Not Mindful. Not Perfect. Just Me.

“No! Why don’t YOU stop? We’re just trying to get in this car!” I shout to the cyclist at the top of my lungs.

“Christ. What was that at all about?” I ask the Uber driver as I finally get in.

A woman zooming through the city streets on her bike had just yelled at my sister and I to get out of the way. The driver admitted he shouldn’t have picked us up in the bike lane. This is when I realized Toronto has bike lanes. Oops.

Although I value kindness and compassion, I slip up and lose it sometimes. I get impatient, frustrated, and angry. Instead of pausing before I react, I react.

I share this to be clear with you: I’m not perfect. I’m not enlightened. I’m not mindful a hundred percent of the time. Heck, I don’t think I’m mindful twenty percent of the time. When someone or something pushes the right button, mindfulness goes out the door.

But you know what? I’m able to pause much more than I did before. My reaction time is getting longer, and I sometimes don’t react at all. Some things that used to drive me crazy don’t faze me one bit now.

And when I do go overboard, like I did on the streets of Toronto, I don’t blame myself as much as I used to. I don’t waste my energy and mind space beating myself up for being a fraud. The old inner dialogue used to be quite nasty, and used to go on for hours, if not days.

“Who do you think you are, Josette? Preaching compassion, mindfulness, and nonviolent communication all over your social media. You’re one to talk. Those yoga and meditation retreats are working wonders, eh? Wow. You are the embodiment of a Zen monk. I think you need to do a bit more work on yourself before you start preaching again.”

Helpful, right?

Thankfully, my inner dialogue is much gentler now. Now it involves me acknowledging the embarrassment, guilt, annoyance, or anxiety that come when I react in a way that isn’t congruous with my values. Then I might run through the scenario a few times trying to describe what happened. After that, I consider why things may have happened the way they did, looking at it through lens of the other person, and through the lens of my emotions or experience. Essentially, I pause. There’s a lot of power in the pause.

I credit this shift to my daily meditation practice (sometimes it’s just 5 minutes a day), consistent contemplation (journaling, blogging, talking with like-minded friends, counselling…), and various movement practices (see my last post). But this shift took a some time. It wasn’t overnight, and it’s still a work in process. And truthfully, I may never get there… where ever “there” is really.

I’m so glad I’ve come down from my pedestal of perfection. I’ve learned the hard way — almost a 40 year practice — that perfection is a painful goal to strive for (click to tweet). It just sets me up for failure, anxiety, and overwhelm. To avoid all that, I’ll take a few non-Zenlike outbursts any day.


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What do Brad Pitt, binge eating, and feeling feelings have in common?

We’ll get to Brad Pitt in a minute.

First, what’s your weakness? Ice cream, Netflix, wine, Instagram, or the S-Town podcast? Mine is potato chips: ahh, that crispy, salty, greasy goodness. Omitting a few enlightened exceptions such as the Dalai Lama, — who I highly doubt is bingeing on sour cream and onion chips and the latest Orange is the New Black — we’ve all engaged in some kind of binge behavior. Why do we do this?

In her Untame the Wild Soul podcast interview with Elizabeth DiAlto, Samantha Skelly defines bingeing as a way to numb out because we can’t deal with what’s going on. Essentially, we can’t deal with our emotions.

When I look back on my life, I recall many moments when I didn’t realize this is what I was doing. I had no idea I was running away from my difficult emotions because I didn’t know it was okay to acknowledge them.

Elizabeth might reply to this experience by saying, “You didn’t know what we didn’t know.” I love this because it helps me be gentle with myself, and it also helps me take a step forward. Now that I do know, I can choose differently. I can start to gather tools to face my resistance toward feeling those challenging feelings.

This resistance often looks like self-blame and self-shame. To get beyond the resistance, Samantha asks, “Can you love the resistance?” For example, when I indulge in a can of Pringles or my Instagram feed, it’s usually because I’m bored or dissatisfied with the moment. Instead of doing something more loving, such as reading or meditating, I grab for these distractions. But rather than making myself feel guilty, can I love the part that scrolls through the feed, or pops the lid? Can I be gentle with this part of me instead of making it bad? It’s in this love that change happens.

Interestingly, Brad Pitt had something to say about this in the May 2017 GQ cover story, :

I mean I stopped everything except boozing when I started my family. But even this last year, you know—things I wasn’t dealing with. I was boozing too much. It’s just become a problem. And I’m really happy it’s been half a year now, which is bittersweet, but I’ve got my feelings in my fingertips again. I think that’s part of the human challenge: You either deny them all of your life or you answer them and evolve.

(…)

Sitting with those horrible feelings, and needing to understand them, and putting them into place. In the end, you find: I am those things I don’t like. That is a part of me. I can’t deny that. I have to accept that. And in fact, I have to embrace that. I need to face that and take care of that. Because by denying it, I deny myself. I am those mistakes. For me every misstep has been a step toward epiphany, understanding, some kind of joy. Yeah, the avoidance of pain is a real mistake. It’s the real missing out on life. It’s those very things that shape us, those very things that offer growth, that make the world a better place, oddly enough, ironically. That make us better.

There’s no doubt that sitting with difficult feelings is hard to do. I have yet to deeply my examine some deeper challenges. This requires courage. And because loving yourself can seem a bit vague, it also requires tools and guidance.
To get the specifics on what you can do to face your binge behavior, I highly recommend listening to the podcast linked above and visiting Samantha Skelly’s website, Hungry for Happiness.

Choosing Happiness?

“How can we be happy?” asked Wonjangnim.

“When we’re in the moment,” I responded. But that was only after I had processed a silent emotional roller coaster ride on my yoga mat.

Not long before he had asked this, I desperately raised my hand, wanting an answer no matter how silly my question sounded.

“How do we know we’re happy?”

“You just know. You’re either happy or you’re not. You just choose in the moment.”

A wave of sadness came over me. Tears started to well.

If he had asked me how I felt at the beginning of class, when he was asking everyone else, I would have replied, “Happily relaxed.”

But now the realization hit me in the heart: I so often seem to choose anxiety and disappointment.

Then, came grief. All the time I’ve wasted. All those moments I chose to over-analyze every.little.thing. All those moments: gone.

But then again, what was he talking about? Choosing happiness didn’t feel like a choice at all! How annoying that he thinks we can choose! Come on. Really?

And as that angry thought was crossing my mind, he asked, “How can we be happy?”

It was clear as day.

I raised my hand again, “When we’re in the moment.”

The sadness was gone. The grief was gone. The anger was gone. I came back to a relaxed, happy state.

“That’s right. You have to choose. You have to answer like that,” Wonjangnim remarked.

And this is why we come to yoga. This is why we do things we love: because before a certain, point we don’t really have a choice. We are led and directed by habit and conditioning. We can’t help it.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be different.

Keep feeling. Keep watching. Keep letting go. Come back. Choose happiness.


*I dedicate this post to my dear friend and yogini sister, Michelle D’Almeida. Not only is she a good friend, but she’s also a precious teacher. On this Friday I learned a lot about the power of feeling your feelings through her courage to feel, watch, let go, and come back. Thank you for being real and raw, my dear. Your courage is contagious. Never forget this.

*Also, a big thank you to HK Ku for translating during this Friday’s class at Ayurveda Yoga. These insights couldn’t have happened without you.

Unpacking Parker J. Palmer: Fear and Education

This is the first of what I hope becomes a series of reflections on Parker Palmer’s, book The Courage to Teach. His book really speaks to my thoughts and feelings on what it means to teach. By “unpacking” what I read, I hope to get more insight into the often unchartered territories he deals with. They aren’t easy places to navigate, but I trust that the arrival will be worth it. I hope these explorations feed your curiosity as much as they feed mine.

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Ten minutes before class. What am I supposed to teach today? Damn, I’m not ready! Who has taught this class before. Matthieu. Right. I’ll give him a call.

Damn, he isn’t answering. Oh man. Eight minutes left now.

Jon!

“Jon, can you help me out? What am I supposed to teach today?”, panicking on the phone as I scramble to find something more professional to wear. I’m still in my jeans and old t-shirt!

“No worries. It’s the end of the semester and they just need to cover this and this…”, said in the smooth, calm voice Jon always seems to have.

“Oh wow, you’re right! They only have a few classes left! Thanks Jon. I think I can handle it.”, gasping — not sighing in relief like I should be — as I think to myself, ‘How did I let this happen? Two more classes in the semester? They are going to think I’m so incompetent. I am! And man, I’m late now….’

At this point I woke up. I didn’t get a chance to see the faces of my course participants. I suppose my subconsciousness couldn’t bear seeing them.

Fear. This is what I felt when I opened my eyes. In this case, the fear of failure. At that moment, Parker Palmer’s chapter Culture of Fear I had just read a few days before, made much more sense. Even in my dreams I didn’t want to face the fear I sometimes feel. One of the points Parker Palmer makes in this chapter is how fear disconnects us from our students. Fear labels them as the lazy kid, the problem boy, the girl who can’t pay attention. When we see students like this, of course it’s hard to trust what’s inside their minds.

Fear causes this to happen:

… our assumption that students are brain-dead leads to pedagogies that deaden their brains. When we teach by dripping information into their passive forms, students who arrive in the classroom alive and well become passive consumers of knowledge and are dead on departure when they graduate. But the power of this self-fulfilling prophecy seems to elude us: we rarely consider that our students may die in the classroom because we use methods that assume they are dead.

– Parker Palmer, p.42, “The Courage to Teach

*cartoon by Yoo Ha-na (유하나)

When I first read this quote, I was inspired to write a rant blaming the Korean education system for perpetuating apathy, violence, and yes, death. This is what I first wrote:

Fear. It has a grip on us. It is all around us and so it permeates our senses and our way of being. It has become such a societal norm that we don’t even realize it’s there.

To notice fear would mean we would need to face it. To admit that fear exists would be to admit that we are doing it wrong.

And this is what I believe. I believe we are doing it wrong. When fear rules our education system, we need to set aside our pride, and look into its face. Administrators aren’t ready for this. To face their fears would also mean losing face.

That’s as far as I got. I was just about to go into tirade (Yes, trust me, it is possible.) against Korea’s old boys’ club when I started thinking of the English teachers in this system. I imagined the fear some of them have told me about: the dread of going to class and meeting students that talk back to them; the anxiety they have about the kid who is “better” at speaking English than they are; or the administrative stress of paperwork and the need to follow the demands of the system they’re in (ie: teaching the same lesson as all the other English teachers, not leaving any room for creative lesson planning; listening to parents who aren’t satisfied with the way they are teaching their kid.)

I realized I couldn’t point fingers. Not many of us want to meet fear: not administrators, not teachers… not me. Looking into fear would mean that we’d have to admit our vulnerability. And let’s face it, not many education systems out there create a safety net for vulnerability.

But here’s the twist: it’s only by facing our fears that real change is able to happen. This relates as much to a fear of heights as it does to a “fear of diversity”, “fear of conflict”, or a “fear of losing identity”: the diversity of our students’ experiences, interests and motivations; the conflict that could happen by paying attention to this diversity; and the loss of our ways of being, our ideas, and our traditions in the face of all this (The Courage to Teach, p. 38). If we want students who are happy to come to class, we will need to look at what we are doing that prevents this from happening. If teachers want to be happy when they come to class, they will need to take some time with fear. According to relationship expert, Robert Augustus Masters, PhD, this is the only way that fear will loosen its grip:

When we remain outside our fear, we remain trapped within it.

When we, however, consciously get inside our fear, it’s as if it turns inside out. Getting inside our fear with wakeful attention and compassion actually expands our fear beyond itself. Once the contractedness at the center of fear ceases to be fueled, fear unravels, dissipates, and terminates its occupancy of us.

In entering our fear, we end our fear of it.

Through attending closely, caringly, and carefully to the particulars of our fear, we decentralize it, so that its intentions and viewpoint can no longer govern us. When the light goes on in the grottos of dread, then fear is little more than our case of mistaken identity having a bad day.

Robert Augustus Masters, Transformation Through Intimacy

As I ponder my own fears, I wonder if teachers and administrators will ever find a safe, communal space to attend to theirs. The idea of “decentralizing” fear in order to make room for real connections with each other is one I find incredibly appealing.

When I consider the magnitude of this healing, sitting with my own fears sounds a little less scary.

*A big thank you to Yoo Ha-na (유하나) for drawing this cartoon, and to Michael Free for asking her. And thanks to Tim Thompson, Joseph Bengivenni, James Taylor, and Arjana Blazic for helping me locate the cartoon Ha-na’s cartoon was inspired by.

Related links:

Reverberations of Positive Action Language

When I started this reflective blog, my hope was that readers would question what I wrote, and through this questioning, we would create a new understanding of the original idea. The point of reflective practice, after all, is learning and growth, and in my experience this is enhanced when the reflective process becomes collaborative.

Fortunately, my hope has been validated on many occasions, but the effectiveness of reflective blogging really made an impression on me after I posted Stop Blaming: Develop Emotional Literacy. As usual, I linked my post to Facebook. The next day, this comment was waiting for me in my message box:

I thought I would share a bit about how my brain worked after reading your post today: Yesterday I watched a television segment from “Positive Living.” A doctor was explaining (can’t remember his name) that a suggestion “Don’t spill your milk” activates the brain to imagine spilling milk which actually INCREASES the possibility of accidents. Instead the doctor suggested the mother to say, “take a sip and place the glass carefully back on the table.” When I read your post today I thought about “Stop Blaming” in the same way. Might a similar result to a milk incident be that someone who blames becomes blamed for blaming? Might it be better to suggest “When emotions are activated, recognize them, own them, and … [detach from the trigger].”

Continue reading “Reverberations of Positive Action Language”

Stop Blaming: Develop Emotional Literacy

In last week’s post, Taking Responsibility for My Emotions, I asked:

When blame is seen as the only way to deal with feelings, as teachers what can we do? What is our role? How can we help our students understand that they are responsible for their feelings?

Interesting comments ensued via Facebook and email. Within these comments, questions were raised. To recognize my readers’ willingness and interest in keeping the discussion going, I am dedicating this post to them and to their questions.

Two readers wondered how I would answer my own questions:

– What can we do to help students/participants not blame others?” Are there strategies teachers can take? I know you opened it up to the readers but… what do you do? What might you do? Are there specific things you have tried? Would like to try?

– so what was your answer to your own question: what is the teacher’s role and responsibility?

The third reader questions another facet of this concept of taking responsibility:

Thanks for posting this. It seems healthy to build a kind of immunity to memes which can otherwise disturb a peaceful emotional state. I like the comparison to people able to create a zen-like tattoo experience. Still, it seems a focus on the one with the disturbed peace of mind lets the one who “threw the rock” off the hook. It seems to me that the bullied need emotional armor while the bullies need….what? Besides, sometimes people just don’t have a strong immunity system against what are harmful memes to them–maybe because they have an immature ego–and the triggering of emotions can cut like a knife. Do we really want to blame the person who correspondingly cries in pain for not controlling his emotions?

I will attempt to address these questions.

Continue reading “Stop Blaming: Develop Emotional Literacy”

Taking Responsibility for My Emotions

Have you ever blamed someone for making you feel the way you do? Maybe your student swore in class, so you blame her for the frustration you feel the rest of the day. Maybe your colleague vehemently disagrees with your teaching beliefs, and so you make a direct link between his response and your encroaching rage.

can you take responsibility for how you feel?

Some of you may have read the above paragraph and thought,

“Well, aren’t they responsible? If they hadn’t done that or reacted in such a manner, I never would have felt that way. “

Continue reading “Taking Responsibility for My Emotions”