Sunday, December 26, 2010

treasuring the unknown

It is unfamiliar for me to walk in a Southwestern desert landscape. The forms and contortions that vegetation make to adapt in the severe and extreme climate astonishes me. I find the utter newness keeps me vibrating with joy and alertness. It is so natural to resist change or the unfamiliar, yet I have chosen to put myself in a context where I do not have the usual clues and continuity. What remains steady is my attention.

I know that one foot steps and the weight shifts. There is red rock dust and gravel beneath my feet, the air smells sweet and there is no wind. Everywhere my eye turns I am seeing the possible and the impossible. My own interpretations cease to carry much meaning. There is such grace even in the harshness. So much life even in these adverse conditions. It is easy to watch my own patterns here, in this wide earthly ocean. I see my attempts to categorize, to combine what I know with what I do not know. I feel the open spaces where the unknown beckons my mind even as it is easier to leave the mind resting, an observer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bon Voyage

The journey varies in length. In all, it is but an instant. There are longer views, ways of looking at it, like counting days or years or hundreds of years. The meanings appear and disappear, changing in shapes and size.

Uncounted people were born and died in the past week, let's call it a week and imagine it as a certain number of days starting at a specific moment. Or let's not. Many hearts were squeezed in sorrow and pain, many exploded in unimaginable joy and love.

This is the journey and there is not a one living being who can successfully avoid it.

The wonder at the lunar eclipse, the deep seated joy at the seconds of light in each day, the profound peace of the night, all come and go, as does the sobbing and the disbelief, the intensity of silence in the absence of the loved one's breath.

Each moment we sit within our constellation of ideas, feelings, sensations, imaginings. Each moment our constellation moves ever so slightly around that core of being that is uniquely our own and yet not ours at all.

Honoring each and every one of you, in this moment, since it is all I have to give, "Bon Voyage."

Friday, December 17, 2010

FInding the Jewel in This Moment

Open the pomegranate.
Marvel at the deep color
And perfect imperfection
of geometry and succulence.
Now deal with the stain,
holding that appreciation
within yourself
succulent and
as you are.

This is the best moment of your life.
This is the best moment of your life.
This is the only moment of your life.
This is your moment.
This is your life.

Cold wind in your face,eyes watering,
Shove your hands into your pockets.
Meet the gaze of each passerby
and smile to the corners of your eyes
sharing the exhilaration, the confrontation.
Being alive and awake.
Watch yourself rush, or regret, pity or retreat.
And smile at your self
grateful for the cold
to the corners of your eyes,
cherishing the warmth of your heart
and your runny nose.

This is the best moment of your life.
This is the best moment of your life.
This is the only moment of your life.
This is your moment.
This is your life.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Knitting a Yoga Practice

Yoga can seem endlessly repetitious, or perhaps infinitely new, simple and complicated all at the same time. On our own, we fall into patterns, push and pull at them and sometimes get tangled so that we have to put the whole thing down for a while. Or daunted, puzzled, blocked or frightened by what we find, or what we cannot find, we seek a teacher or other resources. Sometimes we just walk away from practice for a while.

I have recently found myself to be knitting. It is many years since I made my last sweater. Since then, I have forgotten even how to start the yarn on the needle (called casting on) or how to read the directions of a pattern or to see from the yarn on the needle what stitch it is. In the beginning I had to scrounge for yarn and make up a project out of my head in order to get going. Then I searched for my stash of yarn from years ago, discovered two projects abandoned mid-stream, and both leftovers of yarn and new batches ready for a project.

Surrounded and encouraged by the help of friends (who are also my neighbors --one of the blessings of a cooperative way of life), I am relearning how to knit. It is as a true beginner I approach each aspect of the task, yet as my hands begin to move there is a deep familiarity. As one of my teachers put it, I already have experienced hands. Even so, each stitch requires real attention of a specific kind, while also keeping in mind a pattern within the row, and a pattern beyond the row to include a part of the project or the whole piece. Yet my hands and eyes must attend to this stitch being formed on the needles and must not wander too far into the realm of patterns and projects else I'll drop a stitch, split the yarn with my needle or do the wrong stitch all together. I have had to tear out and start again several times on the simplest of stitches simply because I could not keep my mind focused enough to count the stitches as required. With some humor and acceptance, even this superficially frustrating task was deeply satisfying. Not giving up, holding to a real standard, knowing that in some way my life is held and unfolding in each impermanent and purposeful stitch.

While making something for someone specific, suddenly I want to give it to several people. Ah, I can observe my way of operating... I would like one too, I would like each of these people to have one, I would like to be the person who can make something for everyone... all of that. Out it comes, quietly while I work on this stitch. My hands get tired, my fingers ache. I change my posture to make myself more comfortable. Just til the end of this row, I think, and then turn and start the next row. Well, I'll just do this last side. Watching myself strive to get more done, while at the same time enjoying the feeling of the yarn in my hand, noticing the ache in that finger, taking deep pleasure at the beauty of the methodically twisted yarn in its emerging form as something else. Knowing that even the end of this row is not the end, nor will the end of this scarf be the end. I feel connected to centuries of hands making warm things from spun fibers.

At this moment I truly can no longer see the difference between knitting and yoga. Staying here precisely with this stitch, profoundly understanding that the stitch is nothing and everything, just yarn yet already a scarf, part of a sheep yet wrapped around my aunt's neck, while really still moving in my fingers between the knitting needles. My yearning to be productive remains held stitch by stitch in reality, just as easily pulled back into a thin line of yarn or an elaborate design. This is like the singularity of the breath totally entwined in every cell of me, the movement and wear of the body with all my intentions and inattention, the tangle and deep peace of the mind and that which eludes the mind's grasp.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finding Compassion In Your Self Towards Your Self

The yoga mat is an invitation to stand right in the middle of your self, being fully present. So often we feel as though we are on the outside looking in, or somehow on the fringes of the circle where others seem to belong and we do not. Whether it is holidays or routines, we seem to easily separate ourselves from the core of our being, judging and dissecting instead of holding ourselves in compassionate acceptance.

Taking a few minutes on the mat to center yourself, you can sit or lie down. Closing your eyes, allow your breath to soften and deepen into a quiet belly breath for a few cycles. Crossing your arms across your chest, wrap your fingers around your upper ribs right under your arm pits, allowing your thumbs to rest pointing upwards like suspenders near your collar bones. Now breathe gently into your hands for a few minutes. Encourage your shoulder blades to soften into the mat if you are laying down or relax down your ribcage if you are sitting up. Gently release your hands to rest on your thighs or alongside your hips if reclining, palms up if that feels natural to you.

Bring to mind the feeling of gazing into the eyes of a being from whom you felt undemanding love. Perhaps you had a pet as a child, or have one now, or perhaps an infant or grandparent has looked into your eyes with full acceptance and non-judgment, simple wide open acceptance. If you have difficulty drawing up an image or feeling of this from another being, imagine you are the one staring at another being with this acceptance and openness, not measuring or qualifying, just fully willing to accept who they might be. Sometimes picturing a kitten or puppy, or small bird like a chickadee, can help bring up this feeling.

Once you have really focused your attention on this sensation, allow the warmth and fullness, softness and luminosity to flood you. Direct this open, accepting, compassion towards your own being, perhaps as though gently wrapping yourself in a warm blanket and flooding your inner core with lightness. Simply breathe and feel this non-demanding acceptance.

When your mind wanders bring it back to your breath gently expanding and contracting within your body. You can narrow your attention now to the coolness of the breath coming in through your nostrils, and the warmth of the air as it leaves your nostrils. Allow yourself to fully absorb that there is no judgment in the breath, there is nothing lacking in your being.

Gradually begin to move your wrists and ankles. If sitting, gently massage your thighs from hip to knee, and then your calves to your ankles. Pressing into your feet with your thumbs, smooth the energy from your heels to your big toes, from heels to the next toes, and then the next until you have gently massaged energy to flow into all the toes.

Encouraging your view in these wild windy days and crowded holidays, full of expectations and celebrations, from a deep core feeling of warmth and compassion for your self will help you understand that you are far from the outside looking in. Rather you are deeply rooted right in the center, just as you actually are, and breathing in and breathing out can remind you of this any time you remember to focus in on it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Acceptance: Friend Your Self

Irritable when your shoelace breaks as you prepare to leave?
Frustrated to discover you are short of lentils for your walnut lentil loaf?
Defeated to find they don't make that specific wallet anymore?
Angry that there are no seats left on that cheaper flight?
Upset that the frame doesn't come in that size unless special ordered?
Anxious that your right hip won't let you Ardha Chandrasana or Vrksasana?
Disappointed when you get home to find the 2nd delivery was attempted in your absence?

These are all normal situations that can escalate a feeling of helplessness and anger, especially when the pressure is on to squeeze things in to a tight schedule, or there are deadlines and holidays coming with their own special requirements.

Acceptance is a very deep and rewarding practice. It provides a base from which to observe the reactive self; and with an openness and kindness a bit like a friendly arm around your shoulder, it can allow the moment to pass without the clutch of despair to cloud your view or your action.

It seemed to me growing up that political activism and "fighting" for what seemed right was a noble interaction in the world. I took it as my personal mission to try to make other people happy in a strained family dynamic and thought it was normal for people to try to "fix" each other. This kind of well meaning but destructive idea assumes that there is a better way to see or do or be than that which comes naturally to each of us. I think the schools perpetuated this attitude of "fix it" rather than one of growing what was there already. I'm sure there was a striving for good purpose and intention in all this, but acceptance was not a foundational part of it. Reactive nature provoked more reactions, emotions could hijack intellectual understanding and pit each person against themselves and each other in a blink of an eye. Many a moment was saturated in defeat, self-rejection, blame of others, and helpless sadness. I see how this created an external and internal idea of who each of us could be. I came to understand that there is a common core to all of us, a strand that binds the heart in love, not judgment. Acceptance is part of the path to this understanding.

Everything that happens is transient - it comes and goes. If we can keep our response in the moment as well, we are liberated to react and to act in very different ways than if we allow every little bump in the road to be felt judgmentally, as part of a cumulative defeat, a negative judgment upon the self, an excuse to blame or distrust, and on and on with external and internal negativity. When we bind the moment to these rising emotions of judging ourselves and others in response to fleeting conditions, we trap ourselves further in the emotional cycles of blame and shame, anger and frustration. Of course, this limits our ability to see or experience the range of possibilities and make choices for non harming, non judgmental behaviors.

Imagine approaching the object of discontent as a friend, something like: Ahh, someone I recognize, know well, and though respectful of some distance between us, feel warmth and curiosity. At first it can take an active intention to feel this, to take this approach. Like training oneself to follow a procedure, it is assuming a particular pattern to shift away from other possible reactive patterns. In time, though, it becomes a natural response, to look with affection or at least kindness upon the person whose action or behavior might have disappointed in the past, or upon the shop clerk who informs you that what you seek is no longer available in that size, and even upon your desire to have that thing.

How we function in the world is much more a choice we make when we take this approach, rather than blowing around in the winds of reactive nature. We do not have to let reactivity define personality and character, and create so much negativity in the heart towards the self and others. This is a first step in the practice of acceptance, seeing through the reaction, cultivating the awareness in the moment of reactivity. Once we begin to see the layers and possibilities, we can choose to water a different seed, so to speak.

The practice deepens beyond the surface behaviors into a level of understanding that liberates the attachment to assigning meaning and value in all directions. And even with the occasional negative reaction, while still under the thumb of attachment to control and judgment, the way of being in the world is transformed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Constancy: the discipline of being

Every month I go visit my elderly relatives, parents and aunt, about 150 miles away from where I live. Every day I take a few minutes to meditate and practice even just a bit of yoga aside from my teaching. Every night that I am home, I share a meal with the one(s) I love who are living with me. These are not ritual patterns, they are mindful acts.

Being present is not a casual operation! With time and practice, mindfulness and awareness become more constant as a way of operating, of being. But to get there from here takes intention and action.

So just as with checking mail or washing dishes, there is a determination of value in it even when it has nothing to do with how the world will judge you or what others think of you. This is something that comes from inside, the urge to find your self or to shed layers of the self that no longer suit you, or that chafe or cause pain.

Meditation and yoga practices do not take you from yourself. It seems to reveal a more vivid quality in fact. I can see my wandering mind, I can notice that tight muscle buried deep in the hip socket. I can watch feelings rise and fall in myself. These are part of me, and I can adapt my functioning to accommodate in different ways once I am aware.

Choosing to travel every month, choosing to show up on the mat every day, these are ways of connecting. The energy, relationships, awareness and peace that come with being present are vast, seem larger and more inclusive than anything I've run into before. This state of being can accept sorrow, can include anger and pain, can hold joy and excitement, can be all the facets of emotional and physical self and still be intact. It is this undamaged quality to the energy, the being, that is the revelation. No matter what else has happened, or we think is happening, this inner energy is whole.

Curiosity and constancy are enough to get there, add a dose of intention and suffering to pull you deeper into the inquiry and all there is to do is let go of resistance and be.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Expectations & Plans

It's a set up, all this internal arranging around projections and assumptions. Could be a simple thing, like expecting my spouse to put the pot lid back where I think it belongs, or a complicated thing like expecting to find bliss in Savasana. In either case, it's a construction and prompts a sequence of conditions and reactions. Judgments, disappointment, anger, one-ups-man-ship, controlling behaviors and even affection can link to expectations. How many acidic comments towards self or others have originated in expectations that have not been met? So many awkward and painful moments taint the opening of gifts. Even deeply loving relationships can be poisoned by holding tightly to projected ideas of who someone is, by expecting specific actions, types of achievements or responses. This kind of expectation creates others as who we want (think) them to be, denying them the chance to fully express who they are. Many grown children feel this prison of expectations in relationships with their parents, until the relationships can shift to different ground. This trap is not one way but operates in all directions!

Plans are a different matter if they can be separated from expectations. One can plan a trip with thoughts of being open to the possibilities of choices, conditions, and requirements without attaching too solidly to the expectation that it will be this or that, go this way or that. Think of planning for weather when you travel and you can understand the conditional nature of a plan. Weather has an influence on activities and by accepting the possibilities, we can make a reasonable guess at the patterns based on time and place, and perhaps pack a sweater, or find an optional inside activity. When we are taken by surprise to find an unusually warm day, or windy day, we can make our accommodations on the spot without attachment to disappointment or other judgment. Enjoying this aspect of our ability to react to changing conditions is part of what makes life interesting and allows for a range of experiences.

We might look at relationships to other parts of our lives much as we do the weather, planning for a normal range and observing the reactions that arise when conditions change. This attitude of openness offers fluidity and possibility rather than the clutching of disappointed expectations. The more familiar we are with our own patterns of reactivity, the easier it is to let those patterns shift or even chose a different reaction before acting.

Planning might be setting an alarm clock so that you can wake up in a timely way, knowing even so that there is the possibility of a snooze alarm or a malfunctioning alarm clock. If you know your pattern of reactivity, you can get a clock without the snooze, or put a second alarm clock further from the bed so that you must get up to turn it off. It is the attitude that shifts when we release expectations. Accepting that missing the alarm changes the day, perhaps helps you to see your priorities more clearly. It can help you identify physical or emotional needs that were being ignored, such as resistance to the expectations of the day, a need for more rest, resentment of obligations, or even that you are fighting off an illness, or need more time to prepare yourself.

Shifting from expectations as a way of operating takes time and practice. We will still expect the sun to rise, and the night to fall! Letting go of expectations even just a little can ease stress during these next few demanding weeks. Maybe New Year's resolutions can be seen more as intentions rather than a straitjacket of expectations. Maybe gifts can be felt as intentions too, and the judgment of objects, expense, choices etc. can be softened. It can be the greatest gift to free the people around you from judgments about them and their actions.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Taking that next breath

Befriending yourself is like a book of short stories, each step of the way there are characters and subplots. Though all by the same author, they may have very different tempos or flavors or impact. Some are short, some endless. One thing ties them all together and that's the breath itself. Without that, all the stories dissolve. So on the journey to radical self acceptance the breath is a deep well from which we can draw, and the more we cultivate awareness of the breath, the deeper the well will seem.

So often yoga practice takes us in its arms when we are tied in knots or desperate for a solution. Many times it welcomes us even when we arrive with negativity and resistance, or uncertainty. Self judgment is a constant companion for some of the practice, and sometimes this even turns outward towards others in the class or the teacher or the world at large.

The path to unconditional love of that embarrassing, messy, inept, awkward, shameful, angry self can begin with the next inhale. Just the simple act of recognizing how the breath flows in, stretching the diaphragm down into the belly and spreading the ribs just a little, lifting the collar bones at the fullest, can redirect this energy and begin to dissipate all that judgment. When you can allow the exhale to soften the inside of your ribs, slipping your shoulders into restful lightness atop that structure, feeling the deep pull of the low abdomen to empty out that last bit of carbon dioxide at the base of the breath, a little ease will begin to seep into the body. This is a direct signal to the mind that it does not have to fight off the moment. There is nothing in this moment that is threatening or destructive. Nothing in the moment that deserves all that vitriol pouring towards it as though the self was the enemy.

Truthfulness (Satya) will show you that there is a tenderness and compassion, an openness towards that struggling self, the one that made the mistake or said that thing or dropped the ball or acquiesced to something now regretted. The breath can help take you, one inhale and exhale at a time, into that space where there is a steady equanimity with which you can see your fears and embarrassments, anger and shame without having to hold on to those feelings and wallow in negativity that prevents your ability to be in this moment. If you are not present now, you are not living your life fully. Walking in one direction with your face turned to see behind you will not help you see where you are going nor where you have been.

Each time you bring that breath in, you offer an open hand to your inner being, a hand you can always reach, one that never waivers in its steadfastness at your best or worst moments. Whether you are on the yoga mat or off, you can let your own breath remind you. That open hand will be there, offering unconditional friendship to you right where you actually are.