As much as I value self-care, there are times when it flies out the window. I’m no longer the adult caring for my inner child, but I’m the toddler or teen full of emotion and pursuit of immediate pleasure.
This week, I’ve been really in touch with my 2-year-old self, who’s been demanding attention. When it’s running the show, I’m inclined to emotional meltdowns, sugar binges, irregular sleep, over-tired crying, and resistance to naps. I readily settle in front of the TV and need an adult to get my jacket and take me for a walk. When back from the walk, I find myself whining: “But I don’t want to take a bath …” even when baths are among my favorite things and absolutely calm me down.
There’s nothing like embodying my toddler self to remember that I have access to all my former ages and selves—and not only as memories but also as immediate actors and agents in my life.
Some years ago, when taking children’s literature courses, I remember hearing and repeating the line: “we’re all the ages we’ve ever been.” Versions of this quote have been attributed to Madeleine L’Engle and other authors, but I attribute it to my storytelling professor, who regularly stepped into characters of herself as a child, a young mother, an established researcher, and an elder storyteller. Through these characters, I could see such love for life and willingness to re-play past experiences. My professor performed the sort of deep revisiting of the past that I imagine my 2-year-old self is asking me to do when I’m in resistance mode.
Interestingly, in this week’s total toddler takeover, one of the few things I wanted to do was coloring, a form of art I’ve craved from a very young age. I also chose to color images of owls, symbolically associated with wisdom and aging. The more I layered colors, the more I could see the wisdom in honoring all my ages and in looking backward to look forward.
For now, I’ll hug myself close as I work on being a better parent to this 2-year-old who needs veggies and sleep. I can see (again) that there’s much to heal in my past if I am to make change in the present and future. I commit to this healing, as I commit to justice: work that involves deep revisiting of what’s old, what’s hidden, and what’s nevertheless demanding attention.
This spring I’m teaching a new course titled “Contemplative Writing.” I’ve visualized the course design through triangulation, or three intersecting points that rely on the others for fuller understanding. Like a compass, triangulation helps with navigating complicated terrain. It shows locations (or ideas) in relation to each other, highlighting multiplicity. In the case of “Contemplative Writing,” triangulation brings together three semester-long focuses, audiences, and goals:
3 intersecting focuses = writing, justice, and contemplation/mindfulness
3 audiences (or spheres of interaction) = self, others, and institutions
3 goals = rhetorical flexibility, self-awareness, and courage in writing/speaking
To cover this complicated terrain, the students and I are journaling and doing regular (almost-daily) contemplative practices, while also pursuing “Projects That Matter” (research and activist writing). To keep me writing and practicing alongside the students, I’ve been doing some form of contemplative journaling, meditation, or movement daily.
Through these check-ins, I have been triangulating intellectual, emotional, and embodied knowledges.
Recently, I discovered a yoga-asana (movement) video that essentially asks the same questions through a 25-minute “Head & Heart Reset”:
This Yoga with Adrienne video has resonated with me because I want to build physical strength to carry a hiking backpack, and it includes several strength-building poses. While I typically prefer gentle and super slow asana, this flowing practice seems to be opening the energetic pathways connecting my heart, head, and hands (as well as my gut, tear ducts, and held-within knowing).
The practice opens with wrapping arms around the shoulders, giving myself a hug, as I’m striving to do daily. It ends with deep breathing to carry energetic connectedness off the mat and into all communication.
While in the past I’ve practiced yoga through writing, now I’m channeling writing through yoga. I’m reminded of the importance of nurturing my body and its wisdom in order to create and share wisdom through writing.
Such realizations are also showing me that triangulation is much more than a navigation tool, research method, or course design. Triangulation is why I understand writing as connected with embodiment and everyday living. It’s why I associate yoga and other contemplative, spiritual practices with the work of countering injustice and investing in more equitable relations. And it’s why I strive to connect the heart, head, and hands.
Said differently, triangulation helps me not only navigate complicated terrain but also remember that no guiding principle stands alone. May I continue to learn and make meaning in multiple ways. May I continue to open to what emerges through varied contemplative practices. May I continue to weave triangulated webs of striving (with an attitude of try-try again) to live a life for justice.
Back pain. It’s a friend who’s accompanied me through most of my life, beginning in my early teens and really intensifying during graduate school when I had an “emergency surgery” after losing muscular control of my right foot. In 2006, when I had this surgery, I experienced intense pain: burning sensations that radiated from my low back down my right leg and into the toes that I couldn’t lift. It was a scary experience.
The last decade has taken me on an unexpected journey though understanding, managing, and healing chronic pain. Early on, I tried allopathic medicine: from pharmaceuticals that left me nauseous to injections that increased my stress and, therefore, my pain. I consulted specialists, worked closely with physical therapists and counselors, and even attended “back school” through a local pain clinic. And after a LOT of trial-and-error and a LOT of searching, I found my way to more integrative, holistic, spiritual means of healing.
This journey has also been shaped by my embodied positioning within the United States, where economic privilege allows me access to holistic therapies that draw from many lineages and knowledge systems. My embodied positioning has meant, too, some really awful interactions with physicians (especially white men), which linked physical pain with emotional trauma and disempowerment. Instead of unpacking embodiment—the focus of many blog posts (and many more stories to tell)—I want to think now about managing moments of acute or especially intense pain.
Every few months, a friend asks for recommendations for pain management. I share my experiences not as a healthcare provider (I’m not!) but as someone who’s negotiated pain that has truly laid me low.
Here’s what I’ve turned to time and time again, doing many of these at once, depending on the degree and type of pain:
Applying essential oils and balms to the primary site of pain and wherever nerve pain is radiating.
Applying castor oil and a heating pad over the site of pain.
Using a TENS unit, which took me several years to learn about, but has become a real lifesaver whenever sitting for several hours (e.g., when traveling by car or airplane).
Receiving acupuncture and cupping, and consulting my acupuncturist about which herbs may help. I tend to take just a low dose of turmeric, as my stomach is sensitive, but my acupuncturist always has suggestions.
Taking homeopathic tabs and/or applying homeopathic rubs, such as Rhus tox and arnica. I particularly like Community Pharmacy’s homeopathic blend “Injury,” and they ship across the United States. Community Pharmacy also has knowledgeable staff who can make recommendations for other integrative therapies, and they make customized flower essence blends, which can be combined with homeopathy.
Becoming way more mindful about my eating, and sticking with an anti-inflammatory diet. It’s taken me YEARS of working closely with a naturopath to learn which foods increase my inflammation, so I recognize this is a long-term investment.
Increasing my intake of potassium and magnesium through bananas, avocados, and coconut water toward calming muscles and my nervous system.
Minimizing activities that create flare-ups: for me, these include driving and attending meetings.
Increasing activities that support the body: examples include slow walking and gentle yoga (the sort where I’m lying on the floor for asana practice).
Reviewing and integrating into my daily routines the movements suggested in Pete Egoscue’s Pain Free—building strength slowly and only after the most acute pain passes.
Working out sensitive and sore spots with a foam roller—essentially, giving myself a massage.
Noticing which of these therapies feels right at a given moment, and remaining open to other therapies, as there’s always more to try and learn. At times, massage or craniosacral therapy has felt right; at other times, I’m talked about stressors with friends or returned to physical therapy. It feels important to remain open to what healing is needed and how healing evolves over time.
And if the pain is really bad, then taking ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or other pain relievers.
Managing back pain has meant befriending pain. Instead of cursing it, I’ve learned to get curious and ask, “Pain, what do you have to tell me?” Often enough, pain acts as a messenger, asking me to notice what I’ve been avoiding/hiding or to make changes that involve confronting fear, anger, and other emotions. Truly, in Deb Shapiro’s words: “Your Body Speaks Your Mind.”
I’ve only come to this place of befriending pain after embarking in 2011 on a process of self- and spiritual-discovery with Reiki. With the willingness to undo years of trauma to my body—from the surgery, taking medications to numb/dull the pain, and storing emotions as physical tension and rigidity—I’ve learned that pain is part of the heart-head-hands connection. As a friend, pain has ushered in daily yoga practice, a commitment to live a more contemplative and justice-oriented life, and the realization that I really love being in (feeling, experiencing, and moving) my body. From a place of gratitude, I can now say—12 years after back surgery—that I’m deeply grateful for the pain and its reminders to show up as I am: messy, human, and truly me.
From this place of gratitude, I hope that sharing what’s worked for me—how I respond to acute pain and what I’m learning through my healing journey—offers some insights or ideas for others facing pain. With love, may you/I/we heal ourselves and our world.
In the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to a LOT of guided meditations, as a concussion has me grounded. I’m grounded in the sense of a child who’s misbehaved: sent to my room, with limited activities, and in reflection on what’s gotten me here. And I’m grounded in the sense of rooting down and deep, strengthening the base/foundation from which I can grow.
I treat myself gently, with tenderness through this process, learning humility.
I call upon others, including my future self, for help.
I sleep. I trust. I allow myself to heal.
As these winter days invite contemplation, I invite you to write and speak spells into being. Perhaps you’ll also cast a spell with adrienne maree brown. Or perhaps you’ll follow another of the contemplative practices offered through the Healing Justice podcast. Or perhaps you’ll simply sit with the breath, grounding in the body’s inner wisdom.
Whatever practice calls to you at this moment, I hope you’ll follow the call and use it as fuel for the road ahead. For contemplative practices have much grounding and guidance to offer. From building emotional literacies to noticing what goes unnoticed, contemplative practices help develop capacities for the long haul toward justice.
Each year, celebrating MLK Day also brings new opportunities for re-reading Dr. King’s words and re-seeing the work that he—and so many people working for racial justice—have envisioned.
MLK offers visions of the ought to be, of engaged activism, and of multi-racial movement-building. Such visions are essential to avoid getting stuck where we are and to spark imaginings of new and more equitable futures.
As a white woman witnessing, learning from, and participating in MLK Day, I’m reminded at this time of year how Dr. King’s legacy and wisdom can guide me in the work of visioning. His words keep me focused on what’s possible rather than thinking only about what’s problematic.
Specifically, three of Dr. King’s often-cited quotes keep me focused on my role in taking steps and speaking up, even when inevitably and always falling short of what I can, should, and want to do. With gratitude and humility, I hope to amplify these words and share how they provide guidance in my life today.
1. “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Though I have trouble placing this quote’s origin, the King Center in Atlanta describes how Dr. King combined two scriptural verses into one to create this line. I’ve been repeating it for years, since noticing how white colleagues ask for professional development as a prerequisite to taking action. Ongoing learning is always important, yet I’ve seen how it can be used to delay, dismiss, and excuse away the responsibility to act.
Instead, taking some action, any action, matters. It helps us learn, gets us started, gives us practice, makes feedback available, and opens opportunities for additional actions. It helps us join and build relational networks, and it helps us develop habits or routines for taking action.
Taking a first step and a second and a third and so on adds up to sustained action, and the importance of “Doing Something Small and Sustained” is part of why I’m vegan for social, environmental, gender, and racial justice. Certainly, there are many more steps to take, but a daily commitment to taking steps helps grow momentum, while allowing for rest and self-care along the way.
2. “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
As part of the Steeler Lecture in 1967, these words remind me of the importance of breaking white silence, as silence does real harm. I remember the gut-punch I felt when watching many white friends and family remain silent after Charlottesville. After writing “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” some sincere conversations emerged with white folks who expressed “a loss of words” and the fear that they could do more harm by saying the wrong thing than by saying nothing at all.
Just as a fear of doing it wrong and the desire to “learn more” blocks taking action, a fear of saying it wrong and a desire to “listen more” blocks speaking up.
To these fears, I’d say that there are many ways to speak by amplifying the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) who are already speaking up and leading the way. If you’re not reading and reposting feminists and womanists of color, consider doing so. Sharing the work and words of activists, scholars, and leaders of color help promote and make widely visible their leadership. Amplification is an important form of speaking and one that invites listening and learning too.
As a white woman, I also need to remind myself again and again and again to let go of perfectionism. The possibility of a “perfect” or even “right” way of speaking is another lie of internalized inferiority and superiority. I’m sure to trip over the words. I’m sure to do it wrong. I’m sure to confront my own limitations. But I’m also sure that I must speak up in order to practice, to get feedback, and to learn by doing (with the attitude of “try-try again”). And more than the importance of learning, the costs of complicity are too high.
3. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I end with this line from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” because it reminds me of the costs of failing to act or speak up. It reminds me why I must keep the reality of white supremacy and the commitment to racial justice at the fore throughout everyday living. It reminds me why an intersectional approach to justice is needed and why I have a role to play in this work. And it reminds me why imaginative, creative, critical visioning is so deeply needed.
As I spend MLK Day this year tuning into myself, I’m reminded that, like Dr. King’s words of wisdom, our embodied, lived experiences have much to teach us about how to act and speak up in the world. I’m resolving in 2018 to “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses,” even or especially when my body hurts and my voice shakes. I’m resolving, too, to use inner listening to learn more about when and where I can direct my energies, knowing that I have a role to play in the work for racial justice.
December. It’s a hard time for folks walking on wires to please others. It’s a hard time for folks finishing semesters when running on fumes. It’s a hard time for folks grieving family hurts or losses. It’s a hard time for processing what comes up in contemplative moments and social interactions alike.
This December is especially hard because it punctuates a year of great injustice, dehumanization, and the increasing visibility of wrongdoings. Now, as so many of us personally and collectively are doing (and being asked to do) “shadow work,” there’s a heightened need for self-care/self-work that embraces both/and.
How do we both honor the ways we’re falling apartand go about surviving? How do we both recognize the possibility of human extinctionand invest in living more authentically, courageously, and lovingly? How do we both unlearn oppression (including internalized inferiority and superiority) and build new, more equitable relations? How do we both stay centered in gratitude and committed to justice? How do we experience both the depth of grief and the height of joy? How do we get by in the midst of inherent contradiction, paradox, incongruity, and change?
These recordings are directly about living within both/and, as episodes focus on “learning from the apocalypse with grace, rigor and curiosity.” Truly, episodes give deep insights, rich storytelling, and committed calls to action—modeling ways forward and asking how we show up for ourselves and others to be in “right relationship.” If you’re not already listening, check out the trailer here:
Chocolate, I’ve found, makes falling in love even sweeter. Because I’ve also got a complicated relationship with sugar, I mix raw cacao and stevia so that I can enjoy chocolate daily, especially when luxuriating in a warm bath with my favorite podcast. Here’s the recipe for this month’s peppermint hot cocoa.
Truth be told, I’ve always enjoyed baths, but I didn’t give myself permission to take them daily until struggling for several years with chronic back pain. It’s amazing how often pain has been a motivator for doing what I desire, what gives me pleasure and joy. Now, whenever my body or soul hurts, as they do when facing systemic racism and other institutional violence, I immerse myself in salty water. This is a privilege I am grateful for everyday.
I add several cups of Epsom salt to a warm bath, and soak while listening to awesome podcasts and enjoying hot cocoa. The combination, I’ve found, grounds me, while also lifting my spirit.
When we talk about building resilience, I wonder if we should talk more about Epsom salt and warm water for grounding and clearing energies. As a white woman, when I think about building fortitude to counter white fragility, I definitely think about Epsom salt baths for crying, releasing, recommitting, and re-emerging ready to work again.
I talked recently with my six-year-old nephew about his “favorites,” and I realized that I don’t often have this conversation with adults. How often do we, as adults, name our favorites? How often do we take time in the day to enjoy something simply because it’s a favorite? Recognizing and honoring favorites feels important for navigating the both/and of life, especially at this time and especially in December.
May these or other favorites bolster you in personal and collective shadow work. May these or other favorites help with surviving when falling apart. May these or other favorites help with feeling what’s hard and also with feeling what’s incredibly beautiful, amazing, and possible too.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about when and how I tune into my “strong YES” for decision-making. I find that I’m truer to myself when I’m following Marty Tribble’s guidance: “The absence of a strong YES is actually a no.” Reflecting on this advice is what led me to write “Using Your ‘Strong Yes’ to Guide Career Decisions” for Inside Higher Ed:
I hope that this article helps others tap into the strong YES not only for navigating job searches and career decisions, but also for everyday decision-making and living for justice. I share in this article five strategies for finding the strong YES:
1. Follow the deeper breath.
2. Check in with the heart, head, and hands.
3. Keep an emotion journal.
4. Look for signs in everyday life.
5. Look inward through guided meditation.
Each of these strategies asks us to prioritize embodied knowledge, inner knowing, and emotional literacies that we too-often downplay or discount, especially in higher education.
Each of these strategies asks us to unlearn ways of being-doing-living that keep us limited to less than our whole selves, less than fully human and messy.
Each of these strategies asks us to slow down through imperfect meditation and other contemplative practices so that we stop shutting out what hurts and instead get to know ourselves and our commitments with greater clarity.
Despite practicing these strategies, I still often act without checking in with my body, without intentionality, and instead with procedural efficiency. I’ve had several recent reminders—from dropping my phone to becoming sick—that I need to slow down and listen more carefully.
When I listen for/to my strong YES, I sometimes have to change plans. For example, recently I’ve sat on several blog posts, not sure if or when they’ll feel ready to share, and I’ve canceled several meetings, not sure if or when I’ll feel ready to have them.
Truly, listening for/to the strong YES is essential for de-routinizing dehumanization, yet it’s so hard to do because I love routines, even when they undermine well-being. Similarly, the strong YES is essential for countering the lies of internalized inferiority and superiority, yet I’m so attached to these lies that I resist letting go. Noticing routines and resistance helps me shift toward more careful, mindful listening.
Toward better listening, I am starting today a daily practice of yoga nidra that I hope will help me stay truer to myself and my commitments. As I work to align with my strong YES, I hope you’ll join me in asking:
How can I release the “shoulds” that inadvertently direct my days?
How can I notice (and be kinder to myself when I notice) that I’m acting without intention?
How can I better align my everyday living with my hopes and commitments?