Mind Over Matter?

Mind over Matter?  Yes, it’s true!
but Matter matters too…

Now friend let me tell you true.

If you want your Mind to matter,
best Mind your Matter too.

Over time I become increasingly aware that the “negative” manifestations in our lives are due if not mostly, then significantly to the wellbeing of our physical bodies.  Let me explain…

No matter the final outcome or next steps on our spiritual journey, our lifetime is contained within our body.  This makes us human, a member of the Animal Kingdom here on Earth.  Like most animals, humans need need air, water, food, shelter, sunshine, sanitation, sleep, and touch to survive.  To thrive we all need a sense of belonging and purpose.

elephants

When these essentials are met, good health usually ensues.  Of course some people are not so lucky and despite their best efforts have experienced poor health.  These folks can verify the importance of health on their ability to contribute their best to society.  We will all experience this firsthand as we age beyond our prime.

In my coaching practice I focus on “Aging Gracefully” and keeping your “Prime” a moving target.  I might suggest that these are accomplished by focusing on your physical well-being.  Let me ask you the reader, when are you at your best?  Or I you’re a half-empty type… when are you at your worst?

My worst was always the day after partying.  Hangovers from too much alcohol, poor quality foods, and little sleep left me feeling “worthless”.  I could provide no value to society other than trying to live to fight another day.

[side note: those dealing with health issues often feel worthless or a “burden”.  i would like to say that it’s important to consider your personal responsibility versus being part of the natural flow of life. in both cases you have great value to contribute. without sickness and death we would not know how much we care for others and love life. without struggle we wouldn’t grow.]

Now back to the matter at hand, our matter.  As a conscious (decision-making) animal here on Earth we are subject to Internal (self) and External (other) influences.  External factors are largely outside of our control, like access to clean water for those in developing nations or Flint, MI for example.  Internal factors are largely within one’s control like diet and exercise for example.  As we examine the following list it’s important to recognize that while it’s true the higher one’s consciousness the greater their influence on many External factors, many remain difficult to overcome due to institutional normalization.

Here’s the list again of those essential components to sustaining our matter (ie. survival):

1. Air – Those living in polluted areas have one advantage, epigenetics, the adaptation of genes to one’s environment.  For example, a “smog” gene has showed up in people living in parts of LA.  Regardless of the environment, you’ll want to optimize your breathing.  That starts (like so many things) with becoming aware of your breath in the first place.  For many of us it’s an involuntary body process outside of our control.  Those that have harnessed the power of the breath will demonstrate strength, endurance, vitality, and usually have “found their voice”.  The last one is that bridge from body to mind/spirit as we take it both literally and figuratively.

2. Water – The human body cannot survive long without water and is mostly (~60%) made up of it.  As we are discussing mind-body, it’s good to note that the brain in particular is responsive to a lack of water as it’s around 75% H20.  Outside of external factors (like poor access to clean water) not drinking enough is one side of the Internal equation, whereas not absorbing / retaining is the other.  Too often stimulants (coffee, soda, alcohol) are replacing water leading to the overheating the body and causing excessive elimination that dehydrates the body.

3. Food – This is really about nutrients.  Similar to water, our ability to metabolize is as important as our access to nutrient rich foods.  There’s a ton of debate of what constitutes good food and how to incorporate supplements and I’m not going there!  I will say that the closer to nature the better.  Start with whole foods, preferably organic, in a diet that is plant-based (vs. animal) as the benefits have become an undeniable truth.

4. Shelter – It’s hard to be your best without a safe space to both call home and convene with family and friends.  Practically speaking we must have protection from the elements and a place to store supplies, prepare food, and sleep.  Beyond that, we do not need gigantic estates nor the latest gadgets.

5. Sunshine – Often overlooked is the Sun’s impact on our health.  The darker the skin and further from the equator, the more natural sunlight your body needs.  Without it key vitamins including VitD and Melatonin are missing.  Additionally, the use of artificial lighting throws off our body’s natural systems of wake and sleep.

6. Sanitation – Soap was one of the most remarkable inventions and still today remains the #1 most effective means of sanitation.  Prior to knowing the importance of good sanitation, the medical profession suspected demons and evil spirits.  Good sanitation does not mean over-sanitation with the likes of bleach and anti-bacteria soaps.  Instead these weaken us, while strengthening the pathogens.  Getting dirty is proven to improve your immune system.

7. Sleep – The human body needs sleep. Some more than others and the needs vary over one’s lifetime.  It is true that most American’s don’t sleep enough and the reasons are pretty obvious… imbalance of stress producers vs. reducers along with improper lifestyle including staying up way past dark and over-exposure to artificial light/sound.

8. Touch – Turns out physical contact is essential to our survival, especially for the young.  It activates the “love/empathy” hormone called oxytocin.  Isn’t it amazing that our lifeforce drains without touch, which suggests to me that without love and empathy there is no reason for life.  How much touch do you get everyday?

The unfortunate reality is that External factors have caused way too many people to be deficient in one or more of these categories.  The other truth is that if you are low in one, you’re likely low in several others.  It’s a vicious (downward spiraling) cycle.  While under-served / low-income populations are more likely to experience these as External factors, I might suggest that highly-served / upper-income populations are more likely to slip through the cracks Internally due to negligence rather than circumstance.

I recommend paying more attention to these simple components that sustain life and take note where you feel deficient or off-target.  Your awareness and conscious recognition can set the wheels of change in motion.

adam-yoga2

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Shame on you, Pride.

Pride is an elated feeling of accomplishment that is too often a total load of crap!  Pride tells us that it was our superior (fill-in-the-blank) that led to whatever victory we lay claim.  Whether it be the winning shot in the big game; an A on the big test; a boat load of money on a great stock pick; a super hot wife; a uber talented kid; a published novel; a scientific discovery; an intuition that turns out to be true; an essay that got us into college; an interview that landed a great job; a winning hand in poker; a funny joke; a poetic rhyme; a well said obituary; a winning debate; winning an election; a poignant documentary; a blockbuster hit; a great idea; a very expensive bottle of wine; recovery from addiction; overcoming abuse; tight abs; a great sense of fashion; a TKO in the ring; an Olympic gold medal; a great smile; a guilty verdict; a kind heart; a courageous spirit; a good work ethic; a high IQ; a spiritual practice; a generous soul — all of which give us a feeling of pride, that something we can be proud of and hang our hat on when the day is done.

One of the problems with this feeling is that it is not ours alone.  We didn’t do these things without the help of our teammates, coaches, teachers, mentors, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, spouses, children, friends, communities, books, internet, opponents, supporters, doctors, lawyers, therapists, doubters, jerks, haters, and just about everyone that we’ve come into contact with since our conception.  And that’s just the people.  We must also include all the things, ideas, environments, histories, timing and other intangibles innumerable to mention.  And that’s not all.  The web of life connects all sentient and non-sentient forms and we must share credit with the food that gives sustenance, the water that nourishes, the fire that warms, the light that shines, and the darkness that deepens.  So too must we share with death that lurks and desire that originates.  Where does the shared credit end?  Who or what did we forget to thank?

Pride tells us that it was me/I that did this, and thus the ego is born and grows into a man.  Why is it so important, this feeling of pride?  It leads us to feel separate and superior to others.  With such feelings, it is understandable then that I can act upon the Earth and all its various lifeforms with such disrespect as they are inferior to me.  Due to the human brain it is easy to separate ourselves from other earthly creatures, big and small.  We have superior intellect and have proven ourselves worthy of the top of the food chain.  But it doesn’t stop there. We have even convinced ourselves that we are superior to nature in our ability to erect skyscrapers capable of withstanding hurricane winds, canals to water our fields, bulldozers to topple forests, farms to feed the masses, medicines to save lives, and spaceships to fly to the moon.  Still we are not done.  Science has brought the almighty god to his knees through our story of evolution.  Man now proudly stands above all else.  Well, unless there’s a superior alien race out there in the Universe.  I guess there’s still some humility left in the world.

But what separates me from you, human from human?  My fear of being inferior to you leads me to seek my superiority for if I’m not better than I must be worse.  If pride fills me, a lack of pride leaves me feeling very empty.  Therefore I push and prod, scratch and claw to get ahead.  Once there, I stomp and slash to stay there.  King of the mountain is a childhood game.  There is only one king of the mountain and what kid doesn’t wish it was them?  Society seems to be created around these mountains.  Academics, sports, science, politics, business, parenting, and even meditating get thrown into the childish sphere of unnecessary competition to fulfill our ego’s need for attention.  In a world where abundance reigns, scarcity is the only game in town.  Scarcity breeds fear.  Fear of losing out or fear of losing what we had.  Since there is only one king of the mountain, even those who have climbed very far and can see way out on the horizon still want more.  We are always comparing ourselves to others in both an individual sense as well as nation, ethnicity, religion, and culture.  Rather than admit we are not so different from the homeless begging for a meal or the addict looking for a fix or the bankrupted looking for a break; instead we accuse them of being stupid, ignorant, weak, worthless.  Why?  Because it makes our own sense of self feel proud to be above someone else.  Turns out all too often that those who appear above got there by bending the rules, taking advantage of others, being ruthless, cunning, and cheats.  If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying is the motto.  Others who got to the top may have done so based upon their genetics and early childhood development of which they had little control.  Pride too seems evident by the many successes that seem to have a chip on their shoulder trying to prove themselves better than the rest based on some hurt they’ve experienced in the past.

The United States began its ascent by stealing and killing the native peoples and later on the backs of African slaves.  It’s history includes manipulating the world currency, other nation’s sovereignty, and multi-national corporate greed that leaves developing nations much worse than they started.   Here in the US we believe that we are a superior nation with the best government and most productive economy the world has ever seen.  Not too different than the Germans and Japanese prior to WWII.  And throughout history, religion has separated the masses to believe that their god was supreme and their people the chosen ones.  When the truth is revealed, that we are all chosen, war is waged to defend defenseless beliefs.  It is easier to kill the messenger than accept the truth.

What does this tell you about our emotional make-up?  We are a very vulnerable species with emotions that run deeper than our intellect admits.  We a pained by the shame of being less than god and, while we are only human, it appears most of us are unwilling to accept our lot in life.  Humans depend on the ecology for survival.  The humblest of substances, water, is what gives us life on Earth.  The Sun, which is totally out of our control, controls our days and nights.  The wind will blow whether we want it to or not.  The rains fall at the clouds command, despite all our dancing.  The Earth shakes without warning.  We are one of the many life forms here on Earth and our ancestry pales in comparison to the alligator or shark.  Even non-sentient beings like plants have significantly more complex DNA than do humans.  We have our hearts broken, our self-esteem squashed, our importance questioned, our memories erased, our bodies returned, and our legacies forgotten.  In the history of the Earth we are but a speck.  Yet our pride doesn’t allow us to accept these truths.  Our pride insists that we are more than animals, which explains why growing old is even more emotionally painful than physically, and immortality sought by even the wisest of fools.

The Buddha suggests that suffering is the result of wanting things to be different than they are, or a failed acceptance of the truth with lasting attachments to false dreams and unrealistic goals.  No wonder these teachings are still relevant today.  We continue to fight the truth and wish for ourselves to be superior to the cycle of life.  To feel reverence and awe requires a humble being that can be awed by something as small as a seed, as empty as the sky, as insignificant as a rock, or as vulnerable as a human.

Boredom

boredom

Boredom, we’ve all felt it and feel it.  Almost daily I hear my kids complain of boredom.  Clients too and when I look around there’s plenty of visual evidence that boredom afflicts the majority of people at least some of the time.  It’s a state of being that indicates a general lack of interest or lack of interesting things.  Most of the time I think individuals look outside of themselves and blame their boredom on the latter.  Most of the time I think they’re wrong.

If there’s one thing that we have plenty of in modern times are a variety of things to do that are easily accessible to most in the developed world.  Many of those things, as well as countless innovative ideas and actions, came from a place of boredom.  Too many seems bent on treating boredom or drowning it out: TV, video games, spectator sports, recreational drugs, and even anti-depressants have this in common.  And yet, Einstein’s theory of Relativity is the classic example of a remarkable insight that came in a time of apparent dullness.  He was obviously too smart for most common activities and they were or quickly became boring.  This was the stew for his pot of gold as he credits curiosity and imagination with being the primary movers of his lasting legacy.

“The monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” — Albert Einstein: Civilization and Science, October 3, 1933.

Busy-ness is an antidote for boredom.  Problem is, boredom doesn’t require an antidote.  Boredom is the space in between all the doing where we dream, rest, connect, listen, and feel.  Most people in the modern age have silenced boredom with the drone of noisy activities and once these activities cease, the inner noise is felt as a nuisance.

I think we should practice welcoming the boredom, entertaining the mundane, and surrender to the ebb and flow of life… taking notice of everything in and around us, letting our imagination lead us to surreal realities, laughing with the kids, spending time with our partners, playing at work, listening more than we speak, being kind to ourselves, breathing, and to have “no gaining thought” as Shenryu Suzuki proclaims in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

The truth is that the gate is often obscured.  Simple and without embellishments, it escapes our view and mocks our incongruities…  this is boredom in a nutshell.

Speaking of nutshells, when’s the last time you saw one?  For most of us, our edible nuts come pre-packaged and, rather than requiring a skillful crack, one must pop the top and “commence shoveling” as Bart Simpson ‘amens’ after the proverbial grace period.  A nutshell is an amazing piece of work that nature does with such ease.  Yet each nut is unique, a perfect design for what lies inside.  Totally fucking beautiful if we have a moment to spare.  Each tastes totally unique as well if only we stop the shoveling and savor the flavor.

Turns out I’m partial to the cashew.  Not roasted or salted, just raw.  Turns out that’s the healthiest way to enjoy them too.

“I believe that a simple and unassuming life is good for everybody, physically and mentally.”  — Albert Einstein: The World As I See It, 1930.

Why does it take such a brilliant mind to make us aware of the benefits of simplicity and possibilities that exist within an unassuming life?  Why isn’t is apparent to us all?  It seems a pretty obvious conclusion from a bird’s eye view, but we aren’t birds!

My guess is that our feelings of insignificance has led us astray.  In our attempt to be something, we forget that we already are.  Even those striving for Enlightenment have skipped past the reality that they were born enlightened beings blessed with higher consciousness right from the start.  Our parents see this at first glance, but quickly lose sight as the separateness creeps in and they begin labeling and comparing their children as anything other than enlightened.  Certainly it must take years of skillful practice and dedication to reach such platitudes and how quickly the child walks and talks are surely signs of their potential to reach these heights.  As a parent I am guilty of this conditioning that not only fails to see, but also condemns the youngster to never being good enough.  Thus begins the relentless pursuit as the donkey never reaches the carrot.

donkey-carrot

In what ways might you be acting like a donkey?  In what ways are you riding it’s back taunting it toward the edge?  Can you feel the spectre of Death riding you like a donkey?

Life shouldn’t be so cruel.

Might boredom be a blessing and not a curse?

No longer my enemy

You are no longer my enemy.  I’ve never much liked you and honestly believe you are a crazy-mad-mixed-up concoction of irrational fears and motivations. I felt you before I had words to describe you and you fucked with my mind telling me how things should be and making me look foolish to believe otherwise.  I truly despise you, but then again I truly love you.  I love you because you are the gateway to my greatest journey.  Opening to you will open to me.

Seems so unlikely from where I stand, but logic is illogical when it comes to the emotions.  You stand squarely, sterile and white.  Any mark or imperfection so easy to see.  Reminds me of the pee stain on my white sheets at summer camp and the deep shame and superficial cover-up of a young boy’s heart, but this is my apology for considering you an enemy.  You are every bit the victim as I and perhaps you’ve been on my side all along.  Maybe now I’ll start to see it, hear it, and feel it, so that I may know it, learn from it, and love it more fully.

I’m afraid to love you, as I’ve been hurt before.  Now I can see that I can only be hurt if I love.  What a strange paradox!  I suppose the opposite is true, that I can only hurt those that love me.  I think it’s true that you’ve tried to love me.  I’m sorry I haven’t been receptive.  It didn’t feel like love, but I now believe it was and still is love.  Perhaps I can open to a greater sense of what love can feel like.  Perhaps I’m missing half the story.

Loving things that you love is easy.

Loving those you don’t seems impossible.

Nothing’s impossible.

Therefore from this day forward, I declare a cease-fire and wish to secure a peace treaty before my commission expires.  For my part, I promise to love and respect you through not-so-random acts of kindness in the hopes of proving to you that I am no longer your enemy either.  As a friend, I will speak my unabridged truth, listen to yours, take time to communicate most clearly, and stay present to your well-being.  As a lover, I will love you even if you hate me.  I will not run from you nor will I fight.  I will surrender and never give up.

*written to the cue of, “you are no longer my enemy…” offered to us in this writing course: http://course.bayoakomolafe.net/

Slave to the Traffic Light 

“F’n move it mister” I yelled from inside my car, or was it just inside my head?

I was once again running late for a meeting and in need of some mercy from the traffic lights if I was to make it on-time.  I questioned myself for why I hadn’t been ready sooner and allowing myself ample time to arrive without needing to experience the staining of my shirt from the stressful sweat that pours from my armpits.

Since childhood, I’ve sweated profusely anytime I feel stressed which significantly adds to my stress to which anyone with a similar struggle can relate.  I remember hearing my sales manager say, “don’t let ’em see you sweat” as if I had some control over my pores.  Instead, the desire not to sweat led me to sweat that much more.  I noticed over the years that it was especially troublesome at the worst of times so that while I could explain away tardiness due to traffic or meetings overrun, I had no excuse for my stained pits without the heat and humidity bailing me out.  As a kid giving a presentation to the class there was no escape, neither for the teenager on a first date, nor the intern at his first job.  I was cursed.

Funny though how life takes us for a spin, often while sitting idle.  As I grew ever more impatient waiting for the car in front of me to get up to speed so we might make that light, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before.  My body was tense, very tense, with shoulders raised, jaw clenched, and belly tight.  As I became more aware of this tension, I noticed that all of my muscles were contracted and I felt like a hair-raised dog baring my teeth at some imaginary threat.  I was of course very safe inside my vehicle with it’s restraining devices and airbags, idling at the light.

This little epiphany led to many more.  First I noticed that about half of the other drivers appeared late for a meeting or otherwise irritated by the lack of forward momentum like I was.  Then I noticed some drivers that did not seem upset.  I categorized them in two ways: 1. people already “on-the-clock” that were being paid to sit in traffic, which included mostly work crews in their pickup trucks or business people yapping away on their phones, and 2. people “without-a-clock” that included many older people more concerned with a safe journey than a final destination.  With the latter perhaps they gave themselves plenty of time or didn’t need to, which in either case was not my story.

I live in a very busy world.  I awake to the digital chirping of my alarm clock earlier than I would have liked and yet I’m already playing catch-up.  There are emails to answer, kids to attend to, and oh yeah my own cleanliness, nutrition, and attire.  Barely enough time to hug a kid, hear a story, or stretch out for a minute.  Everybody has a schedule to keep and mine is no more remarkable than my pre-teen son’s.  My ability to organize and produce will define my success story in this life.  I feel terrible that it will define his too.

My epiphany drifts back into my car as I see the knuckles on the hands gripping my steering wheel turning white, and as I release their hold they are clammy with sweat.  I grab a paper towel that has a few drippings of butter from this morning’s bagel and wipe my hands with it and then slide it up under my shirt to soak up some of the armpit drainage.  After doing my best I toss the paper towel onto the dash so that it can “sun-dry” and offer me more absorbency further down the road.  Gross.

I wonder how I get to be like this, how we all did?  I remember my mom, always anxious about our on-time arrival and acceptable appearances.  She would become a bit of a monster, yelling at me and my brothers, and especially my father.  I cannot imagine she would choose this, something else did it to her.  Dad was always early to work and late to return, but didn’t seem to be bothered by all this racing around.  He must have thought it petty compared to the responsibility of financially supporting the family and all the big important meetings that happen in conference rooms or behind closed doors.  I remember him quietly laughing at mom’s hysterics and only becoming monstrous when rallying the troops for the football game.  He drove like a lunatic to get there and then debated about leaving early to avoid traffic.  My role models often acted like a addicts looking for a fix.  My profuse sweating made me feel and must have looked much the same.

What was I addicted to?  My dad had this sweaty armpit medication that burned when applied and worked pretty well.  Turns out it was some high content aluminum-based ointment similar but stronger than the over-the-counter anti-perspirants and that much more toxic.  As I learned about the dangers of heavy metals in the blood I chose to sweat instead.  While this medication worked for the symptom, it may have come at a heavy price, and did nothing to resolve the source of the problem.

Sweat is the body’s natural response to stressors.  The most obvious being the physical stress of being too hot and sweat acts to release heat keeping equilibrium or homeostasis.  The less obvious was the source of this heat.  Exercising and physical exertion create lots of heat, as do weather patterns and the sun, but I was in my air conditioned (auto)mobile not exerting myself in the least.  In fact, I didn’t sweat as profusely as some others when working out.  So what was going on in my body?

Turns out that sweat is also a way to connect with others through our body odors.  It’s natural to break a sweat if sexually attracted to and/or wishing to sexually attract others.  No wonder teenagers are so sweaty and smelly!  Once again, I am not sexually attracted to people picking their noses or eating their breakfasts on their way to work.  So what is going on in my body?

My body is responsive to it’s environment and driving is a stressful environment.  You are in control of a large mass moving at rapid speeds and everyone else around you is as well.  Accidents are the norm and you are likely to avoid a few on your daily commute.  That is stressful, but again I’m not sweating this as I’m sitting idle.  Something else is occupying my body.  Something else snuck in, crossed some wires, and changed the lock.

My body was built for a natural world that I was not born into.  I was designed to run, jump, climb, dig, carry and throw in an effort to sustain my life.  I was designed to communicate, cooperate, and collaborate with others to sustain our lives.  I was designed to acquire and share wisdom so that others my survive after my time is up.  I was designed to feel joy and sadness, fulfilment and despair so as to come to know my spirit and the magic of life.

My body was not designed to sit behind a desk, a wheel, or a screen for hours on end.  My body was not designed to make a living, it’s already alive!  My body was not meant to purchase and consume things it does not need.  My body was not designed to eat non-organic foods.  My body was not designed to experience life alone or in constant competition.

The traffic light tells us when to go, slow down, and when to stop.  We are “slaves to the traffic light” as the band Phish brings to harmony.  Why isn’t it a “Go” light, haven’t we all been told to “Stop” enough from our parents, teachers, and societies as whole?

I started thinking about how nice it must be to live in Europe or Asia where rather than Stop Lights they have traffic circles or round-a-bouts where traffic flows in and out vs.stopping and going.  What appears so chaotic from a logistics standpoint turns out to be very humane and reasonable when put into practice.  Amazingly people will slow down as they approach, yield and allow others to merge, and exit without “stepping on it” all at their own accord.  Why did these places choose this system when a grid-like design with on/off buttons is so much easier to design and control?  Or did this system choose them?  Interestingly, as the US introduces more and more round-a-bouts the rest of the world installs more and more traffic lights.  Please don’t follow us, we don’t know where we’re going.  Which brings me back to me…

Where am I going?  It must be really important if I’m so stressed out about it.  Is my ability to “make a living” on the line?  Is my wife giving birth in the back seat?  Is there an anti-Semetic terrorist on the loose?

Our bodies receive inputs from many sources including the 5-sense organs and disseminates these messages with great efficiency through our nervous system.  The nervous system helps stimulate the endocrine system that controls hormones and other internal alchemy to help regulate our lifeforce.  In the face of stress, our heart rates increase, adrenaline is released, the breath becomes shallow and rapid, and blood moves from the organs to the muscles.  This happens whether the threat is real or not and the body trusts the mind to discern these truths from fiction.  This was likely easier to do in more natural times where it was obvious if our lives were in danger from a stalking predator, lack of food, or dangerous elements.  If I’m not being chased, starving, or freezing to death why does my body act as if it is?  It’s as if its been betrayed by our brain which acts as the commander-in-chief of the central nervous system.  It appears that our brains have been commandeered by the systems and cultures of our upbringing and lives.

Culture here in the US is driven by competition and individualism.  We believe in the ideals of self- made, bravery, and innovation above concepts that ring of socialism or worse(!).  We competitively celebrate July 4th, Independence Day with explosions of light and sound louder and brighter than our neighbors and neighboring towns.  We look for ways to lift ourselves even at the expense of others in academics, sports, and professions.  We consume (way) more than we need and are still unsatiated.  We try to accumulate power and aim to control our environment with it.  We are raw ego without a sense of belonging to this Earth or each other.  At the traffic light, we race off the line, speed up when we should slow down, screech to halts, and curse the elderly pedestrian trying to make it across the street.

As much as I wouldn’t and don’t chose this way of being, it has chosen me.  I live in a world filled with stop lights.  They obstruct my flow and I am given very few opportunities to yield to oncoming traffic and offer a bit of kindness to other drivers on my daily commute.  Of course, too much of that makes me look (and feel?) weak and subjects me to being cut-off and honked at.  Maybe stop lights are better equipped to handle our emotions than I thought?

The Tai Chi of Skiing

On any given day at the mountain, I’ll be darned if I’m not having the most fun out there and if you saw me you’d likely agree, however most skiers don’t see me as I spend my days in the steeps, deeps, trees, and in the backcountry 🙂

While I may be ‘going big’ and often times doing ‘top to bottoms’, I work way less for it. Because my parts are in line and I know how to manage the terrain and equipment, it’s only a nudge or shift rather than a pushing or pulling, fighting myself and the mountain. And while I grew up skiing, am a (reasonably) gifted athlete, and workout (fairly) regularly giving me a big advantage out there, it wasn’t until I studied Tai chi [Tai what?] that I became so well versed in what it takes and able to quickly identify what’s off and how to put it back on. I’ve given lots of lessons to all levels of skier.

Good news: These lessons are much the same regardless of your ability. It’s how you may apply them that varies based on your experience and willingness.

More good news: there’s always room for improvement and improving feels good and makes skiing even more fun, as well as easier so you can enjoy more of it.

—–

So long as you’re willing, let’s now examine the art of skiing through the mind’s eye of a tai chi master.

When teaching tai chi, lesson #1 that must often be repeated is to BEND YOUR KNEES. The legs really do all the work and can only function properly with the knees engaged. Bending the knees allows for an up and down movement that presses and releases tension in the skis making them bend and arc. It’s that tension that helps us carve a turn at high speeds, as well as switch from edge to edge with ease.

I encourage students to focus on the up and down movements, and let the skis do the side to side (turns). The human body is designed for vertical (up and down) movements more so than lateral (side to side) or horizontal (forward and back).

Go ahead and try these movements while standing there… Where do you feel the most balance and power? Forward, back, and side to side all throw you off balance and weaken your stance. When moving up and down you should remain stable and powerful, able to jump and land without losing your balance. *Now try to do it with your knees locked and you will get nowhere fast!

When moving up and down, how much bend in your knees is optimal? I think you’ll find that bending beyond 90degrees is not ideal. You are likely most powerful and responsive between 10-60degrees or so.

If when bending down your butt starts sticking out, it’s a sign that your spine is not properly aligned and/or you’re going too low for your ability, losing power along the way. Try keeping your tail tucked and spine in vertical alignment. This will help you find your sweet spot, where you get optimal performance with minimal effort.

Envisioning the ideal skier you will note that the upper body moves very little and remains erect (no bending over at the waist) allowing this vertical or piston-like power throughout the turn.

When you’re in your skis try hopping up and down while stationary on the flats to get warmed and powered up. It’s this movement that will transform your skiing.

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From the 1st lesson, let’s jump ahead to the last. Once the student gains understanding and know-how in this regard, they are prepared to practice on their own to refine and apply the brilliance of tai chi for a lifetime and in all aspects of your physical/active life.

This last lesson shows us how to center our Qi (energy) in the “dantian” where we say ‘all movement should originate and return to’. The dantian is known as our energetic AND anatomical center located a couple inches below the belly button and a couple inches deep. This place acts as our center of gravity and by focusing on the positioning of the lower belly we can most optimally align our whole body. Once found we can adjust and move our whole body much more efficiently and fully.

To find your dantian, press into your belly just below the umbilicus with 1 or 2 fingers to find the soft or “empty” point. Find it? Now press out your lower abdomen and push your fingers out of the hole. You’ve just filled and engaged your dantian. When you did that an interesting thing likely happened, your whole lower torso filled up or expanded creating a even more full center of gravity, improving balance and power.

Try it again and this time place your other hand over your lower back. Feel it expanding? That expansion is energizing your “gate of fire” giving you extra stamina and courage that will no doubt serve you well on and off the mountain.

Since this post is about tai chi’ing your skiing, let’s return our focus to getting you down the mountain in the most effective way. In skiing we speak of the “fall line” as the direction going most downhill versus across or angled. The fall line helps give you a dynamic turn by maximizing the centrifugal force between ski and snow. Challenge is that this direction is constantly changing based on the terrain and your chosen path, therefore you can’t really intellectualize it and instead need to feel it. Here’s where the dantian comes in…

We want our center of gravity to be in the direction we are heading and may accomplish this by projecting a beam of light from our dantian toward our destination. Incredibly, the rest of the body will come into alignment almost automatically, especially for an advanced skier.

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Focusing on your lower belly gets you out of your head and into your body. The feeling of a full dantian with it’s centering and energizing effects is no small thing as countless masters of mind-body disciples will confirm. While the steps to get there are simple enough, there are usually many obstructions along the way. To keep things simple, I recommend focusing on posture and breath.

Posture first relates to the spine. We want it elongated rather than compressed. Compression leads to tightness in muscles and injury to joints. Elongation leads to great flexibility in the muscles and range of motion in the joints. In Tai Chi we imagine a string coming from the heavens lifting us from the top of our head and another dropping to the center of the earth, thus we are suspended between heaven and earth, both grounded and uplifted at the same time.

Breath speaks of a full inhale and exhale that is powered by the lower belly. Too many of us have lost this natural breath due to stressful lives filled with worry, anxiety, and fear. These emotions initiate the flight or fight response pulling resources away from the organs and into the muscles and leaving us very tight and under nourished. The breath oxygenates body tissues and removes toxins leading to all kinds of health benefits and sports enhancements. Let your belly lead both the inhale and exhale. Be sure to relax the muscles of the lower abdomen… Tension obstructs the flow of Qi, much like resistance limits the flow of electricity.

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Good turns (talking about carving turns versus sliding them out) are not about rolling the ski onto its edge, nor moving the hips side-to-side. A good turn is about pressurizing the ski in the right direction with the right intensity. Your challenge is how to stay centered over the skis while pressurizing them to do your bidding.

There’s a lot to learn about the physics of skiing (Weight x Mass x Velocity /Torque x Friction / Direction…) which I will leave for another post. [I did speak about the physics of tai chi here]

Skiing and Tai Chi are best learned by doing. The physics, terrain, and snow conditions are all interesting discussions, but real knowing is doing. By keeping lessons simple it is my hope is to free your mind from thinking and get it into feeling. Feeling requires all the senses. It’s hard to think/speak and feel/listen at the same time. Feeling is like an internal dialogue where you’re doing the listening; whereas thinking is like an internal dialogue where you’re doing all the talking.

Listen/feel your breath and posture, while skiing. Your body (and mind) naturally wants to be in a place of balance and power. Often gaining awareness is all one needs. I leave you with that, and hope to connect our turns soon!

around and around we go…

…where it stops, nobody knows!

In a recent discussion, I was asked about the ups and downs of life.  Here was my response:

We do want to cultivate equanimity, a feeling of acceptance with resolve and without resistance.  The resolve is that everything is perfect without attachment to a specific version of perfection.  The resistance is found in attaching to a particular outcome that leads to stress and unbalanced emotions when expectations are not met.  I believe meditation is the key to dwelling in equanimity, but some teachings are very helpful along the way…

I play a game with the kids called “fortunately, unfortunately” that arose from an old story of a farmer and a horse, sometimes titled, “Who knows?”  The game is best played with an odd number of people as one person starts a story with Fortunately… and then the next picks up with Unfortunately… and next to Fortunately… and around and around we go.  For example:  Fortunately I found a $20 bill on the ground; Unfortunately it was Mexican Pesos; Fortunately I was in Mexico;  Unfortunately…   The game has no end, but stops when our food arrives or whatever.

This game demonstrates that we don’t know the outcome of any given scenario.  The ecology of the situation is too complex.  What appears good can turn out bad (think lottery winner that dies of a heart attack from all the excitement) and often what appears bad turns out good (like relationship troubles that force players to learn and grow).  The only truth about the Universe that we can agree upon is that it’s expanding and I like to interpret that to mean that there’s always another opportunity ahead.  If I hold onto frustration, anxiety, anger, resentment I’ll likely miss some great opportunities.

Changing how we react to situations first requires awareness of how we are currently acting.  After analysis, if we see a better way, we begin practicing until it becomes 2nd nature.  Being well-nourished (sleep, food, love, laughter, purpose) will really help as our minds are definitely affected by our bodies.  But changing how we see the world requires an inner inquiry into our soft-squishy centers that can reveal some painful truths.  Accepting them with resolve and without resistance takes a willingness and vulnerability that is courageous to say the least.

To answer your question about how to greet certain feelings, I would start with validating them.  Call them out and then question them.  Why am I feeling resentment?   What’s so awe-inspiring about this?  How come that just seems normal?  And then practicing non-defensive responses that refuse to run and hide, nor become aggressive.  Luckily, our mind can change in an instant.  Our body may take a little longer…

Earlier I said the the body directly affects the mind, the opposite is also true.  When feeling angry, resentful, or even vulnerable it triggers a stress response that leads us to fight, flight, or freeze.  Once we become aware of the ‘negative’ feeling we can work to replace it with something more helpful.  I search for compassion when angry.  Forgiveness when feeling resent.  Courage when vulnerable.  Right then and there as I become aware of the emotion so it doesn’t linger and soak in.  I can find the more positive response by inquiring deeper into the offender’s motivations as well as my own nature.  Almost always it reveals that the offender is not so offensive, and that my nature could use some enhancements.  In the end, I’m left thanking what originally hurt me.  And around and around we go.