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Mindfulness Practice

 

A few weeks ago, when I ran out of monthly views on my Kanopy and Hoopla accounts (free streaming programs through my local library), I noticed that the Kanopy account allowed unlimited views of the Great Courses programs, beyond my five-views-a-month limit. I needed something to watch while I pushed through my daily thirty to forty-five minutes on the semi-recumbent bike, so I tried to watch a program about Diet and Nutrition, and then something else about Mystery Writing, and a third thing about Art Appreciation. I almost gave up at that point, because I was bored out of my mind, but then I saw that there was a course on Mindfulness. Mindfulness had been described to me as a Western form of meditation (A.K.A less difficult), and a way to help me feel more present in my body, and since one of my forever issues has been a feeling of separateness from my body, I thought I’d give it a try.

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“How could you be separate from your body, Mommy. That’s weird.”

Sometimes I feel like I’m on the ceiling watching my life from above, or I’m hiding in a tiny corner of my body, hunkered down. It’s one in a long line of dissociative trauma responses that I tend to take for granted. It’s a way of saying, so what, my body was attacked, but the real me is fine. But dissociation from the body can become habitual, because the body continues to hold the feelings and memories I’m trying so hard to avoid, and that feeling of separateness can become overwhelming.

I had just started a (very) small yoga practice again, one that carefully avoids over flexibility (because I have Ehlers Danlos – a connective tissue disorder – and can injure myself easily). I could only hold each pose for thirty seconds (at most), but I noticed that this short practice was helping me tolerate being present in my body for short periods of time, especially if I didn’t try to do all of the poses in a row. I thought the mindfulness exercises might be able to help me tolerate the Yoga poses a little bit longer, because I knew I wasn’t up to sitting still for traditional meditation for long periods of time. So I decided to start watching the Mindfulness program. I still felt tense and grumpy, though, and expected to bail out of the course at any moment and just surf YouTube for cartoons in Hebrew, or songs to teach my students.

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“You couldn’t find a video about dogs?”

I do my physical therapy exercises while I’m on the exercise bike, to stretch and strengthen my neck and shoulders, so I was able to focus half of my attention on my physical therapy exercises and only half on what the lady on the screen was saying. Blah blah blah mindfulness, blah blah blah, breathing. I don’t know what finally caught my attention and allowed me to keep watching, even after my physical therapy and breathing exercises were done and there was nothing else to distract me. Maybe it was the way she acknowledged that mindfulness doesn’t solve everything. Or that it’s hard to do and we are all imperfect. Maybe something she said made me remember how I’d felt standing in Mountain Pose for thirty seconds that morning, both antsy that I wasn’t accomplishing anything, and also sort of relieved to be able to stand and balance on my own two feet and not feel like I was about to fall over.

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“Eight feet make it much easier to balance.”

Not every episode of the Mindfulness course was great. I got annoyed when some of the instructors repeated old mantras like, “Always return to the present moment,” or “focus on the now,” as if there’s no legitimacy to focusing on the past, or planning for the future. And that’s nonsense. There’s so much to learn from the past – in fact, the past is where all of the information is. And there’s great value in planning for the future and having a clear idea of what you want and how you hope to behave, because then you can practice and prepare and not just react to what comes at you. And, really, sometimes the present moment just sucks, and there’s no shame in escaping from it in order to focus on something happier, or more productive.

But other instructors were better. And even if I didn’t exactly look forward to my daily half-hour or forty-five minutes with the mindfulness experts, I stuck with it (counting down the days to the end of the month when I would get to start over with five videos on Kanopy and five on Hoopla and not be stuck watching educational crap while I did my daily stint on the exercise bike). Learning how to be kind to myself is freaking hard, and even someone gently offering me the option of spending time with myself, without judging myself, can be healing in itself, but still hard to do.

When the new month started, of course, I went looking for less educational, more fun, shows to watch while I did my daily bike ride, but I found myself wandering back to the unfinished Mindfulness course, watching ten minutes here and fifteen minutes there. I still get tense and grumpy sometimes when I watch an episode, and my yoga practice is still very short, but maybe just the fact that I can stand in Mountain Pose and tolerate a few minutes of feeling present in my body, is a good step forward. And maybe, for now, that’s enough.

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“Probably not.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

A Butterfly Moment

A Butterfly moment

A Butterfly moment

 

Sometimes, especially at night, Butterfly likes to do a walking meditation. She’s not overly energetic by then, or full of poop, and she’s sniffed as much as she’s interested in for the day, so while Cricket drags one of the humans up the sidewalk to sniff the world, Butterfly gently but firmly leads the other human to a quieter place in the yard. She walks slowly and with intention. She listens for the wind and the shaking of the leaves. She sniffs the smells that come to her on the air. She takes this time to unwind and let go of whatever didn’t work out from her day so that she can sleep well and wake up refreshed and ready for a new adventure.

Walking meditations are full of joy

Walking meditations are full of joy

Meanwhile, Cricket is practically flattened to the ground to get better traction as she pulls mightily on the leash. She always wants to go towards the street and the cars and the noise. She wants to make every pee trip into a three mile walk, uphill, into traffic.

Cricket is so strong she pulled me back to the Fall

Cricket is so strong she pulled me back to the Fall

When Cricket returns, Butterfly tries to share her calm with her sister. It’s like a Reiki master who warms her hands to build energy before sending energy to someone else, but Butterfly uses her nose. She breathes in the fresh air, paces herself, rests her mind, and then when she sees that her sister is overwrought, she offers a nose to nose check in, and inevitably, Cricket calms down, somewhat (we can’t work miracles here.)

nose to ear, close enough

nose to ear, close enough

Whereas butt sniffing is about curiosity and checking in, nose to nose sniffing is about sharing breath and offering peace. It’s like when you take the hand of a friend who is grieving or in pain and you offer your energy and warmth and life to the other person, as a bridge.

Butterfly really listens to the birds when we go outside. The birds I recognize (with help from my nature loving mom) are the red breasted Robin, the Cardinal, the Baltimore Oriole, and the cowbird. Mom is not a fan of the cowbird. There were also starlings at some point, and a bird whose feathers were left in a pile, like a quickly discarded coat, white with black polka dots.

Butterfly's indoor birdie friend

Butterfly’s indoor birdie friend

I’m not sure if Butterfly knows the differences between the birds, or gets a sense of what they are singing about, but she listens carefully to all of them, and to the sound of the airplanes overhead, or a bus passing by, or the train stopping at the train station. She’s a connoisseur of different sounds and songs, but she doesn’t sing them herself, She just likes to listen.

I wonder if the extra birds hanging out in the yard this summer have been drawn here by Miss Butterfly. She has such a Zen feeling about her that we now have Robins and starlings sitting on the lawn, having their own Butterfly moments, as if two fluffy dogs are not inches away from them.

Even the white cat with brown patches who used to run up the retaining wall at the sight of a dog, has become more relaxed, watching us walk in her direction, even coming up to our front door, and only running away when the dogs make eye contact with her.

Maybe there’s an ad in a newspaper only animals can read, inviting everyone to our backyard for meditation class, and that’s why Butterfly has been barking more often, impatient to get outside to her students.

Butterfly has the ability to dissociate from her body too. She spent eight years in a puppy mill perfecting this skill, so that nothing happening to her or around her had to penetrate her heart and soul. She does this less now, but it’s been a process. When Cricket tears around the room like a pinball, Butterfly will freeze and her face will go blank, for a moment or two, and then she will come back. When my youngest nephew (or his father) decide to drag Butterfly around by the neck, she lets go of herself for a moment, until it’s over, or until she hears me screaming.

Dissociated Butterfly, waiting fro Cricket to stop barking.

Dissociated Butterfly, waiting for Cricket to stop barking.

This is different from meditation. Dissociation is absence, from the mind or body or self, a way to survive, but meditation is something else, it’s sparkly and kind and full bodied and it lets in noise, but not so much that it’s overwhelming. And Butterfly is mastering meditation in our backyard, and, little by little, teaching it to me.

Butterfly's favorite form of meditation - on food.

Butterfly’s favorite form of meditation – on food.