Re-Bodying: Movement and Play

runningI’m reading Full Catastrophe Living again. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this wise book, but every time, it makes me more awake and aware. The chapters on mindfulness of the body inspired this blog post. The author, Jon Kabat-Zinn, reflects on how the words remind and remember can be interpreted as re-mind—come back home to your own mind, and re-member—become a member of your own consciousness, and then he suggests we may need the word “re-body.”

Children and animals know: it feels wonderful to move around. It’s not natural to hold still and sit for hours. I recently took a trip to visit friends in North Carolina and in Georgia, and the long drive left me craving movement. My friends are walkers and yogis, not runners. Walking and yoga sustained me for a while, but by the last day of the trip I was craving full flight. My Atlanta friend brought me to a trail along the Chattahoochee, and she walked while I took off in an explosion of delight, faster than I normally run. The novelty of the trail added to my energy. I had no idea what was around each curve or over each hill, and had to stay one hundred percent in the present moment to dodge roots and rocks and poison ivy and still take in the beauty of the woods and water. The speed and surprises were part of my joy, along with the sensation of my feet connecting with the earth, the springy strength in my legs.

We don’t all take joy from the same things, but whether we walk, run, dance, practice yoga, lift weights, do tai chi or go ballroom dancing, it doesn’t matter. We’re designed to move. And when we find the movement that matches our spirit, it’s like coming home every time we do it. I like to think that people who say they hate “exercise” haven’t discovered the kind of movement that will make them happy. They’ve been made to do activities incompatible with their nature. However, somewhere in every human is that child who had to be told to hold still. That child loved to jump, skip, run, and climb. It was play. For me, that new trail was play, the game of finding the next footfall on an unpredictable landscape. Yoga is play in the field one’s self, exploring the organization and sensation of each asana, the interaction of the posture and the breath. After decades of practice, I still find even the most basic poses fascinating.

For some people, the word exercise takes the play out of movement. Years ago, I read a study on why women exercise and why they quit. Reasons for starting: weight loss and looking better. Reasons for sustaining exercise: the discovery that it reduces stress. Reasons for skipping exercise or quitting: time pressures and stress. In other words, movement reduces stress, but when women are stressed (and I would guess this is true for men, too) they tend to forego it, as if it were a luxury. It can feel like one, in either the negative sense of an extra that can be cut from the time budget or in the positive sense of deep pleasure. It can be a luxuriant sensation to move, to be fully embodied, present and in motion.

When I’m writing and the story gets stuck, I find that if I stand up and walk around, ideas come to me. It’s as if the stuckness of sitting starts to affect my brain, and the energy of movement clears it. Movement is as essential to mental and emotional health as physical health, but “it’s good for me” is the last thing on my mind when I’m enjoying a run or a yoga practice or just getting up from my desk and re-bodying for a few minutes. I’m playing, following my movement bliss. What’s yours?

*****

Image by Robin McConnell originally posted on Flickr

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Flow, Lived Time, and Wasted Time

Alex_Jacobi_Boots_on_TVThis is another refection on the thought-provoking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In discussing leisure time, Cziksczentmihalyi observes that people experience the optimal emotional and mental state of flow fairly often at work, and yet they long to go home from their jobs and have leisure—where they tend to waste time. It’s strange how we tend not realize what makes us happy.

“Free time … is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. Hobbies that demand skill, habits that set goals and limits, personal interests, and especially inner discipline help to make leisure what it is supposed to be—a chance for re-creation.” Instead, many of us waste that free time on things that ask little of us, imagining that passivity will bring happiness. Cziksczentmihalyi mentions frequently throughout the book that if not given focus, our minds tend toward entropy and so do our relationships, and he is especially critical of excessive television-watching as an entropic behavior. He says we spend many hours watching athletes rather than engaging in sports, and “watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action. This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time.” The book was written prior to the development of binge-watching Netflix, an extreme example of the peculiar appeal of this kind of wasted time. Can you imagine a TV show in which the characters spent a lot of time watching TV? That would not be an entertaining story. Fictional characters are engaged in challenges all the time. That’s what interests us. Conflict, challenge, growth and change.

Flow activities make us deeper, stronger, and more complex, whether we are reading, dancing, gardening, talking with family and friends, engaged in community activism, or making art and music, and they result in something we can share that adds to the quality of others’ lives as well as our own.

Blogging about a book as I progress through it is a new approach—but this one is making me think so much I had to share the thoughts before finishing.

 

 

Why Reading and Writing Can Make You Happy

BookFlow is a state of absorbed, continuous attention in which skill and effort are perfectly matched. I’m half-way through reading the book on it, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmilahlyi, and it’s given me a lot of food for thought

If your skill is high and the effort asked of you is low, a task could lead to boredom. For example, folding laundry. Most of us probably use some sort of additional stimulus like music or television to make it less dull. Sometimes I work on plots or blog posts in my head while I do things that ask too little of my mind. Boredom is also likely when you’re not paying full attention to a task, due to the lack of effort. Students who skim their textbooks often complain that the book was dull. Oddly enough, according to Csikszentmilahlyi, the man who named and first studied flow, paying more attention to a presumably dull thing will make it more interesting. If I turned laundry into a contemplative awareness activity, it could create flow. His research is full of examples of people who turned repetitious jobs into flow activities by how they focused their minds.

However, even if you are focused and aware, if the required effort for a task is too high and your skill is too low, you’re going to be stressed and frustrated. I ran into this trying to follow directions for using Canva, a web site that supposedly lets even tech-impaired idiots create complex images. My skill was too low even for that!

If skill required and effort involved are both low, you’ll be relaxed or apathetic, depending on the circumstances—or you might have flow, if you’re mindful. A massage requires little effort on your part, and little skill, and the match is perfect. Relax and receive. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention to the experience. I’ve sometimes caught myself becoming absent and had to invoke the skill of mindful presence so I could relax and have a low-key flow.

Paying attention in an unbroken way is a rare blessing for a lot of us. Many of our jobs are built around interruptions. Studies have found that people who get interrupted a lot, when left alone, will continue to interrupt themselves for up to an hour before being able to focus again. Flow is lost.

Fragmented attention is the nature of social media. Each click is a new activity. I like chatting with Facebook friends, but the process is fractured, like conversation at a noisy party. It creates connections, but not flow. Books create flow, either a flow of focused ideas in nonfiction or the flow of a story in fiction. According to Csikszentmihalyi, reading is one of the most reliable sources of optimal experience, aka flow. Unlike more passive entertainment, it requires effort, skill, and imagination. Writers and other creative people know flow when we play our part in this exchange of vital energy. When we’re wrapped up in our work, we lose our sense of self, our sense of time, and become one with the creative process itself. Athletes, scientists, and mathematicians know it, too. What gives you flow?

 

The Risk of Enjoying Something New

Humans are attracted to familiarity and recognizable patterns. We like music with tunes: melodies have patterns. Routines and habits are patterns we don’t have to think about, and having them spares us from making millions of minute choices in a day. Rituals are patterns to which we pay deep, contemplative attention. Habit: tea at my desk while I grade papers. Ritual: a Japanese tea ceremony.

Novelty is nether habit nor ritual, and it can feel incredibly uncomfortable even when it’s trivial. I read an interview in a medical journal with a physician who included nutrition in his treatments. He said—using hyperbole, I hope—that people would rather change their religion than what they eat for breakfast.

I like to ask my college health classes, “How many of you think tofu tastes bad?”

Ten or twelve hands out of twenty-five usually go up.

“How many of you have tasted tofu?”

About half the hands go down. A few others go up. In other words, some have tried it and know they don’t like it. Some people have tried it and found it enjoyable. Others have decided in advance that it’s going to taste bad without ever trying it. On a zero-to-ten scale of risky behaviors, trying a new food is a one or a two. Nothing terrible happens if you don’t like it, and you might find that it’s delicious.

In my freshman seminar, I encounter a few students who resist unfamiliar books. “It’s too long—I don’t like long books.” “I never heard of the author.” “I don’t read non-fiction.” “I’ve never read any kind of philosophy.” Behind this resistance is often the dread of being bored. Some take the risk and read deeply and engage with the book whether or not they entirely like it. Others guarantee boredom by skimming, getting the result they dreaded in the first place.

My book club makes me venture beyond books I would choose for myself, and through them I’ve expanded my reading horizons. How big a risk is it, after all, to read a book I might not like, or to read outside my habitual patterns? If I truly dislike a book, I give myself permission to stop reading after forty or fifty pages, but that’s a decision I’ve only made once with a book club selection.

Over the years the club has chosen books some books we all loved, many we disagreed on, and a few we unanimously didn’t like. The nonfiction book Winged Obsession, about a collector and seller of illegal and endangered butterflies, sounded great in reviews and in blurbs from established authors, but every single one of us thought it was poorly written in spite of the solid research. (It was still worth reading. I learned a great deal about butterflies and about law enforcement in Fish and Wildlife.) The humorous indie novel The Scottish Movie delighted us all with its quirky insider’s look at the movie industry. The book isn’t famous nor is it blurbed by the famous, but it was fun.  It’s the only indie book we’ve read as a club and I remember how amazed the other members were when they saw the price. An e-book for $2.99? I read a lot of indie books, but they’re used to paying $7.99 or more. At that price, an unfamiliar author wasn’t much of a risk for them.

Expensive risks are the hardest. The decision to move. The decision to open a business. To travel to a new place. Some of my yoga teacher friends have been to India. One of them had a blissful experience, staying in an ashram where tiny tame deer came to the patio. The other got some kind of fungal infection and spent the whole trip sick—and yet, she didn’t regret the journey. Its lessons were profound.

Some of the risks people take on a daily basis are so comfortable they feel safe. The phone is familiar, and so is the car. I remember riding with a friend who took both hands off the wheel while driving on a curving road—one hand to shift gears and one hand on his phone. When I pointed out what he’d done, he acknowledged that he hadn’t even noticed. That’s what’s risky: not noticing. While we need some routines and habits, going through life without paying attention is dangerous. We risk our lives with distracted driving, risk boredom by skimming the surface of books or experiences, or risk missing a new experience altogether by not even realizing we could have it.

My last book club gathering included an off-topic discussion of the various unexpected new things members’ aging parents were doing. Making maple syrup. Taking water aerobics. Learning to paint. I have a seventy-nine-year-old man in my Gentle Yoga class who is learning this skill for the first time. Everyday novelties can open doors and break old patterns.

A few years ago I read a study done by a professor at Northern Arizona University on inducing happiness. His experiment involved having people do random acts of kindness, take on small achievable new goals and reach them, and make minor variations in their routines. Compared to a control group, the people who made these little changes became measurably happier.

Taking minor risks like trying new books, activities or foods can add up. When I try something new and different, not only do I feel the satisfaction of achievement but the quality of my attention changes. With awareness, even the familiar can become new and different.

 *****

The Scottish Movie

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15841493-the-scottish-movie

 

 

Santosha

“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”

Tom Magliozzi, Car Talk

“I am most happy and content when I cease trying to be happy and content.”

Chuang Tzu

I’ve been busier lately than I like to be. My preference is for open space, both literally and metaphorically. I don’t mean that I like to be lazy, but that the sense of spaciousness is freeing. The feeling that I don’t have to be fast, and that everything can take as long as it naturally takes. A couple of summers ago I took a workshop with yoga teacher and physical therapist Judith Hanson Lasater. It was about yoga and the shoulder joint and rotator cuff, but one of the lessons that stayed with me was when she said “no rushing.” She explained it this way: even when you have to be in a hurry, you can take mental stance of “no rushing.”

One of the philosophical principles of yoga is santosha—contentment. If I object to being busy or having deadlines, those are my expectations getting in the way of happiness. My striving to happy. So be it. I’m busy. But I’m not rushing.

Random Unearned Happiness

A random collection of encounters that have made me smile:

 Smile 1: Today the college where I teach had a special event for which the faculty was required to wear full academic regalia. We lined up outside one of the buildings in our black robes and caps, assembling for the formal procession. On the railing of the building’s ramp, an equally impressive assembly of flies gathered, matching or exceeding our numbers. I’d never seen so many in one place with no apparent attraction—no food, no late unfortunate animals—just a black iron railing. They looked like an alternate version of us, pompous little goggle-eyed professors from some insect university, preparing for their own convocation.

Smile 2: I remember sitting at an outdoor table at the Cerrillos Whole Foods, getting directions to a hiking place from a stranger I was sharing a table with, and a young man walked by, saying aloud to all who could hear, “Another beautiful day in Santa Fe! Can you stand it?”

Smile 3: I overheard this line during an outdoor concert at the Railyard, spoken a lean, intense, green-eyed man with a little straw hat that turned up at the front: “It hit me—I’m almost fifty. The second half of my life is going to be about exercise and stress reduction.” He seemed elated as he told his friends this profound discovery, and shared the even more amazing fact that he’d talked to other people who’d had the same revelation. What I liked was that he called it the second half of his life. Now that’s an optimist.

Smile 4: The following graffiti were all on the same stall wall (in Santa Fe, of course, where else):

(An Om symbol) Just Breathe

            Think—while it’s still legal

            A good deed brightens a dark world.

            Walk as if your feet were kissing the earth.

Sometimes I walk around with a huge smile on my face just because I’m alive and seeing the sky and breathing the air. My feet are kissing the earth. Sometimes I get bogged down in my to-do list and have to do something to remind myself to smile. Today, being satirized by the flies did the trick. I won’t brighten a dark world by taking myself too seriously.