Centering in the Chaos: Why We Must

It's been several weeks since Hurricane Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain on Houston. The kids are finally back in school. Mostly the roads are open. We are still afloat, and, yes, we are #HoustonStrong. We are all the things you hear about on the news—courageous, compassionate, heroic. But we are also exhausted, discombobulated and untethered. Even those of us who still have homes are awash in the environmental trauma. We, understandably, feel like we must do something. We must help those in desperate need—friends, neighbors and strangers alike. 

And we are not alone, those in Irma's path are following right behind us, still in the early stages of disaster recovery. I spent a month of my summer on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, the idyllic place I chose for this blog. This is what it looks like now.

What we really don’t want to acknowledge are our own needs. It feels frivolous, in the face of such devastation, to admit that we need to collect ourselves. To sit and just be. To re-anchor our souls that have been disconnected from that still, quiet voice for too long. But reconnect, we must, for if we don’t, all our good deeds and fine intentions will simply add to the frenetic energy of this wounded city.

It is this re-centering of our soul that imbues our actions with love rather than fear. This formula holds true not only in natural disasters, but in the traumas—big and small—that make their way into each of our lives. So whether you find yourself struggling in the floodwaters of the Texas/Louisiana coast or South Asia, sweltering in the California heat wave, breathing in ash of the Oregon wildfires, recovering from Irma’s landfall on the East coast, surrounded by earthquake rubble in Mexico City, or just plain stuck between a rock and a hard place, pulling inward before stepping out to help is essential, as counterintuitive as it might feel. Truly, you can only give what you have cultivated within.

In times of crisis, it is hard to create a self-care plan if we don’t already have one. There is not a one-size-fits-all way to re-center, but there are practices that have worked for others, some of which will work for you. Since Harvey's departure from Houston, I’ve pulled out all my tried and true practices and am sharing them with you. Please adopt whatever resonates to create your own self-care plan. It will not only benefit you, but will create peaceful energy that will reverberate outward to all around you. It is important to include all the senses in your approach, so I’m categorizing them by sense—and I added spirit because that is perhaps the most crucial one in this work.


Healing Music… Gifted singers and songwriters often put to words those things lingering unexpressed in our hearts. My dear friend Shellee Coley wrote a song during the flooding of Hurricane Harvey that does just that. The song’s video can be found here.

Singing Bowl… If you have one or can get your hands on one, the vibration you can create and absorb with this simple instrument can be very therapeutic. Originating in Nepal, this bowls are used in meditation and healing because of the fundamental frequency they emit. Playing one is a meditation unto itself. Dana Shamas of Bayou Bliss Yoga , who led a free crystal bowl meditation session this week in Houston’s Rothko Chapel to aid the community’s recovery, describes the trauma experienced by all who live in devastated areas as “ambient chaos.” Whether directly affected or living among those who were, we all feel the communal trauma in our bodies.

Chanting… Don’t worry about picking the “right” mantra. Just make a joyful noise! This could be a traditional chant like “Om,” considered the primordial sound of the universe which—when sung or chanted—can bring us into balance with ourself and our surroundings. It can also be simply articulating an intention you set for yourself. For example, repeating “peace” or “serenity” out loud as you sit comfortably and receptively. Saying it 108 times is considered auspicious for many faiths. It can even be singing a favorite song or hymn from a religious tradition.


Essential oils… If you regularly use essential oils, smell each one and diffuse the one that draws you to it. If you are new to essential oils, choose a lavender for relaxation or a citrus (lemon or orange) to lighten your mood and lift the heaviness of trauma. A diffuser (widely available) allows you to enjoy the benefits for hours, but if you can’t get your hands on one, dab a few drops on your wrists or temples and inhale deeply.


Candlelight… The most gentle way to view the world is by candlelight. The primal glow softens the hard edges of everything in our sight and works its way inward. Light a candle and, literally, change the way you see the world.


Bath… Slip into a warm bath. For centering trifecta, add a few drops of essential oil and some candles to your bath experience.

Labyrinth… If you live near a labyrinth, go walk it. This ancient meditative movement takes you from the outer to the inner, both physically and spiritually. I always doubt the power of this simple practice when I start, but I inevitably receive an important message or experience a needed release by the time I reach the center. Not sure where to find one? Search this labyrinth locator. I found 30 within a 25 mile radius of me, including the one I walked this morning.

Yoga… If you have a home practice, choose some simple grounding poses—mountain pose (tadasana), down dog (adho mukha svanasana), warrior pose (virabhadrasana) and easy seated pose (sukhasasna). Listen to your body, and move through or hold poses in ways that feel nourishing to you. An extended corpse pose (savasana) just might be your whole practice today.


Tea… Make tea a morning or evening ritual, choosing a blend with calming properties and preparing it as old school as possible. Avoid microwaving your water and opt for a whistling tea kettle instead. Create an unplugged zone around your tea and sip it slowly. You can read something spiritual and inspiration, but don’t read the newspaper or escape into a novel. 

Soup… Are you sensing a theme here? Like tea, soup is warm and grounding and can be sipped and savored. Choose a soup that’s flavorful but not overly spicy. It’s hard to frantically eat soup. Let the slow pace of your spooning seep into the rest of your day. 


Prayer… This is not about saying the right words. It is, in fact, not about words at all. The prayer we need in times of chaos is one of our heart reaching out to something greater than ourselves. In stillness and with a receptively devoid of expectation. Look inside yourself for what needs to be expressed. For what is weighing you down with fear or anxiety. Give what you find to God.

Meditation… If prayer is releasing our hearts to God, meditation is what happens after in the silence. There is no magic formula to meditation. Our only job is to hold the space in stillness. Not waiting for the outcome to legitimize our practice, but knowing that just be showing up we have entered into meditation.

Take a practice or two from this list that speaks to you. Don’t try to do them all at once or you’ll increase your stress level rather than lowering it. Instead, tuck them away and pull them out when you need them. Be gentle with yourself as you build your practice, especially during a time of crisis. If you’re a journaler, make notes on your experiences that will help you build a practice that will anchor you when life’s storms—literal and metaphorical—come your way.


Reentry: Return to You

Note: I wrote this (but forgot to post) a day before Harvey hit, when many of us thought this would be just another hurricane scare with a little extra rain to contend with. When our biggest concern was getting the kids back to school and leaving summer behind. Things have changed more than I could have imagined in a week and half. As our city emerges from the wreckage and lives up to its hashtag #HoustonStrong, I decided to post this anyway, because in this space, more than ever, we need reminders to connect our body and our breath and to absorb the lessons learned when we do.

The open-endedness of summer is glorious, no doubt, but the predicability of fall brings its own pleasures.  As we approach Labor Day and bid adieu to lazy days, I urge you to sink into its rhythm. If you are sending kids back to school—whether pre-K or college—you have likely spent the last few weeks totally focused on launching your offspring into their new worlds. Upon returning from my summer travels, I dove straight into uniform orders, dorm room shopping and a never-ending parade of school forms. I shopped for supplies and calendared school events. I arrived back in Houston physically two weeks ago, but not until I hit my yoga mat yesterday was I really home. 

As soon as I started synching my breath to my body, I realized how out-of-synch I'd been. I'd been operating completely in the head space of getting things done. In Ayurvedic terms, my Vata was leading the way, keeping me operating in the intellectual ether, completely ungrounded and untethered to the wisdom of the body.

My yoga practice always returns me to this balance, but how easily I forget, swimming in thought for way too long before I reach for it!

Happily for me, yesterday's practice involved some linguistic learning that fed my word nerd side. I firmly believe in the power of words to transform us. My teacher, Ann Hyde, unpacked some common terms and illuminated how easily they are misinterpreted, even when spoken silently to ourselves. First, intensity needn't make us tense. Instead of seeking the "intense" perhaps we should focus on the "intent." They don't sound so different to our ears, but they do to our souls.

And, likewise, "relaxing" doesn't entail being "lax." We can hold our intention AND relax. Relaxing can increase productivity, rather than reducing it. 




Great Expectations

Really, they are not so great. I've heard expectations called "premeditated resentments," and I tend to agree. I am a planner, which is not—in and of itself—a bad thing. When I become overly attached to my plans being executed perfectly, however, it does become a bad thing.

This summer, I really outdid myself in the intricacy of my planning which included traveling to North Carolina with my son and two friends, taking them all to Duke lacrosse camp, spending his birthday at our house in the mountains with other friends, then flying to the British Virgin Islands where my son would do a three-week scuba and sailing camp while I stayed in a house there. My daughter would come visit halfway through my time on the island and then we would all fly back to the mountains and meet my husband to celebrate my daughter's birthday. That is an awesome plan, no?

As I sit here in the waning days of summer, looking back, I can laugh at all the ways my plans did not go as expected. When things were going awry it was harder to laugh. But this is what I discovered—the parts that didn't go as planned were not bad. They were just different than the summer I'd cooked up in my mind. 

My son got a concussion the night before lacrosse camp and had to miss the whole thing. We had to leave the mountains and bring him home to Houston to recuperate. BUT my kids got to spend a whole bunch of quality time together, playing tennis, watching copious amounts of YouTube and building the world's biggest fort.  I got to reconnect with my husband who I often go weeks at a time without seeing during the summer. I got to hang out with my daughter who was away in school in NYC last year. And we got to spend some time with friends at their Galveston house. Ultimately, my son recovered and the change of plans was not as catastrophic as my mind originally told me it was.

Note: Feelings are not facts.

When my daughter joined me in Tortola for what I'd imagined would be blissful days of mother-daughter bonding in paradise, she immediately hated the place. Not just mildly. She was hot (there was no air conditioning) and generally miserable. I struggled with her misery. Should I insist she stay? Should I let her go home early? I realized I was taking her dislike of the place personally. It was not a personal affront to me that she didn't like the place that I adored. She flew home after a couple of days, and we were both happy.

Note: People (even those closest to me) have different tastes than I do, and that's ok!

As I write about the things that didn't go as planned, I am reminded of how many things did work out beautifully. The house I found on Air B&B was just right for me—simple, walking distance to the beach, killer views from the patio and paid for entirely with my AmEx points. There were things I didn't know about like the roosters crowing at 5:30 every morning; the steep incline of the hill where my house was situated; and the lack of garbage service which required carrying my trash down said steep hill to the nearest dumpster. I am not just being a Pollyanna when I say that those things made the trip more charming. They made it real for me. I got to be a part of the community for a month, not just a pampered tourist sipping pina coladas (though I did sip a few!).

Note: When I am tallying what goes wrong, I must also tally what goes right.

I'm enjoying a bit of quiet mountain time before the back-to-school fall rat race descends. The rest of my family veered off plan again and headed back to Houston, but by this point in the summer mayhem, I am not phased. I stayed the course with no resentment. I remembered that we can love and support each other without being on the same schedule. 

I hope your summer adventures—planned and unplanned—brought you want you needed this season. I'm heading into fall holding my expectations very loosely!