Cruise Control for Easeful Living
I was born and raised in New England. Together with the idyllic coastal and rural landscapes comes a growing, palpable intensity as you travel closer to its interspersed cities. The speed of traffic picks up, trees and mountains are replaced with buildings and billboards promising attractions and amenities, people walk faster with the clear intention to arrive where they are going as quickly as possible. These qualities are what attracts students and scholars from all over the globe to study and practice in its renowned medical and academic centers. It is then only natural to settle into this productive and aspiring culture, and to let it become the norm.
I didn’t realize that I had adopted these New England qualities until I was plopped into the languid culture of Costa Rica for a summer abroad when I was 23. The contrast was jarring. I booked it up the hills of San Jose, my backpack bouncing on my back, while my new friends walked leisurely behind me, relaxed and chatting. What was going on? We had places to be, things to see, feats to accomplish. Didn’t they want to experience this new and exciting place?
As it turns out, I was the one that was missing out. I wasn’t appreciating the intricate flourishes of the local architecture, the exotic plant life growing alongside the street, the smell of the produce cart overflowing with freshly cut cilantro as we came around the corner. Instead, winded and stressed at the top of the hill, I stood waiting for the next thing, my mind busy with planning, completely unaware that LIFE was already happening.
It took me a couple of weeks, but I learned to sit back on my heels. I learned to breathe. To see. To smell. I had traveled abroad to learn to speak Spanish, but as many know who spend time immersed in another culture, what I embodied was life changing. I learned that is was ok to spend an entire afternoon laying in a hammock reading and even staring up at the sky. That everything was already ok. I didn’t need to do more or make more of anything. Everything was already just as it should be.
This notion showed up again on my yoga mat several years later. Inspired yogi, teacher, and friend Kate Zuckerman, was taking requests at the beginning of our yoga class. One student, without hesitation, breathlessly stated her need, “gentle.” Kate, in her infinite wisdom and grace, encouraged us to consider that any practice can be gentle. It depends on how you approach it. Throughout that class, I woke up again and again to the unnecessary tension I was holding in my arms, the effort that I was putting into to holding a pose instead of relying on my breath and strength of my muscle and bones to do their jobs. Slowing down and relaxing my habitual and automatic tendencies to work at 110% percent allowed me to explore life at 20-30%. I had newfound space to smile, to relax, to breathe.
Because the "over do" habits had developed outside of my awareness, it has become a continual practice to step back from them and make a different choice. As Hindu teacher Swami Satchitananda famously proclaimed " I am not a Hindu, I am an undo." Habits are learned, and so with practice they can be unlearned. Here are some ideas that have worked for me:
1. Get aware. It is hard for me to know where to back off when I am not clear on where I am holding unnecessary tension in my body or where I am placing excess effort. It took me a while to realize that I have a habit of gripping my steering wheel and leaning forward while I am driving, or standing on the balls of my feet while waiting at a crosswalk. By simply focusing inward, it gives us a natural space to settle into awareness. It has become a little game for me now. How many times during the day can I soften into my experience?
2. Set the intention, set the pace. For me, this means that I literally walk slower during my work day or take a couple of breaths before I enter or leave a room. I notice that I arrive more calm and relaxed at my destination, my head is clearer, and I'm only seconds later than I would have been otherwise. If upon my arrival I am ever met with someone’s annoyance over my tardiness, I silently remind myself of the importance of practicing and modeling self-care.
3. Contemplative practice. Some days this means a regular, formal mindfulness meditation or movement practice (i.e. yoga, tai chi). For me this morning, as our family was preparing for our days at work and daycare, it meant actually tasting and appreciating the delicious coffee my husband lovingly prepared for me. I also try to remember to layer on some mindfulness or deep breathing while walking slowly in the hallways at work, which helps to give my mind a restorative break.
4. Reminders. A daily mantra, like “I walk through life with ease and peace” or having nearby one of the lovely stones I have seen engraved with the words “breath”. A touchstone. For me right now it’s a sticky note on my bathroom mirror that simply states “ease and beauty.” It is easy to get wrapped up in the perpetual forward motion of life, so these little gems can be life savers for me. They often are met with a smile by anyone who reads them.
You might consider what strategies work for you to set your life's cruise control at even 70% effort and notice what impact this has on your body, breath, and mind. Some of the people I work with actually take me up on my suggestion of setting the cruise control in their cars AT the speed limit. And yes I still live in New England, so that feels like quite a feat.
Wherever you happen to be living, if you are wanting more ease and peace in your life, reach out and lets see what we can do to get you closer to living that life for yourself.