Monday, May 31, 2010

Gunshots on Memorial Day

Standing in my country garden, the perfume of blooming iris in my nostrils, I methodically water the asparagus bed while listening to booming gunshots from the neighbors’ back deck as they reverberate off the hills around me. Breathing in, I am grateful that they have brought the violent and irrepressible nature of man into this moment reminding me that it is “Memorial Day.” Breathing out, I am filled with wonder that my species has survived so many hundreds of years.

I cannot pretend that I enjoy the shooting-for-entertainment going on next door. I feel my startle reflex with every boom. The home-made canon shot brings a reflexive gasp. I watch myself become accustomed to the sounds ricocheting off the hills, and I feel something akin to closeness to those who have been subjected to similar experiences though in places without the blooming iris and beautiful asparagus beside them for reassurance.

My Memorial Day, acceptance and care for those who served our country in the military, was formed when I was very young and felt the resultant fear and anger destroying a man I loved. He had returned from Vietnam, where he was a medic, to a country who reviled the war in which he fought so desperately to save lives. He was looked upon with suspicion and contempt by fellow students, as he tried to finish his education at the local state university. He worked in construction, using his extraordinary physical energy to build tall structures that were later burned down as training for the fire department. This cycle of work and destruction was hard on him, but familiar. He dropped to the ground at the sound of gunshot, or the backfire of a car. And when he rose up, his anger and humiliation looked for a target. He was a kind and loving man, who tended to his disabled sister with a depth of love I had never seen from a man towards a child, and he experienced joy with a roaring passion as exuberant as the fireworks whose cracking booms he could barely tolerate by clenching his jaw and wrapping his arms tightly around me. He knew we were safe, but not that safe.

And so I thank the young men down the way, up country where people use the word “freedom” to mean so many facets of “I want what I want and I deserve the right to have it,” for bringing Memorial Day deep into my heart. My dear friend survived the war in Vietnam, but was walking wounded from the war in human nature. For this, I hold myself responsible, and seek out the peace in my own nature when my anger rises against those who tear away at the possibilities for peace among humans on earth.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Controlling the Scene

When I was nine years old, I went sailing with my dad on a lake in the city of Seattle. We were living there for a year, and he was studying for his skipper certification while working on his Ph.D. in meteorology at the University there. We had a remarkable moment together, when, with a sudden wave activity from some motor boat, our little sunfish began rocking dramatically. He was new at this, and had his littlest kid with him, while his two older kids (all of 14 and 15 years old) were off in their own boat. He was panicked, trying to be in charge of both boats, shouting instructions to my siblings off in the distance, and as our boat began tipping, he jumped out and began thrashing while shouting instructions to me to hold on and such... until he stood up to find the water was just barely above his knees. Obviously, he was relieved, held on to the boat and looked to see that my siblings were doing just fine in their boat, in fact they began sailing circles around us.

I tell this story because it resonates with my yoga practice. The enormous effort we all make to try to control the situation, or to make it into something specific that fits what we think or feel, this effort is, in and of itself, inhibiting us from finding out what is going on. I laughed back then as I watched my very serious dad realize his own situation, but he did not. His good watch was ruined and he felt foolish. Still, the best part was that everyone was really fine... and in fact the two teenage kids in the other sailboat had done quite well on their own, about which they felt pretty good.

There are times in an asana or in meditation when it feels as though the waters are too rough, or the breath just can not be enough to support me, or when I see a little too clearly how my fear inhibits me and it paralyzes me. If I could just slip off the boat and stand up, I would realize that I can find out how deep the water really is, and if it is shallow enough I can walk my boat in. If the water is actually over my head, I can at least dog paddle until I figure out which way to swim.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

No promises -just tackle resistance

Every week I find myself walking around the Woman's Shelter, in essence recruiting residents to join me for a yoga practice. I may find myself teaching a chair session with 6 participants, or a mat-based class with 3, or even offering a one-on-one depending on the week and who is present that week at that time. This teaching is at the core of a compassionate practice. When I ask, "Why do I come here every week?" my own answer comes immediately: "To be here and breathe with you." When the ladies present are droopy, disinterested in using energy to any purpose, disheartened about their situation, emotionally stirred up over something, or suffering physically from any number of troubles, I continue to seduce them with humor and encouragement. Why? What is all this really? What's in it for them after all?

Actually, there is nothing in the practice beyond integrating awareness of being with an acceptance of being present. This might mean literally accepting the pain in a left shoulder and simply allowing the breath to invisibly open the ribs gently without lifting the arm. This compassion towards oneself without self-pity or blame, without attachment to goal or judgment of self in comparison to others, this is the path of healing and joy, of being fully. "It's too hot," says one slumping figure. "Are you breathing?" I ask with a laugh. She laughs too, "yes, I am," and sits up a little more fully, watching with interest what might come next. This bit of self awareness has already lightened her load.

I set up chairs in the middle of the huge recreation room, the periphery of chairs and tables occupied by nearly a dozen women. "Don't give up on that hip!" I exclaim, as I lift my right thigh with my hands and gently explore the range of motion in the hip. Setting the foot down, I exclaim, "Wow that's heavy, I think I'll let the earth carry that weight." I hear a soft "amen" from one side of the room and a "that's right" from nearby. Ankle circles provoke my loud public comment, "Keeping circulation in the whole leg, and helping with balance." Gradually a couple of the women begin imitating my movements from right where they are. I begin breathing through my arm movements, speaking "Inhaling open, Exhaling release," rotating my shoulders, taking gentle rib twists, explaining as I go. I hear the soft sound of coordinated inhaling and exhaling from a table behind me. "Beautiful breathing," I say, turning and grinning at the now smiling woman who pushes her chair away from the table so she can continue with the leg movements I've begun to introduce.

And so it goes on this particular day, I am sitting in the middle of an empty circle of chairs with 4 participants who, in spite of their lethargy, fear, pain, sense of displacement, have begun to breath and feel enlivened by that breath, while in all parts of the room attention is riveted on me. Nothing else need be promised, yet all can be gained. After my hour session is over, I approach two women who seem sorry that they were not fully active. "I'll be back next week," I say. "Oh my back hurts so," says one. I hold her gaze steadily and say, "Do I know what you are feeling? No, I don't, but you do. You are the one living in this body and you are the one who can be kind and attentive to what your body needs. You can gently stretch that even before you get out of bed, staying out of the range of pain, and gently encouraging openness and relief just with your breath." Then I lay down on the floor and gently show her some suggested movements. Both women are nodding and attentive, sitting quite beautifully balanced and breathing steadily along with me. I put my shoes on and wish them all well. May your body be safe; May your heart be strong; May your mind find peace; May you be free. I will see whoever may be present next week. I know that I can do nothing more than be present to breathe with them.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Flow in Practice

Yoga practice starts with intentions. Just taking mat in hand is the beginning. Next, I find a spot to lay the mat out, a cushion or a block nearby, and put myself down on the mat. Whether sitting, standing or lying down, it is my breath in my body that brings me into the present moment. I feel the movement of my skin as I breathe, notice the texture of my throat and the softness inside my belly and ribs. I let my joints open and my bones settle into gravity. This is the path, to open what can be released and be with whatever sensations come. The movements stretch and challenge, bringing awareness to feelings and the spaces beyond feelings.

The plan unfolds from the breath. I move the places that are motivated by the breath, and pay special attention to those joints and muscles that feel especially tight or fragile. I make my movements such my body is fully drawn into the breath. Gently loosening with movements that are charged with the inhale and released by the exhale, I can explore whatever is brought up. Learning to attend to what actually is so, I can choose to hold a posture or a sequence of movements and extend the breath or undulate in and out using the breath to energize.

Releasing a stiff joint takes time, takes movement, takes heart. Compassion towards myself means being attentive to the muscle that is tight without force or goal setting. Moderating the urgency to move or push, and allowing myself to breathe through the challenges that arise, using strength and patience, and humor. I don't really ever doubt whether I will live through this moment! Why make it into something so dramatic? What if my balance is terrible on one side? I reinvent my foothold on the earth and build that foundation all the way up my spine until I can breath the extension. I laugh when I fall out of a posture, marveling. I take the stiff side twice, noticing aspects that are different the second time, not judging a level of accomplishment, just noticing the effects of practice.

So one day or series of days I might spend more time with twists or standing postures, with inversions or back bends. Perhaps this day, this moment calls for sensing the balance in every asana, or drawing awareness into the back of my ribcage no matter what else is going on. Slow breathing or rapid Kapalabhati, these choices are drawn from the inside with a conscious mind as a witness not the director of the flow. This openness to possibility and non judgment, breaks out of a pattern of set events and lets the design on the mat flow from my own breath. This combination of attention and kindness, effort and exploration, is what seems to build my ability to be more fully myself. When I take classes I give over the flow to the teacher, and usually discover all kinds of things about myself and about the student experience of yoga teaching.

Even if I try to do the same sequence every day, my practice is never the same.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

“I” and the Universal Self

In the course of my life I've been trained in a concept of speaking about feelings or interpretations of fact or observations in terms of "I" statements. This can help prevent many upsetting and hurtful conversations. Clearly, things can get complicated quite fast when starting a phrase with "you." Something directive, anticipatory, projecting, assumptive, dismissive, and plain wrong can so easily slip in when one person begins to say something directly related to another person's identity or self. "YOU" is a one word descriptive of "OTHER" in some ways. If I say, "I see your shoulders are hunching" it is different in feeling than if I say, "You are hunching your shoulders." What is different? One is my observation, and implies that I am responsible for what I notice. The other is a statement about you, implying that there is consciousness and responsibility on your part and potentially judgment on mine. The later statement is much more likely to set up distance between us.

At the very same moment that I am trying to frame things from my own perspective without stepping on your identity, I am also able to see the construction of my own framing and content. In a way, I can observe myself seeing your hunched shoulders and in doing so I can become aware of a series of choices I can make, both about my reactions and about my actions, including what I do or don’t say and my choice of words. Of course, if I take enough time noticing all this, I might find that I need not really say anything at all, and that simply relaxing my own shoulders is enough, unless I am teaching a student to notice their own condition.

Watching, or witnessing, my own way of interacting leads me to a distinct feeling of being more than just the reaction I might be having. I am more than the urge to speak, more than the impulse to interact with others or produce a result. This sense of being feels much larger than “I” do. Being is a fluid awareness, not set within boundaries of conditional thought or circumstance.

My sense of being an alive, breathing entity can easily be limited and defined by my patterns of behavior or thought, my judgments, feelings, and mental constructions. I can choose to see others in these terms and stay in a dualistic world of "me-you," "here-there," "right-wrong," etc. Some of this is conceptually necessary for figuring out what's going on around us – for example, is the car at the intersection moving or still? (In terms of physics we might explain that nothing is still, since every cell has moving parts, each atom has movement between the neutrons, electrons and protons.) And yet, even while using this ability to understand duality, I do not have to make myself miserable and separate from others by constant judgment, filling up with self-limiting ideas that do not reflect the essentially limitless aspects of being.

Strangely, the more I learn to see the “I,” the clearer it seems that beyond the “I” is something very much more universal that is shared with all living beings. Through my practice, it seems that the “being” is what makes life worth living and so I remain curious about the human structure within which “I” live.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Finding Right Speech: Traps of Blame & Shame

Recently subjected to verbal rants disguised as opinions or information, passionate distortions and hurtful jokes, I have felt terribly trapped and upset. I suffered for days from reverberations and dissonances. I hung my head in sorrow, coming to know that as offensive as it all sounded to me, as painful as it was to hear "a nice person" speak so mean, so blind, so destructive; the same was also in me. I, too, have spoken without thinking that I was forcing someone else to swallow my words. I, too, have been passionate in my opinions, pushing others into silence about their own experiences or feelings. I, too, have assumed too much without grounding, have sought an object upon which to blame a frightening outcome, have wanted to make others feel responsible for a set of conditions resulting from behaviors or choices. Being human and verbal, I, too, have felt and done these things.

I know that I live in a world that makes some human beings into property. I know that I live in a world where people believe they can own land, displacing natural habitats and tolerating that others are homeless. I live in a world where essential resources are being bought and sold all the time for profit. The truth is that these are all conditions, not finite, not infinite, just conditional. Speech also reflects the conditional moment. It is here that I can cultivate Right Speech, one of the aspects of the Eight-fold path of yoga practice.

Patterns of behavior can be recognized and understood. Opinions and blame, hate and disrespect, aggression and fear are all conditional. It is this, in part, that unifies all of us human beings -- with specific conditions, we have specific reactions or responses. Once seen, these conditions can be recognized, and reactions can be seen for what they are -- reactions. Once seen, these reactions can also be understood and the root causes can be seen and recognized too. Not everything can be changed, but much can be, and sometimes simply seeing things as they are is enough to change the conditions and enable a choice of reaction.

Listening is part of speaking. I heard my neighbor speak of so many others as flawed and wrong and stupid and mean. I heard my neighbor separate himself from others as though he plays no part in decisions and choices, relationships and actions around him. I hear him sounding helpless, in a way reviling this helplessness, fearing for the future and bemoaning his inability to solve the problems he sees -- just as he blames others for this. This is what I hear when he faults the inequity of a nearby neighbor's action, or the greed of a business or ineffectiveness of a government, or the beliefs of people in another land. It is his pain I hear when he makes a derogatory joke about people he does not know; he is ill at ease in the world in which he sees himself.

It is suffering I hear, and it is this suffering that I feel for days. I think now that this suffering is mine because, in fact, we are not separate, my neighbor and I. The urge I felt to respond as he spoke, the deep desire to shout louder than he, to drown out his suffering, to say it is not so: this is my own human condition. To be inflammatory or dismissive is so easy. To denigrate the way others live and think, to find ways to blame and fault are all coping mechanisms inside each of us, as if it protects us from feeling helpless in the face of fear and pain and uncertainty. I can do it too. The insults come out when we see ourselves as separate from "the other," or perhaps we turn hatefully towards ourselves. Jokes prompt that uncomfortable laughter to hide how offensive a remark really is.

To stop it I acknowledge the pain, though this is where I sometimes get stuck - in the pain. Being open to the infinite imperfections in all of us, this is where I begin to feel the true laughter. No one knows the way, no matter how strident they are. There is no path. Just walk and see how it is and is not. The path is under my own foot! I can let words haunt me, or see them as shells in the sand. The ocean and the wind hear nothing separate.

Right speech acknowledges the fullness of silence, seems inclusive of the pain and the laughter, lets the words be like rain falling into a pond -- already the words are the breath. Perhaps right speech is simply allowing the words to be breath, that energy and release shared with all living beings, not something we wish was finite. I cannot stop the pain my neighbor feels, but I can take the precaution of doing no harm. It does not stop by asking him not to speak to me this way or of these things. He will simply carry his pain elsewhere. What I can do is be present, and truly see him there too, knowing and acknowledging that we are not separate. That world that he paints is a world where I also live. I am continuously choosing to water different seeds in myself and my experience, perhaps making a space possible where he can hear his own voice and recognize himself. I cannot avoid myself much as I might like to run away (think of the idea of gaining strength to stay within the context of meditation), and by being present, perhaps I encourage right speech in others as I do in myself.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Freedom: Even When It's All Still There

I do love it when my students glow with joy and attribute this to their new yoga practice, but I am deeply aware that pain and sorrow do not evaporate when a person begins to feel better with asana practice. Asana and meditation draw the energies of the body and spirit into active engagement, and can bring feelings of well being, acceptance and strength that are quite rejuvenating. This is terrific indeed! But at the same time I find sometimes my students, and even myself, approach the mat with the hope that it will solve the problems, bring peace and in some way wash away the hard parts of life. We just want the troubles to go away if we practice enough.

Practice does make us feel better. The core of this soothing, deep peace that can be gradual or sudden as one effect of yoga and meditation practice is real. It is accessible and amazingly liberating for any one, regardless of how long they have practiced. I believe, though, that this impact is the result of accepting what actually is, and letting go of judgment and attachment to defining good and bad, to playing the past or projecting the future. Sometimes this process brings up the roughest stuff, and can shake a person up. It is at this same moment that we can realize we are actually sitting through this, shaking yet not falling, or even falling yet not suffering any the worse for tumbling out of the asana onto the mat.

When I meditate, or practice on the mat, I am still going to find that I am out of balance, or that my mind is circling the same defeat, or my heart is aching with fear of loss. The acknowledgment of this is in itself a relief. The view of the tangle, or the deep pit, or the aching desire, comes clear when there is nothing else attached to it. I don't have to avoid or deny the sources or the troubles, nor condemn or praise my own or anyone else's reactive nature. I do not have to solve the problem. I do not have to know everything that I do not seem to know in order to comfort myself. The comfort actually comes from seeing that I crave those things - solutions, knowledge - and I can tolerate my own human condition, to be craving or judging.

In acceptance and letting go I free myself to relax, sitting with the fear or the dissatisfaction. Through the practice, I learn the range of my emotional reactions. I can listen to the story without being the story. I can actually relax all the mechanisms that otherwise get in the way of being at peace and accessing the fullness of my energy. My troubles don't go away, but they no longer define me or run shotgun over what I feel and do.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Path Is Not Global - It's Very Personal

There's a strange tendency to imagine that others have their act together when I feel that I do not. I see this as my ego fighting for attention. The idea that I seek to be judging myself, that I imagine myself to have any way of measuring or assessing the condition of others, are a product of ego and the craving for distinctness, for separateness and, yes, identity. This is part of what has become visible or clear in yoga and meditation practice.

Yoga is a humbling activity. I may discover incredible open spaces and be reassured by the fact that my body continues to move and respond to my queries about energy and muscle, about positive and negative aspects of being. I also become acutely aware that all there is to me is my breathing and my ever-varying levels of willingness to be aware. There is nothing about this that is global in scope, it is quite personal. There is nothing grand or powerful in this, it is really the good part of that speck in the universe feeling, perhaps a sparkling speck, but speck nonetheless.

My practice connects me to a universal energy and awareness, both widens and narrows my attention, and puts me into a context that is vast, but it is the small self, the individual person on the sidewalk walking, who experiences these frames of reference. I feel it intensely in my teaching and when I take classes from others. My breath may join with all the beings in the room, my cells may share their composition and reactivity with everyone else, but there is still that person, THAT person, who grew up wearing my face and feeling my feelings and that person is the one through which I am sorting out the world outside and inside.

I don't get lost staring at my own belly-button, so to speak. It's not that kind of Ego with a capital E. But I think it is important to acknowledge and understand -- just as I do with each one of my students -- that it is through this body, this set of experiences and patterns, that the freedom comes. The path is not outside of my self, it requires my very specific self to take the walk in order to see the way.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Making choices: pruning & oil spills

The catastrophe of oil spilling into the gulf waters has brought a lot of attention to the choices we make, the risks we are willing to take to fulfill our desires, and how we see responsibility for the outcomes.

Oddly enough, pruning involves these same aspects. The action involves cutting into a living thing in order to suit a desired purpose, taking risks on behalf of that living thing and in committing our energies, in so doing. Sometimes it is hard to tell the winter die-back from the not-quite-juiced-yet early spring twigs. Sometimes the growth that is stimulated by cutting off the ends of things can result in a skipped year of blooming, an invigoration of the remaining plant, or an overly exuberant growth spurt out of proportion to the supporting stems. Cutting can open a plant to infection from a variety of bacteria or insects. And so, convincing ourselves that it is for the health of the plant or for beauty of form or an increase in output, gardeners prune the shrubs, fruit trees, roses and other perennials and live with the results. Sometimes the outcome is not what we expect, losing the plant, thwarting the intended result, or requiring a more intense or vigilant effort -- an even deeper involvement -- in order to get what we want, deal with the difference, or salvage the situation.

Our desires for energy, car and plane travel, long-distance shipping, constantly increased electronic connectivity, more packaged products and profits in all its forms, in addition to a seeming proclivity to deny the role our choices play in the problems from which we suffer, all seem to boil down to that same equation: the choices we make, the risks we are willing to take to fulfill our desires and how we see responsibility for the results. A couple things seem clear, we don't usually consider widely enough the ramifications of our choices, nor do we find it easy to recognize the depth of self-centered desire embedded in those choices. In terms of gardening, though, I think we are likely to be aware that we make these choices in order to serve our purposes, in other words, to bend the plant to our desires even if we don't think through fully what fuels those desires or might result from them.

Perhaps it is helpful to think about pruning, starting with recognition that the world in which we live is, in essence, living organisms and inter-dependent systems that are not separated by names or our ways of making distinctions among them. Like choosing to plant something in a spot that is not conducive to the culture it requires, first we must recognize that we are not in charge of everything nor do we know all there is to know when it comes right down to it. Then, either we must take responsibility and make the deep commitment to ensure that the culture is appropriate so that the plant will prosper, or we must look again at our motives for putting it in that spot, and reconsider our desires in light of the risks we cause. The life of the plant hangs in the balance, as does our desired outcome.

The role we play is part of the natural process of living organisms in this earthly context. Elephants and beavers reorganize the natural habitat to suit their purposes, and suffer the wider ramifications without taking responsibility for changing the habitat for others or displacing other species of flora and fauna. Humans have the ability to see this especially now that we do have hundreds of years of experiences and research to draw upon. As if holding those pruning shears in hand, we have the ability to see our choices, and act in the interests of the plant's health rather than in service of our ever-changing desires for larger fruit or bigger blooms.