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To practice mindfulness can be enlightening and freeing, but it can also be equal parts exhausting and humbling.
As a senior yoga and meditation teacher it is part of the practice—to be mindful on and off the mat, to live the work I do, and to be authentic. As such, each week I stand in front of my classes and I share a spiritual theme that connects what we do on the mat with how we live off of it. Sometimes it’s a small anecdote, other times it is a bigger message. However, it is always honest and real.
Last week I shared this story with my students:
I live in a small town on a dirt road right next to 250 acres of woods about 15 miles north of New York City. I walk my dogs in those woods several times a week. Often, I walk with a good friend and neighbor who also has two dogs. Several days ago we were on a trail when I looked down and saw a few small pieces of paper lying in a pile of leaves.
I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a bummer. It looks like those may have fallen out of someone’s pocket.” Just at that moment, we encountered another person with their dog. All the dogs began to excitedly play and that distracted me from my task of picking up the trash.
A few days later, I was walking my dogs on the same trail, by myself this time. It was quiet in the woods with no other dogs or people to distract me. When I got to that same spot on the trail I noticed those same pieces of paper were still lying in the leaves. I felt disappointed that in the several days that had passed, no one had picked them up.
I decided to pick them up myself and as I leaned over to grab them I began to look a bit more closely. I recognized the handwriting on the partial grocery list—it was my handwriting. And as if I needed more confirmation that this was my trash, lying right next to the grocery list was a crumbled up name tag with my name on it. These pieces of paper had actually fallen out of my own pocket and were waiting for me to pick them up.
The message from the universe was not subtle, it was clear as day: we cannot run from our baggage, we cannot hide from our proverbial “trash.”
It waits for us until we are ready to clean it up. We may be blind to it at first, but it will not go away until we see.
This message became our practice on the mat this week. I asked my students to explore what they might be hiding from, both in their physical practice (what is the pose I will “never” be able to do) and in their lives off the mat. We can put our “stuff” somewhere either intentionally or subconsciously and we can ignore it as we pass it by, but it will always wait for us.
Although the message from the universe seemed quite clear and obvious, I was still soul-searching a bit for what my “trash” might be. What was waiting for me that I needed to clean up—besides those few pieces of paper?
Recently, it came to me.
My daughter is almost 15 and has been studying to get her scuba diving certification. I have been diving for 28 years so I was thrilled that she wanted to get certified. I offered to take the class with her as a refresher for me, as I was just a year older than her when I got my certification. It felt like the right thing to do since now I was going to have the added responsibility of diving with her.
We did all the classwork together online and this weekend was the pool skills. Things were going pretty well. She seemed very comfortable with all the gear and the skills. We practiced breathing from a spare regulator, taking the regulator out of our mouths, finding it, putting it back in, and then clearing it.
Now it was time for the mask skills. The instructor had clearly explained everything before we went down and then demonstrated the skills underwater before it was our turn to try. He discussed adding water to the mask and then clearing it underwater; from there, we descended to the bottom of the pool. Then, without preparation, he demonstrated a full filling and clearing of the mask and motioned to us to do the same. What this means is you fill the whole mask with water—completely blurring your vision—and then clear the mask by blowing out through your nose.
My daughter did this perfectly. Then it was my turn, and all I really remember is shooting up to the surface of the pool in a bit of a panic. Instantly, I was 16 again. This had been a very challenging skill for me back then and the fear just flooded back. The fear comes when my vision is blurred and I feel like I can’t breathe. It is a completely irrational although quite common response. In the 28 years and over 150 dives since I completed my first training, I have never had a circumstance where this was an issue. I truly had not even realized it still was.
I was shivering and extremely nervous, and at the same time incredibly proud of my daughter for breezing through it. I did complete that skill but there was one more left to do: completely removing the mask and then putting it back on and clearing it. Again, my daughter completed it with no problems but I was too shaken to tackle it.
My first thought was, “I am already certified, can’t I just skip this part?” It was then that I realized: this was my trash. This was clearly what was waiting for me. “We cannot run from our baggage, we cannot hide from our ‘trash”—wasn’t that what I had been talking about all week?
Tomorrow, I will be going back in that pool and I will be removing that mask underwater for the second time in 28 years. I have created a mantra for myself to use as I do it. I have been visualizing that moment when I take my mask off; I can feel the tightness in my chest and my breathing becoming labored. I then repeat my mantra and slow my breath.
It is a simple mantra but a true one: “You are fine.” I keep telling myself I will say these words in my mind and breathe slowly through that regulator. I know I will still feel the irrational fear that comes from decades of latent storage in my psyche, but I believe it will be a little less tomorrow than it was today. I will take comfort in knowing that sometimes you can’t take all the trash out at once. It might just be a little too deep and a little too heavy. Instead, perhaps, you take a little bit out at a time until the load becomes lighter and lighter.
This is my practice off the mat: my mantra, my breath, my trash, my practice. Wish me luck!
Epilogue: my daughter thought I should tell you how it went. It was not as easy as I had hoped. In the end though, after quite a bit of time in the pool, I completed the skill four times, each with a little less anxiety and a little more freedom. And each time, while repeating my mantra and slowing my breath, little by little I took the trash out and made space for gratitude in its place.