form of down dog. Your pose might not look anything like the one above and yet you’re experiencing that energy just beautifully, thank you very much.

When we release the belief that the ideal in our mind is the end goal and instead treat it merely as inspiration to explore, we don’t force our body into poses that might be doing more harm than good based on our unique anatomy and physiology. We don’t force ourselves into a variation of a pose simply because we were able to do it yesterday. Or because the person next to us in class is doing it. Or because the photo we saw in Yoga Journal looks so freakin’ cool.

We use the forms of yoga poses to have a conversation with our body, to learn what our energy feels like when it’s flowing this way or that, and it’s hard to hear the conversation when we’re busy shouting over it with our ideas of what the perfect pose looks like and the fear that we’re not doing it right.

Yoga can be a time to practice letting go of our habitual ways of relating to the world, a time to release the fear that if we’re not perfect, we’re unworthy. To experiment with variations of a pose and finding that even when it doesn’t match the ideal in our mind, hey, look at that–the world didn’t explode. We’re still fine.

Or it can be a time to reinforce the habits we exhibit in the world. We can use our practice to force and strive, to struggle and berate ourselves for not being perfect.

We have a choice. And no matter what we chose yesterday or five minutes ago, we have the power to choose differently in each present moment.

If you’re forcing your body into pretzel bend, even though you can feel a tweak in your lower back and you can’t remember the last time you breathed, choose now to pause. Breathe in softness and self-acceptance. Breathe out fear. Breathe in love.

Listen to your body. What’s your spine saying to you in this pose? Your knees? Your heart?

Remember what it feels like for movement to be fun and exploratory. We all did it naturally as kids and we can get it back–one breath, one pose at a time.

#perfectionIsBoring

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The Power of Quitting Cleanly

Back in the day when I was living with roommates, I was looking for a new apartment, and two of my friends and I were considering moving in together. In the early stages of the apartment-hunting process, my intuition was lighting up like a Christmas tree and I realized that, while I loved my friends, I didn’t want to live with Friend A.

Friend A and I sat down and had a heart-to-heart, and I shared with her my feelings and my need to find another living situation. I agreed that I would communicate my decision to Friend B and that I had no issue whatsoever with the two of them moving forward on the roommate plan without me. I had the conversation with Friend B, who shared that she, too, had realized she didn’t want to live with Friend A.

Here’s where things got weird. Friend B never had a conversation with Friend A. She was afraid of hurting her feelings, so she didn’t tell Friend B she didn’t want to live with her; instead, she stopped responding to Friend A’s phone calls about apartment showings and essentially stopped talking to her until Friend A took the hint and found another roommate.

Needless to say, that put a strain on their friendship, and a few months later they were no longer speaking. And I get it: I was really nervous about telling Friend A that I had changed my mind. Really nervous. And there was no guarantee that just because I talked to Friend A openly our friendship would survive.

But here’s the thing: What I have seen repeatedly in my life since this roommate experience is that there is immense power in what I like to call quitting cleanly.

Quitting Cleanly With Yourself

While it’s easy to see how this might be beneficial in our dealings with other people, I want to talk about another layer of quitting cleanly, that of quitting cleanly the intentions, goals, plans or promises that we make to ourselves.

How many times have you heard yourself or someone else running through the list of reasons and excuses why they’re not doing something? There’s obviously a lot of stuff wrapped up in not doing something, and this had me curious as to how much energy we can potentially fritter away when we neglect to quit cleanly–when we let those plans and promises bang around in our psyches, reminding us with every jostle and jolt that there’s something we’re not doing that we said we would.

There are likely many, many layers to this, but one of the connections that feels really interesting to me right now is related to a topic I’ve written about in the past: the concept of allowing things to work. I have seen in my own life and the lives of others this powerful urge to complicate things, to actively prevent things from working, while consciously expressing a desire for those very things to stop sucking and start working.

What is this about? Well, in my own life I have seen this pattern arise: It’s easier to pretend I don’t have the power to change things–to play the victim–than it is to own my power and initiate change. As I wrote about in that previous post, it can feel easier at times to “choose chronic pain over conscious change.” In a similar fashion, it can feel easier to keep putting off doing The Thing than to take a close look at why we’re so resistant to doing The Thing in the first place, and then use what we discover to make a conscious choice of how to respond to that resistance.

And other elements feed into the cycle of distracting ourselves from doing The Thing. We feel guilty that we’re not doing it, and that makes us even less inspired to look at why we’re resistant and less inspired to do The Thing. And we don’t like feeling guilty, so now we’re doing things to distract ourselves from feeling guilt.

At a certain point, The Thing becomes wrapped in so many layers of icky feelings and the stuff we do to try and distract ourselves from the icky feelings that it’s like a giant rubber band ball, and in my experience, that rubber band ball eats up a lot of energy, often under the radar of conscious awareness.

Let’s look at a common example, especially at this time of year: the goal of getting in shape and eating healthier. In my life, whether or not I exercise and what I choose to eat are only partially about the exercise and the food. Those choices are tied to so many other things, like body image, self-worth, ability to receive nourishment, perfectionism, honoring my intuition and truth, my relationship to spirit, and the list goes on.

Therefore, by treating the issue as merely a matter of scheduling time to work out or filling my pantry with healthier choices, I’m not really getting to the heart of the matter, and my efforts at change rely on finite reserves of willpower. When the willpower runs out, the healthy choices start to wither and fade.

Now, this isn’t to say that scheduling time to work out and tossing out the Twinkies aren’t important, but they’re not the whole story, and they can only take you so far. All of us have our own reasons for disconnecting from our bodies, for losing enjoyment of healthy movement, for feeling like food is our main source of comfort, etc. And those reasons get to the heart of the matter.

How does this relate to quitting cleanly? Oftentimes, we use resolutions as a way of armoring against the heart of the matter. They’re like saying to ourselves, “I don’t care why you’re hurting, why you’re craving sugar, why it doesn’t feel good to go to yoga–you’re going anyways!”

We’re rejecting the parts of ourselves that don’t “fit the bill” and match up with who we want to be, but those parts don’t simply go away. Instead, they get cut off from our life flow and banished to the basement, and they become like ghosts, trapped in repetitive loops of thoughts and behaviors. In short, those rejected aspects can be powerful drivers of habits, and generally not the habits we’re trying to cultivate.

How do we change this? By accepting those rejected parts, which I’ve written about extensively here. One of the ways we can foster that self-acceptance is by giving ourselves permission to quit cleanly. If you’re feeling massive resistance to going to yoga, rather than making up a million excuses why you “can’t” go, press the self-compassion button and invite the resistance within you to share its experience. Why does it feel resistant? Is it afraid? Angry? Depressed? Something else entirely? Really open up to hearing what that resistance has to say. Treat your resistance as an invitation to know yourself more fully and to love yourself more fully.

If, after doing this process, you feel inspired to go to yoga, off to yoga you go, but if you just aren’t feeling it, allow yourself to quit cleanly. And make it explicit, even if you’re saying these words only in your mind. “I am feeling really resistant to yoga right now, and that’s okay. I am making the decision to quit cleanly the goal of going to yoga every week this month. I can revisit that plan later if it feels inspiring, but right now I am quitting cleanly.”

Take a deep breath, and let it allllllll out. Allow yourself to feel some lightness, some openness, some release.

You are your inner sovereign. You don’t need to be held hostage by plans and goals or anything else that no longer light you up.

You have the right to make choices.

You have the responsibility to make choices.

With every choice, you take back a little more of your power. You unravel the rubber band ball, and rather than allowing that energy to remain trapped and tangled, you are now able to channel it into more enlivening things, which, funny enough, might end up being that yoga class you felt so resistant to but that you now have the energy and the desire to attend.

You can spend your precious life force walling off how you really feel and what you really want, or use self-acceptance and the power of quitting cleanly to dismantle that wall and reconnect with your power.

When we allow ourselves to feel how we feel, and we honor and invite those feelings to teach us, we’re saying to ourselves, “My feelings matter. I matter.”

And what better way to move into the new year?

A Radical Perspective Shift for the New Year

What is an archetype, and, perhaps more importantly, why should we care? I like exploring the etymology of words, and Google tells us that “archetype” comes from the Greek arkhetupon, which means “something molded first as a model.” Like a prototype, essentially.

If we move to the world of Jungian psychology, we take this idea into the realm of the psyche. Jung understood archetypes–these prototypes upon which other things are based–as residing in the collective unconscious, which you can think of like a huge soup pot of information that we’re all swimming in, even though it resides outside of our conscious awareness in ordinary, waking life.

I like Wikipedia’s description of Jungian archetypes as “inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world.”

Say what, now? In other words, when these archetypes are floating around in the giant soup pot of the collective unconscious, they exist as pure potential. So, for example, we have the archetype of the Mother or the Saint or the Victim floating around in our collective soup. Each archetype represents the sum total of the potential that the Mother or the Saint or the Victim represents–all the different ways that we could express the energy of the Mother, the Saint, or the Victim in our own minds; in our interactions with others; in art, like movies, myths, and books; and so on. And these are just three examples–there are countless others. There’s an archetype for Love, Power, Justice…and the list goes on.

So, why does this matter in our lives? Well, you can think of these archetypes as the universal paint palette. We all have access to the full set of paints, but how we use them (or don’t use them, as many of us paint with a limited set of colors), dictates the ever-evolving painting that is our life. It dictates whether we experience our life as a puddle of muddy colors or a multi-dimensional masterpiece.

I love this definition of archetypes taken from a fascinating novel, The Seed Collector: Archetypes are “every possible shape an ego can inhabit.” And because our egos are typically front and center when we’re interacting with the world (and when we’re interacting with ourselves), the shapes our ego inhabits defines how we experience life.

In short, our relationship to these archetypes is mega important.

How to Work with Archetypes

All right, so now what? We know the archetypes are super important, but what are we supposed to do with this information?

I’m glad you asked. There are enough answers to this question to keep us busy for multiple lifetimes, because you can explore your relationship to the archetypes through magick, therapy/psychology, religion, ritual, meditation, bodywork, tarot, astrology, etc. But I want to leave you with a very powerful exercise given to me by my Guides. You can explore this exercise in meditation, in journaling, and while you’re going about your daily life. Combine all three approaches and you’ll be treated to rich insights that can propel your personal growth like you wouldn’t believe.

Recall the last time you fell in love or in lust with someone. Really try to put yourself in that space where you couldn’t wait to see this person, where your thoughts were consumed by them, where you felt electric and alive in their presence.

Give yourself time to really embody this experience. And if you’re in this place right now, lucky you! This exercise will be even easier for you.

Now, identify one quality that you perceive in the other person that really lights you up, a quality that you really, really love about them. If this is someone from your past and that love is now in the past tense, recall back to the honeymoon stage and identify one of the qualities that made you fall for this person.

Do you have a quality in mind? All right, now imagine yourself in a situation with this person when they are exhibiting this desirable quality. If it was their sense of humor, imagine being with them as they’re making you laugh. If it’s their ability to listen, imagine being with them as they’re listening intently to what you’re saying.

Staying in the scene, shift your focus internally and take your time as you home in on what, in you, is being activated by the other person’s amazing quality. Perhaps their sense of humor activates in you a feeling that life is fun or safe or enjoyable. Perhaps their ability to listen activates in you the feeling that you’re interesting or smart or worthy.

If you’re visual, you can imagine this quality in them traveling in the form of colored light into your body. See what happens when it enters your energy field. See how you feel. Do any images or memories come to mind? Any thoughts or sounds ? Any physical sensations?

When the experience feels complete, write down your impressions and ground and center yourself in the present.

Dancing With Archetypes

Okay, so what just happened in this exercise? One of the most common ways that we interact with these archetypes is by projecting them onto other people and events. While there are a host of reasons, depending on your views, as to why we do this, my personal experience leads me to believe that one primary reason is it feels safer and more manageable to perceive these qualities as “out there.” If they’re projected onto another person or situation then they’re not our responsibility, and we don’t really have to do anything about them.

When we’re falling in love with another person, I believe that one of the reasons this experience is so intoxicating (beyond the potent cocktail of chemicals flooding our bodies and brains, of course) is that we are able to project all of these idealized images onto the other person, and in that honeymoon stage, we selectively filter out anything that might contradict this ideal. We’re able to take this ideal we hold in our minds and believe that it really exists in the world in the form of our beloved.

These idealized images, though, have very little (and at times, absolutely nothing) to do with who the other person is; they have much more to say about who we want to be. Notice, I didn’t say who we want the other person to be but rather who we want to be.

When I met my husband, I wanted to feel safe and secure, not only because this is a pretty standard human desire but because my past was anything but. My internal world felt like a chaotic brew of fear and instability most days (and my external world was a mirror of this internal state), and I wanted to find my safe harbor in the storm. The calm amidst the chaos.

And so, I projected that stability and calm onto my husband. He was the rock in the relationship.

Until he wasn’t. My husband, of course, is human. He can’t always be stable and calm, nor should he have to be in order for me to feel stable and secure within myself. He’s his own person, not a projection of who I want him to be. Or, more to the point, who I want to be but am afraid to own.

By projecting the qualities of Safety and Stability onto my husband, I absolved myself of the responsibility to activate and cultivate those experiences for myself. And herein lies the trap of projection: Sooner or later, the repository of our projections reveals themselves to be a person in their own right, someone who exists far beyond the bounds of our ideals, and the illusion shatters.

Where we become stuck is when we assume that this is the fault of the other. They’re such a jerk. They aren’t who I thought they were.  To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, when the honeymoon period ends, we often snatch back our precious projections from our partner and go off to find someone else to project them onto.

When we begin to recognize what we are projecting onto the other person, which the above exercise helps to uncover, we can then ask ourselves, where is this quality lying dormant in me, yearning to be awakened? In my example, how can I create my own sense of Safety and Security, rather than expecting my husband to create that for me? For me, the beginning of that journey toward self-activated Safety and Security involved therapy, meditation, journaling, spending a lot of time in nature, and yoga–all done with the intention of getting to know those parts within me that felt unsafe and insecure and welcoming them back home.

When we take back our projections, we are then able to see other people as people in their own right. I’m not sure that we can ever get to a state completely free of projections (while we’re physical beings leading human lives, at least), but my experience says that the more projections we reabsorb and integrate, the more empowered we feel, because we’re owning our ability to interact with and channel these archetypes ourselves. And we are better able to love others for who they are and not merely for their ability to mirror back the qualities we want to see in ourselves.

The Button Pusher Technique

Here’s one more dimension to this practice that is truly life changing: Not only do we project desirable qualities onto other people and situations, we, of course, also project undesirable qualities, such as Selfishness, Pettiness, Hate, and Anger–all of those archetypes that feel like a hot potato we can’t wait to pass off to someone else.

In the same way that we can take back our desirable projections and reintegrate them so, too, can we own the projections that are less than desirable. A powerful way to start this process is to use what I call the Button Pusher Technique.

Imagine that you have a giant console of buttons inside your head. If you’ve seen the movie Inside Out, you have a ready-made visual. In order to feel anything, we push buttons on our internal console. Here’s the key: We are the ones doing the button pushing. No one else has the ability to climb inside our heads and wrestle the console out of our control. If a button is getting pushed, you can know, with 100% certainty, that the finger on the button…is yours.

Let’s say I’m talking to my dad and I feel like he’s uninterested in what I’m saying and, by extension, uninterested in me. For most of my life, I would feel one of two things in this situation: unworthiness, which spurred an almost manic need to figure out how to be what I thought my dad wanted me to be so I could then be the object of his interest, or rage, which felt so overwhelming that I would start to shut down emotionally and feel hollow and…adrift is the best word I can think of.

In either case, I experienced this as my dad pushing the Unworthy Button or the Rage Button, when in fact, there I was, standing at the console, pushing buttons.

There’s an important distinction I want to make, and please hear me on this: Taking back your projections does not mean that the other person is this pure, innocent saint who can do no wrong and we’re simply projecting any perceived poor qualities onto them. This line of thinking tends to lead to resisting the process of taking back our projections, because it feels so unfair that the other person isn’t “on the hook” anymore, and/or putting up with shitty behavior because we think everything the other person does must just be our own projection.

Nope.

When we take back our projections, we do this in order to see ourselves and other people more clearly, and what we see with this added clarity might, in fact, be that the other person is acting like a turd and we don’t want to be around it anymore. Perhaps we see that we’re being a turd and we need to clean up our act with a huge helping of radical self-acceptance. Either way, we become clear on what is ours to deal with and what is the other person’s domain.

The archetypes are universal sources of immense power, available to each and every one of us. The more we explore our personal relationship with these powers, the more we are able to channel them in effective ways. We’re able to paint the picture of our life with more brilliant colors, and in so doing, we feel whole and integrated.

We’re no longer scattering these powers around us, projecting them here and there and hoping that other people and events will be the way we want them to be in order to maintain our relationships with these powers.

We bring the powers within.

We cultivate those archetypal relationships from the Inside Out.

And we reclaim our wholeness.