Breathe, Baby

go ahead, be still.

Get present to your breath. This is how meditation classes often start. The first time I ever sat in a meditation group, I thought, “How in the hell do I do that?”

Then I spent the next twenty minutes feeling as if I’d crawl out of my skin while everyone else was so blissed out. For years I was drawn to books on meditation, but I never could quite make it gel.

staring at walls.

So I just started staring at walls. I’d light a candle at night, turn out the lights, sit in a chair with some chill music, and just watch the candlelight flicker and try to think. I never would have called that “meditation.” I had more than a few negative associations with “meditation” at that point, because basically, I sucked at it.

you live, you learn.

Fast forward a few years and I end up realizing that I’d been practicing “meditation” for years. I did finally manage to get myself to a zendo, where I sat in the Soto Zen style and practiced with a community off and on for a few years. But my real practice started when I actually just started being still.

Don’t discount flickering candles, slowly walking, breathing in nature, observing closely, staring into your baby’s eyes for hours, daydreaming. These are all stillness practices.

They are not formally meditation, but they can be enough to save your life when you feel like you’re at your limit.

Practice: So choose five minutes, and be still. Do it tonight. Then the next night. Do it every single day for the rest of your life and you’ll come to believe in the power of five minutes.

Commit, Already

A reasonable definition of commitment would be that one does what they say they’re going to do, over time. It’s not necessarily the willingness to start a project that defines commitment, though that’s the language that we’ll use (“I’m committing to this change,” we’ll say at the start). In reality, the commitment doesn’t come in until we’re demonstrating that we’re willing to do something more than once–even having a willingness to shift other aspects of our lives in order to serve the commitment.

After years of coaching clients, here’s what I feel I can say for sure (and may this provide you some measure of comfort): Your level of desire is not necessarily defined by your level of commitment.

I have met people who want things very, very much. They think about them. They plot. They plan. They read blogs of other people who are doing them. They try things out a little, then back off. They tell others about their dreams. They make life lists. They have a very strong level of desire.

What people have trouble with in the commitment arena is not desire–it’s not even willingness to commit. People have trouble with fear.

Fear shows up in a lot of different ways. We think of fear as being the “Ohmigod, I’m so scared now” stuff. In fact, I think fear shows up sometimes as outright laziness. Resistance. Suddenly feeling like something just isn’t a good idea anymore. Abrupt U-Turns in plans (“Well, maybe I don’t even want to become a _________, after all,” someone might say after enthusiastically putting months of work into switching careers).

So, me being the one who works with helping people to tap into their courage and all, I think maybe a good question to ask at the outset of all this, if we’re talking about commitment, is this: what’s the fear?

When it comes to Creating Stillness, it would be fair to say that everyone’s fear is:

What will be in that stillness? What if  there’s not peace and quiet, there? What if I find strong feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, regret? What if I realize that I’m in the wrong marriage? What if some thought comes to me that, once I’ve thought it, I simply cannot ignore it?

At first, this is exactly what happens when you sit down and start getting quiet on the cushion. Intense feelings of anxiety, boredom, fear, anger, sadness, loss–all of that comes up.

And then you keep sitting or getting still, and they scatter like the wind.

Those fears, too, are part of the self-perpetuated drama. All of our attempts at control, or attempts to avoid getting quiet with ourselves, are not to protect us from some deep-seeded pain. In fact, the fear of the deep-seeded pain is just bouncing around in response to our control or avoidance.

Once we sit through that, what shows is a layer of quiet that translates into the rest of our day.

But we’re talking about commitment, so I don’t want to share what can happen one time or a few times. I want to invite you (and myself) into creating stillness for yourself in five minute bits each day.

First task: When will you do it? How will you remain accountable?

Accountable is a word people often have even more resistance to than commitment--but of course, it’s essential at the beginning. I invite you into being accountable to yourself, and leaving it at that.

Decide how often you’re willing to just spend 5 minutes daily in a space where you are creating stillness in your life. Commit to the idea that if you sit down to do this and simply don’t want to, it’s okay to let that go and just try again the next day.

this thing that we did

This was one of only a few hilariously funny moments from our Courageous Living: Italy retreat. We were winding our way through Florence on our first day on the town. I was giving just the basic overview–Duomo, Piazza della Reppublica, Orsan Michele, Piazza della Signoria/Uffizi, Ponte Vecchio, then we were heading to a restaurant called Lo Straccotto for a lunch reservation I’d made.

All along the way, I was learning things, and first on the list was that a basic overview couldn’t possibly be basic. Florence is too beautiful. The picture taking had to start–immediately (I was cool with this). Then I mentioned the lunch place and someone said, “Well, where’s that in reference to where we are now?” and then I said, “There’s a map on the back of those business cards I gave you,” and then, one-by-one, each person said, “Uh, I don’t have my card,” “Nope, left mine,” “Oh, you did say to grab those, didn’t you?”

Then someone else had the brilliant idea: one person had brought theirs, so photograph the map on the card, and then use that map! And because this was so funny, of course I had to get a picture of the process.

It was an amazing week.

We walked (and walked and walked). We had multi-course meals–appetizers, primi piatti, secondi piatti. The villa where we stayed really knocked it out of the park with the amazing meals (though everyone agreed they were not accustomed to eating all of that food!). We went to Siena and the rain didn’t start until that evening, which felt like a gift from the weather gods, to let us have that time there. I think I managed to get everyone into Grom at some point.

I learned and learned and learned, and took it all in, and kept checking in with myself and noticing that aside from feeling anxious when we were all trying to navigate the bus system (possible perils? pick pockets! Italian locals who have no patience with tourists! someone forgetting to validate their ticket and getting fined! and, of course–forgetting someone if we got off the bus!), I noticed a pleasant sense of, “This is exactly right.”

I’d really love to create space more community space, more one-on-one space like this.

My only regret was that we didn’t get even more creative time. Though I gotta say that this night of rocking the mixed-media to the sound of excited chatter and 80’s tunes in a 16th century villa was pretty sweet:

But it was not just an amazing week because of any planned activities. More than anything, it was an amazing week because the participants created it that way. They showed up, and they showed up with open hearts, and they were incredibly patient and loving with one another. And this broke my heart open, as well. Three people were heading out early in the morning so the night before, I came to give them a final goodbye.

I said goodbye and headed back to the room I was sharing with my assistant, Valerie, and as I walked in the cool October night air, I began to cry. When I arrived at the room I cried more (and I think I startled Valerie a bit, though she held that space well–exactly what I had needed and why I was so glad that she was there). I was crying because the week had taken a toll, energetically. There were things going on behind the scenes both before arriving in Italy and during the week that had been tiring–organizing something like this is so, so much more than simply showing people where they can buy a bus pass. I cried because the week itself had been one requiring attention and presence, and that was a challenging space to maintain, much as I liked it. I cried because I was afraid that I had now tasted this really wonderful experience, and what if I never got to do it again? I cried because the three women leaving had touched my heart and their leaving signaled the end of this experience, and I didn’t want them to be gone

And I cried because it had just been this amazing experience. I was laughing and crying at the same time.

Now that everyone has left, there is a quietness that has come over the villa, and me. I confess I’m experiencing it as a kind of sadness, though I don’t share that to attract any kind of pity so much as I just want to share it for the sake of relating an authentic experience. I think the bits of sadness have to do with nothing so dramatic–just the shape shifting that this journey has taken. It’s a big adjustment to take leave of one’s life for nearly a month, and now I’ve been living in Italy for going on three weeks. I naturally miss my boyfriend, my cat, the familiar comforts of home–and it doesn’t help to have a bit of a cold.

But this is what it is–I have a few days left here, days to study Italian and eavesdrop on conversations. I will go to Pasticceria Buscioni when I need a dose of kindness and I will look up at the Duomo when I need beauty.

And, I promise, my dear liver, that when I get back to California, we will go on a nice little detox from all of this wheat and dairy.

But for now…andiamo!