Saturday, January 29, 2011

When Things Seem So Much Farther Away

Halfway into the last snowstorm I noticed how all my normal errands seemed so much farther away. My yoga practice has seemed a bit like this too, since I sprained my ankle.

Turns out it is not really my body that puts long distance in my yoga practice, nor the snow piled on all sides that makes the local food co-op any farther away. It is all in my mind.

Making adjustments in yoga practice is a natural part of practice, and comes with the territory if you are going to practice on your own or in a class. Just because the teacher or the person next to you can lean on their wrist does not necessarily mean that you can... or put your heel down when squatting or lift your arm next to your ear. Each body comes with its own patterns and structures and it is more than half the amazement of a yoga practice to discover all this about the body you actually live in.

The same is true when injured or not feeling well, or under special natural conditions. A dear friend of mine is very near to the end of her pregnancy and just this last week ran into three specific movements in her yoga practice that had been fine last week but her body just said, "nope, skip that one this time." This indicator is helping her understand the deep changes taking place as her child prepares to emerge. My ankle tells me many stories even as I work into a seat for meditation! In this way, my teacher is always with me, drawing my attention to sensation, to the shift in the breath, to my own wandering awareness.

And of course my food co-op is right where it has always been, but the journey there and back has been brought sharply into focus as a moment-by-moment experience. I am making constant adjustments for my ankle, for the ice, for other passersby, for the beauty of the nearby fence all decorated in snow. How wonderful to be aware and alive! Of course I will be happy when the pain subsides even further, but do hope I can remember to notice when my attention shifts and many things seem closer while others move farther away.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the Union: knitting and purling

When I began knitting again I couldn't remember how to even get stitches onto the needles. Then I began looking at all these awesome patterns and thought perhaps at this stage in my development I might have cultivated sufficient attention and patience to try making something that requires attention and patience. I was surprised to find that some of the most intricate looking patterns are actually the very same simple stitches that I have known since high school days... the basic knit and basic purl stitches. It is how they are used, dispersed, slipped, knit together and so forth in patterns that might just be two or four rows, but could be as elaborate as 16 row patterns... Well, it just amazed me that so much variety, beauty and usefulness could come from such simple stitches used with intelligence and diligence.

Last night as I listened to the State of the Union speech, I was reminded of this idea of how basic stitches can be used so variously. It depends upon the skill of the hands holding the yarn, the appropriateness of the attention to the level of difficulty in the pattern itself, and the willingness to focus fully -- yes, even tearing out what has been done to get to the mistakes, figure out what happened, and, while still maintaining an even temper, continue on in the pattern.

In my estimation, our current president is keeping just such a steady hand on the yarn. He was handed a terrible tangled snarl and a very complex pattern two years ago. There was much to untangle, much attention required to see and then re-establish the pattern chosen by the election that put the needles in his hands. Now he is seeing the pattern emerging and can go back to clean up a few missed stitches, while beginning to add the shape required for this new stage in the work. He can change the lighting to see better, and he has asked for help in spinning the yarn he needs, but his hands remain steady throughout.

Some will say, ditch the pattern. Some will say, change your yarn. Some will say, oh, just leave that mistake no one will notice it later. Some will say, this piece you are working on will never fit. Some will say we do not need this knitting any more, just stop knitting and let everyone figure out for themselves how to card, spin and begin again.

I say steady hands and focused attention will continue to create a thing of beauty -- resilient, useful, and adaptable to the changing climate. Each will have their chance in turn to take the yarn, but not many can see the pattern in the tangled knots. Lucky we have such a one just now.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Inquiry & Acceptance

Prodding, poking, pushing at the self, at others, at conditions, into what seems so: this is reactive nature at work. Curiosity sometimes masquerades as the motive for questioning things, for aggressive inquiry. Fear may be hiding at the core in some of the pulling, pushing at and away; flowing under both timidity and boldness. How can we practice yoga, or meditation for that matter, as an essential inquiry and accept the inquiry without all this manipulation?

Deep in this tangle of branches the sun simply shines on the snow. It doesn't matter if the snow is covering old pine needles or is clinging to the branches of the wintry tree. The sun simply filters through anything it finds and interacts without hesitation in its specific seasonal angle, heat, duration -- all of which are conditional upon where on this earth's sphere we are observing that it is shining.

This is the magic of awareness and acceptance. With a focus of attention, and deep openness to whatever the attention finds, like the sun's light our attention can continue to shift and reach anything in its path. So with attention, and the key is acceptance. If we must control, name, categorize, and react to what we find, we are lost in the constant push-pull interaction of the surfaces, forever entangled.

The inquiry can be the beginning of noticing how "I," the person I have built out of experiences and meanings, with materials like conditions and reactions, respond to the inquiry itself. Do I resist? Do I tense up? Do I weep? Do I compete with myself? What is the pattern I have already created for this category of "inquiry?" Once seen, let the reactions rise and fall. Allow the light of your awareness to filter as does the light of the sun, reaching whatever it finds in its rays. The ability to witness the rising of responses, like feelings and thoughts, tensions and spaces, comes as you accept that you can continue observing without getting lost in the tangle.

So we practice. "Practice" implies that it is an ongoing experience, not a once-and-done kind of knowledge. Each moment that I inquire and accept is a living present moment, connecting to something far more universal and open than the reactive nature I observe.

My sprained ankle is healing, gradually giving me insights and experiences of myself functioning in the world. With each step I find I am inquiring as to the balance between the constant friction of judgment and testing and the open space of acceptance.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What Is This?

Here it is, mid-January, cold, freezing in fact, and yet the sun shines brightly in the rolling landscape of upstate New York. Snow blankets all but the most windswept fields, and icicles are forming from the roof. The sun's warmth has its effects, the wind has its own, the shadows of the old mountains cause their own colder micro climates. At some level I accept all this, just as it is, as long as I am inside a warm place, protected as is appropriate for my thin-skinned, fur-less, warm-blooded body. I can appreciate it, even revel in it, as long as it doesn't directly threaten my sense of personal comfort and safety. Yet I can understand the harshness of it too. I have deep respect for the blue jays who puff up as they sit on the branch, yet dive into the sunflower seeds in the feeder after the sun has warmed things up just a bit. The world is not cruel, it is what it is, too cold for me, tolerable with adjustments for the blue jays.

It is in the realm of human interactions that things are not as easy to accept as they are, and what they are is not so clear. Judgment forms about the way someone does or does not do something, says or does not say something, wants or does not want something, feels or does not feel something. Yes, even the way someone does or does not understand or notice something can be judged, and categorized, filed and stored for reference again and again. This becomes the building block of interactions and relationships. This can also barricade me from seeing my own way.

In situations where I do not like things as they appear to be, I can go on ahead and judge others and myself, creating internal structures filled with longing that things be different than they are. Whatever the motive may look like, it is of no use, as this does not change anything except my own reactions. These, in turn, set traps that hold me, caught in my frozen idea of how things seemed in that moment. Ensnared in longing, with no idea of the real source of that craving, aversion or attachment, and with no way to let it go.

The first step is asking, "what is this?" and letting the answer continue beyond the first layer. Perhaps that first layer is frustration or anger; perhaps it is sorrow or shock; perhaps it is anxiety or the compression of being in a hurry that floats up first. Letting the answer continue means asking again, "and this?" in response to that first answer. Maybe the anger is a feeling of failure or hurt feelings; perhaps that sorrow is loneliness or disappointment. Ask again, "then what is this?" Allowing the body to relax, to find its way to the sources of self-judgment and the fear of external judgment.

Sometimes different words help, instead of "what is this?" I might ask "is this me?" and this can help me see that none of this, none of this emotional reactivity actually defines me. "And is this me?" for the next layer will reveal that it too is not me. These are like transparent layers I can learn to see through, through the sad heart, through the loneliness, through the fearfulness.

Then what do I do with those peelings of my reactive self? Can I let them drift off in the cold wind, or set them down gently in the glittering snow, and feel how my heart continues to beat? Allowing my body to rest for even a short span of a few breaths, the flood of reactive, judgmental behaviors and feelings can be seen and separated from who I am. This is where choice begins as to being where I am in that moment or staying stuck in the structural patterns of judgment and blame, even admiration that turns over the power of possibility to someone else, rather than recognizing this in my self.

This common struggle to be present becomes a foundation upon which I can stand. In some ways it is the core of my practice, allowing myself to learn and unlearn these patterns and find freedom. It is not mine alone, but part of human nature, a vastly shared experience. Ah, and here come the chickadees now that the temperature has risen just a bit. Doing what they do, as they are, in this very moment.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Teaching with Myself as the Unknown

I am very curious to discover my teaching this week, since my own inner balance has shifted to be ever more obviously unknowable. I twisted my ankle a week ago as I walked on slippery sidewalks. The process of recovery has been revelatory so far. Aside from the literal experience of sensation and changing forms, of course I have had to change my behavior and expectations. I've chucked normal patterns and am observing how I react. It is using a lot more energy than I thought it would, just to watch all this, and be in it.

The coming week I have shaved off a few classes and obligations, canceled a couple appointments and spread a few things out over the week. The plan is designed to give me more time between everything to elevate the foot, to recharge my energy, to take the time I will need to travel slowly from place to place. Even with these changes I am going to negotiate carefully as I go teach this and that class. The getting to and from the teaching will be as much to learn for me as the teaching itself.

There is no way for me to know what will happen, how it will feel or what the progression of events might include. It amuses me that my mind keeps asking how I might find a solution in the form of someone else who might take away the uncertainty or the discomfort. I know that fundamentally it is my own body that will heal itself if I can stay out of its way. Exploring what helps that healing and what subtracts or detracts from that healing is really at the center of my attention.

I'm struck by how this is yoga practice as everything. Tenderly, non-judgmentally I am exploring the range of motion of the rest of my body, and consciously relaxing my mind in its tendencies to grip and attach, to project and to figure. I practice as I knit. Practice as I wait for help with something, practice as I step down each stair, practice as I move in my sleep. It is a fascinating process of integrating and experiencing. The shift in my view is what changes this injury from a deficit to a gift.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sensations as Sensations

This morning I slipped on the icy shoveled sidewalk. One foot began moving away and the other ankle folded to catch my balance. Pop, twang, and back on my feet. All in a moment, yet in that moment I had a flood of sensations that triggered a heightened awareness. Gratitude that I was standing on a sidewalk, fear that I was injured, amazement that so little had happened and so much had changed, fear that I could not trust my body to function normally, curiosity about the condition of my ankle, pain, hesitation, gratitude the foot took my weight. This all took just seconds. Each momentary feeling took hold and let go, took hold and let go. Then the investigation began.

I have been using a meditation of noting sensation and allowing sensation to be sensation, freeing the sensation itself from the tag lines of feelings, interpretations, anxieties, memories and projections. For me, this means actually choosing not to name the sensation that arises, simply sense it. Each sensation has the potential to reveal the way I operate, attaching thoughts and feelings, assigning meanings, planning etc. in response to the sensation, which has by that time passed into something else. What remains is the construction I've built around it.

So I tested my range of motion, began tentatively walking, using leg muscles and experimenting with how I put my foot down, when to transfer weight to the heel, how high to lift the leg to relax the ankle before its landing, etc. Very slowly and with attention to each step, I got where I was going. It was an amazing journey.

Sometimes I speak about the space in each breath when we remember to notice. I have often spoken about awareness of how we transfer our weight to the earth. Today every single step is an experiment in awareness, letting the fullness of the sensations be just that, and watching the moment unfold.

A friend posted a quote on FB "Every setback is a detour to my goal." -- NFL Colts Head Coach '09 This is a marvelously subtle way of letting go of the steering wheel and the judgmental mind and allowing experience to be just that. We cannot get anywhere from here, we can only be here. By being here, fully, we are just where we need most to be.

I have canceled or postponed all my teaching for today and tomorrow to tend my new project, to experience my body and allow rest and healing to be part of every step. What a blessing my practice has turned even pain into curiosity, even fear into openness. The saying attributed to The Buddha is "Pain is part of life, the suffering is optional." My twisted ankle is such a good teacher!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Traumatic Events: Hard lines, Soft Soft

This morning I feel bereft as I contemplate the shootings in Arizona that have killed several people and critically knocked a vital public servant off her feet for the inevitably long term, with unknowable recovery of her abilities to function after very serious brain injury. I look at the history of lost public leadership in my lifetime and understand that this kind of event can be quite provocative. Our nation has already allowed policies of national distrust to draw forth vitriol and hatred among us simply because we might see things differently, look different, think in a different mother tongue, have been born in a slightly different longitude.

I am the granddaughter of immigrants who fled to this country to save their lives and to enable them to achieve some semblance of their personal value rather than spend lives limited by oppressive regimes and prejudices. I can certainly see how it is that I both clamor to defend and glorify the country I live in, yet distrust any authority. Postures of power and control run on the dualities of promise or greed and fear or blame.

Most of my life I have been deeply drawn to participate wholeheartedly while at the same time harboring an equally deep distrust of that which draws me. I fell in love again and again, at least from the age of 4 when I first remember the texture of the cheeks of my new love in my half-day kindergarten class. My resistance to the war in Vietnam was all encompassing, whether feeding Veterans on Washington Mall, smothering myself and a friend to protect against teargas, building bathroom walls for the local county office of the "Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam Now," or reading everything published at that time to support my fierce arguments. It was equally important to me to try to change the way my high school taught important subjects as disassociated from living and doing, working strenuously to institute an experiment in hands-on learning within the wider community. My writing and working life has been mostly in this same all-or-nothing mode of operating. No one could be more impassioned about giving grants for public programs, or fairness in schooling, or even the benefits of a yoga practice.

Somehow my human nature continues to underline the duality of this reactive and attached behavior. In order to be persuasive, productive, needed, I have always carried the gene for tunnel vision right next the gene for distrust of structure and authority. Okay, perhaps even my own intellectual, sexual and personal structures have betrayed me in the past, drawing me deeply towards that which also hurts me, but certainly political activism will do that. I think that any deep drive to change towards a particular goal or need has that in it too. But the distrust is also a warning and leads to sabotage of purpose. The balance will remain elusive with this deeply divided way of understanding and being.

I apologize for all the moments when my actions have emanated from that dualistic posture, knowing it almost always caused harm. I am sorry that I, too, have at times zealously obscured truth or evolved selective deafness to the voices around me. I am grateful to be here, living long enough to just begin to understand this, hard as it is. My practice helps me find the truth, and allow it, breathing and connecting to a much larger awareness.

May we transition into a new way of being, find our way unimpeded by regret, bitterness, hatred, greed and delusion. Rest, heal, go in peace. May the suffering cease.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Back to Basics

Everything is part of everything else, but when starting a yoga or meditation practice, it does help to narrow it down a little bit. Keeping some basic ideas in mind can invite a more relaxed attitude as we begin a new journey.

For me, yoga has a simple set of principles to begin: breath, alignment, awareness, kindness, curiosity.

Traditionally, the eight principles of yoga, in plain terms, include our relationships to the world around us (yamas) and to the self (niyamas), alignment (asana), breath (pranayama), concentration (cultivating awareness), withdrawal of the senses (developing non-attachment), meditation (interacting beyond dualistic understanding), and the integration of being beyond a separate self (bliss).

Let's be satisfied with whichever part of all this we can hold in our awareness. Start with the basics:
• paying attention to the breath, when you remember; and return to paying attention to the breath when you realize you have forgotten.
• attend to your alignment -- the way your bones stack to transfer weight to the earth and support your movements; and when you realize you have forgotten about your alignment, simply attend to the effects of that and make adjustments.
• cultivate awareness, allowing your breath to lead you in and out of your sensations, reactions, emotions, and postures. Let your mind help you by focusing one one thing at a time, developing the ability to focus by accepting that the lens slips and requires readjustment.
• be kind when you find you have shifted into remembering, replaying events, hollering at yourself, projecting possibilities, wishing things were different, going over things that take your attention away from right now. Just smile a little at your human nature and cultivate awareness of any pattern that might emerge in your internal ways of operating.
• take an interest, be curious, about how your body works, how your mind works, how your interactions and reactions rise and fall away.

Any and all of this will lead to all the rest of this, without you having to make a list or keep a chart or memorize Sanskrit names or learn physiology. Let the names become generalized, in fact, when you notice that you are drifting out of this moment, name the drift -- "drifting" -- or a bit more specifically "worrying" or "dreaming" -- and come on back to NOW. You can do this on a yoga mat. You can do this right at your desk, this minute. Or brushing your teeth.

May all the hoopla over 2011 simply open the path as you make your way.

Monday, January 3, 2011

shadow and light

Sometimes we just don't know what we are getting into. I seem to learn about beauty or pain, about the changing temperatures or the rising tides from opening my heart.

Cactus do not withstand harsh climates, they grow into unique and remarkable beings. Perhaps there is no need to name names, label everything, pretend that once it has a name it exists in a particular format. Like a shadow that is always there, we only see if there is enough light.

If the light shines just right everything that is solid melts into air.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Seeking the Source & Nodding to it

Reactions come so fast that it is easy to mistake them for reality. Feelings definitely are real in their effects - coloring everything around them and can even change the idea of who we are while they're at it. Responsiveness is something we all share to varying degrees. Without that our lives would not be of much interest, too monotonous and dull. But feelings can sideswipe us too, taking our breath away and leaving us gasping for air; and at times pump us so full of excitement, anger or other strong emotion that we are practically blind to what is going on around us or even in us.

It can be hard to let go of a mood of melancholy that taints everything with regret; or to hold on to a feeling of happiness that saturated a time shared. Sometimes we feel the whole world turns in one moment, happy and going along until WHAM something changes in the way things are said, or done, or the events take a turn in unexpected directions and then everything feels different.

Some describe emotional twists like changes in the weather, sunny and pleasant, and warm enough until the wind kicks up and as though standing in a shadow or out in a wide field, the chill cuts deep and nothing can be done to protect us. But in fact, this is not quite the way it feels. It is not an outside influence like the wind, but an internal one that changes the way feelings take hold. Then everything changes because of the way we respond to those feelings.

Recently I was traveling and visiting family and friends. The sequence of activities and moving from this place to that was remarkably easy. Though there were twinges of sadness upon parting one, there were thrills of happiness at the next stop. Getting out of the routine was remarkable, and the landscape around me was quite different and entirely provocative. I didn't have much of an agenda beyond the going and doing together with people, trying to make fun out of daily stuff like meals and such, catering to various interests among us, and offering opportunities for visiting. But after going along for a few days, a comment was made to me and it was if something shifted and what had been a happy time turned tumultuous, brooding and rife with hidden hazards.

I had been reading "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach, Ph.D., and was able to use her powerful tool of taking a pause, literally, and relaxing my body, to seek within myself where the pain or sorrow or tension was held. Going deeper, beyond the tightness in the stomach or the clenching of the throat, the racing heartbeat, I was able to find a more embedded source for the reactions that I was feeling. The deepest level of feeling was that of being a failure, that of being unlovable or unworthy, the response way down under what seemed like frustration or uncertainty. It can be set off by any type of rejection or criticism, and start a cascade of justifications or defenses. I have seen this pattern before in myself and in others. It is not uncommon to have these deep feelings, and to be ruled by them. But it is not required that we react and react from that same wounded place from long ago.

Obviously no one is perfect, and holding oneself to that kind of standard in all things -- especially emotional and connective aspects of relationships -- is really a waste of energy. But it is important to see where the feeling of "less than" or "unworthy" come from. Perhaps that urge to be loved and accepted went unanswered long ago, or we judged ourselves like objects rather than living beings and put a shameful stamp across our foreheads for all time because of a behavior or reactive moment in the past. When we do this, any little thing can refer straight back to those feelings.

Seeking out that source of the deeper feeling makes it possible to nod at the whole self in which the emotional response rose. Then we might be able to deal with the situation at hand in the moment just as it is, rather than attaching it to everything that has ever felt bad or gone wrong before. (Oh that sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach will take us right back there to that awfulness...whatever it was.) Each of these reactions is just that -- a reaction. Events change continuously offering the possibility that with a fresh and open mind I might be able to feel the current feeling and go on, being authentically myself without all that 1) baggage, 2) self-abnegation and 3) fear of disaster!

What a relief it is to see each response as a response. Not that there is erasure of responsibility for the actions I take, or the effects of those actions. I can recoil and in that instant see myself begin to entrench in a defensive reaction. It is at that moment that I nod at the deep sorrow that underlies the response, and can put down the defense in favor of being present in that moment rather than holding on tight to relive an imagined moment of the past.