Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Between a Smoke Shop and a Cemetery

This was the location of the wellness center where we were teaching the oncology massage workshop -- smack dab between a smoke shop and a cemetery.  The business itself was impressive -- a well-organized staff, therapists always busy, a personal trainer and chiropractor both seeing clients in fully-equipped spaces.  All this built and managed by a powerhouse of a woman.  I was impressed and inspired and I told her so.

My co-teacher and I looked forward to three days of open exchanges and a great workshop experience that only happens when the participants are already comfortable with each other.  Within the first hour, though, it was clear that this would be different.  Every time we asked a question, everyone in the room looked at the owner before they answered.  On every break, the owner spent time shifting and arranging the room, or telling her therapists about tasks they needed to do once the workshop was over.

My co-teacher and I knew -- what we had here was the biggest control lover we had ever seen.  And she had assembled a staff who mostly thought, worked and acted just as she wanted them to.  Usually, when we teach this workshop, there is a moment of pure sweetness or deep understanding for most students.  There are times when the whole room swells with compassion and kindness so palpable it feels like a  warm hand on your shoulder.  We kept waiting for, hoping for, trying to create those moments -- but they never happened.  Not even close.

The driving emotion for the therapists in the room was caution.  How do we limit our liability?  How do we make sure no one sues us?  And, unspoken but there, how do we not piss off the owner who is sitting in class watching us like a hawk?

We gave all the energy we had, but not more than we could spare, to that room.  We left hoping for the best, trying to focus on the heartfelt thank you letter we received from one of the volunteer clients.  (I found it very telling that the letter was slipped into my hand at a moment when no one else could see it happening.)  We shrugged our shoulders and said, "Well, I hope some of that sank in."

On the drive home, a colleague sent me a text message to ask how it went.  This was my response:  "We showed that video that makes everyone cry.  Nobody cried."

This remains one of my most unsatisfying teaching experiences.  I don't think it's necessary for someone to cry to demonstrate compassion, but I do think it is necessary to step out from behind caution, control, and the need to be in charge and expose just a little of your vulnerable, beating heart.  Sometimes life puts you in a hard place -- between a smoke shop and a cemetery in a gray midwestern town -- and the only thing that keeps you going is just a touch of softness.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


With my new, most challenging crop of students, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of non-attachment.  Every Thursday, I walk into class feeling that being completely detached is the only way to survive, and also that being completely detached is the worst thing I could do for these students.

Today I came across this blog post about the nature of non-attachment.  In it, Sandra Pawla writes that when you understand non-attachment:

  • Emotions arise, but you have space.  You have perspective.  Emotions don’t catch and torment you every time.
That is it.  That is the crux of what I wasn't getting.  I thought cultivating a calm non-attachment in the face of a room full of challenge was to shut it all down, to put my hands over my eyes and get down in a defensive crouch.  But the answer is to open and soften my eyes and stand, strong and flexible and present.  It is a daily practice which begins with a few minutes of awareness of breath every day.  

Last week, I kicked two students out of my class.  One went without argument, clearly upset but keeping it in check for a more appropriate time and place.  The second -- well, she would. not.  leave.  I found myself getting increasingly angered and frustrated that this person was taking up time I should be using to teach to draw attention to herself.  For a moment, I was caught and tormented by anger, unable to handle anything else in the room.  I had it on the tip of my mind and heart to give up, just let her stay and I could struggle through the last hour of class in anger.  I took a breath.  And another breath.  And stood up straight, and repeated, calmly, "Leave."  Then I turned back to the group of students I was helping and continued my work.  She left.  

Although there is no victory in someone disrupting learning enough to be removed from the space, there was a small bit of growth in standing -- strong, flexible and present -- while that little bit of chaos washed over me.  There is also a small bit of growth in the knowing and acknowledging my own sadness and concern about that one human being.  That kind of cry for attention comes from a deep ache, and I can't help but have compassion for her on a human level.  

Still, the gift of non-attachment that draws me into a compassionate place, also gives me strength to do what I feel is the greater good in the moment.  I hope, for the rest of this term, that I don't have to exercise this gift in this way again.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Having It All

Yes, here I am.  Yet another woman musing on the difficulty of "having it all."  I went about my tasks this morning -- eating breakfast, folding laundry, mentally preparing for a busy day -- and as I usually do, I let my mind wander a bit.  And, as sometimes happens with former Literature geeks, I started musing on the real meanings of words.

All.  It All.

What is "it all" anyway, and how do I know when I have it?  And while I'm on the subject, do I really "have" any of it?

This last thought stopped me for a minute.  Having equals holding equals grasping equals fear of losing.  So when I have, really and truly have, I put myself automatically in danger of living from fear of no longer having.

I see this often in my clients, and even more often in my students.  We acquire something -- knowledge, a skill, a new range of motion, and after the initial joy of the thing has faded a bit, we work extra hard to protect that thing, so we stop taking risks.  And we forget that taking a risk was how we got the thing in the first place.

For me, I have worked very hard and (for me) very patiently to get approved to teach S4OM-approved Oncology Massage Workshops through Greet the Day.  I finally got that approval, and for a while, I just held that approval in my hand.  I had it.

But not It All.  So, now I am taking the risk and reaching out to people I know, trying to create opportunities to teach this workshop.  I have put together a proposal for a formidable former teacher, I have contacted friends and acquaintances in other states, I have said out loud that I am qualified and ready to do this important and scary thing.  The risk of asking will soon (I hope) be overtaken by the risk of someone actually saying yes -- which requires doing.

Which brings me back to my Lit geek headspace -- having it all is an action, always in motion.  It is a goal which shifts as soon as we near it, and rather than frustration, that inspires a new burst of creativity.  Journeying.  Learning.

It is an excellent adventure.