Surviving a Violent Summer

“The Pitta dosha controls digestion, metabolism, and energy production. The primary function of Pitta is transformation. Those with a predominance of the Pitta principle have a fiery nature that manifests in both body and mind.” The Chopra Center.

“Ahimsa isn’t simply the practice of refraining from violent words or actions, it’s also about abstaining from violent thoughts. Ahimsa is the total and complete absence of violence from one’s mind, body, and spirit. It’s not only about evading harmful deeds, but about lacking the capacity to engage in harmful thoughts whatsoever.” -Gabriella Horowitz, “What Does Ahimsa Really Mean?”

jail photo
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

Below are the dominant events that have been in the news (besides the presidential election and its own special horrors) since the beginning of June. I’m probably missing a few things:

June 12: Pulse Club massacre

June 23: Brexit, causing economic unrest in the the UK as well as an increase in hate crimes against minorities and immigrants.

June 28: Istanbul airport attack

July 2: Dhaka Cafe attack in Bangladesh

July 2: Baghdad car bombing

July 5: Alton Sterling shooting

July 6: Philando Castile shooting

July 7: Five Dallas police officers killed during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest

July 14: Bastille Day truck massacre

July 17: Three police officers assassinated in Baton Rouge

The world is two gladiators killing each other for eternity; Facebook, the Roman crowd. Meanwhile the midwestern heat fornicating with the thick humidity rankles up the skin. I am in Indiana in June, July, swiping my screen, pulling weeds, running hot in swampy heat, shouting “you idiot!” at the monitor because I’m voting not-Republican in a red state, in a mostly conservative Christian Republican community. I am the aforementioned Pitta that the Chopra center speaks of. The fire is everywhere at the moment. I’m still waiting on the transformation.

But in its place are a few principles that I’ve found make this steamy, aggravating, even murderous time of year more manageable. I give these with the humility that comes from not following my own suggestions very well, but knowing that when I do, my life is better. If you are lucky enough to not be a ragey person, use these suggestions to whatever extent they help you.

  1. If you like to run, cycle, or in other ways exercise outdoors, get up in the morning before the sun bakes all your irritations up to a steamy boil. Also, give yourself an end time, and try to workout in the shade, or at least in a green space. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate too. Coconut water is a great alternative to sports drinks.
  2. Speaking of green spaces, try to spend a little more time around plants and trees. Work, exercise, or read here around as many green things as possible. Perhaps try to do some actual gardening, whether it is pulling weeds from a flower bed, working in a local garden, or planting a few seeds in a pot on your apartment’s balcony.  Dig your shovel in the earth, turning over the soil, turning up the roots you don’t want. It’s satisfying. It also keeps you off  social media (see Number 5, below). Whatever you do, attempt to do this early in the morning before the sun is baking on your shoulders and your brain cooks in a stew of wrathful juices. garden
  3.  Keep the inside of your living space as cool and uncluttered as possible. This means take regular time to tidy up, and then take a little bit of time to make the inside of your living space soothing. It might mean bringing in cut flowers, keeping a potted plant alive, or investing in an oil diffuser and some essential oils (full disclosure: doTerra might be a cult but I love them), and moisturizing with a cooling oil like coconut oil.
  1. Dive into a pool. Or a lake, or a river, preferably a clean one, and swim laps. Let the water hold you up like a cradle that is always rocking. Rock with it, rhythmic, steady. The pitta and vata doshas benefit from the steady rhythm and breathing of swimming, while Kapha doshas benefit from the movement. All of the doshas can also benefit from being outside; if you are lucky enough to have an outdoor swimming area, you can gain in two ways at once.
  2. Eat to stay cool. Instead of throwing heavy, sugary pasta, brownies, wine, and spicy food on top of an already fiery system, try adding salad, yogurt, cucumbers, mint and cilantro to your meals to cool things down. This might mean paying attention to your body and asking yourself, “what do I need now?”
  3. Shut off the news; close your laptop; ignore the social media updates on your phone; resist posting another meme or a snappy comeback. Put limits on your social media, especially when the news is terrible and the online perspectives worse. You are not cable news. You are a human who has to live in a world with other humans. Try questions instead. Try listening.
  4. Practice siesta. This might seem counterintuitive given the public campaign to get more Westerners moving, but we have to live a life in balance. If you are a person who runs in circles all day (raising guilty hand now) intentionally set aside time in the hottest part of the day to do some seated work. Write, read, type, grade online essays. Whatever it is you need to do, take a break.
  5. But also make time to move. If you are the type of person who is slumped on the couch more often than not, get up. Go for a walk outside. Walking in the morning or evening will be the most calming. If you practice yoga, consider trying Ashtanga, which while vigorous, also brings a steady breathing practice as well as seated postures, or yin yoga, which is a very gentle practice of long, deep stretches. Vinyasa flows are great for purging some of the pent-up angst that Pittas often feel, but be careful that you don’t just stoke the fire more. Take time to cool things down too with seated stretches and gentle inversions.
  6. Breathe deeper.  Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) cools down the brain and the body as well as clearing the nostrils. Sit in a comfortable position on a chair, a cushion, or on the floor. Close your eyes. Hold your right ring finger over your left nostril, and your right thumb over your right nostril. Close one nostril and inhale through the open nostril. Close both. Open the other nostril and exhale. Close both nostrils. Inhale through the nostril you just used, and continue repeating this process for three to five minutes.
  7. Then, meditate. This is hard when your brain is on fire, which is why doing breathing exercises first can be helpful.  Sit in a quiet place in a comfortable position–usually crossed-legs works best. Set a time for a short amount of time at first–five or ten minutes is plenty. Shut your eyes and try to breathe quietly, and try to stay there for the whole time. This is how meditation starts. Admittedly, when everything is terrible, it’s hard to sit quietly and not think. Guided meditations can definitely help. So can metta meditation or gratitude meditation, largely because they ask us to take the focus away from ourselves and our frustrations and outwards to others and our blessings.

As I write this, I’m afraid to look at the news again today. The world is so self-destructive, as I am too, and I know my tendencies towards extremes, like hours of exercise and housework followed by hours on social media, with no hours left for taking care of my mind and soul. However, becoming more aware of my own tendencies has actually caused me to judge myself less for them. Understanding has led me to more patience with myself, which eventually turns into more patience with others, even on social media. Does world peace really start with ourselves? Can we actually be the change we want to see? Was Hellen Keller right when she said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it”? I’m tentatively asking myself to believe it.

gap of dunloe


Ashes to Ashes

I am a reluctant woman of rituals. In the morning I run. Afterwards, I squeeze a lemon into a cup of hot water. In the evening, I spread out my yoga mat. After savasana and dinner, I pour two drops of essential oil into my tap water. And in the snowy, damp space of February and March, I give up sugar for Lent.

I was twenty three, in graduate school at St Andrews, Scotland, when I decided to observe Lent for the first time. Maybe it was because I was attending a Catholic church on Sunday evenings with my Catholic classmate Shawn, or maybe because I  was surrounded by reminders that even in the secular community of St Andrews, ancient church rituals rarified the air. They were as old as the stone castle and cathedral ruins, the waves lapping at the beach, the wind shaping West Sands and the golf courses beyond. The boundaries had been set and the air moving through them told us to repent.

I decided to give up two things: sugary lattes, and music purchases. This was mostly connected to my bank account but also the knowledge that I had enough. My new drink became an Americano with milk and honey, then eventually just milk. I sometimes wondered why I made this decision to forego new albums and mochas when I hadn’t been raised on Lent, or on a theology of giving up daily privileges. If something wasn’t a sin, it was fair game. My family never talked about our indulgences, because we worked too hard, us farming people, to deprive ourselves of anything we had time for.

Three years later, when the daffodils and tulips were sprouting in lawns and grocery stores in Northern England, I returned to Lent, this time deciding to give up all sugar and most wheat and bread. My roommate from Oxford, Sarai, had told me once that giving up gluten was like being on crack, but in reverse. You feel amazing while you’re off it and you feel terrible when you go back on. I remembered this when I ran my fastest half marathon during my Lenten half marathon season, then threw up sugar, bruschetta and strawberry daiquiris the day after Easter.

For some reason that cycle of purging continues every spring, usually with less vomit and more Easter restraint. I wake on Ash Wednesday, push the cookie butter and Andes mints to the back of the cupboard, and kneel in front of a priest who marks me with ashes, saved. I come home and avoid stopping in front of the cupboard, or the freezer. I feel the absence in my tired heart and I hate it. And the next day I feel the absence, and still hate it, but feel something hovering in that space I used to fill with cookies and wine. Perhaps the Holy Spirit flutters when we aren’t covering her in sugar.

On Sundays, Lenten fasting doesn’t count though. It is a feast day, and this first feast days was also Valentine’s Day. My husband and I drove to Indy, eating chocolate chip cookies and almond croissants, sharing a package of Valentine’s M&M’s, then retiring to Bucca di Beppo for a feast. Over giant bowls of salad and pasta, I told him about traveling to Austria and Bulgaria. He told me about the marble floors in his first grad school apartment. Over Italian Cream Cake we toasted our goals for the year.

On Monday I scraped the ama of the feast off my tongue, slogged through my Insanity workout, slunk in my desk after class. Sugar, like alcohol, and most other vices, is no gentle mistress. She gives, and takes, everything. I am taking myself away for another week, so I go back to my rituals. I run in the morning and drink my lemon water. In the evening, when the emptiness groans at me, I spread out my yoga mat, drink tea, and pour another drop of oil in my water glass, because I have enough. I sit down, and in the space where the Holy Ghost flutters her wings, I wait for something to stir.




Arise and Fail

On Monday morning at 6:00 the world was very, very dark. Most days I’d stay put for a while, but somehow I rolled out of bed and found my pre-selected shorts and tank top, and staggered to the living room. Briefly, I considered if I’d regret just never starting this new workout regime. Then I remembered I paid for it. I also remembered my skinny jeans, and Christmas chocolate. I hit play on the DVD player and took a deep breath. “Remember, it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to max out,” Shaun T tells me in the introduction video. It’s OK to fail, it’s OK to max out, I repeat.

For those of you who don’t know, Insanity Max30 is an exercise program designed by the beautiful and sadistic Shaun T. Speed and “maxing out” is the priority. When during the course of the video I reach the point where I can’t keep going, I’m supposed to take a break and write down my time, then jump back in. The workout is designed to make me fail. I hate failing.

But I was also so excited to begin this workout, in some part for the fitness benefits (Christmas and January are rough on the body, no matter how mindful you think you are in the face of cheese), but also for the challenge. I ran a marathon in just-under Boston qualifying time in November, but have been in a goal-less slump since then. I wanted a fitness change as well as a challenge.  Since I live in a midwestern Rust Belt city that doesn’t believe in plowing roads, much less sidewalks, now is a great time for that break.

Insanity, and marathon training, imposes a schedule that I’ll never make happen on my own. Marathon training is brutal but it brings a soothing regularity. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I do speedwork. On Monday I do an easy-ish run. On Saturdays I do long runs. I get to do nothing on Sunday. This kind of rhythm is good for me, even though I’m terrible at enacting it on my own. I’ve been on no workout schedule since November, which means I still work out, but without a plan or a goal. Usually I do too little or too much, ricocheting between the two extremes. Give me a printed schedule, however, like the one that comes with Insanity, and I’ll stick to it religiously. Vatas can always use a good schedule.

The Max30 workout is five minutes of warm up, twenty-five minutes of plyometric cardio or body-weight strength exercises, and two minutes of cool down. I didn’t max out on Monday until 26:40, when the double-jab, double tuck jump combo became way too much (the sound of my feet hitting the floor made me fear for my shins too). Given that a number of the cast members maxxed out around the half way mark, it makes me think I probably could have kicked it up a little had I known the exercises well enough to not look up at the TV during a pike-in-wide-legged plank jump.

Today I should have stopped (along with half of the cast members) or modified the plyometric side-to-side pushups (it’s worse than anything you’re imagining), because that whole side-to-side jumping thing–from a pushup– wasn’t happening. It might never. I’m really OK with that.

Here’s a few things I like about the workout: it was a hard workout but didn’t trash my body. My muscles are still tingling but I don’t feel like a cattle truck hit me. What I loved the most is how successful I feel at life afterwards. I’m not raging with heady success or bitter failure because of when I had to stop–I just feel successful for having done the exercise. My workout was done by 7:15, and though I felt thoroughly worked over, I also felt energetic. Not falling into the couch. Not like limping through my Monday and eating a crate of donuts.

Rather, I felt like getting some fresh air. I threw on some sweats, grabbed the leashes, and took the dogs on a short walk. None of my beloved canines tried to bite each other, lurch towards traffic, or eat a stray piece of litter, not even when the German Shepherds down the street started their barking duet. The sun was rising pink over the athletic fields as we walked. They say red sky is warning, but on Monday it looked more like a promise. I sometimes forget what I love about January, but this week I smelled earth under the frosty hard ground. It smelled like spring was taking on a challenge. It felt something like happiness.