Monday, February 28, 2011

Nothing is Wrong, It's just Fear

It wasn't hard for me to tell my mother that she could let go if that's what was right for her. It slipped out as though it was always there, our eyes smiling at each other. She was fingering the scarf I made for her that only a month ago she said had reminded her of the taste of strawberries. Somehow, I was completely calm and relaxed telling her that I will miss her but that it was okay. Maybe it was because I could feel that the stream was already flowing in that direction. Perhaps it was because she seemed so happy to be floating on the water headed towards the falls. I can hear the falls, I just don't know exactly how far away they are.

Attachment. I suppose it is the big attachment, that we hold on to the idea of being alive, of other people staying alive, that life is what we hold dear and hold on tight. The practice of seeing my own attachment to anything, an opinion, an outcome, a schedule, a relationship, has been so revealing of how I make meaning where there are really just constantly shifting conditions whose visibility depends on the light.

So I sit in one place, open to the deep contentment I saw on her face, feeling the fear of the work I will have to do once she is gone, knowing that her presence is not some thing nor does it belong to anyone, not even to her. Her presence is the surface of the water that is everything in the sea: wave, froth, air bubbles, sand, beach, conch shells, sand crabs, sky, wind, the sound of the falls in the distance.

I don't know the way, but all paths lead there.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Asana is Contraindicated for ...

me, and yet I practice. Listening to my own arguments, I hear fear and I hear determination. There is goal setting and there is wishful thinking. There is regret and self-doubt, and there is hopefulness and curiosity.

When I began practicing yoga I took any class that fit in my schedule. I was approaching 50 years old and I knew less than nothing about the lineage, names of luminaries, history, even potential health benefits. I didn't even know what shape I was aiming for in the Asana of the moment. I listened deeply, worried on the surface about mixing up my right from my left, and began breathing into a new space of awareness inside.

This fall my practice will be much the same as it was 10 years ago... I will be discovering that I can change the angle of my lower spine by remembering my big toe, and I will use the wall to prepare for Ustrasana (camel pose) just to see how much energy I can raise from my Tadasana (mountain pose) knees. There are many Asana I can explore in my practice, and of course, my practice does now include teaching which is a magnitude of exploration I could not have imagined in those first few experiences.

Every Asana has benefits that reach into the basic functioning of the body -- circulation, nervous system, muscular strength and flexibility; and the mind -- judgment, intention, challenge, determination, curiosity, resilience and focus; and the organs -- etc. Every asana has contraindicated conditions, for example shoulder or ankle injury, stages of pregnancy, frailty of bone, uncontrolled high blood pressure, etc.

As a teacher I may mention a few of the "if you have this, modify in this way" instructions, but I find it hard to say, "just don't do this." I find it especially hard to say it to myself. At the moment, I have two physical variables that would contraindicate nearly everything I do in my yoga Asana practice -- including what might seem simple like sitting in a cross-legged position.

So here is the secret: Do not hurt yourself. Follow the path of the breath and prepare your physical body for practice with an open mental attitude of exploration rather than goals and end results. Use props and find out what is actually happening in as full a way as you can in that moment. It is not getting into the full pose of Ustrasana that will help you if you have low back issues or rotator cuff problems. Yet many of the steps along the way will be exactly what your body can best use to mobilize, stabilize and strengthen, stretch and explore.

It is the mind that wants to take the full expression of Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel). Deepening and exploring a supported heart opener over a bolster or block, or using blocks to support your sacrum and your upper back in Setu Bhandhasana (Bridge pose) will give you more possibilities to experience your life than you could imagine.

So it can really help to find a teacher who can help guide your practice into the deepest places you can explore, and slow things down, rather than attending classes that continually show you what you can do to hurt yourself. It helps when you don't believe that everything rests in the final pose, and keep an open mind about what might open your practice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Let Go of That To Do List!

I resist the whirling vortex of the list of what must be done and relax into this moment, fully free. You could say that I am taking refuge in the completeness of acceptance, or just that idea of "being here now." There really is nothing that must be done, (I am breathing in and breathing out), though there are many many ways I could use my energy, (I need to call the hospital and take that package to the post), and I do turn my energy. Every where I turn, my energy turns. Where I turn my drishte (my focus), so my attention turns.

This is a direct learning from my yoga practice. It is the focus of the attention that draws the energy to that point. We are breathing all the time we are alive here in this body, and yet when we sit still and focus on our breathing suddenly we hardly know how to breathe in and breathe out. We watch ourselves struggle to simply hold our own attention in one place. So it is a worthy practice to let go of the judging and the constant review of the items on the list, and practice simply being present.

Just when I start thinking, "oh my life is so complicated, I don't have time to do this, no one would imagine all the things I am juggling," someone else says these same things to me about them! I smile, maybe even laugh, fully accepting this is human nature. Celebrating that we are alive, we have nearly infinite (did I say "nearly?") ways of using the moment-to-moment life we have. Yet so often the focus is far away on something projected or remembered. That way is the path of anxiety, stress, insufficiency, and sorrow, in a word "suffering."

Resisting that whirling vortex of "must do this" and "should have done that" and "how will I ever get all this done!" I can quietly wash the beets, enjoy the red stain on my cutting board, hear the happy clicking of the oven lighting, and feel the firmness of my hand gripping the knife. Later, after I teach a few sessions of yoga, I will share these delicious roasted beets with someone I love. I do not have to put that on the list, nor resist it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Learning the Lyrics by Singing Along

Repetition and patterns are powerful ways of teaching ourselves, so it is no surprise that when we have the same reaction again and again, we learn to cement that response. Perhaps it is laughing at jokes that are not funny, perhaps it is swatting the fly that buzzes nearby, perhaps it is resenting another day on the job.

Think of how much easier it is to sing along with the song on the radio, or the ipod, then it is to remember the lyrics on your own. We sing along and sing along and with the support of the music we begin to remember those lyrics, hum-humming where we don't quite remember the words.

It may sound like a plan of positive thinking, but allowing yourself to experience the possibilities of reacting differently, and practicing that, can have the same impact as humming along until you get most of the words. You can learn a new song and enjoy even humming along til you know it better. Maybe stuffing envelopes feels demeaning or is boring or obviously doesn't use so many of your other positive attributes and skills. You can try stuffing envelopes with an awareness of this attitude, and open yourself to enjoying even this job more. Perhaps you will come up with ways to improve the work itself, offering to translate the mailing into a series of pre-printed postcards or emails, making those envelopes unnecessary. Perhaps you will come to appreciate the reaching out that each envelope represents.

Give yourself the freedom to choose, separating from a repeated negative pattern.

There are so many more songs that you can sing.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Sense of Humor

When in doubt, smile. Did I just miss my stop?

Let the laughter come. What made me think that I could do more than this today? Funny hopeful me. How lovely this day has been, taking me all day instead of 3 hours! This just opens the possibilities for tomorrow.

Taking out those stitches for the third time... grinning ... amazed at how thoroughly I can explore ALL the possible ways to do this incorrectly! And nodding at my bravery to try it one more time, not knowing if I will recognize the correct pattern I seek to knit, having discovered so many others ...

No, its not embarrassing to fall on my ass in a yoga class! It is my human nature expressing itself and making me laugh! It is my heart that reaches up towards the ceiling through my feet. Maybe by the time I'm 60 I'll be able to move away from the wall... or not.

Checking the level of personal investment, in the opinion, in the judgment, in the appearance or the action, by the self or an other. Can there be humor towards the effort, in the process of being present? It's a trap too easy to catch one's self in. Is there something good about feeling bad about one's self? Learning to see truth, we can separate from the judgment and live more fully.

I can think of so many times my children got something done to their own satisfaction, having left out important elements, or mistaken one thing for another. The effort was still good, the effect sweet if incomplete or "incorrect." Let the compassionate heart smile, even if perhaps we watch a heart break apart; we can know that it is love and kindness that will find the way back to wholeness, not judgment or emotional dissection.

Meditation: Find a comfortable seat and center physically, or can be done walking or laying down. Allow the space behind your eyes to soften. Fill that space with warmth and gently smile in just the corners of your eyes (yes, even closed). Feel your cheeks begin to lighten. Allow the warmth of this smile to find the corners of your mouth (loosen your jaw). Breathing, softening, feel this smile seep around your lungs, your heart, your hips, your knees. Smile softly at your toes. (Even just the idea of toes!) Staying here in the warmth of your own compassionate acceptance, friendly, kind and open to whatever you find. When your mind wanders, return to the softness behind your eyes and once again slip into a smile.

Smiling at our own attachments to sorrow or pain, we can see our path and find freedom.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Deconstructing a Flood of Words: Using the Yamas

Imagine meeting a friend and as you are standing there, the friend begins handing you one thing after another. The first thing you take with one hand and keep making eye contact with your friend. You can hold this thing easily in one hand. The friend immediately hands you something else, a handful of small things. You put the other object in the crook of your elbow and take the handful carefully in one hand. The friend then hands you a large awkward object and places it across your outstretched forearms. Another object follows immediately that is sloshing in a container. You stand still while your friend continues to pack every possible crack and balance point with one after another thing.

How many times have you had a "conversation" that felt like this?

Words are mental objects. They represent ideas, carry the kernel of reactive emotions. Words can literally transform the inner landscape with visual information, and can reconfigure a thought process by eliminating or adding elements.

Speech is a powerful way to communicate, yet words are often used without any idea of their actual impact.

There are moments when each of us suddenly feels the weight of our words. Awareness is intense in those moments when the call for clarity is great, or when the emotional impact of each word is evident. We feel it when each word is painful; we feel it when words reassure. Words can bring fear, excitement, calm, joy, anger, confusion, clarity.

Teaching yoga requires specificity in language when directing other bodies, when inviting the minds of others to focus, when suggesting visual or emotional constructs. It is one sided, directive-suggestive-instructive talk. This is a collectively agreed upon inequality. When this kind of inequality occurs among people in typical conversations, it implies the same tacit agreement, and can be very uncomfortable for the listener, and sometimes leaves an unpleasant feeling afterward for the talker too. For some, this kind of one-sided hand-over-the-stuff talking is a challenge to compete, or sets up a verbal jousting match. The listener might make an effort to break the cycle or show equal fortitude, or feel a need to claim some equal worthiness for attention. The deep need to be "right" or "have the last word" can easily arise.

The person who storms you with object after object probably does not realize that you cannot hold on to all of it. It is likely they cannot see that this transfer doesn't afford you any opportunity to make any use of the objects. It may be that the intent is not to gain your understanding, but simply a desire that you take all this stuff to lighten their load. The odd part is that the objects actually remain in the custody of the person who gave them, even as they weigh you down. It seems those same objects can be handed over again and again. Perhaps they are not the actual load, but simply represent the burden being felt.

Taking stock of the deeper layer of communication can help slow this flood and might actually help shift that burden through awareness. If the friend (or you) are lonely, it may be a desire to feel a shared experience of life that provokes the stream of words in one direction. Perhaps a sense of isolation creates an urgency in having another person confirm the stream of experiences or reactions. Perhaps it is uncertainty that pushes a person (or you) to such an effort to be convincing, taking each point and covering every detail of the subject just to be sure and reinforce this version of them. Sometimes it is a deep need to be appreciated, or acknowledged, that prompts a person to disclose too much of what they know, or how they feel or how they arrived at their conclusion.

Kindness and respect can stem this flood. Allowing the undercurrent to rise to the top can be as simple as saying, "It must be hard to go through all this on your own," or "It is interesting to hear how you think about this, and I can tell you have thought a lot about it;" "There are many who would react the way you reacted." This stops the flow of details and returns to the core of the communication. It is also sometimes useful to simply say,"I am interested in what you are saying, but cannot absorb all these details. Can you tell me the part you really want me to know?" You can even ask, "Do you want me to respond to this, or are you simply telling me so that I will know about this too?"

These kinds of responses come directly from an investigation of the yogic principles of the Yamas (one of the eight limbs of yoga as outlined by Patanjali from centuries ago).

The Yamas are yogic principles of outward and inward behaviors. Each of the outward principles relate to the concepts of how we function, and interact. Taking on any one of these will lead to the others. Ahimsa - non-violence - applies to being kind, refraining from the domination games, being patient with yourself and others, and practicing compassion in speech as well as action. Satya - truth - again relates to the deepest awareness rather than the surface feedback. Being kind in the truth you express will enliven and enrich, rather than dominate and degrade others. Asteya - non-stealing - is a practice of respecting the energy and time of others as well as your own, not simply refraining from taking objects, but also making unnecessary demands of others. Brahmacharya - restraint - the source of celibacy practices and also of relinquishing overindulgence and repression, embracing moderation and respecting the divine in all beings. Aparigraha - non-possessiveness - is the cultivation of non-attachment, honoring of the many strands that weave the fabric of life without dictating or grasping, making space for the self and others to simplify rather than vie for control.

Starting with any one of the Yamas as an investigation is like having a walking stick for uneven terrain. Everywhere you go, whatever you may do or experience, let the Yama you choose help you feel the structure below that supports you on the path.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Seeing the Inside Space

Today as the sun rose something dawned in me too. I heard an echo of myself saying that I was disappointed in someone and suddenly knew what that really was. It felt as if literally the walls had blown out and the truth was left standing in an open space. This disappointment, standing in that space, was a state of my own mind, an attachment of mine, built out of patterns in me, and had nothing to do with that other person. In fact, as I looked back on times in my own life, I could blow the walls out there too, seeing my individual self doing exactly what I needed to do in that moment, as I experienced it, based on conditions and patterns. Do I really need to hold on so tightly to the judgments and conditions of those moments? Can I truly let go of that and simply see the shifting sands for what they are?

Why do we situate ourselves this way? Putting the emphasis on hardening into the judgment as to what someone else (or our self) should-would-could be or do, rather than allowing the present conditions to be visible, and the choices clear as choices?

We can build inner support for this -- with enough practice! It is not that difficult once there is understanding. I don't mean the kind of intellectual understanding of "oh, yes, I see how this works..." but the deeply embedded understanding that no longer requires building all the walls to hold up the ceiling of attachment, judgment and isolation in the moment.

In it together, without separating self and other from compassionate acceptance, it is much more natural to see how we, as human beings, live and act within the boundaries of our reactive nature. We don't judge a bird for landing on a particular branch rather than another. Can we tolerate the notion that the whole process of our living on earth is a miracle of unforeseen consequences and that we can remain open in each moment to the possibilities without attaching to one particular outcome?

As the people of the Middle East experience the earthquake of their own making, I hope that they can individually and collectively let go of the idea that only one set of conditions is acceptable. With so many competing interests, there are bound to be many possible strands in the weaving of the new rope with which to make the basket they want to carry their hopes. It is by turning this compassionate acceptance towards ourselves that we can learn to let go more deeply. Finding that we do not need to turn off connections, we practice breathing around and through the harder moments and the confusion of reactions, allowing the straightforward view of the structures we build to hold our feelings of disappointment, approval, etc. more clearly.

Then we can look openly into each others' eyes and see. The emergence of a beautiful new human being gives rise to the vastness of possibilities, constrained only by our vision of choices and attachments to reactions. It is no coincidence that the form of that beautiful new human was once the inside shape of another beautiful human being.

Just a note in the moment: Farewell to dear Beati who transitioned onward (age 90), and welcome to new darling Rylen, just getting the hang of the breathing air thing.