Friday, December 28, 2012

A Pledge to Live with Paradox

I am living in a layered world of paradox. Without goal, without limiting myself to definitive closed-end attitudes, how can I act with quiet certainty and follow a path in any direction at all? It is absolutely required of me that I let go of grasping onto my life as a product to be produced in a certain way, or as a specific thing, in order to experience the true possibilities I might have. The only thing that protects me from feeling myself to be continuously on the edge of the abyss of meaninglessness is to accept that meaninglessness is an idea, like any other goal or product of the mind.

So I come to weightlessness, a weird sensation where there is no gripping at all. It disappears in an instant of panic, or certainty. As soon as I allow myself to attach to a feeling -- any feeling -- I am on the ground again. Feeling every bone, missing those I've lost, wondering who I am. This state of illusion is not comfortable either, seems so heavy, never resolves, though sometimes settles into a groove that I feel as familiar. That's when the old tapes begin playing all my stories; the criticisms and praises, sorrows and joys line themselves up.  This is of no use to me at all.

The important part for me now is to also let go of this paralysis, a sensation easily confused with not knowing, or uncertainty.  No amount of thinking is going to create certainty, the more I close in and nail down the structure around an idea, the less likely it is that it will lead to my liberation. The clarity and depth of inquiry provide the path, not so much the bits that turn up as I dig.

A neighbor of mine in upstate New York handed me a long list of ignorant unfounded sound bites as a rationale for his political negligence, social belligerence and protectionist gun-toting perspectives. I felt myself circle the bait, mouth open, but I closed my lips and smiled instead. "Then shoot me first," I said, smiling. I didn't have the will to say, "you must be terribly afraid and disappointed in your life,  your community, the choices we have all made together," or even "then I must be the enemy since I do vote, feel responsible for others and I do believe in peace."  I felt that he did not want to talk about that, he just wanted to bluster his way through this moment and go home. It is a role that he often plays. Part of me couldn't wait for him to leave, but part of me wished I could hold on long enough to reflect his anguish and let him know that I am not dismissing him, blind to his painful condition. We all make misinformed or fear-based choices sometimes, ones that endanger ourselves or others. I am no better than he.

How do we live side by side, with ourselves and each other? Tolerating the paradoxes, accepting the gripping and the weightlessness, until we get used to it. This is what takes practice. Months and years  of daily, weekly practice, over time we learn to change our own shape and accommodate all the thinking in order to operate directly from our energy source.  I can see the abyss, I can see the snow flakes filling the space between the hill on which I sit and the ridge across from me.  Like a blind cat, I step and explore, seeking information from outside my body in order to live in my fullest form in my body as it changes constantly.

What kind of resolution can I make to encourage myself in the coming days and months? Perhaps it all comes down to allowing myself the space to practice. Can I do that? Can you? Yes we can.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

the mind of not all or nothing: just see what emerges.

Walking in the light powdery snow, I was bewitched by the transformations, leaves became cups and simultaneously appear as knife-like edges in the snow. Distances in the valley are aflutter with white flecks turning air and space into volumes. Definitions disappear. Here the submerged log emerged with its tinge of velvet green moss. What is the truth about the light snow, the maple branch below or the leaf litter? Can the surface be surface, while the depth is a huge mass of fallen tree, and the snow be falling too?

All bound up in thinking, I bind myself up with projections, goals, memories, ideas. Reaching for the shapes that I think, I practically block any sense of the real. I cannot pretend to give up thinking, nor do I want to do that. I am beginning to see that it doesn't take huge complicated tools though to loosen the tightness of the bind of my thinking. It is like the way I learn not to reach too hard to catch my own hand to bind an asana only to give up on my spinal alignment.  It begins with noticing that my thinking is confining me.

More and more I see how selective my letting go has been. I seem to release this grip, but not that grip. I believe this, but not that. I tolerate this, but not that.  Once I see this personal structure, this selective way of grasping at one aspect while avoiding another, I have the opportunity to be more fully. Truth and freedom, equanimity and clarity glimmer in all the levels of letting go. It is not an all or nothing proposition, like light appearing in the dark. It is always light.

In my snowy walk, the most striking thing happened as I turned to return to the house. I felt thrilled and surprised to the core to see the subtle impression of my own tracks:  a slight disturbance in the powdery snow with delicate crushing of the leaf edges into the powder. This evidence of my own steps seems most marvelous of all -- holding for just a moment all the wonder of impermanence and presence.

Monday, December 24, 2012


The plans have changed.
The weather shifted.
The gift did not arrive.
There was no solitary time to organize.
This didn't come out as hoped.

And yet, here it is, another morning.
Sky the color of reflected snow.
Enough water for a shower, and tea.

The guests are still sleeping.
The morning chores are done.
The gift is the moment.
Not waiting any more.

Friday, December 21, 2012

These tools remain accessible.

Where there is meaning, there is silence.

Sounds causing waves of reaction, interaction, conditions.

Words sink in so deep, all I hear is the space over them.

That rolling movie of my mind remains projecting on the wall of the skull, a light show.

The feeling of warm hand on thigh completes my form.

Exhales join the inhales in the air around me, no questions asked or answered.

Even the music of my heart runs into itself like water into water, indivisible.

This open to being, being opens,  understanding without tricks and illusions.

The candle flame consumed in continuous transformation.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Empty Attic: No Object, No Fix, No Problem

I am living in the lap of luxury, teaching and practicing yoga and meditating. I have heat when it is cold, I have food when I am preparing to feed my family, and various means to provide for holidays and birthday celebrations. I can walk to my work, which has become an offering from my essential self using my energy in ways that gives what I have to give and brings back to me what I need. This is not a manipulated view of my life, but one that reflects the truth of my daily experience.

People I love have deep on-going struggles, friends of mine are suffering with terminal illnesses and the attendant treatments, entire nations in the Middle East are losing the ground upon which civil government stands, and many people have lost their homes and livelihoods in New York City, Haiti and the Philippines. This is not a manipulated view of my world, but one that reflects the truth of my daily experience.
How to position myself to accommodate these truths? The first step is to stop attaching to a particular definition of what is good or bad about what I perceive; the second is to approach each aspect of that with an open heart that accepts what I perceive without assigning blame; the third is to nurture that open heart from a state of gratitude so that all the possibilities appear rather than a one-solution frame of mind (this includes allowing the feelings to arise rather than clamp down on this one and pretend that one is the good one).

I will not cure the causes of cancer, not stop the pain of personal loss, nor create a plan for civil society or dispel confusion even in one young sweet mind. I do understand that each of us has a life span, and that we cannot know its length or purpose. We use energy every day, turning towards goals, tasks and practices to provide what we imagine as necessities, satisfactions, support, and sometimes generosity. To a large degree, we do this in whatever context we find ourselves with more or less angst or joy.

Here in the last weeks of 2012 I see my operating fundamentals are: not attaching to, grasping at or hoarding meanings, goals or objects; seeing situations as causes and reactions rather than as a duality of good or bad; remembering again and again that gratitude in this moment will lead me out of confusion into clarity.

In this way I can enjoy my mysterious little part here on earth. Living in a human body fraught with its own foibles, applying my thinking as I have learned and relearned and unlearned, and surrounded by the context into which I stumbled by my birth, growth, and connections to other people. So easily we slip into the space made for us as the children of these people, living in this place, growing up here, and having these good and bad experiences.  Eventually I have come to see that all drifts away like mist, and while still honoring my ancestors and my own experiences in earlier contexts, I have much greater freedom in the moment than I ever imagined.  All the stuff clutched in my mind, attic, closet. barn, or basement can make its way back into the world without adding or subtracting from me.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Being Able to Feel

Building and Earthquake

How easy it is for a dream to construct
both building and earthquake.
Also the nine flights of wooden stairs in the dark,
and the trembling horse, its hard breathing
loud in the sudden after-silence and starlight.
This time the dream allows the building to stand.
Something it takes the dreamer a long time to notice,
who thought that the fear was the meaning
when being able to feel the fear was the meaning.

Jane Hirschfield, from "COME, THIEF" Poems, 2011

The practice is not one of dilution nor erasure. It is not curative nor corrective. Let's call it a practice of immersion and illumination. I find this is where life becomes a reflection of truth and broadens to let in all the possibilities.

It is particularly poignant to me that Hirshfield uses the framework of a dream here. I've been struck by how vividly dreams hold the mind and provide experiences even while we sleep. This is such a lovely way of noticing that the mind creates all of our experiences, even the illusions that we rely upon so deeply in order to go on about our lives.

The dream opens slowly to the dreamer, as witness to the mind's story. This, too, is a most remarkable moment when we see ourselves seeing, and are able to feel ourselves feeling.  

In my yoga teacher training at Kripalu we delved into the idea of meditation in motion that yoga offers. More than the placement of this foot there, or drawing a line in the mind from point A to point B; more than losing track of thoughts or feeling the rush of endorphins that bring happiness and loss of memory about the pain we walked in with, yoga is that space in which we can take "a long time to notice." It is the being itself that has meaning, not lost in the reactive, but able to take it all in.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Seeking the Nature of Reactivity: Can I See My Self?

Relationships are complex and intangible. I can stand next to someone and some sort of a relationship forms. We arrange ourselves spatially, use eye contact cues and follow rules of engagement that change constantly.

In one recent class I was teaching, I suddenly proposed: “What if you simply stopped judging the people you love? What if a person who loves you could look you in the eye and say, I completely accept you? What if that person was a co-worker, or a person next to you on the subway, or in this class?” It was shocking to imagine anyone, even a person who loves me, gazing at anyone else, even me, without judgment. In that moment my students’ eyes were fixed on me and their minds were full of reactions to me and my words. Maybe they picked up on the fact that even I, “the teacher,” was shaken awake to imagine this.

Our very nature is a reactive one. Stilling the waves of the mind, as Patanjali states in the second verse of his yoga sutras, means watching that reactive nature with awareness but not being subjected to its every wave. Can we actually function among others, doing our daily tasks without falling victim to our own stories and in essence blinding ourselves to reality? Reality is, in this case, the understanding that we are connected rather than separate in the realm of all living beings. Of course as long as we continue to think of ourselves as separate entities, our functioning will remain judgmental and attached.

I find it very hard not to drop into various definitions, or characters, or roles and react again and again from there. The process seems to form layers of story, and each has its point at the time, but they get heavy to carry around after a while. It is a long-term project to put them down, or perhaps it is very quick but has to happen again and again – maybe for each layer. If I have trouble giving this habit up when living in my own body as my own self, imagine how much harder it is for me to give it up when I have just a moment to consider someone else? The tendency to name, buttonhole, identify, define, attach meanings and judge is a very strong tendency!

I begin with the concept of patterns in my mental attitudes, behaviors, and judgments. Pausing to pay attention is my first line of inquiry; I can start with noticing whether I am inhaling or exhaling and that slows me down before my thoughts get hijacked by their attachment to a pattern. It is only with a pause long enough in which I can see the pattern that I can recognize it and make choices. In conversation I might literally press the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth before I speak in order to give myself time to notice what’s going on in my judgmental mind. The action doesn’t stop, but I can stop my reaction, and that makes it possible to imagine/see/choose a different course.

Buddhist teacher and author Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche speaks to seeing authentic emotions in a June 4, 2010 essay in the Huffington Post ( “If we're going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state. When we're stuck at the level of our habitual dramas, it's like going through the day half awake, barely conscious of the world's brilliance. Some part of us may like this half-asleep state, where nothing is too bright, too energetic, or too unknown. But another part of us can hardly wait to be free, to take a chance, to see what's on the other side of the mountain.”

One of the results of my yoga is that I can no longer see myself as a finite object. It is as though I have been transformed into something much more fluid. I can find old patterns, like the marks left by floods on the walls. There is plenty of evidence there of my past behaviors and reactions. Sometimes I repeat the same knee-jerk behavior, but much more often I see it like that faint stain mark and can let the waters out before they rise to that point again. Every now and then I totally surprise myself with something so wide open that I can hardly find any self there at all, just a sense of space and being. Staying in that essential state takes practice. Usually as soon as I notice it, I am out of it. In fact the separation it takes to see it happening, requires that I return to the witness chair. Asana and meditation, slow walks, silences, all help me with that work of staying comfortable while unattached.

So in starting out to think about seeing myself in order to catch my patterns and see others without judgment, I’ve practiced seeing the patterns and begin to understand that they are not me. Sure there are strings of attachment to the stories I’ve created about my life and the memories and the dreams and the forms of others who were around me, but they are my stories, and not me either. It may be that consciousness is even more vast than self-consciousness. This inquiry absorbs my intense, focused attention and helps me to get out of the picture at the same time.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Words, Meaning & Mind

Words represent the conventions of mind.
We can agree on this.
I give you a word, and you and I will both fill in meanings,
Perhaps similar, perhaps not at all alike.
Sitting quietly, words lapping like waves at low tide.

I watch myself resting.

Look out the window.
I fill my mind with sunlight on the far trees.
This is a familiar scene,
organized against the backdrop of sky.
Shifting my eyes, it becomes a movie.

The hawk that flew in the cold invisible air
 between here and the hillside a month ago
 drifts through my head,
a moment of remembered attention.

The sound of paws on the floor wakes me: here I am.
Wordless, I pat my thigh to inform and invite my blind cat.
He reacts to the hidden actions and possibilities in sounds,
and knows what happens to my lap when I stand up.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Music & Silence

Breathing. This is the sound I hear of oceans and wind, of expansions and contractions. Releasing whispers. Releasing sighs. When I teach, I most often use music as a way of shifting the orientation of my students away from the external world and into their own energy lines and their own bodies, yet music remains external. It is like a prop that helps extend your spine by lifting your hand on a block, the music disappears and reappears when you need it. That is, if it is doing what I hope it is doing. Music can work against the inner rhythms at times, a mood introduced with words or associations that is distinct from the practice. Yet often a person will not even know what the music was during a class, and simply flow along. There is so much going on, after all.

Yet practice in silence is so deeply tuned to the breath in the body, that I begin to wonder how we ever practice with music at all. The sounds of others breathing can be more powerful and supportive than the music, encouragement to deepen, to let it go, and to feel less isolated. Of course sometimes those exotic sighs from across the room will be distracting! Or that particularly vibrant Ujjayi sound will introduce doubts about one's own quiet waves...

I am not one sided on this, and find music in classes can bring flow and sustain effort, ease tension and even tease out humor in a tough moment. But I am not listening to the music as I teach. Truthfully I hear it when it distracts me, when it intrudes into the silence. I feel it settle the students into the closing asana as we prepare for Savasana, and then I want deep quiet for them.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fear of the Compassionate Heart

my brother, as sketched by my father 1992
I woke up this morning flooded with softness, like the soft rainy day itself, holding thoughts of my cousin and her daughter in my heart. Before I even opened my eyes, my heart had melted. It felt as though waves of love could be sent to surround their eyes, their arms and hands, their words,  the spaces in which they moved their bodies. There was no reason why these two women should be in my mind at all, and in fact I haven't seen my cousin  in more than a year and a half, and have never met her 20+ year old daughter. They have been locked in a struggle for many years with debilitating psychological and emotional issues that have trapped them, literally, in the house, isolating them from social and emotional lives. Though my cousin goes to work, she can do nothing else; her daughter so fearful at all times that she forbids her mother from even allowing anyone to come to the house.  For more than 10 years this situation has been kept close to the vest, and I had no inkling of it. I saw my cousin so rarely, and she seemed to be connected to her work and always warm and kind towards me. My older sister maintained contact with this cousin since childhood as they were closer in age. A few months ago, my sister described this situation to me, detailing her observations and all the suggestions she had made, positing therapeutic strategies, all with a sense of hopelessness and sorrow.

Suffering.  There it is in a neighbor, a friend, a relative, in ourself. The urge rises to help, do something, fix something, give advice. A feeling of helplessness and sorrow washes in, an ocean of uselessness. Anger and frustration take hold, driven by a desire that conditions be changed, people behave differently, understandings shift, problems be solved.  Judgments and assessments abound. So imperfect, the situation or the self; so unsatisfactory, the conditions or the choices.

We all know how it is to stand in one place, take in the view and begin defining everything by what we see there. So it is with suffering.  We take a look at it, perhaps even a long look, and that view begins to settle into all the shapes of our feelings and reactions, our ideas and our behavior.  In any relationship, we can see the patterns of response and the collaborative nature of our view and our actions and feelings.

What if there is no action to take? How do we open ourselves to simply acknowledge without judging and hold the depth of the hurt, sorrow, anger, frustration or pain of the situation? What would happen if we could actually just allow the entirety of it (that pattern or story or set of conditions) to open up in our awareness, to be truly seen - the sheer pain of it might be unbearable, debilitate us or drive us over the cliff! It might show us how powerless we are, or ignorant or just hurt too much.  It can be very frightening to let the truth in, precisely because there might not be anything we can do about it.

This is fear of our own compassionate heart. As in a sitting meditation when for a split second there are no boundaries to the self, it can be so liberating that we react by grasping for our defined self to reassure ourself that "we exist" as we have always thought. What if it is truly so that our existence is a series of structures that we have built with conditions and reactions and once seen as separate from our basic being we are free? It can take a while to see that grasping at our definitions is something we can let go, and allow the feeling of grasping to be seen but not be in charge of defining us. This is a practice of learning to abide, to hold that vast open sense of being.

Holding my cousin and her daughter in my heart with compassion, I go through the same sequence -- feeling myself grasping at what action to take, how to convey my thoughts or advice, even simply figuring out how to show my cousin that I care about her -- and allow myself to let all that go. It takes practice to open the compassionate heart without attachment to outcomes, or assigning responsibilities. For me, perhaps especially as one who has been responsible for taking care of other people, there are knee-jerk reactions in that direction and fears of what taking on those responsibilities could be for me. I watch myself worry over what might happen if I showed my open heart -- how much more pain might flood in! It is at that point when the boundaries vanish, and all my thoughts, reactions, judgments and fears can be seen for the conditioned patterns that they are, not rooted in this moment and not attached to compassion itself.  It cannot hurt me to open my heart, the source of the pain is not my compassion.

Perhaps I truly do wish that the situation was different for my cousin and her daughter. I surely wish they could escape from the trap that cages them away from what looks like happiness and a full life. My discomfort with the pain of others' suffering stems from my own ideas about suffering and my definitions of who I am and what I ought to do to alleviate that suffering. It is by overcoming the fear of my own compassionate heart that I can offer a truthful place for my own feelings, and a healing space for the suffering of others.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sentimental, Objects Gripping the Heart

My shelves are full of books I haven't read in years, yet as I consider them, they seem to represent my life, my experiences, my hopes, and so many stages of my growth. Less personal than diaries perhaps but in some ways just as revealing, my bookshelves really carry weight. Literally. How many have I given away, or traded in at second hand bookstores?  Like the changing seasons, I change the flavor of my reading-in-progress pile, but for the most part the shelves stay the same. I am attached to them even though the vast majority of these books simply collect dust.

A dear friend gave me this book. I read this one in the middle of a hard winter in my sophomore year at college. These were my introductions to the existence of Japanese writings; these to the deep currents in Russian literature; these to the lyrical qualities in English poetry; these to the myths and stories that form  gender awareness, this was important in my pursuit of yogic practices. These were my grandfather's. This, from my uncle's shelf. These were my children's favorites once they began reading. Here is that poet whose name I never remember, and then this one that my husband gave me ... on and on.

I stare at the bindings and allow whatever is evoked to arise. Not quite ready to clear these shelves though I've traveled and lived elsewhere without them. I can conjure up the same feelings simply by thinking about them. How much weight must I carry to hold moments of memory,  feelings about people, ideas of myself in times past? This tiny tee shirt that my son outgrew 23 years ago is still folded in the back of a drawer in a room where he no longer lives. Four delicately cut glasses, that once belonged to my husband's grandmother, stand in the back row of my kitchen shelf. They are designed for some specific drink that I can't identify and yet I feel the tug of his childhood memories. There's that little dish tucked into a top drawer of my own dresser, the small shallow ceramic where my mother once deposited tiny sea shells and beach stones.

This poignant remembering does have such a richness, like a special caramelized sauce, heated by the heart, and sweetened by memory.  I can pour it liberally over anything, anywhere. The senses respond, the emotions rise. On the one hand my experience seems deeper, but in truth, it is a repeat of a pattern of responses. And yet all of this is fantasy, just my mind making a story for me. These objects, books, even ideas, can trigger memories that are pleasant or unpleasant. Essentially I can use them or not in this way, making choices about how I remember something or use my feelings to influence this moment in my life. Do I want to spend my time in a web of reaction, replaying feelings and a story line that might change or harden with time, or can I free myself from this layer of attachment and be present now?

It seems the sentimental object is a small trap.  Once I see it, I can step around the quicksand or jump in with both feet. Having this choice definitely loosens the grip of reactivity on my feelings and behavior, and frees me to see more than that one story, understand beyond the repeated pattern, and be present. I love reading a book more than once, discovering it anew,  not measuring how much I missed or forgot, and yet savoring the familiar. I do not try to relive my earlier experience of reading that book, but allow myself a fuller, layered experience of it. It is not a sentimental journey but a new adventure.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

internal discipline: not a routine matter

Every day I brush my teeth twice. I've done this for at least 50 years, not able to account for the first 8 in which I bet I only brushed in the morning since dental hygiene didn't have the ubiquitous commercial value it has since accrued. In a way, teeth brushing is part of the routine of my days no matter where I am, or what is on my schedule, both of which fluctuate regularly.  I'm present when I'm brushing, noticing what's going on, but for the most part I'm just getting it done before heading off into the day or off to bed.  This is not a matter of internal discipline, but of external routine put into place for my dental health and sense of wellbeing... I am not a hermit after all, and my mouth has a part in my social behavior.

Meditation is not the same as brushing teeth, though I've had lots of people give advice to set a specific time of day and to routinize the behavior of taking the seat of mindfulness.  I know others for whom this is a way of life, but for me at this stage anyway, the routinizing of time of day isn't happening. Surely I could schedule meditation like tooth brushing and just get it done, but it isn't in my life as a daily obligation.

Meditation is, for me, an exquisite exercise in internal discipline, a matter of choice. I do not sit in order to say, "check, done that." I do not sit in order to see how long I can sit today as opposed to how long I sat yesterday or last week or last month. There is no measure for me, no goal, no established procedure.  There is no amount of sitting that gets me where I have to go.  Many might argue that mine is not a discipline at all, being so open ended, so haphazard. Separating routine from discipline seems to be part of my practice.

Unpredictability, curiosity and the swinging pendulum of joy and sorrow all drive my practice into its daily form. Taking the time when it presents itself, and organizing my days so that that time does present itself are tandem skill sets that are always in development. Failure in either of these is deeply felt and motivates me more. Like bringing yoga off the mat, this brings meditation off the cushion for me.

My practice is fueled by unpredictability, curiosity and that swinging pendulum. It is not a book that I pick up and find my bookmark and begin from where I left off.  All I ever have is this very moment. My tight left quadriceps might rule the world one morning, or my reactivity to the daily news, or the catching of my breath in my mid lungs, or the expansion of my energy beyond my skin. There is no way to predict the multiplex of movies that will be running in my mind, or the syncopated rhythms of the world around me. I have no interest in avoiding those elements, but rather seek it all out of a deep curiosity for the entirety of being present.

I am not attempting to psychoanalyze myself for 30 minutes,  to placate my emotions for 20 minutes, neutralize my political leanings in 10 minutes, nor solve my schedule conflicts in 5 minutes of silent sitting.  I never hold still in my seat; awareness of my breath moves me, continuously reminding me that I am alive in this very moment.

Developing this level of internal discipline is a great challenge, but that is what calls me to my practice. I don't expect to be a better person, or even a calmer person, as I have set aside these along with other expectations as my practice develops. My most cherished moments are the ones with no expectations and no boundaries, no interpretations of what arises, no way to leave off and bookmark it.  Success for me in this expenditure of time and energy is, I suppose, how I continue living my life fueled by just this unpredictability, curiosity and my own swinging on the pendulum of joy and sorrow. Meditation has intensified my awareness, eliminating many lines I had thought were boundary lines, as they either vanished into the mist, or emerged as entirely different structural elements.

My little local yoga studio, Shambhala Yoga & Dance Center, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, (where I lead a 20 minute meditation from 5-5:20pm on Tuesdays before teaching a beginners yoga class) is planning to embark on its first meditation intensive experience. Several of us who teach at the Center are considering this and preparing ourselves to help structure and support a month of days of meditation practice among our fellow teachers and students. This preparation has me looking at my own practice from a more structural point of view, and thinking about how to share this ever-beginning again practice with others.  I am grateful for the spotlight on this in my own life, and am interested to see what turns up!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Growing Solo: Skills in Class, Explored in Private

Yoga classes are where I learned to see myself through the actual experience of being myself. I felt my resistance to external direction; I recognized deep inner sorrows; I discovered flexibility and habitual patterns. Over time, every bit of this moved off the mat into my daily life, relationships, self definitions.  On a grand scale of patterning I was shifting and changing, but the minutia upon which the patterns all relied was discovered only in my personal practice. Allowing the experiences on the mat to go where they led themselves, taking on the challenges of body and mind that arose from my own body and mind.  Classes will give you the tools for this, but only the personal practice gives you the opportunity.

An example of this might be a reluctance to kick up into handstand with "the other leg." It is one of those moments in private when you face your drive, your judgment, your fear of failure and the pain of that. You can seek out the mechanisms by which the body can actually support the move, rather than throw the body into the panic again and again until it somehow "works." You can deconstruct and reinvent the pattern in the movement, and without a care about the handstand, discover the rising into it. Feeling pain in class in a joint or in a movement, you will quite simply try to avoid it the next time. In private practice you can explore the sources to support safe movement, or to genuinely protect the point in jeopardy.  You can evolve the practice from the foundation into the pose or movement, building the resilience and awareness that bring you fully into the pose rather than aiming for the shape of the asana. Strength and stamina can be built, and the self defined differently.

Meditation practice requires a most intimate connection to solitary practice. In a group of people, meditation puts you directly in touch with your own mind and habits of mind.  The group can support you with community, scheduling, breath around you, and a little pressure to keep your seat out of shame or anxiety.  A group can even offer you material to work with in the form of distraction and dharma themes upon which to focus your thinking.  It is in your own practice where you find the threads with which you have been spinning the stories, and where you can stop that spinning and can observe the threads, and the stories, without having to give over to watching them.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Midday Traffic: A Lesson in Equanimity

Driving down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn on a repair errand, heading towards the neighborhoods that reach the sea. Double parked trucks and cars, impatient zoomers tucking in between the obstacles and cutting back into the reluctantly single lane of barely moving traffic. The bus here and there, lumbering in and out of the current; slow heavy construction vehicles grinding along methodically avoiding left turn lanes and thereby blocking everything else. A very hot day it was too, the sidewalks crowded with people from nearly every nation on earth.  What a heavenly enterprise! Imagining that I could take the short time between my teaching commitments and get this thing done!

When I felt a sense of time rise up, it turned into an endless hot open field. As a low slung car with Pennsylvania plates cut back in front of me for the third time, I burst out laughing. This driver is staying busy, I thought, moving in and out as if they are getting ahead, yet every time they end up right in front of me in my sluggish journey, steadily heading towards that specific authorized local repair shop on Quentin.  Any tension about my schedule shuts down my energy and my sense of good humor, so I let it go, figuring that I made this decision well informed and with every chance of success. Anxiety about the light changing to red before I get to it closes off my good will, which I feel towards the small car in front of me full of chatting young women. Why waste my time on that? I have watched them try once to get around the dump truck and ended up back in front of me. Eventually we both made it around that truck. They are occupying themselves with each other's company, so I choose to enjoy that too. Why worry about traffic lights as we wait for the green light in tandem?

When I take a revolved balancing posture in my practice, I know that my energy lines must be open in the same way as when I drive down Flatbush Avenue in mid afternoon. Ready for anything, steady of purpose, good humored about the flailing or throbbing or whirling outliers of body, mind and context. Keeping my energy openly flowing in all directions, without judging the wobbly foot or the tangled gaze, I can find spaces in my spine as I twist, and in my mind as I watch where the struggles arise.

Noticing that impulse to want the light to remain in my favor is the same as noticing that I want my left hip to allow the same twist as my right. It might, but the desire for that only clogs up my energy and shifts my focus from being fully present. I am much more likely to lose the integrity of my spine or my footing as I reach for conditions, or for judgment or for outcome. This turning of my inner focus towards equanimity happens all along Flatbush Avenue, and throughout my yoga asana sequence. The depth of the practice is what allows me to have good will towards what is happening, and to choose where to turn my focus, keeping my attention on opening my energy, noticing where it gets caught up. So from Flatbush I find myself turning onto Quentin, and in my practice, I hold steady with energy flowing towards foundational support and endless possibility.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Freedom is Beyond the Mind's Construction Zone

A year or so ago a friend of mine posted this on Facebook: "There is always unconditional happiness present when one is going through personal suffering. You just have to awaken to it. Feel inspired..."

To me, this was a neat way of expressing the idea that most of our suffering is directly related to what we think, or more precisely, what we think we are experiencing. It was especially poignant to me at that time, since I had just lost my parents to conditions of aging beyond their control.

If pain or loss in the moment overwhelms our sense of being, then all we have in that moment to experience is the misery of pain or loss. If we can remain present, the suffering becomes one level of our experience but not all of it. This leaves that little bit of leeway, or breathing room, to feel alive beyond the pain or the loss, and become aware of other options.  Sounds a little other worldly, but it can be quite a surprise to find that there is still a layer of being that is not consumed with the conditional and reactive part of life.

We excel at constructing a mental world in which to live, each of us serving the continuously running mind. It is a bit as though our lives are all about walking our heads around, or even just sitting on the couch swimming in mind soup.  Sometimes watching TV or engaging with the computer can really bring this out: the body sits for hours and hours, but the mind is running along with whatever is in front of it on the screen.

Stubbing a toe brings up the immediacy of reactive nature, yet we continue standing on the other leg (there's hope for life beyond the sheer pain of the moment).  Perhaps there is a thought strand about "what should I do for this toe right now?" and also perhaps a strand that triggered an emotional line of "stupid idiot" thinking aimed towards the self or the leg of the chair or the person who left that rock in the path.  Meanwhile, the body goes on standing or hopping, and the digestion creates an appetite for lunch, and part of the mind is remembering why one was walking in this direction anyway.

All of this can simply be left to happen on its own, and there we are, a constant construction site with louder aggressive moments when the jack hammers or circular saws are going, as well as quieter ones more like plastering or even laying cement for the brick or tile work. All active, some by choice others by condition, yet our awareness and possibilities go far beyond all that. Even with jackhammer in hand we can feel temperature on the skin, smell the blooming clover wafting in from the empty lot next door, and even softly hum a song remembered, or a rhythm that supports our activity.

Past all that is equilibrium, the part of the self that knows even in the moment of loss that we will keep breathing when our loved one stops breathing. We can strengthen our ability to tune in this way, to get past the construction zone into that more open space of mind. With practice through meditation, and yoga,  we can learn to allow ourselves to detach from reactivity while still reacting; we can create a structure of acceptance that is not judgmental so that we are free from the good-bad aspect of the situation and can actually just feel fully; and we can lean in towards the deeper understanding that we exist beyond just feeling the intensity of this particular moment. Just as with the stubbed toe, or the dying parent, that moment will be intense, but freedom seems to come from being present fully in that moment, not clutching at nor shying away from what is happening.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Energy, Choices & Self Interest

Goals, action and intention all use our energy and help us fill our days, along with their shadows of anxiety, confusion and judgment.  Every time we do anything, from putting butter on toast to signing a contract for a job, we choose how we will spend this moment and many to come, knowingly or innocent of our motives. Usually there are some indicators that help us act in what we believe to be our self interest, to take on work that is worthwhile because of our training, or the paycheck or other benefit, whatever it may be that we think we want or need.  Perhaps it is the choice for taste over cholesterol level (butter on toast), or it can be social connection over isolation, or cleanliness over dirtiness, going to class or watching TV, there are many moments of choice that involve our energy and our identity and self concept in subtle and obvious ways.

It is hard to get away from the fact that self interest can be at the core of spiritual practice. In some ways it is an act on behalf of the self that drives a person towards some understanding greater than that of the first layer of self interest: those actions that take care of the basics of food, shelter, perhaps on behalf family and a wider layer of friends. Perhaps a connection to spiritual ideas can help further these more practical concerns, once a person believes that there may be something beyond the small isolated self to be considered. Self interest is definitely part of praying for a particular outcome or even giving donations of time or money to help promote the community in which one lives or to help lessen the suffering of those around us. We can use our energy to feel better about ourselves through helping others, and to feel better on behalf of others for having used our energy this way.

The next level of spiritual action could be turning one's life more fully over to spiritual practices from a deep desire to improve one's future condition as in "going to heaven" or improving "karma" for the next life. Some would say this is self-less behavior, but I see self-interest here too. Even in this matter it is a choice of how one uses the energy of this moment, and what manner of reward or outcome one expects or seeks. This seems to me to be connected to one's self concept as much as whether to eat toast or raw whole grains. We operate based on what we think is best or right or meets our criteria for usefulness, or offers us part of a goal we seek. This goal might be the betterment of living conditions for other living beings, or equitable means of resolving conflicts, or ensuring nutrition for malnourished infants, or helping a random passerby cross the street safely, or ending one's class on time. There is no hierarchy that makes one choice "better" other than how we see the choice and that, I think, is deeply colored by self interest and our ability to perceive who we are.

Spending one's life truly doing and being on behalf of others rather than just for one's self has a totally different impact in the world in the moment,  and in its consequences. This might be more obvious in one endeavor than another, say changing laws or governments versus nurturing a student's meditation practice. Yet the expenditure of energy that helps one's own child with homework or a co-worker resolve a moral dilemma, or in cooking one's own food from unprocessed local foods rather than buying a processed cheese food product,  is of the same temperament. Each of these small uses of energy serves the purpose of giving the self a clarity of purpose beyond selfishness even though the motive may be self interest. Perhaps it is a question of seeing the self in others, of recognizing that the self has an interest in the benefit to others.

Some people believe in heaven and hell, some believe in karma and the endless cycles of samskara; while some believe that all we have is this moment with no deeper consequence than that of this moment.  In any of these belief systems, it makes sense to me to use the energy we have to actively take on self interest, while at the same time developing our ability to be aware of what we do and why we do it. This cultivation of awareness, developing the ability to perceive our self and our patterns, is the basic nature of yogic practice and meditation experiences. This is the path towards recognizing the self and its interests in the welfare and conditional nature impacting other living beings.

Yoga does not make me a better person nor put me in a realm outside of self interest. It is as if yoga gives me the purest intelligence, like that of a bee: honing in on the pollen, using everything I have in me to collect from this one and that one until I must rest in the coolness of the evening. The bee in me is  doing what I have within me to do with all my energy, unflinchingly and without concern for the potential consequences of pollination and flowering, fruiting and feeding others. The bee in me is on the path, fully realizing my potential in the moment, doing what I can do in my present form.

So when I think about my teaching and find myself searching for motives, arranging and planning outcomes, I laugh and shrug it off. It is the energy of the bloom itself that draws the bee, the energy of the bee that brings the bloom. Letting go and seeing the dualities, I can feel my self interest in the benefits to my students -- whatever they are, and remain grateful to my students for my own practice. Will this get me points on the karmic scale? Who is doing the counting?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Balance & Politics: Finding a Leg to Stand On

Oh the politics of the moment are such fertile ground for my practice!! Watching the pingpong ball fly back and forth between angry outraged entrenched political adversaries just tempts my blood pressure and old habits to rise to the occasion.  How to find center, that ground upon which I can stand and see clearly that the intentions on all sides are fundamentally emerging from well meaning impulses, and get beneath the superficial slapdash untruths to the kernels of fear and control that shape political policy and so often public opinion and beliefs.  Just try standing on one leg to get in touch with that combination of fear and desperate desire for control.

There is a moment of fear for all of us when we take one foot off the ground. Funny that every step we take requires that one foot lift off, and with practice and experience we begin to have confidence that momentum will carry us forward to the next step. On stairs too, or stopping in mid step to change direction, we must get through that moment before touch down.  Sometimes we choose not to notice that moment. In my yoga teaching I call attention to that moment, making it mindful, cultivating awareness of the great possibilities that are already within us to let go of the fear-based pattern, and judgments -- allowing the reality of the moment through.

In asana practice, we seek the source and structure of balance, the foundation that supports that lift so that it is no longer mysterious. We find our muscles and bones, we widen our hands and feet on the earth, we stretch through the binds and open where we thought we were closed. It is still scary.  The mind can create the scenario in a split second, without words or threats. The body reacts to the intensity of risk and effort; our self image is on the line. The foundation holds steady, and the breath, with mindfulness, continues smoothly expanding and releasing.  Perhaps we experiment with ankle rotations, or lifting that leg and straightening it, or propping it against ourself, foot to inner thigh. The permutations of balance become endless once we find that center. In reality there is freedom where in the grasping for control we lose our foundation.  This is the difference between standing on one foot and standing in fear of falling off our self made pedestal.

Still, this is a solitary pursuit. One body, one mind, working closely with faith and memory to maintain equilibrium, dwell in equanimity, experience openness and find the possibilities.  Creating a social environment that fosters this ability in others, no matter where they stand, now that would get my vote in a flash. Not that yoga practice will necessarily change one's politics ... but at least there's the opportunity to be clear from whence our motivations arise for the impulses to run the lives of others with rules of our own making.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Source: Attentiveness or Suffering?

I've heard writers and artists say that the source of their creative energy often seems to come from their anxieties or pain, that they feel driven to mine their demons and express what they find there. This isn't true for all creative people, but when I think about the times that I have thrown myself on the yoga mat or the meditation cushion in desperation... well, it gets me there, doesn't it?

It certainly isn't odd that people need motivation to do something active rather than remain passive. Students, myself included, often come to yoga class for a purpose, to solve something, or to get to a place that feels better in one way or another. This kind of assumes that they begin in a different place than that, one where something needs solving or improvement or perhaps there is a long term goal in mind. I go to classes to spice up my own practice or teaching, to learn something from someone else's sequence or perspective, to experience yoga in a communal context,  all of which is hard to do by myself. I do have sources for adding into my practice from reading, from observations of my own teaching experiences, even from using music to accompany practice or not, or to practice in different contexts with and without the usual props. But injury or anxiety will get me to the mat or cushion fast!

What if our practice brings us to a place of equanimity? Does it then become hard to continue the practice unless we routinize it? Doesn't a routine dull the senses? Lull the mind into complacency? Or set us up for judgment and comparison? Where does the urge for inquiry come from? Must it be suffering, or dissatisfaction, or making a goal?

If we take the moment and tune in, just this moment, I think the experience itself actually is the motivation. Attentiveness is the source of inspiration. Even the most beginning student who arrives in class feeling poor self image or damaged in a shoulder joint can very quickly become entirely consumed with remembering to align their knee over their ankle, or finding the neck adjustment that brings the weight of their head above their heart. What they derive from this is intrinsic: alignment of the self and noticing the difference in their normal patterns. The original motives vanish with rewards that are embedded in the experience. Not just savasana, but even in the moments of rolling up the mats, the sense of integrity and integration of mind/body/spirit, of wonder and peace, combine into a feeling of wellbeing.

Can we get there without the pain or dissatisfaction that drives us in the first place to get to the mat? Perhaps not. Rarely is it joy that brings us to that first meditation experience.  It is one of the truths of human experience that this layer of irritation (judgment or separation from seeing and accepting the self as we truly are) can motivate the deepest search. Is this what provokes all spiritual study, the yearning to understand and explain, integrate and absorb beyond the small self, its conditional, impermanent and frail nature?

These motivations can be called suffering or misery. In Patanjali's terms they are the kleshas, those 5 aspects which doom us to the never-ending cycle of suffering, separating us from our true nature and the bliss and equanimity of that nature. These five aspects are Avidya - ignorance of the true self (not recognizing who we are), Asmita - egoism (seeing the separate self  as all important), Raga - attachment (things, definitions, judgments, others), Dvesha - aversion (avoidance, pushing away, judging), Abhimivesa - fear of loss (fear of death, of losing our self).

The crazy thing is that with practice (paying attention) we can see our own suffering as the source for profound inquiry, even a challenge to rise to our full stature and cultivate greater awareness of the breadth of our own experiences. Even suffering is a transitory experience, a result of conditions, and with practice that, too, can be experienced with something like equanimity.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Certainty is an act of Imagination

Every moment is an opportunity for drama. Consumed with physical and emotional feedback, we play out scene after scene from the moment we wake and even throughout the roller coaster of dream life at night. As with traveling in a foreign land, each difference from our expectations can bring thrill or frustration; each aspect of experience or sensation that we cannot control or explain offers us another chance for self involvement and crippling attachments.  We confirm our suspicions, we seek out the familiar among the unfamiliar, we attend to our reactions with endless interest.

Being fully present in the moment does require a level of engagement that is intense, but without the drama of self-centeredness that seems to block vital qualities of awareness.  Noticing what I feel, physically or emotionally, is not the same as being ruled by that or literally living from that reactive state.  I am beginning to see certainty as an act of imagination, a construction that we each build with the blocks of experience available to us. It is complex to function within the wash of conflicting feelings and insights that arise when I don't pin down meaning, or block out the untamed data as it comes in. Yet that is a most wonderful way of experiencing the self in action.

There is nothing wrong with knowledge, experienced or learned in other ways. But knowledge is not in a vacuum. To be useful to me, it takes seeing context and conditions and accepting the array of possibilities that can literally change what I think I know. Letting go of knowing as "certainty" and understanding that illusion does not mean unreal, just profoundly impermanent.

And as when traveling in a foreign land, as soon as I begin to make generalities, I know that I am blind to the truth, which is myriad and ever changing. I consider the variation when opening one bottle of wine after another, made from the same grapes grown in the same row of vines, harvested the same day and filtered and fermented the same length of time. This just reinforces my growing sense that an open and curious mind gives access to the broadest palate of experience, and an intensity in living.

What else are we here for, if not to experience our own lives, through the filters we have developed along the way? We can let the filters be like blinds and shutters, that we can adjust once we see them clearly. We cannot really set this aside, but can live with blinds and shutters set in position, or take on learning to see them for what they are and adjust them for the light at any time of day or night. We can still protect ourselves from groping in the dark or being blinded by the brilliance of direct sunlight depending on what we require for visibility or privacy.  Imagination can help us make these adjustments and enjoy where we are in the moment.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Meaning of language

Traveling in parts of the world where I don't speak the language, I feel my internal pendulum swing. Seeking meaning in gestures and eye contact can switch quickly to cutting off and retracting the tendrils of communication. Here as with so much of being human, there is a struggle to feel at peace with what is so. Can we be content with silent company? Can we afford to step beyond comfort to reach another?

I listen for tone of voice,watch the faces as people speak to each other in a cafe, observe the expressions of people on the metro. Who we think we are and how we appear are seemingly separate identities. A grim visage, a lightly held shoulder structure, eyes that don't meet those of strangers, portray the being but not the personality. Some of the attributes are those of systemic cultural training. I am closely watching my own tendencies to create meaning in the newness and obscurity of language here.

How many words I use in my own language and how few in another! How beautiful is the precision of meaning when the idea is clear. Joyful, kind, tired and curious, I must use all the other means as my words fail to find that precision in a language I do not speak.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Weed Control or Right Action?

Every time I weed or water, I take stock of how things are going. I've made decisions to push back the wild field growth and plant specific flowers or edible fruits, roots or leaves. This gives me responsibilities but doesn't really put me in charge. When it doesn't rain for days on end, I feel the urge to provide water, since I'm the one who asked this plant to grow in this place soaked in sun and dried by wind. If it rains too much, I am the one who puts boards, or rings of salty or sharp materials out to attract the slugs from the plants that get besieged the most. I know that deer will prune my cherry tomatoes and lily buds, some woodchuck may eliminate my zinnias or half a cucumber plant, the birds and chipmunks will some of the blueberries. I understand that all my effort to weed in any one place will be repeated again and again and grow over if I neglect that task.

Today, after many sunny days, there is a drift of cloud cover and I know that means today's task will be transplanting. There are just a few plants that are not thriving as they could. In a couple cases, I attribute this to wrong placement: planted where once they had dappled shade and now have too much sun because of the loss of a nearby bush or tree or the opposite case, planted once in sun and now because of the growth of nearby trees, not enough sun to flourish.

For me it is intuition more than garden design that brings the shovel to hand. I know that where I plan to put that astilbe it will have a good mix of what it needs, but I also know that to make even a small hole for it, I will be excavating rocks and filling in with soil from somewhere else. I cannot control what will happen. Sometimes moles will eat the roots of a healthy happy plant and it withers and dies. Sometimes for two years in a row I don't see a plant bloom because the deer have chomped the buds and then there is a spectacular Spring show, unlike any I've ever seen because somehow the deer passed it by that season.

Yet I do feel the weight of my actions, playing with the lives of plants, even if for my own good purposes or their better cultivation. I carefully cut the chard leaves that we will eat, leaving the plant's newest growth to continue. I cut the lettuce, or broccoli rabe in the coolness of morning, water in the coolness of evening, and do that which I know to do in ways that I hope disturb the natural cycles the least. I see the wilting leaves in the hot sun, and think about the evening's watering to sustain them. I know that the buds that open in the morning care nothing for me or my appreciative gaze.

I have taken it on to grow these beautiful and edible plants where there were once different beautiful and edible plants (though perhaps not edible for me), leaving many wild patches of raspberries and blackberries, roses and barbary, gooseberries and elderberries, along with the field full of grasses and thistles, milkweed, joe pye weed, yarrow, vetch and so many others whose names I may never know or cannot remember. As soon as I turn my back, the plants I have planted here will struggle to keep their footing as the wild ones return. Each seeding for its own survival, spreading roots, and seeking out the moist earth.

Today, after I moved an echinacea from deep shade into a sunnier spot, the sun came out. That poor plant drooped, even with the good soil and water I had given it. I put a wire cage around it and draped a white tee shirt over it for protection. Half an hour later, the clouds came in seriously and sporadic rain drops began to fall. The tee shirt came off, the droopy stalks still sagged, but perhaps tomorrow will straighten them up. The coral bells, astilbe, heliobore, and goatsbeard have all settled down as though they were just waiting for this moment. Today the gray sky brings me joy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Stuck on the Details

Irritation lives in the details. Admiration can also. Mostly it seems humans vacillate between micromanaging and the gross motor equivalent of emotional responses. It is that tiny splinter, or those dirty dishes in the sink, or that little chocolate on your pillow that triggers the focal point, but then the whole system kicks into gear around it.

I love this image because for me it is nothing and everything all at once. It doesn't represent any thing, yet is directly derived from something specific. It evokes many emotional and visual possibilities for me, yet remains undefined in purpose, place or object. It is actually a close up of a painting by Jeff Zilm that I saw at a recent art opening in Brooklyn. I'd never heard of him, having gone to the show to support a young artist I've been following since he was in undergraduate studies with my son. Amid the roar and heat of that boisterous opening crowd, the first thing that caught me like a spider in a web, was this quiet intricate flat work. From there, from this morsel, I was able to open to the other works, the dense noisy crowd, the artists and their brave show of art in the world: Detail as diving platform.

In yoga teaching it falls to me to cover minutiae and grand scale, to introduce the whole body-mind interaction of balance by drawing your awareness to the weight in your heel, for example. Yet I will warn you away from thinking too much about that heel, from getting stuck on the formula of sticking to that detail, and advise you to notice occasionally to feel your weight in your feet, to feel your feet on the earth (okay, really the floor). Broadening that out into how you notice this foundational support and your relationship to it, and when you notice that, developing your awareness of this interplay can shift the way you operate in daily life. Now that's a very big picture.

The idea of single pointed focus is a way of training the mind, not so much to see that specific detail to the exclusion of everything else, but really to enable the honing of attention without blocking everything else out. Noticing that you do or don't feel weight in your heel can help you develop a more complete sense of balance and understand what might be happening with your body's alignment to set you off balance. This can lead fairly quickly to discoveries of all kinds. Taking this into a different context, what would happen if the next time someone irritated or disappointed you, you could see that act clearly in a broad context. If you could hold that focus and be aware of the larger sense of that individual person, the structure of the situation, what you brought to it with your own expectations, the set up of the scene that put the two of you where you are now, the background and history of that relationship, and an idea of the potential for growth and sharing that exists in that moment ... well, you get the idea. It reduces the likelihood of a knee-jerk reaction, and lessens the interest in grasping at that detail, providing a different kind of opening for both of you to respond. Perhaps the insight of what you expected in the first place will give a view of yourself, and a relationship of how that person attempted to express themselves or meet your needs will begin to emerge. Perhaps an insight into the history of your reaction will enable a shift from what you thought to what is actually so.

Does it matter whether you feel your weight in your heel? Stand up and play with that for a minute, focusing on it as the center of an endless concentric field of experience and awareness. Well, that's you being here, using the detail, but not stuck on it.

The Fourth of July brings this idea into a new realm for me. It is awesome that many years ago several groups of settlers decided to hash out enough details to come up with a grand plan for functioning as separate and uniquely equal parts in a common structure for a greater common good. The details can be argued, and we know that many human and other beings were left out of this idea of equality and security. In fact, the majority of human beings living in this land at that time were left out. Women, children, native people and people from other parts of the world who were not directly descended (and even some who were) from the Western European male lineage were not included as sharing equally, but as property or less than human, accorded varying levels of disrespect for health and wellbeing. It has been a long time of working beyond some of those details, and using the framework established in those days has been both a benefit and a detriment.

So I celebrate with a focus on the central core of goodness and possibility in that action, actively working to see the fullest array of what we have here in this country without attaching judgment to it, and hope for growth in our global and individual view of humans on earth. It is not always easy to get beyond sorting out where I feel the weight in my own feet, and surely that awareness of balance must come first, but I do have hope for balance beyond that.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Money & Watering Asparagus

No one talked about money when I was a kid growing up. In truth, our family just made ends meet on the salary of my dad's job as a meteorologist/government scientist while my mom tried to keep painting with 3 small complicated kids. I didn't have much stuff and wasn't involved with spending money or managing it within the family. Oh well I did get my ten cent weekly allowance to help me learn about money, and saved all but a few pennies and opened a savings account in a local bank just as I was expected to do. That bank that actually went bankrupt when I was about 10 or 11, and they didn't have Federal Deposit Insurance so I lost the sum total of my childhood wealth - $25 as I recall. The pennies I spent went to penny candy, the memory of which remains as I can feel it right now, as though standing in front of the array of boxes and jars: this one 2 for a penny, these 5 for a penny, these 2 pennies each. Knowing that whatever I chose would be candy, knowing that I could only have as many as my 5 pennies would buy, these were the parameters within which I considered packaging, shapes, quantities, and flavors. If my older siblings were along, which one or both invariably were because I was not allowed to walk that far from home without them, there was influence according to their tastes and their ideas of "value." More for the money seemed crucial to them, where I, 5 years younger, didn't always feel that way.

Over time, I was progressively more responsible for myself financially until I was through college, paying my way with summer jobs and part time work, sharing apartments with others, and eventually selling my day times and life effort for one salary or another. As it turned out, my husband was much the same, and we joined forces with a small savings account and frugal habits of home cooking and a tendency to the cheap entertainment of walking around town, foraging in second hand record and book stores and cooking and eating with friends. Then children, then elderly parents, then managing financial affairs for my elders, then losing my parents and inheriting some of those same resources that I had so carefully managed for them.

As I stand at the edge of the asparagus bed with the hose pulled out to nearly its longest extension, I watch the drops fall onto the dry earth. I carefully soak each patch of this rectangle and move the cascade of water to the next section to give the earth time to soak up the moisture before returning to that place a second or third time. Asparagus roots grow from at least a foot deep and spread the crowns in a network close to the surface. Watering the surface is not enough to support the plant, and evaporates in the day's heat.

Broadening my view, I see the edges of the asparagus bed, our cultivated blueberries on one side and the wild raspberries on the other. A bird flits through my range of vision and awakens the realization that I am also perceiving the myriad sounds of birds, the hungry nestlings in the bushes beyond the raspberries. The opening of the downward slope glows in the bright sun, though I stand in the shade of what I know to be a birch tree behind me. I hear its leaves overhead in the breeze. Further behind me is the gravel drive (baking in the sun), the lilies, the wild grass, the road, trees, field, rocky ledge, hill, sky, onward towards where the sun rises and the moon too. I shift the hose to the next dry patch, keeping the center of my focus on soaking the new spears emerging from the bed, and encouraging the roots of the fernlike greens of the spears too thin to pick that have gone on to flower and seed. The muted hills across the valley are like dreams in a ring around me.

Staying focused on what I am actually doing, I am learning to allow my awareness to include what else is also present beyond my own action. What a shift this is from self absorption! In this way I am trying to manage my new condition of having family money that in some ways still feels unreal to me. I've invested most of the money in hopes of providing for a time of life when my husband and I will not be required to trade our time for money. I find that my generosity can express itself in new ways beyond what I can do with my own hands, presence or words, helping others with projects that require funds up front in order to keep on with their missions of building joy and possibility for others. Part of me knows that all I will ever have is living with my choices and offering possibilities to others. How much money changes this is yet to be seen. The biggest change is to offer my husband the possibility that he does not have to continue to earn more money to ensure our future financial safety, which is all an illusion anyway, but which definitely feels more secure with more resources. This is a a huge consequence of our frugal saving, and now the addition of generational savings.

When the asparagus grows too tall, it loses its sweet succulence. I cut it anyway, for the health of the bed, and make broth from the inedible (at least for me) stalks. This is also not something I learned as a child, where we never had a vegetable garden, nor did my mother enjoy cooking (though she loved to eat beautiful fresh foods). My parents were basically first generation of immigrant parents who were not farmers but intellectuals and tradespeople. Probably their grandmothers (or their neighbors) had small kitchen gardens, but that was not what came to America with the next generation. There was an emphasis on intellectual pursuit and freedom of expression, not surprising given the oppression, segregation and limitations set on them from whence they came. There was one branch of cousins that experimented with farm life, attempting to take on agriculture and social structures in the Midwest in the early 20th Century. Mostly it resulted in advanced degrees in scientific fields among the offspring of that clan.

So I stand at the edge of the asparagus bed, feeling sure that the money in the retirement account will be subject to the vagaries of our political and cultural unrest. I am just as sure that the heritage of my ancestors in some way showers down upon the asparagus crowns deep in the earth as I shift my hose onto this quadrant for the third time. The weather has been so hot and dry (blazing wild exuberance and despair in fires out West); the sweet crispness of the raw asparagus is startling and deeply moving. Perhaps the idea of independence is turning away from control towards the freedom to broaden awareness and take in a fuller view. It is this vision that I wish for the people living now. This is their only moment to be awake.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Independence & Freedom

Thinking about independence and freedom as I prepare for the Fourth of July. I see the historical importance of this nation claiming its separation from the British governmental structures and priorities. Yet even that separation seems an illusion to me, as does the independence that is so highly touted today. In our country's politics there is much argument and vitriol over what people imagine to be their independence, a confusion of independence with the desire to be in control, and conflating freedom with a choice of actions.

When we put a plant in the ground we expect the roots to spread and open into the dirt seeking nutrients and moisture for its survival. The plant grows as a separate entity yet must have rain, sun, the balancing of night and day, and many other conditions in order to thrive. This is no surprise to anyone, and in this example it is easier to see that everything is co-arising. The plant's life relies upon the oceans and the evaporation that brings the rain, the wind that carries the clouds as well as the rivers that bring the water down stream, the particles in the soil absorbing the detritus of rotting tree limbs, the heat of the sun transforming the chlorophyll, the enzymes, weeds and bees, the whole connecting network of interlaced parts. We can see the plant as a separate piece and as part of the whole, but we know that it cannot exist as a separate form.

I think it is amazing that we so easily think that I am independent if I pay my own rent, put water in the tea kettle, put it on the stove and turn on the gas to boil it for my own tea or coffee; that my choices of which tea or what coffee beans represents freedom. The water from the faucet ties me to the rain, clouds and ocean, all the engineers and fabricators who put the pipes together(and their parents, teachers and friends), the workers and ancient cultures that figured out the filtration mechanisms and all of that. This line of thinking puts me inextricably in a web both ancient and immediate.

There is such confusion about freedom. In every moment there is a deep freedom, unaffected by conditions. It relies upon the view, the viewer, and awareness. This is not to be confused with an ability to willfully choose according to one's desires or having the possibility of controlling outcomes. Freedom in any moment (THIS moment) enables the experience of total interconnectedness, that awareness of co-arising, and escape from the dictates of conditional nature. We can drop the dualities - and shift the focus of our gaze to a much wider way of seeing, even with a very acute focus.

Even one moment of this freedom is liberating. The responsibility then follows to honor one's place in the scheme of things, offering the gifts we have, doing what we can to see the truth rather than what we want to see, and take actions that do less harm. It still feels good to handle one's own affairs - the rent, the tea selection etc. but it can actually be quite comforting to understand that we are, in fact, not independent, not separate. Even the pain of parting (divorce, immigration or death) is a little softer with this deeper view.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Time is on your side in this one

After the rain cleared this afternoon I walked the lawnmower back and forth across the length, the slope, the width and the curving sides of the large swath of grass we keep short in the midst of the wild fields and woods upstate. As I walked, I noticed my breathing become more textured on the uphills, softer on the downs. I glance at the plantings, the trees, look out for toads or bees in the grass, and take note of the way things are after all the rain we've had lately. We recently divided and replanted a great many of our irises and lilies in order to remove an invasive ground cover and to give each of these beautiful flowering stalks more air and light. Of all these iris almost none have bloomed in this, their special moment. I checked out the few blooming on short stalks and kept walking. Last year that bed was a jaw-dropping mass of beauty. This year there are short leaf spears grass-like leaves, constant weeding, and no blooms to speak of. The jury is still out on the lilies, whose time is not yet, but they look young and undeveloped compared to those we did not disturb.

It can take several seasons for a plant to build the stamina and connection to the earth that it needs to send out those miraculous blooms that thrill us. Even after developing a thick and luscious clump of stalks full of buds, those stalks can be chomped by a deer, or broken by the weight of the rain on the first open petals. Yet the roots and leaves continue to do their part to repair and rebuild, to continue the trajectory and after a dormant winter, will try again for the blooms that help create their seeds. Even lilies and iris that spread primarily by their roots are driven to produce those stark and beautiful seed pods that shake out their dried seeds in the winter winds. It is even more dramatic with the little seeds I planted in the vegetable garden that start with just two fragile leaves, then begin to send up the leaves that are characteristic of their species. It takes all season for some to flower, fruit and ripen, where some produce delicious edible leaves almost right away.

So too with a yoga practice. Even if you were once a magnificent blooming clump, when you start to establish a new practice, it takes time. The seeds you plant are of all types - those that produce something right away and those that may take years to evolve into where they are those eloquent blooms. With yoga, time is always on your side. No matter what your age or your original set of conditions, the practice picks up right there and no matter what the external conditions might be, there are ways to continue growth and deepen your practice. Perhaps the joy of seeing those small immature clumps of not-quite-ready-to-bloom iris is what I feel every time I approach my practice. These moments on the mat, like those short green shoots, are full of possibilities and part of the process of realizing who I am.