I am a huge Harry Potter fan. Huge. I read them as a young adult and it was perfect escapism for me. I love magic, I love witches, I love quests. Love all of it. Huge fan.

When I was pregnant with my first son my best friend told me, “You are so lucky, you get to do this all over again with your kids! Imagine what it’ll be like to introduce them to Harry Potter!”

And she was right. Reading Harry Potter to my kids has added a whole new dimension of love for me. My kids notice things I don’t. They ask questions about things I wouldn’t have been interested in. And reading these books as a mother is different. A neglected child living in a cupboard under the stairs takes on a whole new meaning when you have your own warm, little nugget snuggled next to you.

Yesterday, my older son said, “I know why I haven’t gotten my letter to Hogwarts yet. It’s because I am an American. I would get a letter from the American school! Maybe they don’t start sending out their letters until you are 13. We do education later here you know.”

My son is 12 years old. He is growing up, but the shine of kiddom hasn’t worn off yet. He’s in the in between. He was joking, but also kind of not. He was wistful, hopeful. Sure, I know Harry Potter is make-believe, but I would also really love to be wrong. Maybe it is real? I mean, anything is possible, right? We don’t know all the rules of the universe!

This interaction made me think of the difference between growing up with something versus coming into something. When we grow up with something, it becomes a part of our personal narrative. We accept certain “truths” implicitly. We may pull the curtain back at some point, but there is still a part of us that at least remembers what it was like to wholeheartedly believe.

When we learn about something as an adult, we come with our own biases. We grew up with a different set of truths. We always juxtapose this “new” against the backdrop of our own upbringing. The new is compared and judged against what we already know.

This made me think of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. (This is going to get a little academic, but stick with me.)

Hermeneutics, broadly defined, is the study of methods of interpretation. For Gadamer, the limits of human understanding are key to understanding. We cannot escape the fact that we are beings with a past. So, rather than discount the limitation of our understanding, Gadamer embraced it. He believed our limited understanding played a pivotal role in creating new meaning. Our prejudices, however ill-informed, bring us to the table. They are like our assigned seating at the banquet, and the springboard for polite conversation. Our past directs our inquiry. Truth reveals itself through working with alien/foreign concepts. One must first use one’s own preconceived ideas and then, by engaging in interpretation, we rewrite our perceptions. Since this is an ever-evolving process, the barometer is always in flux. Therefore, there is no end to “truth.”  Truth becomes an understanding that arises from the work of people communicating with each other.

In order for all of this to work however, each person must be willing to play. Play means a willingness to let go of preconceived notions, to listen, to be desirous of understanding. If one is seeking understanding, one is engaged in the act of play.

When we look at the question of cultural appropriation, we need to remember that anything we study is juxtaposed against the backdrop of our bias. And no matter how we interpret it, there is a whole body of bodies that have grown up knowing a different truth. They grew up reading the books, doing the practices. In order to come to a better understanding, we have to agree to interact appropriately. We have to be willing to listen to each other, to accept that the bias we have is a bias, and maintain an open acceptance of play, a willingness to engage…

“I know why I haven’t gotten my letter to Hogwarts yet. It’s because I am an American. I would get a letter from the American school! Maybe they don’t start sending out their letters until you are 13. We do education later here you know.”

“Yeah, that must be it. I surely hope you do get your letter. I would love to have a wizard in the house!”

We went on to fantasize about what it would be like to go to a school for magic. Then he said, “Some of my friends don’t believe in magic.”

“They don’t? That’s crazy! I think magic is real.”

“I know! I do too! I mean who knows, maybe it is real!”

“Maybe it is. The universe is vast my friend.”

“Yeah, it is. Who knows!”

“Who knows.”

I think my son was using Harry Potter, the story of the forgotten boy who finds out he’s special, as a way of telling me that he didn’t feel special. That he wants to be special. He wanted me to assure him that there is a place in the world for him. He wanted to know if I believed in his magic.

Which, of course, I do.

But, then again… I don’t actually know what he was trying to tell me. Maybe he was having a rough day. Maybe there was some funky social situation at school and he needed to retreat back into the world of make believe. Maybe he was just feeling wistful. Maybe he was actually wondering if there was an American school of magic.

I don’t know.

But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we were connecting around a shared love. My connection to Harry Potter is different than my son’s. It means something different to me. When we talk about the stories, we don’t relate on a “purist” level because there isn’t one. Engaging in a purposeful life means that we must first work within our own experience, to circumvent our experience, to hopefully yield a better experience. We have to be our own kindergarten teacher, teaching ourselves how to play nice. Our flawed understanding is necessary to learning. It makes no promises for a perfect resolution. It simply extends an open invitation to play and asks that we enter the game with an open mind and a willingness to investigate.

And that my friends, is how we make magic.

Confidence is Overrated

I fell off the emailing this past few weeks because we had the good fortune to graduate one group of students and then start right away working with another. It has been a whirlwind turn around, but it is worth it. As our sangha grows we become increasingly blessed with more and more wonderful, talented and exceptional people.

Working with aspiring teachers is a lot like working with new yoga students; there is a palatable tension, a heightened level of self consciousness. They are both vulnerable and scared. It is not often as adults that we put ourselves in new situations, ask ourselves to move outside our comfort zone, or force ourselves to learn a new skill. And entering a room of “others” is a daunting task at the best of times. We hope it’s going to go OK, that we won’t be judged harshly, that we’ll make friends. Add to that the fact that you are going to be forced to do some public speaking and try to instruct others and - truly, it is  enough to make any grown-up cry. Anyone who gets up in front of people and tries to teach them is, to me, a superhero. It is a courageous act.

Even if they are bad at it.

When getting feedback, teacher trainees often get this one one piece of advice, “be more confident.” Yet, asking someone to be “more confident” in this situation is like asking a blade of grass to be more like a tree. A blade of grass has no more knowledge of how to be a tree than a new teacher knows how to “be more confident” (whatever that means).

Your lack of confidence isn’t the problem. The advice is. Like many well meaning mentors, teachers will often fall back on old tropes like “be more confident.” But, that advice is not helpful. How can you be more of something you are not?

It is OK to not be confident. It is OK. You do not have to be more than you are. Be nervous and jittery. It is OK.

Confidence comes with competence. The more I understand, the better equipped I feel. The better equipped I am, the more I can offer. I gain confidence as my competence improves. My competence improves through study and practice. You know… yoga.  

So truly, the best advice is; get comfy with being bad. Because, doing something well is not a matter of doing it right. It is about allowing yourself to be bad. Truly it is.

In each new training cycle I tell our students, “Get up here and fail spectacularly, please. This is the best place to be really, really bad at what you do, so jump in with both feet and blow it!” Because, you will find that, despite your discomfort, you will live to see another day. And you are teaching yourself a vital skill; how to try again.

If you are not confident. That is OK. You are here and you are trying. That will be enough for today.

This is loving kindness.

And isn’t this what we want for our students? You can’t teach what you don’t know. Accepting your discomfort and doing it anyway will help you help you find the tools to help others do the same.

That way, when that very new, adult, student comes to you and says, “I’m no good at yoga,” instead of falling back on, “that’s OK, yoga is for everyone!” you can confidently say, “that’s OK, I’m learning too.”

Welcome back to school yogis.

The Trail or the Road

This weekend we took a troop of boys to a cabin the size of a postage stamp. The adventure was maddening, sweet, fun and exhausting. My kids and their friends are not super rambunctious, so we don’t fall into that stereotype of house full of boys but, they are still children. They still have no idea what an “indoor voice” is. They still get amped when given the opportunity to spend days in the woods together.

When I am stressed I find their noise and chaos unnerving. The constant energy of children can overwhelm me. I have to work really hard to not be annoyed and irritated with them. I need moments of silence. I need respite and space.

And sometimes I am just an asshole parent.

Luckily, I am blessed with a mate who, when I reach my limit, sends me away. I can comfortably say “I need a minute” and without judgement or shame, he just nods, waves and says, “I get it.”  

This weekend I needed one of those breaks so I hopped on my bike and went up the road. In the woods I have two options for bike riding; trail riding or road riding. In my judgey mind, people who trail ride are the real deal; hard-core nature bikers. Road riders are softies.

I am a road rider. The road is my jam. That’s how I like it: a manageable, challenge. I just want to ride. I don’t want to think about avoiding rocks and trees and ruts in the road. I don’t want to have to turn on all my awareness feelers. I want to turn them off.

This got me thinking: I wonder if people choose their exercise based on what their mind needs. Team sports demand a kind of hyper awareness. You try and anticipate what the other team is going to do, you pay attention to what your teammates are doing. If a person doesn’t use those observation skills in their day-to-day, then turning them on would be stimulating, relaxing even. On the other hand, if you are the kind of person who spends a lot of time observing, and anticipating actions, choosing a sport that demands the same kind of mental acuity will be taxing.

Or maybe I just like riding on the road.

As a younger woman, I measured my comfort zones against an imaginary ruler that always said, “you do not measure up.” My boundaries were, for the most part, representative of my cowardice, my rigidity.

But, boundaries are not limitations. They are an understanding, an acceptance of self. A good, healthy boundary gives us a feeling of security and safety. It allows us to explore our landscape without distraction. Understanding our boundaries is an imperative to learning how to endure the discomfort of being alive (and it keeps us from becoming monsters to the people we love).

This is why, when we are teaching, we need to be respectful of people’s boundaries. We need to set up the conditions where our students can say “I need a break!” without fear of judgment or recrimination. Therefore:

  • Always give your students permission to come out of a pose if they need to.
  • Offer options.
  • If you are stuck and can’t think of an option, be honest with them. Be a flawed human and say, “Oh I am stuck too! How about you and I take a moment and breath together” and then wait and see what you can come up with.
  • Let them know they can leave the room at any time and they can come back when they are ready.
  • Model good boundary setting. In your day to day life, practice setting good, healthy boundaries.
  • Find practices that allow you to explore safely and purposefully.
  • Do it for you. Do not pick practices that you think you “should” do, pick the ones that click.
  • Advocate for yourself in your own practice. Tell your teachers what you need.
  • Give yourself permission to leave a class and leave if you need to.
  • We cannot be all things to all people. We cannot always be the hard core or the soft touch. We are what we are. Honoring our boundaries celebrates who we are. Practicing this for ourselves helps us celebrate it in our students.