Ever wonder why you're not becoming more flexible even though you stretch? Did you know there is mechanism in your body that detects stretching and tells the muscles to resist the stretch?
The muscle spindle stretch receptor is a cell in the heart of every skeletal muscle (i.e., NOT smooth muscle such as in your stomach). Its job is to detect stretching in the muscle. When it does, it sends a message through the spinal cord--it doesn't even reach the brain. The message reads "Hey, we're stretching now!" Upon receiving the message the spine sends instructions back to the muscle to contract.
Wait, I thought we were stretching. Why on EARTH would the muscle contract?
The purpose of this automated feedback loop, called the spinal reflex arc, is to protect you. It's a default setting to prevent injuries if something were to happen unexpectedly. If you were to fall and you braced yourself with your left hand, your shoulder may be pushed back really far really fast. The muscle of concern, which would likely be the anterior deltoid in this case, immediately receives a message of stretching and before you even know it, that muscle is resisting the stretch and pulling the shoulder forward again. Injury is mitigated, but of course not necessarily avoided. The body does its best to keep us safe.
This is really important for us when we're stretching. If your stress levels are very high or you are being too aggressive, this feedback loop is going to be harder to disarm. The muscle spindle stretch receptor can also become oversensitive and overreact, but as far as it is concerned it's responding appropriately (YES that is a life metaphor!). This can cause increased stiffness in the body and makes stretching less effective and more likely to cause injury.
The autonomic nervous system needs to believe that you are in a safe setting or it's going to be reluctant to let you stretch. But it's the autonomic nervous system--it's unconscious. We have to work through the somatic nervous system (voluntary action) to communicate with the autonomic nervous system. Buckle up buttercup!
So how do you get the nervous system to cooperate?
1. Proper warmup. A systematic warmup tells the body that we are doing intentional training. The more times you do this, the more quickly the body sets itself for the activity.
2. Massage tools. Tools like the peanut communicate with your nervous system (more on that another time). They can be used to prepare muscles for stretching.
3. Stress reduction. Whether through breathing, meditation, massage, spending time with animals, or being outside, frequently, intentionally reducing stress is going to be helpful for disarming this feedback loop when you want to stretch. This is part of what makes flexibility a holistic practice. It feeds into and draws from many different areas of your life.
4. PNF. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation is the practice of gently contracting and then relaxing the muscle you want to stretch. This helps dissolve the block created by the muscle spindle stretch receptor.
5. Breathing while stretching. Lengthening and deepening the breath triggers a cascade of messages through the body and also increases blood flow and oxygen levels. It helps muscles reduce their contractile states.
6. Be intentional. Flinging your foot into your hand for 5 seconds after you run is not enough to give your quads and psoas the care they need.
Flexibility involves more than stretching muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Hydration, stress, and inflammation are some of many factors that play into your limits and potential for developing flexibility--on the scale of a day as well as a decade. This blog post focuses on stress.
Check in with intentions
Before we dive in, I want to reinforce an important point in my philosophy of flexibility: the point is not to achieve a particular depth in a particular pose. Training flexibility is a way to deepen body awareness and stimulate healing processes within the body. Training flexibility is a universally available course of action for correcting imbalances in the body, clearing the mind, and grounding. I say this because popular attitudes toward flexibility over-emphasize physical achievement, glossing over the deeper, subtler values and benefits of this intimate practice.
Okay, now that we've oriented ourselves in a healthy and open way toward flexibility, what does stress have to do with how much we can bend?
Long story short and stripped of the anatomical details, when we perceive a threat, the body engages our muscles in preparation for self-defense. When we strengthen our muscles, we protect our vulnerable organs and tissues--this is not a time to be bendy! For the nervous system to allow muscle length, we need to believe that we are safe. Your outer environment (social, weather, airflow, temperature, sensory input, etc.) and inner environment (emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc.) are both contributors to your nervous system state and therefore muscle state.
If you are under constant stress, whether inner, outer, or both, the nervous system instructs your musculature to remain permanently contracted just a bit. Then as you become more stiff from that perma-contraction, that stiffness makes you uncomfortable and leads to more stress. Thus is born a perpetual cycle of increasingly tight muscles. Sounds exhausting doesn't it? And I'm not even touching the adrenals in this article!
In this self-protective state, you are likely to find limited results from attempts to stretch. When dealing with chronically tight muscles, it is helpful to approach flexibility through the nervous system before approaching the muscles.
Nervous system intervention
To interrupt the cycle of muscle tightness, we need to regularly calm the nervous system. This is simply re-training your body. The more frequently you practice calming the nervous system, the more accessible relaxation will become. Intentional relaxation exercises are more effective when practiced consistently over time.
Do not make peace conditional
Why are you stressed in the first place? This could be a question that has a practical solution or launches you on a spiritual quest. But important to note is that you do not have to resolve all of your stressors to abide in a relaxed state. If you tell yourself you can never be at peace unless x, y, z, you will never be at peace. It can seem absurd to abide in perfect calm when we know all the things wrong with ourselves and the world, but it's essential to reach beyond this mentally constructed limitation. Being at peace is not a logical matter--it arises as a result of a transformation of consciousness. We can embody peace without resolving or denying our problems, confusions, and fears.
Meditation teaches us that we do not need to muscularly react to our inner stressors, or to most of our outer stressors. Meditation helps us to be present with everything that would normally make us tense up. Remaining at ease in the midst of stressors is a skill. Anyone can train this skill.
Slow, deep breathing is one of the clearest signs the nervous system recognizes to mean: safe. Initiating intentional breathing patterns can redirect a fight-or-flight response, bringing greater clarity and calm in just minutes.
Yoga systematically challenges the stress response and then returns the nervous system to calm. Moving through a variety of postures, some challenging and some relaxing, is helpful for familiarizing with the nervous system response and becoming more skillful in directing inner energy.
Practice relaxing when already relaxed
As you become more familiar with nervous system regulation, you will start to recognize when you are being triggered into tension. You will remember techniques to calm the nervous system. This is great, but will be more effective if you also practice calming the nervous system when you are already at ease. Not only does consistency in this practice help you shift states more easily, but it also makes it more difficult for you to be triggered in the future. Many people will not feel motivated to practice calm when already calm, missing the point that it is a powerful form of prevention. Prevention may not feel as explicitly rewarding as resolving an anxiety spike, but it is exactly what will empower you to be able to do just that.
Work with Sara on a personalized integrative flexibility program.
Can flexibility training provide a counterbalance for our culture and offer a pathway for developing body awareness? Would there be a benefit to adjusting our perspectives on flexibility?
Are we an inflexible culture? Students and professionals sit for 6-8 hours a day. The former are often punished for fidgeting. Why on earth would a youthful creature not perfectly comply with being still for eight hours a day?
Considering our sit-at-a-desk-for-forty-hours-a-week culture, training flexibility can be a really helpful way to counteract stiffness from daily life and prevent injury. Training flexibility is a rewarding way to develop body awareness and strength, and offers a wide variety of benefits, including enhanced oxygen flow to muscles and improved circulation. (Interestingly, because training flexibility can awaken us to our body's needs, we would become less likely to tolerate such work conditions as we proceed in practice.) Flexibility training can help us correct some of our lifestyle imbalances.
I became powerfully drawn to contortion right about the time I started doing full-time work sitting at a desk. Once or twice a week I would power home on my bike after work, lay out the yoga mat, and bend as deeply as I could. The relief was immense. All the pent up energy found a place to go.
Watching the progress was exhilarating. I astonished myself with what I could achieve, and my mind began to open along with spaciousness in my body. And excitingly, I began to open to my body in unprecedented ways. Even though I had been an athlete my whole life and had been practicing yoga for years, contortion significantly deepened my body awareness. Because it brings on very powerful sensations, I could start to feel expressions in parts of my body I was usually dead to. Studying this wordless language became a deeply personal journey within the four walls of my room. There was an emotional side to it--the freeing of locked up energy. I backbended through love and heartbreak. The practice was always there to help me refocus my mind and feel centered again.
About the same time that I was getting into contortion, I was developing my personal meditation practice. The combination was powerful. Rather swiftly, I went from being one of the headiest people I knew to actually being...present in my body. And it felt so good--so meaningful. And suddenly, I had a reliable pathway into clarity and calm. When I curve my spine deeply, the clutter blocking my way to my soul clears out. I feel present and spacious. The release is gratifying.
Of course I love sharing my deepest poses on social media. I fell in love with the crazy deep arcs of beautiful backs, serene countenances, and artfully poised legs I saw in my feed. I longed to express my spine the way contortionists did. I felt a little conflicted about sharing; as a yoga teacher I insisted that the depth of the pose is NOT equivalent to the depth of practice. I didn't want to get anyone on the path for the wrong reasons. But I couldn't resist sharing, as mindfully as I could. I was so inspired. I struggle still with depicting flexibility and contortion without triggering everyone's automatic reactions: "this is impressive;" "this is sexy;" "this is dangerous." I hope to convey a bit of the intimate side of it, the subtlety within the extreme.
I've attracted much applause...and some concern. Contortion freaks people out--you will pinch a nerve, or pull a muscle...right? Or maybe break your neck? We are so very afraid of our spines, I have learned. Those things can happen (well I don't know about breaking your neck), but they didn't. I don't always train perfectly, and sometimes I have to take breaks (true in every sport I've ever practiced). But mostly, contortion makes me feel good, and as I became more flexible, I also became stronger; flexibility is NOT patiently laying in a position until you become like taffy. With the exception of a few passive stretches, you need to HOLD yourself in the position with your own strength! This is why I do not support assisted passive stretching as a primary way to train flexibility, ESPECIALLY in children. When you train active flexibility, you have a self-corrective, holistic practice: as you become more mobile, you also become more stable. Your joints don't become too loose--they are packed snug with muscle.
I started to think more critically about the alarm I generated with my extreme flexibility training. Why are we not alarmed when someone sits for forty hours a week at school and work? Why do we blindly accept that? Contortion MIGHT lead to injury (as with American Football, running, basketball, or other culturally accepted activities). Sitting for forty hours a week WILL lead to injury, and it will also put you at higher risk of depression and other health troubles. The body wants to move, and our muscles want to breathe. Stretching delivers more oxygen into your muscles--that's partly why it feels so so good. Stretching is like deep breathing. Plus, the quality of awareness is critically important. Because risk does rise at your end range, you have to be so so careful. So present. When I train contortion, I am fully with every sensation, and I have learned how to adjust and respond to the sensations that unfold at my flexibility boundaries. I have to keep my ego at bay, understanding that the deepest I can go is not always the deepest I should go.
When we sit for hours, we stop listening to the body. If we listened, we would have to get up too much for most employers' liking. But the body-aware must settle down. Sitting for forty hours a week is justified in our culture because we-must-work (imagine that in a robot voice) and because generally it is difficult for us to recognize the danger of slow-onset injury and disease. We are also biased toward mental development, systematically and institutionally neglecting care for the body for the sake of doing-work (robot voice) and cultivating brain skills. We accept sitting and rationalize the unease it brings us, just as we accept driving and rationalize the trauma and death it brings us. Contortion, of course, is on the fringe. People who do it often highlight its eccentricity, which is fine, but that comes with a lot of false perceptions.
To me, contortion is almost exclusively a personal, private practice. To me, contortion is an intimate ecology of self-study, challenging boundaries of mind and body, discernment, and discipline. Even though it's extreme, it's oh-so-subtle. What I feel in my body from one practice to the next is so slight, yet sometimes so profound. Fundamentally, and to me most excitingly, the practice is an exploration--which means it offers the thrill of new discovery.
Also, I find that deep flexibility can be mysterious, and therefore intriguing. Someone once told me that deep stretching simulates the feeling of somebody touching you--that the brain interprets those sensations in the same way. Sometimes I wonder if this is why I so often associate deep stretching with love. Somehow I feel there is emotional processing during deep stretching. Is something happening on another level? Sometimes I feel like a light or bright energy is patterning through my body, showing me where and how to move next, showing me when my back and my hands begin to communicate noticeably for the first time ever. What is that? Why is it sometimes there and other times not? I also love the feeling of new contact between parts of my body. I get a lot out of feeling my toes against the back of my head, or my elbow on my foot, and I adore the feeling of taking my feet into my hands when I am in cheststand. Is it the novelty? Is it like when we were first encountering the world? I'm enchanted with the questions offered by my practice of flexibility.
Our personal lives and our culture as a whole need corrective practices, rituals, and works of art and literature to help us out of the narrow patterns we slide into. As we carry into the 21st century with a continuing bias toward mental development, we need pathways into body awareness. We need practices to help us draw our shoulders back, strengthen our hamstrings, and lengthen our hip flexors. We need to prioritize proprioception and interoception. We need expansion at the throat and the heart center, and we need to move our joints in all the ways they can move. Flexibility training could be a promising counterbalance, not only because it will work, but because it is attractive enough to generate interest and is tangibly rewarding enough to motivate disciplined practice.
As a woman training contortion, I represent the extreme end of the spectrum. You don't need to go there. But what would happen if you asked your body what mobility it would like? Would you like to be able to comfortably touch your toes? Stop slouching? Reduce back pain? Flexibility training can support you in counterbalancing the habits of movement that, left unchecked, lock you into an ever-shrinking range.
Challenging cultural perceptions of flexibility
Just as we need high-quality, careful, discerning awareness when we practice flexibility in order to train safely, we need to apply a high-quality awareness to our perceptions of and attitudes toward flexibility. Flexibility is a total temptress--it is SUPER easy to just say "I want to be able to do the splits" and in maintaining that narrow mindset, the practitioner bars herself from the true depth and offerings of the process and gets cozy with her ego. To touch into the essence of the practice, I encourage a soft, curious mental approach to training flexibility. I would discourage using it as a way to show off, or pushing too hard to get to some depth before your body is ready. Flexibility training truly tests our self-awareness and restraint. Let's highlight and make honorable these aspects of flexibility, rather than splashing in the shallow waters of vanity and dominance. This isn't about showing off, although sharing learned skills and the joys of the practice is a potentially connective and beautiful thing. We don't need to exclude sexual appeal or sheer impressive athleticism from our cultural perceptions--but wouldn't it be so much more interesting if we placed those legitimate aspects of flexibility in the broader context of the practice, including inner-personal exploration and self-care?
To support an intimate, meaningful practice, I encourage anyone training flexibility to bring meditation into the picture. It doesn't need to be a perfect integration of meditating while stretching, but having a consistent meditation practice greatly supports the practice. Not only does meditation support us in applying quality awareness to the present moment, but it also actually accelerates flexibility training, because as the nervous system learns to relax, our muscles begin to let go, and we gently ease out of our rigid holding patterns.
And finally, can we reconsider the 40-hour sitting-standing workweek? Can we be more creative than that, and systematically implement stretch/movement breaks into our schools and workplaces?
Let us please, please have the wisdom to hold body awareness in the same esteem we hold intellectual acuity--after all, isn't it intelligent to know what's going on within our bodies, and to be able to take action that supports our best health and happiness?
Do you want to get in touch with yourself while encouraging a cultural shift through your own personal process? Get started training flexibility safely and mindfully.
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Some people are hesitant to start a meditation practice because of a fear that it will "change" them. Well everything "changes" us and as far as I can tell, the changes brought by meditation are welcome.
By being present with myself quietly for twenty minutes a day for months, I have come to be able to see much more clearly the emotions, sensations, and thoughts that unfold within me. As I become more consistently intimate with my inner landscapes, I can better recognize patterns. I realized I can actually play with those patterns. I can follow them to where they lead, I can build on them, and I can change them. My overall experience of myself and my life has become brighter and gentler. Here's a glimpse of some of the changes I've enjoyed:
1. Improved emotional intelligence (the cereal incident)
Having a chance to sit with my emotional experiences as they were opened my eyes to their patterns and subtleties. Periodically I found myself first in acute irritation, only to find that if I could be present with that aggravation and wait a little longer, then I would burst into tears. So I started to understand that I shouldn't take certain emotional states at face value, and that I needed to be careful not to blame the closest, most likely culprit for how I feel. For example, once I thought my housemate eating cereal was the cause of my extreme irritation. "Why does he have to eat cereal all the time!?" (It had never bothered me before). After a few moments of listening to his spoon clink in the other room while I sat on my cushion, rage and tension gave way to sadness - tears began to flow and my lungs reopened. I discovered that I was actually overwhelmed by the general moment in my life. It wasn't the cereal--it was my fears, sadness, and hopes around my career, heart, and dreams that were expressing as irritation. But why was all that fear, hope, and sadness coming off as irritation? Now, thanks to emotional awareness, I understand that when I don't attend to my deeper feelings and provide a sufficient outlet for them, I get an uncomfortable buildup of energy. I needed to have conversations and to work creatively to mobilize the emotional state beyond its surface layer of irritation into its more salient depths of sadness, hope, and doubt. Irritation needs to be understood as a sentinel, even if we don't like the way it delivers its message.
2. Body awareness and body love (includes not getting hurt while training)
I used to be so caught up in my head that I was rather desensitized to my body. Even though I was athletic, I was not particularly attuned to my body. Interoception is a word for sensing your inner body experience--hunger, temperature, emotional states, and more. Meditation has given me time and space to notice what the heck is going on in my body, and has made me realize it's very important and pleasurable to do so. I have become a better communicator, finding that I can adjust my posture when I need to express something important. I have become a better aerialist, have remained uninjured while training contortion on my own, and haven't been sick in a year. I have also become less tolerant of things like sitting indoors for forty hours a week, which has prompted me to rearrange my life so my body can have what it needs. I'm dedicated to better responding to my body's signals, and have come into a beautiful relationship with my body. Check out the Body Connect meditation program to set that process in motion!
3. Social comfort and calm
Calm is becoming more and more a default state and reaction for me. I'm more comfortable around people than I used to be, and that change expresses in the fullness of my voice when I speak, the relaxation in my shoulders, and the willingness to allow silence. I'm better at noticing when I start to get overstimulated/overwhelmed by people (which has also improved). I definitely still get worked up by things people do and say, but more frequently, I am able to meet inappropriate or anxiety-inducing exchanges with a calm demeanor. It doesn't mean I am not anxious at all, but that I am able to pause and be silent before deciding what to do or say. As a very reactive person who often feels the "pressure to speak," this has been very helpful and liberating. I now feel I have permission not to respond to everything people say. I still experience panic when I have confrontation, and find it very difficult to physically speak, let alone organize my thoughts, but on the whole I feel more comfortable around others and I am eager to connect.
4. Positive framing (and keeping species healthy)
I believe this one was influenced by meditation because meditation has made me more sensitive generally. I have always been sensitive to the meanings and connotations of words, and have been inwardly cringing at harsh language all my life, but now I have had a chance to see how certain words make me feel inside. Lately I've been enjoying a creative mental game of postively reframing negative statements (which is particularly fun as an editor!). For example:
"I hope she doesn't mess up" vs "I hope she executes all her moves well!"
"I hope I don't get sick" vs "I hope I remain healthy."
"If the project fails, the species might go extinct." vs "If the project succeeds, the species could one day thrive again."
Sometimes negative language is the best way to express something, and I am by no means suggesting we should try to make everything positive all the time. But often, we can spin what we say and avoid giving ourselves and/or other people little ripples of tension. This change was also inspired by the IUCN Green List - instead of listing species' statuses relative to extinction, species are listed relative to their highest thriving potential. This encourages funders to support maximum recovery rather than just getting a species afloat. Positive framing uses the power of the mind and the imagination to help us feel happier and do the best we can with our circumstances. Negative thinking and framing easily becomes a habit we are not well aware of, but just the slightest adjustments make a big difference.
5. Higher self encounters
Meditation, combined with strong emotional experiences, unlocked my higher self. I now receive guidance and comfort that express through my own words, spoken or on paper, and enjoy imagery of the version of me that is devoid of attachments.
6. Empathy and connection (and not being as sarcastic)
Since taking up meditation I have become better aware of and attuned to the depths of the difficult emotions in my life. This has been paired with an understanding that everybody has difficult experiences to work with, which leads me to be gentle to myself and others by default. I recognize the insecurity in arrogance, the ignorance in condescension, the depression at the heart of aggression, and so on. I see the cover-ups and don't take them at face value. I used to be pretty sarcastic and I was proud of that part of my identity. I worried it might go away if I did too much yoga and meditation. It DID go away (mostly), and I'm happy about it after all! I take different approaches to interacting with people now, and I have never had more positive connections in my life. And I now know, thanks to experiences like the cereal incident, that what we see on the surface is just the tiniest hint about what's going on below. When people interact with me in strange or irritating ways, I'm usually able to see what's going on and have the patience to wait until we can connect more authentically. So I'm less quick to push people away, and have a higher tolerance for the time people take to feel comfortable to authentically connect. It's really worth it--to me when someone finally opens up, it feels like breathing after holding my breath for a long time!
7. Sense of humor (will laugh for money for novice stand-up comedians)
I laugh...a lot. Even when I'm alone my mind will give me hilarious memories and I get to laugh all over again. This often happens before I fall asleep, which is really nice because I used to just go through all my stressors before falling asleep. I'm sure at times this is irritating to people, but I try to be mindful of others' emotional states when I'm feeling giggly, and overall, I'm really grateful for this change. It feels amazing to laugh. Laughing uncontrollably makes me feel like the day was fulfilling, a success, I am content.
I've been writing prose and poetry and consistently journaling since I started up a consistent meditation practice. All my writing reflects features of my emotional life, which I am attuned to because of meditation. I have learned when I am in a condition for writing; I can feel when I'm getting the creative spark, so I know to gather my materials and take time to myself so I can create an outlet for what's unfolding in me. I feel inspired and purposeful every day, and really enjoy feeling that my creative work forms a connective thread between my life experiences. I am currently working on two poetry albums that I hope to publish on Spotify. Stay tuned!
9. Gratitude (without complacency)
I actively feel grateful. I even sense the absence of bad things as an actively good thing. I don't have everything I want in life by any means, but it has become easier and easier to recognize and thoroughly enjoy what is good. Even looking at trees or walking in nature feels wonderful. This sense of appreciation hasn't made me complacent, as some people worry might happen to them. I still strive for my highest goals and seek fantastic experiences. It just means that in the lulls, in the difficult times, I still feel connected to the goodness. I am not overcome by negativity.
10. Discomfort tolerance (this is not an emergency)
Becoming more body-aware through meditation led me to realize that my mind very much overreacts about physical sensations. Basically, my brain sounds the alarm prematurely when pain or anxiety are detected. I didn't realize all this at the time, but I experienced an interesting example of this in late 2017 I went to a private contortion lesson in San Francisco. My teacher assisted me into a backbend that did not hurt, but created an extreme sense of pressure throughout my torso. I was thinking I couldn't possibly endure it and it couldn't possibly be safe, even though I fully trusted my teacher. My alarm bells were ringing! When I came out, I felt wonderful. No pain that day or ever! So sometimes if I get some strange tension or pain in my body, or start to feel slightly depressed, I notice the red lights and the SOS signals going off. Now I tell myself, "This is not an emergency. If it were, I'd know." Nothing has ever seriously debilitated or killed me. I've overcome every injury and illness in my life. It is unlikely that some new discomfort is going to be anything significant, and if I know anything, it's that human experience fluctuates, so soon I'll feel different, back to myself again. Having this attitude prevents me from making the pain or discomfort WORSE by getting anxious about it, and lets my mind and body do the necessary work to heal and come back to equilibrium.
Meditation starts to bring us what it is we need. It doesn't always work like magic (though sometimes it really seems like it does)--we still need to put the work in in the particular areas of our lives we see room for change. I think ultimately, meditation helped me to see where I was experiencing difficulty, and helped me see my options for expressing myself and relating to myself and others differently. It helped me understand what was happening within me and showed me what I need to do to accommodate that.
Check out the online meditation programs available through Pattern Shift, and contact anytime if you have questions!
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Pattern Shift explores, among other things, how meditation can support emotional intelligence and connection, and also seeks to support cultural change. This article touches on what it takes to have meaningful, connective conversation between men and women. Communication involves both emotional intelligence and connection, and is linked to cultural and personal perceptions. The content posed below of course does not pertain exclusively to women; this is simply the perspective I can speak authentically from. Please comment if you have a different perspective to share.
I was sitting on the patio of a local Santa Cruz brewery with a close girlfriend, drinking lemonade of all things. I had just met her (male) friend. They were both enjoying IPA's, like normal people do at a brewery. Anyway, those details are just to set the scene; what I really want to share is that this happened:
*Male friend gets up to order another beer*
Me: "Did you notice how he constantly cut you off?"
Me: "You never even got a chance to tell your story. Meanwhile he told three."
It's surprisingly easy to end up in an unequal conversation and feel like everything is relatively normal. But when you start paying attention, things become obvious. When you are talking with someone who respects you and is aware of the way their words and presence affect you, there can grow a sense of trust, comfort, and openness. When we feel comfortable and trusting, the mind can be more dynamic, more open, and more creative. Talking to these people is one of my favorite ever things to do, because we inevitably encounter new perspectives, unexpected connections, and hilariousness. Afterward, I feel connected to that person, inspired, and fulfilled.
Unfortunately women endure plenty of condescension, interruption, explanation of how things work, ideas about what is good for us and what we should do and think, and how we should feel. Plus, bonus inappropriate comments and advances! And it's all too normal. Ironically, men who declare themselves to be good at talking to people often are not, while those who don't make comments about or think much of their conversational skills are quite good. You don't need to read a book or take a course to be a good conversationalist. It's just about sincerity and taking an interest in what others have to say.
When I'm listening to men, the most obvious sign that they are connecting with me as an equal is that their sentences sometimes end in question marks. Another indicator is if I am listening proportionately to talking. Interruptions are another clue as to what's going on. They are normal in conversations; they can be a nervous habit or can even be fun and connective, but when experienced repeatedly they are wearisome and reveal the lack of connection taking place. Talking to a woman as a man requires skill and awareness. Many people who think they have this skill do not. Many who think they do not, actually do, simply because their ego is uninvolved.
Honestly, I didn't notice how lopsided many of my conversations were until I was 25. Meditation was beginning to help me to be more aware of what was happening in conversations--in the past I had been rather overstimulated by most conversations, and the anxiety made it difficult to see what was taking place from a broader perspective. I was too easily carried away by others' words and couldn't notice subtleties. New awareness, nurtured by meditation, raised new insights. (Get started with meditation today.)
Part of the trouble is actually rooted in the beautiful fact that that many women are natural listeners. We tend to be curious about others' experiences and perspectives and thus leave space for the people around us to express themselves. The problem with conversations in which the woman is predominantly a receiver is that they include the implicit message "you do not have insight to offer on this topic." This is not always done consciously. People are almost always unaware of the biases they embody. Because the bias is not explicit, it actually works more effectively. It can't be easily noticed and defended against. It just works its way in to our subconscious. You don't think, "hey in most of my conversations with men I only talk 30% of the time!" You just absorb that fact into your schema of the world and your place in it. So the subtle bias generates an underlying, difficult to recognize or address sexism that both parties take part in, and the woman is liable to internalize an idea about herself that is less than equal to the person who is talking to her. Needless to say, the man's subconscious assumption that the woman doesn't have something to offer is incorrect. Anyone can contribute something to any topic, even one they know nothing about--they can relate it to something they are familiar with, and that connection might actually end up being very helpful to the other person because it provides something different from their own stale thought process.
It's important to note that there is always a second (or perhaps first) "conversation" between two people that takes place in between the lines. It begins with either an assertion of power or an extension of respect. The difference becomes very easy to identify when you start to contextualize your everyday conversations like this.
So here's my 30-second guide to talking to women, order irrelevant:
From one woman's perspective:
Photo credit: blazouf
Spaciousness of body, heart, and mind is powerful for creative work and expression. But there is so much mental clutter--so much stimulation and bombardment from the external world. So much in the way of busy-ness and distraction. With all that chaos, it can be difficult to even remember the stillness of the Soul, to remember that we can ease into a comfortable quiet within ourselves.
Our creative projects need us to find this spaciousness from time to time. Then, without strain, we can develop our works. Insights and ideas will surface effortlessly, and we can then make note of these to later incorporate into our projects.
Meditation is thus an excellent practice--it's helpful for developing the skills needed to return to inner repose. But in my own experience it seems to really be time in nature that unravels all the knots and makes space for the body, heart, and mind. Quiet time in nature does change your brain and can be considered a form of meditation. Plus, the contents of nature directly provide inspiration and material for you to work with. If you are a musician, you may be inspired by the rhythms of the sounds around you, or get ideas from the vocalizations of native wildlife. If you are a visual artist, you may be intrigued by the geometries, colors, and textures of the natural space. If you are a writer, the sense-scape can become an enriching groundwork for the abstractions you've been exploring. Let nature inform you. Form within you. Arrange and align the body, heart, mind, and spirit.
If you're asking "What's the point" of lounging or walking in nature, I'm smiling so big at you. Go see for yourself. Without a cell phone. Bring a journal or a sketch pad, some water and snacks. The way nature makes you feel will be all the explanation you need (but obviously maybe seek relatively comfortable conditions, although whipping wind and pelting rain can be amazing in their own rite).
The power of nature to relieve my stressors and release my attachments was never clearer to me than when I took a hike to the summit of Chalk Mountain in Santa Cruz one Winter morning. Read to the end to find out how a burrito rescued my hope for humanity. Here's the story:
The Time Chalk Mountain Finished my Poem
I had learned to keep Friday night restful, to decline invitations to go out so I could wake early on Saturday and hit Highway 1 with coffee and my journals. Coastal morning fog filled me with wonder and deep happiness as I followed the curves of the highway.
One morning I set out from Waddell beach into Big Basin, zipped snugly into my black down jacket. The trail was devoid of people, brisker than I’d even expect on a winter morning, and wonderfully quiet. I figured I’d hike to Berry Creek Falls, but when I reached the fork in the trail after an invigorating barefoot creek crossing, I hesitated. The last time I’d looked for that trail I couldn’t find it, and a similar distance away, according to the sign, was Chalk Mountain. I looked left to right several times. I wasn’t entirely prepared for a 14-mile round trip on an unfamiliar trail, but something about the name called me over to the left. I put my shoes back on and headed onto the unknown trail.
I saw not a soul at the mountain’s peak. I laid under a tree and rested after devouring the one piece of bread and avocado I’d thought to pack. I let my body sink deeply into the ground, gazing out at the clouds over the ocean. I was so content there, so blissfully alone. I lingered long. I meditated. I napped. I lifted myself into handstands. I gazed at the panoramic view as my skin absorbed the welcome winter sunlight.
When I descended, verses from the poem I’d written on my drive back from Bishop passed through my mind. I spoke some of them aloud, somewhat surprised I’d memorized them. As I spoke, it became apparent that the poem was missing some verses, as they now began to form in my head. Amazed the poem had followed me up the mountain, I took a moment to write down what was in my head. I marveled at the aliveness of this one--at its volition. It didn’t occur to me that it would give rise to more poetry in the coming months. Maybe years--who knows?
Hikes, runs, or rests in natural spaces can be incredibly gratifying. They ease us back to a peaceful state and help us release our attachments. From these places of rest, we can draw from our creative sources and breathe life into our spirit. Creativity easily follows. The gates to inspirations open wide. What are you waiting for?!
P.S. Remember to tell a friend if you are going hiking alone. And don't do what I did! Bring adequate food and water! I had to eat a huge burrito after this hike to save myself from thinking the world was evil (a common affliction caused by hanger).
This year I will be designing an online meditation program called "Nature Connect." Sign up for the Pattern Shift Monthly Newsletter (in the sidebar) to stay up to date.
Okay, what is meditation, why should I do it, and how do I do it? Also what about emotions, creativity, and drugs? Ask anyone, and you'll get a different response. Here's mine in under 11 minutes although I could talk about this for hours.
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DEBUNKED: Meditation is for Boring Perfectionists
TRUTH: Meditation is for Boring Perfectionists and Interesting Imperfectionists
It’s not all blissful smiles and picturesque lifestyles. Media representations tend to depict a very limited view of meditation and thereby leave a bland impression of meditation. What's missing is the wildness and dynamism of meditation.
If you have a distaste for meditation because everything you’ve seen and heard about it is tedious, I understand where you are coming from. Seriously. When everything you see and hear about meditation sounds the same and seems like it’s something for a boring perfectionist, and you are an interesting imperfectionist, it’s perfectly reasonable that you would be running for the hills.
But wait, come back.
Meditation is more than trying way too hard to be a good person by doing this super boring thing of sitting quietly for 20 minutes a day.
Yes, meditation is often associated with a serene countenance and mild-manneredness (do a quick Google search if this isn't ringing a bell). No, meditation will not necessarily make you serene and mild-mannered. Meditation can indeed be grounding and bring about a sense of peace, but it can do a lot more than that too. Meditation is just as much aligned with what is adventurous, spontaneous, diverse, and fun as it is with calm and peace—really meditation is as diverse as human minds.
Meditation is just as much aligned with what is adventurous, spontaneous, diverse, and fun as it is with calm and peace—really meditation is as diverse as human minds.
Meditation can be as much like swinging in a hammock as it can be like forging a river. Some days its luscious mellow vibes, others it’s high speed winds and you’re just trying not to crash the helicopter you’re flying. Meditation is surveying the scene—taking in what is, and so it accommodates all variation of human experience. We all know that when it comes to inner experience, there is a rich spectrum. Meditation practice, over time, is like going on a long hike or a road trip; the scenery changes, and each unique landscape and soundscape contributes to the journey. Thank goodness it doesn’t all stay the same.
Some days its luscious mellow vibes, others it’s high speed winds and you’re just trying not to crash the helicopter you’re flying.
So yes, you can meditate and then work out to EDM like there’s no tomorrow. You can meditate and then break down into tears. You can celebrate later with friends, or you can read and go to sleep (what does the moment call for?). You can make mistakes, you can doubt meditation or anything makes a difference and try it anyway...you can change your mind.
A practice of meditation can support processing, and therefore deeper engagement with and contextualization of any given experience, keeping you connected with yourself and showing you new possibilities and interpretations. The contextualization opportunity offered by meditation can give rise to insight and may stimulate you to raise or lower your energy output. It may trigger a life change or amplified efforts in the direction you're already going. It depends.
Where does the “boringness” theme come from? It’s a great question. I think that many people turn to meditation when life gets really tough—when coping and healing have become priorities and boringness is more than welcome considering the chaos and intensity of the circumstances. These are the kinds of stories we hear about in the media. They certainly are remarkable and important stories of a shift from frenzy and crisis to calm and serenity—but they don’t resonate with everyone and these are not the sole contents of meditation.
Furthermore, there are not many ways to depict meditation other than a person sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed. But meditation is far more than an image can communicate, and touches every part of your life. It would be like if the only representation of “Scientist” you ever saw was a person staring into a microscope. Why would that inspire you to become a scientist? Seems boring! What are they even looking at and how can it be so interesting to them?
It would be like if the only representation of “Scientist” you ever saw was a person staring into a microscope.
SO, with a little imagination and experimentation, we come to see that meditation is not this tedious, boring thing. It’s not just for really organized people who are trying to set up a perfect life and adhere to society’s favorite values in an effort to be a good person. There’s no reason meditation can’t support both the shy and the bold, the organized and the disorganized, the rebel, the teacher, the gamer, the hell-raiser, the social butterfly. Meditation isn’t *for* select personality types any more than sleeping is *for* select personality types. Yes, maybe more, maybe less and maybe at different times for different people. Maybe one pillow, maybe two. But ultimately, it serves a purpose that transcends your view of yourself and your belief about “the types of things you do.”
There’s no reason meditation can’t support both the shy and the bold, the organized and the disorganized, the rebel, the teacher, the gamer, the hell-raiser, the social butterfly.
It’s a way toward insight into the nature of mind and an integration of the self. Even though it is an effective pathway for establishing steadiness within, the whole practice is actually quite wild and adventurous—the heart, body, and mind are not exactly tame.
Even though it is an effective pathway for establishing steadiness within, the whole practice is actually quite wild and adventurous—the heart, body, and mind are not exactly tame.
I don’t know what it’s going to be like for you. I can share insights from my journey as a way of providing a reference point for you, but I have no idea what you’re going to experience, and I don’t know what you’re going to do next. Go find out…maybe you’ll surprise yourself.
There's something deeper meant to come out of your heart in this life. What is it?
As humans we shift into and out of illusion and reality. We have the power to create, to imagine, and to make believe.
As much as we delight in the fantasy-lands of the mind, we also crave knowledge. Hard facts. Deep understanding. Truth.
These seemingly different realms are very much entangled. They are both defining features of human identity.
There is an aggressive pathway to creative expression as well as knowledge—the one where the “small self’s” quest for praise, validation, and power is dragged into the quest to create or to understand. Then there is another path, where recognition and acceptance of an ever-present, non-personal power eliminates the need for external validation and orients the soul to its purpose. Meditation helps us to see the difference.
Then there is another path, where recognition and acceptance of an ever-present, non-personal power eliminates the need for external validation and orients the soul to its purpose.
I say this not to create categories for positive and negative judgment. I simply am pointing out that there is a difference in the paths. Don’t overthink this and “try” to get on one path or the other—simply continue in your commitment to observe. You might catch yourself veering toward attachments and then it’s your choice whether you keep going or change direction.
What is your project?
Meditation can support the development of skills that empower us in our explorations of expression and truth. Open, genuine contemplations and inquiries create a pattern shift into wakefulness.
To what would you want to bring wakefulness? Do you play music? Are you an artist? An athlete? A caregiver? A student? A politician? What area of your work would you be interested in bringing wisdom to?
To what would you want to bring wakefulness?
What are you creating, what do you want to know, and what inside you do you desperately want to express that seems inexpressible?
There is a way to bring light and form to your confined expression. The following are just a few touchstones for moving and expressing wakefulness.
Don’t expect perfection. Don’t expect anything at all.
As you proceed in your meditation practice and your project, take notes along the way. Map your findings. Learn the many languages of the soul. Don’t be afraid to talk about it, but don’t feel pressured to either. We can be informed by one another's journeys.
Then revisit. Revise. Return to the practice. Let the insights brought on by inquiry inform your actions—let the practice bring depth and luminosity to your creative expressions and intelligence and structure to your projects.
If you have not yet been united with your purpose, or if you have lost touch, consider that you may now be closer than before, and remember that becoming disconnected creates a beautiful opportunity to reconnect in a profound way.
Begin the Journey of the Self. 21 days of meditation and inquiry.
The Pattern That Connects
Meditation is dynamic, full of surprises, compatible with the whole range of human emotion, and positions you to engage your life in ways you never would have anticipated.
I have designed these meditation programs with two core purposes: to support inner peace, and to inspire action. I often find that peoples’ impressions of meditation are that it’s all about “being calm.” That’s nice but would be so incredibly boring (I promise you I wouldn’t be involved in meditation if that were all it’s about) and I’m so happy to tell you that is not the case.
On the one hand my approach does resemble “typical” meditation programs. They are very much geared toward learning techniques for stabilizing the nervous system and establishing practices for emotional regulation. I am committed to supporting myself and others in the journey of peace, and if peace or relief is all you seek right now, that’s perfect. There is not much in life that fulfills me more than playing a role in the dissolution of somebody’s anxiety. So the meditations are tools for creating that “resting space.”
On the other hand, but not in conflict with the first hand (I let my hands know what each other are doing) my purpose is to excite: to encourage inquiry, to stimulate creativity, and to point out new possibilities and narratives for your life. There is a great need for creative action toward a reconfiguration of the way humans live on this planet. So within my meditation programs, I endeavor to illuminate pathways whose qualities and destinations are unclear. I encourage inquiry as a pathway for change.
Yes--sometimes you need to spend time healing and resting before approaching the liveliness. Sometimes this liveliness is just what you need. Listen. Ask yourself.
We can become skilled in both establishing stability and stimulating transformation, finding contentment and taking action, being at peace and raising energy.
So the context that you will next read may not seem to fit with your conventional notions of meditation, but I assure you it is relevant and intrinsically important to your practice. I include it not only because it belongs with meditation, but because I think it has the power to make the journey very exciting and rewarding. I encourage you to give it a read and, if you have questions, bring it on!
Mind, Nature, and Projects
The idea of "The Pattern that Connects" was presented by the late anthropologist and ecologist Gregory Bateson. Bateson was interested in processes of evolution, culture, the nature of mind, the patterns of nature, and perhaps most of all, the connections between all these. He coined the term “The Pattern Which Connects” (which I have adapted to The Pattern That Connects for a grammar reason that I will only explain only upon request).
His specific question was “What is the pattern that connects all the living creatures?” How is everything connected? He suggests that containing or connecting all patterns is The Pattern That Connects. Though it is not a “thing,” it can help to imagine it as a connective weave through all life. I suspect it’s closely related to if not synonymous with the Tao but I’m not sure (maybe you can help me find out?) The problem is when we try to apply our minds to this problem in the ways we are used to solving problems, we get in our own way. This is because we are approaching terrain that is not "symbolic," it does not "represent" something the way words or numbers do--it is not an idea. We are trying to get at reality, or the nature of things, or "suchness," and because language is necessarily symbolic, whatever we say about it is going to be off the mark. Perhaps exploring states of consciousness and creative expression are more promising when it comes to understanding the Pattern that Connects.
According to Bateson, The Pattern that Connects is lively:
“We have been trained to think of patterns, with the exception of those of music, as fixed affairs. It is easier and lazier that way but, of course, all nonsense. In truth, the right way to begin to think about the pattern which connects is to think of it as primarily a dance of interacting parts and only secondarily pegged down by various sorts of physical limits.”
–Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature
This means that there is no fixed code or reference point for us to uncover, but rather, a continuously unfolding process. This creates a situation where the imagination and eternity intersect. Something ever-shifting is bound to give rise to creativity, and we are both receivers and shapers of the patterns that make up the present moment. Consider the patterns of thought, the wavelengths of brain activity, the rhythm of your heart, and so on. This liveliness, interestingly, may contrast with descriptions of the Tao as unchanging stillness and emptiness. (What is the relationship between the Tao and the Pattern that Connects?)
We can either interfere with or get with the patterns of nature. Currently our human affairs seem to depend heavily on patterns of our own creation that do not accord with those of nature. Imagine there is a large circuit network, and you zoom in on just a piece of it so you can’t see the bigger pattern it is part of. For example—you find that you can cure illness with antibiotics, but that achievement operates in a bigger system, all the parts of which were not considered, and so we get superbacteria. When you engage with just that one segment you can see, that’s the "conscious purpose" mind, the analytical, divisive, self-interested mind. It’s a very useful and powerful form of consciousness, but if we are so zoomed in we forget to see the forest for the trees, this perspective is liable to lead us unwittingly into illusion, and therefore suffering. We're missing important context. We need, from time to time, to take another perspective, to transcend the self-imposed restrictions of the ego. We may say we need to take on the perspective of Mind with a capital M, which would be the total mental process of nature. This perception has no attachments, for it is devoid of a self.
It’s not that as humans we have truly departed from the Pattern that Connects—it’s just that if we start acting out of accord with that which supports the conditions needed for life, we end up with unexpected consequences (e.g., climate change). Eventually nature’s deeper patterns break down the ones we built if we did not build them in such a way that they are not destroyed by the forces of time and change. Bateson considered awareness of the broader patterns in which smaller patterns operate to be “wisdom.”
Meditation is one method for recognizing at least the fact that we are embedded in much broader patterns and that our most familiar forms of knowing are incomplete. The following insight was a lucky accident in a conversation with my philosopher friend: we can allow ourselves to be informed by the broader patterns. It took me several weeks to realize he didn’t mean informed in the sense that nature explains to you how to be, but rather, you allow the patterns of nature to arrange themselves within you—within your heart, mind, and body. This kind of experience presents insight into a larger set of possibilities of how to live simply because you have opened yourself to something other than your usual habits of attention.
...You position yourself in a way that you let go—so that those patterns can arrange themselves within you—within your heart, mind, and body. This kind of experience presents insight into a larger set of possibilities of how to live, simply because you have opened yourself to something other than your usual habits of attention.
Meditation brings us into states of consciousness that may often be dormant during the day to day activities of our lives. We can take these new perspectives and bring them together with our familiar ways of knowing for a clearer picture of what is taking place in this life. Then, we are still responsible to make decisions on what to do, who to be, and how to live.
I will refer to The Pattern that Connects in my meditation programs. For deeper understanding, I recommend reading Bateson’s “Mind and Nature,” and “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.” But if you don’t, it’s fine. I’ll be providing context along the way.
The project I invite you to join me in is first: how will you tap into connectedness, and second: how will you manifest it? How will you bring Awareness to Action?
Foundations: 21 days of inner exploration.