Leaning into 2013: how to make meditation a near-daily pleasure.

I’ve been thinking a lot this December about what changes I’d like to make in 2013.

In the past, I usually didn’t think much about it at all, and when I did, my thoughts on the matter all took place in the last week of the year, after Christmas.

Unfortunately, my New Year resolutions were usually short-lived.

I’d like to change that. I’d like to become more disciplined, and I’d like to be realistic about what that means so I can actually make lasting changes in my life.

The problem is, I like to rebel against “the rules”, so when I set up strict rules for myself, I am setting myself up to break them. It’s counterproductive.

I spent a year meditating for 30 minutes nearly every day, and when that year was up, I rebelled and didn’t meditate every day any more. My sitting practice became sporadic.

I’d like to figure out a way to make meditation a pleasure.

One possibility: Instead of creating a rule to meditate for 30 minutes every day, I can meditate for at least 15 minutes 5 out of 7 days.

I like that flexibility. However, it still sounds like a chore. Why am I making meditation such a joyless task to be done somewhat regularly and checked off a list?

Looking at what keeps me from meditating: I often allow myself to get sucked into reading email and checking Facebook, my online massage booking site, Twitter, Tumblr, blog stats, and so on in the morning, and before I know it, it’s time to get ready for work, and I haven’t meditated.

And…if I don’t meditate in the morning, it usually doesn’t happen.

I don’t know why this is, except perhaps that it takes more effort to do nothing than you’d think, to tear myself away from my laptop and sit myself down on the cushion.

Once I start sitting, I actually love meditation. I love getting really present with myself, breathing, hearing, seeing (if my eyes are open), feeling my body, witnessing my thoughts, noticing my chakras open, experiencing the silent stillness that contains everything, even just feeling the little aches, pains, and tensions as I sit.

To experience this is a joy that keeps on giving throughout the day, somehow connecting me with resources that help me meet life with more equanimity and love, including self-love, than I could otherwise summon.

How can I make this a pleasure? It’s so much more rewarding than being online in terms of enhancing my well-being and the quality of my life, relationships, activities, decisions!

What if…I stay offline until I’ve meditated, and I make it my goal to meditate no longer than an hour, except when I really want to (and have time) to go longer? I can set the timer for an hour, end it then or when it seems complete, and be happy about it all.

Now we’re cooking!

Dance: finding the play in the moment

Psychology Today has posted a slew of articles under the heading The Last Dance? You’ll shed stress, forget pain, amp up your brain–and your sex drive!

Now we know that in addition to all the other benefits of exercise, dance activates the brain’s pleasure centers. It certainly feels like that to me. When I think of the joy I get from dancing, there’s nothing that comes really close, except being in love and having really good sex. Especially when they go together.

Dancing is like joy unleashed. I was at Ecstatic Dance Austin this morning, a bit less energetic than usual because of recent illness but still there, to move, to connect, to get happy.

I took in the whole room — the music, the 60-plus people dancing their hearts out, the wide variety of dancers in age, skill, style — and it felt like being inside a huge heart, pumping bodies, music, laughter, play, freedom, silliness, sweetness, sweat, all with a dance-like-nobody’s-watching attitude.

Some of the dancers are skilled. There are performers, teachers, yogis, and also, people who have issues with their feet, ankles, shoulders, backs. Some dancers stick to very simple moves and pretty much stay in the same place. Some move around the room.

Some dance every dance with a partner (same or different), some dance every dance alone — or with the entire room, who can tell the difference? No one is watching or judging — all dance activates pleasure.

I danced with an old friend, a woman, early on, and it felt like we were the two hottest chicks in the disco. A guy friend shared a yummy, slow, and tender dance with me — thanks so much, my dear. Another man and I playfully played, and he dazzled me again with his joy. I danced alone and with the room, and also was still and wept, and I did some handstands against the wall. It was all good. This dance is a large container.

Below, some excerpts from the articles that I found interesting:

“Dance allows people to experience themselves in ways they didn’t know they could,” says Miriam Berger, a dance professor and dance therapist at New York University. “You can change your internal state through external movement.”

dance boosts mood more than does exercise alone. In a study at the University of London, researchers assigned patients with anxiety disorders to spend time in one of four therapeutic settings: a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety.

Cardiac-rehab patients in a recent Italian study who enrolled in waltzing classes not only wound up with more elastic arteries, but were happier than participants who took up bicycle and treadmill training.

What accounts for the emotional high dancers experience? As a general rule, moving to music activates the brain’s pleasure circuits.

The brain’s structure may explain another important source of mood boost: Dancing bonds people, according to Robyn Flaum Cruz, president of the American Dance Therapy Association. MRI scans show that watching someone dance activates the same neurons that would fire if you yourself were doing the moves. 

For your pleasure and education: 

Berger speculates that the sense of achievement and well-being that comes from expanding and perfecting one’s movement repertoire may carry over into other areas of life. “One of the most important parts of psychotherapy is relearning things you learned wrong,” she says. “With dance, you have a great opportunity to do that on a physical level.”

In a study done at the University of New England, participants who spent six weeks learning tango’s fancy footwork recorded significantly lower levels of depression than a control group who took no classes, and results similar to those of a third group who took meditation lessons. Study author Rosa Pinniger credits the extreme focus—or “mindfulness”—of dance, which interrupts negative thought patterns that contribute to anxiety and depression.

The physically expressive nature of dance also helps people release and thereby recognize pent-up feelings, the first step to dealing with them.

…if conscious communication through motion is the hallmark of dance, then we better call painters like Jackson Pollock dancers too. In his drip paintings, Pollock placed the canvas on the floor and moved around it rhythmically, flinging paint as he went. Painting was, for him, an experience and an expression of the moving body. His paintings might even be considered dance notations!

Dancers exercise every one of the universal thinking skills we explore in Sparks of Genius, The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People (Houghton Mifflin: 1999). They observe the movements of people and things. They image, or mentally manipulate, what they have observed and experienced, seeing with the mind’s eye the movements they wish to make, feeling the feel of these movements before they enact them. Dancers analogize, linking the human body to living forms and inanimate processes around them. They imitate or model the movements of these things. They abstract certain elements of these movements in order to simplify, to grasp the essential. Thinking dimensionally, they form patterns in space and through time. They play with these patterns, altering and improvising. Ultimately, dancers transform stories or pictures or sculptures or games or ideas into dance. They synthesize music, choreography, costume and setting into one coherent spectacle. But most of all and most specially, dancers empathize through role-playing. And in related fashion, they think with the body, exploring what they know about the world with muscle movements, visceral tensions, gut feelings, and emotions.

There are short-cuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them. – Vicki Baum

Dancing: the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music.  – George Bernard Shaw

If you’re interested in reading why dance is a radical act vital to our survival as humans on earth, read this entire article, which is too difficult to excerpt. Well, except for these:

To dance is to play with the movement that is making us. It is to cultivate a sensory awareness of how this movement is making us, and of how our own movements, as we shape and transmit the energy of life, are making us. To dance is to play with this movement in ways that allow us to discover and exercise our capacity to make our own movements—movements that align with our health and well-being.

One who dances knows: the reason we “exercise” is to play–to find the play in the moment, to release the capacity to play within ourselves. Dancing, we explore the possibilities for movement alive in the moment. We cultivate a receptivity to impulses to move as they arise in our bodily selves. We improvise. We imagine. We allow our bodily selves to guide us in new patterns. We follow a toe, a finger, a nose, the waves of our breathing into new spaces of sensation.

I’ve touched 100 naked people

I realized today after carefully counting that I’ve touched 100 naked people in the last 7 months. That probably makes you wonder if I’m a sex worker.

I’m not. I’ve been a student of massage therapy since June 2011, and I’ve worked on my fellow students and teachers, many of my friends and family, and clients at the student clinic.

I’ve worked on many of these people several times. When I complete just 10 more massages in the intern clinic, I’ll have completed the requirements for graduation and will have given about 150 massages.

Every person I’ve touched has gotten my full attention, presence, and skill. Even that one person who happened to be my fourth recipient in one day, when it crossed my mind that I felt tired and cranky — I pulled myself out of that mindset, got a second wind, and gave them my best.

A naked and vulnerable human on the table in front of me is a divine gift with whom I hold a sacred contract to give my best.

Every person I’ve massaged has contributed immensely to the intelligence in my hands, heart, instincts, and awareness.

Most people are fairly silent when receiving massage, their attention on their bodies or breath or my hands, I presume, or perhaps their grocery list. I don’t read minds, so I don’t really know.

Silence helps me work.

Some people stay mentally alert and present the entire time. Some sink quickly or slowly into a state of deep relaxation, that state of no effort where the body is being breathed, the mind is loose and free, and imagery bubbles up out of darkness. Some fall asleep. Their snoring tells me.

Sometimes I go into a trance with you, and those are the best massages.

I watch and listen to you breathing. I feel your pulses. I see your scars — the ones on your skin and the emotional ones like the chronically rounded shoulders, that one tight hip, the rigidity in your torso. Sometimes your bodies tell me stories, of weight gained or lost, an old injury with a long recovery, a recent injury complete with road rash, surgery, playing a sport, working out regularly, working at a computer.

No one — so far — has had a perfect body. I belief that’s likely a myth created by airbrushing.

I’ve learned that nearly everyone has some tension in their shoulders — in the upper trapezius muscle, to be specific.

The low back is also a popular place for tension and pain to hang out. It’s amazing that by working on your rectus abdominis (the abdomen’s six-pack), the front and back of your body become balanced and your low back pain goes away.

I’ve learned that due to handedness, no one’s upper trapezius muscles are exactly symmetrical.

Some people think they’re relaxed, but when I pick up their arm or leg, they have a hard time letting go of control, giving me the full weight.

Some people want more pressure, some less. I’ve gained strength in my arms and hands and can now deliver more consistent firm pressure.

I’ve worked on fat people, skinny people, people with chronic health problems, healthy people, a lot of people stressed out from office work (I’ve posted before about too much sitting), an age range from 11 to 85, people with tight bodies and loose bodies, and one pregnant woman.

All precious.

When I worked on my daughter, memories of her infancy arose, and I realized that everyone who gets naked on my table is just this:

an old baby
no longer tiny or quite so helpless
nonetheless innocent and vulnerable like a newborn

I’ve learned that some people are not very knowledgeable about their own bodies, misnaming their body parts, unaware of tensions, oblivious to the postural or movement habits that cause them pain — that they’ve unconsciously created for themselves.

Your body tells the truth. It can’t lie.

Why aren’t body awareness and anatomy taught at home and in schools?

There are certain massage strokes that tend to get sighs of relief and moans of pleasure. I’ve developed an opening routine that opens.

Receiving massage is all about you becoming more alive and your nervous system waking up, your body shedding tension and moving into relaxation and pleasure, not to mention improving your circulation, breath, brainwaves, mood, compassion, immunity, energy flow, digestion, posture, alignment, balance, movement, and presence.

In many ways, allowing me to massage you is like letting me to take your armor off — the armor you probably weren’t aware of putting on until you started feeling tense or in pain.

Everyone can benefit from taking their time getting up afterwards, not rushing off in their cars to get somewhere else, not re-engaging their left brains too quickly.

Yes, leave your armor off for a while and stay for a cup of tea with me.