Monday, October 29, 2012

Compassion, Gratitude, and Vulnerability

I have to tell you about two amazing people. One is seven years old, and the other is her mom. They live in New York. And not too long ago the 7-year-old had to stay home for a while because she was sick. Her mom stayed with her, and together they started Lovey Repair. Their “business” was recently featured on a NYTimes blog post. The title of the post is, “A Repaired Lovey, and a Debt Unrepaid.” So what is the business? They sew up old Loveys, or stuffed animals, pillows, etc. that have been a little too well loved and send them back to their owners all better and refreshed.

The catch? Their service is free. Mom tells daughter, “It’s a priceless business, lovey repair.” Wow! How awesome is that? Just a kind gesture to anyone who needs some extra love returned to their lives.

But it seems this may be also difficult for some people to accept. Perhaps most of us even? The author of the post was worried the duo would be inundated with requests, but Mom replied, “It always seems to work itself out.. The not charging thing actually can freak people out — I think there’s a security in the quid pro quo of capitalism that some people need.” The author wrote:

I think I would have been that person: if I had realized I was asking a total stranger for a favor, would I have really asked? It’s difficult enough to ask a friend for a favor. When I realized I couldn’t “repay” little pillow’s rescuers, I didn’t know how to feel. Gratitude, completely without connection, is an unfamiliar emotion, a little uncomfortable, and a little freeing.

Why is it so hard for us to accept favors? Why are we so afraid to allow people into our lives? Why does it matter that the people are friends or strangers?

I firmly believe that every person in the world should be required to live in a country where they do not speak the language as their primary language for a minimum of 3 months. And no, I do not actually think there is any entity in the world that could, or should, enforce this, but it is a dream nonetheless. Why? Part of the reason is so that we better understand one another. But more and more I have come to realize that one of the greatest benefits I gained from living abroad was the ability to be vulnerable, ask for help, and accept a welcoming gesture.

My first week living in France, I had just turned 21 (literally, I turned 21 exactly one week after arriving in the country), and I was going to Marseille from Aix-en-Provence with some new friends who were also in France on an educational exchange. I was a bit late, and of course I could not find the bus stop. I had spent years learning French and two years practicing it fairly intensely in college. I was scared to death to ask someone for directions. But eventually I did. And I found my bus, went to Marseille, and I had a lovely day. Taking that first step to open my mouth, unsure of whether someone else would understand me and unsure whether I would understand the response was one of the hardest things I did while living there. 

We put up barriers to other people for a variety of reasons. I can think of a few, and maybe you can think of plenty more. I think we do it because we are scared they will let us down, we are scared we will look weak, because we think we live in a zero-sum world where if we admit weakness everything is over, or because we are taught to do everything on our own. But with those barriers comes a sense of being stuck. Those barriers prevent us from our full potential. It is part of of many yoga paradoxes that giving ourselves support actually helps us go deeper into asanas.

These barriers we erect, whether a fear of accepting a gift or something else, stop us from connecting with one another, asking for help, and ultimately reaching our fullest and deepest selves. We cannot move beyond these barriers until we let ourselves be vulnerable. Sometimes we do that on purpose by going to a foreign country and looking for a bus, and other times that vulnerability falls in our lap by a 7-year-old girl and her mother repairing a loved and cherished friend without asking for anything in return.

And when we finally let others in, we find a deep sense of gratitude, which, as the blogger wrote, is ultimately freeing. As Pema Chodron said in the quote at the top of the last post, “Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” But our shared humanity is lost when we keep up the barriers. Lovey Repair is an example of compassion in action. Without regard to the recipient’s state in any way, the two of them just offer a little needed love. It is the acceptance of that love that seems to be difficult for people. Why should I accept something that is free? Doesn’t everything come with a cost? If I get something for free, am I going to have to repay it later at a higher cost?

Perhaps the cost here is the vulnerability. In many ways, it is easier to hand over cash than to let go of a little piece of ourselves. That is a huge step for many of us. But it is also a vital step. We are so good at hiding behind emails that get inappropriate and out of control, our own beliefs about why we are right, and all the other ways we block ourselves from connecting to others. But as the blogger noted, allowing that vulnerability in is “refreshing.” It can wake us up to our humanity in ways we simply cannot access elsewhere.

And yes, yoga is another perfect opportunity to find this sense of vulnerability. There are so many practices for opening up our compassion and our shared humanity. Those are posts for another day. But the first step is letting go of our ingrained views about how things should be. Instead, accept a helping hand when it is offered. Sometimes, all we need to do is say thank you. And sometimes that is the most difficult step.

Thank you, Lovey Repair, not only for the repairs, but for bringing a little slice of true compassion and gratitude into the world.


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 26, 2012

That Which is Hidden is Our Greatest Treasure

"Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity." -- Pema Chodron

People come to yoga for a lot of reasons. Exercise, flexibility, stress management, and relaxation tend to dominate the list. Finding our darkness is not usually at the top of the list. Ironically this may be one of the most important ways yoga and law are connected, or at least one of the best ways yoga can inform the law and so many other aspects of modern life. That which is hidden in yoga is perhaps its greatest treasure.

Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun living in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. She has written several books, including The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, the book from which the above quote is taken. I was reading it the other day, and this quote struck me as something I had to hear (or read, but you get the idea). I realized this is at the heart of what we do in helping professions, and probably a big piece of why they lead to so much vicarious trauma for so many.

I think about this issue a lot, but I have never really had the ability, or perhaps the courage, to fully express it on this blog. I tried here but stopped at a more superficial level (a bit ironic considering the title of the post). Yoga has the potential, perhaps the inevitability, to bring us to the deepest places within us. In words, this is the body holding onto our emotions, which is why some people burst into laughter in yoga classes and some people burst into tears. That happens spontaneously when we tap those places within us holding those emotions.

When we make the commitment to look inside, we will probably learn to be more flexible and relaxed, and we will probably notice we handle stress better. But we may also notice the darkness. We may come face-to-face with everything we have been hiding from ourselves for years.

At first glimpse, this seems like a reason to not go so deep. It seems like a reason to get off the mat and into busyness. After all, busy is safe in this world. But even when we think we are running away, we cannot. It always comes back to get us. We have all experienced the vacation sicknesses. You know, the times you get sick on your vacation because you are finally allowing all those stress hormones to let go. It is no fun when we hide from what is inside only to have it come back unexpectedly.

Yoga gives us the opportunity to get there first. It gives us the opportunity to be (somewhat) in charge of facing what is beneath the surface. At one level, it helps us face our fears. We learn to be stronger people everyday. That does not seem to be a secret among the yoga world. I feel this gets simplified, as though this process is easy. “Of course, just learning to do a balance posture will bring us into balance in life.” It certainly gives us the tools to see it is possible, but yoga takes us deeper when we allow it.

And that deeper level is to finding our truest sense. As in the quote above, it can be our darkness. It can be that place within us we have done everything to hide. One of my fellow students in teacher training said she would go home from yoga classes yelling at her family, and she did not understand why. She had touched that place, but did not yet have the tools to move through it.

And yoga takes us there as well. When we hit those moments, whether our deepest darkness or our greatest lights, we keep moving, we keep breathing, we keep being. We can bring compassion to those moments (or years) and just let them be as they are. We can use certain asanas and breathing techniques to move through them, but and eventually they shift. But once we see ourselves for who we are, we see the greatest gift of all. We can then begin to connect with others and find compassion for them wherever they are.

And that is a lesson for all of us, especially for lawyers dealing with people in crisis.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day in which she said to me, “you’re a lawyer, you live in your head.” I laughed and said, “I think it is the other way around. I live in my head, so I’m a lawyer.” And that is exactly why yoga is so important in the legal profession. The law pretends to be rational, but the problem is that people are not. We need to be able to experience both in order to be able to best serve our clients.

As friends and family, we can best help our loved ones by understanding our deepest selves. And the truth is that can sometimes be very, very scary. It can also be very, very exciting. We have no idea what we may learn when we step onto the mat or sit on the cushion. What we do know is that this seemingly solitary practice is our best learning tool for connecting with our “shared humanity.” And while Pema’s quote only talks about finding our darkness to connect with the darkness in others, her point can be expanded. When we fully understand ourselves and our humanity, we can better understand others.

And that is true compassion. That allows us to connect with people and recognize we are all in this together no matter how different we may appear superficially. There may be two sides to a story or to a lawsuit, but underlying all of that is our humanity.  Our work on the mat is a personal practice, but it can help us give ourselves to the world. Of course, I love the feeling of relaxation at the end of a yoga class, but more and more every day I am learning to be grateful for the depths of the practice, the ones I always knew were there, but also knew would take time to reach.  

How has yoga helped you connect with yourself? How has it helped you connect with others? 

© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Hard Drive Effect

I have never lived a day without a computer. I am probably one of the oldest people who can say that (and yes, I’m only 30), and I feel pretty spoiled saying it, but I’m saying it to make a deeper point. Our very first family computer was an Apple IIe Plus. That was back when Apple was cool before it was not cool before it became the coolest thing ever. That’s societally speaking. My personal views of Apple are not necessary to the larger point.

That original computer had no hard drive on which to add information. None. There was absolutely no way to store information on the computer. (As I have mentioned before, my memory is terrible. I could be totally wrong about this, and if I am, I apologize.) The only way to store information was on a floppy disk. They were called that because they were actually floppy. I do not remember how much information they held, but it was around 1-2 megabytes, I think. The little floppy disks, which were no longer floppy, held around 3 megabytes, if I remember correctly, and they appeared shortly after the original floppy disks. Today, you can buy a thumb drive that holds 128 gigabytes. I am terrible at math, but I can feel pretty confident that is a lot more than 3 megabytes. And hard drives? They are measured in terabytes. I did not even know tera was a measurable unit until those hard drives came out.

And hard drive storage is not the only exponential increase. Gmail changed the face of email when it started offering 1gigabyte of storage with a free account. That was around 2004. Today, I am using 3 gigabytes of my 10.1 gigabyte account. That is a lot of emails, even if they have attachments. I am not a computer scientist, and hard drives rarely have anything to do with yoga, so what is the point?

We hold onto stuff. We hold onto a lot of stuff, even when we do not realize we are doing it.

We keep making more and more space to hold onto more and more stuff. I like to tell people that one of the things I like about moving so much is that I get to clean out my stuff once in awhile. But the truth is that electronically, I hold onto everything. Now that we can hold onto these items, we never have to let go. We can look through old emails and remind ourselves of our “justified” anger at someone about something that happened years ago. We can also look through old documents and photos to remind us where we have been. But all this space leaves us little incentive to delete items that no longer serve us.

And that’s energy. That’s energy we could let go but instead hold, even if we do not see it. It is the same energy we store in our bodies when we do not let go of that which no longer serves us. As we get more and more used to never letting go, our bodies think it is normal and continue to hold old energies. And our bodies can hold a lot more information than a terabyte or two (however much that actually is). 

These held energies do to us just what junk does to a hard drive. They create clutter. And clutter creates heaviness and pain. Pain and disease are often a result of stuck energy. When prana, the life force, does not freely flow through us, it creates pain. That pain can be a sore neck from jutting the neck out while looking at a computer screen, or it can be years of pent up emotions getting stuck in the hips until we have sciatica.

Clutter also creates confusion. When there is clutter in our energies, it is more difficult to think clearly. It is more difficult to respond rather than react. It is more difficult to be creative and innovative. We have to clear out these old patterns in order to make space for something new.

And yes, this is where yoga can help. Yoga gives us the opportunity to tune into our bodies and minds and let go of the clutter. It also gives us a chance to see what and where we have held our energies. When we sit in meditation, we can watch our thoughts race by and just let them be. When we let them come and go without getting caught up in them, over time, it becomes easier just to let them arise and then disappear. When we tune into the pain and stuck energy in our bodies, over time, we can learn to breathe into it, soften into it, and let it start moving again. Eventually, the pain begins to dissipate.

But this does not happen overnight. We are hardwiring ourselves to hold onto energy, to hold onto clutter. We are creating samskaras of holding energy. As our hard drives get bigger, and we take less time in quiet solitude, we create holding patterns rather than releasing patterns. These patterns are difficult to break. But it can be done. And over time, releasing these patterns, and releasing these energies can only open us up to bigger opportunities going forward.

This does not mean I am deleting my hard drive. But I may start deleting more emails. I also may start deleting the photos I do not like. Just because I can save them does not mean I should. But most importantly, it is time to notice the holding patterns within ourselves. How does our excessive ability to never let go inhibit our ability to let go of that which no longer serves us? 

How do you notice yourself holding onto energy? What do you do to release it?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 19, 2012

What Makes a True Path?

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” – Buddha

I read a lot of yoga blogs, probably too many. I live in my head, and yoga blogs are a way to think intellectually about what I “should” be practicing. One of the blogs I read most frequently is “linda’s yoga journey.” One of the issues she often discusses is how to be on a “real” yoga path. I usually find myself nodding along to her posts, thinking, “she is totally right., the way yoga has hit mainstream America is barely recognizable as yoga. ‘Real’ yoga is something different.” And then I realize I am the person she is describing, the one talking the talk but not always walking the walk.

I do not make time for an asana practice everyday. I do not make time for a meditation practice everyday. My meditation practice is often in my car. Most days I take a few moments to sit in the morning, and I attend classes on the weekends, but my practice is not as structured as it could be. I can come up with all sorts of excuses as to why this is, but excuses are not the point of this post.

There is no question that my path is to find a way to bring yoga into daily living. Whether that means asana “At the Desk,” meditations in the car, or even ways to recognize and overcome vicarious trauma, yoga is not something we can only practice in the Himalayan peaks. It has to be something we can bring to daily living. But that means less time for the actual deepening of the practice. Sure, we can go on yoga retreats and fill our yoga buckets, but how do we bring these practices into daily life?

As the Buddha says in the quote above, “We ourselves must walk the path.” There is no substitute for practice. But how can we balance the need for practice with the need to get up in the morning and go about our daily living? That path is not for everyone, but for those of us who know our path is to find the balance, how do we do that?

On days I do not make time to practice, I feel guilty. That’s not very yogic, now is it? But on days I take the time to practice, I feel different. The sense of calm lasts a little bit longer. The ability to respond rather than react is a little bit larger. Those moments come more often the more time spent in practice. But too much time spent in practice means the unread materials pile up and the deadlines get missed. And of course that causes stress and anxiety of its own.

But the path can be both. I know it can. The true path is learning to listen. Through yoga, we learn to listen to what we need. We eventually learn to understand it as well. Some days, doing the work that is piling up at the office is more yogic. It clears the space around us giving us a space for clear thinking. Some days, no matter how high that pile has become, we need to turn to the mat. Those are the days that no matter how much we try to tackle the pile, unless we take some time away from it, there is no way we can do it. Sound familiar?

But that still leaves the aching question – is this a “true” path? Is the only true way to bring yoga into our lives to make time to practice every single day at the same time? When the guilt is rising high, my answer to this is sometimes yes. But the rest of the time, the time when I take the time to reflect, I realize the answer is no.

A true path is in the intention we bring to it. Where is the heart? And are we willing to walk the path ourselves? Are we willing to bring our entire soul to it? When we have the intention, we can miss our mark sometimes, but we always know we can return. We always remember that we can come back to the path waiting within us.

And it is that intention that we bring to our daily lives. I still get upset with people. I still lose my temper. I still feel anxiety. But underneath those moments is a little voice reminding me it need not be that way. And in those moments, sometimes my breath returns, and I laugh at the situation. And sometimes it does not, and I leave disgruntled and guilty. And after a decade of this practice, countless hours in meditation and on the mat, and countless hours reading yoga blogs about different paths, something has finally clicked.

Those moments are the true path. All of them. When our paths are between the modern world and the yoga mountains, finding the bridge is the path. And we are going to have many, many moments on both sides of that bridge. But with the intention to continuously come back, we are on a true path . . . even if we miss a day or two on the mat. It may not look like a traditional yoga path, but it is what allows us to be true to our own hearts. 

How does your path look? Where is your intention? 


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Being Joy

"Your body cannot heal without play. Your mind cannot heal without laughter. Your soul cannot heal without joy." — Catherine Fenwick

On the Is Yoga Legal facebook page this past week or so, the focus has been on joy. Last week, I posted a question, “what does joy mean to you?” I got some interesting answers.  Joy is a “spark of curiosity and wonder.” Joy is peace in the heart along with exuberance for life while remaining present in the moment. Joy is “happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction all in one.” And the lawyer response, it is difficult to see, “but you know it when you see it.” (For the non-lawyer readers, that is a famous quote from a Supreme Court case about obscenity.)

Looking around the internet for quotes about joy, I have found a few themes. Joy is something that must be shared, and it multiplies by sharing it. We gain joy by sharing it with others. We learn about joy by learning about sorrow. Richard Wagner says, “Joy is not in things; it is in us,” and Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

In other words, joy is a lot of things to a lot of people.

I sort of laughed when I saw the “you know it when you see it” comment. It is such a famous quote, but in so many ways, it describes this situation exactly. Joy is not something we can define. I love all the other definitions. They help with the “I know it when I see it” statement. But deep down, joy is something personal. It is something we must experience for ourselves. As Catherine Fenwick says in the quote above, “Your soul cannot heal without joy.”

Play and laughter are for the body and mind respectively. But joy is reserved for the soul. It is the deepest and most intense type of healing we give ourselves. But what is it? Is it something we have to seek out? Is it something that comes to us? Is it simply about being present?

Joy is something we must experience, but more importantly, it is something we must allow ourselves to experience. I can share in your joy, and I cam empathize with your joy, but your joy is something you need to experience for yourself. But even more than that, it may be that we also have to create it for ourselves. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “sometimes your smile is the source of your joy.” Sometimes, we have to create the precipice for the experience of joy. He reminds us that joy is a choice we make each and every moment.  Joy is present everywhere, and we get to find it and make it our own.

It is more than knowing it when we see it. Joy is about knowing each and every moment can be joy. Sometimes we experience moments that are joyful, but how often do we simply sit and bask in being joy in its purest form? Joy can penetrate our bones. But first we have to let it into our lives. And that is when it begins to heal the soul. When we become joy and make it part of our lives, our soul brightens and heals.

Yoga, from asana to meditation, is a healing practice. It brings us closer to understanding all that happens in life, whether in our bodies, minds, or souls. And joy is part of that practice. When we learn to notice the joy of yoga, we learn to be able to share that with the world. Lawyers are not generally thought to be joyful people. Instead of joy, most days we ponder disaster and how to avert it or clean up the mess it left behind. But what if we also allowed joy to penetrate our Being and we started sharing it with clients and colleagues? That is not necessarily easy to do, but arguably it is necessary. 

When we can experience joy for ourselves, we can bring it to others and help them heal as well. Joy is definitely something we can recognize and see for ourselves, but it is also something we can create through our smiles. And the more we recognize it, the more it comes into our lives. And the more it heals. But we have to take that first step. We have to be willing to allow the joy into our lives. That seems silly to say, but how many of us hang out in sorrow because it is what we think we are supposed to experience? How many of us are willing to let that go and experience pure joy? How many of us are willing to actually be joy? If you are willing to take the step and open your Being up to joy, what sort of impact will it have on you? What sort of impact will it have on your family and friends? What sort of impact will it have on the people you serve in life? 

So, I will ask the question again – what does joy mean to you? But also, how do you bring joy into your life? How do you share it with others? Are you willing to be joy?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Clearing the Air

In the last post, we talked about the reasons to avoid gossip and its control on our society. While writing it, however, I kept thinking to myself, “but what about the times we need to talk about others?” I like to think of this as the “clearing the air” caveat to the problems with gossip.

Every day, I realize more and more how large the capacity is for humans to harm other humans, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. From sibling rivalries to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pain seems to be the modus operandi of the human race these days. Perhaps it is a reflection of the news we hear, but it seems to be getting more and more intense.

And as it gets more intense around the world, it gets more intense in our daily lives. Have you ever had one of those days where a family member, close friend, or even coworker did or said something that hurt you? If the answer to that question is no, count your blessings and stop reading here. And while you are at it, post in the comments about how you have managed it.

If you have felt that, what is the first thing you want to do after being hurt? Me? I want to tell someone. I want to shout from the rafters how wronged I was. And of course, I never want to accept how wrong I was. So the conversation becomes, “so-and-so is so mean, I cannot believe s/he did that to me.” But is that true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

It may feel necessary in the moment, but if we handle the conversation like that, it becomes gossip, and leads to all the negative effects associated with gossip, that eventually only hurt us more. I think there is a different way to handle the situation. A more yogic approach. A way that could potentially nip the downward spiral of email in the bud.

There are all sorts of teachings about using “I” statements. So, instead of saying, “Johnny hurt me,” we say, “I was hurt.” Instead of bringing the negative energy of gossip into the conversation, we can honestly look at a third party, explain our pain, and potentially ask for help in dealing with it. While in the moment, it may feel better to shout from the rafters what a terrible person Johnny is, at the end of the day, that solves nothing, the pain gets worse, and in addition, we have gossiped.

This step requires those attributes we learn on the mat – awareness and reflection. On the mat, we learn to be aware of our bodies and our minds. We notice when we take the body to a place of pain, and we think to ourselves, “ow, that hurts, I should stop.” If we do not take that step, we pull a hamstring (or whatever). Taking that moment also helps us find reflection. Learning to breathe, we learn to reflect and not react to life as it happens. “I” statements are similar. The reaction is the shouting and the blaming and the gossip. But we can own the hurt we feel without perpetuating the pattern of gossip and all the negativity that brings to ourselves as well as to others.

The second step of the process is a wee bit more difficult, and by a wee bit, I mean it feels impossible. The second step is owning our piece of it. As someone who works with abused and neglected children and sees a lot of domestic violence victims, I find myself saying, “it’s not your fault” a lot. And I always believe it when I say it. But outside of purely abusive situations, we often do have a part in the pain we perceive is caused purely by someone else. This is where an outside observer can be helpful.

Of course, we want someone to say, “you did nothing wrong, and Johnny is just a jerk.” (For the record, I have nothing against anyone named Johnny. I think I only know a few, and I have always had wonderful interactions with them. It’s just a name here to stop saying so-and-so.) But in order to clear the air and truly move forward, we need to get out of the gossip mode and into the healing mode. And that requires looking at our own part in the pain.

Did I say something I knew would make her angry? Did I want him to react that way to validate my belief about who he is as a person? Did I want to make her angry because I was still mad about our fight last week?

To be clear, owning our part in the process does not minimize our pain. We can still be hurt. We can still reflect and tell someone else, I feel hurt. But we can do it in a way that is true, kind, and necessary. The necessary comes when we realize that we need to get this off our chest or it will stay there forever. But we can have the conversation in a true and kind way and not simply as gossip.

Easy? Absolutely not! But when we actually take these steps, we begin to see the difference between gossip and necessary air clearing, and we also begin to see that when all is said and done, we can make a choice as to how to move forward. A choice determined by reflection and awareness and not one made in the heat of pain. And perhaps this process can even lead to forgiveness.

How do you clear the air of your pains?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Gossip Effect

Two posts ago, we talked about the issues associated with negativity at work and ways to move beyond it. But there was a glaring elephant in the post I neglected to mention – Gossip! Ok, the truth is that I wanted to give gossip its own post. I think it warrants that. 

There is little question the modern workplace is a bastion of gossip. The water cooler is more than just a metaphor for hanging out and not actually getting work done. Gossip has hit the places I work in ways that have truly opened my eyes to how we choose to communicate with each other and about each other.

While teaching English in France, I heard the teachers gossiping about the students and their families. Long before yoga became a daily practice for me (though I had already started practicing), those days in the teachers’ lounge were painful. While working at another job, I was struck by the amount of gossip that permeated the office. It was painful to hear and even more painful that I found myself getting caught up in it.

I have found it very, very difficult to escape the gossip mill anywhere in life. It is an easy way to connect with people – to talk about mutual people we know or to whine about someone who has harmed us. But gossip is harmful to us. It brings negative emotions to the front of our consciousness, and for me, it always leaves a nasty feeling in the air.

And yet we continue to gossip despite the plethora of teachings “against” it. As kids we are told, “if you cannot say something nice, do not say anything at all.” The Golden Rule teaches us to “treat other people as you would like to be treated.” These are great ways to think about gossip, but perhaps we need something more specific.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba tells us to ask three questions before we speak, “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” This is a general teaching about speaking, but it is especially important when talking about other people. First, so much of what we repeat is what we hear from others, and we cannot verify whether it is true. Lawyers, especially, must think about hearsay and whether a statement is reliable. We should, at the very least, consider that when speaking about other people.

The second question is, “is it necessary?” Something we say about someone may be true, but it may not be necessary to share with others. I do not need to tell everyone everything that happens between another person and myself. It probably will not solve anything, and it could just make me more upset. And finally, we should ask ourselves, “is it kind?” This gets back to the two teachings above, if we have nothing nice to say, or if we are treating someone less kindly than we would want them to treat us, we probably should say nothing.

This is not easy to do. In fact, we live in a world where gossip penetrates every aspect of our lives. We live in a world where every mis-statement made by a politician is reported for days, and often the statements are taken out of context and made to sound worse than they really were. We live in a world where People magazine and the National Enquirer are million (billion, perhaps?) dollar industries existing solely on gossip about people most of us have never met.

Gossip can only occur because we think the person about whom we are speaking is somehow different than us, and we can say something about them without affecting ourselves. Gossip happens in the moment and is rarely factually complete. By the time the story reaches a point where the facts are known, it has left our attention. It is a reaction to a moment in time that disappears when something more interesting comes along. But its effects on our consciousness remain, and like everything else in life, they get stuck in us until we let them go.

Yoga is about reflecting before reacting. We learn to ask ourselves if something hurts before we do it, and if it does, we find a better way. In that sense, yoga is the perfect opportunity to break free of gossip. Instead of reacting to the partial facts, we can stop and reflect and ask ourselves the pertinent questions – is it true, is it necessary, is it kind? We can have a yogic response to the gossip we hear as well as the gossip we may wish to speak.

If the answer to those questions is no, and we still speak it, how are we harming ourselves. How does gossip affect our beings? How does it affect the person about whom we are speaking? What if we only listen but do not partake? In all of those scenarios, negativity breeds negativity. In other words gossip only harms everyone involved.

I wish I could tell the world I have broken free of the gossip hold. I have not. But more and more I am conscious of the effect my words have on others and myself. It is a first step – a small one, but a first one. Do you notice yourself getting caught up in gossip? What do you do when you notice that happening? Are you willing to walk away? Are you willing to change the conversation? How has gossip affected you?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Living Ahimsa, or Nonviolence in Everyday Life

Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.
~ Mahatma Gandhi

I just found out today is International Day of Non-Violence. I tend to ignore International days of _______________. But usually the ones people share on facebook are the International Day of Cupcakes, so taking time to recognize a day loses some meaning after awhile. But I can get excited about a day of nonviolence. After all, it is the first of the yamas, and a discussion of ahimsa was a post back in the first year of this blog (actually on Christmas).

So why is today the International Day of Nonviolence? It is Gandhi’s birthday. Gandhi exemplifies nonviolence in a way perhaps no one else can. Without lifting a sword, Gandhi helped India achieve independence from the largest empire in the world at the time. His nonviolent revolution led to freedom movements across the world, including the civil rights movement in the United States.

That is amazing and wonderful, but while it is inspiring on one level, it is also a bit intimidating. It can be difficult to look at someone like Gandhi and not think, “I’m never going to nonviolently lead a country to independence, so how does nonviolence fit into my life?" And a day devoted to this question, if only once per year, is a great opportunity to determine this for ourselves.

It seems a bit strange that the international day of nonviolence is happening in the midst of a US presidential election, especially one filled with more vitriol than I have ever seen before. Whatever your political beliefs, or non-beliefs, it is difficult not to see and feel the violence being espoused by everyone involved. It literally pains me to witness this. But it is such a small piece of the violence consuming us these days. The news is filled with the civil war in Syria, the war in Afghanistan, and in the last two weeks, there have been two shootings in Tucson that I have heard about. And PBS is showing a film on the book, Half the Sky, which I just read, a kind of "hidden" violence happening to women and girls all over the world.

It sort of goes without saying, the world is full of violence. But if Gandhi can teach us anything, it is that we can take on seemingly insurmountable tasks with a steady focus on being nonviolent. We can bring nonviolence into our daily lives, and if more and more of us choose that path, it can be the light that ultimately penetrates the darkness.

And it need not be nonviolence in a physical, killing sense. The violence in Syria is easy to spot. We can watch the news, see people killing one another, and know that it is violence. The violence within ourselves and our daily interactions is more difficult. It is not what we traditionally consider violence. We are told that violent videogames are ones in which there are guns and blood and street fighting. But violence is also a negative word we say to someone else. It is looking at someone with contempt rather than compassion. It is treating our bodies terribly just to hide the pain.

In short, nonviolence is not a negative. It is a positive experience of working towards greater compassion, for ourselves and others. It is looking at that person with whom you are frustrated beyond belief and finding it in your heart to offer them some metta, or lovingkindness, a few words of peace. We can ensure that we stop in our moments of frustration and look to find compassion for the other person.

Nonviolence does not mean never feeling angry, upset, or frustrated. It is a commitment to recognizing those are valid emotions but we need not use them against other people or ourselves. Anger is anger. It is not a rationale for hate. Frustration is frustration. It is not a rationale for unkind words. Nonviolence is, therefore, recognizing the difference between an emotion and our response / reaction to it. Over time, if we practice conscious nonviolence, we can learn to respond with less of it and instead respond with more compassion.

And most importantly, nonviolence must start with ourselves. We are so often our own worst critic.  Our self talk, and even the ways we choose to eat and sleep and nourish ourselves must strive for nonviolence if we are going to be nonviolent with others. In some ways, the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century seems like small beans compared to our own internal world. But as Gandhi reminds us we must “be the change [we] wish to see in the world.”

If we want to see a world of nonviolence, we must begin with ourselves. Can you take today as an opportunity to practice nonviolence toward yourself and others?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Making Work Positive

Last Friday I attended a one-day conference where we discussed better ways for the juvenile law system to respond to the needs of children and families. Not surprisingly, it got me thinking about community again, and what a great opportunity conferences are. But something else struck me as well at this conference; they can also be breeding grounds for negativity.

This conference was not that, but there were moments of complaining about how things are today. There were moments of distrust between people who work in different aspects of the system. Overall, the conference was a look at the future and how we can create better systems but those moments made me realize that even when we try to be positive, sometimes negativity pushes its way in.

Those few moments of negativity amidst this amazing coming together got me thinking about how we can breed negativity amongst ourselves, especially in the workplace. While I have lauded the idea of community, I began to realize that being around people who are negative can have a negative impact on us as well. Both Confucius and Harvey MacKay have been attributed with saying, “Find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” The point of this quote is that when we truly love what we are doing, it never feels like work.

But we are fighting some pretty heavy odds. In the modern world, there seems to be an underlying notion that work is difficult and stressful and just something we do to get enough money to pay the bills, or buy the nice house and nice car, or buy the yoga mats and yoga clothes. But work is not supposed to be something we do for love. Even when we love what we do, we are bombarded with a culture that believes work is not supposed to make us happy. Lawyers, I think, get this more than others, particularly in BigLaw. I see it less in the government sector, and even small practices. But the societal notions about work remain prevalent regardless of how you earn a paycheck.

But what are the implications of that?

How many people spend time complaining about their jobs? How many people find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning because they dread the thought of another day at the office? How many people sit at their desks all day staring at the clock just waiting for it to be time to go home? How many people notice everything wrong with where they work but have no desire to make it better? Are you one of those people? And if this does not describe you, do you work with someone like this?

I have never worked in such an environment. I have certainly had my days, even at jobs I have loved, but I have been incredibly lucky to never have a job I absolutely dread, and for the most part, I have always enjoyed the people with whom I have worked. But I have still noticed the effects of negativity, whether I am having a bad day/week, or someone else just likes to complain a lot. What I notice is that negativity eats away at my ability to block it out. And as it creeps in, it begins to consume. And negativity can manifest as pain, insomnia, or even dis-ease. I do not remember where I read them, but I know I have read several studies about the health benefits of companies having a positive working environment. We are healthier when we are happier.

So what do we do when we feel this negativity beginning to affect us? What do we do when it has entered our being so deeply that we begin to live it? Some people love affirmations. For whatever reason, the thought of doing affirmations has never really resonated with me. But yoga and meditation have given me a lot of other tools to let the negativity slip away.

First, asanas are a great reminder that no matter how difficult something may seem today, tomorrow it may be simple. When I started yoga, I could barely touch my knees in a forward fold. I remember the first time I did Downward Facing Dog and thinking I was going to die. Over time, both of those poses became relaxing and deep. And this is a lesson for off the mat as well. When negativity strikes, we can simply remember that tomorrow, it may not be there, and we will learn to work through it and let it roll off our shoulders.

Second, meditation is a great way to just allow the negativity to release. Many people think the “goal” of meditation is to have an empty mind. While some days I think that would be lovely, what I really think we need to gain from meditation is the ability to watch our thoughts and let them go. Whether we are thinking about how beautiful the sunrise was or how much we hate our situation, a thought is just a thought, and we can let it go. It is much easier to let the negativity go if we notice it and acknowledge it rather than pretend that it does not exist. Plus, in meditation, we may notice how it affects our being, and we can see the benefit of letting it go.

Finally, we simply do not have to buy into the mindset that work is supposed to be a downer. Sometimes getting rid of negativity is as “simple” as looking at a difficult situation as an interesting challenge. And we can also be grateful over and over again for all the little joys that happen at work, whether your coworker filled the candy bowl (or the hummus dish) or a client said thank you. And we can remember that whatever the latest television show is saying about how much we are supposed to dread our jobs, we actually are allowed to enjoy what we do.

At the conference, we talked a lot about how to make the system in which we work even better. We could have focused only on all the current problems. But where would that have gotten us? Instead, we looked past the negativity and worked on creating solutions. And that is only possible when we are healthy and happy. How do you see your job? Is it work, or do you jump out of bed every morning excited for the day ahead?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.