The miracle of letting go of things, thoughts, or habits that are not serving us

I trust everyone had a lovely holiday, full of peace, joy, family, and friends. Since we finished our blog series on the 8 limbs of yoga, I can now go back to blogging about whatever is on my mind. Are you excited? LOL. I’ve been thinking this week about the coming New Year, and the fact that 2020 is finally coming to a close. Before we can really begin to set intentions and plan for 2021, I think it is helpful to spend a little time thinking about anything that we would like to leave behind in 2020.

Obvious things that come to mind right away include covid19, political ugliness, social unrest, and travel restrictions. I’d love it if we could leave these unpleasantries right along with 2020. But of course, as we all know, we don’t have much control over things that go on around us (aside from doing our part to maintain healthy conditions and vote). What we CAN do is work on how we respond to these things that are happening around us. Unfortunately the stress and trauma of 2020 may have led some of us to display some of our less healthy habits and thought patterns. This might include things like anger and judgement toward those with different beliefs than ours. Maybe we’ve been judging and criticizing ourselves for not reading 100 books or learning some new skill, like some of our friends did. Maybe we’ve allowed fear to dominate our minds and create divisiveness, loneliness, sadness, or despondency. Maybe we’ve been living in the past, longing for old times and therefore missing any of the great things that are going on right here in the present. Maybe we’ve become sluggish and lost motivation for some of our healthier habits like exercise or healthy eating. Maybe we’ve just been more irritable with those closest to us because we are frustrated with the limitations on our freedoms and activities. For us cancer survivors, maybe we’ve had even more fear than normal, with worries about getting sick at the office, not being able to get treatment in a timely manner, or not being able to get the follow up we need. Or we have felt especially isolated with support groups and exercise classes being cancelled or going on line, leaving us yearning for human connection. All of these are completely understandable responses to the crazy year that we have all just been through. So first, let’s just extend ourselves a little compassion and understanding.

However, we can then exercise some introspection, and we can see how some of these responses create more suffering than is necessary, and how we might be able to relieve some of that suffering within ourselves if we can just learn to let go of those unhealthy patterns and responses, replacing them with more loving kindness. So I invite you to think about some of the challenges of this past year. Consider how you responded to those challenges, and whether you could flip that narrative at all. Instead of “I hate being stuck at home”, we might let go of that urge to get out and think “Wow, what an opportunity for cultivating stillness and remembering how much I enjoy the simple comforts at home”. Or instead of “My husband is driving me crazy being cooped up in this house all the time”, we let go of our irritability and judgement and think “wow, what a blessing to get to spend more time together with this person who I love dearly, and who, while they may have different ways of doing things than I do, is really working hard to do the best he can for our family”. Instead of “I feel so isolated and afraid, and I don’t think I can get through cancer like this”, we could realize “This crazy year made it possible for us to more easily connect to people all over the world who are going through the same thing, and I can text or video chat with them anytime to get a much broader scope of support and advice”. Instead of “Damn, I can’t believe all the stress eating I’ve been doing, and how awful I look with this 15 extra pounds”, we drop the self-judgement and think “It has been a really stressful year, and this was the way I tried to cope and soothe myself, but I know I’m not alone in that, and together with my friends, I’m going to make a list of healthier habits to cultivate next year”. Finally, instead of “I can’t believe how stupid those people are who voted for XYZ, don’t they see how awful their choice is”, we drop the judgement and try a little empathy, with “I don’t understand their perspective, but I’m sure they are doing what they think is best, for whatever reason, and I respect that, and hope for the best for all of us”.

As Jack Kornfield says, “Letting go is the path to freedom”. Holding on to our anger, our judgements, our strong feelings about how things should be, or our preferences and aversions, keeps us trapped in the same old cycles of thoughts, behaviors, and habits. If you had an awesome year and felt fabulous and joyful through it all, maybe you already have it all right and you have nothing that you need to change. But I think most of us felt stuck, frustrated, fearful, angry, or irritated, at least a few times this year. If we want to be free, free to quiet our minds, free to open our hearts, free to live a life of joy and peace, then we must practice letting go of anything that is getting in our way. Take this final day or two of 2020 to reflect on the year, and then consider what may be getting in the way of where you’d like to take yourself in 2021. Be patient with yourself, as it may take some practice, but try letting go of any of those things and see if you feel a little freedom and lightness emerging.

Happy New Year and Namaste

Enlightenment is not as far away as you might think

Today we’ll discuss the final, or 8th limb, of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga, Samadhi! What a journey we’ve been on. And thank you for sticking with it! Again, as a recap, we’ve looked at the yamas and niyamas, as guidelines for healthy thought patterns, habits, and behaviors, relating both to how we interact with the world around us and with ourselves. We then traveled through the physical practice of asana, which gets our bodies in good health, trains our bodies and minds to be resilient and adaptable, and reinforces many of the things that we learned in the yamas and niyamas. We then explored pranayama, or breath control practices, which also heal and then maintain the health of the body, trigger the relaxation response, and give us tools to calm ourselves easily when we are challenged. Pratyahara helps us begin to be able to focus our awareness inward, rather than on the people and things going on around us. Dharana trains us to focus and concentrate, giving us the ability to shift our awareness to the object of our choice (and we can choose healthier objects of focus rather than those old dysfunctional things we might have focused on before). And in Dhyana, the effort to focus and meditate falls away, and instead we ease into meditative awareness as a state of being. This brings us to the 8th limb, samadhi.

Like many things in yoga philosophy, samadhi can be variably explained. It is often described as meaning “bliss” or “enlightenment”. But these words themselves can carry different meanings, from one person to the next. So I love this quote from Eckhart Tolle, “The word enlightenment conjures up the idea of some superhuman accomplishment, but it is simply your natural state of felt oneness with Being”. Eckhart commonly uses the word “Being”, with a capital B, referring to an alert state of presence, of complete immersion in the present moment, where we are free of thought and the burdens of the thinking mind, emotions, and judgements, where we are at one with the very power of life itself. He describes this state of Being as our true essence, our true nature, which is always there, but is just often buried by a thousand thoughts and our obsession with the past or the future. But when we are able to go deeper than (or transcend, however you like to look at it) this distracting activity of our minds, we can truly realize this underlying state of alert presence, of divine consciousness, of Being. And this feels peaceful, blissful, relaxed, and free.

Another quote that I love on the topic is from Thich Nhat Hanh, who says “Awakening is not changing who you are, but discarding who you are not”, meaning a letting go of all of the things that are not a part of our true selves and our deeper essence, allowing us to drop everything that clouds us from full self-realization. There are so many things that we think of as part of us: our careers, our experiences, our families, our beliefs, and our traumas. But those things do not truly define us in this deeper sense. I may be a doctor, or a yoga teacher, a daughter, a wife, an American, or a cancer survivor, and those are important parts of my lived experience. But do those things really define me?! As cancer survivors, this is one that we really struggle with sometimes, because we can allow this particular experience to really take over our consciousness and our lives if we aren’t careful. Of course it is an important, life-changing, and extremely challenging part of our experience, and it may affect us deeply and teach us things that no other experience can. However, underneath all of that, lies our true essence, our Being. And getting in tune with this place is what samadhi is about.

Importantly, samadhi isn’t a concrete finish line, like once you reach it you are done and there in a blissful paradise forever. This is something that we must continue our practice for, because it is easy to fall back into old patterns of destructive thinking, maladaptive habits, and routines that can again obscure our connection with ourselves. The thinking mind, with all of its regrets for the past or worries about the future, is sneaky, and without ongoing practice, can knock us off of our path to enlightenment, or bliss, or true self-realization. We continue to practice the 8 Limbs of Yoga to stay on the path.

Just as importantly, we must remember that getting in tune with samadhi does not mean there will be no more challenges in life, nor that every single moment will be perfect and without suffering. Samadhi means that we are in touch with a place where we are able to traverse life’s ups and downs without attaching or averting, without the judgements of our minds and our likes and dislikes, maintaining a state of equanimity from which we can remain blissful regardless of our surroundings.

It is easy to see how the 8 Limbs of yoga, and glimpses of samadhi, might be of particular use to us as cancer survivors. As I’ve discussed in other posts, cancer imposes many challenges that make normal life and everyday experiences a little more difficult. Cancer adds just another layer of clouds that can cast an obscuring shadow over our blissful Being. But with a little practice, we can uncover our true selves and see them shine with clarity again.

The most important thing to remember about samadhi, or bliss, or enlightenment, or self-realization, or whatever you want to call it, is that is isn’t as far away as you might think. You don’t have to run off to the Himalayas or to a year long meditation retreat. It is truly right here, in our everyday lives, if we can just learn to tune in to it. And it doesn’t have to be super complicated, or fancy, or sophisticated. Probably fireworks will not go off, nor will you see light emerging from the crown of your head. But if you notice that you are having more and more moments when you feel truly present, peaceful, at ease, blissfully and richly experiencing the simplest joys in your day, if you navigate a stressor with more grace, you know you are having success on the path, and you are in tune with your true self. Just keep practicing, and you will feel it.


A serene encounter with reality has to be good

Continuing along in our discovery of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga, this week we will take a look at the 7th limb, dhyana, sometimes described simply as “meditation”. But, for me, it requires a little more description to get the full flavor of what dhyana truly means. It is not just “meditation”, as in “I’m sitting on my cushion and doing my meditation”, but perhaps better explained as meditative absorption, or a state of alert awareness in which we are no longer “trying” to meditate or “doing” meditation, but rather we ease into meditative awareness as a state of being. We are no longer actively trying to focus and concentrate (as in the 6th limb, dharana), and no longer actively thinking about or judging the focus of our concentration. Instead, we relax into a state of keen awareness and stillness (inner stillness even though we might be physically moving), in which that state of doing transforms into our state of being and profound clarity arises. Some describe this as being “in the flow” or “in the zone”, as a condition in which we feel a free flow of our energy and awareness, unencumbered by the thinking mind, generally imbued with some sense of peace or joy.

You all know how I love quotes and I couldn’t choose just one today. A few of my favorite quotes about meditation include Thich Nhat Hanh’s “In mindfulness, one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion: it is a serene encounter with reality”, Deepak Chopra’s “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day”, and Osho’s “Meditation is a surrender, it is not a demand. It is not forcing existence your way. It is relaxing into the way existence wants you to be. It is a let-go”. Each of these quotes so eloquently describes what is really happening in meditation, or dhyana.

Importantly, you don’t have to sit in a certain position or on a special cushion to enter into dhyana and get the benefits of meditation. This state can be entered into in the midst of our other daily activities. My favorite style of meditation is actually the moving meditation that I can sometimes achieve during my yoga asana practice. I say sometimes because I’m not always able to transcend my pesky thoughts and reach that place, but when I can, the yoga practice carries with it even more magic than ever. Sitting meditation is the style most people associate with the term meditation, but there are many options, including walking meditation, any number of mindfulness practices, mantra meditation, loving kindness or metta meditation, and many others. Moreover, many people are able to reach a state of dhyana, or meditative absorption, while doing other activities like painting, singing, gardening, hiking, playing with children, or whatever gets you out of your head and into the flow. So open your mind and explore the idea of dhyana and what methods might work for you. If you are a runner or a swimmer and you know that those activities are what get you into that flow state, then keep doing those! If sitting meditation or yoga work best for you, keep doing those! But remember not to try to force anything to happen. Then you’ll just be getting in your own way. Just keep practicing, and it will come.

Why should we do these practices? Most are familiar with some of the benefits of meditation, including things like stress relief, improved mood, reduced fatigue, improved concentration and efficiency. But there are other fascinating benefits including improved blood pressure, pain control, reduced signs of aging and memory loss, improved immune function, reduced inflammation, and improved self-awareness. Many of these benefits have been studied and documented in cancer survivors as well as the general population. It is easy to see how cancer survivors would benefit especially, and ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) now recommend meditation for cancer survivors based on the proven benefits! But just as TNH says above, meditation is not evasion. We don’t use it to escape from our life or our problems, but instead to allow ourselves to experience our current situation with clarity, serenity, equanimity, and freedom from the judgements of the thinking mind and the emotions that accompany them. Ahhhhhhh, how refreshing! And this simple practice doesn’t require expensive or complicated equipment; just you, your awareness, and some time and effort!

So give it a try! Many cancer centers now offer meditation classes. You can also learn on line, or read a book ( But as with everything in yoga, be patient and compassionate with yourself. This is a practice, with no right or wrong way, and no winners and losers.