Monday, January 10, 2011

balance and nourishment

I've started to feel overwhelmed lately.

I sat down and listed my to-do's for the next 6 months and the rest of the year and I almost went into a semi-panic, looking at my list of at least 5 big projects, all of which have to do with my academic life.

So I got up and made some soup.

(Recipe to follow later... it was REALLY good, by the way).

But such is my defense mechanism. Cooking and creating soothe my nerves, and provide me with some grounding and centering. An opportunity to breathe.

Then I went back to work.

Before I go on, I have a feeling that this will be a long blog post. I've been doing a lot of introspection lately... mostly on my professional/academic life. It must be because I've been working on my academic portfolio for the past several days. But anyway...

In thinking about my defense mechanism/stress relief (a.k.a. my compulsive, I-have-to-do-it-now stress-cooking sprees), I went back to thinking about my word for this year. In my journal, I wrote that the word I want to encapsulate 2011 to be BALANCE/BALANCED. Last year (2010) was about COURAGE and INSPIRATION, to tackle the many challenges ahead. 2009 was about TAKING ACTION, because it was a year of opportunity, decision-making, and transitions. I do like thinking of my big words for the year.

But I was led to think about how I want to achieve BALANCE: a BALANCED state of mind, body, and soul.

Why BALANCE? I started thinking about how I love balancing poses.

Tree pose, New Hampshire, Summer 2006
photo by Dad

Tree pose, Maryland, Fall 2008
photo by Minnie

I do love balancing poses. I don't mean that I never fall out of them -- I do, just depending on the day -- but I still love them. Maybe it's my dominant vata dosha in my personality in need of grounding, or my childhood gymnastics aspirations. I love all the elements that make up a balancing pose like tree or half-moon, or my favorite, dancer pose.

Dancer pose, Cincinnati, Summer 2006
photo by Jen

Dancer pose, Cleveland, Winter 2010
The centering of focus, the attention to the breath, the feeling of strength and stillness coming from deep in your core. The feeling of integration: integration of breath, mind, and body, the integration of subtle movement and peaceful stillness. The integration of process/effort and form/outcome, no matter what the outcome is -- whether it's gracefully achieving the pose you sought out to do, or modifying it, or falling out of it...gracefully, or not. It's all ok.

In my senior year of college, my best friend of 20+ years wrote these words to describe me: "a pillar of quiet strength." Words I hold very dearly. When I feel good in an asana practice, when I feel in tune with my body and mind, that is how it feels: Quiet strength.

So how do I take these lessons of balance and integration into my life?

To do that, I didn't set out to make a list of new year's resolutions in the manner of writing "things" to do. I didn't want to make a list of to-do's, only to abandon them by February. I find that I'm constantly reflecting, planning, and re-evaluating my choices throughout the year anyway. So instead, I wrote first about the things that throw me off balance:

  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Not enough vegetables
  • Not enough movement, or too much
  • Not enough sunshine and fresh air
  • Not enough creativity
  • Not enough quiet time
  • Not enough community...and by that I don't necessarily mean always being part of an organized, structured group... but to me it could mean an enjoyable conversation with one person, a few persons, or several
  • Not enough chocolate (I know, I know.... *wink*)
Ironically, in this day and age of gadgets and gizmos and technology in all shapes, sizes, and forms, all the things that I need for balance are really just basic things. Well, almost, depending on how you classify chocolate. :)

So how do I address those things that throw me off balance? Instead of writing a list of WHAT to do, I wrote about the HOW. How I'm going to do things, and how I'm not going to do things.

I came up with this list:

  • To do, not overdo.
  • To strive for excellence, not perfection.
  • To nourish and be nourished.
The words NOURISH and BE NOURISHED leaped out of the page. I suddenly remembered that the words "Nourish your life" were on my vision board which I created in 2008.

It's funny how words come back. It must mean something.

I reflected on the words some more, thinking about how they are, or can be at work in my life. Nourish your life. Nourish. Be nourished.

So it's no secret that I love, love, LOVE to cook...

 (Joy in the kitchen... bad hair day and all :) My brother took this surprise photo of me while I was preparing food for my 28th birthday dinner.)

And I love, love, LOVE to eat...

(Cutting into my flourless chocolate cake (thanks to this friend) on my 28th birthday, which was in... gulp... 2007. This was an evening of pure joy.)

...because cooking nourishes others, as it does myself. I love it when I make a great dish, unplanned, out of random ingredients I have in the pantry and refrigerator. I love it when I revise others' recipes and make it to my own liking. I love the ease in cooking, the slowness of it. The simplicity, or complexity of a dish, to suit your mood. The creativity of improvisation. The act of waiting, the element of anticipation and surprise. The combination of artfulness and precision of technique (ok, so I felt like an impostor saying that, not being professionally trained...) that results in a pretty baked treat. The memories attached to certain kinds of food. Yes, I fully attest to being an emotional eater... and I will assert that being an emotional eater -- in the way I described above -- is not necessarily a bad thing. I've said over and over again how being in the kitchen is therapy for me. And I love sharing this joyful experience by sharing a meal with a friend, or a few, or a big group... or gifting someone with homemade treats.

But more than that, I'm thinking of nourishment beyond the physical sense. Thinking about how I can nourish and be nourished in my academic life, my work life, my personal life. I think that is how I can achieve balance and be balanced.

And I realize....

To nourish someone else's learning, I need to nourish my own. I was trained as an early childhood educator, and in my years of teaching I have always felt the need to find ways to re-energize myself, to refill my cup, so to speak, so that I can face the next day and give my renewed energy. I've always found teaching not just physically or mentally challenging, but emotionally challenging as well... especially when working with special populations of children and families. I learned, though experience, that I need to prevent myself from being emotionally burned out so that I can still be effective as a teacher. Now, I am no longer working with children directly, but I am teaching adults. Being new to the world of college teaching, I am constantly second-guessing myself. Did I do enough? Did I communicate effectively? Did I model the same level of preparedness and professionalism as I expect from students? Did I evaluate students' work fairly? Did I support students' learning? Was I flexible enough to respond to students' needs, while still remaining consistent in my expectations? Did I share at least one thing that will make an impact on their professional lives? And most importantly: Did I honor each student's self-esteem and personhood?

I'm trying not to be too hard on myself, as I usually am. It's still a work in progress. I understand that this is a growing process. Instead, I am finding ways to nourish my own learning and growth. Whether it's doing research on effective teaching practices (yes... nerdy, I know... but such is the life in academia), or reflecting on my teaching. Whether it's talking to a peer going through the same experiences, or seeking mentoring from someone more experienced than I. I realize that all these are sources of nourishment.

To nourish someone else's spirit, I need to nourish my own. To exercise love and compassion toward others, I need to practice those same qualities towards myself. That means...

  • To do, not overdo (yes, I said it again... I think I need to constantly repeat these words to myself. Stubborn me.).
  • To work hard, and rest well
  • To set high standards for myself, while being gentle and forgiving towards mistakes
  • To learn from mistakes, and also reward myself for a job well done
  • To set my own standards based on what I value as important, meaningful, and nourishing to myself and others. This is, and will be, a big challenge... because I am at a phase in my professional life in which it's all about meeting external standards and satisfying other people's expectations to get through. It is a PhD program, after all. I obviously need to think about this one some more...
  • To immerse myself 100% in the process, but practice acceptance and non-attachment toward the results. In yogic/Sanskrit terminology, non-attachment is "vairagya". Oooh... that will be another challenge. I will have to remember the lessons from my asana practice of balancing poses: focused practice in the process, but acceptance and non-attachment towards the outcome.
  • To be generous of my time and my gifts, while allowing myself time and opportunities to give "gifts" to myself. Not material gifts, but time for activities like writing/journaling/reflecting, time for movement and meditation, and time for art and creativity.
So, the big words for 2011: BALANCE and NOURISHMENT. Let's see how this year unfolds...

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