Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ironing: Present but not Perfect

The season of ironing has returned. The school year has begun, the temperatures have dropped slightly and it is time for me to catch up with the ironing pile of my husband's shirts that has waited through the summer, growing slowly. He has always worn cotton shirts, and somehow over the past 25-30 years, I've taken on the task of keeping them somewhat free of wrinkles.

It was with some surprise that having started ironing the back of the fifth shirt, I could not remember if I had completely ironed the back of the previous shirt. Stunned for a moment, I stood, wracking my brain and then I actually went over and looked at it.  I had indeed ironed it. Where the heck was I when that happened that I couldn't remember doing it? Was I on automatic pilot?

No, not on automatic, but more present in the moment than in recording the results and committing my actions to memory. As I am ironing, I am acutely aware of the texture of the fabric under my hand and the weight of the iron, feeling the heat of the steam rising, the breeze from the window. My eyes, hands and mind are synchronized with my breath and my attention is fully on what I am doing. Or so I thought. In fact, my heart is also holding the person for whom I am smoothing out the wrinkles, in some ways encircling the shoulders upon which this placate will rest, envisioning the arms and hands that will emerge from this sleeve, once it is rolled up, as it always is when my husband is in action.

So how can it be that I am so present, yet I've finished one shirt and begun another without memory and certainty?  Perhaps it is not the goal of my action to remember ironing the back of each shirt. The goal of my action is to act in the moment, transmitting my love for my husband, and this is what engages me. My physical attention is fully in the present moment, observing the weave of the fabric beneath my hand and the implications of the back pleat for my task. Will the shirt be perfectly ironed because of my full attention? Perhaps not, especially since there is quite a pile and I have evolved a speedy treatment! If I wanted perfectly ironed shirts, I would ask my husband to do it as he is the one who attachs to the specificity of physical results. This is part of what makes his woodwork and sculpture so beautifully crafted. Yet even without attachment to perfection, the task is accomplished, and my goal satisfied.

In the moment of ironing, I am accomplishing a repetitive quotidien task, acting out of love, savoring textures and sensations of being and doing, and relaxing my grip on perfection and judgment.  For me this is yoga off the mat, and I am grateful that my attention was called into question by my thinking mind so that I could see my action for what it truly is. How many times in a seated meditation does the mind ask, "what are you doing? where are you?" and answers itself, "I've taken my seat and I am meditating."  This is harder to count than even counting the breath itself!


Monday, September 2, 2013

Finding Child's Pose Any Time


So many times in yoga classes I've heard teachers say, "feel free to take child's pose any time." In the first class I ever took at a yoga studio, the invitation to release and relax in child's pose actually brought up tears. Surprised to find myself sweaty, tired, folded on the floor and crying, I experienced the insight that yoga was a powerful, personal and subtle way in and out of some dark and lonely places I had tucked away. The space was held in safety by the teacher, and I knew I was not alone as I could hear the quiet breathing of other students also folded on the floor. Something about the individuality of my own mat gave me space too, at the same time the commonality of the floor and the breath was deeply comforting.

I had slipped right into that universal quality of "suffering" in my human structure, experiencing the results of the mind grasping and avoiding, the impact of my mind telling its stories and getting trapped in there.  Then, amazingly, in my first child's pose, I was able to see and acknowledge my unexpected emotional reaction, and actually let it go, allowing the specificity of my physical posture of being folded up on the floor to be a relief after the physical and mental struggles to follow the instructions of that first class. This is the magical quality of the practice, that the sequence of poses (the Asana), in the hands of a teacher will take you right into the present moment. In that moment, our vision can be clear and we can be present.  (Child's pose is a bit like prostrating oneself, both legs folded under the body, so that the shins and tops of the feet are against the ground, the knees are deeply bent, hips back towards heels, and the upper body is resting on the thighs, arms extended or folded next to legs.)

This week I was cutting the grass, about a half acre, which is a demanding and tiring physical challenge with our self-propelled push mower. I won't go into the details of the topography of slopes, the finicky areas that require a lot of pushing-pull to negotiate around plantings and objects, nor stories of my joints, suffice it to say that after a while, it is challenging and tiring! At a certain point, I am drenched in sweat, there is much left to do, and I am quite consciously organizing my body weight over my feet, using abdominal muscles to keep my ribs and pelvis aligned as I push up hill or drag back to reposition the machine. This total body consciousness is an indicator of how stressed I feel, no longer a mindless action, I've called in the mindfulness troops. This is when I hear that voice in my head saying, "feel free to take child's pose at any time during the practice."

Child's pose can be there for any situation where it isn't over and you most surely wish it was. It turns out that child's pose is a state of mind and breath awareness that can be brought to bear while waiting for a loved one having surgery, or stuck in a stopped subway car with an important meeting already starting at your destination, (or in the middle of an arduous task). Child's pose is a way of triggering an internal connection, aimed at letting go of tension and effort that is not required in order to provide the space for the mind to let go of its grip on the perception that you are suffering. That tightness of mind's clutch on the what-ifs and anxiety of not knowing, on the stress of over efforting, or fear of an outcome, can be loosened when I draw my focus to my breath.

This re-focused attention helps back me down from the cliff edge. In my case, I could offer myself a break and a glass of water if I want that, but even without taking that break, I can soften the tension in my body. I can bring my awareness to my feet walking on earth behind that lawn mower, re-adjust my bodyweight so that there is less effort, even slow it down and take the pressure of momentum off of myself.  This is removing the fight-or-flight aspect of pushing through discomfort and exhaustion, and leaves the calmness of steadiness and balanced effort to get me though. Child's pose does this in a yoga class context, allows the body to regroup, the mind to refocus on the breath, the bones to find support in their folded form and feel the support of the earth and the breath.

Whether you can fold on the floor or not, or perhaps wouldn't dream of trying that, you can offer yourself the nurturing quiet attention of child's pose when you need it. As for me, I finished my task of cutting the grass, knowing that in another week, I'll be at it again until the weather turns cold.  I'll be back at it in the Spring and glad of it, just like in yoga class when the teacher brings you out of child's pose with an invitation to reach your palms out on the mat and unfold.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Being: Day Lilies for One Day


All day long, from the very start, I consider the lilies and am filled with amazement and wonder. It's not just that they are incredibly beautiful, so many colors, interacting with the light as it changes all day long. No, it's not that really. It is this inevitable truth that they open these insanely perfect blooms for just this day and then, that's it. If it's a rainy day, well, that's their day. If it's burning hot or windy or full of bugs or deer eating lilies for lunch or whatever, that's their day. And they bloom their very best, regardless.

I've tried to capture them with my digital camera but the colors are not right. These lilies are alive and blooming, I mean specifically, these lilies are totally saturated in the very act of blooming all day long. How can any frozen second capture that? Like this breath, or this eye blinking? A living moment.

And in the twilight of their one day, they are luminous. Some of them are already closing their petals having had their full day of possibilities. Some of them are just beginning to peel open that first petal at dusk in preparation for full bloom at sunrise.  Some bloom into the night. When dead-heading lilies early in the morning (breaking off the spent blooms to make more space for the opening ones), one must be very attentive to those that close in the morning.  They can look so much as though they are just opening.

I can only imagine this feeling of being completely in fullness in every moment. That this is the day for me. Yet it is true that this IS the day for me, and for you, and this day and this day. It seems so wildly unbelievable that we can have a chance to really live in every moment, day after day, when these remarkable and unique lilies only get one. Just one day. Live the one you're in.

bud opening, bloom closing

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Inner Layers Align, Koshas of an Asymmetrical Body

I'm standing in my kitchen thrilled by the quintessential integrity and alignment in this little teapot by Hsin-Chuen Lin on my shelf. How can an object be so beautiful, proportioned perfectly, balanced in every way in form and function and not be symmetrical? In my own daily life, I see so many moments when my inner dialogue seems designed to keep me off balance. I think of how my mind offers me criticism, praise, observations, excuses, prompts, and shifting values in every moment, all of which push and pull me around. I'm learning that my sense of inner alignment comes from some where else, some where other than all that ongoing mental activity.  I think this little tea pot reflects inner alignment and more than just the physical skill of the potter who made it.

In my first yoga training, I was introduced to ideas about the Vedantic and yogic concept of Koshas, the layers, conceptualized as sheaths or "bodies," in which we function and experience awareness. There are said to be five of them, the physical body (Anamaya kosha), the breath body (Pranamaya kosha), the energy body (Manomaya kosha), the mental or wisdom body (Vijanamaya kosha), and the bliss body (Anandamaya kosha). Of course they have names in a number of ancient languages, but for my purposes they are layers of living awareness, each rooted in some aspect of my concept of self, and expansive in ways that are becoming more accessible to me through daily life by way of my yoga and meditation practices, and my growing mindfulness. I don't have to separate them, or define them by anyone else's terms, though sometimes what others say or experience does shed light in places where I'm not so clear. There is a delicate balance between allowing myself to let go of defining elements in order to experience reality without distortion or projection.

It is as simple as being fully present, a practice that takes everything I've got. I can allow this in anything I'm doing -- a level of cultivated awareness from which I slip in and out. In my yoga practice I take a standing pose of warrior one (Virabhadrasana I). This is similar to a standing lunge with the back leg at more of an angle and the back foot fully down on the floor so that each hip is rotating a little differently from the other. To start with, I am probably full of technical check points, sensing the difference when my left ankle is the rear support or my right ankle takes that role. My awareness scans my body - so much variation day to day, moment to moment, in this hip or those quadriceps or shoulder. First layer, Anamaya kosha indeed, full of recorded experience as well as sensations in this moment. I notice that my breath inhabits my form, operating on another level. I notice the slight twist in my ribs as I breathe, feel expansion inward and outward throughout my body, and feel that I am gaining access to my energy body, flowing inward from earth and air and outward into earth and air. I can sense dull places where there are less open channels, and vivid places that are like energy centers. In all of this my mind is awake (at least some of the time). This is not the judgmental, critical, assessing mind, but a spacious, curious mind. Beyond these sensory, physical, intellectual or emotional facets arises a inclusive connectivity, that in some inexplicable way accepts the space where I stand, the air I breathe, other living beings and myself in this without distinguishing hierarchies or values, offering a sense of total being.

All this happens with continuing messages from my stiff left ankle, knowing that my right shoulder is not level with my left, and listening for that wasp dive-buzzing the corners of the window nearby. I'm not driven towards perfection, not expecting my physical form to be symmetrical or to accomplish some kind of measurable feats in order to be worthy of my respect. My body is not unlike the little teapot, a graceful offering of internal alignment, within its functional range of motion.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Joy rising from the dirt

There is a point in March when looking around the garden and yard feels overwhelming to me. Cleaning up from the winter, re-establishing garden in the midst of the wild fields, raking the driveway gravel out of the grass, starting all over with the process of nurturing plants and watching them become food for other wildlife, tackling the ever shifting vagaries of vegetables that thrive and succumb to the myriad issues of weather, soil, attention and bacteria... Well, it feels like more than I can stand. Alone I cannot prune all the trees, dig out those rocks, re-form the raised beds or even haul all the brush. So there are relationship matters to accommodate in my spousal partnership, allowing the priorities of both parties and energy levels of each of us to be thoughtfully and non-judgmentally considered.

And then there is that moment in early April when we can watch the dry brown grasses greening up over the course of three days of sun and slightly warmer nights. All this and the compost pile is still frozen.

Still, in January I begin to contemplate the vegetable plots and their rotations and by February and early March the seeds arrive. They sit and wait patiently in their envelopes, just as I go through this churning of helplessness and interpersonal negotiations. Then, as trees bloom in warmer climates and all the yards in New York City begin popping with color and fragrance, the little corner of upstate New York begins to awaken too. Where my garden lies is in the shadow of a north facing hill, and once all the snow and ice is gone, the cold soggy earth starts sorting itself out. The birds return and start house hunting. Just putting out the bird houses is an act of faith in the dark days of March.

Though I have not yet been able to turn the soil, I must pile all the earth to the middle of the beds because the wooden forms around my raised plots have rotted after so many years. By the next week, there is new wooden framing, the plots have been turned, and yesterday the onions were planted alongside the now 8" tall garlic greens.  My pants are filthy, hanging over the laundry basket waiting for me to put them back on for this morning's plunder of the thawed section of the compost pile.  My garden maps have been redrawn to make room for the arugula, spinach, lettuce mixtures, radishes, snow peas, sugar snaps, little shell peas, carrots, chard and beets. Packets of seeds sit in my basket, still waiting for my clumsy gloved fingers to open them in the bright sun and cold wind.

For the last two nights I have woken as the waxing full moon set across from the rising sun glowing behind the hill.  My tired muscles slightly regrouped after the night's rest, I am filled with joy at the prospect of another few hours laboring to welcome the seeds into the dirt we have prepared for them.

This is the practice. Seeing what is so and accepting that all of it is connected. Developing the ability to abide: patiently acknowledging while not judging the tough times, diligently putting in the effort as one must, but softening as one can; welcoming the joy that arises from the dirt with full knowledge that not all the seeds will thrive and some will produce splendor to share even with unwelcome guests. We are not separate from this ever-shifting inner and external see saw. It is the practice that gives me balance and equanimity. Now to put on those mud-shoes and get the morning job done.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Transition is a State of Mind


So much emphasis is placed on college applications that the whole last half of high school is colored by this. Once accepted, there is another phase of accommodating all the changes taking place in moving to a new way of operating, often in an entirely different location. Once there's a rhythm established, many people start taking semesters abroad or as interns, getting part time jobs and turn their face towards what happens after graduation. Even semesters starting and ending, summer sessions and work study jobs coming and going, all of this seems like an enormous sequence of change upon change upon change.

It is much the same as a child learns to move in the world from sitting, crawling, standing, that hand-over-hand cruising, to walking, running, climbing (not always in that order!). To children, adults seem complete and finished as though all the pieces are set and the patterns established. To some degree this is a way of operating that many people try to adopt, sticking to their patterns, hanging on tight to who they think they are, or want to be.

But life is entirely transitional. Right down to the cells in the body, we are an ever shifting, changing organization of bits and systems. We live only in this moment, and whether we call it transitional or not, this is that moment.

When we tell ourselves we are in transition, or classify someone else as in a "transitional stage," we are emphasizing our idea that they are developing something and will not remain the way they are now.  This reflects our opinion or impression that perhaps that what is happening now is not sustainable, or that it is only a temporary way of operating or feeling. Certainly we comfort ourselves by saying that the deepest moments of intense grief are temporary, and we warn each other to enjoy the early days of childrearing as they "go so fast." What happens in the mind when we accept that every moment is such a moment, that we are constantly developing and can not remain the way we are now?

I stopped my class in mid stream in their sun salutations (Surya Namaskar), a series of yoga asana that are strung together in a fairly routinized way, though in my class you can never figure what I'm going to suggest. Each student realized that they had not placed their body as carefully as they would have if they had known they would have to stay there ... they had defined this sequence of postures as a flow of transitional movements, and discovered that this had occurred without much intelligence, relying predominantly on pattern and habit.  Yoga is a practice fundamentally of unifying, "yoking," awareness with the actions of being.

Waking up awareness is one of the darts that I throw at the balloon of habit in the mind. Cultivating conscious attention to include even the most mundane, momentary bits of life is where the vibrancy and depth of being resides. The yoga asana practice is a mechanism that can awaken an alert body and  mind, and help develop and train this level of consciousness and awareness without efforting. It takes focused attention to see that "transition" includes every moment, and that in every moment we can be completely present in the experience. We may never visit this place again, or be 19 years old, or feel confused about this particular thing, or be as broken hearted, or as proud and happy, or whatever it is. Those living with cancer know this feeling of uncertainty as a constant, rejecting or accepting the moment in all its fullness, again and again.  Being fully present in this moment is a state of mind, and thinking that this moment is just on its way to some other moment is also a state of mind, that leaches some of the potential from "now" and projects it onto "then."

Convenient to explain uncertainty and the unknown as a transition if we are not sure of what is happening and want to grasp at the next moment (or the remembered moment) as more settled or resolved or successful, etc.  This, too, is the mind setting a scene for the story we tell ourselves. It is still only in this moment that we are here, living. Impermanence is  the way of all living beings. Just look around you.

Monday, April 22, 2013

We are the fruits of the Earth too: just one, all one


Reading several different descriptions of the eight limbs of yoga, I am struck again and again by how they are inseparable. It is a strange function of our human way of using language that separates words and concepts, creates constructions for us. The moments when the mind can see this, yet not attach to it, are the openings pervaded by the essential qualities of life. For some this translates to a flow state, for others into nirvana, orgasm, or transcendence. Basically it is a unified condition, not separating into any of the this-and-that usually running our daily activities.

People are not separate either, though it sure feels as though we are if we stick with our mental configurations.  A friend passed along an article about our intrinsic mirroring neurology, that which gives us joy when we see joy in another, and sorrow when we see sorrow in another. This is built in to us, a depth of compassionate connection that can be traced to specific chemicals in the body released in specific reactive moments.  We can cultivate these in our yoga and meditation practices by opening to the flow of compassion, and allowing our feelings to rise and dissolve the barriers. We will not disappear into pain and suffering, quite the contrary, we begin to see that there is so much else that supports and nurtures us.

We are all fruits of the earth.

I brought a handful of grapes to class one day, inviting each student to take one. Some ate them right away, so I instructed everyone to eat that one, and offered a second one to observe. With the flavor and textures of that first grape in the mouth, we looked at the little dark globe in our hands. Each just a grape. Outer skin a little tough and bitter, inside juicy and sweet, and beyond that, buried in the interior, the crunchy seeds that could be seen as the purpose of the grape itself. None of these grapes looked outstanding in the bunch, yet each was so delicious. None of them, eaten by us, would come to fruition through the seed within forming a grape plant, yet each fully served a purpose, perhaps several purposes actually.

Are we not as the grapes in the bunch, each just a grape, yet perfect in our multiple possibilities and purposes? Do we not all have a bit of the toughness of that outer skin, the sweetness of that inner flesh, the potential of that crunchy seed we are designed by our very nature to nurture?