One Choice at a Time

It’s January 3rd, a year in its infancy.  When thinking about resolutions and beginnings, it’s important to remember that these can happen at any time.  While the New Year is our cultural marker to renew, it can also stifle us from making different choices at any point in time and feel like a failure when those resolutions aren’t realized.  For example, I have a love-guilt relationship with yoga and meditation.  I love both and know my practices make me a more thoughtful, authentic, patient, and calm person.  However, somehow, I will go through periods where those practices diminish in time until I’ve forgotten when I last did a down dog or sat on the cushion for five minutes.  I find myself cranky, stressed, stiff, and fairly disgusted with my body.  At these points, it seems monumental to begin again, and every time I’ve set goals such as 30 minutes of yoga practice per day, I fail and feel guilty for not doing something I know is in my (and everyone else’s) best interest.  Throughout my life, though, I have begun to learn the lesson that a single choice makes a difference and many choices collectively make an impact.  Getting up five minutes early to sit in quiet is a simple, easy step.  Five minutes a day for a year is over 30 hours of reflection and sitting in peace.  Wow!

Choices in our lives are made throughout every day and night.  If I think about something as simple as taking a breath before I react negatively with my daughter when frustrated, I can affect the way in which the rest of the afternoon goes.  If I pause before making a snarky comment to my husband about him not doing the dishes, I can avoid a sullen atmosphere the rest of the evening.  If I take the time to compliment my son on his reading skills before he gets on the bus, I can encourage him throughout his school day.  Sometimes, choices aren’t conscious, and we must react because there is no time to do otherwise.  However, if our daily routine involves mindful choices, those reactions are likely to be guided by our habits.

We’ve all heard the quote from Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, found in the Tao Te Ching, but have we really taken it to heart?  The journey of a thousand miles really does begin with one step…and another step, and another step, and another.  I was once on a week-long backpacking trip with my husband, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and two family dogs that went very badly.  Although experienced backpackers, we encountered a great deal of snow and melted runoff for which we were unprepared and later in the week, I was incredibly ill, lost a lot of blood, and was very weak.  I needed to get out of the back country, and the fastest and safest way to help was by me walking with the group.  At one point, I recall stopping, crying, and telling my husband for the first time ever that I couldn’t go any further; the idea of hiking miles to the car seemed like a monumental obstacle.  He looked at me and said, “All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.  Then, do it again.  You can do that.  You’ve been doing that.  Now, move!”  Needless to say, we made it, but it was because he broke down the giant task into what it really took–one step at a time.

I’d like to make this New Year, 2016, about mindful choices.  I don’t have goals, like losing weight, being more patient, or finishing those two articles, although these accomplishments would be great.  Instead, I will focus on daily, incremental steps that make me a happier person and others in my life happier as well though the conscious choices I make. I challenge you to do the same.

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What Are You Looking For?

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It seems to me that (you lived your life like a candle in the wind…wait, where did that come from?)…anyway, stream of consciousness, it seems to me that we’re all looking for something in life.  Perhaps we end up accumulating things–cars, houses, clothes–or we count our “successes”–careers, exotic vacations, retirement plans, but it all boils down to your life is but one moment after another, one breath followed by the next, until it isn’t.

The thing is, we don’t like that.  Are we seriously so inconsequential on Earth that it would continue to exist without our presence?  Now, that’s a very cynical outlook, and I’m not typically that cynical, but the bottom line is that although people who love us would miss us dearly and every action that we make can cause innumerable chain reactions, each person must accept the inevitable impermanence of their own existence and its miniscule bearing on the universe as a whole.  This acceptance stinks worse than a vegetarian dog’s gas.

Rather than accept this fate, we cast about (as my Northern English husband is fond of saying) looking for ways to fill the void and answer the almighty question of what our Purpose (with a capital P) is.  So far, I’ve figured out that I should: graduate from college (not enough), go to grad school (not enough), get a doctorate (not enough), accumulate more certificates and licenses than any sane person should (clue: not…), get married, buy a home, have children, change careers (more than once…anthropologist, teacher, principal, writer, musician, conductor, yoga instructor…might even entertain outdoor wildlife expert and/or non-profit community roots project organizer), and, well, you get the idea.  Every new experience is destined to be THE ONE that will fulfill my hope and dream of making me feel complete.  Unfortunately, what I find is that I will stick with something long enough to somewhat master the skills and knowledge needed to function well enough or obtain some degree of proficiency.  I am comforted by the day-to-day routine; we humans crave ritual!  My life is nice, luxurious by most of the world’s standards.  Then, I realize that I’m bored and what I’m doing won’t fulfill my ultimate Purpose, and try to reconfigure a new direction to sample.

I have decided that a “gap year” is in order.  A sabbatical, if you will.  There is a reason why the Sabbath was observed and has continued to be commonplace within churches and institutions of education–one will eventually go crazy otherwise.  We can disguise it in any way–data collection, field experience, holy fast–but what it means is we need to sort ourselves out and think.  What a concept!  My biggest obstacle is ridiculous–pride.  A sabbatical would mean not working, well, at least not having a 9-to-5 job.  I’m sure I will find work that is meaningful (and likely desperately needed in our family).  However, having grown up in a family of coal mining men and women who did pretty much everything else, as well as sitting on a stack of college degrees, makes me feel very antsy at the notion of not bringing home a weekly paycheck.

On the flip side, on this Ides of March, I am sitting outside writing under an amazing moon with a breeze blowing the palm trees (yes, I’m so sorry to my family in the Midwest right now) looking at the constellations while I write, and I’m thinking, “This world is so incredible and huge. How can I possibly continue to get up and have the same routine every day? I must visit Tanzania, through hike the Appalachian Trail, and twirl prayer wheels!”

I realize that this struggle is central to Buddhism and yogic philosophy and is pretty much core to most religions, but somehow, I’ve still not figured it out.  I’m also incredibly aware that one might interpret this as a crisis plaguing those in their mid-life years, but I assure you that 27 is far too young for that.  (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it until my younger sister’s “age” leapfrogs over mine.)

Enough

Aparigraha, the yogic concept of non-possessiveness, similar to the Christian notion of charity or the opposite of greed, is a struggle for me. If you think about it in a larger sense, non-possessiveness can apply to everything from not buying a pair of shoes that you don’t need to not eating an extra helping of dessert. Having enough or being satisfied with enough is simply not part of the Western cultural mindset. We learn that more is better from media and hope to become “more” than our immigrant forebears (assuming you have them). In many ways, the notion of progress is bound to this constant yearning, and who doesn’t want to make progress? But, if we take a moment to reflect on the abundance of our lives, aparigraha becomes easy. Do I truly own eight pairs of jeans?! Four of which don’t actually wear?! Am I actually hungry for a second helping of spaghetti, or am I eating more to be social at the table? Must I go to a yoga class three times a week, or can I practice at home just as well? The list is endless. Being content with what we have right now is one of the most difficult, but most enlightening, practices that leads to happiness. May you always have enough.