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.