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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?

 

Watching Shul

 

Teddy, the miniature poodle, arrived at around three o’clock last Friday afternoon for his visit with us, with a duffle bag full of wee wee pads and special homemade food, and it was immediately clear that he and Cricket should not be left alone without supervision. So we decided to skip Friday night services at synagogue. I rely on those weekly services, though, for some comfort and sense of community, and we took advantage of the new streaming service that gives us access to Friday night services online. As we were searching for the link in a past email, I realized that, finally, this would be a way for Cricket to “go” to shul.

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Teddy, resting on the couch.

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Cricket’s opinion about Teddy resting on the couch.

 

 

Watching services on the computer is not like going in person, but it was at least a connection, except that I kept worrying that the Rabbi and the Cantor could hear me talking through the computer, as if we were on skype. I’m very good about not talking too much during services, but at home, I’m a blabber mouth.

Teddy and Cricket sat with us on the couch, and we sang along with the Friday night prayers on the lap top. To be honest, the dogs didn’t seem especially interested. Cricket was stretched out on the floor at the foot of the couch, and Teddy was still pacing back and forth, to the front door, where he cried for his Mom, and then back to me at the couch, where he sought some comfort and attention, and then back to the door again.

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“Where’s my Mommy?”

There were a bunch of teenagers at services that night, making faces, reaching around their parents’ backs to tap each other on the shoulder, and waving at friends across the aisle. Watching the congregation do the silent standing prayer (The Amidah) was a medley of fidgeting and whispering.

At some point, I started counting the rows and realized that everyone sitting in the first seven rows in the sanctuary was visible on screen. I usually sit at row six or seven, because I assumed that would be far enough back to be invisible. My self-consciousness immediately kicked in and I started wondering if people have been watching me at services, judging what I wear (a sweater and jeans usually), or my side to side shuckling (I have to shift from foot to foot when my back hurts), or noticing when I scratch my head or look for a tissue in my jacket pocket.

So now I know to sit at least eight rows back, no matter how many times the rabbi asks us to move forward.

The big problem with watching the streaming service, though, was that we couldn’t hear the discussion, or any of the poetry readings, because they were done without microphones. I could see the Rabbi doing his hand gestures, putting one idea or anther on a shelf for later, but I had no idea what he was talking about.

We decided to put the computer away for the night at that point, and see if we could distract Teddy from his grief with a walk outside. But even when we were watching Teddy follow Cricket from pee spot to pee spot, meticulously aiming so that his pee fell on the same exact spot Cricket had just peed on, I was still thinking about the streaming service.

 

The discussions are a big part of what I look forward to in Friday nights. The music makes me happy and comfortable, but the discussions force me to look at issues that I don’t ordinarily think about, because the rabbi reads a lot more newspapers than I do. Inevitably, even in the most unfamiliar areas of discussion, I realize that I have something to add. Something that no one else in the room is going to say. And over the years I have built up my willingness to raise my hand and say what I need to say. I’m worried, though, that now that I know I’m being watched on the computer, with no idea who the watchers are, I might be less willing to raise my hand. Even Cricket would be intimidated by that camera over her shoulder. She’s very outspoken at home, and with people she knows, but, as Teddy’s visit has shown us, she can be as uneasy with strangers as I am, and shut herself down in response.

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“What are you talking about, Mommy? I never shut up.”

Don’t worry. I’ll give a full rundown on Teddy’s visit next week, once I’ve had a chance to figure it all out. It will be a relief to be able to go back to shul in person, and sing and be with my community again, and not have to worry that my two favorite dogs are having a stare down over Cricket’s orthopedic doggy bed, or the last piece of chicken liver in Teddy’s bowl. But I will definitely miss Teddy when he leaves, and Cricket will miss his food.

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“Num num num num num….”

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“Chicken livers?”