Just like me

Just like me but a baby…

When I was a girl and I used to go to my Grandma’s house with my mother, there was a picture on the sideboard of her (me mam) as a girl and she looked just like me. It was so like me, but not me, that I was mesmorised.

Now a mum with daughters, I am mesmorised when I look through old photographs which look just like them but are actually me. I have always liked my face, not least of all because it looks like my mother’s and whenever I look in the mirror, I see her and I am comforted.

One of my Bikram teachers has a thing about looking in the mirror. She is constantly saying things like: It’s hard to look at yourself in the mirror. Perhaps you feel old when you look in the mirror because you are grey and fat. And she says it with such passion and commitment that I find it hard to bear. It stirs all sorts of painful emotions within me.

I am very grey and occasionally fat, and most of the time I am okay with that. I actually like looking in the mirror at myself doing bikram, even when going through a mini Porker-Firth phase, like I did last year after eating all the cookies. I missed my mum and comfort ate my way through grief which created a prosperous roll around my midriff which my girls and I affectionately referred to as my cookie belt. I was okay demonstrating that if I comfort eat I put on weight, and it’s important to listen to our bodies, not our pain, where food is concerned. And, I was okay demonstrating that if I have grey hair, it’s ok embrace it and not dye it and not conform, as my youngest got her first grey hair at seven years old. Equally it is okay to dye it, though it took me long enough to grow mine out which was definitely less torturous than dying it every two weeks.

That said, I don’t know if it was the heat, but whenever my yoga teacher went on about feeling fat and grey and old, it made me want to say and do very un-yogic things even though Pantajali said that the first yama, or rule, of his limbs of yoga was ahimsa, do no harm. Instead, he advised that we act with loving kindness, or what the Buddhists refer to as mitri.

After writing the comfort blog, I asked my eldest if she minded looking like me, – I hadn’t always felt grateful to look like my mother – and this daughter of mine being smart and completely charming, mentioned Kung Fu Panda 3, when Po arrives at the secret Panda village and sees lots of pandas for the first time: You look just like me but a baby. You look just like me, but old. It made us laugh so much that we have been saying such things to each other ever since.

The day I came home from Bikram complaining about my teacher, saying that I just couldn’t believe that someone who practices yoga and teaches yoga daily is still focused on physical appearances, my daughter changed her phrase to : You look like me but old… and fat … and grey, until of course I was helpless with laughter, and that got me thinking: Why did I care so much what this teacher was saying?

I think it is because even though that I have made my decision about my grey hair, and I have shed my cookie belt after my bikram 30 day challenge last month, like my teacher, I still buy into society’s message for women who have grey hair, which is: I am disposable, invisible. This is utter nonsense of course (I stick out a bit with the grey) but the hair dye industry is so invested in selling hair dye to grey haired women that it has to tell us that we would look better with our grey hair covered up.

After all, selling is about making people feel less than, it is about hitting them as low down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as possible. Consequently, it is hard sometimes to keep the grey hair faith, or the Graith, which disappoints me because it bothers me to look in the mirror and feel less than satisfied with my appearance, after everything I have lived through and all the meditation and yoga I do.

And if I am not squirming enough saying that out loud, I think just because that someone is a teacher, then they should have mastery over themselves, and be able to teach me things I cannot teach myself. I am so intolerant. It’s awful, and now I am judging myself as well as judging her which makes me feel less than.

I trained as a yoga teacher, and I have also lectured computing for many years, and one thing I have just come to realise and now know to be truth is that sometimes you have teach something in order to learn it. That is the beauty of teaching and learning, it is a magical exchange of energy. Even when I think I know something pretty well and I am teaching it, there always comes a moment part way through whatever course I am giving that I, the teacher, learn something new because someone in the room has a different experience and a different perspective regardless of their age and experience, hair, weight, lifestyle. Everyone in every part of our lives is a teacher, we just have to be willing to listen. And, this is why I love teaching. We are all in it together teaching and learning with each other, we resonate with a shared passion for computing or yoga or whatever it is that has brought us together.

This energy exchange puts me in mind of Tonglen, the meditation practice of breathing in and out and exchanging fear for love in those moments when life gets unbearable. It was something I started doing after reading buddhist nun Pema Chödrön.

So I was delighted the other day, when I was thinking about my feelings of intolerance and impatience with my yoga teacher, and I happened upon Chödrön’s meditation of equality practice, often simply called Just like me:

The equality practice is simple [..] You think, “Just like me, she wants to be happy; she doesn’t want to suffer.” …it lifts the barrier of indifference to other people’s joy, to their private pain, and to their wonderful uniqueness.

– Pema Chödrön, Tonglen in Daily Life

After a few rounds of just like me, I realised that my yoga teacher is teaching me all manner of things I do not want to teach myself. She echoes the thoughts in my head, the ones I pretend are not there. She really is just like me, only braver.

The truth is, I am not as sorted as I like to pretend I am with my grey hair, nor am I as tolerant and yogic as I like to think. My teacher has the courage to talk about her private pain, well our private pain, which is why her words disturb me, she is just like me, but speaks up, when I keep quiet so that I don’t have to feel that people will think that I am less than. She has shown me that by speaking up, I am not less than because I don’t judge her as less than either, I see her as brave and authentic, and perhaps that’s how people view me or perhaps they don’t, as Deepak Chopra says: What people think of me is none of my business. I need to let go of that thinking altogether.

Lesson learnt – well not quite, but I am looking forward to her next class. I am ready to step into that magical energy exchange of teaching and learning, of yoga and meditation, and come out slightly different at the end, but not too different, after all, she is just like me, but different and I give thanks for that and for everything she has to teach me.

Namaste!

Creating space (2): In daily life

[Part 2 of 5: 1) Bikram 2) Daily Life 3) Authenticity 4) Invasion 5) Pain ]

In creating space, I wrote about what happens to me during yoga and meditation and how I have learnt that on the yoga mat when I am struggling,  I can stop, breathe, and create space to reflect on what to do next, which can actually change what happens next.

Taking it off the mat and into the world

This is starting to happen in real life too. I have learnt that when I am having a conversation with someone either in real time or online, I can do exactly what I do on my yoga mat. If someone says something to me which presses my buttons, or something which is the complete opposite of what I believe, I can breath and give myself a space to reflect on why I am so upset, and then I can be more objective and respond better. I know that nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is about them and not me, they haven’t said it to purposefully upset me, and vice versa, when I respond with anger/fear/hurt and a desire to upset someone it’s about me not them, so there is no need for me to get my yoga pants in a twist in that precise moment.

My repetitive thoughts

It is the same in my meditation practice too. I don’t ever manage to clear my mind, but what I can do is recognise my thoughts as they arrive when I am sitting still. I have a lot of repetitive thoughts on a loop which cause me pain and when I am supposed to be quiet and observe them, they are so strong that I follow those thoughts straight into my mind, out of the quiet space. I hear the old negative self-talk, the he-shouldn’t-have-done-that-to-me series,  and all the others which have crossed my mind so often and are so familiar I am off before I have had time to catch myself, and I can spend a couple of minutes in the same-old-same-old before I come back to meditating. Thankfully now back in my daily life, sometimes I start thinking something which isn’t good for me from that list of familiar thoughts, and I think: Ah ok, I don’t have to think that thought right now, I am doing ok without it. There is a space within in which I am kind to myself and in which I feel free.

Tolerating bad behaviour

Then, there are the patterns. Often, I will tolerate behaviour which bothers me, because instead of just saying: Can you not do that? I don’t like it. I second guess myself and hear all the voices from childhood telling me to stop making a fuss. But the truth is, if someone is doing something that I don’t like, I can ask clearly, it isn’t making a fuss. It is about feeling comfortable with how people behave towards you. If it bothers me then it is important.

So, just last week, I asked someone to stop touching me. This is someone who greets me everyday by kissing me, hugging me, and touching my hair, which in the given specific circumstance, I find over familiar and uncomfortable. I had until the moment I spoke, hoped the person would have noticed that I flinch every time. Did I ask well? Not necessarily, but it was a first step. Did it go down well? No, the person was offended, and immediately walked away, and hasn’t really spoken since, but then that is their right. However, I got what I wanted, someone stopped invading my boundaries and manhandling me. I also stretched myself further and did something I have never done before. Normally, I apologise for saying what I really think or for asking someone to do the right thing in order for me to feel comfortable. This time I took a deep breath and didn’t apologise for wanting what makes me feel comfortable. So, I sat with the discomfort that I spoke honestly and that this person might not speak to me again.

But then, I did the other thing I do when I feel uncomfortable, I had to seek validation for my behaviour. I told someone else what happened, but picked a person who said: You shouldn’t have done that. Now! I knew that person would respond like that and I wouldn’t feel better. So why did I do it? Why? Because, I still don’t listen to myself. Or perhaps I listen to myself – well my thoughts/my ego – too much, and know exactly what to do to back them up.

Spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant says that all the relationships and interactions in our lives reflect us, and how we feel about ourselves. I definitely believe that. I am proof of that.  I went out and asked the exact person who would reflect what I was thinking: I shouldn’t have done that. Even though in that deepest part of me, that most pure, innocent part of my heart, which I access in those moments of space I create, I know  if something bothers me, I am allowed to say: Enough, please treat me better. Regardless of what the other person thinks, if it bothers me, and if they care about me like they say they do, then they won’t do it.

However, this is a recurring pattern, as Iyanla says, and it will play out again and again with the same story but different scenarios, different actors. I will have the chance to learn this lesson again. What I can do is adopt Byron Katie’s approach in the work and say: I look forward to it happening again, so that I can look at it as an opportunity to create that lovely space in which to question it, free myself and feel better, so that I can learn a new pattern of less compromise, less mental chatter, less external validation. I can hardly wait.

Feeding the machine: The embodied human in a social media world

embodiment pic borrowed from http://timelessearth.co/earthproject/

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy… But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.
– Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)

In Saturday’s Guardian, author Jonathan Franzen describes social media as a protection racket and says: Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations… Why would I want to feed that machine?

In contrast, Deepak Chopra defines social media as the extension of our brains, and believes that we are all creating and contributing to the collective unconsciousness, or global brain, every time we Tweet, Facebook, and share online.  He says that our brains restructure themselves according to the information we gain, the habits we have, and our skills.

As an embodied human in a social media world, I believe that both realities are true.

The embodied human

Borrowing embodiment.org.uk ‘s view of the human as an iceberg, we get:

  • The tip of the iceberg is our everyday awareness and the ‘self’ with which we identify.
  • The bit just below the water is our gut feeling.
  • And below that in the unfathomable depths, is the deep body of our subconscious. We only tap into this part with meditation or ritual.

This narrow focus on ‘self’ heightens our subjectivity and because our brain interprets new experiences in light of our past experiences including the context in which they occurred known as embodiment  (situatedness, or social situatedness), we never have a raw experience. All our experiences are subjective.

This realisation has fascinated humans in the domain of phenomenology  for at least a century now. Phenomenology is the study of the structure of experience.   Literally, the study of how we make sense of phenomena.

We live in our minds and with the advent of social media, sociologist Sherry Turkle believes that it is changing us.  Best-selling author and influencer, Jennifer Weiner  in the New York Times, says technology leads to bad behaviour and the dumbing-down of America.  And, so is in agreement with Franzen, her nemesis.  Myself, I am not so sure,  I think social media is reflecting us.  Although I have wondered if computers are making us stupid because when we rely on them, we don’t use our minds so much.  Whereas social media removes us from where we are and as Weiner points out we behave badly – e.g., ignoring others is rude – because all our attention is given to the communication online.

The social human behind social media

Ultimately, we are social animals, so, it is no surprise that we have adopted social media in order to share our thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the things right in front of us with as many people as we can.  However, in the midst of all this sharing,  we are hardwired to fight for our survival and protect ourselves from harm. This is part of our brain is called the amagydala, or our inner lizard.

Maslow sums up this social, yet scared, human being brilliantly in his hierarchy of needs with a pyramid.  At the bottom are the inner lizard concerns:  survival and our physiological needs.  The next level is safety.  And then comes the need to belong to a community or a family because it gives meaning to our lives.  After that comes our esteem need. Humans need to respect themselves and have others respect them in their communities. And lastly comes self-actualization: humans need to realise their potential, and feel fulfilled.

The types of information we share on social media fit exactly into Maslow’s hierarchy,  (Maslow’s hierarchy of social media), and savvy content media marketing types know that the lower down the pyramid their product taps a human need, the more likely they are to make a sale.

This kind of thinking and selling horrifies Franzen which is why he says that he would not want to feed that machine.  And he has a point.  As much as I like Chopra’s idea that we are contributing to the collective unconsciousness, or a big body of knowledge, as originally defined by Jung,  a lot of information that gets posted on line is done not deeply after meditative thought, or after being in touch with the deeply submerged depths of our subconscious.  Often, posting occurs self-consciously or purposefully like the marketers in order to achieve an end result with other people jumping on board.  Franzen’s view then is more mob rule.  When people come together and the individual gets submerged beneath crowd or mob psychology, it can be murder.

The human need to please

As humans we are inherently social animals – we need to belong – but also we are trained from birth to  give people the behaviour they want or the information they prefer.  Dr Caspar Addyman, is researching why we laugh and only uses babies because:  Adults are far too complex. They either tell you what you want to hear or try to second-guess you. But if a baby does something it’s bound to be a genuine response. 

It is hard though to second guess someone and give someone what they want without the social cues you receive in specific situations in society,  when you are just reading text on a screen.  Much communication research has tried to remedy communication with or via a computer: facial recognition, speech recognition,  and even the invention of the emoticon.  We need cues online because our brains contains mirror neurons which enable us to simulate the intentions and feeling behind someone else’s actions in the real world.  Is this even possible online when we lack context? Even robots need bodies to be embodied and situated to have a context within which they can navigate the world.  Indeed context can get you far even if humans don’t speak a language.  As Professor of Sociology Lucy Suchman realised, most interactions in restaurants or supermarkets are scripted and familar because of the context and situation humans find themselves in.  We all know the scripts.

Similarly, social computing recreates the social systems we have at work, in teams, and local communities.  By accessing the information these organisations generate, the online world becomes familiar and more reliable. One simple example is the review system of products on Amazon or Argos. We are social so we take on board other people’s opinions and feedback, especially those people who are influential, and we may make different decisions based on their recommendation.

But how do influencers become influential?  @RStarDinoPirate  set herself a goal to blog once a week until one day she wrote a funny, brilliant blog about sexual consent. It went viral and led her to feel that she had to be a voice because she had a crowd of people listening to her. This responsibility made her feel fatigued and put her off blogging until she remembered why she began blogging in the first place. Hurrah that @RStarDinoPirate  did, otherwise we may have lost her distinct voice and interesting thoughts.

Learning to listen to yourself in the midst of the social media clamour can be difficult for even the most social media savvy people amongst us. Personal growth expert Steve Pavlina gave up social media altogether because he had become aware of how he would take pictures to share, rather than take the pictures that he wanted to take.  It was only then, that he realised, he too, rather like @RStarDinoPirate,  was blogging about things he felt he should blog about rather than what was closest to his heart or bubbling up from his subconscious.

The human being not the human doing

We refer to ourselves as human beings not human doings, but in society, our worth has always been measured by what we do and what we have. Online it is the same.  How many followers do we have?  How many people can we influence? The world is busier and crazier because digital advances have compressed time and space, and we can be online 24/7.  This was summed up beautifully by the advice I got last year at the content marketing show:  You have 15 minutes to create momentum on Twitter, 1 hour on Facebook, latch onto a world event. Aaargh!  Now we have to choose to consciously unplug.  But how do we do that?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine and Mindfulness advises us to: Find your own way, listen to your own heart, longing, yearning.  He says that thinking only takes us so far because this new digital landscape overloads us with facts, not wisdom.  Instead we must paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally.  We must be mindful instead of taking life for granted.

Yogis believe that we hold pain and suppressed emotion in our bodies because we have often not paid attention to ourselves in a mindful way.  I know this to be true, for when I first began yin yoga, I found that each time I sat in Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend (Upavistha Konasana) I would become overwhelmed with anger and irritation.   The hardest thing for me to do was to stay in that position and accept those feelings.    I didn’t want to be there.  I wanted to run away.  In my less enlightened moments I have checked my Facebook whilst in various poses on my yoga mat because let me tell you, three minutes in Upavistha Konasana can feel like an eternity.  With practice, I learnt to accept those feelings until they dissipated and I was left with peace and relief.

We all crave and yearn for a moment of peace and relief outside of time where we allow ourselves to be – a human being not a human doing. Many, like me, turn to social media to find inspiration because meditation and mindful are hard things to do, and hard to sustain.   Kabat-Zinn is very practical and says: Instead of trying to sustain it over a day capture it moment by moment many times, be 100% when you pick up your child, cut the carrots, stir the pot, teach yourself to come back to who you actually are… until life becomes the meditation teacher.

Then and only then should we reach out from that place of peace if we want our social media to be an extension of us – or the wiser deeper parts of us – as Chopra believes.  Otherwise we may just experience a Franzen-frenzy fear of feeding that machine.

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The human body by @WorldandScience