Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ironing: Present but not Perfect

The season of ironing has returned. The school year has begun, the temperatures have dropped slightly and it is time for me to catch up with the ironing pile of my husband's shirts that has waited through the summer, growing slowly. He has always worn cotton shirts, and somehow over the past 25-30 years, I've taken on the task of keeping them somewhat free of wrinkles.

It was with some surprise that having started ironing the back of the fifth shirt, I could not remember if I had completely ironed the back of the previous shirt. Stunned for a moment, I stood, wracking my brain and then I actually went over and looked at it.  I had indeed ironed it. Where the heck was I when that happened that I couldn't remember doing it? Was I on automatic pilot?

No, not on automatic, but more present in the moment than in recording the results and committing my actions to memory. As I am ironing, I am acutely aware of the texture of the fabric under my hand and the weight of the iron, feeling the heat of the steam rising, the breeze from the window. My eyes, hands and mind are synchronized with my breath and my attention is fully on what I am doing. Or so I thought. In fact, my heart is also holding the person for whom I am smoothing out the wrinkles, in some ways encircling the shoulders upon which this placate will rest, envisioning the arms and hands that will emerge from this sleeve, once it is rolled up, as it always is when my husband is in action.

So how can it be that I am so present, yet I've finished one shirt and begun another without memory and certainty?  Perhaps it is not the goal of my action to remember ironing the back of each shirt. The goal of my action is to act in the moment, transmitting my love for my husband, and this is what engages me. My physical attention is fully in the present moment, observing the weave of the fabric beneath my hand and the implications of the back pleat for my task. Will the shirt be perfectly ironed because of my full attention? Perhaps not, especially since there is quite a pile and I have evolved a speedy treatment! If I wanted perfectly ironed shirts, I would ask my husband to do it as he is the one who attachs to the specificity of physical results. This is part of what makes his woodwork and sculpture so beautifully crafted. Yet even without attachment to perfection, the task is accomplished, and my goal satisfied.

In the moment of ironing, I am accomplishing a repetitive quotidien task, acting out of love, savoring textures and sensations of being and doing, and relaxing my grip on perfection and judgment.  For me this is yoga off the mat, and I am grateful that my attention was called into question by my thinking mind so that I could see my action for what it truly is. How many times in a seated meditation does the mind ask, "what are you doing? where are you?" and answers itself, "I've taken my seat and I am meditating."  This is harder to count than even counting the breath itself!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Finding Child's Pose Any Time

So many times in yoga classes I've heard teachers say, "feel free to take child's pose any time." In the first class I ever took at a yoga studio, the invitation to release and relax in child's pose actually brought up tears. Surprised to find myself sweaty, tired, folded on the floor and crying, I experienced the insight that yoga was a powerful, personal and subtle way in and out of some dark and lonely places I had tucked away. The space was held in safety by the teacher, and I knew I was not alone as I could hear the quiet breathing of other students also folded on the floor. Something about the individuality of my own mat gave me space too, at the same time the commonality of the floor and the breath was deeply comforting.

I had slipped right into that universal quality of "suffering" in my human structure, experiencing the results of the mind grasping and avoiding, the impact of my mind telling its stories and getting trapped in there.  Then, amazingly, in my first child's pose, I was able to see and acknowledge my unexpected emotional reaction, and actually let it go, allowing the specificity of my physical posture of being folded up on the floor to be a relief after the physical and mental struggles to follow the instructions of that first class. This is the magical quality of the practice, that the sequence of poses (the Asana), in the hands of a teacher will take you right into the present moment. In that moment, our vision can be clear and we can be present.  (Child's pose is a bit like prostrating oneself, both legs folded under the body, so that the shins and tops of the feet are against the ground, the knees are deeply bent, hips back towards heels, and the upper body is resting on the thighs, arms extended or folded next to legs.)

This week I was cutting the grass, about a half acre, which is a demanding and tiring physical challenge with our self-propelled push mower. I won't go into the details of the topography of slopes, the finicky areas that require a lot of pushing-pull to negotiate around plantings and objects, nor stories of my joints, suffice it to say that after a while, it is challenging and tiring! At a certain point, I am drenched in sweat, there is much left to do, and I am quite consciously organizing my body weight over my feet, using abdominal muscles to keep my ribs and pelvis aligned as I push up hill or drag back to reposition the machine. This total body consciousness is an indicator of how stressed I feel, no longer a mindless action, I've called in the mindfulness troops. This is when I hear that voice in my head saying, "feel free to take child's pose at any time during the practice."

Child's pose can be there for any situation where it isn't over and you most surely wish it was. It turns out that child's pose is a state of mind and breath awareness that can be brought to bear while waiting for a loved one having surgery, or stuck in a stopped subway car with an important meeting already starting at your destination, (or in the middle of an arduous task). Child's pose is a way of triggering an internal connection, aimed at letting go of tension and effort that is not required in order to provide the space for the mind to let go of its grip on the perception that you are suffering. That tightness of mind's clutch on the what-ifs and anxiety of not knowing, on the stress of over efforting, or fear of an outcome, can be loosened when I draw my focus to my breath.

This re-focused attention helps back me down from the cliff edge. In my case, I could offer myself a break and a glass of water if I want that, but even without taking that break, I can soften the tension in my body. I can bring my awareness to my feet walking on earth behind that lawn mower, re-adjust my bodyweight so that there is less effort, even slow it down and take the pressure of momentum off of myself.  This is removing the fight-or-flight aspect of pushing through discomfort and exhaustion, and leaves the calmness of steadiness and balanced effort to get me though. Child's pose does this in a yoga class context, allows the body to regroup, the mind to refocus on the breath, the bones to find support in their folded form and feel the support of the earth and the breath.

Whether you can fold on the floor or not, or perhaps wouldn't dream of trying that, you can offer yourself the nurturing quiet attention of child's pose when you need it. As for me, I finished my task of cutting the grass, knowing that in another week, I'll be at it again until the weather turns cold.  I'll be back at it in the Spring and glad of it, just like in yoga class when the teacher brings you out of child's pose with an invitation to reach your palms out on the mat and unfold.