Thursday, February 4, 2010

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

I was at one of my favorite yoga classes this morning, here at Living Yoga in Concord, NH, with Jeanne Ann Whittington. Jeanne Ann possesses a fabulous combination of qualities for a yoga teacher: acupuncturist, long-time dharma student, gardener, cook, singer, and Anusara yoga teacher. The way she teaches is to examine her own life for the principles she has chosen to live out, and then to come to class to share the results of her investigation. This is a very generous and also precise way to teach. She starts every class with a short talk and contemplation over a well-considered theme for the week. Some of the memorable titles for her classes have been "Aligning the Head with the Heart," or "Recharging the Batteries as We Go" or "Decelerating-A Daily Practice." Who in this world can say they can't use training on these topics? Raise your hand, I want to talk to you after class.

So, anyway, I'm not sure if this was exactly the "title" of today's talk, but when she said it, it struck such a chord in me. She told us that, in a yoga class, we are "training our brains to know what we like, so we can choose more of those things for ourselves." I might not have the quote exactly right, but something close to that. The comment brought out a laugh from a couple of us, because we happened to be doing a very challenging maneuver with the hips at the time, something that most of us were not necessarily enjoying! She smiled too and assured us that we would come to deeply enjoy the fruits of this labor. Having practiced with her for a number of years now, experience tells me this is true.

But what about this notion of having to train our brains to know what we like. What kind of instruction is that?! Of course I know what I like. For instance, I like M&M's, and lots of them. Or do I?

A couple of days ago I impulse-bought a bag of Coconut M&M's for a treat. I really love chocolate and coconut together, one of the dining world's best combos, my friends.  I thought, what could be better?, while clearly aware that I was getting the cheap, grocery-store version of this yummy combination. I brought my little splurge home and decided to eat them after lunch, like a good girl. So, good. I sat down to enjoy my candy. I was particularly looking forward to the difference, the newness of coconut flavoring mixed in with these well-known candy-coated disks. I opened the package, surprised to see that these M&M's are a little bigger, and fatter than usual. What luxury! They're also printed with the familiar M but also with either a tiny coconut tree or umbrella. Charming! But the real test: now I ate one. And I have to say, that was a really good M&M. Delicious chocolate, good overtone of coconut, excellent heft on the tongue. Yummy! So I had another. Still really good. Yes, I like these! What's hard about knowing this?

So of course, I kept eating those M&M's, all 1 1/2 ounces of them. Doesn't sound like much, right? I'll report to you that round about the 5th M&M, the flavor of coconut was entirely lost to me, with the chocolate flavor dying out at #8 or so. And round about the, oh say, 11th M&M my mouth and stomach were in agreement that I had had plenty enough of these candies, and round about 3/4's of the way through the bag, I was pretty much done in. And yes, even with all of that, I finished the damn bag. And being perfectly honest with myself as I did that, I can say that I was truly sorry I ate those last few M&M's.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we eat to discomfort? It's because our brain hasn't learned what we like. For me, I like to enjoy yummy things AND I like to not feel overfull. And when I am truly paying attention to these elements of my experience, I know to stop myself when I can sense that my mouth is no longer experiencing anything and my stomach is moving away from satisfied and closer to outdone. When I honestly direct my attention to the entire situation, I know when to stop. But often enough, I basically shut out some aspect of the experience entirely (the fullness part) and stop checking in on the other part (the tasting part) and let auto-pilot shuttle the hand between the mouth and the bag while I daydream about heaven knows what, I can't even remember, but it's one of a thousand unimportant topics I've spent mind-time on this week, let me assure you.

How do you train your brain to know what you like? You pay attention, my friend. This means in very large part attending to your own actions in order to learn what you are doing that you actually don't like. This is an exercise in great courage. There is potentially much to see. And you have to be willing to see that there is stuff you have been doing in the name of "enjoyment" (or for many other lousy reasons you have nevertheless believed in), doing them possibly for years or decades, that you truly don't enjoy. You need to be willing to see this so that you can stop, choose better and start actually enjoying yourself. The more you do this, the more you will train your brain into new habits geared toward authentic enjoyment. The possibilities are myriad. And yes, it really helps to practice some yoga or T'ai Chi or some other body awareness practice that gives you the ability to feel what's going on in your own body more precisely. There's no need to get your foot behind your head, just get your arms and legs, etc.  moving a couple of times a week and direct your attention to feel what that actually feels like. This is essential to feeling what you feel and thereby knowing what you want to know.

This is your mission, should you choose to accept it. I invite you to go enjoy about 5 M&M's. REALLY enjoy them. Maybe 6, I don't know, you have to discover that for yourself. Let me know how it goes.


  1. Thank you Margaret! Your thoughts are so pertinent to my own recent explorations regarding food and what it takes to be happy and fulfilled without being overfilled. I am a woman on a mission for peanut M & M's! I'll let you know what I discover.

  2. Good and thoughtful post. Thanks!

    Missed seeing you at satsang on Saturday.