My personal practice is more than just yoga poses and meditation time. It includes all the techniques that ground, balance, energize, and restore my mind, body, and soul. I realize how grateful I am for this daily practice when my "normal" gets turned upside down; like the month I used potato chips as a major food group. Let me explain.
I had a doozy of a March and April this year; six weeks of throwing my hormones off balance (semi-purposely) in order to possibly solve an underlying problem. Six weeks of feeling not like myself at all and not always having the motivation to use the tools in my Little Tool Box to help me. There were days (well, weeks really, if I'm being completely honest) when all I wanted to consume were bags of potato chips followed by handfuls of chocolate chips. I fluctuated between feeling nauseous and craving as much salt and sugar as possible. Most mornings, I felt foggy and by the evening, I was emotional and cranky. I gained new appreciation for my private clients who, in the past, would tell me they didn't have the stamina or motivation to stick to a routine or personal practice. I have even more understanding why we surround ourselves with supportive people since I was fortunate to have loving family members and a couple close friends who kept reminding me not to crawl into my proverbial cave and succumb to a diet of kettle cooked chips and Good Life Chocolate Chunks. I suspected my hormones were completely out of whack when I sat down for dinner one evening with a layer of Cape Cod Waffle Chips sprinkled with cacao nibs and coconut flakes - a sort of salty sweet nacho plate. (Gag all you want, but it was the only food that sounded digestible to my warped thinking). I can joke about it now but those weeks felt torturous. Now I'm on the other side and I know from experience the importance of my personal practice. The tools I used daily (even if only in small amounts) helped compass me through the rough waters of healing.
One day, I'll tell you more about the six week protocol I willingly endured to (hopefully) help heal my gut. I'm still in the process of finding out the results. For now, let's talk about having a personal practice and let me share an important tool I use daily. Since my last entry and FaceBook Live video, I asked you to find your starting point. Where are you right now? Did you spend some time tracking your energy this past month?
With this information in hand, it's easier to determine what you want and need from a personal practice. Some of us need help getting up and going in the morning. Others want the afternoon slump to disappear. And some of us can't seem to settle our over-active minds at night when we want to get some sleep. What did you find? Was it the same pattern every day or just some days? I find that I over-generalize my feeling state when I'm overwhelmed. For example, maybe 4 out of the 7 days of the week, I had no problem motivating myself first thing in the morning. But, when I feel like an unmovable slug the next three days in a row and I'm craving less than nutritious food choices, I lose track of what happened earlier that week. Everything seems over-shadowed by the current state I'm experiencing.
When I recognize sweeping generalizations slipping into my sentences (ex: "I've been exhausted for days" or "I'm always swamped" or even "Every time I eat, I hurt") I turn to my journal. Writing in my journal helps me use a very important tool in my practice...the tool of OBSERVATION. There are numerous ways to get into an observing state of mind. Meditation practice is key for honing this skill. However, it can also be practiced through journaling, eating, crowd watching, or even being out in nature.
Why is OBSERVATION important? Common-sense tells us clear-headed decisions are made when we come from an emotionally neutral place. But, when we are in an overly-charged moment, it's hard to detach and gain a different perspective. It's why we sometimes turn to our best friends and ask for advice when we're heated and lopsided in our thinking. This type of outlet may or may not produce neutrality for us. It depends on our neural pathways; how entrenched we are in our habitual thinking; and how often we practice creating new neural pathways that present us with a neutral choice.
Observation takes practice. Start with your senses. As many times as possible during your day, tune into your senses. At first, you may get triggered by a particular smell, taste, or from something you see. If that happens, stop and say, "That was interesting." Maybe you're sitting on your deck; the breeze is gently blowing; you smell the remaining lilac aroma wafting your way; a smile spreads across your face. Then, the breeze changes directions and a hint of diesel fumes from the passing construction truck enters your nostrils. Your smile quickly turns into a scrunched up scowl. You want that fresh lilac smell back but it's gone. Before your mind takes off and emotions flare up about the non-stop construction in your neighborhood...STOP. Take a breath and say to yourself, "That's interesting."
This may sound basic and IT IS! Tuning into your senses is the most basic skill we can cultivate but, unfortunately, many of us don't even try. We'd rather label every sensorial experience with qualitative emotions. This categorizing isn't necessarily wrong...but perhaps, limiting. Each time we find that exact label, we file it into our brains and become attached to that emotional pathway (Diesel fumes = bad; Construction = irksome; Lilacs = relaxing). But when we come from a place of neutrality, we can open our minds to new connections and possibilities.
This is just the starting point; sort of like the basic drills of any major sport, instrument, or activity we want to master. Practicing this type of observation daily leads us to the flexibility needed in a heated moment. If I wake up extremely tired and my mind starts the internal chatter that accompanies mornings like this, I use my tool of observation to reroute my thinking. I acknowledge my tiredness. I may use a body scan meditation to feel into the experience, or I may go outside to practice using my senses. I take in the visuals from my back deck; I smell the morning air; I listen for all sounds, even the most subtle; I pay attention to the taste in my mouth. My mind is given a job - OBSERVE. When I'm done, my mind may desire to go back to the well-trodden path of thinking about my tiredness and it may be tempted to replay the storylines associated with being tired. But, because I've practiced mindful observation for years, I can usually stop myself in mid thought and interject, "I'm tired. That's interesting. So, what does my body/mind/soul need right now?" Because I've created a more flexible way of thinking, new ideas are created. These new ideas don't have the rehearsed labels and emotional triggers attached to them.
Observation is the #1 tool I use on a daily basis. Using this technique coupled with the phrase, "that's interesting," has helped me solve problems, communicate my feelings clearly, spark my passion for helping others, and strengthen my relationships with family members. Practicing the skill of observation HAS NOT made me wishy-washy, compliant, or passive. I've had students tell me they don't want to try this tool because they think they'll lose their edge by giving up their true voice. Ahhhh....and that's why practicing is essential. When I'm emotionally triggered and I practice moving into a place of neutrality, I'm not denying my true feelings. Instead, I honor what is moving through me and I detach from thinking I am that particular emotion. I want to feel and experience, to the best of my ability, the truth moving through me at that very moment. I don't want to get carried away on the "trigger-express train" that attaches a litany of stories to the current emotion. Remember the diesel smell? It's a smell, period. It may trigger a negative response, second period. It doesn't need to move into the long-winded story of "why," "how," and "what's next."
Where can you use the tool of observation and move into more flexible thinking? Take the next few minutes and tune into one or more of your senses. Do that a few more times today and tomorrow. Continue these short bursts of practice for a week. Journal or tell a friend what you noticed. Did you label things as positive or negative? Were you able to stay curious? Did your curiosity open you to even more observations? Moving this practice into the next phase of neutrality in challenging moments (like helping you with cravings or motivating you to exercise) won't happen overnight. For more guidance and information, try meditation classes, workshops, yoga classes, and books about mindfulness. If you need suggestions, I'm happy to help with further resources.
Even though I believe this is an effective tool, please use caution, especially in cases of past trauma. Tuning into the senses may trigger an already sensitive area. Consulting a therapist or licensed professional is advisable. If you're not sure if extra support is needed, try practicing the use of a "safe" sense and slowly build from there.