EMBRACING CHANGE

 

Embracing Change. Photo: NASA

 

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

We are all temporary residents of Planet Earth and none of us knows when our visa will expire.  Despite the fact that this is the one certain fact of our existence, we spend our lives either resisting or, mostly, ignoring it. Hoping it will just go away.  Or maybe somehow we will miraculously be exempt.  Of course, no one wants to dwell on the fact of his/her own demise even though it is inevitable.  Our society has an uncomfortable relationship with this concept.  Some of us have beliefs about what happens after death that subdue negative thinking on the subject.  But mostly what we think of when we reflect on the impermanence of life is it’s loss.  And it’s not just people but every living thing on the planet that will undergo the transformation from life to not-life, whatever that entails.  Those left behind lose someone or something, creating a void where that living being once was.  Those about to move into the transition will lose everything that is familiar, the perceptions that a lifetime of consciousness has provided.  They think of all the events they will miss.  So it’s not really death that we worry about.  Of course, we may fear the potential pain that might accompany death.  But what we really fear is loss.  And change.

No one likes change.  Yet change is as inevitable as death.  Everything is changing all the time, and despite our best efforts, there is nothing we can do to stop it.  Even when we think we’ve managed to head off certain changes, other changes will still occur that may not have been anticipated.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t work to make changes that could improve our lives.  But outcomes will most likely be different from what we expected when we began this work. Unexpected things happen all the time.  This is why many thinkers on these subjects recommend focussing on the process, rather than the outcome.  There’s an old Yiddish saying, “Man plans and God laughs”.  Life is unpredictable.  Pay attention to the journey, but let the chips fall where they may.

Loss comes in many forms, not just the ultimate.  Often we fail to acknowledge the significance of other losses in our lives.  Sometimes we know they are coming, other times we don’t.  Either way, we don’t always have a choice in how things work out.  We lose jobs, homes, money, youth, independence, etc., etc.  Even when we think we’ve chosen well, there are many factors beyond our control.  Sometimes things work out the way we want, sometimes they don’t.   It’s so easy to judge the actions of others.  Or to beat up on ourselves when we think we’ve made some huge blunder.  Hindsight is 20-20.  But most of us do the best we can with what we have to work with at the time.  And time only moves in one direction.  There is no going back.  What exists right now is what we have to work with.  We can’t change other people.  Circumstances beyond our control create situations that can’t be changed.  Sometimes we can change parts and pieces or maybe work toward a change.  But for the most part the only thing we can change is our attitude and perception.

In an article in Yoga Journal author Sally Kempton talks about navigating through change.  She cites “the Buddhist Doctrine of Impermanence, annica, [which] tells us that change is inevitable, continuous, and unavoidable.”  There is also a way of viewing this as the constantly shifting nature of energy:

“the intrinsic, dynamic power at the heart of life. . . . Every moment, every enterprise, every cell, is part of this flow of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. This flow is happening on a macrocosmic level—as the flow of seasons, tides, and cultures—and on a microcosmic level, through the various shifts in your physical states, the ups and downs of your life, and the flow of thoughts and emotions in your mind.”

When seen this way, even the most determined control freak must acknowledge that these changes are happening right before our eyes in every moment of every day.  Like it or not.

Perhaps instead of thinking of “endings” and “beginnings”, we can think of change as heralding transformation.  Part of our fear of loss is fear of the unknown.  What will be on the other side of this loss?  We know what life was like before the change.  How will we deal with what comes next? Even if the current state of affairs is not optimal, at least it’s familiar – the “devil you know “.  In the article cited above, Ms. Kempton also talks about ritual.  She writes, “In traditional societies, every phase of life was regarded as an initiation into a new way of being and was marked with a ceremony. . . Nowadays, we don’t always do a ceremony, but we still undergo initiations.”  All life changes require us to “step outside your habits, test your skills, and, for a time, inhabit the unknown. . . Each of these changes will subtly or even dramatically redefine you. You won’t be quite the same person after you step out of the old situation and into the new.”  Furthermore, “the change itself . . is the doorway into the next stage of growth—one that propels you into a deeper relationship with yourself and the world.”

The article goes on to provide some ideas for moving through change gracefully.  These, of course, require practice. Practice implies that success is not guaranteed, but there will always be another opportunity to try.  There are many articles and numerous suggestions from all kinds of authors on what to include in such a practice.  Everyone needs to find what works for them.  Still when change is sudden and catastrophic, it can be difficult to remember how to practice, let alone recognize that you are embarking on a new way of life.  Mourning is also a ritual.  Recognizing loss and the need to mourn is just as important as accepting change.  But all suggestions seem to boil down to the same concept:  leave the past behind, let the future take care of itself and simply be here now.  In this moment.  Hear your breath.  Count your blessings.  If you’re still a resident on the planet with an unexpired visa there will always be something to be grateful for.  Loss hurts.  It’s OK to hurt.  It’s part of being human.  Allow it.  Be kind to yourself.

POWER IN COMMUNITY

Photo:Pixabay.com

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates And Yoga

January has come and gone.  According to just about every article on the subject, most New Year’s resolutions have now reached the graveyard of good intentions.  Fortunately, any time is appropriate to get back on that bandwagon and try again.  As we all know, every day is a new day and a new opportunity.  There are many tips for setting goals and maintaining resolve, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the value of community.  A group of like-minded and supportive practitioners can help keep you motivated, especially when barriers start appearing in your path.

The great Vietnamese philosopher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote “A good [community] is crucial for practice.” He continues “A good teacher is important, but sisters and brothers in the practice are the main ingredient for success.”  Of course, he may be referring to a different type of practice here, but I would venture that even he would not object to expanding the meaning more broadly to include many types of practice.  Especially those practices with the ultimate goal of self-improvement.

If one of your self-improvement goals is to add more movement to your life, a group can be a huge help to keep you on that path.  A recent article in the Washington Post  cites two new studies that demonstrate the value of even “light activity” as being “helpful for outcomes like daily functioning, mental well-being, good quality of life and so on.”  Improved methods are now being used to conduct such studies.  In the past they have mostly been based on self-reporting which is notoriously inaccurate.  But with new technology such as Fitbits and similar activity tracking devices, more objective data can be collected.  The result of these 2 studies show that the benefits of movement, even light movement, are far more impressive than previously thought.  In fact, these studies found that “the most active subjects had a 50 to 70 percent decline in mortality during a defined follow-up period compared with the least active, most sedentary participants. Previous self-report research had pegged this benefit at about 20 to 35 percent.” This is comparable to the health benefits gained by non-smokers vs. smokers.  So it is particularly significant.

Interestingly, these studies tracked individuals (male and female) in their late 60’s and 70’s.  The researchers believe that the results will correlate to younger people also.  But the results add further evidence to support the notion that it is never too late to start moving.  Furthermore, any movement beats being sedentary.  The studies show that “all physical activity counts toward improving health status. You don’t have to play basketball for an hour or run three miles to accrue benefits. You simply have to move . . .”

One great way to do that is to join a group.  That’s what exercise classes provide – a group that is working together to keep moving.  Classes also provide a specific time and place for this activity.  You can set that time aside in your schedule and like any other appointment.  Not only will this help you remember, but it can also help you keep other appointments from interfering.

The word “yoga” is translated as “union” from Sanskrit.  This can mean many things.  It can mean union of mind and body.  Or union of movement and breath.  For this purpose I would suggested that “union” can also refer to a group that practices together.  This is true not just of yoga, but of any group that practices movement together.

Recently one of the members of our Pilates group was sick.  We missed her while she was gone and worried about her sending healing energy for her quick return.  When she got better we were elated to have her back and welcomed her accordingly.  As part of a group your well-being becomes important to others as well as yourself.  Of course, your friends and family will also benefit from your good health, but wouldn’t it be great to have a supportive group to share your efforts with.  You can and should continue to move on your own, but a group can encourage that also.  The more you move, the better you will feel which will encourage more movement.  So if you’re still hoping to at least try to fulfill your pledge to yourself, let a group help you.  We all need each other.  Take advantage of the benefits of community.

Internalizing Kindness

Photo: Sarajuggernaut/Pixabay.com

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
December 4, 2017

In this season of giving, we are all thinking about what we can do for others. This is certainly noble and important. But we’ve also all heard the expression, “charity begins at home”. In particular, I’d like to focus on what Buddhists call “right speech”.

Traditionally, this concept refers to how we use language to avoid hurting others. According to the Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, right speech is defined as “refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech”.  An abbreviated version of this definition can also be as simple as “speaking truthfully and helpfully”.   In a recent article in Tricycle magazine titled “If the Buddha Were Called to Jury Duty” by Mark Epstein, the author writes, “Conventionally, right speech refers to how we speak to others, but I also believe it can help us pay attention to how we speak to ourselves.”  This got me to thinking about self-talk and how we treat ourselves.

It is safe to say that all of us without exception have some kind of internal dialogue going throughout each day.  For most of us it is, in fact, a pretty constant companion from the moment we wake until we fall back to sleep.  The most common reason people give for their perceived inability to meditate is that they can’t quiet their constantly chattering minds.  Those of you who have a meditation practice know that this is not really what it’s all about, but I’m going to leave that aside for now and focus instead on the internal dialogue itself.

Throughout this blog I have often pointed to the fact that we are our own harshest critics.  In fact, most of us would never treat other people the way we routinely treat ourselves.  We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and then mercilessly berate ourselves when we fail to reach them.  The fact that they were unrealistic to begin with rarely enters the conversation.  We compare ourselves to others who we are certain are doing better and tell ourselves we are failures because we can’t measure up.  Or we will find some external source to blame.  In other words, we could have been perfect if it weren’t for ______ (fill in the culprit du jour).   Most of us are doing the best we can with what we have to work with in any given moment.  And none of us – without exception – is perfect.  But instead of acknowledging that fact and moving on, we will often poke and prod at the wound of our inability like a toothache and just keep reinforcing that negative perception.  The “should haves, could haves, would haves, ifs, ands. and buts” are rerun ad-nauseum in our mind’s eye until we feel incapable of doing anything right.

It is interesting to me that it seems almost like human nature to focus on the negative.  During my years of teaching and training, whenever evaluation requests are distributed to participants, 99% could come in saying “this was the best course I ever had in my life”.  But then 1 person says, “This was horrible.  A total waste of my time.”  Instead of focussing on the positive majority, trainers will inevitably worry about the 1 or 2 instances of negative feedback.  As the expression goes:   negative experiences cling like velcro while the positive ones repel like teflon.

Turning negative thinking into positive is a practice.   There are many articles that tout this concept.  For example positive self-talk is used by athletes to improve performance. According to Psychology Today:  “Positive self-talk is not self-deception.  .  . Rather, [it] is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself.  .  .  One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes.  To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic.”  The Mayo Clinic suggests that positive self-talk can help relieve stress.  This article presents some ideas to help you practice.  For example, if you are thinking “I can’t do this because I’ve never done it before”, you can change that to “this is an opportunity to learn something new”.  Or “this is too complicated” can change to “I’ll try it a different way.”  Or “I don’t have the resources” can become “maybe I can get creative – necessity is the mother of invention.”  Of course, there are more, but you get the picture.

So to bring this back to the season we’re in and to my favorite topic – mindful movement, if you find yourself lamenting lack of time, funds, patience, skill or any other perceived shortcoming, recognize this as an opportunity to practice turning the negative self-talk around.  Remind yourself that all of the generosity you want to express during the holidays needs to begin with your own self-compassion.  You can’t give what you haven’t got.  If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will be no good to anyone else.  Be kind to yourself and everyone around you will benefit.

Keeping What’s Right From Going Wrong

Photo: StockSnap/Pixabay

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
October 30, 2017

Our bodies are made up of so many parts and systems that it’s almost impossible to think about all of them at once.  There are numerous muscles, bones and nerves, but also fluids like blood, lymphatic and spinal.  Then there are the energetic systems that enable all of those parts and systems to interact with each other.  At the cellular level, there is an entire universe within each of us.   If you think about the precision with which everything needs to interact in order to move us, it’s no surprise that sometimes things go wrong.  In fact, it’s often more of a wonder that things go right!

Among the goals of both yoga and Pilates is to help us get to know our bodies and really start to pay attention to how the different elements of mind and body work together for optimal movement.  “Optimal” is a subjective terms and may mean different things for different bodies, but the more we learn about ourselves, the more we can move toward optimization.

This week I read a great little book  called “The RBG Workout”.  What is “RBG” you ask?  It’s the initials for our Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an inspiration to all of us at any age.  Tag line for the book is “How she stays strong and you can too!”  Of course, I’m sure she is also blessed with good genes, but she has certainly had physical challenges including two bouts with cancer.  The book was written by Bryant Johnson, who has been her personal trainer of almost 20 years.  Throughout the book he talks about how tough and strong she is, but also how she progressed during those years.  The workout described in the book seems pretty challenging, but Mr. Johnson takes pains to remind readers that it took time and persistence to get her to the point where she can now do the whole workout.

One of the quotes in the book that I especially like is this:  “. . . exercise is a great equalizer.  A push-up, a squat , a lunge, or a plank doesn’t care who you support or . . . about your race, religion, color, gender or national origin.  You may have a powerful job . . . but your body will still have veto power over you.  . . . If you don’t use it, you will lose it.”  One more reminder that we are mutually dependent on all of those systems described above.   We need them, but they need us, too.  Taking care of our bodies is no guarantee that things won’t go wrong, but it will certainly improve the odds.  And if things go wrong, you’ll be better able to deal with the problems if you’ve made that effort to stay strong, flexible and mobile.

The message here is that it’s never too late to start moving and no matter where you start, you can improve.  It might take some time – maybe longer than you thought it would – and there may be moves that will continue to elude you, but if you stick with it you will make progress.   As I’ve often said throughout these blog posts, the hard part is starting.  Once you start you’re already making progress.  After that, the only obstacle standing in your way is you.  In her foreword to the book, Justice Ginsburg talks about the demands of her job.  Yet she prioritizes her workout.  When the time comes, she sets everything aside and maintains her commitment to her body and, ultimately, her health.

As Mr. Johnson says, if Justice Ginsburg can do it so can you!  Maybe not in the same way that she does, but if you can move and breathe there is still a level of exercise that each of us can manage.   The terms “balance”, “strength” and “flexibility” have multiple meanings.  Balance is not just about standing on one foot, but also about maintaining a balance in your life.  If one aspect of your life starts to overwhelm all the others, stress will result and your body will react.  Exerting strength will help you maintain the discipline you need to take care of yourself.  And flexibility will help you to go with the flow when life takes a turn you hadn’t planned on.  All of these qualities are part of what you will build when you commit to movement.

So next time you’re tempted to blow off your workout because you think something else is more important, remember that all the systems in your body are depending on you to keep them running.  All the important things in your life need you to be functioning at your best.  You’re no good to anyone if you can’t function.  Help yourself to be the best that you can be!

Improving Independence

Cave Painting of Lascaux

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

This past week we celebrated Independence Day, a milestone in American history.  On that day we recall our fledgling nation’s successful effort to separate itself from British rule and establish our own local government.  Since that time the concept of independence has become a significant pillar of American culture.  As a society we place a high value on individual independence.  We love the idea of the self-made person who succeeds by using his/her own wits and ingenuity.  A lofty ideal for sure, but a myth nonetheless.

Of course, we can often improve ourselves and sometimes even our circumstances through hard work and determination.  That’s true.  But everyone who does succeed at anything owes that success to external factors as much as internal drive.  Start with the accident of birth.  If you were born here in the U.S. or have had the good fortune to obtain citizenship or permanent resident status, you can thank that one fact alone for many of the opportunities you’ve been able to take advantage of in your life.   You can’t credit your birth to any ability of your own. It just happened that way and you are the unwitting beneficiary.  Maybe you were born into a privileged family, maybe not.  Or you might have had access to great schools and teachers.  Or not.  The amenities in your area – roads and transportation options, clean water, accessible food sources, etc. – may have served to add or detract from your quality of life, but either way they certainly contributed.  Sometimes the ability to change surroundings is available and sometimes not.  So in many ways, we are not as independent as we think.

Even those who are “off the grid” will probably find that they are still dependent on some external sources.  For example, if you grow your own food, you still may need certain weather conditions.  The availability of clean water is always a factor even if you use indoor gardening options.  As human beings we are neither infallible nor immortal.  We need food and water no matter what.  And we are subject to all kinds of illnesses and other physical problems.  At this point you might be wondering if I’ve been reading too many dystopian novels.  In fact, my intention is not to paint a bleak picture of human frailty, but simply to remind us all that we need each other.  We are all interconnected. Like or not.  And when that fact is accepted, the potential exists for all of us to get along with each other much better that we do.

A recent article in Yoga Journal reminds us that we are “supported in countless ways through each moment of your life”.  The article is about gratitude, but it is also about independence and interdependence.  The 17th-century author and pamphleteer, Roger L’Estrange, is quoted as saying that we often “mistake the gratuitous blessings of heaven for the fruits of our own industry.”  Thus not only do we need each other, but we are dependent on everything on the planet and even the universe to support us.  Without all of it, we could not exist.

Having said all of that, one of the most common refrains I hear among older people is that they (or should I say “we”) want to maintain their independence for as long as possible.  Becoming completely dependent upon others for daily needs is something many of us dread.  We want to keep driving our cars, walking on the trails, choosing our own food, living in our own homes, seeing other people when we want to or being alone when we prefer.  We don’t want to be a “burden” on our families, or on society.  And yet most of us will at some point lose at least some of our ability to take care of ourselves.

Still medical research suggests that this doesn’t always just happen simply due to aging.  Sometimes it is a result of inactivity.  As I’ve often said, the less you move, the harder it is to get moving again.  Another of my mantras is that we all need to move while we can move because one never knows when their ability to move will be altered.  Illness or accident can immobilize any of us at any time.  When people tell me they are afraid of flying, for example, I often respond that they could get hit by a car tomorrow.  Or trip getting out of bed.  Anything can happen.  These are just more ways in which that illusion of control over our own lives can go awry.  Sometimes a post-traumatic stress reaction can set in.  Once you experience pain from any source, it is easy to become fearful that the same pain will return.

So it all comes back to letting the lure of potential benefits overcome the siren song of fear.  In “Exercise:  A Guide From the National Institute on Aging” the authors state that “just about every older adult can safely do some form of physical activity” and, in fact, “studies suggest that not exercising is risky behavior.”  If motivation is a drawback, dangle that carrot of independence right in front of your nose every time you try to erect barriers.  Too hot or too cold outside?  Set a timer and walk around your house for 20 minutes.  Better yet, walk up and down some stairs.  You don’t have to go fast.  Just move continuously at whatever pace is available to you.  Or take a class!  Most classes are indoors and some are even air conditioned.  Afraid to go by yourself?  Call a friend or relative to go with you.  Remember that a class can be a source of support and strength.  These are two of the many qualities that help us to maintain independence while still recognizing our interconnectedness.  Leave your fear of looking funny at the door.  There was a wonderful article in this week’s “On Being” blog called “Perfection Will Do You In“, by columnist Parker Palmer.   In it, there is a poem by a 94-year-old Benedictine monk named Kilian McDonnell which is a must read.  Here is my favorite part:

“the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
cracked.”

Bottom line:  nobody is perfect and we all need each other.  And remember – the independence you may save or extend could be your own.

Taming Transitions

 

 

June 26, 2017
By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Time is such a peculiar concept.  When you look at the universe, the stars, the planets, time doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.  We measure all movements, distances and changes in terms of time, but it appears to be a human construct invented for the sole purpose of giving us a method for understanding and discussion.  Time matters to us as humans because of the finite span of our own lives.  We want to cram in as much as possible since, by cosmic standards, we really aren’t here for very long.  This makes us very conscious of time and, in fact, our lives seem to revolve around this theme.  We mark the passage of time with each sunrise and sunset.  Also with the seasons.  We watch things grow and know that time is passing with each change we witness.  Acknowledging the passage of time is a critical element in our understanding of changes in our world and our own bodies.

The recent movie “Arrival” is all about the weirdness of time.  In the film beings from another world land on earth.  A linguist is recruited to translate the sounds they make.  In many ways this film highlights the vagaries of chronology, but one thing that I found particularly interesting occurred during this linguist’s initial attempt to communicate with the strangers.  She wrote something on a tablet and was immediately rewarded with visual symbols presented by these creatures.  The symbols were basically circular inspiring the linguist to note that this “language” was not dependent on time as ours is.  Each symbol appeared to have no particular beginning, middle or end.  Later in the film there was evidence that there were some ways in which time mattered to these beings, but perhaps that was because as humans making this film, it is difficult for us to divorce ourselves from time and its implications.  After all the movie itself had to have a beginning, middle and end even if they were kind of intertwined.  Still it was interesting to think about the ways in which our methods of communication are time-dependent.

So here we are, marching along with the unavoidable passage of time which is really just a way of describing change and yet somehow, in so many ways, we remain completely resistant to change itself.  From the time we are born, or even conceived, our lives are marked by change. When we’re young we change really quickly.  Yet many of us can’t wait to get older.  We rail against the slowness of time and the changes it brings.  As the years (another human concept!) progress, many changes govern our lives and there never seems to be enough time.  Then as we get older, physical changes again loom large.  Now they seem to be happening too fast.  Time seems to pass more quickly.  In our middle years we are often more likely to note the changes in others around us while somehow clinging to our own status quo.  So it can be quite a jolt to suddenly realize that our own bodies are changing right along with those of our children, grandchildren and parents.

Inevitably we reach a point where we have to acknowledge that we, too, have changed.  A friend and I were discussing today how difficult that can be to accept.  Sometimes changes in our physical capabilities can also mean the loss of a familiar community.  Years ago I used to belong to a running club.  Club members would all run together regularly.  Of course, there were many different speeds among the group, but there was always someone I could run with.  As time passed it became more and more difficult for me to run with others.  I wanted to keep running, so I did. But I needed to run at my own pace.  It was hard for me to keep up with anyone else, but I also did not expect anyone to slow their stride to stay with me.  So my attachment to this group began to unravel like fabric when a single thread starts to go it’s own way. Eventually, that became OK as I got more comfortable being with myself and enjoying my own movement.  But for a while it represented a loss.  In fact, multiple losses – physical capacity and also community.

As I continue to age, more examples of these losses present themselves.  Fortunately, I have since learned that loss of ability doesn’t always have to mean loss of community.  Sometimes there are other ways to participate with a group even if you can’t do everything they do. Especially in movement classes.  One of the themes I’ve repeated throughout this blog is that there is no requirement in any movement class that everybody has to do everything exactly as anyone else does, including the instructor.  Most of us worry that we will look funny or somehow be singled out if we don’t follow along precisely as prescribed.  In general, this could not be farther from the truth.  For one thing, most participants in a class are too focused on themselves to worry about or even notice what anyone else is doing.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, classes should be a judgment-free zone.  If the one you’re attending isn’t, then find another one.  There are so many out there.  Don’t let one bad experience keep you from finding a place where you can be yourself.  Just show up and move to whatever internal drummer motivates.  Ultimately you’ll find a place where you can feel comfortable.  Online classes are great in a pinch, but community is still an important benefit of classes.

However, sometimes we have to move on.  Accept the reality of the moment and find new paths to travel and new communities to join. When I could no longer run, I found other activities like hiking and walking that I could do alone or with a group – my choice.  When certain yoga poses become too difficult, there’s no rule that says I need to keep doing them.  There are so many others available to me.   Many aspects of my life will and have changed, but what I’ve achieved in the past will always be part of me.  No amount of change or passage of time can erase those accomplishments.  And the person I am today is the sum of all of the many experiences I’ve had during the time that has passed since the day I was born. Learning to be satisfied with who I am today is just another part of my practice.  Each day requires a new reminder of that since every day brings new changes.  Change can signal fear or excitement for experiencing something new.  It’s all a matter of how you perceive it.  And that is a choice each of us can make for ourselves.

Burn the Negatives; Make Room for the Positives

 

snaggletoothopti
Burn the Negatives; Make Room for the Positives. Photo: Herb Ryan: http://www.custerfreepress.com

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
January 22, 2017

CUSTER, SD – Winter can feel overwhelming at times.  For example, weather can interfere with the best laid plans.  Maybe you made a New Year’s resolution to walk more.  You start off really well and suddenly the temperatures dive, the sidewalks shine with ice and the trails in the woods are clogged with snow. Even winter sports enthusiasts can be disappointed when there is just enough snow and ice to be a hazard, but not enough to support the fun stuff.  If you decide to go elsewhere to ski or swim, you can find yourself stymied by airline delays or cancellations. Then there is the busyness that comes in January after the long stretch of holiday breaks that characterize November and December.  So much to catch up on – so little time!  Despite solstice the days are still short.  Time seems compressed and suddenly everyone seems to want a piece of yours.  There just never seems to be enough to go around.

Combine all this with Seasonal Affected Disorder and (dare I say it . . .) post-election anxiety and we have the ingredients for a deep dive into depression.  Take heart, though.  Just when you think hope is pointless and the light at the end of the tunnel appears dim or even non-existent, along comes the Burning Beetle Blues Festival in Custer SD.  What a great example of turning negatives into positives.

For the past couple of decades, the forests in western states from Canada to the southwest U.S. have been ravaged by an onslaught of voracious bark beetles.  The plague has had an enormous impact on the Black Hills in general, and Custer in particular.  About 5 years ago, some Custer residents decided to turn the hand-wringing and lamentation into action.  Thus began the Bark Beetle Blues festival.  The first year of the event saw residents drowning their sorrows in music and art.  Sculptures and picture frames were created with the “blue wood” of the dead trees remaining after the beetles had their fill.  The talented musicians of the Black Hills wrote songs and performed them for a delighted audience.  School children danced and sang.  The festival became a much needed and appreciated antidote for cabin fever in the middle of January when most South Dakotans are house-bound and already longing for Spring.  The following year launched what has become a tradition of burning a huge effigy of a beetle.  Since then the festival has grown to include a variety show and fireworks display. Last year a crew from National Geographic turned up to film the event.  (Unfortunately, I could not find an on-line link to the article, but you can probably find a paper copy in a local library.)   Some years have featured bitter cold January weather, but that has not stopped a huge crowd from turning out for these events.

Witnessing this year’s event made me think of the ritual of the fire puja.  Fire is one of the five basic elements including earth, water, air and ether (empty space) that provide the energies of our known universe.  Using the ritual of fire helps us to let go of things that are no longer useful to make room for new ideas and intentions.  Of course we always want to honor the power of fire and treat it appropriately, but with safety taken into consideration, we can all create our own fire ritual.  If you’re feeling stuck, it can be very satisfying to think about the obstacles in your path, write them on paper and cast them in the fire.  Taking some time to recognize the factors in your way can be the first step to finding ways around them.

Many of us can find examples in our own lives where unexpected positives have emerged from even the most dire or sorrowful situations. This is certainly true for me.  Many of the plans I made in my life have not panned out, but other things have happened that I never could have imagined.  This has become a good reminder when I become disappointed over something not going my way.  And – yes – I need to remind myself.  It is a daily practice to remember to take each day as it comes and accept things as they are, proceeding from there instead of wishing things were different and letting negativity cloud my day.

In recent weeks I’ve seen friends of mine turn their fear into activism.  They have been joined by others who share their concerns.  Perhaps they’ve been surprised to learn that so many others felt the same way they did.  It is a confidence-builder to find out you’re not alone.  Taking that first dangerous step into the unknown can feel so solitary and isolating.  But once that leap is made, the results can be surprising.  In the fire ritual, mourning can be a necessary process leading up to the decision to let go.  But at some point it is necessary to let the mourning pass and rejoin the world.  It’s not always easy and it can be a rocky process, but all it really takes is putting one foot in front of the other and being open to the opportunities around you.  That, too, is an opportunity for practice.

So, to borrow from Shakespeare, if now is the winter of your discontent, try moving out of your own way.  Throw those obstacles into the fire and take a chance on something new.  Renew your resolve to do whatever you decided to accomplish in 2017.  And remember – if your New Year’s resolutions are already getting lost in the undertow or if weather has gotten in the way of your movement plans, there is no better time than now to find a new activity.  An exercise class is a great way to start.  Movement will lift your mood and boost your energy.  Also just like my activist friends, you may be surprised to find friendly like-minded souls who will happily help you along on your journey without judgment of any kind.  We are all looking forward to having you to join us.  Our welcome mat is always out!