Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living

Even commonplace events can have depth and meaning, if we take time to notice. Power outages. Desert rain. Bats in flight. A stranger singing in a park.

In this collection of essays, Amber Foxx—a former college professor, now a mystery writer and yoga instructor—blends her insights as a teacher with her love of words to chronicle moments of beauty and deep attention.

Join her on a reflective journey though the small awakenings mindfulness brings into everyday life.

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People My Own Age

When I was a kid, I was close to my older sister and tended to share friends with her, people a year ahead of me in school. In college and when I first started working, I mingled with my own age group, and I also retained a close connection with a couple who were my father’s good friends. These mature people stood as a contrast to the crazy mistakes my peers and I made in our twenties. I would visit their home, leaving the sea of drama that is young adulthood for an island of sanity, culture, and intellectual engagement, and become aware of the difference, enjoying the respite and the chance to be a little more like them.

As I got older, my friends tended to become younger. I didn’t do this on purpose; they were the people I met through work and yoga, and I seldom felt older than them. By the time I retired, I was generally socializing with people twenty years my junior.

At work, I was surrounded by eighteen-year-olds five days a week, teaching primarily first-year courses. Since I taught in health and exercise science, the subject of aging naturally came up in classes. I often heard students say, “I love old people. They’re so cute.” It was good to know they loved their elders, but that adjective made me cringe.

My former backdoor neighbors had a frantic, poorly trained little dog which they let out in the yard to yap nonstop at all passersby. One morning, a stooped, gray-haired woman passed through the alley between my apartment and dog-owners’ trailer, and of course, the little beast barked hysterically. The woman muttered, “Someone ought to kick that f___ing rat in the head.” I wonder if my former students would think she was cute.

I live in a town where, according to one of its younger residents, the average age is “retired.” My friends are in their fifties, sixties and seventies. Vigorously engaged in their work, their creative pursuits, and in community organizations, they defy stereotypes of aging. Many of the poets who gather at Black Cat Books and Coffee are in their silver-haired years, and the vibrancy and originality of their work is impressive—perhaps because of the years behind the words.

At first I thought the predominance of fellow Boomers and creative people in T or C made it too easy to fit in, and I wondered, is this good for me? While I don’t miss the daily hassles of dealing with college freshmen or grading their papers, I realize I benefited from the abrasion. The longer I’m here, the more I see that everyone, in their own way, will challenge me to adapt and grow. People who are superficially and demographically like me are just as different from me in many ways as my eighteen-year-old students were. This is good. People who are not like me help wear the rough edges off my personality and opinions, like the wind sculpting desert rocks. With that softening comes access to the place where we are more alike, the essence, the humanness, the spirit.

Ahimsa and Santosha

Though a few of my fictional characters do practice yoga, this week it’s Amber the yoga teacher and college professor more than the novelist who’s talking.

The Sanskrit word ahimsa is usually translated as “non-harming.” It’s one of the principles of yoga philosophy, one of the yamas, which means abstentions or restraints. Ideally, we’re aware of it in our asana practice and also as we take our yoga with us into our lives. Ahimsa applies to self and others, to all life forms, not only to humans. Thinking unkind and hostile thoughts, saying destructive things, or doing harmful actions are all contrary to the principle of ahimsa.

When I teach, I remind students to stay in a pain-free range of motion and to come out of a pose completely when fatigued rather hang in their joints and possibly injure themselves. But then I’ll look around and see students succumbing to the competitive urge to do what a stronger or more flexible classmate can do. Santosha needed! This is one of the niyamas, the observances to be practiced without restraint. It means contentment. One does not fight reality but takes an attitude of receptive awareness. Objecting to reality with complaints and harsh judgment doesn’t change it. Change can occur, however, from this basis in contentment. Approaching one’s own body and one’s own character from santosha seems to go with having a sense of humor that is kind and open.

I do my best to integrate yoga philosophy into my teaching without giving a formal lecture. However, it’s incredibly hard to teach Americans not to hurt themselves, and when I instruct other kinds of physical activity it’s even harder. There’s no expectation of spirituality or stress reduction in a strength-training class, but of self-improvement, and for some reason, we seem to think we’re better people if we push ourselves beyond healthy limits. I’ve met young men who take pre-workout pills with so much caffeine they could cause a heart attack in order to force their exhausted bodies to work harder, when what they really need is eight hours of sleep a night. I think Americans subscribe to a pervasive cultural delusion that it’s virtuous to go without sleep or heroic to work sixty hours or more a week, and that a great athlete will sacrifice the long-term well-being of his or her body for the sport and for the team. I wish no one had ever come up with the phrase, “no pain, no gain.”

Well-rested, relaxed people get more done in less time. They fight less. Comprehend more. Pay attention and remember better. Procrastinate less. Have more energy. If we all slowed down and allowed our nervous systems to stop buzzing, what would happen? If we valued our health as a nation and as a culture, rather than seeing it as expendable in the pursuit of other goals, what would happen? How would employers treat workers? How would we treat ourselves?

Attention Span

It’s been said that we teach what we most need to learn. Many of my classes involve critical thinking and information literacy skills. While I’m still teaching, I want to pay attention to the lessons I learn from my work.

Back in November, I asked my first year seminar students to write down topics they felt were important and challenging to discuss. We then used the randomly drawn slips of paper like the talking stick in a talking circle. The person holding it got to say whatever he or she needed to say while others listened, and then that person handed the paper along. Anyone could pass who was not ready to talk. We got through three topics that day and I saved the rest for when we had time to do this again. Two weeks later, the first topic someone drew from the heap was “Politics.” Most of the students said they had cared about it before the election and right after, but now they didn’t pay much attention to it. One young woman said the election had been so unpleasant that she changed her major from political science. It drove a thoughtful, moderate Republican who understands that conservative includes conserve out of wanting to engage in politics. That’s a loss to her community. Every time a young person with a good mind gets disillusioned, we lose their years of future leadership. I hope she’ll get involved again in the future. Her burnout is deep, though.

Her classmates’ loss of interest in something they felt passionate about two weeks before is alarming. As a culture, we may be getting trained to the media’s attention span and the media’s focal point, forgetting that our personal lives’ deep needs interact with issues that take prolonged, thoughtful, patient engagement, regardless of the headlines.

The lack of information they had was also troubling. Not because they’re not smart—they are, but the only student who knew recent world history well was from Palestine. He was the only one able to knowledgeably talk about the Cuban revolution and who Fidel Castro really was and why people felt so strongly about his death. And of course, he was well-informed on the complexities of the Middle East, and the pros and cons and unintended consequences of American presence there, something his classmates barely understood. I was relieved that the majority do understand climate change and that only one person in two classes of nineteen didn’t. Even the most politically conservative of them comprehended the reality of climate science. They don’t see it as a political issue so much as a scientific one with an impact they’ll have to live with.

Today in my January term health class, students shared and discussed articles on their chosen research topic for this half of the week, public health issues and the environment. This discussion was encouraging. I think the young adult attention span is only short for things they don’t fully understand, which for some includes politics, but it’s steady for the concepts they grasp. I hope this understanding ultimately translates into engagement. The earth needs them.

Writing about this motivates me to stay engaged as well, and to pay attention to issues in depth after the headlines fade.

Phew! Yee-ha! And a Pitiful Cry

I know life is made up of moments lived, not a series of goals and strivings, but I love how it feels when I get something done. Today I finished preparations for the course I’ll teach over the three-week January term. It’s hardly an adventure, more of a task, leading to a mere “phew” of satisfaction. The fun will come when I have students next week, new people with fresh ideas and thoughtful questions. I can’t have the fun, though, without the work.

With writing, the joys run backwards. Today I also finished the first satisfactory draft of the next Mae Martin mystery. I describe it that way because my writing process goes through so much ongoing revision and recycling that it’s hard to call anything a first draft. The moment of knowing that this is the plot that works and this is the ending is exhilarating, a big “yee-ha!” I dance quite a bit at this stage of writing, something I don’t do in my college office. I’m excited about revising the book, too, and sharing it with critique partners and revising it more. I even enjoy the picky details of word choice and sentence structure, of deciding what to cut and what to add, and experimenting with the best way to describe certain feelings and actions. It’s work that doesn’t feel like work, all the way to the final draft.

Getting sales and reviews is the work that feels like work. A book isn’t fully alive until it has readers, just as a planned-out college class is nothing until it has students. I have to do this work, but I look at Twitter and Facebook, trying to think of witty snippets of chat, and I shrivel. No, please, there has to be better way. My New Year’s resolution is stop whimpering and become a marketing genius without boring or annoying anyone. (That’s what would make me a genius.) I need to learn to dance with delight about filling out an advertising form, or at least look forward to the “phew” of having done it. Instead of just tweeting links, I will take up the challenge of composing something original and intriguing in 140 characters or less. Follow me on Twitter and see if I succeed. But don’t hold your breath. I’d rather be writing a hundred thousand words of fiction, or even next semester’s syllabus.