Sankalpa

When I awoke around 3 a.m. a couple weeks ago and couldn’t go back to sleep, I decided to use Insight Timer for a guided meditation to try to quiet my mind. I chose a yoga nidra meditation for rest & sleep, by Diana Warlick.  In the meditation, Warlick introduced the concept of “sankalpa.” I was intrigued by what she said about it—probably too intrigued, given that I was trying to go back to sleep. While the meditation was relaxing, hearing about sankalpa for the first time was energizing, rather than sleep-inducing. I wanted to know more. So, immediately upon rising, after my alarm sounded at 5 a.m., I looked up the concept of sankalpa and found an excellent article by Kelly McGonigal, in Yoga International.

In my first reading, I learned enough to understand that sankalpa is somewhere between a life purpose and an intention. This reminded me of an idea from Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi’s  Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being—that of an overarching umbrella goal, or theme, that each of us needs in our lives as a guiding aspiration that informs every choice. After reading McGonigal’s article and several other sources, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I feel like I have a better understanding of sankalpa and how it differs from a theme, purpose, mission or goal.

I benefit from having discerned how all these concepts, as well as my deepest values, inform my life. Over the past week, sankalpa has become a meaningful addition to my regular reflections.

I haven’t been able to identify the primary source, but I found Richard Miller quoted in several articles (including McGongial’s) as saying, “A sankalpa isn’t a petition or a prayer. It is a statement of deeply held fact, and a vow that is true in the present moment.”

According to McGonigal, Miller also teaches that sankalpa involves three types of listening: 1) having the courage to hear the message behind our deep desires, 2) welcoming and honestly reflecting on the message and 3) being willing to act in accordance with the message we receive. All these stages of listening are best accomplished from a place of mindfulness, such as can be achieved in meditation. Personally, I also find the bike to be an outstanding place to hear the true callings of my heart and spirit.

As I have learned to do with intentions over the years, it is important to state the sankalpa in the present tense. Just like intentions, when we use the present tense, we operate from a place of abundance and trust that we already have all that we need. This is far more empowering than operating from a place of lack and need.

One of my favorite concepts in the reading I did about sankalpa is Rod Stryker’s teaching that we are all both being and becoming, universal and unique. He explains that there are two parts to our soul or spirit, called atman in the Vedic tradition. Atman means “essence.” The two parts are para atman—“supreme, highest or culmination”—and jiva atman—“individual or personal.” So, the para atman is the part of our spirit that is being—who we already are. It is universal. The jiva atman is who we are becoming—our unique destiny. I love Stryker’s exhortation to “Live as contentedly as possible in between the goal and realizing the goal.”

I think this is a wonderful aspiration—to live contentedly in the knowledge that we already have all that we need to fully live our deepest calling, while we take the actions and put in the work that will allow us to live that calling. It is a very comforting and encouraging idea to me.

So, my reading of the teachings about sankalpa lead me to aspire to a sankalpa that takes into consideration both states—the being and the becoming, the universal and the unique. Because there is an element of becoming, I must remember that my sankalpa will likely be a dynamic, evolving truth.

As I pondered my sankalpa on the bike last weekend, I felt called to this truth: “I am a unique expression of the Divine Mystery, contributing to the creation of a healthier, more compassionate world with every thought, word and action I choose.” I will sit with this in my mindfulness practice and on the bike regularly to discern if and/or when my sankalpa needs to evolve.

I am excited and energized by new ideas that cause me to think. Sankalpa is one of those ideas, and I am grateful for my nocturnal introduction to it. Despite the sleep disruption to which it contributed by igniting my mind, learning about sankalpa is a gift because it is a new instrument to assist my aspiration to live my Highest Good, Greatest Self and Grandest Life.

Sankalpa will be an additional centering tool for me. My core values—compassion, excellence, integrity and fitness—underlie everything I do. Sankalpa helps to remind me where those values initiate—from my para atman, the universal part of me that is being—and to what action those values call me—my jiva atman, the part of me that is becoming, living my unique destiny.

In addition to my core values and theme, my purpose, mission and priorities guide my decisions and my actions. Sankalpa is related to all these, providing a deep, solid foundation, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to employ it to enhance my growth and guide my evolution.

The Bike Is Where I Remember Who I Am

“My workout is my obligation to life. It’s my tranquilizer. It’s part of the way I tell the truth . . ..” –Jack LaLane

The work week and the heaviness of the world can weigh on me to the point where I feel like I don’t have the time, mental space or the emotional capacity to process my higher-level goals or work on the things that matter most to me.

The bike is where I remember who I am.

Part of this is just the gift of the ride. Out on the road—usually alone—my head clears, and space is created for inspiration and introspection. On the bike, whether for one hour or several, I can release the worries, stressors, deadlines and obligations of the rest of life. Although it is temporary, and I am under no illusions that it is otherwise, it is a true gift that has allowed me to find solutions to problems and answers to troubling questions. Often these answers may elude me when I give thought to the questions or issues off the bike. But, setting out on the road opens doors to possibilities that I have not been able to pry ajar during the rest of life.

Alone on the bike, I am free from noise and distractions, and my focus can be given to deeper thought and clearer thinking.

In an article in Scientific American, psychology professor Justin Rhodes explores some of the physiological and neurochemical reasons that exercise enhances thinking. One explanation is the increased blood flow—to the brain and elsewhere—induced by physical activity. Our hyperoxygenated brain is more effective at solving problems and thinking deeply.

Rhodes discusses the role of the hippocampus in exercise. I find this particularly interesting and plan to explore further how the hippocampus may be responsible for much of the mental and emotional benefit I experience during exercise. Memory, emotions and motivation—all factors in the heightened state I feel on the bike—are influenced by the function of the hippocampus.

There is some speculation that the evolutionary explanation for the exercise effect on brain function is that it was beneficial for our ancient ancestors to think more clearly and encode memories more deeply when exerting to fight or flee a danger. While there very well may be some truth to this, I also experience a sense of peace and happiness on the bike that feels inconsistent with a fight-or-flight response.

However, neurochemically, there is basis for this explanation. Albeit volitional and generally positive, exercise is a form of physical stress (which is why it needs to be balanced with rest and nutrition), resulting in physiological adaptations to stress. The brain releases Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein that protects and repairs neurons throughout the brain and body. Endorphins, hormones which act as a natural analgesic, are produced when we exercise, both minimizing physical discomfort and elevating emotions. This produces the experience known as “runner’s high.” As internally produced opioids, endorphins help form the exercise habit and keep the movers coming back for more.

Those are some of the physical explanations for the emotional benefits of exercise.

It is even deeper than that for me, tough. I feel a strong spiritual connection to the Universe, both that which is tangible in nature and that which is intangible.

This connection goes beyond recognizing the natural beauty around me, as I ride on quiet, rural roads. I do recognize it, and it plays a part in my well-being. I also feel more open, though, to receiving guidance and wisdom from the Universe, and I have found that I can beckon the Universal guidance through a process that I have refined, but that may continue to evolve.

It used to be that ideas and solutions would simply come to me on the bike, fairly infrequently, but powerfully, when they did. As I have nurtured increased mindfulness in my life and have felt an acceleration in personal growth since doing so, I have sought the guidance of the road more consciously. By opening myself to the gifts of the Universe, I have found myself more often the beneficiary of this guidance. While I don’t claim to understand fully (or even at all) its Source, I do have a renewed belief in its existence. And, the bike is where it very often finds me. Or, I find it. I am not sure which it is. I just know that the bike is where I remember (or am reminded) who I am.

Importantly, although it is the bike for me, it might be a run or a walk (I have glimpsed it on both.) for you. Or, if you are an extrovert (I am not.), maybe it is in a group dance or exercise class. Maybe it is in a game. Wichita State University basketball player Ricky Torres was recently quoted as saying, “If there was ever a lot going on in my life, I’d go get in the gym. When I’m on the court, I feel nothing else.” (The Sunflower, Issue 21, Volume 123, November 5, 2018) I believe he is referring to the same phenomenon I encounter on the bike.

So, the first step is finding the physical activity that reminds you who you are by helping you shed the layers of stress and heaviness and worries that daily life can pile upon you. This may take some experimenting, or, if you are lucky, you already know what it is. Maybe it is not just one form of movement, but there is likely one that stands out more than others as most consistently eliciting positive physiological and psychological responses. Commit to incorporating it into your life on a regular basis.

Here is my current practice for prompting the benefit in my life:

  1. I choose a quote from my vast collection. I do it randomly, but move on to another if the one on which I land does not speak to me in the moment. I want a quote that evokes thought and invites pondering and/or serves as affirmation. I may paraphrase it to make it easier to recall or more personal. I commit it to my short-term memory for easy retrieval.
  2. Before I get on the bike, I take three “4-2-6” breaths. This means that I inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 2 and exhale for a count of 6. While there are many beneficial breathing patterns that can be used, and that I use personally, I can’t remember where I first heard this one suggested as a pattern to use when you want to be “on.” (I also use this one before presentations or other times where my performance is important.) In general, controlled breathing patterns stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response. I have not been able to find documentation about why 4-2-6 works to increase focus and is beneficial before performance. I think it may be as much the act of the ritual as anything, but it is effective for me, so I do it.
  3. I think of my quote as I center my mind.
  4. I have found the addition of an evocative question to be particularly effective at inducing great thinking and inviting inspiration on the bike. On my most recent emotionally and spiritually powerful ride, I used four questions that Rich Litvin asked some of his coaching clients: 1. What are your three biggest gifts? 2. What are your top three professional successes? 3. What holds you back the most—and always has? 4. What is the dark side of each of your gifts? Wow! What I learned about myself by asking these questions was incredible and led me to some clear conclusions about where my energy and priorities should be focused. More often, it is just one question, frequently inspired by the quote I choose as my mantra.
  5. I set an intention for my ride. This usually includes the all-important “staying safe,” but my most introspective, insightful and impactful rides are the ones where I set an intention to have questions answered, problems solved, to be open to the best the Universe has to offer or to find peace around a concern. The more specific I am, the better.
  6. Then, I ride. I usually settle into the ride for a few minutes and get out of town before recalling my mantra. I will often visualize around the mantra and may even recite it out loud.
  7. I reiterate my intention and my openness to receive.
  8. I ask myself the question or questions and ponder them.
  9. My mind opens, and I pay attention to the wisdom and guidance that comes my way. When this happens, I find myself feeling lighter, happier, more excited and stronger on the bike. I often notice that I am smiling. I may want the ride to go on and on.
  10. Eventually, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, I must return home. I have recently become more consistent about reflecting as quickly as I can—maybe just after my shower—on what I have learned on the bike. This is best done in my journal, or, occasionally, in a document on my laptop. Much like waking from a dream, I find that I am more likely to be able to remember and use the insight from the ride by capturing it as soon as possible.
  11. I decide where to take action. This is key. Without action, if the insight calls for it, I squander the wisdom the Universe has offered. I have learned to act, if only by taking a tiny first step. It is a way of appreciating what I have been given.

This blog post is one of the actions I am taking after a particularly insightful, if short and cold, ride I had last weekend. I sense that there is much more to come from what I learned on this ride. I am grateful and look forward to creating possibilities, based on my guidance on Saturday’s ride.

The bike is where I remember who I am. It is where I reclaim my power after work and daily life and stressors have eroded my belief in it and loosened my grasp of it. It is where, even more than in my daily meditation, I find myself to be the most open vessel to collect the best wisdom the Universe has to offer. It is a gift to know this about myself, and it is a gift that I want to give you—the awareness of mindful movement as a tool for growing into your Highest Good, Greatest Self and Grandest Life. I have not reached any of those yet, but I know that my bike rides propel me more quickly down the long, winding, head- and crosswind-riddled road of my journey to realizing these things in my own life. I believe the intentional pursuit of them is my responsibility, as well as my gift, even if it is painful and challenging at many junctures, not unlike some bike rides.

“Say ‘meditation’ to someone, and they usually picture someone sitting in a quiet, dark room. But you can just as easily meditate, relaxing yourself and visualizing, while your body is in motion during a Moving Meditation. It’s where the real you pops out. It’s when your true integrity, drive, passion, perseverance, tenacity, grace, and patience start to show and shine.” –Stacey Griffith

What Limits Would Create More Freedom in Your Life?

Gretchen Rubin is one of my favorite authors. She writes about happiness and habits, two topics of interest to me. She has developed a collection of what she calls her “Secrets of Adulthood,” lessons she has learned over the years that help her to navigate life on a day-to-day basis.

I recently pondered one of these on my bike, and I decided I would pose the question it generated for me to you.

Rubin says, “Give yourself limits to give yourself freedom.”

While this may seem contradictory at first, it is not.

The question I encourage you to ask yourself is, “What limits can you give yourself to create more freedom in your life?”

You can start by considering whether there is something from which you would like to be free. Is there a habit you would like to eliminate? Do you long to be free from a negative self-image? Would you like to shed some physical or emotional weight? Is financial debt weighing you down? Is it the heaviness of regret or disappointment? Is there someone you need to forgive? Do you need to forgive yourself?

The sources of bondage are endless. Freedom requires proactive action. Rubin’s secret of adulthood is one of the keys to the kind of proactive action that can free you from whatever bondage has its hold on you.

During that introspective bike ride, I was considering where I could add limits to create freedom in my own life. One area that came to mind was my relationship with chocolate. Periodically, I can fall into the trap of using chocolate as a crutch. I have to catch myself, acknowledge it and be willing to impose limits, in order to free myself from its clutches and consequences. While different issues will call for variations on these ideas, using chocolate dependence as an example, here are the steps I recommend for setting limits to create freedom:

  1. Check in with yourself. A mindfulness practice is a great way to do this. Taking time each day to stop, quiet your mind and notice if there is anything that has you feeling unsettled can help you catch issues that are preventing you from being truly free.
  2. If there is a pattern that creates anxiety or raises negative feelings or something that you wish were different in our life, recognize it and acknowledge it for yourself. This might just be in your head, but it might be helpful to journal or talk to someone about it.
  3. Decide what limits you need to create freedom. I have treated my tendency toward dependence on chocolate in different ways at different times. When it was severe, 12 years ago when we moved to a new home with a toddler, I eliminated the option of chocolate consumption in any form. This felt necessary at the time. I did not allow myself any chocolate for three years. While difficult at first, it was very freeing. Once I had other safeguards in place, it felt safe to allow it back into my life in controlled situations. Overall, that served me for many years, but, in the past several weeks, I loosened my limits to compensate for perceived lack in other areas of life (That could be another whole blog post.), and I recently recognized and acknowledged to myself that I was disappointed with my lack of control (even though it is nothing like it was in 2006), and I wanted to do something about it. On my bike, when I was reflecting on Rubin’s secret of adulthood, I considered eliminating all chocolate again. That doesn’t feel necessary. I decided that I would allow myself chocolate in two situations (in addition to cocoa and cacao in my smoothies): one square of at least 70% cacao dark chocolate after dinner and infrequent dark chocolate chips when I have what I call a “comfort bowl.” This is something I do only about once a week, and it consists of some combination of the following items: raw oatmeal, berries or cherries, vegan yogurt, nuts and/or seeds, cacao nibs, cocoa, nut butter and dark chocolate chips. This feels like a comforting and decadent treat. That’s it. On a daily basis, I will not eat chocolate in other situations.
  4. Know yourself. Do you need the added accountability of acknowledging the problem to someone else, like a trusted friend, counselor or coach? Determine what support you need to remain within your self-imposed limits and seek it.
  5. Affirm your daily success. Each day that you remain within your limits, honor yourself and celebrate in a way that is aligned with your goals.
  6. Relish the freedom. Notice how much lighter and happier and FREER you feel.
  7. Build on the freedom and success. What is your next project? Where can you gain even more freedom by giving yourself limits?

I think the first time I read about this concept of freedom through limits, it was framed as freedom through discipline by Maia Duerr. It resonated with me at the time in a profound way. I could recognize periods in my life where the idea had been true, but it was the first time I had seen it named.

My hope is that by bringing your attention to this idea, you may be motivated to acknowledge an area where you could free yourself by limiting yourself and that you will find the courage to do so.

“The price of discipline is always less than the pain of regret.”
–Peter Clemons

2 Techniques for Calming a Busy Mind

My mind is busy! I am sure a lot of minds are. In general, I am glad to have an active interior life. There are times, though, that this blessing can be a curse. Often, throughout the years, I have wished I could turn off my brain. In the past, the closest I usually came to that was on my bike, which is still one of the best ways to release the “busyness” of my mind. Interestingly, doing so frequently opens the channel for my greatest creativity and introspection. I am grateful for this avenue to self-exploration and expression.

 

In the last year, I have added a consistent mindfulness practice to my morning routine and have been pleasantly surprised to discover how much it has come to mean to me. I even look forward to it, much like my anticipation of a bike ride.

 

It can still be challenging to calm my mind. Now, though, I am able to be more forgiving and accepting of myself and to acknowledge that my mind is busy trying to accomplish important things. I can recognize more quickly when I have followed a thought off on a trail. Then, I can gently acknowledge my mind’s activity and consciously return to my breath.

 

Two techniques tend to be helpful for keeping my focus on my breath and in the moment. I use both, depending on what most resonates with me at the time. The first is noticing the feeling of my inhalations and exhalations at the tip of my nose. The tangible sensation of my breath entering and exiting my nostrils can be effective for keeping my mind in the present. At other times, I picture myself enveloped in a golden ball of light. Besides keeping my focus on the present, this also feels uplifting and spiritual. Done well, I even feel the warmth of the light, which I interpret as an exchange between my Source Energy and the energy from the Universe, replenishing and renewing my internal well.

 

Over the year or so of consistent practice, I have noticed that I am happier, calmer and better able to manage stress. I am more easily able to return to a positive state. The renewal that I envision with the golden ball of light is real. I only have to open the channel to receive it, by consciously quieting the noise and activity that frequently occupy my attention, so that my awareness is sharpened to accept the gifts of the present moment.