The following is an excerpt from the Ebook "Shaping a New Body Narrative." You can access the full ebook and participate in the Body Connect meditation program that goes along with it.
Cultivating body awareness is different from training or conditioning; it brings mind, body, and spirit together in moments of focused, deliberate, open perception.
To have breakthrough in body awareness, it helps to be open to the possibility that your present idea about your body is incomplete and contains mistakes. There's nothing unusual about or wrong with that. Your brain works hard to simplify and condense information, and you can more or less get away with generalized and limited perceptions of the body as you go about life. But there is always something new to learn about the body, and always a new way to experience body presence.
Suspend your beliefs about your body
Let go of what you think you know about the body. Shifting awareness fully into the experience of what you feel allows you to gently and gradually deepen the mind-body connection. Approach the things you do as if you’re not exactly sure how it will feel. Over time this practice can generate a fun, ongoing storyline to your life, one that you get to build on each and every day as you come to notice the body’s patterns in more detail and with more context over time. An open mindset gets you connected with yourself, and it brings wordless coherence to everyday life. It can be a familiar, steadying feature that’s there when you’re not quite sure where your life is headed next.
A “relationship” mindset is key for training proprioception
When you think of the body parts in segments, for example “arms,” “legs,” “back,” you may inadvertently limit the kinds of movements you can engage. On the other hand, when you start to experience the various “parts” of the body in relationship to one another, something important happens.
For example, reach your right arm over your head and leftward. Lean to the left a bit for a sidebend, reaching as much as you can through your fingers. Even if you reach far, you may not get much stretch. You need to anchor down through the right side of your pelvis and ribcage, pulling the opposite direction. Ah, see? When you move like this, what is an almost imperceptible difference from an outside perspective can feel like a dramatic change on the inside.
Rest & Reflect
Practice without rest is like eating without digesting. To deeply internalize the lessons from your practice it is important to allow the body and mind to rest and recovery. I regularly find that after spending a bit of time away from one of my physical practices I actually come back noticeably more competent and skilled. By leaving space for my mind and body to process and work together during that down-time, I get to return to my practice with deeper understanding of my own body how it connects with my equipment. As a philosopher friend of mine put it, it allows us to return “more in relationship.” This seems to be supported by practicing meditation, which provides a baseline reference for how the body is feeling and functioning.
By providing expert touch and instruction, a teacher can orient your awareness to parts of the body that you previously hadn’t been aware of, and can show you how that muscle or joint is supporting your action, among other things. Cultivating body awareness is different from training or conditioning; it brings mind, body, and spirit together in moments of focused, deliberate, open perception. Working with a qualified teacher is a wonderful way to enhance body-awareness and support your explorations of movement and sensation.
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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Maybe it was conditioner itself, living by the ocean, my hair type, or something else, but I noticed that conditioner was leaving my hair with a residue. The solution was ridiculously simple. I cut out conditioner and replaced it with a monthly or bi-monthly coconut oil treatment. Back to soft and luscious...plus, I'm saving money! I'm not sure if coconut oil works well with all hair types, but I bet if you do a little research you will find something perfect for you! Sometimes I combine avocado oil with chamomile tea (great for blonde hair, otherwise probably avoid it), and sometimes just chamomile tea, which for some reason does a good job of making my hair soft. I've found green tea to work well for softening too.
2. Shopping for clothes on Amazon
For a while, I felt like I was getting awesome deals and amazing new outfits. But when I started paying closer attention, it was obvious that A) the clothes were very low quality; B) They were not ethically or sustainably made; and C) Many of them were drenched in nasty chemicals, possibly even formaldehyde, which is supposed to keep clothes unwrinkled and in "nice" condition. NO THANK YOU. You are not #winning when you get the cheapest deal, because there are always consequences somewhere when companies cut corners to bring down the price--the only difference is the consequence is in your natural environment and the well-being of your community rather than your bank account balance. When we go cheap, we're asking someone else to pay the price, and eventually, that comes back to us, because of course we are all connected in social and ecological networks.
I prefer to support people I personally know, and one day I'd like to learn to make my own clothes. Today I almost exclusively wear American Eagle and Aerie clothes. They are quality, flattering, and affordable (especially if you hit the clearance section, which often has great stuff!). I am not sure about their environmental impact but they are doing great things on the body positivity and inclusivity front. Thrifting is another great option. I have one shirt that I always get compliments on, and I got it at a thrift store for $1.50.
3. Denim & other uncomfortable materials
In high school I didn't really know that leggings and yoga pants existed, for some reason. I always wore jeans and was always uncomfortable. As I discovered the options out there and became more body aware, I became way better at selecting clothes that I love to wear. Today I exclusively wear clothes that feel soft, comfortable, and breathable. I love yoga pants, stretchy seams, palazzo pants, and cotton. I can't stand feeling restricted, and when we wear clothes that don't make us feel really great, it affects our mood and thus our poise. And on that note, underwire bras never feel right to me. They don't move with my body properly. They are not necessary for most people--bralettes are fine and they move with your body. That said, I am still on the search for a reputable brand that sells very simple, plain bralettes that are soft; comment if you know of any! Keep in mind that bras weren't always around...Society can get over itself, thanks :P
4. Corn syrup & artificial foods and products
JUST NO. There is no place for these things in our bodies and homes, and artificial ingredients don't even taste good! It's possible to get conditioned into enjoying these products but there is always the option to re-wire your taste buds by nourishing yourself with natural foods that obviously came from the earth or the sea. This is not complicated. Watch out though: "Natural Flavor" usually means artificial flavor. Choose environmentally friendly detergent, soap, and cleaning products as much as you can. Look for locally made options. Your nose will tell you if a cleaning product is toxic or not. Sometimes, you really do need something toxic. Let it be the exception, and otherwise, clear out your cupboards.
Unfortunately this one is inspired by what I could hear from the neighbor's house while writing this. Yelling can damage people's nervous systems and puts us into fight-or-flight mode. Our ability to think and communicate clearly and openly drastically decreases. Exceptions: haunted houses, talking across vast distances, spotting horses or tiny animals, special emergency situations, splinter extractions, acting. Lol.
What about you? What have you cut out or would like to cut out? I'm still working toward reducing waste and finding eco-friendly makeup products, particularly nail polish. Please comment!
Click Play to listen.
A series about connection vs attachment.
Part 1: Is this connection or Attachment?
Part 2: Albatross Love & Human Jealousy
Part 3: Morality & Attachment
This blog post explores how attachments can complicate moral stances, and offers perspectives that might help us become aware of our own contradictions and confusions.
There is a difference between being connected with values and moral perspectives versus being attached to them. This is tricky.
Morality for security reasons
As humans we are liable to identify and cling to ideas and structures that help us make sense of the world and save us from critical thinking and making difficult decisions, for example, taking religious scripture literally and accepting dogma. It's just easier for the mind to have a "go-to" reasoning model than to assess each experience as it comes.
Morality for social reasons
We also may identify ourselves with particular moral stances taken by our parents, heroes, and role models. "I stand for this." These relationships with moral stances are based on the desire to feel secure, to protect a familiar sense of self, and to align with identified alphas. It is different to genuinely form intellectual and emotional connection with the values, contradictions, subjectivity, sacrifices, and grey areas that form the heart of morality.
Morality for emotional reasons
Emotions show us how we feel about the world. Unfortunately emotionality has its own grey areas and pitfalls. Sometimes it guides us well. Often it misleads us horrifically.
For example, some people may have very powerful emotional responses to moral issues--lets say, for example, abortion. Having a strong emotional response to a moral issue does not automatically tell us what is right and what is wrong. Rage, tears, and other drama can be very compelling, and may give you an urge to take a side or engage action, but emotional intensity does not necessarily lead us to ethical clarity. Often you will find that where emotionality is on public display, logic and consistency are absent from the person's moral framework. For example, a person who does not support abortion because "all life is sacred" may support the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide, war, or other events in which a life is ended. This begs the question why has the person subscribed to this value but not that similar value? Is their emotional relationship with life and death or their own inner emotional loops? What is the difference? Are prestige or social implications entering the reasons for taking this stance?
Emotional memory can block presence and critical thinking
Furthermore, if a person has a strong emotional experience that becomes stored away as trauma in the body, the moral question can trigger anxiety and panic. Though this person may feel genuinely connected with a moral stance based on real life experience and memories of suffering, this way of reasoning can mislead. Difficult feelings can make us reactive to similar but different new experiences as we quickly try to avoid repeating that negative experience. This is hugely relevant for racism and hostility between "groups" of people. We base broad opinions off of specific experiences and end up becoming narrow-minded about what might be a rather complex, nuanced matter. As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, we like to make life easier - its easier to follow rules than to critically assess every scenario. Easier, but not more accurate, not more intelligent. Following preconceived notions is relying on previous patterns formed by past experiences - it stops us from being present. Simply asking questions about the nature of the situation at hand can stimulate the needed pattern shift that helps us out of our emotional loops, enabling us to see more clearly what is here now.
A sense of moral goodness can become an obstacle to action
"Slave morality" was coined by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps known best for his explorations of Nihilism. He described slave morality as a mindset sometimes held by an oppressed group that undermines their potential for creativity and power. In slave morality, an oppressed group (and that might very well be you and me, who are likely not capable of influencing political action) spends their energy celebrating their own moral goodness while resenting their master and dreaming of a future world (such as heaven) in which they are rewarded for their moral rightness while their masters are punished. The emotional expenditure of feeling self-righteous and resentful, Nietzshe argues, is really the killer of the possibility for change. Because active resentment and self-celebration absorbs the slaves and provides them with an identity, rather than take action to destroy the master-slave relationship, they inadvertently reinforce it. They adopt an "I am oppressed" mentality and create a tolerable world within their limited freedoms, frequently telling themselves that they are righteous and one day justice will be served. So the slave on the one hand is poised with the necessary insight and inspiration to form important human social values and change the world, recognizing the injustice of oppression and inequality, but if the slave contents him/herself with the satisfaction of being morally good and dreaming of a better future, they will never actualize their values and overthrow their masters. None of this is to say that oppressed groups of people are weak, unintelligent, uncreative, or anything like that. Nietzsche's warning is that we are liable to play the role of the identity we have become familiar with rather than changing anything. Pattern stuck.
So we have to be careful about identifying with the parts of ourselves that fall into the weak, oppressed, marginalized zones, whether that's being female, poor, black, queer, etc. If we adopt this "disempowered" identity and resent those who do not treat us fairly, we may feel emotionally satisfied in victimhood (and we may fuel that self-satisfaction with regular arguments and minor uprisings) while not actually making a difference. Even if we create goodwill among our own marginalized group, which is commendable, we have not altered the power structure until we interrupt the powerful/weak dichotomy. And if we do find the inspiration to meaningfully alter the power structure, we want to be clever--we don't want to recreate the same structure with the only difference being that now we are the ones on top. We want to come up with something that does not rely on subjugation but is not devoid of power either. We need to do more than overthrow and displace our "masters." We need to create structures in which power flows dynamically and changes periodically, not favoring one group or another. I for one do not know what that looks like, but it makes me think of ecosystems. I think if we keep slave morality in mind we may be better at avoiding it and come up with some interesting ideas.
Emotionality is essential in moral reasoning
Concerns acknowledged, emotionality is important for our moral reasoning. You may find cases in which a strong logical case is made for an ethical stance, but empathy is absent, and the purveyor of that stance may be dangerous. Attempting to take a "purely logical" view of the world often leads us out of connection with that which we seek to understand. "Science" cannot be divorced from the world of emotion, and if science purposes to understand the world as is, emotion in fact needs to be front and center. This is explored in a compelling way in Carl Safina's book "Beyond Words." We may conduct clinical experiments on animals to be able to assert facts about them, but that is only one kind of knowledge. Furthermore, there's danger in alienating emotionality and empathy from scientific pursuits; historically we have justified animal abuse with their "scientifically confirmed" lack of consciousness and intelligence (we've done this to humans too). But doesn't that reveal our own lack of awareness? Aren't we actually evolutionarily equipped to recognize emotionality in other living beings? And is that not something to explore and embrace, regardless of the messiness of subjectivity?
Emotionality must be part of morality; we only know how we feel about anything through our emotional responses. Lying awake at night with an ache about what is happening in the world is an important experience. Our sense of empathy is critical to morality. So that which sincerely troubles us is worth exploring. But we have to know ourselves well enough to understand the nature of our emotional responses, understanding how the body's stored memories may be holding us back from new perspective, and that we might even get addicted to the rush of feeling defensive about a cause. Claiming victimhood can also give us a sense of power; to be "wronged" and to blame makes us feel higher, safer. It is a false feeling.
Emotional intelligence, which can be practiced by anyone, shows us that even it we get a serotonin dose when we act as victims, that doesn't mean that acting as victims is in our best interest. We have to be aware of our physiological and emotional responses to our life contexts, and be critical at the same time that we are open.
When a moral stance is encouraged as a means to fulfill an agenda, we can call that manipulation. Emotion and logic may be used to influence others to support a cause that benefits a chosen entity. In this case, "morality" is weaponized. Its attractiveness and supposed nobility are instrumentalized to influence action that suits somebody's agenda. Attachments are definitely involved. Over and over again I observe people fighting over an issue, and find that the issue itself has been stripped of its substance and become nothing more than fuel for an ego-battle. Over and over again we have witnessed the weaponization of morality by world leaders. And we have seen the horrors that unfold from there.
Inquiring into morality
We can inquire into our own values by inviting emotional, physical, and intellectual sensibilities into our assessments of right and wrong, and by being open to reassessing again and again. Emotional intelligence, body awareness, and logical inquires can help us understand what is at hand. However, no matter how disciplined we are with these inquiries, there is no certainty that they will guide us to moral rightness. How could they, if moral rightness simply isn't absolute?
The deeper we dive into morality, the clearer it becomes that morality is anything but clear. Morality will never be finalized in a neat set of laws, because there are unanswerable questions that riddle every moral problem. The desire for moral goodness is simply part of our ongoing human challenge to be self-aware, discerning, and intentional participants in the shaping of our world.
We can at best seek to identify incomplete or insincere moral stances by acknowledging the gaps and contradictions that fall between our choices. The sentiment "Maybe I am wrong" could prevent a great deal of suffering. Morality brings a tension to life that offers us a good reason to be engaged with our own actions. Perhaps it is not the answers, but the questions themselves that can most effectively lead us to do the right thing.
But are we so lost in the grey areas of morality? Maybe I am wrong. One of the most profound quotes I have ever come across was by a Matriarch of a remote island community in Micronesia. I was supporting a conservation project and had the opportunity to learn and share some local perspectives from the island. Translated from Palauan, Ungilreng Takawo said,
"We all know what is good and what is not. We choose to believe otherwise because of greed and ignorance."
Photo: Tim Evanson
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!
Part 2 in the Connection vs Attachment series.
This post honestly explores natural feelings of insecurity and jealousy, and walks through the thickets of attachments into the clearing of connection.
Ever bristled when you see your partner talking with an attractive stranger? Become tense at the the thought of their one-on-one time with their long-time friend of the opposite sex? Everyone gets like this at least to some extent. It's okay, it's natural, and it's a really good entry point for inner inquiry.
I admit it. Sometimes I find the idea in my head that I want to be *super* special to someone. That we could share a closeness and a tunnel vision-unbreakable-time and reality-bending love for each other, a connection intricate and strong, like the love of Albatross, the world's only truly monogamous animal (they choose their mate based on who can perfectly mimic their intricate courting dance). I find myself wishing that for someone, I were the one and only woman they could possibly have feelings for.
Cue the question: "Is this connection or attachment?" Do I really want that in real life? Is it possible that its appeal fades once outside the pristine realm of my imagination? And could it be that I concocted this idea because I actually deeply fear the grief of betrayal, or the potential shame and anguish of feeling I'm no longer loved? Is it a reach for a sense of power? Could it be that actually I just want to protect myself from being hurt? And could it be that idealistic notions about love hold us back from enjoying the beauty and authenticity of the imperfect, nuanced love that happens between intrinsically flawed and not exactly monogamous-by-nature humans?
Everyone is vulnerable to the fantasies, anxieties, and attachments that come with loving someone. The fear of being hurt can and often does hold us back from something deeper and can even end relationships. But really, no expression of love, whether small or vast, is comparable to another in the first place. Love is not relative. It is unique and it upholds itself. Love is not compromised by other expressions of love. The question that sometimes arises about whose love is more special than whose is constructed by our insecurities and is an unsound foundation for any relationship.
I'd always say after a breakup, "But nobody is like them. I can never love like that again." It was true, and it was also eventually followed by me falling in love with someone else. See, I couldn't love quite like that again--because that person was unique and our relationship was unique. The precious moments could never be repeated. And the next love would have its particular qualities and its precious exchanges. Does new love invalidate the love I felt before? Not at all. Does past love dilute my present love? Not at all. It's sort of like how my love for one singer's voice does not take away from my love for another singer's voice. How could it?
Only when our insecurities and attachments get involved does a past relationship damage a present love. For example, if a person dangles a past "love" in front of their present partner as a proclamation of desirability and a way to trigger jealousy. When this happens the person trying to make their partner see their desirability and worth is not truly drawing from past love to enhance their power--they are simply winding the chains of their present attachments around themself and dragging their partner in. If you find yourself in any way trying to make your partner feel inferior, or as though they have competition, stop for a second. Will this serve your relationship? This tendency is common. Humans get weird around love and self-protection, because we are so scared of getting hurt or let down. When we reach for our weapons and chains, we wind up burdened with attachments rather than lightened and deepened by connections. Then, even if we are in a relationship, we feel alone.
Attachments make a mess of things. Connection, handled with care and sincerity, need not stir up trouble, though it often does when it is met with attachments. Something to remind ourselves is that love is not the exception. Love is the rule. Some people take it *very* personally when someone is attracted to them, and think "I am the special one." You are not, haha. That person could have a loving, successful relationship with many different people. When we open to others sincerely, share experiences together, and become intimate, of course love arise, in one form or another. We can't expect to be the "one and only" or to have some kind of magical "albatross love" because we're human. It is the deciding to be with one person despite other existing or potential meaningful connections that makes a relationship significant. Human commitment requires sacrifices, and we have to decide for ourselves if those sacrifices are worthwhile.
Every connection is unique, and like love, upholds itself through its specific qualities. We get insecure when we discover that our partner is getting something from someone that they aren't getting from us, whether that's emotional resonance, intellectual stimulation, play, growth, etc. But aren't these beautiful things? Don't you wish for your partner to be happy and well? One person cannot and should not offer everything to their partner. One connection does not undermine other connections.
Connection is not a limited resource. Time? Energy? Yes--those are limited resources that we offer first to the ones we have found ourselves in love with or committed to. These are worth disputing. But connection itself is not threatened by other connections. If another person makes our partner feel whole, inspired, or cared for, our partner is going to be in better shape to offer us what we need too. A foundation of trust and communication helps us make way for connection.
Even if your partner connects beautifully and sincerely with someone else and decides to leave you--it either means something wasn't working in your relationship, or something simply clicked better between them. If it's sincere love, it's best to let your partner leave you and let that happen, even if it devastates you. If they are chasing after attachments, you're better off letting that person run off anyway--they will probably just do this again and again, making a mess of things by mistaking attachment for connection.
Every partnership requires its own ongoing discussion of terms and boundaries. We're all nuanced, imperfect, conflicted, and multi-dimensional. But if we are really open, honest, and trusting with our partners, understandings over matters like friends of the opposite sex and exes only bring us so much closer together--plus, its not just fulfilling and connective to give and receive respect and trust, it's also sexy. And don't we all want that? ;)
Most of all, though many of us have forgotten: we all want to feel genuinely loved, and love can take a wide wide variety of forms. It doesn't need to be forced to be a certain way--can't we just accept it as it comes?
Photo: Wandering Albatross by Ed Dunens
A series about connection vs attachment.
Part 1: Is this connection or Attachment?
Part 2: Love & Jealousy: Connection or Attachment?
Part 3: Morality: Connection or Attachment?
Part 4: Possessiveness of Connection
Part 5: Fear of Connection
Part 6: What to do With Your Attachments
Author's note: I didn't write this because I think you don't know the difference between connection and attachment. I wrote this because even though we all have a sense of this, it can be difficult to grasp, make sense of, or put into words. I've taken the time to outline this topic because that kind of thing is fun and interesting to me, and I hope that this post can serve as a reference point for any one of us to turn to (I know I will), to be reminded, to support clear thinking, and to bring some structure to the mind when it becomes wound up in itself.
You know that state you get into within your mind that feels very push-and-pull? Or like spinning wheels cycling anxiously with no sign of a solution emerging?
One of the worthwhile questions I ask when I find myself caught in an inner struggle about something or someone is, "Is this connection or attachment?"
This question is clarifying because it helps us make an important distinction. In literal, physical terms, "connection" and "attachment" may be interchangeable. But in personal, emotional contexts, they are definitely distinguishable. Discerning them is an art, requiring inner listening and experience, but once we begin to make that inquiry, it's not so difficult--and we get better at it with practice.
Connection feels mutual and meaningful (even if it isn't entirely positive), and feels like an authentic exchange. On the other hand, attachment comes with feelings of resistance, fear, self-interest, and insecurity, and it tends to feel more tense and isolating. Connection happens when we relate to something or someone as they are in the moment. Attachment happens when we relate to something or someone with an idea of how we want it or them to be. Connection brings us closer, regardless of physical distance; attachment drives us apart, regardless of proximity.
You can feel a connection with a place that you have experienced a meaningful moment in. You can connect with a person over shared fears, or dreams, or humor. You can feel connected with yourself--attuned to what's taking place physically, intellectually, creatively, and emotionally. You can feel connected with songs that resonate with you, foods that remind you of loved ones, and you can connect with living beings wildly different from you, recognizing your shared ephemeral time on this planet. The possibilities for connection are diverse and probably limitless.
True connection is not threatened by other connections. For example, if you have a connection with someone, it is not diminished if many other people have a connection with them too. It is not relative. It is unique and it upholds itself. Like love.
Attachment feels narrow and tense. It comes with an anxiety about wanting things to be a certain way. Attachment triggers our neuroses, makes us feel a need to self-protect, and shuts down optimistic and trusting outlooks. It often has to do with the urge to protect our image of ourselves. And it often drives us to grasp for power, to control, and diverts us from forming a truly healthy, inspiring relationship. It is relative--it begs for comparison and hierarchy. Like jealousy.
So when I'm getting worked up about something, the question "is this connection or attachment?" usually immediately softens me, as I realize, "ah--attachment." The beauty of attachment is that it begins to dissolve when we recognize it for what it is. We realize that the cause of our suffering is not the subject we are concerned about, but rather our relationship to it. This is liberative--it means that I don't necessarily have to change my external reality or others' minds. I just have to adjust my perspective. And maybe that isn't exactly EASY, but its entirely possible. Our perspectives and relationships are always subject to change.
Connection is flexible and spacious. It allows for time and distance to grow between subjects without altering the fundamental elements that draw them together. Connection is patient; we can be apart from something, someplace, or someone for a long time, return to them very changed, and still touch into something familiar, something shared.
We can bring this concept to a great variety of contexts. When a commercial comes on selling a product to improve your body--is the seller playing into your attachments to make money off you? Or is this a sincere gesture to support your connection with yourself? When your partner asks you not to spend time with a friend of the opposite sex, is that an expression of their connection with you? Or their attachment? When you seek companionship with someone out of a craving for validation, does that affect your connection with them? I'm not suggesting an answer one way or another to any of these. Good followup questions to clarify these, are, simply: are you present? and is this interaction oriented toward mutual good and understanding?
Of course, when the question involves another person, connection is very much a two-way street. Even if you are sincere, trusting, and well-intentioned, you may make little impression on the other person. The potential bridge between you needs to be constructed from both ends.
The point is not necessarily to let go of all attachments--and don't worry if it's SUPER HARD or impossible to face up to some of them. You're human, I'm guessing. Don't be hard on yourself or take it to mean you are a bad person. But identifying our attachments can spare us a good deal of struggle and wasted energy, and free us to refocus on genuine connection. Connection with others is easier when we establish and cultivate it with ourselves. So perhaps next time you find yourself upset about something, or feel caught up in cycles of the mind, maybe ask this question, and see what happens next.
Photo: Oliver Dunkley
Click play to listen to this blog post (8.5 minutes).
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
I have just published a 5-day online minimalist meditation program. Simple, clear, and grounding. This track, the first in the program, is just under 10 minutes. Have a listen!
Intro to Meditation - Inner Listening
Pair of wolves. Credit: Tambako
Note: I have made this blog post an experiment in mixed media. For quotes from the book I refer to, I have included an audio option. What do you think?
If we can bring ourselves to watch and listen, the natural world can be a profound teacher.
I'd driven hundreds of miles to the Inyo National Forest to visit with ancient trees in hopes of reaching some inner insight and healing for an unsettled heart. But to be perfectly honest, my walk through the trees did not provide the transformative experience I was hoping for. Well, insight rarely comes from the place you expect it to.
A single light in the vast nighttime Inyo landscape shone from a dirt road hilltop, where I was snuggled into my hatchback with my headlamp, immersing in the lives of wolves in the book "Beyond Words" written by conservationist Carl Safina. This book entails explorations of animals' lives. Safina spends time with individuals who have spent day after day, year after year watching the same population of animals (elephants, wolves, whales, and more), and he shares the insights they have gathered over years of patient observation. When I was introduced to Twenty-one, a wild Yellowstone male wolf, I suddenly came into contact with values that had faded from sight over the course of a series of confusing life events. Twenty-one reminded me of the qualities I wanted to be looking for in others:
"Wolves are like this: the alpha male might be a major player in the kill, then go and sleep until everyone is full. 'The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf,' Rick says, 'is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance. You know what you want to do; you want what's best for the pack. You're very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect. Point is, alpha males are surprisingly nonaggressive, because they don't need to be'" (156, Safina).
Twenty-one lived a violent life, but he did not engage in violence that wasn't necessary to defend himself and his pack, and he never took it farther than he needed to:
"Twenty-one distinguished himself doubly. He never lost a fight. And he never killed any defeated opponent."
Twenty-one represented qualities of strength, power, and independence, but these were balanced by generosity, responsibility, playfulness, and compassion.
"One of Twenty-one's favorite things was to wrestle with little pups. 'And what he really loved to do,' Rick adds, 'was to pretend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.' Here was this great big male wolf. And he'd let some little wolf jump on him and bite his fur. 'He'd just fall on his back with his paws in the air,' Rick half-mimes. 'And the triumphant-looking little one would be standing over him with his tail wagging. The ability to pretend,' Rick adds, 'shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence. I'm sure the pups knew what was going on, but it was a way for them to learn how it feels to conquer something much bigger than you. And that kind of confidence is what wolves need every day of their hunting lives.'"
Feeling my admiration for Twenty-one grow with every turn of the page, I understood that this wolf, this wild animal, was showing me the important fundamental traits to look for in a mate. As a single woman in my mid-twenties, these passages felt empowering; my past relationships had failed and I wasn't looking to have many more failures before committing for life. Having a clearer sense of the qualities to look out for (in humans!) has given me greater confidence. To my delight, as I continued reading, the wolves continued teaching.
Cinderella was a female a wolf who lived under the abusive reign of her sister. One day, Cinderella organized an uprising against their leader, and in turn, she became the matriarch of her pack. After a lifetime of being abused, she became a skillful and kind alpha wolf:
"'Cinderella was the finest kind of alpha female,' Rick Mcintyre says. 'Cooperative, returning favors by sharing with the other adult females, inviting her sisters to bring her pups together with her own while also raising her vanquished sister's pups--. She set a policy of acceptance and cohesion that allowed the Druids to swell into the largest wolf pack ever recorded.' She was,' Rick says, 'perfect for helping everyone get along really well'" (Safina, 159).
Like Twenty-one, Cinderella had no taste for needless violence. She selectively engaged violence to support the total pack in safety and connection. This is no small feat. She had to have the trust of her pack to not only take down the leader, but to also take her place. She had to take a deadly risk to create a better world for herself and the pack. Cinderella's courage, compassion, generosity, and commitment to her pack make her so easy to admire. But it's particularly helpful to us as humans that she is not human. It's helpful to contemplate female leadership and motherhood outside their heavily stereotyped and judgment-burdened human contexts. The way Cinderella skillfully played the role of leader and mother was inspiring, and refreshingly easy to accept and respect. The clear distinctions between us and them do not have to be alienating. In fact, thanks to our differences, I discovered connection with the wolves I hadn't even met.
A careful look at value-formation
Humans, like wolves, are social creatures. We look to the dominant individuals in our families and societies to form our values. But, as with wolves, sometimes human leaders are not good role models. Today, humans face the challenge of being surrounded by thousands of voices of "authority," ranging from within our friend and family groups to our world leaders. These "leaders" make value claims through their actions and words, and often we internalize this subconsciously. Eager to please the alphas around us, we may modify our behaviors, or in an effort to be accepted in the "pack," we might automatically identify with the values professed by the "alpha." I, and most of us, have personally been in a variety of social circles, in a variety of positions of influence, with diverse values, some of which included:
Not being "heady"
Having a strong work ethic
Being laid back
Living with passion
Being a daredevil
Caring about money
Not caring about money
And we may find that we and others around us end up spending a lot of time and energy trying to please the people who happen to be around us so that we feel accepted. But what if in our desire to be socially embraced we turn on our true values? And how would we feel if our "leader" suddenly changed their mind and voiced a new opinion that matched how we had actually felt all along but pretended otherwise? Which of these are our true values, and which do we just try to fulfill to achieve the approval of others?
If we don't define our own values, we get sucked in to others' value systems and deny the legitimacy of our own experience and knowledge. We act as though we have not seen and learned enough in life to set a standard for how we want to live, and waste time trying to impress people that we don't actually look up to but whose praise we seek. Then we end up with a fractured, confused, and insincere society. Do you want to live in someone else's world? What about your own? What if everyone were taking their cues from you? What influence would you choose to make?
I was always able to see value in just about all the lifestyles I came across, and I could also see drawbacks, consequences, and trade-offs. Which meant: I often felt a bit confused. Periodically, I would have powerful personal experiences that became important reference points for what I think is important. But still, we are not immune to social influence.
Perhaps this is why it helps to step outside human circles to study values. Within the passages about the wolves I was finding some welcome breathing room from values attached to human agendas; I was able to explore values for what they stand for rather than for who they were connected to. To observe values of loyalty and love and vigor and kindness woven across trails and woods and hunting excursions and playtime and rest was refreshing. Between the shimmers of Twenty-one's silver fur, the flashes of his teeth, and his playful spirit, I discovered the patience, strength, and self-assuredness I was looking for in a human partner. I came to a better understanding that I didn't need to compromise, and I didn't need to feel inadequate when someone who didn't even portray these values rejected me. Through the story arc of Cinderella's rise to compassionate leadership, I found a beautiful example of the integration of strength and nurturing that I strive to embody.
Can humans consider these wolves a reference point for our value systems? Is it so unreasonable? Any time I am unsure about a decision, I can think to these wolves, whose actions speak for themselves. What would the admirable alpha female wolf do in this challenging situation? Because I would love to be like her. What would the admirable alpha male wolf do? Because when the alpha male human in my current social circle is doing the opposite, I don't have to fall for it, and maybe I can even find the courage to stand up to him if I can think of Twenty-one's dignified and inclusive ways, and Cinderella's act of bravery that was committed in the name of a safer, happier, more inclusive and loving group.
The point I am trying to make is not to arrive at a fixed set of values that are never influenced by others, but rather to clarify the core of our value system and through experience, develop intellectual and emotional reasoning for that foundation of ethics that do not have to do with another person's proclaimed authority. Having a strong and clear sense of what is fundamentally important to us in the big picture of our world and lives helps us to navigated the details and to understand when it makes sense to deviate, experiment, revise, and update our values based on new experiences. This approach helps us to neither be rigid nor overly impressionable. We are shapers, but we are also shaped, just like a river being directed by the land at the very same moment it makes its impression.
Within the wolves' stories, devoid of the snags of confusing and contradictory human opinions and agendas, the values are so clear. I recognize that these wolves, like us, are complicated. We are not sensitive to them enough to recognize all their nuanced inner conflicts and perspectives. But what we can see in them is something we can learn from. Their lives carry messages that give us pause, help us reflect honestly upon ourselves, and equip us with the courage to step forward with confidence and make our impression on the world through our actions.
I drove hundreds of miles to learn from ancient trees only to discover the wisdom of wolves that roamed the pages of the book that was with me the entire drive. And of course...what we need is already with us, and in our heart of hearts, we already know what we really care about.