Pain & Change: Life's Giant Strainer...

I’ve been through both sad, difficult things as well as big changes in the past couple of months. I’m certain I'm not unique in this truth. And I’ve been doing some thinking about a couple of related things: a) how will I make it through and what new insight or wisdom will be awaiting me when I arrive and b) quality vs. quantity and what does that mean in life. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts on...

Why pain, difficulty and just straight-up change is like a giant strainer…

Bare with me here... As many of you who've worked with me, I'm big on metaphors :)

When we find our selves in a struggle, in a life change (big or small), in some dark shadow of difficulty or pain it’s important to remember that we’re being held not in a comfortable, soft bed, or an all-encompassing hand or hug. Nope.  At least it doesn’t feel that way to me… I liken it more to being tossed into a giant metal strainer (with holes that vary depending on the change/pain/difficulty-level). A giant, ever-loving and all-knowing filter. It sure as heck is not comfortable to be there. It can feel hard and cold and lonely. In fact it can feel downright confusing. You may try to scramble up the slopes to reach your old normal. Frustrated as you slip down, again and again and again. You may cling to the side – if you could just hold on to THIS stage, and not drop all the way down, you think, you could manage here.

But if you can loosen your grip and drop down, just let yourself fall, you realize that when you get through it – in whatever way, shape, or form – and what you get through it with is the stuff that matters more, it’s the stuff you value most, your greatest supports. The rest has been filtered out. You end up, without even having to decide who and what and how, with quality over quantity.

So fear not change. Fear not difficulty. Fear not the letting go of what was because right on the other side of that is what is… your new normal – one that is more rich, more full, more supported. And don’t forget that there’s no standard timeline for this process… Slow down, watch for when you’re scrambling back towards what was, or trying to delay the fall. Take a deep breath. And another. Loosen your grip and let it be.

Downward and onward, my loves. 

<3 E

In Her Words

As many of you know, I have been providing life coaching to an inmate (Jennifer) at the Richmond City Jail. I usually meet with clients 1x/week, often for 4-12 weeks, depending on what they're working on and how much support they need to make the desired change. Jenn knows that she will be transferred to prison soon, where she will serve the remaining two years of her sentence. She doesn't, however, know exactly when since inmates are notified at 4am on the day of their transfer. Because of this we have been accelerating her process and have been meeting twice weekly for the past 2 1/2 months. 

Back in June, I asked Jenn if she would be willing to write a little about about her experience working with me. When I saw her at our next meeting, she handed me a 4-page, perfectly hand-written letter. I was floored by what she wrote. She's given me permission to share it with you.... 

 

As I sit here thinking about [working with] Ellie, all I can do is smile. I can’t describe my gratitude for her in words. It’s a feeling that I haven’t figured out just yet. It just is.

 

I met Ellie in a yoga class and evidently she seen something in me that I didn’t. I was almost afraid to expose myself to her because I didn’t want her to look at me different and I hate rejection. In a weird way I feel like it was my first challenge. I was thinking, “Let me tell her these crazy things so she won’t come back,” but that’s not how it went down. Ellie came full throttle, like “Ok, let’s work through this.”

 

I came from a broken home of violent alcoholics and addicts. I’m not sure if I ever really belonged anywhere. And who I was depended on who I was around. There were a lot of things I never understood about myself. It was a crazy life and it felt normal.

 

Working with Ellie has helped me to realize that there are different options and that my definition of freedom has kept me hostage. All of the issues that I’ve brought to the table suddenly don’t seem so intimidating. One of the best parts of working with Ellie is how encouraging she is. When we’re working through something and I get into that “Oh my gosh, I suck” mode, she’s like “wait a minute, you don’t suck, you’re not alone and let’s work on this.”

 

Her approach is almost captivating. I’m not afraid to be honest with her. She has never judged me. We’ve laughed, I’ve cried, she understood and when the sessions are over I leave the room feeling like a better Jennifer. It’s not an hour of her reading out of a book. It’s an hour of her taking the time to help me understand the how and whys of my behaviors and helping me heal. She’s taught me some valuable lessons. Holding myself accountable and being aware of my patterns are a few of the things that hit home for me. How did Ellie know those things? Because she listens and cares enough to remember. She doesn’t write everything down. I appreciate the tools that she’s showed me and she continues to push me in the right direction.

 

I look forward to my visits with her. I am so grateful to have finally met someone who genuinely cares about me enough to work with me and not just rush me through. She makes a difference and believes that people can change. Everybody needs an “Ellie.”

 

Respectfully,

Jennifer H.

 

If you are interested and able (to know anyone who might be interested) in helping to fund my coaching work with Jenn (and other women at the City Jail), I am actively (and humbly) accepting donations via GoFundMe

The Pursuit of Freedom

Monday mornings: for the past 4-5 months or so, I voluntarily show up to teacher my first class of the day on the first day of the week. I drive to a part of town I had never been to before I started and never go to at any other time of my regular life. I bring only my driver’s license, Yoga Nidra book, and yoga mat. I walk through a metal detector while my yoga mat and Yoga Nidra book slide through the airport-like scanner. After trading my driver’s license for a badge, I wait anywhere from 5-20 minutes for my escort who winds me through a maze of hallways and ID-activated elevators and through doorway where one door slides closed and locks before the other opens, to the 3rd floor. I make my way down the hall to a locked room, I push tables to the periphery of the room and stack chairs out of the way and wait.

 

When my students arrive, we exchange greetings like “hello,” “good morning” and the occasional “how are you,” which feels uncomfortable considering their circumstances. Though, I guess we all have better and worse days…

 

The only thing I officially know about them are their first names – not what they did or how long they’ve been here. Not how long they will be or where they will go next (not that they would know, if I asked). What I un-officially know is that they’re all there because they may (or may not) have done something illegal, they’re awaiting decisions about whether they’ll stay there (and for how long), be sent to prison (and for how long) or if they’ll be released back into the life that is continuing to go on around them, outside of the walls of the building. I also know that they all have experienced severe trauma in many forms and throughout the duration of their lives and, my guess is, that none have had any support in helping to process the trauma and chaotic situations they’ve come to know as “normal.” They’ve done bad things, some much worse than others, and they’re also victims of shocking experiences. Both are true. Neither are excuses.

 

As they unroll their mats and I ask them what they need and how they want to work. The answer is always tired… tired… no energy. That, and “back” – low back, mid-back, upper-back. So, we usually spend 20-30 minutes with a simple asana practice with the hopes of alleviating some of the tension and discomfort in the body as well as to begin to help them strengthen their attention, gain some self-awareness, and to begin to sit with discomfort. Some women do the whole thing, many move the floor after the first few minutes, laying down and sporadically doing some of the movements that the group is doing.

 

Eventually we move into a Yoga Nidra practice. The 30+ minutes of guided, deep relaxation with systematic direction of consciousness is how I’ve chosen to use the bulk of our time together. One hour of yoga nidra practice is the equivalent of 4-hours of deep sleep, so giving these ladies what works out to be like a 2-hour deep sleep feels like the greatest offering I can make. Though they’re not supposed to sleep, many end up rolling their sides, arms tucked inside their jumpsuits, into the fetal position where they fall deeply asleep. Occasionally, we work with meditation.

 

Towards the end, I always ask them if they have questions or experiences they’d like to share. Often 1 or 2 will share. We talk about feeling rested, about being exhausted, about not know what to expect. We talk about how pretending we’re not feeling an emotion is really actually suppression – which I compared to trying to hold a lid over a steaming pot of water and, in recognition, one woman compared to having a lighter explode in your face while smoking crack; different truths describing the same internal experience. We talk about how our thoughts and internal stories are often habitual and how they can affect us for days, weeks, and years even after the event has happened – how we perpetuate those experiences by reliving them over and over again… shaping our current reality. One woman saw clearly a story that she’s held onto since 1984.

 

My hope is to continue this work. To continue utilizing the tools of yoga and meditation to help these women increase their self-awareness in some capacity, to begin to see how their internal reactions and responses are shaped by their experiences and to see that that’s not the only possibility, to guide them – even if momentarily – toward experiences of themselves that are other than what they’ve known so that they can begin to break free of behaviors and actions that harm themselves and others. This is the pursuit of the ultimate freedom.

 

Tomorrow, I will begin pro bono life coaching with one inmate. We are condensing as many sessions into a short period of time because we don’t know how long she’ll be at the jail before being moved to another correctional facility or how long after that before she’ll be back home with her children. Her wish is to find a way to release the pain, the rage, the intense reactionary habit so that she can show up for her kids and teach them by example. My wish is to help her do that.

 

If you are interested in learning more about my work at the City Jail or if you are interested in financially supporting this work so that I can extend my reach to more women, please donate at www.gofundme.com/inmatecoaching or, as always, if you have questions reach out to me via email – ellie@ellieburke.life

 

<3 E

 

 

 

You Get What You Get And Don’t Have a Fit

In our house, my kids can often be heard saying, “You get what you get and don’t have a fit.” My husband and I aren’t sure where this expression came from (school, most likely) but we kind of love the way they say it -- a lighthearted reminder to basically not be grumpy about what you “get” in any given situation.

 

The other day, in one of my other roles working with HandsOnRVA on a an innovative service-learning initiative with Capital One executives, I had the good fortune of sitting in on an informal lecture about the issues surrounding workforce development, including the basics of what people need in order to succeed. So much of what lecturer Jamison Manion had to say was like hearing my self coaching or teaching yoga but in an entirely different framework…{insert my favorite catchall phrase right here: truth is one, paths are many}.

 

One of the things that he said that struck me the most was, “Every system is designed perfectly to get the results you get.” Or, if I were to adapt it a bit: you get what you get {because your system was perfectly designed to get it} so don’t have a fit {just see what needs to be changed in the system}.

 

So tell me:

·      What’s your system (related to self-care, relationships, well-being, work, exercise, family, health, you name it!)? If you think you don’t have one, you do: the lack of a system is a system in and of itself.

·      Are you getting the results you want? If yes, great! Stay attentive to the system incase you begin to get creaky parts or breakdowns in unexpected places.

·      If not, are you having a fit?  (Keep in mind here that what my children’s “fits” look like on the outside are more likely (though not always) reflected as internal behavior in adults – think of what all of these look and feel like on the inside pouting, feet-stomping, giving up, throwing in the towel, blaming self/others/situations).

·      Can you take a closer look at the system that you’ve created that is getting the results you’re getting, perfectly? Really break it down, see all the parts, analyze, hypothesize, get curious, see nothing as non-negotiable.

·      Maybe start with the results that you are hoping for and work backwards to see if each element of your system is actually doing what it’s intended -- getting you where you’re hoping to be?

 

You get what you get {because your system was perfectly designed to get it} so don’t have a fit {just see what needs to be changed in the system}.

What's Actually Needed?

There’s a quote that I read recently in a novel that says, “When given the choice of being right or being kind, choose kind.” While I love this, for so many reasons, for the sake of exploring something here with you, I’m going to change it to: When given the choice of being right or being open, be open.

 

And this is why…

 

When we think we know, we go in to a situation, conversation, scenario with a very limited and closed perspective. We’re already right, we know how to proceed, how to go about it, what to say, how to do it… or so we think. This is not only limiting to us, but it’s limiting to the whole world (from the personal, 1:1-level to the neighbor-level, to the community-level, and on out from there). Every moment has literally limitless possibilities and by contracting around one (or maybe two) of your right ones you create a form of tunnel vision for yourself. Picture yourself wearing horse-blinders. Or, looking through binoculars that can’t move. You get the idea.

 

When we’re able to go in to a moment or situation completely open, however, without the mind-clutter of stories, should/shouldn’ts, opinions and judgments already in tact, we are able to clearly see what IS, the truth of any given moment, situation or circumstance. That narrow tunnel has now widened and from there, we are move available to see what’s needed (if anything at all) and what the possibilities are.

 

So, how do we come in open and free of a pre-conceived idea? First, you have to be willing to see that, at any given moment, you’ve already formed an idea or opinion that you believe is right and to consider that it may or may not be. After you’ve cultivated the willingness to be wrong (I know, I know, it’s a tough one, ego), you keep yourself in the “I don’t know” camp as you observe what’s in front of you. As you take in the situation you ask yourself, what’s really true here? What’s actually needed? And what do I have the capacity to offer? No judgment (or yourself or others), just seeing and observing.

 

If there’s a willingness to drop your “rightness,” that which is actually needed will become clear. Because you are open, you will have the capacity to see it, hear it, sense it or, because you are available and receptive, it will be offered directly to you.

 

When given the option of being right or being open, be open.

 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

 

<3 e.

Just Trust Yourself!

Ever hear someone say, “Just TRUST yourself,” and then you immediately think, but which self am I trusting? I mean which version, which identity, which self are you actually supposed to trust?

Many of us have had the experience of “trusting” ourselves only to find out that that very self that convinced us that __(fill in the blank)___ was actually a good idea, or what we needed, or how we should approach something was actually totally and completely (and sometimes terribly) wrong. So whom do you trust then? How do you actually know what it is you need and should do?

Those of you who work with me regularly (via yoga and/or coaching) know that I’ve been slightly obsessed with the concept of “support” lately (okay, maybe for a while now). And that's simply because when we are supported (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, energetically), we are less depleted and more available to whatever life presents to us. We show up more full, more present, more able to respond to life, itself. In class and in coaching sessions, we explore things like, “what would support you right now?” “Are you allowing yourself to be supported?” “How do you know what you need and how to you provide yourself with just that thing?” “What would fill you up rather than deplete you?”

First, we have to acknowledge the basic fact that none of us know everything. Even if we know a ton about something, we certainly don’t know a lot about a lot of things and there’s always space to learn. Always. Thank goodness for all those people out there that know more than us so that we can learn from them (I say as I bow down to all those who humble and teach me daily).

So we go OUT to collect and gather information (facts, opinions, data, suggestions, ideas…). And, thanks to technology, we certainly have an abundance of that at our fingertips at any moment.

Second, however, is to acknowledge that we actually know everything (when it comes to knowing what we actually need). So the one thing we absolutely must do, after going out to gather information, is to go IN for our answers. We must go in to see the affect, to see the internal response, to see if the *thing* we implemented, tried, explored actually provided us with the desired outcome. Think: trial & error, pure and simple. And this is where the confusion lies. We tend to trust that which is OUTside of us more than that which is INside. So when that which we got from OUTside doesn’t seem to “work,” we tend to go OUT again, rather than in. We look for others to tell us what works/ed for them and we expect it to do the same for us. And we loose our footing, and get depleted, and give up, and fall down.

But when we take the time, give ourselves the space, without expectation, to see clearly and listen attentively, that which is IN us will give us very clear indicators about what is and isn’t supportive. It's a continuous, ever-evolving process. The more we do it, the more we begin to make choices in life (and in the practices that support our life) that give us exactly what we need. And we find that we are living with a truer sense of self, a more grounded experience of who we are and how we can show up in the world. Begin to see and feel that self. And then trust that. Trust yourSELF.

<3 e.

Emanate, Illuminate, Radiate

Our essence is light. Clear, bright, pure light. It resides at our center and it’s nature is expansive – it naturally radiates outward. More often than not it can, at some level, be dulled, dimmed, diminished, or filtered. Most of the time, for most of us, some of it shines through in some way, at certain times, during certain activities (need help figuring out which ones?? Ask me :)). We all have experienced this personally as well as by way of witnessing it in others.

That which dims, diminishes, filters, and blocks the light is created, reinforced, and perpetuated by us – consciously or unconsciously. Whether in response to or in anticipation of fear, pain or sadness, we create the barriers to our very own light shining out from our very own center. Call it your armor, your protective mechanism, your barricade, your shield, your opinions, your judgments, your ego, your rightness or righteousness… it’s all the same.

Begin to feel it – feel how you shut down, pull away, push against, resist, fight, block, or layer-on/build-up the protective structures that you think are keeping you safe or free from pain, suffering, or sadness. And begin to see it – see that where you’re blocking or pushing or pulling is simply where you’re getting in the way of your own light -- the open, spacious and accepting quality that naturally wants to express itself. 

As we begin to learn to let go, to stop efforting at keeping it “all together,” to drop the armor, dismantle the barricade, dissolve the identities that we think we need to keep in place, the light begins to shine through. It shines through, perhaps, first in patches, in waves, in fleeting moments. But then, on it's very own, it grows and expands and it begins to soften the remaining parts that are resisting more strongly, the protective layers around the deeper wounds, the unconscious guarding.

I invite you to drop the hardness and invite the softness, to stop glorifying security and embrace vulnerability, to see the urge to close and, instead, open. 

<3 e.

The Ordinary is the Most Extraordinary

Guess what, friends? I’m about to tell you something that is going to blow your mind. Literally.  It’s going to shake the entire ground of your existence simply because it is so directly opposite of how we do things, how we think we need to be, what we think accomplishing the next thing [insert your own goal(s) here] will bring us. Here it goes:

 

Let go of all the stuff that you think makes (or will make) you extraordinary. Drop it. Let the should be/shouldn’t be, cannot, will not, should not, must-be-more self just fall away.  Let your life allow you to BECOME MORE ORDINARY. Stop searching, stop seeking, stop striving. That which you seek is already and always here. Now. And all that searching, seeking, and striving is actually keeping you from experiencing it. Instead of "go big or go home," just simply come home, come back in to reconnect with your most essential self.

 

Many years ago, I came across an excerpt from one of Georg Feurstein’s essays in The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, a collection of essays and commentary on the tradition and philosophy of the system of yoga. If you don’t own it and you practice yoga – or especially if you teach yoga – please get it and read it. Here's what he says:

"The closer we are to Self-realization, or enlightenment, the more ordinary we become. Only seekers striving for liberation as if it were a trophy glamorize the yogic process and themselves.  They want to be extraordinary, whereas liberated beings are perfectly ordinary. They are as happy washing dishes as they are sitting quietly in meditation or teaching their disciples. For this reason yoga from the beginning celebrated not only the path of the world-renouncing ascetic but also that of the world-engaging householder who uses opportunities of daily life to practice the virtues of a yogic lifestyle."

 

For so many reasons, I love this. At first, it’s like a get out of jail card, because you realize that you you don't have to push so hard, to try so hard. You're free to move around. But then, you realize that there’s no jail, never was, and there is no amount of property you can buy that would make this moment, this life better [pardon the Monopoly metaphor]. All that you have and all that you are is enough. Perfectly, ordinarily enough.

 

But perhaps more importantly than even the recognition of the perfect ordinariness of “liberation,” is the acknowledgement of “the world-engaging householder” who recognizes and uses that which daily life presents to wake up to the fact that the ordinary is the most extraordinary. This breath, this moment, this everything. Life is the Guru. If you can’t see it HERE in the ordinary, you most certainly won’t see it THERE in the glamorous extraordinary. The ordinary is the most extraordinary.

Who Do You Think You Are?


Seriously, I'm asking... Who. Do. You. Think. You. Are?? How do you define yourself? 

Life Coaching, from the perspective of Martha Beck, stems from a simple equation:

do more of what aligns with your essential self
+ do less of what aligns with your social self
= the life you love


Although the equation sounds simple, the process can be quite challenging. Namely, because we have various roles that we play, identities that we embody, and hats that we wear (our social self) that keep us quite confined and quite limited. Quite literally, as Oscar Wilde said, "to define is to limit." By creating a definition of who we should/shouldn't be, who we can/cannot be (and abiding by said definitions), we actually limit the possibility of who and what we can become.

So, let me ask you again: Who do you think you are? And can you begin to push the envelope on the defined limits of those roles and identities. It'll be totally uncomfortable at first. And, I guarantee that you'll get push back (mainly from the folks who live and die by their defined roles). But the more you do it, the more you question who you are and what you want, how you want to FEEL in your life (daily, weekly, annually), the more you will start to choose the things that actually support that. 

What is yoga, anyway?

There was an article recently floating around on the interwebs that I was so grateful to have actually paused and read… the whole thing. That’s a rarity these days. It was insightful, well-written, came from a balanced, wise, and open place. And it also felt like a big sigh of relief for me. I could feel my shoulders drop and my heart open as I read it. I highly suggest you read it.

For a long time, I’ve held my opinions of yoga and the many forms in which it’s practiced close to me (admittedly, those close to me have had an earful, though) and err on the side of “non-judgment.” You know, to each his own, truth is one, paths are many, right? What I’ve come to realize over the years is that while we are taught, through our practice, to cultivate discernment/viveka, we’ve somehow turned that into the generalized “quality” of non-judgment. Non-judgment, on the surface, is lovely. Pure non-judgment or totally acceptance on an internal level can, in fact, change the world.

But this kind of non-judgment that I've seen (in myself and in others) is more like a shrug of the shoulders, an "oh well," a looking the other way when it comes to answering the question, "what is yoga."

I’m no expert, although I’ve done my fair share of studying, practicing, and teaching. But I’ve been around long enough and allowed my practice to grow me enough to witness the shift of yoga: FROM a practice that was taught and practiced as a tool to shine the light on habit and conditioned ways of thinking and doing, to dissolve identity and ego, to undo attachment, to bring us back to our natural state, our essence so that we could be IN life with that knowing     --> TO a practice that solidifies ego and builds new layers of identity, that tightens the bonds of attachment (to body and form and accomplishment and the practice, itself), that serves as a distraction from life and it’s challenges, and one that glorifies what we can see versus what is impossible to see and only possible to experience. This is not to say that everyone is teaching this way or that everyone is practicing in this way. Far from it, fortunately. But it's what we're highlighting, celebrating, showcasing. It's what people are seeing as the representation of yoga and why many people shy away from it and why many others get injured from it.

It's not about the form, but the content of the form. What's underneath the external expression? And where is it coming from? What's the purpose beneath the effort and is the level of effort necessary? Enlightenment (or the other transformational aspects of the practice that occur on the journey, itself) doesn't come the moment your hands touch your toes or when you "master" the next deeper or more extreme posture. It certainly can happen at that moment, but not as a result of it. Not because of it but because of the part of you showing up for it, the part of you getting out of your own way so that you can experience your pure essential nature, your true self, the you with no story. Samadhi is available always, at any moment. It's never not there. Because it is you.

Yes, the body can bring us in. It’s a great launching pad and a tremendous learning tool. There’s yoga for everybody and every body. And amazing teachers who continue to pave the path for more accessibility for all body type and capacities (like this brilliant man, for one). We do it because it makes us feel better, stronger, more flexible, and healthier. We do it because it gives us a sense of inner calm, stress relief, more peace in our relationships – including the relationship we have with ourselves. But if we stop there, if we get stuck there, we miss the opportunity to practice the deeper, inner work of yoga, the practice that teaches us of our innate expansiviness. The work on and in the subtle body is anything but subtle. It is profound, transformative, and takes dedicated consistency and a willingness to do an internal work that is not photographable, not viewed as big and bold, and isn’t applauded or celebrated, so the motivation must come from within. But this work, though it can’t be seen, can certainly be felt. It is the only place to work that has the potential to change our lives and change our world.

Get curious – about yourself and your approach to your practice. Understand the how and the why of it. What motivates you and is there a desired outcome? How does your practice reflect your approach to life (as I often and fondly say, how we do anything is how we do everything)? Understand where the freedom lies – not in the form, itself, but in the complete and whole-being willingness to let go of the form even while in it.