My Valentine

2 years ago this week: my Valentine stood by my side when none of the Los Angeles doctors could figure out what kind of tumor I had. Then he had to move into his mother-in-law's BEDROOM in Houston for over a MONTH, juggle my divorced parents in small hospital waiting rooms, administer shots in my stomach daily, wash my hair, change my oozy knee bandages, walk me to the bathroom in the middle of the night, wheel me around the outdoor mall when I got stir crazy, and still manage to get all his work done on top of being my nurse and chauffeur for three months.

Hubby,  I know I'm a pain in the ass. Thank you for loving me always. You are just TOO good. xoxo

Unplug to Recharge! My Week without Internet

 Originally posted on The Huffington Post 10/01/12

Read my first two posts in this series:
"Signing Up to Face My Fear: Seven Days of Silence" and "Winning the Quiet Game With My Mind."

Per the rules of the weeklong silent meditation retreat, talking wasn't the only thing we'd agreed to give up. We'd vowed to experience life without our creature comforts (books, music, lovemaking) and numbing agents (television, radio, booze) and begin the process of finding sanctuary within ourselves. There was one more sacrifice I felt twitchy just thinking about: no Internet for seven days. It turns out I had inadvertently signed up for Cyber Rehab.

2012-09-27-photo53.JPG When I arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, we had a few hours before the retreat began. I decided to explore the rolling hills surrounding the site, where I had been told I'd find hiking trails, wild turkeys and, well, cell phone reception. Standing hillside, I clutched my aluminosilicate pacifier and rejoiced at finding a signal. I was going to savor these final moments of digital escape before I went through withdrawal.

I logged onto my social media sites. Someone had left a Facebook comment about my retreat. Feeling vulnerable in this new place, I got a little thrill at being remembered and wondered what kind of encouragement the universe was about to bestow upon me. The comment read:

"You, quiet? You must have had to wire your mouth!"

I can see it as good-natured teasing now, but at the time, it stung. Wire my mouth? We hadn't talked in 10 years and the commenter had posted from 5,000 miles away. I can handle being the Village Idiot, but a Global Idiot? Thanks, social media. I swiped off my iPhone... which, by the way, isn't nearly as satisfying as the good old-fashioned phone slam. Later, I turned it back on, but only to text home that I was alive and to stare at pictures of my dog.

"There is something inherently insecure about our view of self," says Spirit Rock teacher Howard Cohn. The Bible blames Adam and Eve. I blame middle school. Unlike Eve, I know I look pretty good naked, but look into my eyes, and I'm afraid of what you'll see. Social media profits on this insecurity. In this new age of self-branding, we're offered platforms to project flattering one-dimensional versions of ourselves. And then, we're given tools to calculate our popularity. No wonder we're a mess.

Touching on the Buddhist concept of personality view, Howard says, "This version of yourself that plays in your mind, it's a description of someone who does not exist. It's an imaginary you." Our egos are storytellers. We should be nicer to ourselves for always having to put up with them. It's so easy to get caught up in the drama of who we think we are and who we imagine others to be. Show me an Instagram photo of Sunday brunch or pedicured toes in the grass, and I'll feel lazy about the box of cereal I'm eating and wonder if I should get my hairy big toes waxed. I'll gently remind myself, "I am enough." But my comparing mind loves to chime in.

My knack for ego-driven delusional storytelling became evident on retreat. After days of silently living with strangers, I might have -- hypothetically -- started fantasizing about the guy always sitting in front of me. Our connection was undeniable. He had impeccable posture and his boxer briefs peeked out from his dark jeans. With those geek chic glasses, I cast him as an international architect designing loft spaces in Moscow or Tel Aviv. But then -- in real life -- on the final night when we were finally allowed to chat together over quinoa tabbouleh, I came to the realization I'd been duped by Retreat Goggles. (Think "Beer Goggles" for yogis.) I'd been fantasizing about a sexually-ambiguous math tutor from Sacramento who hadn't even noticed me. (Details have been changed to protect the innocent.) The point is: You're not what you think, and neither is he.

In A Path With Heart, Spirit Rock founding teacher Jack Kornfield writes, "The more solidly we grasp our identity, the more solid our problems become." During my week without Internet, I missed the little highs, but I found relief in not feeling the pressure to differentiate myself. At the retreat, we explored what life could be like without our egos in overdrive. Alert, relaxed, open, and present, we ate in silence with a feeling of communion not unlike the deer we saw grazing out the window. Because there was no talking, we didn't have to answer questions that define us in everyday life: "What do you do for a living?" We could drop the personas we call upon in different situations, the stories we share of who we think we are, and let go of other people's impressions of us.

2012-09-27-photo54.JPGSomehow -- like everyone living before 1994 -- I managed to survive the week without the Internet. I've never felt so removed from this world and of this world at the same time. I came out of the seven days feeling detoxed and empowered. And as I headed back to the San Francisco airport, I turned on my iPhone to Instagram a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge. I felt the queasy thrill you might get from reconnecting with an old lover. I wanted to prove I was choosing to share and express myself without craving validation. While I can't claim that one unplugged week has cured me of the compulsion to check for Facebook likes, I'm going to make a conscious effort to spend less time in the virtual world and more time tuned in to my experience in the present moment.

And now that I've pretended to learn this lesson, don't forget to follow me on Twitter @ellieinla for updates on creativity, wellness, mindfulness, and little delights.

 

Winning the Quiet Game w/ My Mind: 7 Days of Silence

Originally posted on The Huffington Post  09/12/2012

I'm tired of chasing the happiness mirage, the oasis of contentment that always seems to be just out of reach. I thought that if I accomplished something big, I'd grasp it. But our time is limited, and I want happiness now. After a recent health scare, I took inventory of everything I have to be grateful for in my life. I tallied up an embarrassment of riches: love, friendship, family, pets, travel opportunities, recovered health, and a cozy home. I had every excuse to break out my tap shoes and burst into song. So why wasn't I happy? Did I need more than others? Was I hardwired to be discontent? Why didn't my emotions match the joy that I knew in my gut I should be experiencing?

A while back, a psychiatrist told me the solution was chemical. I took pills that dulled my anxiety, but I gained more weight than contentment. The men in my family told me the key to happiness was to earn lots of money. But rich people don't seem to smile more. In retrospect, I received the very best advice on a date with a guy who told me, "For the love of God, stop thinking so much!"

While we were in the midst of a bad make-out session at the time, I see now that he was onto something. Happiness sneaks up on me when my chattering mind quiets, like when my shaggy mutt snuggles into me, or when my nephew brings me a story to read aloud. In these shimmering moments of accidental happiness, I am not distracted by my usual deluge of crippling thoughts:

This would be better if ... I shouldn't have done that ... I wish I were more ... Why does she get ... If only I had ... This could go terribly wrong when ...

Meet the Tribunal of A**holes in my head. Their critical, unoriginal, and relentless commentary disconnects me from all that is good. It's like listening to a panel of Fox News commentators and "Real Housewives" chime in about my life. I can show them something great, and they can tell me everything that's wrong with it or how it can be improved. I needed to fire them. So I embarked on a seven-night silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock in Northern California. I was on a mission to win The Quiet Game with my mind.

Each morning at Spirit Rock, we'd gather at 6:30 a.m., and after a day of walking and sitting meditation, broken up by a short work period and simple, healthful, vegetarian meals, we'd head back under the stars to our residence halls at 9:30 p.m. In the evenings, our instructors Anna Douglas and Howard Cohn gave inspiring Dharma talks. One evening Anna Douglas explained that Tibetans recognize the heart as the center of consciousness. And when they refer to their "mind," they gesture to their heart. Upon hearing this, I felt a bolt of electricity and wanted to jump off my zafu (meditation pillow). My thinking mind isn't the center of my consciousness. I might have a**hole thoughts, but my thoughts aren't the core of who I am. My heart is. My thoughts don't have to rule me anymore. It was such a relief.

My first days of meditation sitting were glorified naptimes. When my thoughts quieted, I fell asleep. Unlike the Tibetans, my consciousness seemed to be in my mind after all; when it turned off, I turned off. But after a couple days of practice, I was able to stay awake during these periods of respite. I like to think my center of consciousness migrated back to my heart.

That week, I focused on my breath and started to witness my thoughts come and go. Sure, I fantasized about the rest of my summer and worried over my new belly button infection. (Yep, I managed to get a belly button infection from navel gazing. I think it was from meditating after a sweaty hike.) But eventually, I'd bring my attention back to my body and feel at peace for a while. I started noticing a change. I began to realize the extent to which my thoughts had been leaving a rusted patina over all that could shine.

The world looked brighter. Food tasted better now. I felt satiated. My digestive system didn't have to work as hard because my insides weren't tied up in knots from anxiety. Deepak Chopra says, "Our beliefs, thoughts, and emotions direct the chemical reactions that take place in every single cell." By the end of my week at Spirit Rock, I sensed a cellular shift. My stomach didn't hurt. When I put in my contacts, I noticed my eyes were clearer. My eyelashes were longer. I liked being me. My belly button healed.

Western culture proclaims that we should not be happy with what we have. We need more and better! If we find happiness in our current situation, we're accused of settling. But maybe the people who are always grasping for more are the ones settling, succumbing to a life of perpetual dissatisfaction. By no means am I suggesting that we shouldn't live up to our potential. But I am finally realizing I don't need to wait for happiness to come at the end of a chase for success. I can choose to have happiness here and now. And this happiness begins with quieting my mind.

Signing Up to Face My Fear: 7 Days of Silence

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post 08/26/12

This is Ellie Knaus' first post in her meditation retreat series.

I've grasped for approval my whole life. It started in elementary school, when I felt certain that gold stars, blue ribbons, and auditoriums full of clapping strangers could fill me up, make me whole. There were benefits to being a goody-two-shoes, like science fair prize money and a fan club of other people's grandmothers. But feeding on external validation is like living off a vending machine: We can survive -- for a while at least -- but it's a sticky, limiting, and unsatisfying existence. I was able to break the habit while attending a women's college, where I awakened my inner conviction and exercised a loud mouth. But when I moved to Los Angeles to be an actress, seeking the approval of others became my job. And after a long casting drought, I began to live carefully in the imagined shadow of other people's judgments, my instincts muddled by apprehension. I wanted to trust my instincts again, regain my confidence. So this summer I signed up for a weeklong silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock in Northern California; there would be no talking, no music, no writing, no phone calls, no Internet, and no eye contact with other retreatants. When I received confirmation that I had been accepted into the "Essential Dharma Retreat," I wanted to throw up, which was a sign that I was off to the right start.

"What does your husband say about this?" my mother asked over the phone, concerned for my marriage. She suspected I was having an Eat, Pray, Love meltdown. It seemed to Mom that divorcing "The Nice Guy" had become de rigueur for young women embarking on spiritual journeys. She cited Oprah's Book Club memoirists Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed (Wild). I assured her that my husband was in support of the retreat. He wanted his independent wife back, the one he had married before I stopped trusting my instincts, before I had internalized years of rejection as an actress in Los Angeles. Still, the whole retreat thing seemed too hippy-dippy, too "Kumbaya" for Mother. But for once, I wasn't taking a vote; other people's disapproval was irrelevant. And so I shared motives that she might find comforting, telling her that I had chosen the meditation retreat in order to a) focus my mind and b) cultivate loving-kindness. She countered that a) going to law school would focus my mind and b) giving her grandchildren would cultivate loving-kindness. As we got off the phone, I could hear her typing. I'm pretty sure she was Googling "Spirit Rock" and "cult?"

I remembered watching Dharma & Greg and hearing a lot of talk of the Dharma Initiative on Lost, but I was clueless as to what dharma actually meant. This was troublesome as I had, after all, signed up for the "Essential DHARMA Retreat." According to the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, dharma is "the deepest truth of life, beyond words and concepts." So, it's explained as being unexplainable. That cleared things up.

I had taken a beginner mindfulness meditation class this spring, but at Spirit Rock, we'd learn the Buddhist tradition of vipassana meditation. (I was pretty sure that Buddhists felt that everyone was special, but maybe, since vipassana starts with V.I.P., we could be the most special.) In Meditation for Beginners, Spirit Rock founder Jack Kornfield writes that, in the Pali language, "vipassana" means "to see things as they really are." Clearly, I needed vipassana.

In the week leading up to the retreat, when a girlfriend emailed, I hope you find what you are looking for, I felt queasy and exposed. The very act of going on a retreat implies that you are in search of something. But aren't we all? Others called it "extreme." Most said, "I could never do that." What are we so afraid of discovering when we shut up and unplug? For me, it was the fear that self-critical thoughts would devour me. That when I let go of my everyday life and creature comforts -- family, pets, girlfriends, podcasts, books, Trader Joe's, and Twitter -- I'd unravel in the unknown. It wasn't long before my chronic second-guessing kicked in.

To calm down, I could engage in a) meditation or b) retail therapy. I compromised and drove to REI to shop for comfy meditation clothes. I was preparing for stay-away camp, like in grade school, except in grade school I had been excited to join a new tribe and proud that I had never gotten homesick. Now, I hadn't even left yet, and I was already homesick. As I tried on hiking pants in the dressing room, my anxious mind started churning again. Why am I someone who feels compelled to do this? Why can't I just be fearless and whole already? And why am I weird, but not weird enough not to care that I'm weird?!

The afternoon before I was to leave, my acting manager called to report that the theatrical agency I had interviewed with had chosen not to represent me. I thanked him and hung up. Teetering on the precipice of a shame spiral, I stopped myself. I didn't need to internalize their rejection. I didn't have to take this setback as a value judgement on my self-worth. I could change these painful habits; that's what going on this retreat was all about. Gosh, it feels good to be a recovering kiss-ass! And then I cried, but only for a minute.

While packing, I asked my husband, "Think blow-dryers are allowed at the silent retreat?" He laughed and looked at me like I might not survive the week. I wasn't getting any votes of confidence. And that's exactly how it was supposed to be. A people-pleaser can't go off in search of inner strength with everyone patting her on the back. Totally unsure of myself, but open to discovery, I leaned into the fear and headed North to Spirit Rock.

[Video] I'm on a health kick. One problem. I can't cook.

After a recent health scare, I'm taking better care of myself. And since 80 percent of the immune system is in our gut, I'm adopting a clean diet. Goodbye preservatives. Sayonara artificial flavoring. Hasta la vista fluorescent margarita mix. But there's one little problem. I don't know how to cook. At all. And there's only so many pounds of raw almonds a girl can eat.

Luckily, I have a new wellness mentor in my girlfriend: chef Pace Webb. She overcame colon cancer in high school, and she's been living healthy ever since. In this video, Pace welcomes me into her Taste of Pace kitchen and shares her delicious recipe for an antioxidant super-charged, cancer-fighting Artichoke Red Onion Date Spinach Salad with Lemon Citronette. I'm grateful for our delightful afternoon together and Pace's secrets to living a balanced life. Watch!

Watch our video: How to make the best cancer-fighting salad ever! 

And here is the recipe/awesome blog post over at Taste of Pace. 

Ellie's Huffington Post GPS for The Soul Guide

The Huffington Post has started an awesome new page. The editor asked me to share anything that centers me/calms me/makes me not so loony tunes (well, not in those words exactly).  I submitted photos and quotes that center me.   

Mouse over the photo for the caption on the right. It's surprisingly hard to figure out the slideshow captions.

The Link to Ellie's GPS Guide

Here's a sampling...

It's Part Of The Process

Whenever I suffer from a "Vulnerability Hangover", a term coined by Brené Brown, I look at my photo of the ancient Theater of Delphi. It reminds me that storytelling is an ancient ritual. I'm a part of a collective experience. And a performer in 4th century BC probably walked off that stage and thought, "Geez. I really over-shared with that one."

 

QUOTE:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time. This expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. 

It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. -Martha Graham

Vulnerability Hangover

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt

I suffer from a vulnerability hangover most times I'm creative. It's a sucky feeling on par with realizing I've shown up at school with no clothes on, which has never happened in my waking life, but I imagine is similar to the shame of peeing one's pants (or culottes while wearing roller skates in gym class, in my case). But the more hangovers I have, the better. It means I've expressed myself. I've cared about something. I've shared a part of myself. 

I was on a TED TALK binge last year when I was couped up post surgery. I was feeling immensely vulnerable, having just been cut open and having a tumor scooped out, and Brene Brown's TEDxHouston Talk about Vulnerability stuck with me. 

Here is Brene Brown's new TED 2012 Talk about Shame. It makes my heart swell. It's like an Advil for my vulnerability hangover. 

 

NOTES:

Shame drives two big tapes: "Never good enough" and if you can talk it out of that one, then, "Who do you think you are?" 

Shame for women is this web of unattainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we are supposed to be. And it's a straightjacket. 

Empathy is the antidote to shame...The two most powerful words when we're in struggle..."Me too."

Hitchock on Happiness

I can't imagine Hitchcock doing a celebratory touchdown dance or even smiling. Have we ever seen his teeth? But I love what he says in this interview about happiness. It's all about clearing out the negative crap--a clear horizon--so that you can focus on your creative work! 

 Only things that are creative and not destructive, when that's within yourself...

[via Brain Pickings