On a recent hike, I found myself complaining about the heat and mosquitoes. I was walking quickly, speeding up to get off the trail, and failing to notice my surroundings. It wasn’t until I took a break on the ground—literally sitting in the middle of the trail—that I noticed blooming mayapples underneath large leaves. All around me but out of sight when walking were flowers promising spring and the summer to come.
The more I slowed down and took breaks on the ground, the more I noticed the flowers and fungi there. The colorful, intricate, and delicate life seemed to be reminding me that there’s still beauty in the roughest of conditions, the hottest of days, and the most mosquito-y of times.
This hike happened when I’d been having conversations about the need to guard against resistance fatigue and to build resilience for the long road ahead. For me, time in the outdoors and along hiking trails offers new ways to understand the world and my role within it.
What I learned from these blooming mayapples (and the many plants I observed) is the importance of slowing down and noticing the fullness of life: the joy alongside the pain, the beauty alongside the ugliness, the visions for alongside the critiques against. In other words, I was reminded again of the need for a both/and approach to everyday living for justice.
When I’m hurting (or hot or being bitten), my tendency is to rush to get out of there: out of that place of discomfort or pain. Slowing down and noticing, however, allows me to tap into the generative and healing potential that comes with curiosity, meditation, and divination.
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.
This week I’ve felt stretched thin—waking up earlier and heading to bed later than I’d like. One moment, I’m reviewing students’ midterm portfolios. The next, I’m scripting a hard conversation. While attending to microaggressions and facilitating tricky online and in-person conversations, I’m also sharing hopeful-yet-emotional announcements with family, friends, colleagues, and students.
In the midst of such frenzied and frenetic activity, I’ve been finding support through everyday practices and joyful reminders that past-me put in place for present-me. To give a sense of what I mean, here are some views into what’s keeping me grounded in gratitude this week:
Certainly, there are other snapshots I might take, but these are a few for which I feel particular gratitude. And slowing down enough to recognize and experience gratitude is its own sort of healing, energizing practice.
I’m curious: How do you create support for those times when stretched thin? Perhaps this post gives some ideas, and I hope you’ll share additional suggestions through comments.
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.
Of the many lessons I’m still learning, an important one is to trust life as it unfolds. I struggle with trust because I struggle with letting go of perfectionism and perceived control. Despite these struggles, whenever I soften attachments to my preferred timing and open instead to possibilities, miracles occur. And the more I open to miracles, the more I find HOPE, which is so greatly needed on the long haul toward justice.
Recently, I’ve had an important reminder to expect miracles (or at least miraculous timing) in everyday life:
A few weeks ago, I lost a mala that Marty Tribble custom-made for me after several Reiki sessions of discussing my desire/need for greater grounding, spiritual connectedness, and trust in divine protection. Marty created this garnet bracelet and shipped it in a box with stenciled arrows, at the same time that I’d had an arrow drawn onto my hand during a summer retreat (pictured here).
I took the arrows to be a sign of the mala’s significance for decision-making and directional guidance.
The mala must have been helping me trust, because when I lost it, I trusted that it was where it needed to be and would reemerge at the right time. I was somehow sure that the mala wasn’t lost to me, but just buried from my view or consciousness.
This loss happened about a month ago, before I started 40 days of yoga nidra—a meditative practice that I’ve been doing at bedtime. I often fall asleep during the guided practice, and I’ve been having especially vivid, symbolic dreams. These powerful dreams, I believe, have been a continuation of yogic sleep in actual sleep.
Through this process, I’ve become more aware of how much self-work and self-healing happen through dreams and sleep. I’ve also become aware of the mala’s hiding place.
Just before leaving town for a full month’s travel, I changed my bed sheets and moved my mattress away from the headboard. That night, when practicing yoga asana on the floor, I saw the mala under the bed. It had likely been tucked within the bed frame, near my head for the past weeks of yoga nidra. Despite my perception of having “lost” the mala, it was exactly where it needed to be: physically in my bed, supporting yoga nidra practice, and present for self-work during sleep.
The timing of its re-emergence has felt divinely orchestrated, too. Since I’m now traveling for a month, my home bed is no longer my practice space. By making its presence known, the mala is able to travel with me. I’m again wearing it as a bracelet during days and keeping it near my bed at nights.
I share this story of the lost-and-found mala because it’s the sort of everyday miracle that gives me hope at this time. It’s a reminder, especially in this week of the winter solstice and many religious celebrations, of the importance of trusting divine timing, especially when choosing to tread another path.
I share this story, too, because it’s opened for me a series of new questions:
What needs to change in my approach to everyday living if I am to act as though miracles are already present and possible?
A little more than a year ago, I wrote the following statement to describe this blog project:
“Embodied knowledge matters. So do commitments. And especially acting on commitments as part of everyday life, BIG and small. This blog shares ongoing efforts of feeling, thinking, and doing for justice. Posts include reflections, recipes, research, and resources: all seek to make sense of what it means to live a life for justice.”
This language signals that, at best, I’m attempting to live for justice and to share these attempts. What this means is that the everyday-ness of lived experience goes hand-in-hand with seeking or striving for justice. Striving means that I experience moments of getting closer to living in alignment with a more just, truer, and committed life. And I also experience moments when I’m far, far away and out of alignment with this goal. My hope is that I learn from my own incongruity and that the moments of alignment grow more regular. This learning—along with attempting, seeking, and striving—builds resilience for “the long haul” toward justice.
Such a hope leads me to reflect on the moments when I fall short of my commitments. Recently, I broke a commitment to a co-author and close friend, and I contributed to a larger pattern of co-authors falling away from important projects, a pattern that calls up pain. And I’ve been reminded again that pain can be an important teacher.
As a white woman (a white, cis-gender, able-bodied, U.S.-born, upper/middle-class, raised-Christian woman), I’ve inherited internalized inferiority and superiority aligned with the narrative of being a “good person”—a narrative that I’m always needing to unravel and unlearn. The more I let go of the need to be a “good person,” the more I can be just a person—a whole, human, and messy person. And as a person (not a super-human and not a dehumanized being), I can see and confront the harm that I do.
Breaking my co-authoring commitment did harm in my friendship, and it did harm by contributing to a pattern of broken commitments around justice-oriented research. It also did harm because of the material consequences for my co-author, who’s already experiencing precarity, overwork, and a particularly stressful semester.
R—recognizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, conditions, etc. A—allowing the states of being, no matter how bad, embarrassing, or privileged. I—investigating deeply to gain new or additional understanding. N—non-judging or non-identifying to avoid attachment with the experience, emotion, and even understandings (toward embracing impermanence).
Here’s what RAIN has looked like for me, as I’ve been exploring my broken commitment:
Recognize that I’ve broken the commitment; that I’ve done harm to my friend, and because I love my friend, to myself as well; and that this harm is painful. Recognition feels important for taking responsibility and also for naming the complex dynamics within the larger situation. It feels important for seeing the links between this particular broken commitment and larger, systemic injustice.
Accept the pain. Like joy, pain is part of life—not something to push down or pretend isn’t there, but to see, experience, and get curious about. I keep asking: “Pain, what do you have to teach me? How can I learn from you about making commitments I can truly keep?”
Investigate the fuller situation. The more I get curious (instead of shutting out the pain), the more I can see how I’ve been operating in contradiction. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to follow my “strong YES,” and on the other hand, I’ve been wanting to please others. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to redirect my energies (away from this particular project and direction in my life), and on the other hand, I’ve been wanting to keep what’s familiar and comfortable about this established direction.
Though I’m aware that I get into trouble when not listening for/to my “strong YES,” I didn’t act on my intuition at the time of committing to the project, and that’s likely when incongruity entered the scene. What I see now is that instead of investing in meaningful relations with other people (including with my co-author and friend), I’ve actually been creating trouble for others by not honoring myself and my “strong YES.” Do I really want to undermine myself and my relations in this way? What will I need to change in order to trust, act from, and speak aloud my “strong YES”?
Not identify with judgments about being a person who keeps or doesn’t keep commitments, who does good or harm in the world, or who is static in ways that limit the complexity of full personhood. Not identifying means that I try to see this moment as though I’m floating above it at a distance. It won’t look or feel like this in the future, though it’s part of the many experiences that I’ll carry forward and hopefully continue to learn from. It’s now part of my history, but it also doesn’t singly or solely define me.
The RAIN process has been helpful in looking at my actions, in staying close to tough emotions, and to investing at this moment of pain. It’s often the moments when we’re noticing gaps between our everyday actions and our goals that real growth takes place. It’s also moments like these when there’s a lot of potential for developing resilience and long-term, staying power.
So, in the midst of processing a broken commitment, I’m re-committing to everyday attempts and the ongoing process of striving to live a life for justice. I’m sure to mess up and cause harm in the process, but may the moments of alignment become more and more. May I better align my actions with my beliefs. May I know and follow my commitments and my “strong YES.” May I stand TALL and true (truer and truer) for justice.