Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Spiritual Practice of Pleasure

Cherish life’s simple pleasures.

That’s the sign that hangs on a wall in my home as a daily reminder to live in the moment.

One of my students gave it to me as a gift before departing for summer break. She told me that out of all the life lessons she learned during the year with me as her teacher, enjoying life and appreciating the small things resonated with her the most.

I often look at the word “pleasures” and make a game out of it. I try to find as many words as I can within it. Some of the words I’ve found include:  pleases, ease, sure, leap, sleeps, slurp, reaps, and so on. It’s a silly little game but I enjoy playing it.

Cherishing life’s simple pleasures is a spiritual practice. Simple pleasures point us toward the sacred presence in the world. They teach us about the lineaments of a whole and meaningful existence.  When we act from the center of our being, when we become aware of the ultimate value of existence, when we connect with our authentic, deeper selves, we begin to take pleasure in every moment that is given to us.

I have a friend who is a self-described orthodox hedonist. He believes the aim of spirituality is pleasure. And so, he lives his life discovering the beauty in each moment. There is nothing that doesn’t fascinate him in some way. He lives in the here and now. To him, the little things are the big things.

What simple pleasures in life do you cherish?

The Body Beatitudes

Ever stop to think how amazing our bodies are?

Deepak Chopra points out that “skin replaces itself once a month, the stomach lining every five days, the liver every six weeks, and the skeleton every three months.”

The body is constantly renewing itself.

Photo Courtesy Google Images

It sheds the old to make way for the new.

Struggling with a negative body image does not allow us to give our bodies the gratitude it deserves.

Polluting it with unhealthy substances over time breaks down the body’s performance.

Neglecting its needs is self-abuse, not self-love.

Let us reject the negative images of the body and bless it, for as we bless our bodies, they will bless us in return.

Let us honor our bodies for the temples that they are.

In the words of poetess Robin Morgan:

Blessed be my brain
     that I may conceive of my own power.
Blessed be my breast
     that I may give sustenance to those I love.
Blessed be my womb
     that I may bend so as not to break.
Blessed be my feet
     that I may walk in the path of my highest will.

How do you honor and bless your body? Your comments are always welcome.

(Excerpt from “The Network of the Imaginary Mother” from Upstairs in the Garden:  Poems Selected and New, 1968-88 by Robin Morgan).

The Art of Teen Whispering

As I ran errands this morning, Back-To-School supplies and displays greeted me as I entered the store. School will start in about two weeks, and that means my private tutoring schedule will begin to pick up. My next two weeks will include some adjustments to my schedule, more research, and developing methods to reach students on more than just an academic level. My goal is to reach the whole student.

To many, tutoring is nothing more than supplemental help to improve skills.  
No, no, no, no, NO. 
When parents ask me to tutor their children, I explain to them that tutoring involves more than academic instruction; it involves activities to shake them up and turn them inside-out before academic instruction can begin. Teenagers, in particular, are in a challenging position. Teenage years are awkward. They are no longer innocent babes, but they have not fully matured into adulthood, which is why I call them Tweenagers because they are caught in-between the two states. They have so many questions that need answering, their hormones are raging, they are beginning to discover themselves and their bodies, they don’t know who or what to believe, and they are bombarded with much more pressure today than teenagers 20, 30, or 40 years ago. They often feel misunderstood in their quest for individuality. I like to describe them as live wires that need grounding.
Here are some of my tutoring techniques to help ground these wild currents of energy:
First, I require students to keep a personal journal. I explain the benefits of journaling. I give them journaling exercises for the week, which I review in detail and comment upon. In my comments, I ask questions in return for them to answer. I encourage them. I offer my insights. I don’t judge. This helps me to see inside from a safe distance. This allows them to write freely and boldly. I assure them that what they write is strictly confidential; the only time I would have to share information is if the student intends to do harm, either to the self or to someone else. I offer many observation exercises to open the students’ minds. Students continue journaling throughout our sessions. Journaling can be handwritten in a notebook, or done in a word-processing program and emailed to me. In addition to personal journals, I require students to keep reading journals for any literature they are studying. 
Second, I introduce students to meditation techniques. I explain the importance of centering oneself before tackling large tasks. I also explain the benefits of meditation. I use guided meditation in the beginning until students feel comfortable. From there, we meditate together. Students journal about these experiences for later discussion.
Third, I make students move physically. I check with parents about the health of their child. In most cases, students are involved in many sports, and I check with their coaches about their particular conditioning programs. I use my personal training experience in conjunction. Instead of writing an essay or working on argumentation techniques for a session, I make students run/walk or commit to some kind of physical activity. When I started an outdoor club at a previous school, I took students hiking, camping, and canoeing as we studied the Romantics and Transcendentalist writers. 
Fourth, I introduce an I-Search project, instead of a Re-search project. A teen’s favorite topic is none other than him- or herself, so I give guidelines to help discover who they are, what they believe, etc. This is done in a multi-genre format to allow for creativity throughout the project.  This is always a favorite. The multi-genre format teaches students to learn about and write in various genres to expand their writing skills. They can respond in poems, essays, letters, collages, bumper stickers, comic strips, etc.  I have a list of over 200 different genres from which they can choose to express themselves in their project. I tutored one student in particular who had suffered a major car accident that left her with seizures. Through her I-Search multi-genre project, she faced her fears, anger, and grief. She discovered news ways to cope and found herself healed on many levels after completing it. Her writing skills blossomed and so did her self-esteem. Today she is seizure free.
Fifth, I infuse reading comprehension, writing techniques, grammar skills, vocabulary development and all things language arts related in as many creative ways as possible. I haven’t met a teenager yet who absolutely loves vocabulary development. When I want students to learn vocab words, I have them personify the words, as a living, breathing person, in such a way that the meaning of the word is evident without stating the obvious.  For example, let’s use the word oblivious as the vocab word: “Oblivious walked into the classroom, tripping over backpacks, and knocking books off of desks with her bag, not realizing what she was doing. As she settled into her seat, she dumped all of the contents from her purse onto her desk, completely unaware that class had already started.” Not only does this teach the meaning of the word, but it teaches the elements of characterization in a creative way, and it helps students to understand context clues.
Some students progress faster than others, but rushing a student through the learning process only serves to close him or her down. It requires trust-building and patience, especially with students who are unsure of themselves. Students want to feel good about who they are and what they are doing, especially during a time in their life that is often filled with angst and confusion.
Of course, these techniques are not a cure-all, but they are a start in helping young people discover their authentic selves.

Kids, A Cause, and Catfish

I like to reward myself.

No. Let me take that back.

I love to reward myself.

It’s my way of patting myself on my back for accomplishing something.

Yesterday, I ran a 5K race along the beautiful Tennessee River in the Shoals area of Alabama to benefit St. Jude’s Hospital for children. Well-over 200 people showed for the race, not counting those who came to support us on the sidelines.

When I run, I don’t compete with others; I compete with myself. My goal was to knock off one to two minutes of my total run time. That may not seem like a lot, but when you are pounding the pavement on a hot, humid day, that’s a very challenging goal. When I crossed the finish line, I found that I had knocked off two minutes and three seconds from the last 5K. Yes! Mission accomplished, and then some (hey, three seconds is a lot to a runner!). I also placed third in my age group (an added bonus!).

But it wasn’t easy. To get me through, I thought about the kids in St. Jude’s…and catfish.

So, today I rewarded myself with what I consider the best catfish in the South at Hagy’s Catfish Hotel in Shiloh, Tennessee. Oh. My. God. Cat-fish-gasm.

If you are a catfish connoisseur like me, the fish must be crunchy on the outside and moist and flaky on the inside. It must be pond-raised and fresh, never frozen. And it’s got to be accompanied by hushpuppies, what I call the french fries of the South. If you’re not familiar with hushpuppies, they are deep-fried cornbread balls. Legend has it that hunters, fishermen, and cooks would fry this delectable cornmeal mixture and feed it to the dogs to “hush the puppies” during fish-fries. Legend also has it that Civil War soldiers used hushpuppies to quiet the barking of Confederate dogs.

But, I digress.

If given the choice of splurging on a rich, velvety, chocolate dessert or fresh catfish and savory hushpuppies, I’ll take catfish hands down (or fins down!). Along with some homemade tartar sauce and sweet tea, thank you.

I ate it all!

Rewarding yourself for accomplishing a goal or a mini-goal deserves celebration. But rewards must be done correctly. That means they must have extrinsic and/or intrinsic value; that is, a reward can come from outer things (like catfish!), or the reward is in how our accomplishment (cutting two minutes and three seconds from my previous run time) makes us feel inwardly (victorious and proud).

While rewards that change our inner life are more important in the long run, outer rewards serve as important pats-on-the-back along the way. And it’s important not to punish the slip-ups because they do happen on occasion.

Rewarding ourselves is about celebrating and loving the self. Rewards make us feel good about ourselves; they help build our self-esteem which gives us the courage and the motivation to keep moving forward. They are the fuel that keeps us going in the direction of our authentic self because they stimulate a positive cycle of change.

While fried catfish and hushpuppies aren’t the healthiest reward, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it from time to time.

How do you reward yourself for your accomplishments? What other tips or insight can you offer about rewards?

Increasing Your Energetic Wealth

Energy is like money.
Like money, energy can be squandered or invested.
When you have an abundance of energy, it’s wise to invest it into things that will improve your life. Make your energy work for you, not against you. 
What does this mean?
It means doing those things that make you feel good about yourself. Things that you enjoy doing. Things that raise your spirits, feed your soul, and increase your vibration. Things that propel you to grow, to create, and to express your authentic self. 
But squandering your energy puts you at risk.
Energy that is not channeled constructively or positively leads to boredom, apathy, complacency, dependence, even bondage. You find yourself doing things that you don’t like doing or don’t want to be doing. You find yourself obligated to others rather than to yourself. Things begin piling up on you, adding stress, which then manifest physically in the form of various ailments or illnesses. You don’t feel good about yourself or your place in life. Now you are left with no energy whatsoever; you’ve depleted yourself and your reserves. This is a major energy deficit.
What’s the point of living?
But you can change this.
Investing energy into yourself, rather than squandering it aimlessly on things that no longer serve you (or have never served you), allows for a shift in vibration that moves you to start doing the things you enjoy. It begins by taking back your control and making choices that empower you. One small shift gets the ball rolling. 
Energy is designed to move, not stagnate. 
It is designed to flow freely, without blockage. 
Start small. Choose an area of your life or something about yourself that you’d like to improve. Ask yourself what kind of investment you are willing to make to improve that area of your life. Commit to it by signing a contract with yourself or by creating a vision board.  Remind yourself about your goal on a daily basis. Give it the energy it deserves to grow and manifest. Before you know it, a wealth of energy and assistance will make itself known to you in ways you’ve never imagined. Such is the Spirit of Attraction and Abundance.
You are worth the investment. 
How are you investing in yourself these days? Or, how will you? I invite you to share your energy investing techniques with us. 

Embracing YOUR Choices

In his book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle says, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment.

In other words, what’s happening to you in this exact moment is happening because it is happening. You’ve evolved to this exact point in time. This experience is a culmination of your thinking, of your feeling, and it is now manifesting before your very eyes.
So, how are you to approach such a moment?
Embrace it. 
Embrace it because this the experience you need to grow, to create, to express yourself fully, and to become whole.
How you approach this moment depends on only you. You have the power to make it work for you…or against you. It’s your choice.  It’s always been your choice.
Fighting the experience won’t make it go away. Resistance is like a virus — it comes back stronger than ever, until you inoculate it by embracing and facing the experience — by opening up to it and asking it what it has to teach you so that you can start making new (and more informed) choices. 
A “new earth” starts with a “new mind.”
What kind of world are you creating for yourself?  What kind of world would you like to create?
(If you haven’t read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, click here for the full downloadable text).

Teaching Outside The Box

I was always known as the English teacher who gave strange homework assignments. I would tell my students that there was a method to my madness, and that my job wasn’t about telling them what to think; it was about getting them to think, especially for themselves.

As a teacher, I wanted to reach the whole student. Sure, I followed the principles of Bloom’s Taxonomy when developing lesson plans, but I believe education is much more than remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information. It’s about making connections to worlds other than one’s own.  And by the end of the year, my students felt that they had learned much more about themselves and others because of my “crazy” assignments.

Oftentimes, I received phone calls and emails from parents, thanking me for such assignments because it allowed them to reconnect with their children and with themselves. Here’s a list of some of those assignments.

Assignment 1: Learning gratitude. Imagine what your life would be like with no elbows.  Immobilize your arms in such a way that you cannot bend your elbows. Try to perform an activity like washing a plate, or changing your clothes. Journal about your experience. Thank your elbows and show them some love by rubbing some lotion on them as you give thanks (replace elbows with knees for another variation).

Assignment 2: Learning POV (point of view). Write a letter from the perspective of your hair. Think about what your hair goes through on a daily basis. What would it tell you in that letter? And what will you change as a result?

Assignment 3: Learning symbols. Anything can be our teacher when we contemplate it long enough. Sit under a tree, facing it preferably. Study it. Listen to it. Touch it. Ask what it can teach you. What could a tree represent or symbolize in life? Journal about your experience.

Assignment 4: Learning responsibility. Adopt a plant. Or plant a seed and watch it grow. Give it sun. Give it water. Play music for it. Notice the changes that occur over a few weeks.

Assignment 5: Learning appreciation. Gather all of your electronic gadgets and have a party for them. Give them a good dusting and cleaning. Check to see that the cords are in good shape. As part of the party fun, give out awards according to their “personality,” like “Most Likely To Be Borrowed By My Brother When I’m Not Looking.”

Assignment 6: Learning organization. Spend some time making your room a more soulful place. Make simple changes that are more reflective of your attachments, interests, and commitments. Books on the Chinese art of feng shui explain this system of gauging energy flow in an area and making changes using plants, mirrors, wind chimes, arrangement of furniture, a water feature, and other elements. Note how you feel after making these changes. How does your room feel to you?

Assignment 7: Learning comparisons/contrasts. Have you ever been in a place that you felt was “sick,” ill, or negative? Describe its symptoms. How would you help it “heal?” Compare/contrast this kind of place to one that you felt was healthy? What did you notice?

Assignment 8: Learning connections. If you were a color, what color would you be, and why? Explain in one to two pages. How does this color represent you?

Assignment 9:  Learning characterization. Make a collage that captures your understanding of your family. Use images to capture each family member’s personality. Explain why you chose those particular images.

Assignment 10: Learning teamwork. Plan a menu with your family and cook a meal together. Who will be the head chef? Who will be the sous chef (assistant)? Assign a role to each family member. Document this with photos and create a booklet that tells the story of the evening.

My goal was to design assignments that created meaning, assignments that took students beyond the four walls of a classroom. I wanted them to develop “heart knowledge” as well as “head knowledge.”

I’ve always believed that learning should be a fun but challenging process. To students, these assignments took them out of their comfort zones, but they allowed students to open up to the world and to themselves, getting them out of their own little universe. These activities were about expanding their awareness.

Of course, these activities are not just for students. Anyone can work with them, especially if they want to get in touch with the depth of their souls and the breadth of their connections with others.

Give them a try, and see what you discover.

Fear’s Worst Enemy

Yesterday I shared an experience that illustrated how fear can get the best of us (see “Things That Go Grunt In The Night”). While it turned out to be a funny (and wet!) situation, the fear seemed very real as my imagination ran wild.

Fear, or as my friend and Life Coach Kathy Hadley reminds people, is nothing more than False Evidence Appearing Real. And she’s right. Fear is nothing more than an illusion.

And it can be one of the biggest challenges we experience.

How many times have you been afraid to try something new?  Or afraid to change something, even though your current methods weren’t working?

If you are like most, when fear strikes, you may experience physical symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, paralysis or immobilization, elevated blood pressure, increased perspiration, tense and energized muscles, hives or skin rashes, just to name a few. This stresses the body, so to combat it, the body releases stress hormones, like cortisol, into your bloodstream. If the body is stressed over a period of time, severe conditions may occur, if not treated.

So, why do we let it get the best of us?

Fear is often based in a lack of knowledge or understanding. Not knowing the outcome of a situation leaves us to our imaginations. When we don’t know or understand something, we assume. Many times those assumptions trick us into thinking the worst. The survival part of us wants to know exactly what is going to happen; it wants guarantees and safety. This lack of knowledge fans the flames of our fears, and suddenly we have a fiery monster breathing in our direction.

But fear has an enemy. The kryptonite of knowledge.

Rather than react to your fear, you can take a proactive approach by arming yourself with knowledge. Just becoming informed about that which scares you can shift everything. The “unknown” now becomes the known.

True, some fears may be deeper rooted and much more complex than anticipated; these may take more time to address and may require the help of a life coach/professional.  But oftentimes, our fears will vanish simply by learning more about the things we are avoiding.

Knowledge is our ally against fear. The next time you find yourself feeling great resistance toward something, take a deep breath, get out the kryptonite and inform yourself, and then poof! That monster of fear dissipates into a puff of smoke, and you become your own superhero.

In what ways do you use your superpowers to conquer fear? Please share below.

Things That Go Grunt In The Night

Sometimes we let our fears get the best of us. Our imaginations get carried away, and we find ourselves blowing things out of proportion.

We had been slogging up a steep, winding trail in the Himalayas, en route to Mt. Everest.

Adjusting to high altitude took its toll on all of us. Headaches. Nausea. Hallucinations. I swear I saw a pink elephant laughing at me. At nearly 18,000 feet, where there’s less oxygen, the mind begins to play tricks.

I popped another diamox (medication used to accelerate acclimatization to high altitude) to get me through.

We made camp, convened in the dining tent for a dinner of yak cheese, kala chia (black tea), pasta with veggies, and some kind of mystery meat. Lhakpa, our sherpa, told stories about the Yeti. He said he came face-to-face with one, and described it as a human ape about eight feet tall. Yeah sure. “The only yeti I’ve seen was the one in my mirror this morning,” someone joked.

After dinner and storytelling, we each retired to our own tents to rest up for tomorrow’s acclimatization hike. A sleet storm had moved in; I could hear it dancing off of my tent. I fell asleep to the sound, sleeping quite comfortably despite the bitter cold temperature.

And then the urge to pee awakened me.  Darn it. I drank too much tea at dinner.

I looked at my watch. 3:37 a.m.  Not now, I whined.

I really did not want to go out into the freezing air.

I fumbled around for my headlamp and Charmin and unzipped my tent to face the night.  The toilet tent that our sherpa’s assistant pitched was two tenths of a mile outside of camp. I took a deep breath and made my way down the path, my body shivering, just to squat over a hole, and as I did, the cold air rushed to violate me in the process. Jesus! I miss the feel of porcelain!

Suddenly there came a grunt.

I stopped midstream.

Then another grunt. And another. What the hell?

My heartbeat quickened. Adrenaline raced through my veins. What should I do?

Images of Lhakpa’s Yeti filled my mind.  I. Was. Scared.

The grunting moved closer. And closer.

I could hear it breathing just outside the privy. Holy crap!

Finally, I decided to make a run for it. I pulled up my pants, armed myself with my roll of Charmin, and bolted, only to run straight into the source of grunting. It knocked me flat on my butt.

When I came to, I saw it.

A yak.

Thank God! I sighed, as warmth trickled down my leg.

I didn’t know whether to kiss that yak, or kick it, but I never felt so relieved (in more ways than one!).

English Class, Criticism, And Penises

It takes a lot to surprise a veteran teacher. But every once in awhile, a student does just that. And sometimes you have to illustrate the absurd with the absurd. A teacher has to plan her attack of criticism and correction very carefully.

I had been teaching Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem about freeing oneself from the chains of society, discovering one’s identity, and celebrating that individuality. As part of students’ overall grade for the unit, I required them to keep a reading journal while following specific guidelines for their entries.

The day came for me to collect their journals. Students passed up their notebooks and I placed them on my work table next to my desk.  As we prepared to discuss the novel for its themes, one particular student rushed up to the front of the classroom with his notebook. He (let’s call him J) slid it in-between the others, rather than on top, apologizing for not having it ready for collection. I paid no mind as I had to get the lesson started.

When I got home that evening, I sat in my favorite chair, a glass of wine in hand and a stack of journals in my lap, all waiting for my comments.

And then I came to J’s journal.

There, on the front cover, were penises he had drawn all over it. Penises. Really? Not only did they grace the cover, but they were drawn throughout his entire reading journal.

At first I was surprised and disappointed. Never would I have expected this from J.

And then I found myself laughing so hard that I spilled red wine all over his words and art.  Oops. One of the hazards of grading papers at home.

So, I mused about how to handle this. I didn’t want to react out of anger. I guess he had made some *personal discoveries* and wanted to share some of that passion.

I read through his journal, commenting on his thoughts that I found quite engaging, insightful, and eloquently stated, as penises in all shapes and sizes danced throughout the pages. This boy absolutely connected with the novel’s message in ways that I had never seen students connect.  He had tied in other novels by Ayn Rand that I had mentioned in class but never assigned; he read them on his own at my suggestion. I was impressed with his intellect and initiative.

But that didn’t excuse him from his display of phalluses all over his work. I knew I had to address this.

So, when I handed back everyone’s journals near the end of class, J approached me, asking why he didn’t get his.

“Well, J, that’s something we need to discuss,” I said. “Your unique display of artwork, while very realistic and lifelike…I’ve never seen so many different depictions of penises…is not appropriate in an English class,” as I flipped through his journal in front of him. J stood there, mouth agape.

“Y-You…said…penis,” he stuttered.

“Well, I do know what they are and what they are intended for, and so do you apparently, but they have no place in class, unless, of course, you are in health class. Maybe I’ll show this to your health teacher,” I continued, knowing that his health teacher, who was also his coach, would take severe action.

“No! Please don’t, Ms. McD! He will kill me and make me run suicides in practice today! And then he’ll suspend me for a few games!” J pleaded.

To drive the point home, I said, “You know, studies show that men who obsess over penises are really overcompensating for their own small equipment.  I’d be more careful if I were you.”

J’s eyes grew wide with concern. “Really?” he asked. “I guess I better stop! I don’t want to send the wrong message to people. I’m sorry Ms. McDaniel. It’ll never happen again! Thanks for enlightening me.”

“I’m just looking out for you, J,” I closed.

J extended his hand, and we shook on it.

Situation resolved. Dignity intact. Lesson learned. Even though I made up that study.

Criticizing and correcting behavior is something that comes with the territory of teaching adolescents. Kids will be kids, and they will test the boundaries.

But the lessons of criticism extend beyond the walls of a classroom. Anyone can be a critic, but to do it effectively takes skill. Effective criticism should be positively intended, specific, objective, and constructive, not destructive, with the goal of improving a situation. Here are some tips:

1.  Identify the behavior so you can develop your strategy around it.
2.  Be specific, not general in your criticism. Rather than say, “You’re always late with your work,” say, “You didn’t turn in yesterday’s work.”
3.  Make sure the behavior that you are criticizing is changeable.  If not, you may have to get help from an outside source.
4.  Use “I” and “We” statements that are non-threatening. This shows that you want to work out the problem together.
5.  Don’t belabor the point. Keep it short and to the point. Address it quickly.
6.  Don’t set a tone of anger or sarcasm. This puts the other person on the defensive. Tempers will flare and make things counterproductive. Avoid personal attacks and blaming. Using insulting and hostile language will only inflame the situation.
7.  Use the “sandwich” approach. Say something affirming and redeeming before sharing your criticism, and then reaffirm your support and confidence in that person.

Effective criticism can change what people think and do when done with respect. The next time I collected reading journals, J came forward and personally handed his to me. “No penises, McD. I saw the light,” he said, beaming a smile. “But I did draw these for you.” With those words, he turned and bounced back to his seat.

When I glanced at his journal, I couldn’t help but crack a smile.  Wine glasses.

Your comments are always welcome! What experiences can you share about handling criticism?