the mindfulness project

In our yoga teacher training at studio330, dallas and I host two wonderful women - Bethany and Stephanie -  to do a goal setting session with our students. It's a popular weekend, as it examines core values and realistic strategies for achieving goals in line with those values. (If you're interested to learn more, visit the enthusiastic Bethany Smith's page.)

We have a lovely group of students, but as we were discussing feasibility, perceived and real barriers, etc, I found myself thinking about the categorical content of the goals they were sharing. Overall, it aligned with the historical content of my own goals: status and stuff.

Status - a promotion, different career path, romantic partner, financial security. All perfectly logical statuses to achieve, as they're assumed to bring happiness.

Stuff - the right house, a cottage on the lake, a horse (that one's mine), a dog, a car, a vacation.

Our relationship to stuff can get tricky when we become yogis. We turn to yoga for greater ease, and we learn to manifest contentment and awareness within. We know the pleasure of attainment is fleeting and just creates a new material desire, thus the success of consumer driven capitalism, but having turned to yoga as a way to be okay without filling the void with unnecessary things, we become more discriminating in our consumption. (This is yoga at work! Keep it up!)

In no way was I alarmed or worried about their goals, I was simply intrigued. What seemed absent to me were a desire to work on personal qualities that could contribute to greater happiness, like being kinder, more decisive, broadening intellectual or cultural horizons, or becoming a more confident public speaker.

Personal qualities are not something we often talk about needing to do some work on. In fact, we typically get quite defensive and deny the veracity of the statement if we're told of a quality that could use some attention. We're hard wired to believe that we're good people, and bad behaviour germinates from the influence of external forces. Whether it be on television shows that glorify outlandish fictional deaths or in the news, demonizing criminal activity is a popular cultural scapegoat. Like my earlier post on "slow violence" and ahimsa, it's an easy way to comfort ourselves that we are already good people exactly as we are... because we're not those people. We would never do that.

There are many people whose behaviour isn't explicitly "bad", but an absence of self-awareness can be really dis-empowering - it keeps people from changing their circumstances. We've all had these conversations with friends or family. I'm not the one with the problem, if only SHE would stop acting so superior to me. Or maybe it's... Well, I can't leave my job because the pay is too good, but I want to punch my boss in the face every time I see him. Or it's... I know you want me to be like that, but your expectations are unreasonable. This is how I am.

It's a perspective that makes change impossible and your circumstances permanent. Scary, right?

That's why it's worth some sincere self-reflection, because we'll be happier. Sometimes those statuses and stuff won't materialize no matter how much we plan for them; if elements of our personality are in direct conflict with their attainment, they won't occur. If you want to be a yoga teacher that people love and adore, you need to demonstrate lovable, adorable qualities. If you want a healthy, kind partner, you likely need to be a healthy, kind person.

Change can sometimes be uncomfortable, as it requires identifying limiting beliefs and behaviours, recruiting the right people to help, and taking actionable steps to make those changes, and we become really good at what we do a lot of. As yogis, we call these habits "samskaras", or grooves of the mind. The deeper that groove is entrenched, the harder it is to change. Do you like gossiping? I bet you're great at it. Big fan of never asking for what you really want? You may never get it! Is the whole world against you? It always will be!

Being a yogi means inviting in change, and riding the waves of newness with humility and self-compassion. It is an ongoing, iterative process. We are always in progress.

Back to the goal setting activity, I told our students about the year I decided to become a better listener. They asked me how I knew I needed to be, and I admitted that I'd been told so a few times in my younger years. It was true - I used to simply be waiting for other people to stop chatting so I could tell them the multitude of stories, facts, jokes, reiterations of comedy routines, and all manners of curiousity and hilarity I'd encountered that day. (Fact: I was almost silent and incredibly shy until I was five. I was clearly conserving my energy.) I also had a habit of providing words for people when they struggled to identify the right one within milliseconds.

In the process, I've learned that letting people struggle to find their words is important to them. It's part of their process of sorting out their emotions and perspective on whatever it is we're discussing. I've learned they'll ask, "what is that word?" if they think I might have it. I've learned it's important that they trust I value their words, and I'll demonstrate their value by honouring them with active listening. And I got there through discipline and exercise.

What kind of exercises? Purposeful attention. Identifiable tricks. Mindfulness.

I started to look for situations where I may be displaying some poor listening skills, and implemented these tricks. First of all, I started asking more questions rather than responding with stories and anecdotes. If a friend was telling me about a first date, we'd have an entire profile of that person by the end of the conversation. Now I can go an entire coffee with a friend and not even tell them about my life. (Except for the occasional opinion; nobody's perfect, and we usually have friends who value our perspective.)

Second, and more simply, I took a big breath when I was done talking. I used to just keep going until they clearly would like a turn, but now I allow silence to happen. (This is also an extremely useful skill for conference calls.)

We can change. We can be happier and better people. It does not mean we are bad people now, or unworthy of love and attention, but we can be more mindful. By being more mindful, we can create a world where we all pay more attention. I think it might be the secret to all that ails us.

So I am starting with me, which is really all any of us can do. I am launching my personal mindfulness project.

Each month of 2015, I will focus on cultivating mindfulness around a particular topic. I'll let you know what that is at the beginning of the month, check in halfway through, and then share the journey at the conclusion of the month. If you're interested in participating, I'd love to hear about it.

It's a fitting project for a yogi - this practice is about listening carefully, about tuning in. We will adjust the dial. We will find ourselves on a higher frequency.