Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Truth through the Paradoxical Lens of Yoga

Impermanence is obvious. It's dark and then it's light. I'm sleeping and then I'm awake. This pear is not ripe and then it is. I'm breathing in and then breathing out. My eyes are watering in the wind. The water is boiling and transforming into steam. Oh, you can fill in a thousand immediacies that were different a minute ago, or two weeks ago or will be shifted by the time you read the next word. Blink. Blink.

In all of this intermittent reality what is truth?

Is truth drowned and lost in the sea of impermanence? Is truth substantiated only by the moment, an ever shifting, yet layered history, like the earth? A reality, when examined, that reveals conditions from yesterday, last year and millions of years ago? Doesn't what you find depend upon where you dig; and depends upon how wide a site or context you examine with what skills?

So it seems the truth is situational, and personal, yet constant and universal. Surely this is paradoxical.  I apply my pre-existing assumptions, my learned expertise, my experiential practices to what is happening in this moment. If I cultivate an ability to be aware beyond the reactive, by repeating this practice, applying my attention in many different contexts,  I can begin to perceive  these personal elements: my pre-existing assumptions, my learned expertise, my experiential practices. Patterns of reactivity or my very own personalized systems of layering observations and experiences begin to separate out from the original sources, or instigations. Over time I can see how even these internal structures of mine have changed. 

In this mash up of interpretation and experience, how do we know when something is true or not true? I remember as a teenager,  my history class was given several different first-hand accounts of one historical event and we were asked to attempt to detail what actually happened from putting these differing points of view together. Of course, this was interesting and challenging, but even with the same multiplicity of accounts, each of us put together a different view of those events, as filtered through our own pre-existing interpretive structures.

Is it any wonder that in our current political context, reality is being played like a game of telephone where each person whispers to the next what they thought they heard, interpreted through their own pre-existing patterns of vocabulary, reactiveness, contexts etc.

Can yoga help us hear ourselves, each other, and the truth? I think so. Once we accept that we are each a complex mechanism of interpretation for each grain of truth, it's possible to see how, when seen from another vantage point of experience or understanding, the same object looks different. The object itself is not frozen in its form either, being a continuously transitioning little bit of impermanence itself! So there is lots of space in each moment for compassionate embrace of confusion, tolerant amusement at the desperate gripping for the one-true-reality that we all feel at one moment or another, and application of a series of observational mechanisms for helping us find our own foundation and stay open minded in that moment.

Paradox is welcome in my view through the practice of yoga. We can be physically releasing into the elemental force of gravity through our feet, while at the same time feel an uprising energy throughout the body. With practice, it possible to embrace both/and as a way of seeking truth too.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Equanimity as a Method of Problem Solving

My personal problems are so insignificant in the scheme of things, and yet my reactivity can completely consume my energy.  The facts are clear that if I am kind, the world around me is a better place for other beings. The facts are clear that if I am not gripping one opinion above all others, there is more room for change and possibility. The facts are clear that there is enough misery and desperation in the world without my petty emotional attachments and rationalizations.  But even so, I am a human being and my basic design puts me and my emotional upheavals at the center of my universe, until I learn how to see that pattern and shift my weight towards equanimity.

I saw a portion of a PBS Newshour program in which children of displaced families were being treated for the most severe life-threatening conditions of malnutrition, basically babies and children spending their earliest time here on earth starving instead of growing.  One doctor was asked, "who does she blame, or what is the primary cause of this terrible situation?' She answered, "the war." What I saw in a matter of a few moments on television is just the surface of a very deep and deadly problem my species seems to have... the inability to embrace each other with compassion and acceptance. War is the expression of conflict -- acts of war are horrific destructive behaviors towards our own human family, and the very world in which we all live.  The doctor, in spite of the unbearable sadness, devastating cruelty, and endlessness of the situation, is dealing with families, the dying, her co-workers, her community with compassion and acceptance; working flat out to ease the suffering for those for whom nothing can be expected to change for the better, and somehow being an island of equanimity in the sea of chaos.

Every mouthful since that program aired has brought me gratitude, sadness, and confusion. I walked to my local food co-op to buy groceries, passing a flattened baby bird on the sidewalk with a sparrow on a wire above me singing ceaselessly. This little bird baby, like the little human baby who weighs 7 pounds at 11 months old, had a beginning with possibilities. What can I do to change these outcomes?

I can walk more slowly, make eye contact, listen more and speak less, offer more and take less, support those who are in positions to take actions that I cannot take to directly assist others who are suffering, prioritize generosity, do my utmost to do no harm, and most importantly see my own reactivity and self-importance more honestly as distractions.

It hurts so much that communities and governments do not open their borders and coffers and food supplies to their own citizens in need, nor to other people from or in other places, without asking for some kind of power or control in return. What if that power and control is useless in the face of the loss we are living with as a species, as a family? So I will continue to build myself as a safer place for others, developing my practice as a person of no importance who is changing the world by observing my own gyrations as gyrations, and growing compassion and acceptance in every way I can.

A life could be spent making pilgrimages to places where human beings have been unspeakably cruel to each other, but perhaps more can be done by making every place I go part of a path that offers equanimity, compassion and acceptance. And so I will continue being joyful, even as the weight of sorrow becomes part of my normal weight.  Perhaps I can make space for others to find these two parts of the same possibility and act from a state of balance. The image in this post is a painting my father did in a food court in suburban Maryland. He looked for beauty and love in relational spaces. Even though he has been gone 7 years, his vision still comforts me.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Beginning again and again

Yoga is repetitious, like exercises, or practicing a musical instrument, or learning a new language. Each engagement with the practice posits questions familiar and unknown. The body responds to repetition. It builds muscle, it builds strength, it gets sore, it inflames, it stretches. The mind responds to repetition too, creating patterns, offering resistance, placing goal posts, questioning, criticizing and comparing. When approaching the yoga mat, or turning attention to the breath, or trying to speak in a new language, the possibilities are endless for how this combination of body and mind will coalesce in the moment. Yoga as a practice offers truthful, skillful means to combine these possibilities.

Even as I gain knowledge, I forget something. Even as I gain physical competency, I find pieces of the posture missing, or parts of the body unwilling. This is where the practice of yoga asks to put yoga philosophy into action: to take a light grip on what must be and adopt an ever widening view of what is possible; allow a truthful vision of what is actually so and develop a warm hearted acceptance without judging that vision.

It is nine years since I certified as a Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance, after 8 years of classes and my own practice. I've racked up nearly 1,000 hours of teaching, and many different types of trainings pertaining to the body, the mind, the breath, conditions, and even trends in practice. Yet, each time I approach the mat, I am a simple practitioner, like my students, like immigrants learning English, like children starting the school year in a new class. I notice the jumble in my mind, and scan the open and closed spaces in my body. Like looking for familiar faces in a community meeting, I hope to find aspects of my self that I can rely upon as familiar, and yet, as I begin my centering breath and movement, in a most essential way I am meeting my self as for the first time. Who is this? What is this? How is this? Feeling this, being present.

I can only start from where I actually am, with honesty, with generosity of spirit, without judgment, without defined goal or limitation. When I have conversations in Spanish with my teacher in Oaxaca via Skype, the first series of "¡Hola! ¡Hola!" (hello, hello) in which we see and hear each other across so many miles, brings such joy to us. We begin each class with boundaryless smiles, with rising heart energy, and joy in the moment. Ready to communicate, to listen, to share who we are and exchange what we know and what we don't know. So it is also with my yoga practices, with my yoga teaching. I can accept my always aging and changing physical body, my always remembering and forgetting mind, my always opening and closing energy. Truth is not as complicated as the grasping hold on a fictional certainty or judgment we have told ourselves. Starting with truth in this moment opens possibilities, no matter what the truth in this moment may be.

I propose allowing energy to fill you as you breathe in, and to relax your body as you breathe out. Let go of the tight grip on what you expect, or fear, or want, or hate, or need, or have lost. Breathing in what is so, breathing out possibility. Whatever the reality is, you are here, now, breathing. Practicing this form of breathing gives you a beginning in this moment. Your breath and awareness combined in this way offers continuous support for being, allowing some freedom from the inner structures from which comes so much suffering. There is no exemption from this suffering. I recommend beginning in this yogic journey, again and again.

Sharing this inhale with all living beings. Honoring the possibilities for all living beings with this exhale. May all beings displaced from their familiar and beloved people and places take solace in the breath we all share.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Peace in Any Form Begins in Us

Take a breath.
Feel how the earth supports you? 
Gravity holding you here,
breathing with all living beings.
Here you are.
I'm here too.
Peace in any form
starts in us.
One breath in, 
One breath out.
That's the way.

Enjoy being loving.
Enjoy being loved.
Enjoy being.

Start with this breath.

December 2016

image by Rob Meredith of Back Road Yoga Studio in former granary building, Gilboa, NY

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Trembling Leaf

Is it just fine to spend this moment focused on the trembling leaf outside my window? I can see the wind in its effects.  I see the terrible cold that stunted the earlier leaf buds on the ginko tree, yet I see the juicy green of the leaves that have unfolded at the very tips of the branches. So I consider Syrian refugees, and families that have been washed away by floods in East Texas, and I think of my students and am amazed at the level of focus as I say, "notice..." and "feel..."

I listen for their breathing and I can feel the way they share their energy, whether they mean to do it or not.

My heart has so few protective layers when I teach. I feel this time of year like the growth of new skin on my finger tips. I am like the cucumber seedlings on my windowsill.  Each tendril on the cucumber plants seeks something to support it -- wrapping around the stem of its neighbor, or the stick nearby, or simply reaching out into the unknown to see what it touches, not caring too much if it is a fence, a stick or a weed. Aren't we just like that too, until we curl back towards ourselves in protection or just stick with what we know?

Can't we simply sit in the fading evening light and take both delight and sorrow in the trembling leaf? Of course we can. And it helps to know that others can give themselves permission to do this too. I can say in this blog, however public that may or may not be, that it is fine with me if you do likewise. No matter who you are, where you live, who you love, what you are fleeing, or how you dream.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Mindful" by Mary Oliver (Inspiration as August ends)


Every day
  I see or I hear
        that more or less

kills me
   with delight,
       that leaves me
          like a needle

in the haystack
   of light.
      It is what I was born for ---
         to look, to listen,

to lose myself
   inside this soft world ---
     to instruct myself
        over and over

in joy,
   and acclamation.
      Nor am I talking
          about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
  the very extravagant ---
     but of the ordinary,
        the commonplace, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
   Oh, good scholar,
       I say to myself,
          how can you help

but grow wise
   with such teachings
       as these ---
          the untrimmable light

of the world,
   the ocean's shine,
      the prayers that are made
         out of grass?

from Why I Wake Early, Beacon Press, 2004

Friday, November 21, 2014

Love + Contentment = Gratitude

When asked, "How do I love myself?," Thich Nhat Hanh began with these words: "You breathe in. This is an act of love." Can you allow yourself to believe this? Can you begin turning towards yourself with love simply by breathing in? There is a depth of acceptance and compassion here that melts my heart. 

When we practice yoga,  we include the idea of not harming our self.  Can we accept the radical practice of contentment - being fine with what is so -- not falling into the wanting/needing/regreting/envying? Can we see that this inhale is the resource that sustain us, and through which we are free to release ourselves from the patterns of thought and action that harm us and others? This simple breath in -- this inhale -- can be enough to bring us a feeling that in this moment we have what we need. (Try this when confronting the issues of overeating over the holidays!) 

Thanksgiving is a pleasant moment to stop a few minutes and acknowledge the wonder of the body in which we experience life. It is the ground for all our opportunities for adventure and inquiry that being a human being allows us, no matter what we own or what we look like, who we are with or what we eat! The essential quality of breathing in is such a gift to the self - the living body! And with each inhale there is the release into the exhale, the letting go of the gripping, the fear, the worry over whatever it might be that limits your sense of being fully happy with who you are right in this moment. 

May your next few weeks of shorter days and longer nights, be exhilarating! Enjoy the cold winds and the contrasting warmth of an interior life. Allow each inhale to bring you happiness and each exhale to express gratitude for that. Take a few minutes now -- and later -- to breathe in love towards yourself - giving yourself what you need; and breathe out all that you no longer need - allowing yourself to accept what is so and feel content.

I feel grateful for this breath, for the breath we share. As I recenty told one student struggling with the uncertain outcome of another round of chemotherapy, "Even when I am sleeping, I am sharing the breath with you." That comforts us both.

Explore your ability to turn towards yourself with love in this very next inhale -- and allow your exhale to feel sweet. Enable your sense of contentment! These two principles are part of the underlying core of yoga practice. Not to harm, Ahimsa, is one of the Yamas (social disciplines), and to accept contentment, Santosha, is one of the Niyamas (inner disciplines). The Yamas and Niyamas are part of the Eight Limbs of Yoga as described in Patanjali's Sutras. Fertilize the seeds of gratitude, "Breathing in Love, Breathing out Contentment."