The Pause Between

“When God closes one door, He opens another.”

It’s 5 a.m. I’m wide awake, though I don’t need to be. For the first time in almost 30 years, I don’t have a job. 

Last month, my employer announced it would be making reductions in the workforce, and I knew, in the mental intersection of intuition and logic, that this time my job would be one of the many eliminated. They notified me last Tuesday. After 22 years with this organization, it’s over. Unlike colleagues whose exit from the company included a festive retirement party, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to anyone. 

It’s kind of surreal. I had a month to prepare myself for this outcome, so when I was asked to report to the HR director, I wasn’t surprised. I actually think that was my first comment. The rest of the conversation is a blur. But now, sitting on my sofa in the dark with my sleepy dog Lacy beside me, instead of grief, fear or bitterness I feel a strange sense of disconnection. I’m not sure how to do this. 

Thankfully, this time is very different from other times I’ve found myself between jobs. At almost 58, I’m eligible to start my pension. I know how fortunate I am to have this safety net, although it’s nowhere near enough to live on. Still, I’m grateful for this measure of security while I figure out what comes next.

Press pause

“Mom, know what you need to do?” asked Jared, my youngest son. “Take two weeks off to do nothing. Just be aimless. You’ve never been able to take it easy, ever. You deserve it!”

Two weeks to be aimless? Practical, productive planner that I am, two hours doing nothing sometimes feel frivolous. But my husband Ret strongly encouraged me to take that two-week break. It turned out to be excellent advice.

The first week was fun. Who knew how pleasant the supermarket could be on a Wednesday morning? Scheduling a visit with my doctor, it occurred to me I didn’t have to request the last appointment of the day. I could go any time I wanted and avoid rush-hour traffic. The realization almost made me giddy. All at once I felt a heavy, ill-fitting coat slip off my shoulders and disappear. 

That’s when I made the radical decision to stop wearing a watch for the rest of the two weeks. What a luxury to actually have time and space, to stop cramming every waking moment with a thousand tasks just to keep my little world humming along on its orbit! 

The new reality

So that was Week 1. Week 2 has been a little more challenging. After navigating big, irrevocable decisions about my pension, it’s been a struggle to make less consequential ones, like what to fix for dinner. I don’t miss rushing out the door every morning for work, but I really miss my friends there, dear people who have been a part of my daily life for over 20 years. And when FedEx delivered the legal documents officially severing me from my company, the magnitude of the loss came crashing down.

I guess I really did need this pause, just to catch my breath. 

Third act dreams

What do I do now? My ever-active mind is bursting with ideas, most of them involving yoga. I’ve taught after-work yoga classes and stress management workshops at my company for years and years, and I’m feeling absolutely bereft without them now. Always a labor of love and a joyful hobby, my dream has been that when I retired from my corporate job, I would find a way to teach yoga full-time.

But where? Teaching in a yoga studio doesn’t feel like a good fit for me. My favorite students tend to be the ones who probably wouldn’t set foot in a studio because they believe they’re not flexible/strong/young/fit/healthy enough to do yoga. Guiding them in a slower-paced practice that fits their unique body has always been a kind of calling, especially now that I’m at an age where that’s what I need, too.

Could this be the right time for my dream?

Meditating in a tizzy

Sitting on my meditation bench has been a real challenge lately. I have lots of time to practice, but my monkey mind is in high gear, planning, thinking, worrying:

  • OMG, that was the last paycheck I’ll ever get! How will I pay my bills?
  • I am never going to work in a cubicle again! Time to get rid of that office wardrobe!
  • How do I find a place to teach yoga? Should I teach online? Look for private clients? Forget the whole thing and bag groceries instead?
  • Let’s do something fun today! What about the beach? Or the bookstore? Or a nap?
  • The windows need washing, and look at those giant dust bunnies! No excuses anymore – time to get up and clean this house!

When I find myself in this kind of tizzy, just about the only meditating I can manage is to sit relatively still and watch my breath flow in and out. It’s the first meditation technique I teach my students. When the mind wants to get stuck in the past or the future, you need something to anchor you in the here and now. The breath is an instant connection to the present moment – you can’t breathe next Tuesday’s breath today. There’s only this breath. Then the next one. And the next. One at a time.

Just breathe

Witnessing the breath, I’m focusing less on the inhalation and exhalation, and more on the little pause in between. It’s barely noticeable, just an instant, but it pulses with meaning. Inhale, and there’s a subtle pause at the top when the lungs are full and the body knows it’s time to let go. Exhale, and the pause at the bottom acknowledges the release of what the body no longer needs, ready for the promise of the next breath. It’s almost like the sweetness of dawn and dusk. What came before is past, what’s next has yet to arrive, and the peaceful energy suspended in those brief moments of transition is palpable. 

The next breath is coming. And so is another day. 

A new door opens

A couple days ago, I dropped off Lacy at the doggie salon and spent some time chatting with the owner and her sister. Naturally they wondered what I was doing there at 10:30 in the morning since I usually rush Lacy over for her bath during my lunch hour, hair on fire and no time for small talk.

I told them about my jobless state and my yoga idea. Twenty minutes later, I had a private client lined up! They asked me to bring them some business cards so they can tell other dog-loving clients about me. It’s a beginning.

All my life I’ve been told that when God closes one door, He opens another. And so far, it’s been true for me. Maybe it’s time to have faith and step through the next open door.

Taking Care – Of You

Patrick (not his real name) is a student in my Monday after-work yoga class. He’s an earnest guy, hardworking and devoted to his family, just a genuinely nice man with a humble demeanor and ready smile. He’s always expressed great interest in all elements of yoga; he wants to learn about meditation, the chakras, the Yoga Sutras, everything. His curiosity and willingness to try new things inspire me to be a better teacher.

This class is for fellow employees of the corporation where I spend a large chunk of my waking life. It’s an intense, demanding environment, and because of the product we manufacture, perfection is considered a completely reasonable expectation. My goal for this particular group of students is to undo what the workday does to them – they arrive barely breathing with their shoulders tucked under their ears. I know how it is; I work there, too. So, before we begin, I always ask whether anyone has any aches, pains or psychoses we should address in class.

Pushing through pain

Patrick, like so many other people, struggles with back pain, but at first he didn’t talk about it. When he first joined the class, he refused to let his back get in the way of his practice. He embraced every asana, determined to master them. When we sat on the floor for meditation, his tight hips troubled him, but he assumed the cross-legged position anyway. However, after a while I noticed a change: Patrick began to practically limp into class, wincing with pain. In true overachiever fashion, he would soldier through class anyway, always gung-ho to do the most challenging poses possible.

Ardha Chandrasana - Half Moon Pose
Ardha Chandrasana – Half Moon Pose

Once when my back was turned he kicked his leg up into Half Moon Pose, a challenging asana that involves balancing on one leg and bending sideways to place a hand on the floor while lifting the opposite leg parallel to the floor. It’s a really fun pose that makes you feel like you can leap tall buildings, and I teach modifications to make it more accessible to my students. Patrick chose to perform the more difficult variation, which was very bad news for his back. His drive, so essential in his work, was detrimental to his wellbeing.

This event caused Patrick to confess that he had been working tirelessly on renovations to his home to make it ready for his elderly mother who was coming to live with him. Her advanced age and declining health had made it too difficult for her to continue to live alone, so Patrick had been spending his weekends moving furniture, painting, building, improving – and this strenuous work had taken its toll on his back, especially when the Mr. Fix-It weekend was followed by ten hours sitting at a desk the next day. He agreed to my suggestions for modifications in yoga but was resolute about his home improvement projects. And so, no matter how gentle or therapeutic Monday’s yoga class may be, it is not enough to counter the abuse inflicted the weekend before. At least I can keep an eye on him during class to make sure he doesn’t overdo it on my watch.

I need some TLC too

I think a lot of us are just like Patrick. At least, I know I am. I woke up yesterday morning with a whopping migraine, the kind that amplifies every sound, nauseates me and distorts my view of the world – everything is too bright and a little bit blurry. There was a time when I had these nightmare headaches for days on end, week after week, but mercifully it’s been much better lately. Now I only get one every month or so, with much less severity. Until yesterday.

I might have seen it coming. My job has been hectic and exhausting lately. Travel always wears me out, and over the last three months I’ve visited eight cities. My sleep schedule and normally healthy diet have gone out the window, and my usually regular yoga practice has spent some time out the window, too. And of course, the holiday rush has added its own dimension to the insanity. Yoga teacher that I am, you might expect me to know exactly how to nurture myself when I am fatigued to this degree.

You would be wrong. Well, not exactly wrong; I know how to take care of myself. The problem is that I, like my friend Patrick, don’t always do it. I’ll admit that when I am feeling depleted, I often choose to run on fumes rather than refuel. After all, the whole world would implode if I took a day off.

Some nights I crawl through my front door, drop my bag and collapse on the sofa, swimming in fatigue so heavy that even my hair is tired. But five minutes later, I’m in the kitchen throwing dinner together, feeding the dogs, opening the mail and running a load of laundry at the same time.

Don’t be impressed. This characteristic is not a good thing.

I’m not sure how I became such a martyr, except that I come from an impressive line of long-suffering Sicilian women. Plus most of my schoolteachers were nuns. In any case, I find it easy to talk to my students about self-care but hard to practice it myself. Our driven, competitive, achievement-oriented society seems to reward this kind of behavior, and it isn’t doing us any good.

Think about it. Most people would never treat a friend the way they treat their own bodies. You’re tired? You’re hungry? Too bad – we have work to do! Say that to a friend and you won’t have that friend for long. But we do it to ourselves all the time.

Well, I’m learning that my body won’t stand for that nonsense too long. It rebels. If I ignore the signals it gives me by pushing through headaches, working when I’m sick, etc., my body retaliates by shutting down and forcing me to rest. That’s what happened yesterday with the monster migraine. I was pretty much down for the count and had no choice but to give in. Not surprisingly, I feel better today.

Ahimsa means don’t hurt anybody, including you

And here’s the yoga lesson for today. Ahimsa is the first of the five principles of yama, which are yoga’s ethical precepts. It’s a Sanskrit word that means non-violence. I am continually fascinated by the similarities in the world’s religions. Right living is the same in any language and whatever your conception of God.

Anyway, the concept of ahimsa is often a new yogi’s introduction to this side of yoga. It sometimes comes up when discussing vegetarianism, as many yoga practitioners choose to abstain from meat for compassionate reasons, but diet is not the only ahimsa application. It’s choosing kindness toward all beings, even the ones that get on your nerves. It’s treating things gently – slamming doors is not a demonstration of ahimsa.

Beating yourself up, physically or emotionally, is violence toward oneself. If we cannot treat ourselves with kindness, how can we extend it to anyone else?

Mini-meditation

Whatever you might be tackling right now, whether it’s housework, studying, shopping or anything else that feels like work – pause. Bring your full awareness to your breath. Breathe deeply and notice the way cool air flows into your nostrils and warm air flows out. Allow your abdomen to expand with each inhale, and as you exhale, try to exhale a little more slowly, more completely. Imagine that every inhale fills your body with soft healing light, and every exhale sweeps away all tension, pain and worry. Continue this breath for a few minutes and notice the immediate response of your nervous system.

Slow down. Close your eyes and allow your shoulders to lower and your shoulder blades to slide down your back. Feel happy to be alive, right now, in this moment. Soften your jaw and that little line between your eyebrows and think about what you could do for yourself that would bring you peace. Maybe it’s indulging in a long soak in the tub, lighting candles or listening to soft music – or all three. (That’s what I’m going to do.) Add this pleasurable activity to your to-do list and do it today. It is every bit as important as all those other tasks on your list, possibly more important. You are not a machine. And even if you were, all machines need maintenance sometimes.

Know that by taking care of yourself, you take care of everyone else in your life because you have more to give. Find the peace within and it always radiates outward. It can’t be contained.

OM Shanthi. Peace.