A young girl leans her head into a small wooden instrument, where it rests between a pursed-lipped chin and a shoulder that stiffens when she struggles to find the right note. The song is new, difficult, and coming out in squeaks that occasionally call out, “Err-errrrrk!”
Her teacher guides the young violinist patiently, encouragingly. And when the lesson is finished, the girl runs to her mama and nearly shouts with unbridled excitement, “I’m learning a new song!”
And in the same breath she continues that enthusiastic outburst of joy, jumping up and down and squeezing her happy fists to her face, declaring, “It’s so HARD!”
It’s so hard!
When was the last time you heard that phrase being expressed in joy before? Have you ever? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t coming from an adult if you have.
Since when did the word hard become such a drag? When did we all forget how to get excited about challenge?
My dear gongfu sister shared with me the story above (minus my embellishments), and she told it to me from her perspective as the violin teacher. It came at a very key moment for me, for she and I were about to set down our mats for the very first day of a new class in our Chinese Internal and Martial Arts curriculum at MogaDao.
In its description, the class was presented as “The Challenging Series,” and with yoga being fairly new to me in my gongfu/ taiji/ qigong regimen, I was feeling a little wary.
All throughout that first sweaty, involuntary-grunting, at-points-feeling-like-I-might-cry-or-collapse class, I kept hearing those words bursting out of an exuberant eleven-year-old.
“It’s so hard!”
Balance lost at my third attempt up:
“It’s so hard!” in the tone of “How awesome that I can keep trying again!”
Sweaty feet slipping on the mat, adding to the impossibility of me holding the pose:
“It’s so hard!” like, “Yes! Gimme more! I got this!”
Muscles in my legs trembling in exhaustion:
“It’s so hard!” as in, “I love it when my legs turn to burning jelly!”
The shift in the tone of how you use the word hard gives you an unbelievable amount of leverage for changing your own perspective on the situation.
A Shift in Tone, Photograph by Brea Fisher
When you speak about your challenges as if they are beautiful and glorious and ecstatic and Divine, even the hardest of them become things to look forward to, to take pride in, and to hold as reasons for self-admiration.
The eleven-year-old violinist with the outrageously positive attitude takes great delight in her process of learning the hardest of techniques. Take vibrato— you know, that magical wavering of pitch that happens as if drawn out of the instrument simply because the music itself is just too beautiful to keep steady.
This young student takes every tiny improvement— any millimeter closer to the technique— no matter how small or “insignificant,” and she celebrates that as a victory. She might achieve an aspect of vibrato that we adults might say is “not it, but closer,” and she’s up and running around the room crying, “I can do it! I can do vibrato!”
This celebration of small victories as if they themselves already reach the height of your achievement is a brilliant way to attain the goals you set for yourself that seem so far away.
For me, it would be getting out of Savasana, bowing my “Namaste,” and then springing up off the floor and shouting, “I did it! I did the hard yoga class!”
Life is hard.
I mean, “Life is HARD!” (and I’m smiling with my arms raised into V formation!)
When the hard stuff happens, remember that young violinist. Let her jubilant and wise enthusiasm fill your heart and soothe your mind. Even say it out loud— joyously and with exuberance— “This is so HARD!”
Sometimes you won’t be able to do it. Right-in-the-moment challenges past a certain degree can be like that. That’s ok. Wait a little and when you feel a window, then do it. Bring her in. Let her show you her vibrato.
And you show her your ability to execute a perfect Ardha Mukkha Svanasana (a handstand) even though your adult self sees that you’re really in Dolphin Pose, feet still on the floor, and forearms shaking as they barely hold your head off the floor.
Your child self is jumping up and down with an ear to ear grin shouting, “Look at me! I’m doing it! It’s so hard!”
The wisdom of loving the difficulties of your life lies in your capacity to recognize that in every challenge is a wealth of offering.
Challenges give us so much. They keep us from getting bored; they provide us the opportunity to form alliances with others who are challenged in similar ways; and we grow because of them, whether we “defeat” them in the way we intend to, or not.
A life full of challenges is one that opens the most space for accomplishment.
And that’s something to get excited about.
I hope this helps you as it did me. Let me know if it does. It would make my day to hear.
Want to learn vibrato, too? For real? New Song is an incredibly talented, sensitive, and kind-hearted violin instructor who offers private lessons in the Santa Fe area. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I got a message from a someone dear to me today; it furrowed my brow.
She was overwhelmed. All the time. Going on way too long now.
Have you been there? Yeah, me too. Maybe you’re there now. Maybe you’re chronically there. Or maybe you’re not feeling overwhelmed… but you’re pretty sure you’ll be back there at some point.
We all know that place— where you feel like there’s way too much you have to do and way too little time to get it done. It’s like you’re being crushed by the weight of your To Do List— like you just can’t get anything done.
When your life has you bogged down, inundated, and held captive to the things you have to do, how do you simplify all the stuff that piles up?
Photograph by Brea Fisher
Have you ever heard the word “overwhelm” be used as a noun? It’s listed clearly in the dictionary as solely a verb, but take a look around the web and you’ll find that it’s now a thing-- literally; it’s a thing to call overwhelm a thing.
Overwhelm used to be to something we encountered as an occurrence, a state we embodied, something we felt. Modern day humans now find themselves so often and so thoroughly wrapped up in this verb, we now need to make it an actual noun.
It used to be we were experiencing the effects of being overwhelmed, but these days overwhelm is a thing that has us.
People say things like, “I’m in overwhelm;” or “If I could only find a path out of all this overwhelm.” This gives the term a whole new level of gravity.
So how do we ease ourselves when we feel like it’s all just too much to handle? Here are three suggestions.
Unwind Method No.1: Recognize that being overwhelmed is an emotion.
This is excellent news because it means that this feeling has a very important purpose. Like all emotions, overwhelm is a messenger. It’s telling you something about yourself and the way you’re relating to the circumstances of your life.
We like to condemn certain emotions— anger is uncool, grief is for the weak, irritation is unenlightened; while other emotions we glorify— compassion is good, happiness is the ultimate, peacefulness is advanced.
In truth, the emotions we have are neither good nor bad; they’re neutral. They aren’t all equal; however, because some emotions are stronger than others (compare content with ecstatic.) What they all share is significance.
Emotions will let you know an incredibly rich amount of information about your life if you attune to their messages.
We know what we want and what we don’t want based on how we feel in the thinking about it. Emotions also let us know what part of our lives need attention (and care) and how urgent any maintenance may be, depending on how strong the emotion is.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and you’ve been feeling it for a long time now and it just seems to be getting worse… Congratulations! Your emotions are working their butts off to communicate with you!
What is your overwhelm telling you about your life? When does it come up? Where do you feel it in your body? Do certain people inspire it within you? Do you get it only while at work? While thinking about work? What eases the feeling? What thoughts make you feel better? What people make you feel better in talking to them or just being around them?
Start to ask questions like these and look for patterns that lead you deeper into what the emotion may mean for you. What is your friend, Ms. Overwhelm trying to tell you?
Unwind Method No.2: Say No.
Say No to anything not absolutely essential. Chances are high that 90% of the things you think you need to do are actually unnecessary when it comes to your survival-slash-overall wellbeing.
We have a star and three exclamation points marked on number five on the To Do List, but when it comes down to it, sorting through the pile of paperwork on the kitchen counter isn’t a matter of life and death.
Look at your To Do List. Choose one to three items that really need to get done today. The rest, let go. You can keep them on a separate list to ease your brain from holding on to them, but they cannot be things you try to do today.
As for incoming To Do items, ask yourself: Is it essential for my survival/ wellbeing? If not, say No.
You get an opportunity to make some money doing something you’re good at, but don’t really enjoy, and it means you’ll have to forfeit your one day off next week.
Your friend asks you to go to their brother’s Fourth of July cookout and suggests you bring your famous potato salad.
No. (Unless that sounds super fun and recharging to you!)
Can your niece’s best friend come stay with you next week while she visits colleges in your city?
This may seem harsh. The thing is, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, saying No to the things that are superfluous is medicine for your state of being. You aren’t always going to feel this way; so, in the future when you feel better, lighter, then you can begin to ease off on the vigilance of your decision-making.
Unwind Method No.3: Use the body to calm the mind.
When you feel overwhelmed it’s usually due to an overactive mind that takes in all the things you feel you need to do and perceives their quantity as unmanageable. Either there are too many with not enough time, or they are beyond what you believe you can manage.
Or we often get overwhelmed by the things we think we must do, but that we really don’t want to do.
This causes stress. And stress causes dis-ease in the body. One way to help the body from becoming ill, is to let the body help your brain relax.
Meditation and movement are ways to do this. Tai chi and qigong are meditations in movement. They slow the breath, which slows the mind, which eases the body.
From a place of relaxation the things about which your brain worries and stresses become manageable.
In this week’s Tai Chi Lesson Film, we practice Wave Hands Like Clouds, or Cloud Hands, as its also called. Like sweeping clouds from the sky, we can use this tai chi movement to gracefully clear the mind.
You know how a cloud moves in the sky. Even when the wind is pushing them along quite rapidly, a cloud moves gracefully, effortlessly evolving in shape with smooth and gradual transition. This is how the hands move during Cloud Hands.
Practice this along with me, even if you have no tai chi or qigong experience. Follow along and don’t bother trying to get it right. What matters is that in following along, no matter how poorly or precisely you do so, you take the focus from the places your life has drawn your energy, and you bring it back into your body.
Your energy is drawn to the places your mind takes it, so when you put the mind into your body, you recollect all your energy back into yourself.
An overwhelmed mind doesn’t mean something is wrong. It’s just letting you know that you need something you haven’t been giving yourself.
There are ways to ease this feeling, but more importantly, the deeper you look into what this feeling is really telling you, the more likely you are to release your need to feel it.
How do you de-overwhelm yourself? What works for you? Leave a comment below!
If you know anyone who might like this article, would you mind sending it their way? It may be exactly what they need to hear. Plus, it would mean a lot to me.
The cushions are placed in Daochan formation, a square on the floor, with four pillows angled to create soft corners. We each find a place, bowing in, first while facing our seat, then turning inward and bowing toward the center.
Before the meditation, our sifu, Master Zhenzan Dao, asks us to “come back to reality.” We are guided to remember what is real— really real— and to think of the miracles that make up that reality. This is the way we begin our weekly practice of Qigong and Gongfu in MogaDao.
Zhenzan guides us to acknowledge our miracles. Like the miracle of being able to walk up the steps to enter the practice space and the incredible strength of our legs to do so.
We recall miracles of all forms and depths— the miracle of architecture and engineering to create the building we sit in, the miracle of the breath, and the miracle of the earth revolving at the perfect distance from the sun to receive the exact amount of light and warmth to sustain life on this planet.
This is reality.
It’s a true reality check to recognize that every single aspect of life is a miracle.
Coming back to what’s truly real reconnects you with a perspective both grounded and cosmic.
Photograph by Brea Fisher
You are a living being, existing in a body with a beating heart, lungs to breathe air, and skin to protect your bones, muscles, and organs. This is a miracle.
You live among other humans and animals, all sharing space on this planet, working together and fighting it out, building new paradigms and suffering horrific atrocities, all while the trees, flowers, and bacteria continue to grow and spread, thrive and die. This is a miracle.
You are standing on an orb of rock and stardust spinning in space, in a galaxy of other planets rotating around a massive burning star. This is a miracle.
When you woke up this morning, opening your eyes for the first time and taking your first waking breath while still in bed, that was a miracle.
When you take the time to see the miraculous in every single aspect of your life, it creates a space to fully and instantaneously release your grip on the burdens of your personal life circumstances.
This, too, is miraculous: to know that you have the ability to let go of your worries even just for the moment during which you recall what’s really real.
This is the kind of reality check that causes you to embody a very potent dose of presence.
And once you’re fully here, totally focused on what exists before you right this very moment, you realize— you remember— that in the mundane and momentous alike, there is miraculousness for which to feel grateful.
The blessings of reality are all around you; they decorate your walls, fly across your skies, and swim around your insides.
Take moment with me here and let’s have a true reality check.
Then, go about your day like it’s a treasure hunt for miracles.
The truth is, there are many different dimensions of reality. What we tend to fall into is the “reality” of the current state of the world, the drama of our relationships, or the toils of our daily drudgery.
Experiencing a good mix of contrast in life does serve as a potent way to get precise with our desires; this we know.
However, keeping focused on those aspects of life that cause us irritation, fear, or pain will also keep us bumbling around in a reality that’s spinning a momentum for more of that.
In order to create inspired change, creative growth, and just plain more joy in general, we need to drop what we typically consider real, out of habit, and we need to drop into a different kind of reality.
Come back to a reality in which miracles infuse your daily life, and from that place, you’ll be much more likely to find solutions to your circumstances of the “real world.”
Tell me some miracles. Please, tell me your miracles. Please leave them as a comment so that others may share in reading them, too. Because we all need more miracle-vision, to put us in that kind of real world again.
And if you know anyone who would enjoy this article, please do me the kindest gesture and share this with them. It helps so much. My gratitude for you is overflowing.
The little mouse that had drowned in a bucket of rainwater had suddenly been discovered by our big, white Pekin duck, Ping. Her excitement at the find cued the hens to want it, too; even though they had already had a game of Run With It Until it Gets Snatched Away— with the very same dead mouse, and had gotten tired of it only a half hour before.
Its carcass had become stiff, otherwise Ping would have done what she usually does with drowned mice— when they’re early-morning finds, that is: She eats them whole, downing them in just a few toss-backs of her long neck.
Her waddle too slow to play the chook’s Run With It game, Ping stood her ground, whipping her mouse-dangling bill left and right to dodge their pecks at the loot. Raj, her drake, hoarsely whispered his best quacks in defense of his lady.
Whether you’re watching or not, animals have their own life dramas playing out each day, and if you pay attention, you may get the treat of witnessing a real life fairy tale in the making.
As humans, it’s easy to become absorbed with our own lives when things get dramatic. If there are challenges coming up, or life themes being triggered, or really just any change taking place, it’s common for us to forget we’re not the only ones plodding along through hard times.
Yes, the old uplifter of looking at your suffering-more-than-you neighbor is a good trick to boost the spirits. Although I say this tongue in cheek, there’s truth there. For one, knowing there are others slogging through the rough parts, too makes us feel like we’re all the same boat.
Noticing the plight of others can be healing because it often inspires us to an act of kindness and compassion, and helping others is a path to cultivating kindness and compassion toward oneself.
When you take this idea and apply it to the animals around you, its essence seems to become enhanced, perhaps because it’s clear within the non-human species of the world that life throws curve balls without discrimination.
If you take the time to empathize with the animals around you, pets or wild, you’ll find they have as much “stuff coming up” as you do.
For example, when you see a dog having a particularly bad day— say, if she’s walking down the sidewalk with a lick-preventing cone around her neck— it’s easier to see that it’s not personal; the dog didn’t inherently deserve to wear a cone— all dogs want to lick a wound.
Compare that to hearing news of the local bakery closing up shop because of a tax issue. Definitely hard times for them, but since they’re humans, we have a bigger tendency of pulling the old “they got what they asked for” number. Or, depending on your outlook, the “this government, I tell ya,” one.
Compassion sometimes gets jammed up between person to person, but with animals, it can be a much straighter shot.
When you’re in the thorny thick of life, feeling stressy or sorry for yourself or overwhelmed, pay attention to the animal dramas happening around you.
Photograph by Brea Fisher
This includes insects and plants, too. I think I’m having a bad day— there’s a wolf spider in my bath tub who just got mauled by my girl cat and now two of his legs are broken. Or that tomato plant that just began budding its first flower— poor dude just got nibbled down to a pathetic stump by a stoked rat in the night.
By tuning into the undercurrent of animal, insect, or plant experiences you open up a portal
that leads toward finding relief in the knowing that life’s ups and downs give us all a wild ride, regardless of what you’ve done or haven’t done to cause it.
The obvious assignment is to start noticing what the animals (or insects, plants, or any other non-human species) are going through.
Watch for the stories to emerge. See what real life fairy tales are being presented to you on a daily basis if you choose to be present for them.
The other Qi Challenge comes in the form of a Tai Chi Lesson Film, by the name of Cat Washes Face. There are three different variations of this tai chi movement, and the following video leads you through each one.
For those new to the movement, I recommend watching the lesson at least a few times through for your first practice session, and then at least once daily until the next Tai Chi Lesson Film debuts.
This Lesson Film is suitable for both beginners and seasoned practitioners alike, so please follow along. Feel free to come to me with any questions at all; I’m happy to help you refine your home practice.
Human experience can seem to be the most challenging kind; however, if you take the time to find empathy for the lives of the animals and other non-humans, you’ll find that life is impartial with it’s doling out of highs and lows.
Let this be a comfort to you when you need to cultivate a little more grace in how you move through your own.
Know someone who may like The Listening Seed, too? One of the best ways you can support me is by sharing this with those you know.
Did you like this article? Have thoughts to share? Questions? Please leave a comment below!
Compassion and Pity Speak:
Pity says, "I feel sorry for you."
Compassion says, "I lovingly stand witness to your pain while you walk your path."
Pity says, "This is not right."
Compassion says, "It will be all right."
Pity says, "I wish this wasn't happening to you."
Compassion says, "You were born for this."
Pity says, "You don't deserve this."
Compassion says, "To your credit, this has come to you."
Pity says, "You poor thing."
Compassion says, "In you I see absolute potential for triumph."
Pity says, "If only I could fix this for you."
Compassion says, "You got this."
Pity says, "Thank God it's not me."
Compassion says, "I have been where you are, I am here with you now, and I will be again in the place you now stand.”
Photograph by Brea Fisher
I saw her arm coming toward me in slow motion, her fist nearing my chest. I suddenly sent my palm up, sliding across her forearm and sticking on it. I pulled my palm down the length of her arm and caught her wrist firmly. Stepping in close to her body, I rooted into the earth and turned my waist, holding her with my other palm to the crevice of her shoulder blade.
I drew her down and held her there, her face inches from the ground, her arm twisted in the socket, and lifted awkwardly upward.
This was an act of love.
For a full minute we remained like this, until we had had enough time to soak into the responses of being in this position.
Then we switched, and it was me who found my face so near to the ground, pinned there by this person who had just been there herself, and who held me there past the point of impulse to release.
In the MogaDao Heartmind Warrior Training Program we practice partnering to learn not only applications of the forms, but to learn pyschospiritual applications for life.
The exercise I just described teaches us compassion in a very potent way.
To be held down for a prolonged amount of time brings up some pretty intense things, but to be the one holding down is often the more challenging of the two roles.
The amount of compassion this exercise cultivates is heart swelling. And there is absolutely zero space for pity.
Even though the dictionary usually includes the word compassion within its definition of the word pity, the difference between the two is great.
Even though we often feel pity with the intention of showing kindness toward another, pity weighs so heavily on the one feeling it, we’re left unable to truly support that person.
We think we’re being helpful by feeling sorry for someone who is in pain. In truth, our pity communicates to that person the image of themselves as poor, lacking, and apart from those not suffering.
Compassion moves from Love, is born of Spirit, and holds true that we are all One in essence.
One who bears the torch of Compassion stays reliable and radiates strength.
There was no room for pity while holding my gongfu sister to the ground because I knew how it felt to be there, and I knew I would be there again— not just physically, but in life in general.
We were the same.
“You were born for this.” —Master Zhenzan Dao
My sifu, Zhenzan Dao, passionately declares this one statement when my gongfu sisters and brothers and I show signs of letting the mind tell the body it cannot go on. When we feel weak, lacking, or uncomfortable during practice, we hear these words.
You were born for this.
It is a proclamation of compassion. No where in it does pity exist. It recognizes our struggle, it stands beside us in solidarity, and it sees in us the potential to rise above.
As a homework assignment Zhenzan asked us to write on the difference between pity and compassion. The passage at the beginning of this article is what I presented to my gongfu sisters and brothers.
To give you a closer sense of the experience of witnessing me read it aloud, as I did for my fellow MogaDao Heartmind Warriors, I’ve made an audio recording for you.
Close your eyes and imagine someone you know who is having a hard time— someone whose life is throwing them challenge of whatever kind, whether they are suffering from a physical illness, or another circumstance of outward misfortune.
Hold this person in your mind’s eye, and then draw them into your heart for a moment.
Now see that person’s soul standing witness to their suffering, also.
Their soul, their non-physical self, the broader part of that person, the part of that person who is spirit, who is the higher self, who is their inner being— this is who stands beside the one who is suffering in their physical reality.
Does this higher self frown and wince while standing witness?
Or does the spirit of this person stand in knowingness that this pain has significance for the one standing there embodied?
Does not the inner being of this person gaze upon her or him with eyes of pure love and respect and honor of where they stand? Can you not see well that the non-physical aspect of this person fully trusts that by experiencing whatever it is bringing the person suffering, they are given the catalyst toward reaching their own enlightenment?
Now release the two aspects of the person you brought into your heart.
And bring your own inner being to sit with you there.
See your two selves, the broader, non-physical you, the spirit you, the higher self you. And see the you you see in the mirror. Watch the scenes of yourself stumbling, crumbling, failing.
Your inner being does not falter in her compassion for you. She stands in loving empathy for your pain and simultaneously nods her head in approval and gratitude of the circumstances that brought you such suffering.
For those times of pain had as much to do with who you have become as the times of joy.
When you pity your friend, your brother, or your neighbor, you do more destruction than you realize. It is not an act of love to feel sorry for someone, and this includes feeling sorry for yourself.
To pity another is to pity yourself.
To pity yourself is to deny the truth that you are made of the same essence that creates worlds.
With compassion in your heart as you look upon a suffering sister, you embrace the knowingness that you are your sister and that no suffering happens to one person alone.
Compassion is the potent dose of light administered from— and equally to— those standing witness to the cycles of life.
May you find compassionate eyes on you when you again stumble, and may you gaze upon your fellow with compassion when they again fall.
What were you born for? How do you hold space for those suffering? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.
Leave me a comment below!
I awoke beside my love, who greeted me lovingly with a good morning. I said nothing.
I gave my cats a cuddle without words, then went outside. I patted my dog on the head, rubbed her belly, and asked her to sit with only a lift of my hand.
Every last Sunday of the month I practice Inward Honing, a full day of silence from the moment I wake to the time I rise the next day. I don’t speak and I don’t use any communicative, audio, or informational technology of any kind. No talking, no Internet, no phone, no radio, no movies.
A big YES to everything those things dilute.
Instead of composing this on my laptop as I usually do, my article-writing fell on the day of my vow of silence. I found pen and paper and scribbled out the words as they came, as if directly from my heart to the page.
The real page.
What came out was a poem— a way for you to get a glimpse into my favorite parts of Inward Honing.
Frequency of Subtleties, photograph by Brea Fisher
Divinity of Silence
When you’re silent for a day
the day feels free— yours--
like you’re on vacation
on a remote island
without the technological capabilities
for anyone to reach you,
minus the beach and the sea.
And palm trees.
you live on the coast.
When you’re silent for a day time distorts.
It feels rubbery, bendable, elastic.
Your phone is off and so your clock is also off.
You think you may know what time it is,
but you think, “I could be way off.”
And it doesn’t matter anyway.
When you’re silent for a day you move slowly--
like you’ve got all the time
in the world
and no where to be.
(The whole day is yours, after all.)
You become highly sensitive
to the small things--
the poetic things.
The tone the wind plays in the trees,
the rhythm of your heart and its communion
with your breath,
the feel of avocado on your tongue
and the accent of sea salt sprinkled on top.
You’re a snail pressing your body into the earth
to move along
and all that soil,
and all those sticks,
pebbles, grass, leaves, and
roots become a part of you.
You feel all those intricate subtleties
in your snail-paced dance through the day.
You learn their language,
you worship their shapes and textures
and gasp at their mystery
as you slime your way over them.
When you’re silent for a day
you begin to attune to yourself--
to your Self--
the broader you, the you that is more,
the you who knows
what you need.
You let the day
instead of putting on it
your earthly agenda.
The day lets you know
how it wants to have you.
When you’re silent for a day
your day becomes
I made you a Tai Chi Lesson film so you can get a taste of the slowness in which I love to relish during Inward Honing.
In it you’ll learn Tai Chi Walking: walking slowly, with intention, shifting from stance to stance with arms relaxed at the sides.
Please follow along as you watch. The movements are excellent for both beginners and seasoned practitioners alike. You’ll need about six to eight feet of walking space, depending on the size of your steps.
I look forward to the day of Inward Honing like a child before Christmas Day. It is the day I know I don’t need to be anywhere, or do anything specific. It’s the day I have permission to be fully unavailable to anyone other than myself. And in that space I find what really matters, so that I can communicate that out to the world when I do go back out there.
If you’d like to practice Inward Honing, you can join the growing number of practitioners all over the globe. To receive guidance and inspiration on the practice, sign up by sending a simple email stating your interest to email@example.com. My sifu, Master Zhenzan Dao will send you a potent letter before each day of silence, which will help focus your practice each month, and also connect you energetically to the others joining you in Inward Honing. You can find more information by clicking the link for Inward Honing at MogaDao.com.
Have you practiced a vow of silence before? If so, what have you gained from it? If not, would you like to? Let me know what comes up for you around it. I’ll do my best to hear you out and if you want guidance on how to move past the obstacles keeping you from committing to it, just ask.
Leave me a comment below!
In a recent conversation with a gongfu sister, I learned that in her early days of training with our sifu, a common exercise assigned as homework was to practice using their non-dominant hand to do things like open doors, write, or cook a meal.
This is a good way to build strength, agility, and motor skills in the non-dominant hand, but it’s the broader benefit that really struck me.
Using the opposite hand from the one you usually use is a way to take everyday, routine activities and accomplish them in a way that is new, not only for the body, but for the brain.
I think of myself as a creator of systems for life. This aspect of my personality is so pronounced that I have detailed rituals for waking up, giving the ducks and hens their kale treats, and choosing what to wear each day.
I considered myself highly adaptable, believing it’s this knack for systemizing my world that helps me move with ease and efficiency even when things take a turn. Whether traveling or having moved, I can find myself in a new place and nearly immediately establish new systems for navigating the activities I need to perform on a regular basis.
I thought I was helping my brain by releasing it from having to think about the everyday things of my life; but in actuality, the habit to systemize my routines may do my brain no favor at all.
That muscle-memory mentality hinders your mind’s vitality. What the brain actually needs is upset in routine.
In order to sustain a high level of functionality, your brain depends on a good shake of the snow globe of your life from time to time.
Photograph by Brea Fisher
Fresh information and experience is what feeds the brain and keeps it nourished, youthful, and growing.
According to The Brain from Top to Bottom, “Every time you learn something, neural circuits are altered in your brain. These circuits are composed of a number of neurons (nerve cells) that communicate with one another through special junctions called synapses.
“When you learn something, it is actually these synapses whose efficiency increases, thus facilitating the passage of nerve impulses along a particular circuit” (www.thebrain.mcgill.ca).
I envision these circuits, or neuropathways, as footpaths through a forest. If you’re trailblazing through the jungle you use a machete to hack through; the path is narrow and difficult to manage. After several more times through, having continued to clear away more branches, vines, and rocks from the path, it becomes easier to walk it.
The more you travel along a path the more prominent the path becomes, and when a path is well travelled for years and by many, it soon becomes a road.
Neuropathways that are well-travelled by neurons are pathways that become roads, in a sense. So, when you go to the market and take the same route there that you do every single time, you’re sending neurons down that same neuropathway each time, which deepens it. As it becomes increasingly entrenched, your brain needs to exert less energy to get you there.
This can definitely be a beneficial thing; the less you need to think about how to get to the grocery store the more space in your brain you have for other things. However, having time-worn neuropathways doesn’t rack up many points when it comes to keeping the brain youthful.
A brain that rarely makes new neuropathways belongs to a person who is extremely rigid in their routine. They don’t try new things; they stick to what they know.
If you’re looking to stay healthy and youthful in the mind, what you want is brain plasticity, which comes from continuously creating new neuropathways.
MedicineNet describes neuroplasticity as “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. [It] allows the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment” (medicinenet.com).
With this awareness you can live your life in ways that create neuroplasticity, effectively decreasing your chance of suffering from diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia later in life (dementiatoday.com).
According to The Society for Neuroscience, there are many ways to strengthen neuroplasticity, including engaging in regular social interaction, exercise, and a healthful diet.
Another way to boost your brain’s plasticity is to do new things, and keep shifting your routine on a regular basis.
Learn a new form of dance or take a painting class.
Have a few different routes home from town that you can take, and switch it up randomly.
When you hear a new word make an effort to remember to use it later on.
Or, you can take on my sifu’s assignment and chop vegetables with your other hand.
This is the Shake the Snow Globe Challenge. For the next seven days, choose one item from the list below and try it, picking a new item for each day. You can also make up your own to add to the list.
Ways to Shake Up Your Daily Routine:
1. Make a meal using your non-dominant hand to do the chopping, stirring, and serving
2. Open all doors using your non-dominant hand
3. Take a different route home
4. Take a walk with no destination and follow your intuition for which ways to go
5. Sit in a different spot to eat than you normally do, whether at home or at your regular cafe
6. Choose a new restaurant/ cafe/ coffeeshop instead of the one(s) you usually pick
7. Take a movement class you've never tried before
8. Sign up for lessons to learn a new musical instrument
9. Go to bed at a different time than you normally do
10. Don't do your morning routine
11. Listen to a new radio station/ podcast/ Pandora music station
12. Call an old friend
13. Handwrite a letter as opposed to emailing it
14. Practice a tai chi form on its opposite side
15. Practice Satyananda Yoga Nidra or Meditate while listening to the Meditation to Cultivate Wonder guided meditation recording
16. Practice Yin Yang Qigong Brain Balancing
17. Use a word you recently learned and begin to incorporate it into your regular vocabulary
18. High five people throughout the day, using your non-dominant hand
19. Wear something from your wardrobe you've never worn before, or create a new combination of clothing items to form a new outfit
20. Invite someone you don’t know very well out to lunch
21. Use a different medium in your chosen art (ex. If you’re a novelist, write a haiku; if dance ballet, try Argentine tango; if you’re an oil painter, try watercolor)
22. Strike up a conversation with a stranger
23. Instead of using your regular coffee machine to make your coffee, pull out the french press or make a pour over brew (if you’re a tea drinker, try brewing sun tea)
24. Try different ways of bathing (ex. Wash trying to imagine what it’s like for people who live in places where water is incredibly precious; or simply take a bath if you're a shower person)
25. Take a different mode of transportation (ex. If you walk, ride a bike; if you drive, take a bus, the train, or hire a taxi)
26. Rearrange the furniture of a room in your house
27. Rearrange a bookshelf, a drawer, or your closet
28. Chose a different mug to drink your morning coffee or tea in
29. Get out of bed on the other side
30. Buy a type of produce with which you've never cooked before
31. If you attend a class of any kind, choose a different spot to sit (or stand, if it’s a movement class)
32. Swap sides of the bed with your partner
33. Trade an article of clothing with a friend or family member
34. Switch which leg you have crossed on the inside during meditation
35. Practice your tai chi, qigong, yoga, or meditation in a new spot
This list is meant to inspire you to try new things, even if it means the time it takes to do these things increases. What will also increase is your brain’s health, so it’s worth it!
Commit to this week-long challenge and recruit others to play along with you. And if you like the way you feel after the week is up, continue shaking up your routine and make a habit out of that!
There’s nothing wrong with creating efficient ways of getting things done. It helps your brain make room for the things you really need to contemplate, and in a world with infinite information at your fingertips, a good system for managing all the things you need to get done is invaluable. However…
When it comes to the longterm health of your brain, it’s crucial to shake things up from time to time.
Make a habit out of regularly changing the ways you run through your everyday routines and help your brain stay malleable, youthful, and ready for anything.
If you’re ready to take on this week’s Qi Challenge, I’d love to keep up on how you’re shaking things up in your routines. Use the hashtag #ShakeTheSnowGlobe on social media to share your experience.
Or, leave a message below and let me know what this brings up for you. I’m always so very happy to hear from you.
An infant sits on the floor of a summer vacation home. Everything is new here; the space is foreign. The shag carpet is brown and glowing in the late afternoon light and she sits on wobbly hips gazing, staring, watching.
There is a dance taking place before her. The eyes that have been seeing for no longer than six, seven months at most, are mesmerized by the scene before her. A golden beam of sunlight floods the mid-air stage just above the baby’s head.
Her upturned face is captivated by tiny creatures illuminated and floating gracefully in this light beam. They are faeries, or they are sun people, or they are some unexplainable phenomenon worth remembering for years to come.
Whatever they are, they’re something this young one has never before laid eyes on and she is in a state of absolute wonder.
Years later, the infant is grown and the woman she has become remembers. The memory is clean, refined in her mind, and there are years of experience to separate the two versions of this person:
The one who is so new to the world that it is still rich in delightful unknowns, and the version who is years older, who has navigated through those delightful unknowns until they became ordinary.
The infant saw feathery beings the size of pinholes in that beam of golden light. The grown woman realized years ago that it was dust in the sun of a room not used very often.
When we are very young and new to the world, even the most ordinary aspects of life hold mystery because they are unknown to us.
As that woman who was once that infant, I know how it feels to be completely entranced— enamored— by dust particles, something we adults see as not only totally unexciting, but unpleasant, undesirable, and ugly.
As we grow older, our experience with the world diminishes our sense of delight in the small treasures of everyday life.
It takes a lot more gusto to inspire a real sense of wonder in adults, and this is the unfortunate circumstance of a world in which we believe we gain intelligence as our knowledge increases.
We think we are getting wiser with age, and in some ways this is true; however, the more we think we know, the more susceptible we are to becoming desensitized to the poetry of subtle mysteries.
In The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow, the child prodigy and nature writer, Opal Whitely, writes the following in her diary at an age most likely between 6 and 8 years:
“We went along the dim trail. There by the dim trail grow the honeysuckles. I nod to them as I go that way. In the daytime, I hear them talk with sunbeams and the wind. They talk in shadows with the little people of the sun. And this I have learned: Grownups do not know the language of shadows.”
So how do we regain the ability to understand the language of shadows?
Some say wonder is not the simplest emotion to evoke. Apparently there is a rich variety of research that has been done in the exploration of emotions like fear, anger, joy, grief, and worry.
But when it comes to studying the powerful emotion of wonder, there’s not much we know about it, scientifically. This is what Robert Fuller, a professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University, tells us in his book, Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality.
It’s difficult to evoke wonder in a lab setting. Emotions like anger and guilt are “very easy to trigger,” Fuller states in a recent interview on The Art of Manliness podcast. He says that wonder “requires something that will catch someone very unexpectedly and surpass their ability to interpret or understand that moment.”
Does this mean we can’t create space in our lives to feel more wonder?
I think not.
Ordinary life offers infinite whispers of secret worlds that are so foreign to you that it is only natural to feel wonder when looking at them; the key is to seek them out and really look.
Petroglyphs, photograph by Brea Fisher
Go to nature and you will find these secret worlds.
Watch, as with each step you take in the grass, little black spiders race in arches away from your path.
Smell the faint perfume of a lilac bush on the breeze and take the time to follow it to its source.
Sit as audience to the wind as it plays conductor to the quartet of Pinon, Juniper, Cottonwood, and Ponderosa.
Make friends with an ant and study her travels as if searching out all the reasons one may have to fall in love with this tiny creature.
Take a walk through a garden and sample tastes of each herb you come across, taking the time to describe the flavors of each distinctly different plant.
Sit by the river and dip your feet into its flow; get lost in the way the water moves over a particular rock, or find a reed in constant dance under the rhythm of the current.
You can go deep into the natural world of your own body and tap into a sense of wonder just as potent as one watching a meteor shower on a clear new moon night in the desert.
Going to nature doesn’t necessarily limit you to a world outside yourself; after all, the human body is nature, too.
Below you’ll find a guided meditation I’ve recorded for you. Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted for about fifteen minutes. Get out a yoga mat, or lie on a rug or thick blanket; this meditation is best practiced while lying down in savasana as opposed to sitting or standing.
If you’ve ever practiced Satyananda Yoga Nidra before, you may recognize the method I use in the first section of the meditation. In Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s book called, Yoga Nidra, he defines the practice as “a powerful technique in which you learn to relax consciously.”
To be clear, the following meditation I offer here is not yoga nidra; however, I highly recommend the practice. I use Satyananda’s process of calling out each body part, and specifying between the right and left sides as a potent method of relaxation.
Satyananda states that “the progressive movement of awareness through the parts of the body not only induces physical relaxation, but it clears all the nerve pathways to the brain, both those governing the physical activity and those concerned with incoming information. At the same time we make a total run through the brain surface, from the inside out. In this way, yoga nidra relaxes the mind by relaxing the body.”
Some may say that the opportunities to feel wonder diminish over time. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be summoned.
If you’re seeking ways to inspire a sense of wonder, the surest way to find it is to pay attention.
Whether you go to the river, the mountains, the meadow, or the vast expanse of wilderness that is your physical body, wonder can be experienced when one is looking, listening, and using all the senses to receive it.
Begin intending to feel wonder and allow yourself to open to the possibility of it coming to you in unexpected ways.
My wish for you, is that you find wonder in your life as often as possible and that the delight it inspires within you is contagious to all the other grownups around you who may have forgotten the language of shadows.
Do you remember an early childhood experience of wonder? When was the last time you felt real wonder? Did you practice along with the guided meditation? If so, what came up for you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so please leave me a note below!
I woke up at 5:30am, like I did every day. The sun had not quite risen, but the dawn was there, outside my windows, filling the sky beyond the trees. I brushed my teeth and drank a big jar of warm water. I went out my apartment door and down the grand staircase of the Victorian mansion I lived in on Capitol Hill.
At the foyer I knocked on a door with a brass number 4 on it. A sleepy voice said to come in, and when I did I found my friend sitting on the floor in the kung fu pants I had given her, tying her shoes in the dark.
I grabbed her sword and added it to mine in the canvas sack slung on my shoulder. Then we headed out the front door, down the sprawling patio steps, and walked across the quiet city street to the still city park where we practiced kung fu like we did every day, before the quiet became loud and the still became bustling.
There was a year of my life when I pretty much did whatever I wanted.
I was free to be wild, to act out, and to rail against the norm. So what did I do?
I woke up early and taught sword to my sister. I had a luxurious hour-long morning stretch and prayer routine. I meditated several times a day. I made my own meals using organic ingredients and brewed my own Kombucha. I read a lot. It took evening walks. I held private ceremonies honoring the moon cycles. I cried when I felt like it. I cranked up my reggae and had daily dance parties by myself. I practiced every single one of my kung fu forms every single day. And I went to bed early.
Photograph by Brea Fisher
It was the most free I had ever felt in my life, and all I wanted to do was take care of me.
This is radical self-care.
Radical self-care is making yourself a homemade meal even though no one else is there to enjoy it with you.
Radical self-care is calling in to work because you need to go to the mountains and sit by the river in order to make it through the week.
Radical self-care is letting yourself cry— even though it makes your lover worry.
It is calling a friend when you need to talk even though you haven’t reached out to her in six months and you need to bypass the small-catch-up talk and get right into it.
It’s realizing you’ve caught that cold that’s going around and even though everyone else you know still works full-speed-ahead on a cold, instead you make yourself ginger honey lemon tea, leave the dishes dirty on the counter, and take yourself to the hot springs for a healing dip.
Radical self-care is radical because it’s doing what you need to do to take care of yourself no matter what.
No matter what, I’m going to go to that yoga class I’ve been thinking about for weeks… Because I know it’s what I need.
No matter what, I’m going to not talk to my mother about my plan to quit my job… Because what I need doesn’t involve getting lectured to about what she thinks I need.
No matter what, I’m going to throw myself a birthday party because last year I was depressed and lonely… And what I need is to feel loved.
And no matter what, when I make the decision to do what’s right for me, what feels good to me in my heart— what I know I really need to be my best me— no matter what, I am not going to feel guilty for taking care of me first.
Did you feel that? Were you there with me on that one? Can you put yourself there for a minute again?
How often do you feel guilty about doing something you know is good for you?
How often do you not do that thing you know you need, because you think you’re letting someone else down?
How challenging is it for you to override that feeling that you should be doing x, y, or z, and do what you need to do anyway?
The more challenging it is to stand your ground on doing something you need, the greater your need to do it.
It’s similar to that thing that happens when you feel what my grandmother used to call “general malaise” and you think, “Screw it. I’m not going to tai chi tonight.” (Or yoga, or dance class, or the backyard chickens meet-up group— whatever it is you do that makes you feel happy and connected.)
What happens when you let your general malaise stop you from doing what you love? You feel worse. You feel way worse.
And what happens if you don’t do that thing you love, that lights you up, that makes you feel alive— what happens if you don’t do it because you feel guilty about being selfish, guilty about being self-indulgent, or guilty about not taking care of them first?
Oh yes, you know who I’m talking about-- that them. Them who have gotten used to you taking care of them first. Them who need you to not take care of you first otherwise who knows what may happen— they may get the same idea and then what will happen then?
Self-care chaos! A bunch of people getting their needs met first, without asking permission, without bothering to find out if it puts someone out, without even worrying that it may affect the lives of anyone else!
Oh, that is radical self-care at its best!
That is radical self-care for the highest good of all.
Radical self-care for the highest good of everyone is the understanding that taking care of yourself first means you allow the space for those around you to take care of themselves first, too.
Radical self-care for the highest good of everyone is what creates a world of people who value their wellbeing so greatly they are willing to let others think they are being let down when really it is the opposite.
Radical self-care for the highest good of everyone is standing powerfully in one’s decision for health and happiness and knowing beyond a doubt that it is the only thing you can possibly do in this world to help anyone else.
That’s right. It’s the oxygen mask example, full-on. Should we do this? Here it is:
You can’t help the dude sitting next to you put on his oxygen mask if you’re about to pass out due to lack of oxygen. Gotta put that thing on you first!
You’ll need a pen and paper (or a device you can take notes on, but physically writing does deeper work with the psyche.)
1. Check in with yourself. All of you— your body, your mind, your heart, your spirit. What do you need? What do you need physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually?
2. Close your eyes and ask yourself, “WHAT DO I NEED?”
3. Write it down. Big. Keep it simple. No paragraphs. Just a clear, concise one-liner.
4. Now, make a list of all the things you love to do. List everything you can think of that lights you up, makes you feel good, makes you feel alive, connected, free, at peace, healthy, grateful. List all the things, simple to grand, that make you feel better in this world.
5. Keep this list where you can see it regularly. Put it on your fridge or your mirror, or pin it up at your desk or altar. Fold it up and stick it in your journal or handbag where you have it with you all day long.
6. Refer to this list often. And add to it as you think of things. It’s amazing how fast we forget to do the things that make us feel alive. Keep it for times of grief, or times of general malaise. Pull your finger down its items on a day you know you’ve been working too hard.
7. Choose one of those items right now, and commit to doing that today. No matter what.
When you live your life saying yes to all the things you know are for your highest good, it means you are fully there for others when they really need you. It means by doing so you give those people the same opportunity to say yes to the things in their highest good. And it means that we collectively begin to shift the paradigm that taking care of oneself first is selfish.
Total, unapologetic, uncompromising self-care is the most selfless act one can make.
Where do you deny yourself what you know you really need? When do you feel guilty for doing what makes you feel alive? This is something that your mind may want to push away, so if that’s you, it means you probably really need to give this a shot. Or maybe this is your big excuse to do what you’ve been itching to do for a long time now.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Some years ago my love and I were in Aspen on a warm summer day. We were camping way up on Independence Pass and had come down to get a good dose of high society in the mountains… And ice cream.
We threw the disc at Paepcke Park, which ended up being a legendary frisbee round for us, and afterward we were ready for a celebratory treat.
There had to be an ice cream shop somewhere amidst the Prada and Louis Vuitton, but we couldn’t find it. We had circled around the small downtown square twice, went down nearly every street, and got new directions— all different— from people willing to help us on our hunt.
We were beginning to believe the unthinkable: there is no ice cream in Aspen; and it was starting to make us feel irritable, and a little insane.
So I decided to tune into the signs. Not the shop signs; those we had been scrutinizing for the last 45 minutes. It was the omens, the symbols, the subtle language of pointers from the Universe— those were what we had to look for and follow.
The answers we seek are always making their way to us at the very instant we begin to question; we only find them when attuned to their frequency.
Clearly, my sweetheart and I were not dialed in on the right station for ice cream omens. In fact, at the exact moment we were unknowingly passing the shop I was saying, “Every single thing we are looking at here in this scene before us— they’re all signs telling us something!”
We were so busy talking about signs, we completely missed the one sign (literally) that we had been searching for.
Reading omens takes practice. It’s a skill and you need to work at it in order to know what the signs are telling you.
Whether you believe it or not, let’s say that it’s true: every single thing that comes into your experience has a potential message for you. How do you know what they’re all saying?
First, let’s begin with archetypes.
Archetypes are images that inspire universal ideas within us. They bring up feelings that have been attached to these images so long it’s as if they were the first mold of the sense they summon. In that way, these images become symbols.
Photograph by Brea Fisher
A rainbow; a snow-covered mountain peak; a shooting star— like these strong emotion-eliciting images, most archetypes are of the natural world; they transcend time.
Most of us have the same general feeling when we think of a rose; it is a symbol of beauty, the sweetness of life, pleasure, and its thorns signal a sense of protection.
You see a rose while thinking about a troubling conversation you had with a friend. What could that mean for you, knowing the archetypal symbology of a rose? Maybe the rose is there to show you that the sweetest friendships are those with depth: a collection of beautiful and prickly moments, all together.
The ocean is an archetype for vastness, of depth, mystery, and power. When we find ourselves needing spiritual assistance, if we have the means to go to the sea, we are soothed by the feeling we get by simply watching the waves roll in, and roll out.
So maybe you’re at a transition in your life and you need to make a choice that seems like it will lead you either one way or its opposite. There’s a lot of pressure there, so interpreting signs can get tricky, but you give it a try anyway:
You hold the question in your heart and you ask for a sign. Then you go on a walk to see what you see.
As you journey across a field you find yourself thinking about option A; the sky is clear and the birds are twittering their songs. The breeze gently wisps your hair.
Then you shift into imagining what option B would be like. A raven’s cry suddenly pierces the air. A strong gust of cold wind pushes into you and you notice that a deep gray is beginning to sweep its way across the sky.
What does it mean?
Going by archetypes alone, you might interpret those signs as telling you that the first choice will be pleasant while the second choice will bring challenge.
But it could mean something else entirely if you happen to know the raven as an animal totem and consider it to be a messenger of renewal and healing. Or maybe for you a clear sky is boring without an array of clouds to study.
We all have our own personal symbols; what one image means to you may be very different from what it means to another.
When it comes to interpreting the signs that are presented to you, it’s best to go with your gut.
When you get good at knowing how something makes you feel, you’ll start understanding the language of symbols.
One way to get better at identifying how you feel is to take time to check in with yourself from time to time. Settle the body, quiet the mind, and really listen to what it feels like to be in this moment, right now.
Qigong is an incredible gift for those seeking ways to better connect with that silent, still, teacher within.
For today’s challenge, I’ve created a lesson film that corresponds with the energy of spring— new possibilities, growth, change, and eagerness for what’s to come. This optimism and hope brings about an inner kindness when the liver qi is flowing smoothly.
You may also experience bursts of sudden anger during springtime. Anger has meaning, too, so allow yourself to feel it before you just push it away as “negative.” However, if there is excess anger being expressed, you may need to balance it out, and this wood element qigong form, called Liver Harmonizing, will help you do that.
To fully benefit from this form, practice it daily, especially through the spring season, which ends, according to the Chinese seasonal calendar, on May 5, 2017 when we transition into “Start of Summer.”
The process of balancing the qi within you helps bring you into an energetic space where you are better able to understand the symbols, signs, and omens surrounding you.
Qigong, tai chi, yoga, meditation— practices like these slow the breath, relax the body, and quiet the mind, which in turn creates space for you to take notice of the signs being presented to you on a daily basis.
Because if you’re not quiet, you’ll walk right past the ice cream shop of your dreams, even if what you’re talking about is how to follow the omens to get there.
We did end up finding the ice cream shop eventually, by the way.
Do you have a similar story about missing signs because you were too busy to notice? I’d love to hear what this article brought up for you— leave a comment below.
And if there is someone you know who could use a little inspiration on omen-reading, send this article their way. I’d so appreciate you sharing it.