Sankalpa is the yogic spin on new year’s resolution. Translated from the sanskrit, sankalpa is “a sacred vow to stay connected to one’s highest truth.” I like to think of sankalpa as a mother of triplets: sravana, manana and nididhyasana. Sravana is when the body is so calmed and the mind so settled that the message of the heart can be heard. Manana is turning toward the message of the heart with dedication, contemplation, and engagement. Nididhyasana is the organic and embodied action that we take on behalf of the heart’s message when we have fully integrated it.
The poetry of sankalpa invites us to resolves of the heart. It shifts our attention away from entertaining messages of self-deficiency to engaging practices that remind us of our wholeness, a numinous feeling from which healthy and life-affirming choices arise easily. What might happen if you stepped away from chasing “a better you” on the self-improvement treadmill and instead stepped closer to a resolve to love yourself more deeply as you are? The wisdom of sankalpa recognizes that resolute action arises from a place of listening, of self-reverence, of a genuine desire for personal healing and wellbeing, not by constructing a set of hurdles to gain our own approval or to improve how others perceive us. To turn toward our challenges and shortcomings, not with admonishment and a desire to perfect, but with a compassionate curiosity about what fuels our choices and how the soul might better flourish to influence those choices.
Sankalpa invites us down a path that leads to a clearing. A clearing inside ourselves where important messages can be heard. And an act of clearing—the clearing out of internal and external clutter that distracts us from our connection to being alive in this moment. As we approach the new year, we might ask ourselves—in what ways am I scattering my spirit and in what ways am I gathering my spirit? What are the right conditions for my highest wisdom to surface? So that we can be clear, not about how to live a better life, but about how to stay connected to what makes us glad to live and to be well.
Slowly, slowly… November 24th, 2017
I recently had occasion to visit the woods for a full day. My caregiving responsibilities for my Mom have been so suffocating over the past several months that I simply haven’t had the time or energy for walks, much less hikes, and it was alarming how winded I got during my first summit. I had to stop 3 times to catch my breath. At the top of the mountain, as I took in the view and turned my face to the sun, closed my eyes to feel the rhythmic gusts of wind passing through, I felt my internal world finally start to meld with the pace of nature, rather than the pace of my whirling brain, and I felt myself receiving the world around me, instead of forcing myself through it. For the remainder of the day, I walked more and more slowly – a “saunter” as Thoreau would insist – and when I found a spot that intuitively attracted me, I gave myself permission to sit in that place silently for as long as I wanted to, letting go of my “hiking agenda”, and just sitting in the space for as long as it felt good, for as long as it needed to steep in me – no thoughts, no dialogue – just feeling its healing presence in my body. By the time I came to my second and final ascent, I felt as if I was no longer in control of the movement of my body, or the pace of my movement; my body was moving up the mountain as it wanted to, and in concert with nature. I found that my steps were quite small but vigorous and consistently rhythmic, and I could feel strong waves of chi in my feet dan t’ian. Without the slightest need or desire for pause, I made my way effortlessly up the mountain this time.
During my brief stint living in Africa many years ago, I picked up a frequently used phrase: “pole pole” (pronounced ‘polay polay’ in Swahili). If you tripped over something, or something went wrong, or you started to get frustrated or intensely sad about something, inevitably someone would respond with “pole pole”. It translates to English as “slowly, slowly”. Something is wrong? Oh, you just need to slow down. That simple. This December, how unconditionally patient can I be with myself? How often can I remember to tune into the sensations of my body and my breath NOT just during yoga and meditation practice but in the moments when I start to feel overwhelmed? Can I give myself radical permission and accountability to carve out time for things that slow me down enough to “receive” moments rather than force my way through them? Can I relax into the painful moments and slowly be with the pain with a heart of loving-kindness and support for myself rather than numbing out and dragging myself through it at a violent pace?
Relating Kindly To Yourself September 21st, 2017
Self-compassion is being open to and moved by one’s own suffering and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience. - Kristen Neff
Shakyamuni Buddha told it like it is. The first truth of life, he said, is that we will encounter suffering. The first truth we can tell is to admit that we suffer and to name it. The second truth is to notice and admit our personal style of responding to suffering. Do you instinctively turn toward the feeling of suffering with a heart of kindness and compassion and pull out all the stops to address it and heal? Or, like most of us, do you blame and shame yourself for your suffering, power through it, and obsess over it when you are alone but conceal it around others?
How we relate to the fact of our suffering has everything to do with whether or not we ourselves aggravate and magnify our own suffering, and whether or not we engage, express, and digest our suffering, transform it into healing, and find access to joy in the midst of it. Liberative awareness, the Buddha taught, is a bird with two wings, both wings necessary to fly: compassion (unconditional friendliness toward oneself) and clarity (observing your thought, speech and behaviors with a curious and non-judgmental attitude). Meditation practices change how we relate to suffering when we approach our practice with unconditional goodwill toward ourselves and a healthy measure of patient curiosity toward our inner workings. When we change how we relate toward our own suffering, we change how we relate to one another’s suffering, and the suffering in the world. Every breath, every step, every word and action, an opportunity to relate kindly to ourselves and to one another.
An Everlasting Flower July 23rd, 2017
The ultimate source of comfort and peace is within ourselves. 14th Dalai Lama
Atta diipa saranam – take refuge in the island of yourself. Shakyamuni Buddha
The Korean chant that I intone in the early morning darkness to open my meditation practice says that inside of me are the eyes of eternity through which I can perceive the heart of existence, which is perpetually shining, even with the extinction of all things. The chant reminds me that to continually awaken myself to this inner knowing is “an everlasting flower”.
I find myself easily and often overwhelmed by the state of the world lately, and of our country. My thoughts and my feelings get dark. And in that darkness, I get knocked over the head with reminders to set aside despairing over what is wrong with the world, and to return to the fundamental work of being a peaceful and loving home to myself. Through that work, I stay connected to what is true, even with the inevitable coming and going of all things. Through that work, I become a source of refuge and of hope in the world, even with the inevitable coming and going of all things.
Inner peace is a doable thing. Embodied practice is key. Books and lectures are helpful, but pretty much a hill of beans if we are not awakening the concepts in our bodies. Inner peace feels like an actual place inside — both monks and neuroscientists will back me up on that. With familiarity, it becomes a touchstone. When it becomes a struggle to access it, the alarm bells go off to listen deeply; wait in the darkness, with whatever compassion, curiosity, and faith can be mustered, to locate and to generate an access point to internal refuge and safety. A path is formed by laying one stone at a time; and so, my practice of inner peace is the arduous work of laying stones through the darkest, most vulnerable and isolated parts of myself; and in the darkest, most challenging times. With every stone that gets placed, a masterpiece is crafted, of inner rootedness, inner peacefulness, inner wisdom.
To feel that we are an indispensable part of the love in this world, to feel the peace of irreducibly belonging to this world, no matter how imperfect it may seem, is the bare minimum of the truth we deserve to access. How much love you are willing to extend to yourself, and how safe your internal home is, determines how much of that truth you let in. Neglecting my body and my emotional needs, harsh self-judgment, shaming, isolation, and self-distrust exile me from my own inner world – my home – which is the world that connects me to all worlds.
Not a measuring stick. Not a weapon. April 26th, 2017
There was a time when I was largely motivated by the belief that I was fundamentally unworthy of love and that no matter how hard I tried to do well and be a good person, I was irredeemably abnormal, flawed and less than everyone else. This old conditioning still expresses itself in my life and my spiritual practice, and I have come to recognize the hallmarks of its presence. I acknowledge it when I catch myself pushing to obtain some imagined standard in my meditation practice or in my life, rather than simply trusting in what I am capable of; when I catch myself trying to feel a certain way rather than leaning in to what I am actually feeling; when I begin to pressure myself to over-prepare for classes or workshops or meetings, as if I’m not already good at what I do or comfortable with who I am; when I magnify perceived lack or flaws or weaknesses in myself, crafting ugly images with little regard for the gentle, well-meaning, beauty-seeking, and innately generous soul that powers the person that I am; when I feel the need to be very serious or austere to prove my worth or selflessness, rather than seeking out levity and joy to temper this life that already comes with plenty of heaviness and seriousness built into it; when I pressure myself to do more and be more and get it all done even at the cost of good sleep and healthy nourishment and a walk outside in the fresh air – all things to keep me healthy and glad to be alive; when I feel a strong internal dissonance — a sense of isolation and self-blame in my suffering — that is when I know my “never enough, not worthy” self has come to visit. In those moments, the wholesome practice of meditation and the wholesome practice of offering my gifts in the world gets warped into unwholesome activity. My meditation practice suddenly forgets to be a place of refuge–a place to connect with what is with compassion and curiosity. It becomes instead a measuring stick and a weapon to wield against myself or others. Shakyamuni Buddha said that “liberation is a bird with two wings: clear-seeing and compassion.” Through this teaching, I have learned that whenever I start to feel a sense of dissonance or isolation, the answer is ALWAYS to apply more compassion and self-acceptance.
At the age of eleven, my spiritual life was stirred awake by Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’, by my walks alone in the woods, and by John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. The expansive feelings they stirred in me became moral compass points: listening to the natural world, protecting the vulnerable, commitment to the sanctity of life, imagining my way into a life of peace. These aspirations fundamentally shaped my life path. But there are moments when these moral drives find a way of warping themselves into weapons and standards to wield against myself and others. My spirit gets drained with a sense of burden and despair as I weigh all of the cruelty and suffering I see in the world against all of the kindness and grace. In the name of harsh self-sacrifice, I deprive myself of compassion and generosity and access to inward peace while trying to bring those same qualities into the world. I lose my sense of goodwill toward others with my self-righteous indignation and hostility toward ignorance and harmful actions, without considering the unseen suffering and lack of nourishment that fuels the behavior; I disregard the spirit of my perceived enemies and scoff at their audacity to be flawed and struggling human beings, as I am; as we all are.
The great singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt sang, “What is venerable can be damnable.” Spiritual practice and precepts and moral values are powerful, and as with any power, we must be vigilant not to wield that power against ourselves and others. Spiritual power is strictly for upliftance. We must ask ourselves regularly – how are my practices and values helping me to be with the world as it is? Am I using my spiritual practice and moral values to steady my soul or to drain my soul? To awaken myself or to punish myself? To love myself or to demean myself? To love the world or to demean the world? To wish healing and awakening on others or to wish them harm and further blindness?
Spiritual practices and precepts must be grounded in their proper context: expanding our capacity to love. Not a door-mat, it’s-all-good, rose-colored glasses kind of love, but the kind of love that the Greek word agape and the Tibetan word maitri point toward–goodwill toward all, independent of approval or disapproval. The love of God operating in the human heart. Our practice, grounded in its proper context, should not only sharpen our discernment and inspire constructive action, but also expand our patience to be with the world as it is, to be with ourselves as we are, to be with others as they are. “We are all on our path, Jenne,” Won Gong said gently to me once while we were chopping vegetables and I was expressing irritation about someone in a damning tone of voice. Our practice, in the proper context, is meant to bring us into relationship with the fact of imperfection – with a familiarity and intimacy with imperfection, a deep knowing and understanding that imperfection is the axis upon which reality spins, upon which we all spin — that we will always be an imperfect expression of ourselves, that our loved ones will always be an imperfect expression of themselves, that humanity will always be an imperfect expression of itself — because that is what makes things “go” in this reality we find ourselves in. We cannot have wisdom without neurosis, we cannot have affection without irritation, we cannot have the garden without the stinky decaying matter, we cannot have new life without death, lotus flowers without mud, joy without suffering, summer without winter, light without darkness — and neither one is more important or ‘better than’ the other because their equal weight, their equal importance, is the stuff of wholeness. If I befriend what is inside of me, ALL that is inside of me, the ‘darkness’ especially, I gain fearlessness and unshakable peace and unconditional loving-acceptance; I see that the suffering and struggle that I experience in myself are not my own, they are an expression of the shared human experience. When I stand in this awareness, I can relax my sense of being a separate “I”. I open myself to an experience of how inextricably linked I am to all things. I don’t have to get so caught up in being “Jenne”, attached and obsessed with my sense of self, with how good “I” am or how bad “I” am.
There was a moment during my meditation practice at silent retreat when I was overcome by the experience of no-self, of being utterly confronted by the field of aliveness around me and within me. All thoughts of self — evaluation, identification, and performing for others — dropped, entirely and absolutely, like 10,000 tons of weight shed in an instant. I was swimming so totally in the pure, unadulterated experience of being alive and a part of everything around me that I have never felt so satiated, so utterly complete, so indestructible with nothing separate or distinctive to destruct. Every word, every step, every action I took was organic: the fullest, most correct expression of my being possible, precisely the most good that could come from me at any given moment, without thought or grasp or control, because it simply wanted to arise from “me-connected-to-everything”. The axis of me-connected-to-everything was LOVE and ACCEPTANCE. The experience of total belonging and total immersion into the fabric of reality arose from love and acceptance of myself, love and acceptance of others, love and acceptance of the world, love and acceptance of all things.
Spiritual practice is not a measuring stick. It is not a weapon. It is not makeup that you apply to show everybody how good or how wholesome or how enlightened you are. It is a mirror that you continually wipe judgment from to reflect things as they are; a pond, where, through the work of peacefulness, the debris settles at the bottom so that the reflection is clear. It is an invitation to reach out through the space between us and to find where the heart can connect and where the healing can begin.
Won Gong asks, “What do you see
when you look out the window
before you say tree?”
I see long limbs reaching
to lift tiny green and blossoming beings
toward the nourishment of the sun.
Sometimes, I am the rooted branch
lifting others closer to nourishment;
sometimes, I am the fragile, trembling being
allowing myself to be lifted
by sturdier arms
toward the light.