Non-Negotiables: The Foundation for Everything Else

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside. - Stephen Covey

Last week I wrote about a yoga retreat I attended last fall and one of the big lessons I took away from that weekend: the necessity of starting where you are.

The second big thing I took away from that weekend was the concept of “non-negotiables.”

The teacher, Seane Corn, talked about how in her life there are a handful of things that are absolutely non-negotiable. They are not things that are nice to do, when there’s enough time, money, space. They are not things she does now and then or when in an emergency state. They are daily doings. Every day (more or less) practices. They are the core things that sustain her, allow her to stay sane, centered, and most importantly, to do her life work and serve others.

And if they go by the wayside, shit starts to fall apart, quick.

For Seane, they are: asana practice (the physical practice of yoga), meditation, prayer, good nutrition, sleep and therapy.

Many of us might look at that list and think, Well, that would be nice. If I could do yoga every day, cook perfectly nutritious meals and the extra hour or two each week to go to therapy my life would be… someone else’s life.

What about those of us with kids, really demanding jobs, rough travel schedules, ill health, or a spouse or a kid with ill health, mental illness, financial issues, no time? What if our “non-negotiables” are showing up to work, feeding our kids, taking care of our sick parent and paying the bills? In other words, what about the rest of us?

The thing is this: the circumstances of your life don’t exempt you from being a human being with physical, mental, spiritual and emotional needs. Ever. No human on earth is an exception.

But we forget this. We are so caught up in doing our lives that we forget who we are, all the time. The non-negotiables are all about remembering who we really are, daily, so that we can help others do the same. It’s really that simple. Could there be anything more important than that?

“Remembering who we are” can sound squishy and privileged, but it’s the exact opposite. Remembering who we are is the underlying mission of all good self-help, spiritual and religious texts since the beginning of time.

It is the real purpose of yoga (not to have a nicer ass or be really bendy) and talk therapy and meditation and creative expression and relationships.

Remembering who we are is really about remembering who we are not. We are not the big job, the alcoholism, the failed marriage, the sexual abuse, the cancer, the mother, father, the various roles we play as parent, child, wife, friend. We are all those things but they are not who we are. Who we really are is timeless and perfect and whole already. Who we are is “the diamond in the shit,” as my friend and teacher Zoe Wild puts it.

We are not human beings  having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

(Side rant: The thing I loved most about Seane’s workshop is how not woo-woo it was. While in the past decade we seem to be churning out yoga teachers by the hundred-thousands and it’s all very pop culture to be carrying a yoga mat around and practicing “mindfulness,” Seane was doing her thing long before all that. She’s a New Jersey girl with a foul mouth, a fierceness and urgency in her delivery, and a passion for social justice. Her shtick is that this work – the business of twisting our bodies, balancing chakras and deepening our awareness – that some of us get to do on the mat is an utter gift and it’s our responsibility, our duty in fact, to carry that work into the world. To raise the collective vibration. Not so we can all ohm and hold hands and hug while we sip coconut milk lattes, but so that we can save the earth and each other in a very real way. Hunger. Child prostitution. Poverty. Violence. Addiction. These are the things she tackles.)

Hearing this concept allowed me to solidify my own non-negotiables, and more importantly, gave me permission to have them. I’ve also taken notice of the myths we have about a concept like this in observing myself and talking to others about it.

For the record, my non-negotiables are: prayer, recovery (meetings), physical activity (I must sweat), alone time, creative time (usually writing) and sleep. The recovery process has laid a good foundation for this type of thinking because I’ve learned without staying sober, everything – like, every single thing – will fall apart. The starkness of that has forced me to prioritize, but I’ve also learned that being “sober” isn’t just the absence of booze. It starts there, but also includes emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, which is where the other non-negotiables come in.

Before I got sober I would have told you “me time” was one of my non-negotiables, and my version of “me time” was going out and drinking and shutting the world out (or being at home and drinking and shutting the world out). But real non-negotiables don’t have downsides, which I cover below.

So here’s the deal with non-negotiables. 

  • THEY ARE NOT LUXURIES. It is not a luxury to take care of yourself. Women, especially a lot of the moms I know, feel like they’re pampering themselves if they “take time for me.” BULLSHIT. Buuuuulllllshiiiiit. You must take time for you. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself; it’s selfish not to. When I don’t take care of myself the version of me that other people get – especially my daughter - pretty much sucks. I repeat: it is not a luxury to take care of yourself. Okay?
  • THEY'RE NOT COMPLICATED. Non-negotiables are almost always very, very simple. Difficult, maybe, but not complicated. For example, it’s difficult for me to sit down and write most of the time, but it’s never complicated. It requires a pen and a paper or my computer and some attention (the difficult part). It’s definitely difficult for me to run some days. Never complicated. They are the building blocks for your foundation on which all else can be built. James Altucher, one of my favorite nutty writers and thinkers, covers his version of non-negotiables in what he calls The Daily Practice. He attributes all his failures and successes to whether or not he's follwing his Daily Practice (He is great and funny, I recommend.)
  • YOU HAVE TIME. You do.
  • THEY BELONG TO YOU. Your non-negotiables are yours. They don’t belong to your partner, your kids, your co-workers, or your mom. Your list might involve them (e.g. time with your children) but I would argue you could explore that part of the list. Is time with your kids or partner really part of your non-negotiable list, or is it something you put on because you feel guilty if you don’t? I love and need to spend time with my daughter but she’s not on my non-negotiable list. My list – and your list – is about filling up your own tank, putting on your own life preserver. Your list belongs to you.
  • THEY ARE NOT SELFISH. This is related to all the points above, but worth stating on its own again. It is not selfish to take care of yourself.
  • THEY ARE DAILY (OR CLOSE TO DAILY) PRACTICES. These aren’t things we do only in an emergency. I have a good friend Matt, who when he was going through a really rough period, got into meditation. It helped immensely, along with other things. A few months later he came to me feeling like shit again. I asked about the meditation, and he said he had got away from it when things got better. This is so common; I do it all the time. But it’s funny, right? And so indicative of how we live. We only pay attention when we are in an extreme state of despair or discomfort, and then the second we escape that state we go right back to what we were doing before that got us to that point. Hellooooo, wine *raises hand*!

Which brings me to my last point.

  • REAL NON-NEGOTIABLES HAVE NO NEGATIVE SIDE EFFECTS. Aside from the perceived side-effects of opportunity cost and possibly disappointing others by taking the time, real non-negotiables don’t have a down side. Even if they cost money (e.g. travel). Real non-negotiables are not about pleasure, although they can be pleasurable. They are about happiness (what we often confuse with pleasure as Mark Manson so defly points out). You might say sex is a non-negotiable – and perhaps it is – but I’d challenge you to examine what it is about sex that you need every day. The connection with another human? Physical contact? The stress release? Maybe it’s sex, but maybe what you need is to feel your body. I don’t really know. But I’d stretch to say that if we really dig down our real non-negotiables don’t rely on other people. They may involve them, but not rely on them.

That’s it, lovelies. Consider your non-negotiables. Write them down. Commit to them. Take them so seriously. You are amazing. I love you.

Me, not negotiating. BTW, that weird circle on my back is my necklace ;).

Me, not negotiating. BTW, that weird circle on my back is my necklace ;).

If you missed part one of this, where I talk about the necessity of starting where you are, it’s here.

Why I Go

I went to a yoga class this week that saved me. It’s why I go, most of the time. To be rescued from myself or to find a way back to my center. Sometimes I go because I need to move my body and shake some things off, quiet the chatter, get back to grounded. Sometimes I just go to sweat. But I’ve learned that when I am particularly harried, when my edges feel frayed and jagged, when I start to get short with everyone, when I lose any and all perspective so much that I cry thinking there may not be enough coffee, I go to yoga to fix myself. Since we’ve lived at residence #4 of the year, where we are not surrounded by many of our belongings, including our own bed, I haven’t slept very well. We have a king sized bed. Downgrading in size once you’ve had the sprawling luxury of a king sized bed feels criminal. It’s like having to go back to coach once you’ve had a taste of first class, every single night. I do not care to hide my snobbery for the king sized bed. I cherish the perfect luxuriousness of building a four pillow fort around me to support the best possible sleep inducing arrangement of limbs and joints and air flow. I need to be able to sleep a far distance away from my husband in order for us to keep from vaporizing from the heat oven that is my body.

We’ve been sleeping in a very, very, very much appreciated double bed. It is the bed of the owners of the house, and they are sleeping on the pull out couch so that we can sleep in it. I appreciate this bed.

But it is not my bed.

So, I have an arsenal of sleep aids as well as a somewhat religious routine that I go through in order to woo my mind and body to dream land every night. Some nights it works. More of than not, when Ryan comes to bed four or so hours after I started trying, I spit fire at him for disturbing whatever progress I may have made on my way down. It is in these moments that i am sure he feels as though he made a great choice in marrying me. The girl who violently whispers “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” every single time he crawls into bed, as though it’s never happened before, this bed sharing thing. As though I am disgusted that he consider coming to sleep near me, in my bed, where I lay not so peacefully trying to put myself to sleep - what an ASSHOLE.

Needless to say, it’s tough once in a while when you couple lack of sleep, or very bad sleep, with a few major life stressors, a baby, and being female.

One morning this week I felt myself coming unglued. I asked Ryan if I could go to yoga, and would he watch Alma, and he saw the need on my face and recognized that there was only one possible answer to this question, and I went.

I’ve generally felt much better these days. I can manage myself and life and I don’t cry all the time. This is somewhat significant and sometimes I want to pinch myself when I’m walking in the early morning and the air is chilled, the red leaves have started to show, and I take in big, long, deep, full belly breaths of ocean air. I want to pinch myself because I realize I am ok. Really ok. And it’s not because things have fallen into place; in fact, if I pay attention to the list of things that are not going well (income, home, money, home, money, income) it feels incongruous with my level of peace and fear. I think, I should be a little less peaceful and a little more terrified. But I’m just not. Maybe it’s a function of time. Maybe I am growing up. Or maybe having all the images of what I thought my life was like basically fall away has made me less afraid of everything. Perhaps I’m just cracking up.

But on this day, and the days leading up to it, I felt myself drifting off. I went to this class, and I know the instructor by now; she’s fierce and feisty and tough. I really love her classes, even when I’m hating them.

I got out of class, received a sweet email from one of my friends and he let on that he’d been going through some things around loneliness and belonging and had been quiet as a result. This is part of what I wrote back as sometimes people ask my why I do yoga, and I can never quite articulate it well. Sometimes it’s just a way to move my body, like running or swimming or dancing around. Sometimes it is much more.

"Well, I obviously don’t know exactly what you mean specifically, but I do. It seems to never end, even when you think you’ve done all the work. I think we just get better at not taking it so seriously, or perhaps we just better understand that it’s a process. The good news is, you’ve got a lot of tools at your disposal :). Loneliness is one of the toughest to feel and not drown in, for me. Even when - especially when - you’re not necessarily "alone".

I took a yoga class this morning; I found one instructor here that I really like, so I try to get to her class once a week. I knew it was going to be a tough one for me - I was overtired and all over the place emotionally - the story this week. But I’m sure you’ve experienced it time and time again, when you take a class that seems to be exactly, exactly what you need, physically and otherwise. It kicked my butt but through the sequencing and what she happened to say today, it brought me to a place I realized I’d been searching for for a long, long time. And I realized I was no longer afraid of whatever was going to happen. It’s a long winding story but I think the past two years, and especially the past 8 months, I’ve been tossed around so much in order to get there. It felt like in a few moments all the pieces, the circuitous and seemingly nonsensical way things have gone, all came into focus at once. And I thought, yoga has sort of saved my life in this way.”

Tap, Tap, Tap

In “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss, one of the main characters, Leo Gursky, and his best friend develop a system of communication where one of them can bang on the ceiling or floor to ask if the other one is alive. (They live in apartments above and below each other.) Three taps for the question. Two taps back means “yes”, one tap is “no”. I don’t need to point out the obvious hilarity in this system, but the theme carries out right through to the end of the book, where Leo is figuratively reunited with Alma. Alma, I said.

She said, Yes.

Alma, I said again.

She said, Yes.

Alma, I said.

She tapped my twice.

I was in yoga class on Tuesday night, we did all kinds of crazy poses I hadn’t done before. We also chanted at both the beginning and end of class, which is unusual, and I’m sure if there were any first-timers in the class they were sufficiently spooked enough to not return. But, I’ve come to love the chanting now and then. Something about the way sanskrit syllables tumble through my mouth, so foreign, and although I only know the meaning of a few words, there is a force behind the sentiment in those chants. They are all purposeful if not a bit odd, full of wisdom and so, so very old. It’s like being in the presence of someone very powerful, yet you can’t explain why, you just feel it and are glad to be there to absorb some of that wonderfulness, whatever it is. The chant we did at the end was one I didn’t recognize and was particularly beautiful. We transitioned from sitting and actually singing the words ourselves to lying down in shivasana and listening to them being sung by some amazing voice over the music system. Maybe it was God :). There’s something so raw about laying in that position at the end of practice. This is something that has really evolved since I’ve started doing more yoga. Where I used to just dissolve into immense relief that it was OVER, I started to find other things, namely space and emptiness. It’s not all peaceful in that it always feels good - oh no - but it’s whatever it is and there’s space enough for it all to exist and in that space I have learned to stay, stay, stay. With whatever comes up just stick around and let things come and go.

Tuesday night as I was laying there, it happened to be particularly peaceful. I felt very well taken care of surrounded by the pretty music in that dark, warm room and the tiredness that had settled into my body after all the turning and bending. And then I got a tap, tap, tap in my belly. My body perked up to take notice of what felt like…kicking! And indeed, tap tap tap, it was the first time I could unmistakeably identify the movement in my stomach as baby movement. I took in a long, deep breath and a huge smile grew on my face as I moved my hand to my belly over the spot where she was moving. Tap, tap.

"Hi, little girl."

Re: Stacks

Tonight I returned to Baptiste Yoga Studio in Cambridge for the first time since July 10. I remember the exact date because it was the last day of a 40 day bootcamp that I did there earlier this year. With the exception of a few days early on in the 40 day experience, I was pregnant and did not know it. When the 40 days were up I was so relieved that I didn’t have to return there again - not until I was ready at least - because holy hell was that a rough ride. I remember thinking it was much harder than I thought it should have been, and having been semi-regular to the practice I thought I knew what to expect. But physically, mentally, emotionally, it was just really tough. I threw up a couple times during morning practices, and I blamed it on the heat or dehydration or the night of drinking before (NOT part of the program). I also cried more times than not, which was equally surprising. I’d cried before, during practice or at the end while lying in shivasana, from the mere release of letting go whatever it was that I’d been dragging around. But every single time? I’ve come to learn since then that yoga can have that effect - through releasing your physical body you often tap into and unlock emotional stuck points and memories you’ve been storing. At the time, though, I just thought I was a mess, and in many ways I was. I mean, I was pregnant and I didn’t even know it. Nevermind anything else, my body was busy trying to build a human and I was dragging it through grueling 90 minute practices in 100 degree heat every single day. Not kind.

I also went on a fruit fast diet for a few days somewhere in there. I remember being blindingly tired as well but too stubborn, too frustrated to give in. Was I not listening to ANYTHING that they were saying in the practice? All that stuff about being where you are, surrendering, having some compassion for yourself and your body, letting go and just BREATHING now and then? I wasn’t. In fact, when my mind goes back there now I can still feel the tightening sensation that accompanies holding one’s breath for a very long time.

But that too was part of where I was and part of the journey. Toward the end of the 40 days I decided to try yoga at South Boston Yoga. It was such a breath of fresh air for my mind and my body at the time, to go through a practice that was completely different in every way and it wasn’t hot! Hallelujiah it wasn’t hot in there. My mindset at the time was that it couldn’t be as good or as powerful as Baptiste, because physcialy it just felt so much easier, not to mention the instructor made jokes and laughed and the general pace was just slower and less intense. But it was good enough, and it was so much closer to home, and I just needed a break from all the madness that ensued in that 40 day program for a while. Little did I know that I was cracking open the door to all the other aspects of yoga that until then I’d been unaware of (namely, all the non-physical aspects that I’d heard of buy ignored I just want a good workout blah blah blah). And little did I know that I’d end up in a teacher training program through the first instructor I had there at SBY, and also that, oh, I was going to find out a thing or two about a “good” and “powerful” experience.

I didn’t think I’d return to Baptiste until my pregnant days were past me. If you’d have asked me a month ago I’d have said “no way Jose, can’t do it.” But I started to get inquisitive about it a few days ago and today I found myself checking the schedule and the hesitation was gone, I actually felt excited about taking my pregnant body to class and seeing how it felt. What I discounted was that I would also be taking my pregnant mind to class, too, and the host of things I’ve cultivated through teacher training and just living life in the past few months. Namely, a new well of patience and a some compassion for where I am and also where I am not these days.

And it was so, so great. I found myself comforted by the known sequences and habituation of the practice, the familiar jolly Scottish accent of one of my favorite instructors, the room itself, and even the heat - the heat! It reminded me that change can be ever so incremental, maddeningly unnoticeable until something reminds you of your previous state and you are able to see the contrast so clearly. Oh, so I haven’t been beating my head against a wall? I haven’t been walking in circles for days and weeks and months on end? I can grow and open up and things can change? Phew. PHEW.

Now, it wasn’t all the perfection of yoga practice as we know it. I couldn’t do some things very gracefully and I was slipping and sliding along the mat. But I realized I have a lot more space in myself than I did before. I know a lot more about the meaning behind the poses, anatomically speaking, and I can pick up on a lot of the asanas (poses) which before just sounded like Sanskrit jibberish. All those things are kind of fun and neat. But more importantly I let myself stop when I needed to and congratulated myself for not accompanying those stops with one bit of agression or the self-degredation I’m so good at. And perhaps most importantly I understood why I was there, and that it has very little to do with sweating and bending, and a lot to do with letting go and letting go. At the end of the practice, Gregor (the instructor) said something so profound, and without any contemplation I knew exactly what he meant, and I recognized that last time I was there I would not have. He said (in Scottish brogue, it sounds so much better) "Let your mind be guided by your life, instead of allowing yourself to believe that your mind IS your life." Oh, these yogi people. They’re just full of these gems. I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t even pre-meditate these bits of wisdom he bestows on a sea of sweaty, vulnerable bodies. They just roll right off his tongue like an extension of his being as natural as his arm or leg. But to the rest of us, it takes a long time to understand what something like that means, and more importantly, to actually live it.

And here is where I bring it all back to music, again. Laying there in shivasana reminded me of this  song by Bon Iver that I’ve held so close to my heart for months now. It’s the kind of song I can’t hear without feeling a shift in my gut and a little tightness in my throat because it’s just so damn beautiful. And like all good music it bestows a certain feeling of recognition, a shared experience, so that when you think maybe you’re all alone you hear a certain song and go, "Thank God, my hips don’t lie EITHER!" or "No, that’s right, you just don’t know ‘bout me." Or in this case, when Justin Vernon sings  “Re: Stacks” you understand that someone else has found themselves in the midst of something seemingly too tough and that eventually, eventually there is an unlocking and a lift away.