Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Choice of Happiness

The pursuit of happiness is universal. Indeed, it is written into the Constitution of the United States as an inalienable right. We link it to our careers, our localities, the things we buy and people we surround ourselves with (or, in explorations of minimalism, the things we do not). We spend endless money and countless hours trying to construct what we believe will bring us happiness.

The problem? The happiness we’ve been taught to pursue is conditional. It depends on other people not only to create, but to validate it. It exists outside of us and is often short-lived because we can always be happier. Just think of all of the people, businesses and enterprises that profit from this desperate, endless search ... If the idea is to find satisfaction in a happy heart, shouldn’t we be reaping the benefits? 

When I'm engaged, I’ll be happy; I’ll be happy when I have a daughter; If I leave you for someone else, I’ll be happy; I’ll be happy when you clean the dishes; I just need to find another office and my career will make me happy; if I lose weight I will be happy ... 

This kind of happiness places the pressure of something largely left to choice on the words, actions and intentions of others. And because humans are unpredictable and ‘burdened’ by free will, our expectations stay largely unmet. 

It’s a cycle we pass onto our children, who spend their lives searching for happiness in the attainment and distribution of approval. And before we know it, happiness is a business exchange – just sign on the dotted line. 

The thing is, it’s all a lie.

We already possess happiness. It exists within us, without the help or hindrance of any external force. It is a choice and a perspective. And each time we make our happiness dependent upon anything or anyone else, we freely and willingly give up the power over our lives. 

Sure, there are circumstances that make the choice of happiness a heavier one, but it always lives within your heart just waiting to be plucked. You are the driving force.  

My advice? The same as always – start small, be patient. Things like this take time.

Notice the good in each day; one tiny good thing. Hold onto it tight and plant it in your mind. With each new day find more tiny good things. Focus on them, water and nurture them. Take what you can inch by inch. Explore it like a garden; encourage it to grow. Free yourself of the burden of finding happiness and give yourself permission to be it. Think of it as a hobby, a habit of will. Take the time to practice, just as you might for a marathon, concert or test, and before you know it happiness will become second-nature.

If happiness is the key to a life well-lived, it's time take back your life.


Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Key to Choosing Minimalism: Starting Small

2016 seems like it’s going to be a good year, which is good news because I’d be lying if said I didn’t need one. You’d think I’d be over it, but readjusting from the Peace Corps continues to be an on-going experience. One that I’m not entirely sure will ever end.

Twenty-four access to the news, Netflix and social media hasn’t exactly done me any favors. It’s like an obsessive impulse that both entraps and embarrasses me - I am as aware of the world’s suffering as I am the activity on my Pinterest boards. The more I browse, the more I crave and with so much clutter in my life (and mind), it becomes harder to express gratitude, stay present and remain satisfied. 

I started with a sabbatical from Facebook. I realized that the internet has the tendency to create two habits - the projection of perfection (which can only be reaffirmed by others) and an unchecked meanness toward that which is different.  So I dug a hole and buried my head in it, spending the month of December focusing on myself and the things things I love.

Why? Because I want to be more mindful of the choices I make. Whether that be gaining control over my admittedly rampant consumerism (I love shoes) or being more aware of the source of my food and clothing (I love the environment), I think I have reached a truly important impasse.

Life isn’t about filling up my closet or collecting Instagram followers or proving, through likes, that I have an amazing, enviable existence. Life is about the friends who lift me up and love me for exactly who I am (especially the boring, joyful, miserable masterpiece that is my day-to-day). It’s about memories being the only proof of an experience because I was so present I forgot to take a photo. It's about actively engaging in the things I love and being inspired by the beauty of each moment.

Emma’s Ridiculously Simple List of Minimalist Goals (#1)
1.) Do the dishes by hand (every time) & make it a communal activity. 
2.) No phones after 6 p.m. 
3.) Read at least one chapter every night.
4.) Buy responsibly (socially & environmentally).
5.) Always eat dinner as a family.

None of these things are particularly difficult, but they do take an adjustment. They are the first small step into what I hope will become a lifestyle. 

America changed while I was gone. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly left me feeling very alone. My goal is to connect again, to actively create the life I want exactly where I am. And truthfully, whatever your motive may be, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that the lives we think we want - ruled by Wi-Fi, filters and an endless supply of binge-worthy shows, sales and time-stealing apps - can sometimes be ironically empty. 

So start simple. 


Monday, October 5, 2015

Lessons for the Modern Yogi

 It turns out that knowing oneself is infinitely harder when deadlines, bills and relationship-upkeep loom on the horizon. My passion and my patience undergo yet another reconstruction and instead of existing in the moment, I find the frequent desire to escape my life altogether. Why am I still here? I have learned to lean into my discomfort.

In yoga, this is the moment we all know well - the one that has us concentrating so hard that our muscles, twitching and begging for rest, are drowned out only by the realization that sweat is beginning to sting our eyes. And, yet, we stay.

Why do we dutifully follow the instructor's request to squat a little lower, bend a little deeper and breathe fully into the pain? Because we can. Because through our practice we realize that most discomfort is within our bounds to endure. It improves us. We already have the tools within, we just need to practice using them.

What are these tools? Quite simply, breath and patience.

We tap into concentration to find a focus and endure the discomfort. We know that digging deeper is a choice more than an ability, so we make the choice to stay put. Even when it means stepping out, losing balance or needing ample time to recover from a difficult pose, having faith that we can succeed pushes open the door to success.

This is the whole point of yoga, really: proving that limits only exist in one's mind (and that our bodies are fully capable of carrying us through them). This is the pay-off of breathing through our absolute certainty of failure: we succeed, even when we fail.

And how does this apply to real life?

This is the difficult part. It depends on our willingness to fail outside of class, away from a soft mat and an instructor who encourages us to fall (and fall often). It depends on vulnerability. Leaning into discomfort is a terrifying choice when applied to one's life, our instinct is to escape. Like yoga, however, we must accept this feeling and breathe through it. We must allow it to pass. It takes time and practice, but it's worth it. It strengthens tenacity, both mentally and physically. It encourages the challenge of self-improvement (and leaning into the immense discomfort we find there). With each victory, each new day, we can lean a little deeper.

Along your path, remember to lean in. It will get better, if only because you are getting stronger.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Luxury of Patience

It isn't just something Yoda talks about; patience is a luxury. It's the money-making investment most of us wish we'd made, the vacation to top off a mediocre year, the healthy meal we know we should eat but struggle to pick over the deliciously fried alternative listed to its right.

We stand in lines frustrated at their pace, opt for altered food devoid of nutrition, twist our cars through close traffic and blame our accidents, our cholesterol, our anger on someone else. We get trapped in the thought that we, alone, exist in the world. We become impatient for better/faster/stronger/more, for everything inherent in mindfulness without the practice of being mindful.

It came to me while I sat in traffic, unmercifully dissecting the inability of most drivers to (1) merge, (2) allow others to merge, and (3) thank those around them for any quick, ninja-like reflexes when bumpers come dangerously close to connecting. I realized that if there was any place the yogi practice of mindfulness could be applied, it was in the driver's seat of a moving vehicle.

Every morning and every night, I am surrounded by people willing to risk bodily harm because traffic isn't moving fast enough in the direction they've decided to go. I even find myself irrationally annoyed. I've written about this before - our society's deep longing to be 'other than' (other than where we are, who we are, what we look like, who we're with, where we work). It's a presence all around us, even in our cars, and it often translates into harmful behavior.

Sometimes it's an inability to sit in traffic without endangering other people, sometimes it's the choice to be unfaithful or unkind. And as I watch people react to life, watch them refuse to be active in their choices, I've realized the necessity in making small, mindful steps to pay attention, to be present in my work, to accept my monkey brain during meditation and move through my life as I do my yoga poses.

Because no matter where I find myself, I am there. I spend my time there, I exist within those moments. And maybe it's not ideal (it will never be ideal), but wishing it away, rushing into anything else, will only recreate the impatience that led me there to begin with. Which is not to say that I shouldn't take risks, but rather that I be mindful of the risks I take.

Because I'm here. Because I'm responsible for my half. Because being present allows for the luxury of patience. Because Yoda was right - this is the nature of life. Be present.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

10 Things To Do to Avoid Getting Older (Once You Realize You Are, in fact, Getting Older)

Have you recently found yourself in a stable job? Signed up for Healthcare? Are you making a significant dent in your student loans? Is everything your parents said starting to make sense?

Have no fear - here are ten simple steps to avoid getting older (because you aren't getting younger):

1. Shake your head back and forth periodically throughout the day. Nothing screams 'young' like random, denial-fueled, emotional tantrums.

2. Eat dessert at each meal. Though the privilege may be distinctly grown-up, the act - the sheer audacity against a well-working heart - will surely make you feel young again.

3. Two words: Instagram. Selfies. (Make sure they are pointless and contain at least fourteen hashtags that hashtag each other. INCEPTION.)

4. One word: Naps. What is a lunch break if not a self-initiated time-out spent curled impressively underneath your desk? A waste of time, that's what.

5. Refuse to order anything that isn't a chicken nugget or shaped like a dinosaur. Commence dinosaur plate-war. ("RAWR. RAWR.")

6. Get lost in something. I suggest the world of wizardry or a pillow fort.

7. Pretend you just paid an overlord and saved the world. No one needs to know it was a credit card payment.

8. The floor is lava! Oh, I'm sorry, I thought your desk was the save zone ...

9. Roll down the nearest hill until you can't stand up. Nothing can get too serious if it's too wobbly to focus on.

10.  GO OUTSIDE. Seriously, your desk isn't doing you any favors.

Sing at the top of your lungs, laugh with abandon, hug because you want to, dance because you feel like it and forget that anyone else exists in the world. Candy, Disney movies, running barefoot and the ability to plug your ears in the event of bad news. Box mazes, finger puppets, ridiculously sugary cereals that cannot possibly have any nutritional value and an imagination with the ability take you anywhere at anytime.

You really are only as old as you feel, everything else is just noise.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Of Loss and Love

I still remember the day I met Dani. She was a tiny thing, but only in body. She was fascinating and beautiful and I regarded her with curious awe. She spoke of ballet and neuroscience, of an obsession with Dr. Pepper and McDonald's, of Korea and Haiti and her journey, just beginning, at Peace Corps Ghana. And I thought to myself, with an ounce of jealousy that I wasn't enjoying Dr. Pepper or McDonald's in that moment, that this tiny woman and I were going to be friends.

Today marks the one year anniversary of her death, a life given in service and taken away by Malaria. My prediction was right, by the way. She became a sister to me - bonded by music and dance and a streak of independence that left us drooling after Beyonce and declaring one another a 'boss.' As in, 'If he ain't steppin' up, drop it like a boss.' We were fierce.

I remember her death like it were yesterday, clamoring to keep myself together and failing miserably. I remember planning her memorial and showing up with endless cakes and cupcakes because, I half-joked, I was baking my feelings. It wasn't the baking that helped, of course, but the loving support of countless people Dani had managed to touch. The sorrow we felt was deep, but the love we felt much deeper. The day we said goodbye was the day each of us began a new life dedicated to living a little more like Dani every day.

Without a doubt, Dani changed me; she changed everyone she met. She was the kind of person I was grateful to know in life, whose passing wasn't necessary to the recognition of her importance. I wish I'd had more time, that I'd been able to visit her in Atlanta and witness what would have been an amazing life. I would have liked to have grown old with her; I celebrated three birthdays in Ghana and Dani was there for each one. Whether she was writing me into the Ghana AIDS Project constitution or explaining the finer points of twerking, she was always a surprise - a delightful, thoughtful, intelligent role model for anyone within arm's reach.

In her memory I strive to have compassion at all times, to greet everyone I meet with love and laughter, to dance when I want to dance and to own my strength without apology. We used to talk about forgiveness and empathy, about the heart's struggle with the ego, and now that those conversations exist only in memory I try, each day, to be the person we discussed so often. She managed to make me a better human being, to inspire me to live up to my potential, and her legacy, taken and held by those who loved and knew her, only continues to grow.

My thoughts are with her family today, with each of us facing the bittersweet combination of welling eyes and quivering smiles. Sadness comes in waves, but mostly I feel love - an incredible lightness of being - because she continues to shape a world she left much better. She lives through us, through our actions and our words, through our endless dedication to her memory, which means that she still lives. She may only be one tiny, Dr. Pepper drinking, independent, Beyonce loving part of me, but she's there always.

We miss you, baby girl.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

7 Things Yoga Taught Me About Life

Every day people flock into yoga class and they seek. They seek relaxation, they seek detoxification and they most definitely seek an enviable beach body. I speak from experience. When I decided to get my teaching certificate I did it because I wanted to get paid for a work out I love. It was, quite simply, a physical regime.

As it turns out, the course wasn't about poses or teaching sequences, but approaching yoga as a practice. I was deemed certifiable, but I'm not going to approach my first class as expected. In honor of the practice, I'd like to challenge your understanding of a session and share my first lesson with you here. No poses, no meditation, no cute spandex outfits with secret pockets and impressive lift - just a few ways yoga is actually applicable to everyday life.

1. Show up:

It might sound painfully obvious, but it's often the hardest choice to make. If you want to improve your health, you have to show up; if you want to switch careers, you have to show up; if you want to change your mindset, you have show up. You have to be willing to take leaps, hold yourself accountable and face your fears without giving in to a very strong urge to run. Quite literally it means making the choice to walk through the door and attend yoga class. When your mind is ready to follow it will show up, too.

2. Be kind to yourself:

We call this the practice of non-violence. It asks you to listen to your body, to be aware of your limits and to honor your 'edge.' Yoga isn't about competing with the life-size Gumby to your left (or feeling superior to the inflexible beginner to your right); your practice is already perfect. If your reason for yoga is to impress everyone in the class then you're not practicing yoga, you are practicing the art of  approval. Of course, everyone's capabilities are different and some yogis can do amazing things, but if you push yourself to the point of breaking then you will be distracted from your potential.

3. Accept possibility:

Anything can happen and it isn't always what you expect. Some days you will walk in and find a substitute teacher. Maybe a certain pose makes you feel emotional or reach farther into your stretch (or maybe you aren't feeling flexible at all). Dwelling on these details will throw off an entire yoga session and you cannot reach peace through dwelling. Being flexible in yoga isn't just a literal concept. If you can accept change when it occurs you're being offered a unique opportunity to learn more about yourself and your body. The ego always wants control, but the yogi understands there is none.

4. Breathe:

Breathing is something we take for granted, but it is the most important healing aspect of yoga. The average person's lungs has the capacity for 6-7 liters of air, but the average amount taken in per breath is one. Studies on meditation and breathing show that it lowers heart rate, lowers blood pressure, improves brain function and reduces stress. When breath and movement are synchronized we refer to it as a dance. Breathing helps focus the mind, push through pain and brings clarity to the body. It is the key, the lock and the safe.

5. Be present:

Though being present is directly related to showing up they are not the same. When you show up to class there is a large margin for error. Sometimes your brain will go everywhere, but with you to yoga. You won't pay attention to your breathing, you won't acknowledge what the poses are doing for you and you won't feel relaxed at all. Though you are perfect in your practice, even in its flaws, wouldn't it be nice to use that time to disconnect from the world and honor yourself? People are rarely present, but once you practice the art of being mindful you will find that it is a gift.

6. Let go:

We carry a lot of things around - pressure, expectation, guilt, anxiety, anger, disappointment, loneliness ... it's exhausting. Our pressures weigh us down, they create a disconnect between the the body and mind that can, quite literally, shorten the length and happiness of our lives. It may take years of practice and it may seem like letting go is as remote to you as the ability to walk on water, but when the day arrives and you find yourself ready to be completely vulnerable to that tiny moment, your yoga practice will be realized. You will be free.

7. It's all about Savasana:

Some people think Savasana is a waste of time, that it's awkward and intrusive. Lying down in the middle of a room, exposing your heart to the sky and dedicating five minutes to being silent with yourself is kind of terrifying. We spend our days tweeting, scrolling through Facebook posts and distracting ourselves from this exact act. We no longer know how to be with ourselves, but I promise you that Savasana is the moment. It is the culmination of your hour, the moment of honesty and the perfect opportunity to explore each each of these lessons in one simultaneous moment. It is your happy place.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that yoga has become my life choice. It follows me everywhere I go and sometimes I find myself in the act of yoga without ever striking a pose. Sure, there are physical benefits, but it has so much more potential than a beach body. Be open to that potential, and the next time you're in class - even if it is your first - think of me, newly bonafide, and take a few steps toward turning your activity into a philosophy.