On mindfulness and change, or BGIM musing

In 2008, I stepped into my first yoga class, a yoga nidra class to be exact. I wish that I could say that I was seeking spiritual enlightenment, but the truth is that after fifteen-plus years of suffering from panic attacks that had a habit of sneaking up on me at the most inopportune time (giving a lecture to a class  while working as an adjunct instructor and having to be taken out by paramedics, to name just one of those exact moments).

It had become clear that anxiety and panic were starting to take a toll on my life and that I needed to face the issue head-on. While medication was most certainly an option, I was uncomfortable with the idea of using medication before exhausting all other options, and my research revealed that yoga was possibly one way to manage the panic attacks that had plagued me for years.

I wish that I could say that I went to that first class and left feeling like a brand new person; actually, I left the class thinking: “What kind of woo-woo-ass bullshit did I just participate in?” However, I am stubborn and figured I would give it an honest chance before committing to medication. After weeks of classes, I did experience a shift. I learned to feel my body and that in truly feeling my body, I could feel the signs of tension building that would lead to a full-on attack. I also found that combined with mindfulness around my breath, I could lessen the strength and duration of the panic attacks.

Over time, I would add on full-length ashtanga yoga classes and over the years, the frequency and duration of the attacks dropped sharply. A life without fear of what had been the omnipresent panic attacks became a reality and my love of yoga grew. I started putting the cost of yoga classes into the budget like a regular bill because $100 a month seemed a small price to pay for reclaiming my life. Despite my professional life as a non-profit executive director, I decided to study to become a yoga teacher because my one issue with yoga had always been how overwhelmingly white the discipline is, especially in Maine.

In 2013,I started the process to become a yoga teacher and I also applied for a new job out of state as the executive director of a small anti-racism organization. I was hired in the fall of 2013 with a start date of January 2014. Life felt good. I was a totally immersed yogi, practicing every day, developing strength that I had never known, looking at major life changes and most importantly keeping the anxiety at bay that had almost destroyed my life.

I started my position at Community Change Inc. in January 2014 and despite the plan to move to Boston, life happened. My marriage was in a state of emergency and I knew that if we were to break up, there was no way I could support myself in Boston on my lone income. So I made the painful decision, much to the consternation of my board of directors, to commute from Maine. Initially I was taking the train to Boston three to four times a week. With a 4 a.m. wake-up for the 5:20 train and a return home at 7:00 on a good night, my daily yoga practice fell by the wayside. During that time, I remembered a lesson that my yoga teacher said often: “What happens on the mat mirrors what happens off the mat and in many ways, your time on the mat is about preparing for life often the mat.” At times those words rang hollow yet they sat with me and over time, they would become my lifeline.

In August of 2014, I was eight months into a position that at the time wasn’t going well as financially stabilizing the organization was my key priority. Yet the 125-mile distance between my office and home meant I couldn’t put in the 10- to 12-hour days needed to connect with our organizational base to build my support. My marriage was growing even more strained, it seemed like every other week I was battling a bug as my resistance was down, and frankly I felt like I had made a horrible mistake in taking the job. Then Michael Brown was killed and the Ferguson uprising happened, people were starting to pay attention to the gross racial inequities that were still very real and I found myself thrust into a position of needing to truly guide my organization that has the distinct honor of being the oldest, continuously running anti-racism organization in the country. As the head of the organization, people wanted community and they wanted answers. I was 41 at the time, which is still pretty young by the standards of non-profit directors, and…well…it was a time period where I learned a lot about myself and my limits and pushing through them. I also learned that I desperately needed yoga to stay above the fray but the limitations of 24 hours in a day meant that the almost daily time I needed on the mat to keep my anxiety at bay simply was not possible. Instead, I went to class as I could and went further into breathwork and meditation even on a moving train to keep my equilibrium.

I juggled all the balls until Dec of 2014 when, at a much needed massage, my massage therapist discovered an unusual lump on my back. A few weeks later after developing strange sensations on the right side of  my back and shoulder, I went to my general practitioner who assured me that the lump was a benign lipoma and that while surgery was an option, doing nothing was also an option. Given the realities of my personal life and work at that time, I opted to do nothing which in hindsight was a horrible decision, as I would spend the next year living with discomfort. Discomfort that started to affect my yoga practice. When I did make time to get on the mat, I couldn’t do a full primary series practice without feeling like I was about to die. In early 2015, the decision was made to separate after 18 years of marriage and 20 years of being a couple. It was also the year that I had to shit or get off the pot with regard to my day job and either get the organization stabilized or watch a 40-something-year-old organization die on my watch, which would be tantamount to career suicide.

My life was messy and complex, as was my yoga practice; then to add fuel to the fire, given the nature of my work, increasingly I was being called on to show up both locally and regionally to talk about race. However, as messy as it all was, I learned a lot about life that can only come from lived experience. I learned that the time on the mat does indeed imitate life off the mat. I learned that in my work, the key to change was compassion and creating space for people to not be perfect.

Anti-racism work is ultimately about people; yes, we are fighting a system called white supremacy, a hideous system, yet systems involve people and that’s where the compassion comes in and the space to fuck it up. We can know the lingo, we can understand how oppression works in our heads and how utterly wrong it is but change happens when our hearts and heads connect and form a union.

2015 would eventually end but not before I saw myself leave our family home and start over in a apartment that pretty much could fit inside 2.5 rooms of the house that had long been my home. By the end of 2015, I could barely do a single sun salutation without wincing and my organization ended both our fiscal and calendar year with a deficit which, when you are still a relatively new executive director, isn’t ideal. Yet I persisted.

In early 2016, I would finally have surgery to remove the fast growing lipoma which was taking over my life, and the recovery period provided a much-needed break to clear my head. I would return back to the office with more compassion for myself and my limitations and others. Learning compassion was a hard lesson coming but one I needed and one that continues to resonate deeply with me and which now spills over in my work.  I also learned compassion on the mat, for when I was finally cleared to return to yoga, the strength I had built up over the years had atrophied and poses I once could master in my sleep were hard to hold. Yet I would end 2016 on a high professional note as I saw our new programming structure come together, a successful partnership with The Privilege Institute form and the first ever White Privilege Symposium in our region, and lastly an erasure of the financial deficit. Organizational stability was no longer a dream but a real reality. 

2016 became the year that America lost her compass and the compassion that I had developed in myself allowed me to extend grace to people whose views I did not share and yet develop a common bridge to connect. I would later see seeds of change developing in people who once doubted the existence of white supremacy.  I would over time see my very own home yoga community start openly discussing white supremacy and how it harms. Yet it was the result of years of putting in the time with people.

Right now, I am standing at a crossroads as I see the anger that is driving so much of the dialogue on both sides and knowing so many other change makers who are exhausted at what at times feels like deliberate obtuseness on the side of others. Yet it took America hundreds of years to get here and while it may not take hundreds of years to right the ship, it is going to take real time to dismantle the systems of oppression that unfairly burden all without white skin; thus, we must work harder than ever especially in the era of Trump.

Education, activism and organizing are all key to creating systemic change but increasingly I believe that we need to create space for beloved community and mindfulness in our toolboxes of social change. Beloved community combined with collective and individual mindfulness need to undergird our education, activism and organizing efforts. We can’t let others off the hook but when we touch and feed our own bodies and souls with these tools, it strengthens us to create space that allows for the mistakes that will happen along the way. As for me, I am slowly rebuilding my yoga practice and I am up to a few minutes a day on the mat most days and allowing the space that I create on the mat to guide me off the mat during these unprecedented times.
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Evolution of a 40 something or my thoughts on the 40’s!

Several nights ago I had a funny epiphany of sorts as I realized that I have slowly become the type of person that I once laughed at. As someone who once proudly labeled herself a hedonist of sorts, in recent months it has become clear that pleasure and self gratification are no longer the drivers in my life. Many of the habits that once brought pleasure in my life, are no longer pleasurable to this container I inhabit called a body.

It seems that my forty something self can no longer eat whatever, whenever, I can no longer drink more than a glass or two of my beloved vino without feeling it the next morning and anything less than a full night of sleep, just hurts. As someone who has always hated the idea of a gym membership, I am contemplating joining one and I actually manage despite a hellacious commute to hit the yoga studio no less than three times a week preferably four. Why? My back likes yoga and my spirits stay balanced when I make time for the mat regularly if not daily. It seems even my core digs yoga which is pretty cool now that I am friends with my core.

Last year was the worst year ever for my environmental allergies and after hearing more than a few people make suggestions about dietary changes, I bit the bullet and took baby steps and I’ll be damned, it seems that there is some truth in reducing and eliminating dairy products. I haven’t quite broken up with ice cream but we only see each other on special occasions!

In recent months, I have made many shifts in my physical body with the occasional slip up that immediately takes me back to that uncomfortable feeling and it strengthens my resolve to try again. Deepening my meditation practice has meant sitting cross legged and breathing into the spaces where I once reached for a glass of wine. When I do reach for that glass, I now ask myself why? I still enjoy the pleasurable treats but they are no longer staples in my life as I seek to balance food and drink for fuel and well being with food being delightful to the senses. As we joke around the house, I am now hooked on beet juice concoctions that don’t necessarily taste good but make me feel good.

As I settle into this place in life that some see as being “old” and some see as still being “young”, I am aware of shifts happening on a deeper level. I am no longer interested in the shoulds and the woulds of life, I am interested in facing life as it is in that moment. That means making peace with that which cannot change or that takes time to change but without holding onto the baggage that often surrounds the less than stellar moments that we all face. This article from OM Magazine sums it up “ And we must accept life on life’s terms, allow things to be as they are, and see the greater value in whatever we’re resisting.”

I feel like my 40’s are teaching me to surrender and accept life on life’s terms, something I didn’t get in my earlier years when I was still beholden to things such as my 5 and 10 year plans.  Reflecting back on my younger years, I am struck with how much of my life was about getting to the next place, and assuming that happiness was guaranteed if I stuck with my plan. I suppose that way of thinking was useful at a certain point in life but at this stage it no longer serves me. At a certain point, the rat wheel of always seeking more and better gets tiring and when the people who die start to become your peers, suddenly just living life without vexation starts to feel pretty good.

Recently my daughter shared with me how she desperately wants to be 10 so that she can be a tween, I asked her why she wants to be a tween and her only answer was that “getting older is better.” I laughed to myself as I remembered wanting to be 16, 21, then 25 and 30, for some reason all those ages were seen as milestones and now I have no idea why.  I do know though that my 30’s weren’t terribly fun at all when I realized one can and does lose loved ones and can end up being the matriarch of their family before 35! While I was excited to turn 40 last year it was  because I was pretty tired of the 30’s, and wanted a decade of life not tinged with life altering events.  I no longer had the youthful joy that often comes with getting older when you are young.

I am still pretty early in this journey of the 40’s and while my recovering type A self wonders what the coming years may bring, I am working to just be okay with this moment as it and I wonder why we call the 40’s the new 30’s when the 40’s are simply what they are…the 40’s.

 

Laying my burden down or the struggle of a Black woman

The past month has been a roller coaster ride of sorts, the type of ride where as a writer, my head swirls with words that rarely leave my head. A few days after my last post, I found myself spending a very long night in the local emergency room with a 2am diagnosis of panic attack. It only took six hours and a battery of tests to learn that middle age and bad genes weren’t about to take me to my final resting place but that my old nemesis has returned with a fury not seen in years.

I suffer from generalized anxiety; it’s been a fixture in my life since I was 19 years old with a four month old baby and a floundering marriage. For years, relief was found in breathing into a brown paper bag or taking psychotropic medications that, frankly, seemed to create as many problems as the ones they were supposed to solve. A number of years ago, I broke up with Western medicine’s solutions to my anxiety problem after realizing that I wanted to solve my problem, not soften it. My type A self likes to get to the root of the problem and neither brown paper bags nor medicine did that for me. Enter yoga and meditation.

I started to dabble in yoga six years ago to see if the woo woo could solve my problem, in many ways it has, but the truth is that I am an anxious person. I am a woman living in a body that some deem to be inferior and in a world where I must always be on guard. It’s tiring. The upside though of six years of yoga and meditation along with a growing mindfulness practice is that I know my triggers. I know how to care for myself and how to keep the panic monster at bay, but sometimes life doesn’t work with you. Sometimes the load become too much for one person to carry.  In my case, my support system isn’t large enough and often it’s too overloaded and there are too many nights where I go to bed stuffing the unpleasant shit down. Why I didn’t have a large panic attack before is a testament to the strength of yoga in my life.

The night of my panic attack, I live tweeted and Facebooked my ER visit because after two hours, the husband had to take the kiddo home. I was alone in the ER with no one to call. Yet another reminder of what happens when you don’t have support or don’t feel you can ask for it. I was aware of how utterly alone I felt in those moments.

For days after that attack, I wanted to write about it but it felt too raw for public consumption. Especially after a casual acquaintance remarked that she was sorry that I felt so stressed; it was a well-intentioned comment but struck a nerve with me.  What I feel most days when I am sitting with myself is rage, rage at a world that seeks to invalidate my very existence. Rage that I am rarely given space to be as raggedy as I need to be, rage that I must wear a mask for my own safety and protection. Rage that I rarely feel safe in my own community to take a walk down the street on a beautiful day for fear that my difference will make me a victim. My struggle is the struggle of many Black women in a country that doesn’t honor or respect Black bodies. We cope in a variety of ways, but sometimes the struggle to cope becomes too much and when it does, we seek to end it all.

I was reminded of this a few days ago, when I heard about the death of Karyn Washington, a 22 year old beauty and lifestyle blogger who created the site For Brown Girls. Karyn committed suicide. A beautiful soul gone far too early and a reminder that the myth of the strong Black woman needs to die; there is beauty in strength but there is also beauty in the frailties and vulnerabilities of life. But for too many Black women, we rarely are allowed to be vulnerable; we are never allowed to just be. It’s too much. A video made by a friend of Karyn’s that was made public today revealed that Karyn had struggled with the recent loss of her mother. For many Black women, the relationship we have with our mothers while complex is often one of the few places in this world where we will ever know acceptance even when it’s messy acceptance.

In general I am no longer comfortable with these types of posts because inevitably someone with good intentions will remind me that all women struggle. Yes, we do but the struggles of a non-white woman specifically a Black woman in a society that puts white womanhood on the pedestal of what womanhood should be means that our struggles aren’t the same. All womanhood is not a created equal and when certain women never have access to safe spaces or validation it sets those women up for a life not fully lived, where even our joy requires that we work harder than others.

In this moment though, I take my mask off and lay my burden down inspired today by a hashtag on twitter where Black women reminded each other of the beauty we can find in this life despite the pain this society throws at us on an almost daily basis. Reminded that despite the fight for full humanity; love, joy and peace are my birthrights and that they are obtainable by any means necessary.