Thursday, March 20

calm amidst chaos: a four-step practice

I've been feeling depleted of late. Both my boys are ratcheting up the intensity level and my inner resources aren't up to the challenge. Some days, I have access to my inner wisdom, and can lean into practices that have been helpful to me over the past three years of learning what it means to be a sane and grounded mama. Some days, I need reminding. Lots of reminding. I write this post today for me and for you, that we may both remember how to find a bit of the calm we long for amidst the chaos that is our lives with our littles.

What follows is a quick four-step practice for slowing down, connecting with the body, and letting go of unnecessary tension. It need not take more than a minute of your time. It helps me immensely, and I hope it helps you, too. I did not come up with any of these steps; rather, they are my own synthesis of the voices and practices I turn to most often in times of need. I am deeply indebted to the wisdom and kindness of Pema Chodron, Karen Maezen Miller, Susan Piver and my own teacher and mentor Jenn Wooten.

1. Pause

I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. Stop. What. You. Are. Doing. When you feel yourself tensing up, your shoulders are hiking up to your ears and you feel the yells rising in your throat, stop. I wrote before about how powerful it is to stop, to put down the tension and irritation of one task before moving on to another. This might mean to pause in the hallway after closing the bedroom door where you've just put your baby down to sleep. Or to rest your hands on your thighs as you sit in the car before putting the key in the ignition. Interrupt the momentum that is carrying you from one angry task to the next. Make space.

2. Breathe

I don't know of anything more powerful or profoundly helpful as taking three deep breaths: inhaling long and deep through the nose, filling the lungs and letting the belly soften out, and exhaling out through the mouth with a soft sigh. Aaaaaaah. Recently I learned a new technique, which is very effective at diffusing tension and stemming the tide of a rising mama tantrum: to breathe out forcefully through pursed lips. This breath does a great job of activating the parasympathetic nervous system and ushering in a sense of calm. For extra groundedness and connection to your own deep wisdom, close your eyes and place a hand on your heart.

3. Check in

Stress and tension that we are unaware of in our own bodies are a silent drain on our resources. After your three deep exhales, take a moment to take an inventory of the sensations in the body. How does the belly feel? The throat, the jaw? Are parts of your body tight, clenched? Do you feel bound, constricted? What is the quality of your mind in this moment? What emotions are present in the heart center? Sometimes just bringing our awareness to these areas helps them to soften. Sometimes just knowing about what we're carrying is enough to defuse some of the tension. As Pema Chodron wrote, Never underestimate the power of compassionately acknowledging what's going on.

4. Move on

In the full knowledge and acceptance of what is true about your experience of your breath, your body, and your mind in the moment, take the next step into your day. Do the next thing that's in front of you. Wipe the nose, peel the apple, pack the bag, put the kettle on. As you do so, keep your mind on the movement of your hands, on your feet firmly planted onto the earth. Root your awareness in sensation. Remain present to the breath. Drop the storyline and the blame, and instead dive deep into the now without judgment.

 Freedom is instantaneous the moment we accept things the way they are.
-Karen Maezen Miller

Tuesday, March 4


It's March 4th. Do you know where your New Year's resolutions are?

One of the intentions I set for myself this year (I prefer the term "intention" rather than "resolution" as I find it holds gentler and deeper meaning) was to focus on my writing as craft, and to do so, I would devote 10 minutes a day to writing practice. This would most often be done longhand, and following one of Amanda's prompts. I started strong early in the year, with a new notebook (!) dedicated to this purpose. And, most nights, I made the time to write. And then February happened.

 Not. One. Page.

(Of course I do plenty of writing in my Moleskine journal but those pages have an entirely other purpose. Keeping me sane, for one. Keeping me clear.)

So last night, cuddled in bed against the biting bitter cold, with a hot rice bag tucked at my feet and a hot cup of tea at my elbow, I decided I would come back to writing practice. And the prompt? Return. Ha!

Isn't is such a beautiful word? There is a sound of comfort in it, an echo of home. Of the relief we feel when we come back to where we are meant to be.

To return is the basic meditation instruction. When we sit to begin our meditation practice, we place our attention on the breath, on the gentle, wavelike rising and falling of the breath. The idea is to keep our awareness on the breath throughout the whole allotted time, but the understanding is that our mind will inevitably get carried away from its object of attention. But the fact that the mind strays from its goal is not considered a problem. In fact, the hallmark of a successful meditation practice isn't whether or not the mind wanders, or how many times, but rather the gentleness and kindness with which we return our awareness to the breath. Meditation is the practice of starting over. And over. And over.

I feel that we very seldom allow gentleness and kindness to lead us when we set intentions to either start a new habit, or to release an old one that no longer serves. Instead, we muscle into it. We make brave and rigid promises about frequency and duration and give ourselves stern talking-tos about how we really mean it this time. And in doing so, we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment because (say it with me!) to err is human. Launching a new habit or practice takes dedication, yes, but also a lot of time and kindness towards ourselves.

What if we entered this business of resolutions and intentions as we do a meditation practice? By taking it as a given that we will stray from our path, and not viewing such wanderings as a problem. What if we measured our success not by a strict adherence to our prescribed course, but rather gauged the worth of our efforts by the spirit of kindness with which we bring ourselves back to the path? What if we gave ourselves the grace of fresh new beginnings, not just in January but all the time, every day, with each breath? What would you begin again if you hadn't already convinced yourself you had failed? How would you return home?

Tell me. I'd love to know.

Find excellent meditation instruction here.

Following Write ALM's March Prompt-A-Day.

Having waaaayy too much fun with the Diana Photo App.