On camping, accomplishments and moving from within…

BIGSUR


I spent my weekend camping in Big Sur with Trail Mavens, and it was one of my favorite weekends ever. I was raised by parents who did not believe in camping — my mom fondly refers to hotels without room service as camping, and that, coupled with my chubby body and dislike of sweating meant that I was a decidedly indoor kid. That said, I’ve always been fascinated with people who sneak off for weekends under huge redwoods or spent their summers eating foil-packed meals around campfires. So when I had a chance to go on a trip designed for women who want to learn to pitch tents and build fires and grow their outdoor skills, I jumped at it. If this sounds like you, than you should totally go. Best experience!

While I could easily write a blog post all about my love for the weekend, I had a deeper realization as I hiked along the Ewoldsen Trail in Big Sur. There I was, having successfully survived an evening in a tent, eaten a breakfast cooked over a stove, hiking along a trail…I was DOING IT. I thought back to the irony of the fact that I started this year by eagerly swearing off any new adventures. No more races, cleanses, self-help books. No more trying so hard to go do things, but rather a year of finding contentment at home.

Those of you who know me are surely laughing because I’m sure you knew that particular way of living wouldn’t last long. And, in true, prime Amy fashion, the rest of my 2016 consists of a variety of awesome adventures: running three races, climbing Half Dome and a solo trip to Paris.

Congrats to whichever of my best friends won the pool on just how long my ban on doing things would last.

That said, I don’t think that I’ve “failed” at my resolution of swearing off self-improvement — except in one kind of huge regard. I signed up for the highly-lauded Jess Lively’s Life With Intention Online course. After months of listening to her podcast, I decided that I wanted to explore more about values-based intentions, or basically, getting out of the rat race of constantly checking things off of a list of accomplishments and learning to move from a more intentional place.

I honestly thought that the process might be sort of hokey, or repetitive in terms of things I’d explored before through my many forays into “fixing myself.” Instead, what I found was that it totally shifted my way of thinking and behaving. Rather than continuing to try new activities because I think it will “fix” something in me, I’m trying to ask myself why or how or what I’m hoping to get from my actions, and if it lines up with my values. For example, with my health issues, I’m having to dramatically change the way I eat (to an admittedly healthier way of consuming food). But rather than doing it because I feel like I must lose weight, I’m focused on eating in a way that will help my body feel its best. I am running again, not because I’m focused on an outward physical goal, but because I like who I am when I’m focused on running. It inspires discipline, confidence and strength in my own body.


As it turns out, for me, doing things isn’t what burns me out. I genuinely ENJOY doing stuff. I get burned out and frustrated when I do things with an attitude that I’m going to fix something in me, rather than doing things from a place of joy or genuine curiosity.

I’ve always thought that Rumi quote, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray…” to be sort of a weird timewaster? I’ve wanted to learn French since I was young, but it always seemed like a useless pursuit as a Californian — shouldn’t I be learning Spanish? But, as I’ve started learning French just because, I’ve found such immense joy because I am passionate about it. I’m reading books I find interesting, trying watercolor painting, and spending time outside, and while my schedule is busy, my heart is so full.

As I hiked along this weekend, I realized that I had finally found the thing inside that I’d been looking for: the pure joy of doing things just because you want to. Going camping isn’t exactly an “accomplishment” but it’s something I always thought that I would love — and I was right. So while I am still seeking, chasing and growing, it is no longer about a constant quest to be better: it’s a quest to do the things I love, to feel the best I can, and to learn, grow and change simply because I want to.

On rest, surrender, and relaxing…

As I was grunting my way through revolved triangle in a particularly challenging yoga class this week, my teacher reminded us of the importance of not fighting the poses, or the practice, but rather relaxing into it.

 

I’ve been getting the message all over the place these days:

 

“No use fighting things” or “Well, sometimes you can’t force things” or “If you try to force it, it’s just not going to happen.”

 

No, really. EVERYWHERE. From someone helping me lift a box. Yoga. A writing group. A random stranger in Whole Foods (talking to someone else, but YOU GET THE POINT).

 

Perhaps most importantly, my body.

 

I’m not hearing voices or anything crazy, but I was recently diagnosed with some health challenges (I’m not pregnant, dying or anything remotely sexy or interesting, nor am I going to spill my business onto the internet). Not only am I now in the ranks of the gluten and dairy free life (I miss you cheese and white flour and sugar and coffee creamer), I’m also having to face the fact that rest is now a big part of my life.

 

Rest isn’t really my thing. When I was a little girl, my preschool teachers tried in vain to get me to nap and finally surrendered to the fact that there was no way I was going to sleep, not ever, and allowed me to read. I’ve never been much of a “lay around and do nothing” person. I read (look at Instagram) or putter around while I watch TV. And when exercise became a part of my life a few years ago, I really upped the ante. At one point in recent years, I was running, going to boot camp and doing a yoga class, all in the same day, four days a week, plus other exercise on the “off days.” A coworker once described my working style as “relentless.” I am a do-er. A try-hard. And it’s something I pride myself on.

 

Former readers of different iterations of this blog might remember that I’ve lost a significant amount of weight. And yet, my body has grown more and more unhappy in recent years. I am nearly always exhausted, I’m still fighting weight loss and I’ve felt “off” in a way that let me know something was amiss.

 

Finally, after being diagnosed, I learned that not only would this require a significant change in food consumption, but also, that it would require rest and “cutting back.” On everything. Immediately. With no end date. And while I was sadder than I could ever express about losing gluten, the idea of cutting back seemed so much worse. Teach less yoga? Say no? Go to bed even earlier? Stop pushing when I feel tired and actually rest? These are not things that I do.

 

This summer, when I was on my silent meditation retreat (“This one time, at meditation camp…”) I found myself fighting things harder than ever. I was trying so hard to make every meditation session, to use every moment, to basically be an A+ vipassana student. And yet, every day, after lunch, I would fall asleep, often sleeping through the start of the next meditation period. As a non-napper, this seemed insane to me. But, when I consulted with the teacher, she looked at me quizzically.

 

“Are you tired?” she asked.

 

“I…guess?” I replied.

 

“Then rest,” she said. “You’re not here to torture yourself even more.”

 

Once she found out I was a middle school teacher, she told me I should basically spend the rest of my time there sleeping in blessed silence, but I’d never considered that maybe the point of everything in life wasn’t to push myself to the breaking point.

 

Interestingly, the more I relaxed and eased into my time there, the more I realized that I had an ally in myself. I could hear my own thoughts, and my own voice. And while I missed everyone in my life, I also found that I could be my own buddy — that within me, I had everything I needed — I just needed to access it, and use it.

 

Not surprisingly, it’s harder to call on that ability to surrender when you’re not wandering around in silence. And as someone who normally prides herself on self-awareness, it’s really odd to know that perhaps I’ve been ignoring some really clear signals that what I need isn’t to push or do or be, but rather to surrender, to relax in, to accept what is.

 

The interesting thing about this new path is that it’s teaching me so much more than just rest. It’s teaching me not to fight myself — the core of who I am. It’s giving me a space and time to just relax into the life I’ve created and the person that I am, away from achievement or hard work or merits. I’m not saying I’m enjoying it, but I am learning not to fight it. And while I would happily welcome cheese back into my life, I’m trying to put these skills into practice right away, and just relax for once.

 

 

What Serial Taught Me About Meditation

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This past Monday, I went to see the brilliant Sarah Koenig (and her hilarious producer and editor, Julie Snyder) speak about the best podcast of all time, Serial. If you haven’t yet listened to Serial, please do so immediately. The presentation was amazing: interesting thoughts on journalism, story-telling, and broadcasting, plus HILARIOUS “backstage” information from two really intelligent women who put a truly powerful story out into the world in a manner that commanded attention and inspired.
 
At one point in the discussion, Julie Snyder remarked upon what she felt was the key to the success of the podcast. I wish I’d recorded her exact words, because they were so powerful. In short, she said that she felt that Serial compelled its listeners because they were unafraid of the ambiguity, messiness and at times, the ugliness of the story. That rather than insist on a “perfect” ending, they went right in to the heart of the story as it was, rather than wishing it was different, or trying to change or force something. Instead, they simply watched and waited as the story evolved, and tried to create a story that was honest, vulnerable and true.
 
This summer, I spent 10 days at a silent meditation retreat. If you want to confront ambiguity, messiness and ugliness, might I suggest 10 days alone with your own thoughts and zero contact with other humans? In a place devoted to silence and lacking any sort of human interaction (including eye contact) it is easy to be caught up in the anxiety of it all. There were many times in those 10 days where I encountered the depths of my thoughts, and they were not always easy to swallow.
 
Each night, we would gather together in the meditation hall and watch a video discourse from the teacher of this style of meditation, S.N. Goenka. And every night, he delivered the same message repeatedly: that everything was changing, and to simply let it be. This idea, known as “anicca” emphasizes that everything is in flux — nothing is permanent.
 
As someone who enjoys control (see previous post about gold stars!) I personally find this to be a particularly terrifying load of crap. Unfortunately, the fact that I resist it does not make it untrue, something I find truly devastating. During my time at the retreat, I found myself rallying against my uncomfortable emotions: missing my loved ones, the pain of sitting for eleven hours a day, listening to 40 women loudly slurp cereal in a silent dining hall (perhaps the most challenging of all). During the first few days, I tried to pretend it was all fine, but on day six, I finally cracked and felt like I might actually LOSE IT.
 
I distinctly remember walking on one of the forest paths that surrounded the meditation center, and crying for the first time since I’d arrived. I missed my cat and my friends and my adorable nephew and my yoga practice so desperately. I was angry at the thoughts that swirled around my head. Angry that I’d decided to do this retreat in the first place. But rather than run away, I decided to sit and just be in it. To be unafraid of the emotions that I was sure would swallow me up.
 
In time, the emotions subsided. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t thrilled to be there or anything, but I could see so clearly that by simply going with what was, I was able to watch it slip away. By being unafraid of what was, I could find the beauty in what is.
 
It might seem weird to relate a talk by a public radio producer about a true crime podcast to a practice of meditation, but the concept is the same, and perhaps that makes it more powerful. By surrendering to the story that actually existed, Sarah Koenig was able to make something captivating and compelling — something that was interesting and beautiful in its own haunting way. By surrendering to the way that life is unfolding, we allow the same beauty to captivate and dominate our world. Even when it uncomfortable, it is fleeting — and it’s in that overcoming that we get a “real” story that is much more powerful than a happy ending.

How An Apple Watch Showed Me What I Didn’t Want

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It started in a 5:30 AM, Monday morning spin class. A weird thing about me is that I’ve never quite moved beyond being a kid with a sticker chart — getting “gold stars” is one of my passions in life. And so I was frustrated beyond reason when I realized that my beloved FitBit was not counting my spins as steps, or recognizing me for my efforts. It’s 5:30 AM! Still dark out! Give me some steps!
 
If you’re just “meeting” me, this is the part when you will figure out that I am, in fact, crazy.
 
As I spun my little heart out, I noticed that the girl next to me was wearing an Apple watch, which was happily counting all of her movements and recording her heart rate. It looked cool! She was clearly earning gold stars left and right!
 
I decided that I needed one.
 
As luck would have it, they were on sale via Groupon and I had a Groupon credit and a tax refund to burn. I ordered my black Apple watch and eagerly awaited its arrival, sure that it would change my life and I would go from slightly chubby and lumpy yogi to accomplished spinner and runner, simply due to the outstanding motivation I got from said watch.
 
I was GIDDY when it arrived, and yes, it was cool at first. I appreciated the reminders to stand up, and the way that it counted every second of my activity. I enjoyed earning “rewards” for doing things. Being able to have the world literally attached to my wrist at all times was helpful. Plus, my students thought it was awesome, and since 8th graders are basically the arbiters of all things rad, I thought I was doing okay. Also? I had the awesome “planets” watch face set so I could check out where the planets were at all times, and since I’ve never quite relinquished my dream of going to Space Camp, I was pretty into it. SCIENCE!
 
After my initial love affair, I noticed how this silly little watch, meant to make my life easier and more connected, began to make me feel less connected. I would be teaching a lesson, and suddenly be inundated with gentle taps on my wrist, encouraging me to do something or letting my know I was getting a phone call or had an email to read. I sat on the shores of Lake Tahoe, totally overwhelmed by beauty, when I was reminded that I needed to meet my “stand goal” for the hour. I felt horrible as a friend poured her heart out over coffee and I couldn’t help but be distracted by the flashes of text messages lighting up my wrist. As I gave a student a massage in savasana after a particularly difficult yoga class, my watch lit up brightly, and while I don’t think it killed her vibe, it definitely killed mine.
 
It might sound silly or dramatic, but this watch became the exact opposite of the life I’m trying to cultivate. I know that technology only rules us to the extent that we allow, but I also know that I struggle enough in this particular area of my life. I’m easily distracted by Internet rabbit holes and influenced by the number of likes I get on Instagram. Friends worry when I take longer than five minutes to reply to a text message because I am always connected. I thought this new device would connect me more to my body and efforts in fitness, but instead, it left me feeling disconnected from what is real.
 
It took something I thought I wanted to show me that thing I actually want, far beyond “gold stars” is to be fully connected to the moment at hand.
 
Happily, I was able to sell my Apple Watch for only $20 less than I paid — a small price for such a valuable lesson. And while I’m still not earning credit for the spin classes I take during the week, I’m able to show up closer to the version of the human I’m hoping to be, which, in my opinion, is better than any gold star.