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The answer to life, the universe, and everything (or… what I talk about when I talk about yoga). September 5th, 2021.
What do we mean when we say yoga?
What is yoga really?
Why does it matter for us to know?
To say that yoga is stretching is like saying that reading is turning pages. One can read without turning pages at all. And although turning a page may be a helpful skill when it comes to reading, it does not describe the action or the function of reading.
There are a number of reasons why a better understanding of yoga could benefit us all, even those who do not particularly like yoga or practice yoga. For one, yoga is deeply misunderstood by most Americans (including many yoga instructors) and since white colonialist nations have a deep-seated habit of extracting something desirable from another culture or country while showing very little interest or respect toward the intrinsic spirit, cultural context, historical roots, and the land and the people to which it originally belongs, we owe it to the betterment of the world and ourselves to become more informed, more reverential, more culturally sensitive planetary citizens. What’s more is that, by doing so, we may find that what yoga has to teach us beyond the pursuit of physical flexibility is of utmost relevance to the difficulties that we face in the world today.
So what is yoga?
Yoga is the oldest recorded mind-body philosophy in the world. Relics from the Indus Valley (think northeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan, western and northern India) date as far back as 3300 BCE. That’s over 5000 years ago. Yoga is having a pretty good run.
Though we think of yoga’s initial development as primarily centered in India, more recent scholarship reveals relics as far flung from the Indus Valley as portions of northern Africa and ancient Egypt, where a similar tradition took root referred to as Kemetic yoga.
Yoga as we know it today is the culmination of a long and varied history, branching out in many directions, evolving and adapting in a number of ways. For instance, the Buddha was a dedicated student of yoga in India during the 5th century BCE who evolved the philosophy and practices of yoga through his insights into mindfulness and the nature of suffering. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, also an Indian yogi and scholar who lived as recently as the late 1800’s through the 1980’s, had an equally profound impact on the evolution of yoga when he quite literally set it into motion by popularizing meditative movement as a central avenue of yoga practice.
The 14th Dalai Lama, who most of us are affectionately familiar with, is the current head monk of Tibetan Buddhism, a lineage drawn from, and building upon, tantric forms of yoga. Equating the word “tantra” or “tantric” with esoteric sexual rituals is a perfect example of the profound ignorance and distortion of eastern wisdom traditions by westerners in the past two centuries. Tantra (Sanskrit) means “to weave,” referring to the weaving of liberative wisdom into embodied practice. Tantra yoga emphasizes the use of mantra and visualization to embody beneficent states of being such as compassion, generosity, equanimity, and tranquility.
Zen is a further continuation of yoga, the result of Buddhism coming into contact with Taoism and Confucianism in China during the 6th century CE. Although Taoism, qigong, and Traditional Chinese Medicine developed in China independently from yoga and Ayurveda in India, the two systems mirror one another in striking ways, and once they directly intersected, each influenced the other.
Only in the past two centuries has yoga come into direct contact with the Western world and, as a powerful mind-body paradigm, yoga is having just as much of a molding influence on the west as the west is having on the practice of yoga.
With the rising popularity of yoga in America comes some concern that yoga is religious in nature or that it constitutes a religion (is it appropriate in schools? does it conflict with my religion? etc). Yoga, in its most rudimentary context, has no theological or sectarian orientation. Within the basic psychology and praxis of yoga, you will find neither an invitation nor a requirement for belief in God or deities.
Confusion arises because yoga developed over thousands of years intertwined with a number of religious traditions (some theistic and some non-theistic) including but not limited to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Indeed, there are many practitioners in the world who view yoga as their religious path. Furthermore, there are those who engage yoga as synergistic with their principal religious path, including a number of noteworthy Christian theologians such as the renowned Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Passionist priest and historian Thomas Berry, Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, Irish Jesuit Father William Johnston, Spanish Roman-Catholic priest Raimundo Panikkar, American Jesuit priest and Zen roshi Robert E Kennedy, Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony deMello, and Quaker author of “Eastern Light” Steve Smith, to name a few.
Should we choose to view yoga from a multicultural and interfaith perspective, we might see the richness of a practice that has passed through the hands of some of the world’s greatest spiritual teachers, shaped and informed by multiple cultures and wisdom traditions. Because yoga is capable of religious impartiality while inviting us into greater intimacy with life and with ourselves, it is both compatible with and supportive of all faith traditions. This is why we find yoga practitioners of all persuasions throughout the world, be they Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Buddhist, Pagan or agnostic. Yoga as a holistic worldview, a mind-body science, and a praxis of wellbeing long preceded the birth of organized religion and it remains a practice that can be fully engaged today with or without a religious orientation in mind.
Okay, so what is yoga?
The Sanskrit word yoga consists of two root words — one means to yoke and the other means to concentrate. Both meanings describe the same action.
To yoke is to unite, to bind together, to harness (such as using a wooden beam to bind the strength of two oxen to pull a plow). Yoga is the power of integration, the weaving together of all our human faculties to come into direct immersive contact with life, with our experience, with ourselves, and with each other.
The word “religion” stems from a similar verb, the Latin religare, which means to rebind. To yoke oneself again and again to the intimacy of being, in its most radical fullness, is a shared compass point for all of the world’s spiritual traditions. What makes yoga unique is its emphasis on practical, embodied methods that harness our capacity to experience the fullness of life.
To develop our innate abilities, to become skilled at anything, requires dedication and practice. Yoga’s second root word is concentration in the sense of focusing one’s energy toward a specific outcome. Discipline, in its healthiest expression, simply means to care. If we want a relationship to endure, if we want to keep our teeth, if we want to succeed in our vocation, then we must have the discipline to treat these things with the level of care that reflects and fosters their true value. Yoga is the discipline of taking care of the life we have been given, the discipline of realizing its true value.
Many of us have a desire to feel peaceful and at ease in our being, to experience joy and wellbeing in our day-to-day life, to engage with our suffering in a way that leads to healing, to have a relationship with life and with death that illuminates an abiding sense of belonging. What we often fail to see or acknowledge is that we cannot possess these graces without committing time and energy to their cause. Taking care of your life is a kind of work you have to show up to. The payoff is beyond any kind of wealth you can conceive of.
Sometimes we have to feel the full gravity of the consequences of not showing up to the labor of taking care of our lives in order to finally give it the level of priority it deserves. Yoga as a worldview affirms and underscores the responsibility of each individual to engage in the labor of their own wellbeing towards the wellbeing of the whole. As a praxis, yoga gives us a set of life skills, accessible practices with measurable results, for engaging the work of wellbeing in a tangible way.
We come into this world equipped with a body, a mind, a heart, and a nervous system. These are the mechanisms through which we experience our lives and interact with the world. With proper care, understanding, and skill, these human faculties are conduits for deep connection and life-affirming states of being like tranquility, clarity, compassion, wise discernment, creative spontaneity, fearless sincerity, and equanimity. Yoga is like an owner’s manual for having a body, a heart, a mind, and a nervous system. The practice of yoga is a way of coming into relationship with these primary elements of our being, of learning how to take care of the instruments through which we experience both our inner and outer worlds so that we have a clear healthy signal.
Yoga makes use of four primary, interconnected modes of practice:
- Engagement of breath as vital force and anchor for awareness
- Understanding the true power of mind and the nature of suffering through meditation in stillness
- Moving meditation as embodiment of meditative principles
- Fostering life-affirming states of being through practice (Non-aggression, non-reactivity, candor, mental clarity, compassion, equanimity, contentment, non-greed, introspection, loving-awareness, and zeal)
Let us, here and now, entirely rid ourselves of the image of yoga being the ability to touch the sole of your foot to the back of your head. What, in the grand scheme of things, is the value in that anyway? The extra-bendy fitness-obsessed yoga popularized in the West is at best a dilution or distortion of the practice and at worst a misapprehension that contains unconscious echoes of racism and colonialism.
In the early 1900’s, Indian scholars, researchers, and master practitioners of yoga such as Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, Yogendra, and Swami Kuvalayananda set out to renew the cultural practice and spirit of yoga as a positive and empowering expression of Indian nationalism in response to the dehumanizing exploitation of British colonizers and racist stereotyping of the Indian people throughout Europe. India was ruthlessly and systematically bled of its wealth and resources, exploited by European colonizers on the one hand and labeled “lazy degenerates” on the other, and the Indian pioneers of modern yoga were inspired by the global physical culture movement to further develop and refine the meditation-in-motion aspect of yoga as a way to revitalize the spirit of the practice in the hearts of the Indian people.
Physical culture was a health movement that originated in the 19th century in response to the rise in diseases of affluence affecting the sedentary lives of white collar workers and the exorbitantly wealthy in bloated colonialist countries. With the rising popularity of hatha yoga in India (hatha refers to an emphasis on physical and movement techniques), westerners took interest by adopting the most extreme elements of yoga as gymnastic exercise while largely relieving themselves of the meditative foundation of yoga as well as the practice of embodying its fundamental ethics.
There are upsides and downsides to America’s obsession with the movement component of yoga. On the one hand, we are so intensely divorced from our bodies, so over-identified with our dispersive minds, so truly sedentary, that movement practice is essential and powerful medicine for us. It is, in this regard, right for us to be so heavily attracted to and resonant with the practices of yoga that help to bring wellness to the physical body. For those of us who feel dissociated from our bodies, moving meditation is a vital healer, and a necessary prerequisite for skillfully engaging in the labor of reaping the cardinal benefits of meditating in stillness.
It is critical for us to understand, however, that the postures and stretches in yoga are meant to embody the basic principles of meditation: concentration, relaxation, elasticity (allowing energy and experience to flow through unobstructed, with awareness), and self-inquiry / self-transformation that is grounded in spacious awareness, clear-seeing, and unconditional compassion.
Stretching and postural practice in yoga is about caring for the body, connecting to the body, liberating the body, and integrating the mind into the body; relieving suffering and creating the right conditions for wellbeing; releasing cumulative tension and life-long habits of constriction; dissolving physical-psychic-energetic blockages that arise from stagnation, trauma, and habitual reactivity; soliciting flexibility in the spine and the body’s tissues to promote circulation of fresh fluids, oxygen, and the free-flow of vital energy; generating embodied presence, awareness, proprioception, interoception, coordination and stability; developing sensory awareness and focusing the mind through the body; balancing the nervous system with rhythmic movement-based breathing; and practicing embodiment of life-affirming states of being such as tranquility, loving-awareness, clarity, and equanimity.
What is deeply problematic about popular western yoga is that it is extreme and performative. This heavily conflicts with the true spirit and essential altruism of yoga. Colonialist nations have stripped yoga of its most vital components to reinforce its own dysfunction. I see practitioners engaging yoga as another opportunity to dominate, subjugate, judge, and aggress their bodies rather than engaging yoga as a means of listening, understanding, and caring for the body.
The aggressiveness that we cannot shake in the western world is fueled by fear and self-loathing, and the insatiable drivenness and desire for superiority that comes of it. Subsequently, yoga becomes another purveyor of attainment, vanity, competitiveness, greed, harsh self-judgment, inexhaustible compulsion to prove oneself and improve upon oneself, and prejudice towards bodies that do not conform to what is consciously or unconsciously perceived as superior (white, lean, fit, tall, symmetrical, privileged, and free of perceived disability, illness, weakness, impoverishment, or signs of aging).
I am not saying that you cannot engage in a physically vigorous or extra-bendy yoga practice in a way that upholds the integrity of yoga. I’m not saying that fitness yoga is not beneficial or that it is inherently racist or colonialist. What I am saying is that Americans are attracted to taking things to extremes because it is a function of our gnawing discontent.
Colonialist nations are built on craving, violence, and insecurity. We can never have enough. We can never be enough. We are relentlessly chased by a better, mightier, more sanctified version of ourselves. We cannot be at peace. We are frightened out of our own bodies and our own hearts by the cruelty of loathing ourselves into a better version. Our sense of connection, refuge, and fulfillment is thoroughly compromised by our unwillingness to do the courageous and loving work of being at home with ourselves and being at home in the world.
We must ever fill the void with the empty calories of scrolling and entertainment and accumulation. We must ever aggrandize ourselves to feed the hungry self-loathing. More stuff, more achievement, more work, more fame and followers, more knowledgeable, more right, more woke, more disaffected, more self-sacrificing, more good, more wealthy, more sophisticated, more trendy (yoga and goats, yoga and dogs, yoga and heat, yoga and wine, yoga and acrobatics, yoga and essential oils, yoga and heavy metal, yoga and… and… and… and… and).
Yoga exalts in the truth and power of simplicity. The practices of yoga are a kind of decluttering. There is a special irony in feeling we need to add something else to improve upon the unadulterated simplicity of yoga practice.
How can we see the fullness of life, how can we see the preciousness of what is right here inside of us, when we cannot see past the clutter? Yoga clears a space to let life come in.
The claim that physically strenuous yoga is “advanced yoga” is a dead giveaway. That is not what yoga is for. What advanced yoga really looks like for westerners is to remain in a prolonged state of silence, stillness, and receptivity. This is the heart and apex of yoga. Attending to the troubled waters of our minds is a much more pressing concern for us than the ability to perform a headstand.
The very first yogis, millennia ago, discovered wholeness and an unspeakable connection with life through the practice of concentrating the mind.
The root word concentration in yoga (yuj samādhau) has a double meaning: the discipline to focus one’s energy toward a specific outcome and absorption in the absolute now. What yogis through the ages have discovered is the clear, calm, luminous mind that arises with practiced concentration. This is Big Mind, the spacious awareness that disarms and dissolves compulsive mental chatter, distraction, fixation, and rumination. When the mind is stilled through practiced focus, we can really be here with what is right in front of us and we can really be with what is right here inside of us.
Luminous awareness of marvelous existence.
So much is invisible to the small mind, the restless, agitated, dispersive mind. Our addiction to stimulation, speed, and accumulation holds us hostage from the deep peace, wisdom, and connection that is our birthright. We are as fearful of peace as we are fearful of the discomfort of meditation. We might prefer that spiritual materialism, spiritual bypass, and spiritual elitism rescue us from the discomfort of having to actually be with ourselves as we are, actually be with life how it is.
What we fail to understand is that through the discomfort and labor of meditative stillness come the powers of spacious awareness, deep concentration, abiding tranquility, and unyielding compassion, all the alchemical agents that we need to transform suffering and constriction into healing and liberation.
The meditative practices of yoga can help us to rediscover the deep satisfaction and joy of life’s most simple pleasures, which are in truth the most grand. These graces, independent of external conditions, manifested in service to all beings — that is yoga’s North Star.
What I really think about modern western power yoga is that speed hides many sins. I wonder, instead, if we might allow yoga to slow us down, to teach us the inroads to stillness and clarity. To rest in deep relaxation of the body. To abide in deep compassion of the heart. To expand into limitless awareness of the mind. To allow the brutal and beautiful truth of what we are and what life is to be an awakening… a consummate experience.
To live is enough.
The slow walk of unburdening. June 10th, 2021
Kshama (Sanskrit) Release of time table / Unconditional patience
Permission to be as you are / Functioning in the now
Along with the joy and relief that vaccination brings comes the deep sigh of the road weary. Like shedding your pack at the end of a long trek through the wilderness, the overwhelming urge is to lie down spread-eagled on the earth and watch the clouds drift.
We just survived a deadly pandemic. Some of us shouldered immense personal weight on top of a collective trauma of historic proportions. Lie down on the Earth and recover. Never mind that there is more to be done. Never mind that there are ongoing trials to be faced. You are not going anywhere on an empty tank.
The exhale is equal to the inhale. Asleep is as imperative as awake. Sometimes you row the boat, other times you lie down and let others row. True balance would be to simply sit and receive the world as often as we press forward in it. How often do you let yourself float, receive the rock of the water for days and days, rest in the illimitable sky?
Burden is the pressure to hold more than you can hold. The obligation to press forward when what you most need is to let go. There is an unspoken courage in surrendering what is too much and allowing yourself to be held instead.
What is exhausted must be renewed. What is wounded must be healed. Grief and recovery are inescapable and indeterminate guides. We don’t get to dictate how long a recovery will take. We don’t get to determine how much grief is owed to cleanse the heart and mind. Nor can anyone else determine that for you.
Kshama is the practice of unconditional patience. Trusting the process even when it feels murky and long-winded, even when you feel meek and unsalvageable. Recovery and grief are how life ripples back towards itself. The strength of your resurrection relies on the completeness of your surrender.
Get your self-important ass out of the way so the mystery can work its primordial magic.
In my worst moments I am trying to be other than how I am. That resistance between how I think I should be and how I am is a kind of violence. It desecrates what is true. It robs me of the experience that I am here to have. It displaces me, unbalances me, dishonors me.
Like a Chinese finger trap, the harder I pull away, the more constricted and suffocated I feel. I do this because I think I should not have to grieve so much. I do this because I think I should not have to recover so much. Like the country I live in, some part of me bows to the God of perpetual progress, the God of eternally fine, the God that ridicules the weak and struggling.
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. (Chinese proverb). Meditative practice is meant to relax us into who we are. Sounds nice, sounds catchy. What it entails is relaxing into the discomfort of acceptance. Relaxing into your limitations. Relaxing into the internal chaos of the hyper-stimulated modern world. Relaxing into the necessity and freedom of rest. Relaxing into the feeling that you do not deserve it. Relaxing into the need to grieve and then grieve some more, and more, and more. Relaxing into not knowing when you’re going to feel better. Relaxing into the right choice being the impossibly hard choice. Relaxing into the discomfort of pushing back against social norms and others’ expectations. Relaxing into the irretrievable Now of your one wild and precious life as your mind tries to tug you both forwards and backwards. Relaxing into the groundlessness of letting go.
To allow yourself to be as you are is a kind of unburdening.
What we love so dearly about being in nature is how it lulls us into a slow walk with life. It is a rhythm that deep down we know we were meant to have.
Grief is a slow walk. Recovery is a slow walk.
Out in the woods, out by the river, out on the mountaintop, we feel at peace. We feel whole and at our ease because the Earth is big enough to hold us. The human world is too small to embrace what we truly are. The natural cosmos from which we are derived reflects back to us our fullness, our completeness.
Lie down on the Earth and recover. Let it hold what the human world cannot hold. Lean and loafe at your ease. Lean and invite your soul.
What does Whitman mean anyways when he tells us to “loafe”? He means to exist aimlessly. The perfect post-pandemic summer koan.
Lie down on the Earth for awhile. Unburden.
Internal lotus of control. April 7th, 2021
be a light unto yourself,
be a refuge unto yourself.
In my most formative years, I was not given agency over how I wanted to be in my own body or how I wanted to express my emotions. Speaking up for myself or asserting my needs was punishable and construed as selfish, presumptuous, and trouble-making. I learned to comfort others feelings in lieu of my own, attend to the needs of others in lieu of my own, including those who put me in harms way when they should have been protecting me.
Performing well, never provoking an ill mood, were essential to my safety and my chances of feeling loved. Rage, condemnation, and humiliation were easily provoked, so I walked on eggshells to keep the peace, and I tap-danced for the security of approval.
It takes lifetimes to undo this kind of harm. Reclaiming a sense of dignity, personal authority, self-kindness, and intrinsic worth is something I continually have to work at.
Yoga and meditation are, for me, altars to personal healing. My daily practice is a refuge and a stronghold that makes possible what felt impossible for most of my life: having the agency to shepherd the safety, stability, and sovereignty of my inner world. Regardless of what is happening around me, I can trust my practice to guide me toward inner sanctuary.
Gentle and restorative forms of yoga have helped me to reclaim my body as a place where healing can happen instead of perpetual re-traumatization. Mindful breathing, gentle movement, and guided relaxation teach me that my body can be a grounding, peaceful, even blissful, place to be. I perpetually orient myself in the natural world through my practice, feeling the Earth as an extension of my body, a source of strength, inner calm, and homecoming.
Daily practice clears a time and a space where I can listen to what’s going on inside of me and attend to my physical and emotional needs. Each practice is a necessary reminder of the value and imperative of meeting those needs. Trees require sunlight, air, water, and rich soil in order to live. They flourish when their basic needs are met. They do not try to rise above their needs.
The great zen master Lin-chi said,
“When hungry, eat your rice.
When tired, close your eyes.
Fools may laugh at me,
but wise men will know what I mean.”
Consistent mind-body practice accumulates over time through greater awareness, equanimity, and compassion. I observe the consequences of exceeding my personal speed limit, and I learn the power of moving through my day at the pace of relaxed breathing. Healthy boundaries are more discernible, the sustainable path forward more perceptible. I can more skillfully disarm the knee-jerk impulse to spiral into overwhelm, self-aggression, reactivity, and kowtowing to displays of authority that seek to deprive me of my dignity and personal agency.
Yoga is a how-to manual for releasing cumulative tension from my body and ventilating strong emotions. Physical and emotional constriction are workable. Deep breathing, gentle stretching, and inward compassion are all acts of soft expansion.
Meditation teaches me to face discomfort and suffering head-on, as they arise, with a mindset to care, extend mercy, seek help, gain insight, relieve what can be relieved and let float what cannot. I do not allow suffering to accumulate until I buckle. I take time to be with it, get to know it, digest it and, if I can, transform it.
For trauma survivors especially, it is critical to have practices that help us to hold space for the pain and suffering that cannot be relieved. Where the instinct to check out, freak out, numb out, or spin out into deeper harm feels nearly compulsory, having practices for engaging self-compassion, self-forgiveness, unconditional patience, regulating the nervous system, and keeping the mind in check are like emergency first-aid psycho-emotional power tools.
My commitment to my practice is rooted in a deep wish to gift myself with experiences of peace and wellbeing after decades of devastating anxiety, dislocation, depression and struggle. I am capable of enduring impossible hardship, and I am worthy of peace and happiness. I come to my practice to nurture my personal resources so that I have what I need to move through adversity, including the courage and humility to ask for help and to lean into the arms of my community and the Earth to hold what I cannot hold.
Even in the midst of deep suffering, greater peace and well-being are possible through inward compassion and mindful breathing, deep listening and brave honesty. These are not modern reflexes. Therefore, yoga and meditation help to disrupt and dismantle harmful social conditioning.
Domestic abuse is a reflection of violence in the culture at large. Neglect and maligning of the body, stifling and derision of emotions, relentless criticism and harsh self-shaming, drowning out of one’s inner life, destruction of physical and mental health to meet impossible standards and obligations – these behaviors are typical of domestic abuse survivors, yet we can all relate.
There is implied collective trauma in a society that normalizes domination. Domination of the body, domination of emotions, domination of the natural world, subjugation of women and people of color, steeliness and might as signs of strength, tenderness and vulnerability as signs of weakness, hoarding of wealth and resources, impossible labor conditions, speediness versus sustainable pacing, the cold arrogant detachment of intellect worship, religious bigotry and puritanism, violently inflexible gender norms and sexual norms. We are born into a society that is, on the whole, severed from nature, void of an inclusive sense of community, and starved of the conditions for a healthy inner life. Consequently, we are all trauma survivors.
The values that yoga and meditation promote make them countercultural forces. They are practices in reconnection and thus agents of social change. Learning response over reactivity, fierce compassion over aggression; recognizing the centrality of embodiment, sustainability, interdependence, and expression of true nature; immersion into the inner and outer work of reducing harm, relieving suffering, and creating the right conditions for individual and collective well-being.
To make time to tend to your own suffering and well-being is not a self-indulgence. Doing the work of being well and observing the nature of suffering helps to uproot the compulsion to do harm to yourself and others. Self-care is about kindness and sustainability, yes, but it is also about accountability. The aggression we enact upon ourselves spirals outward. The aggression enacted upon us spirals inward. We can use our practice to dismantle internalized systems of oppression and aggression.
At heart, mind-body practice is a technology for breaking cycles of violence. By learning how to be a protective and caring shepherd for myself, I learn how to be a caring and protective shepherd for others. This is the spiritual work of both the oppressor and the oppressed, the abuser and the abused. We live in a time defined by a personal, cultural, and global imperative to realize the life-or-death distinction between power over and power with.
Central to both the yogic and Buddhist traditions is the symbol of the lotus flower. The lotus represents self-regeneration, transformative awakening that rises up from the compost of suffering. The lotus bloom rises out of the muddy water, emerging free in the clear open air and the light of the sun.
Om mani padme hum. I rise toward freedom out of the compost of trauma. Liberation through self-compassion and clear-seeing.
Oh the jewel in the lotus. The culmination of power within: to become a refuge unto yourself, to become a light unto yourself.
Om mani padme hum. Mutually uplifting systems of inner power rising toward freedom from the compost of domination and oppression culture. Liberation that frees everyone through the wisdom of compassion, rather than freedom at the cost of another’s freedom.
Oh the jewel in the lotus. The power of my slow, relaxed breathing rising above the muck of speed and aggression. Internal lotus of control.
Domestic abuse (also called domestic violence) is an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and/or violent behavior toward a family member, partner or ex-partner. Domestic abuse/violence includes any of the following: emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical or sexual aggression, harassment or stalking, and online/digital abuse.
Recognizing the signs of domestic abuse: Click Here
(books by Lundy Bancroft, PhD)
On liberating each other. January 19th, 2021
The function of freedom is to free someone else.
It is no secret that modern western yoga culture encourages repression and complacency under the guise of “light and love.” If it is a secret, I’m letting the cat out of the bag: the toxic positivity and unquestioned privilege of mainstream yoga culture is an agent of racism, ableism, spiritual materialism and misogyny.
According to the mainstream industry as a whole, and many of my peers in the field, yoga and meditation are about personal attainment, perfectionism, body shaming, suppressing emotions, manifesting material wealth, developing superhuman immunity to illness and adversity, becoming a perpetually nice-happy-invulnerable person, confusing conflict avoidance with kindness, foregoing compassion in favor of victim-blaming and spiritual elitism, and bypassing suffering in order to be perceived as someone special and transcendent who has it all together. In a nutshell, mainstream yoga culture is mind-body practice distorted through the lens of American dysfunction and delusion.
For me, the most challenging part of becoming a yoga therapist has been navigating this dominant paradigm, and holding myself accountable as much as possible to identifying and weeding out the subtle ways in which this cultural conditioning plays out in my own teaching and personal practice. At times, behavior I have witnessed in the local and national yoga teaching community has been more than I can stomach.
We live in a time when the consequences of our nation’s history of aggression, exploitation, and oppression have come to dramatic fruition. Mainstream yoga culture will not and should not be exempted from this reckoning. I think the time is ripe to begin speaking more openly about how we can do better.
A certain measure of personal privilege, willful blindness, and disassociation is required to believe that wellness practice and spiritual work can be kept separate from personal and professional accountability, racial justice, economic justice, and ecological responsibility. It is a privilege afforded to a select few to feel relaxed about “keeping politics out of it.” If my sense of wellbeing and spiritual freedom relies on turning a blind eye to the oppression of others and the exploitation of the planet, it is not so much freedom as it is indulgence.
Pursuit of wellness and spiritual wisdom cannot and should not exist in a vacuum. Personal wellbeing and collective wellbeing are inseparable. I cannot be fully well if the planet is unwell. I cannot be fully well if my society is unwell. Yogi Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
The America that we live in today, with its boundless entertainment, luxury and comfort, with its narrative of exceptionalism, democracy and philanthropy, was built on the devastation of a native population, the destruction of natural habitat, and the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans. In countless ways, that is still who we are today, right down to my own personal neurosis, lifestyle choices, unquestioned white privileges and conditioned racial biases. Other, brighter things are also who we are, but we can no longer afford to ignore the big picture.
Power, wrongly used, defeats the oppressor as well as the oppressed. We are watching the consequences of that play out in real time. In the global pandemic, in the flooding and wild fires, in the widening economic disparity, in the refusal to wear masks, in the proliferation of conspiracy theories, in the powerful voices of the #MeToo movement, in the powerful voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, in our polarized politics, in the white supremacist takeover of the Capitol Building.
“Nothing can be changed until it is faced,” James Baldwin wrote. Facing the pain of the past, facing the heartbreak of the present, is neither easy nor attractive. It feels much easier to switch on the television, eat some empty calories, and lose ourselves in distraction. But as Resmaa Menakem points out, somewhere someone less privileged than you is picking up the tab for your complacency. James Baldwin, one of the many powerful voices of the Civil Rights Movement, argued that modern America is like a hungry ghost with a bottomless appetite for entertainment and material wealth in a depressing attempt to fill the void of a soul severed from the Earth and from a basic sense of community and fellowship. The price of being orphaned by a colonialist history.
The clock is running out to mend the soul through honest reflection, determined reparation, and courageous words and actions. This is where those of us in the yoga and meditation community face an urgent choice. Either we continue to be a bastion of cultural appropriation, individualism and white patriarchy in the gaslighting guise of “its all light and love,” or we do the actual work that these practices were designed for.
We come to our practice not to escape the world but to deepen and widen our understanding of it. We come to our practice not to rid ourselves of discomfort, but to tend to our discomfort, to better understand its causes, and to transform it into personal and collective healing.
We come to our practice, not to pretend or to bully ourselves into becoming someone else, but to be with ourselves just as we are. We cultivate a clear, calm, compassionate mind to see with great precision all of the many ways we do harm to ourselves and to others. With cultivate equanimity to perceive our biases and our habits toward discrimination. We behold not only our capacity for destruction but also our capacity for goodness, wholesomeness, and creativity. When we come to our practice, we invest time and effort into nourishing our innate goodness.
With a clear, calm. compassionate mind, we can face the destructiveness in the world with eyes and hearts open, beholding the truth of harm and grace in equal measure. Our mind-body practices offer a time and a space for grieving and for being with the broken-heartedness of what we see. Learning to open up our hearts, rather than close our hearts, in response to pain, grief and outrage, opens us also more fully to love and to joy and to gratitude. This is the root of resiliency. By using our practice to express rather than suppress our emotions, we open a mindful space around our feelings, so that we are no longer consumed by them but rather we are guided toward skillful action on their behalf.
Yoga and meditation open up a time and space for sacred rest, stillness, silence, listening and the necessary self-preservation skills required to give of ourselves in a sustainable way. Mind-body technologies provide us with simple, concrete tools to bring a sense of well-being to our body, to our heart and to our mind. This wellbeing frees us from neurotic preoccupation so that we can enter into deeper communion with the world around us.
The relaxed openness and the strong and abiding care that we cultivate in our practice ultimately guides our words and actions in the world. Our personal liberation is rooted in the liberation of all beings, and the liberation of all beings relies on individual work that is collectively-minded. We are not irreparably severed, separate or alone. Our capacity for healing and for connection is boundless if we use our practices appropriately.
“Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the care of other beings.” Martin Luther King, Jr
“I have come to the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Supremacist or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr
“I am praying for the light today. When I say that I am praying for the light, what I mean is that I am deciding to become the light. I also accept that there is darkness in the world. I understand that the darkness I see in the world is also the darkness I see in myself. There is no darkness in the world that does not also abide in me, in some form. I acknowledge that I could not know the blessing of light without first naming the darkness. Therefore, while I pray for and love the light, I also extend love toward the darkness, because whatever I choose to authentically love, I help to liberate. I choose to let my darkness be seen lovingly so that it can stand next to the light. When they are standing together, they will tell the true story of my life, and of all life, and in that truth-telling, I know that the dark is only a place where the light has not yet learned to live. I decide to become light, and I pray also for the courage to live in dark places.” Lama Rod Owens
Recommended Listening to Black Voices on this topic:
The wisdom of hibernation. December 17th 2020.
He who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.
May we surrender to the weight of being healed.
Lama Rod Owens
Healing and transformation do not always require struggle and hard work. Action may get all the glory, but in non-doing, we access the kind of deep awareness and transformation that only arises from letting go.
Constant activity and incessant thinking culminate in exhaustion and churn water to mud. Relax, instead, and float quietly for a bit. See where the current takes you. Let silence fill your cup.
At rest, our bodies heal and our energy renews, our heart relaxes and our mind calms. Neuroscience teaches us that when we are relaxed and rested, we have a greater proclivity for kindness, clear thinking, self-compassion, non-reactivity, creative ideas and spontaneous joy.
Trees need sunlight, water, oxygen and rich soil to live and to grow. They do not try to “rise above” these needs. In the same way, we cannot rise above our need for rest and renewal. There is power in action and there is power in resting. You cannot have one without the other.
The amount of “doing” in modern life is grossly disproportionate to the amount of resting. We pull on our reserves and operate on a deficit, compromising our sleep, immune function, heart health, brain health, and the delicate balance of the nervous system. Our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health rely on a generous measure of rest, silence, freedom and joy.
Time spent in front of screens stimulates the brain and the nervous system, creates stiffness and tension in the body, and alters our brain chemistry and our sleep rhythms. Enjoy your screen time, but do not rely on it for renewal. Consider instead: napping, guided relaxation, meditation, hot bath, time in nature, prayer and compassion practices, reading something nourishing (preferably while sipping tea!), gentle yoga or qigong, going for a walk, and – most importantly – doing absolutely nothing whatsoever on a regular basis. Lean, loafe, and invite your soul. Simply being deepens connection.
You do not have to earn your rest. Rest for the pleasure and wisdom of resting itself. Resting for the sake of resting is radical and holy work in a culture that destroys nature and generates immense human suffering at the altar of incessant productivity.
It is good to give, and it is necessary to give back to the one inside you who gives. It is good to work, and it is necessary also to recognize the indispensable value of rest and play. The amount of relaxation, freedom, and renewal that you afford yourself feeds your giving and feeds your doing.
Know when it is time to take a break, when it is time to put a pin it, when it is time to step away, when it is time to rest up, when it is time not to speak, when it is time not to act, when it is time instead to be silent and dormant. This type of knowing is the mark of a peaceful warrior who understands the powerful balance of effort and ease, alertness and relaxation, doing and non-doing.
When we step back, we see things more clearly. When we take pauses, we move forward more skillfully. When we slow down, we are attentive to our own needs and to the needs of others, and we move in accord with the music of the moment. At rest, we honor the preciousness of life. In silence, we are imbued with the wisdom of receptivity.
I give myself permission to take a break.
I give myself permission to let go.
I give myself permission to deeply rest.
I give myself permission to subvert my compulsions.
I give myself permission to release time pressure.
I give myself permission to relax my agenda.
I give myself permission to do something I enjoy.
I give myself permission to rest my body.
I give myself permission to renew my spirit.
I give myself permission to reach out for support when I am feeling overwhelmed.
I give myself permission to do this on my own terms.
I give myself permission to fail.
I give myself permission to tend to my health.
I give myself permission to spend time with my feelings.
I give myself permission to step off the grid for the time being.
I give myself permission to be dormant now and to blossom later.
In giving myself these permissions,
I create positive change in myself and in the world.
Dark days, Inner light. November 24th 2020.
Oh grace of Earth, Fellow Beings, and Sky
Let us meditate on the light of the Sun
– illumination that gives life –
May we awaken that radiance within ourselves. Gayatri Mantra, 1700 BCE
“The Christians stole the Winter Solstice from the Pagans, and Capitalism stole it from the Christians.” – George Monbiot
This year has been a year unlike any other. What better opportunity will there be in our lifetime to totally upend “the holiday season” and recreate our end of year rituals as we would like them to be? I implore us all to pause and consider.
“Holiday” and “stress” are two words that simply do not belong together. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves? Let us bring the darkest time of year back down to earth for all our sakes, but especially for those among us who struggle with isolation, illness, grief and loss, broken families, strained finances and psychological overwhelm when “the holidays” arrive – especially this year – under the weight of a global pandemic.
Ultimately, it us up to each of us to contribute to the energy of reinvention. I propose here some guiding themes.
Revival of Ritual. I cherish leading mind-body practice, as it revives a sense of ritual and a sense of the sacred in our everyday modern lives. Throughout human history, personal and group ritual have been essential to the human psyche, reestablishing our spiritual North, renewing our sense of the sacredness of life, and enabling us to connect to our innermost self. Under the auspices of ritual, we are invited to be in community with others in a genuine way, where we feel we can show up and be present with our whole being, welcoming our joys and our sorrows, our wisdom and our insecurities, our boundlessness and our brokenness, the grace and the struggle, a heart of celebration and a heart of solemnity. Ritual space and time naturally engages archetype, symbol, water, light, stone, fire, darkness, story, scripture, poetry, song and mantra as a language between the mind and the heart, the human soul and the anima mundi, the numinous and the mundane. A sense of the Eternal can strike us at any moment and we feel opened to healing as we connect to collective and ancestral wisdom made manifest in our own intimate aliveness.
Our spiritual traditions are rich with end-of-year rituals to renew our spirits and put us in mind of what is most important. Yet, ritual and end-of-year reflections are easily eclipsed by the mountain of holiday obligations that we have manufactured for ourselves. It is unsafe for us to gather this year, so why not seize this opportunity to revive and reimagine a holiday season that truly lights the candle in our hearts during the darkest time of year.
We can reflect on what makes us glad to live and on what sustains us. We can recommit to practices that stoke our inner light in times of darkness. We can enter into compassionate presence and prayer as we touch the suffering, challenges, and losses of the past year. We can digest this year’s hardships, and name our blessings, so that we are cleansed and ready, like an empty bowl, for the coming year.
Cherish the darkness. As we maneuver the complexities and distractions of modern technology, we easily lose consciousness of the nurturing rhythms and textures of the blue planet from which our nervous systems were derived, where we feel a sense of peace and belonging, unutterably at home, and where we are held in an unfathomably immense, unfolding mystery of a universe. Affirming this overarching and fundamental dimension of our lives is necessary work in countering the sense of isolation and fragmentation that modern civilization inspires.
As we make our way through the Western Shield toward the Winter Solstice, the night lingers awhile. And darkness holds a reversible mask of comfort and terror, womb and tomb, faith and doubt, solace and soul-stirring mystery. We would do well now and again to turn off the artificial lights and allow the darkness to speak.
Nature meditates us, and nature is also a purveyor of ritual. If you are struggling to think up an end-of-year contemplative ritual, here is the one that I recommend the most: spend an evening in the darkness, under the stars, alone or with friends. It checks all the boxes. We can do it safely together during a pandemic; we don’t need anything other than ourselves, warm clothes, and perhaps a thermos of hot tea; under the stars, in the darkness and quiet, dear friends, don’t we connect so easily and openly to a sense of what is most important?
If you are like me and relish an early bedtime, consider that winter is an ideal season to get out into the darkness, for a number of reasons, but especially for the reason that you don’t have to stay up late. Add in the crisp clarity of the cold mountain air and you have a recipe for connecting to the mystery of the cosmos and the cyclical dance between darkness and light that rests at the heart of winter solstice.
When was the last time you walked or drove to a place where you could see unimpeded stars? Or headed out in the pre-dawn darkness to a watch the sun rise? If you live in western North Carolina, one of my favorite star-gazing spots and sunrise-gazing spots is the Pounding Mill Overlook at mile marker 413 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Maybe I’ll see you there?
Simplicity. The word “holiday” implies rest, comfort, and enjoyment. Yet when I think of the “holiday season” in America, I think of noise, commercialism, forced cheerfulness, and people stuffing down their feelings.
The “holidays” occur during the darkest time of year when we all feel ready to go to bed about 6:30 and much of the natural world is hibernating. Leave it to Americans to turn this quiet, introspective time into a hyper-stimulated manic dash for more stuff. It has taken a deadly pandemic to slow us down and put the brakes on our reeling forward momentum and obsession with accomplishment. Let us float on our backs on this gentle wave of restriction toward a healthier, more mindful lifestyle that endures long beyond our quarantine.
We need to de-clutter our minds, and we need to de-clutter our homes. Our lives revolve too heavily around stuff. Henry David Thoreau was gifted three pieces of limestone which he eventually chucked out his window because they were accumulating dust on his desk and he felt he would rather spend time clearing his mind than dusting off rocks that belong outside anyway, just as he himself would rather be outside.
Scientific research in the field of happiness teaches us that lasting joy comes from relational experiences: when we feel connected to ourselves, when we feel connected to others, when we feel connected to our spiritual path, when we feel connected to the natural world. Studies find that commercialism and materialism lead to less empathy, decreased sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction, lack of concentration, financial stress, and ecologically destructive behavior. Our emphasis on having “things” is linked to suppression of personal growth, absence of coping skills, reduced psychological resiliency, and greater vulnerability to addiction, anxiety and depression. Lasting happiness comes not from the temporary high of new things, but from positive relational experiences that deepen our sense of intimacy and belonging in the universe.
Monastics from the world’s spiritual traditions own very little, yet rank very high on happiness studies because they spend much of their time acquiring something extremely precious: deep presence of mind and deep openness of the heart. We need to be freed from the burden of too many things. Stress hormones are associated with clutter and too many belongings. Perhaps this holiday season, we can spend some time doing a decluttering meditation in our home to help us feel more free in 2021. We can shift some of our focus this year from gift-giving to the simple gift of fellowship and being fully present to those we come in contact with. In giving gifts, we can be creative in showering our loved ones with positive experiences rather than things, and when we feel we want to give a thing, we are sure it is a thing that will add joy to our loved one’s life. I leave you with some clutter-free gift ideas ❤️ …
- edibles like cookies, bread, cheese, fruit, dips, or soups
- cooking edibles like oil, salt, spices
- medicinals like herbal tea or elderberry syrup
- audibles like music or an audiobook
- instruments of relaxation and self-nurturing like bath salts and jojoba oil for self-massage
- Zoom classes that support wellbeing like yoga classes, meditation classes, or fitness classes
- membership to a local outdoor space like an arboretum, estate, or national park
- an outdoor class like forest-bathing, plant identification or bird-watching
- a subscription to a mindfulness app like Imagine Clarity or Calm
- something living like a bouquet of flowers, a potted plant, or seeds to plant next year
- something heartfelt like a personal letter, card, haiku or poem
- a paid babysitter for parents to take a day off or a paid assistant for a caregiver to take a day off
- the gift of quality time such as setting a date for a walk, hike, outdoor hot tea, or a Zoom dinner
- gift card for a local grocery store or restaurant that practices pandemic safety by only offering takeout.
With palms together,
Coping with Anxiety. October 29th, 2020.
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. They come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, room for relief, room for misery, room for joy. Pema Chodron
Our world’s most respected neuroscientists and our world’s most cherished spiritual teachers tell us the same thing: we can use our our spiritual practices and our mind-body practices to shape how we respond to the hardships we face. We have the responsibility and we have the power to determine how we show up for ourselves and how we show up for each other in times of upheaval.
Time spent in nature, emotional sharing, prayer, meditation, deep breathing, mindful movement, reading contemplative and spiritual discourse, taking time out for rest and reflection and renewal – these practices are not just important, they are holy. Should we choose to set aside time on a daily basis, we find that our load becomes lighter, we have more strength and courage than we thought possible, we are propelled by personal insight and perennial wisdom, and we operate out of the clarity and compassion of an open and inspirited heart.
If you are feeling overwhelmed these days, you are not alone. We are facing not just one trial of historic proportion, but a host of them. And that is in addition to whatever personal adversity each of us bears. Given our current political climate, no matter how the cookie crumbles, we may be in for a rough ride in coming weeks. So, a few things to bear in mind.
ONE. The anxiety that you feel is an expression of love.
Feeling overwhelmed and worried means that you care. Anxiety reveals your basic goodness, that you hold love and well-being as the highest outcome. Use your anxious moments as an opportunity to move more fully into that space of fundamental care and compassion. Pause right where you are when anxiety wells up and place both hands on your heart. Take a deep breath in and allow the suffering a space to be inside of you. Exhale the suffering into a vast ocean of compassion. This is the Tibetan practice of tonglen (“taking and sending”). We take in the suffering, we send out compassion. We recycle anxiety into an on-the-spot practice of moving into a greater love – for ourselves, for each other, for the world.
TWO. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.
Anxiety is a natural and healthy reaction to feeling threatened. What makes anxiety problematic is when we neglect to engage it as it arises. Like plaque build-up, anxiety accumulates in our thought processes and in our nervous system, altering cognitive function, brain chemistry, heart health, breathing, digestion, sleep, and immune response. Unaddressed anxiety does significant harm to our physical health and psychological wellbeing. It causes us to feel insecure and off-balance. We cannot see clearly, make healthy choices, or take effective action. We feel vulnerable to despair, hostility, paralysis, craving, and depression. We may say or do things that lead to further disharmony.
When we feel anxious, we need to take time to attend to that feeling. We don’t stop eating to avoid plaque build-up on our teeth. We simply take the time to brush our teeth everyday. In the same way, we should not have to avoid interaction with the world to prevent anxiety. We simply engage practices everyday that release the build-up of anxious feelings.
When we routinely attend to our anxious feelings, we generate an internal world of calm, compassion, and clear-seeing. We operate from a place of great strength, attentiveness, and care. Our words and actions arise out of our basic goodness. This is what it means to be the change that you wish to see in the world.
Holding on to anxiety is an attempt to resist our limited control over others and over the unfolding of complex circumstances. Inner peace arises when we acknowledge that our control over any given situation is limited.
The only thing that we have unlimited control over is how we shape our inner world and how we respond to the outer world. We have the power to cultivate an internal world that promotes listening and healing, and we can respond to the outer world in a manner that promotes the same.
Anxiety is what we think we know. It is what we think we know, but in fact cannot know. When we feel anxious about not-knowing, we try to gather as much information as possible to try to achieve a sense of certainty that we simply cannot have. Acceptance of not-knowing is a powerful act of open-mindedness and open-heartedness. Free to be here and now, with an open mind and an open heart, in an imperfect world that holds infinite possibilities, we know that we are doing all that we can to contribute to healing and positive change, and we know that there will be goodness and there will be grace that we did not foresee, and the creative potential of the human spirit under duress will yield unfathomed outcomes.
THREE. It’s easier than you think.
How do we engage anxiety in the moment when it arises? What are the practices that we can do everyday to release our anxious feelings? Let me count the ways. Pick a few that speak to you. Make a plan. Make the time. Set a reminder on your phone. Use the coming weeks as a ripe opportunity to establish new habits, brief daily practices that make you a stronger, more peaceful, more loving human being.
- Tonglen. Tonglen, as described above, is one of my most cherished practices for engaging anxiety as it arises in the moment. Tonglen can be practiced anytime and anywhere, in public or in private.
- Two minutes of mindful breathing. Rest one hand on your heart and one hand on your navel. Close your eyes and feel your breath in your hands.
- Resting on the Earth. Go outside and find a place to lie down on the earth (blanket optional). Spend some time surrendering your body weight as much as possible to the support of the ground. Take in the sights and sounds. 15 minutes.
- Restorative Yoga Pose (5 – 15 minutes). Lie on the floor with your legs up the wall or with your lower legs resting on the seat of the couch or a chair. Anxiety expresses itself in physical tension. By releasing physical tension, we release emotional tension. Relax each part of your body – face, shoulders, back, belly, chest, arms, legs, hands, feet. Let each breath be an opportunity to let go a little bit more.
- Hot bath with epsom salts. Epsom salts are a form of magnesium which is a natural muscle relaxer. Magnesium also calms the mind and improves cognition. Enjoy the silence or play some calming music.
- Cup of hot chamomile tea. Research shows this powerful little herb has meaningful effects on calming the nervous system and reducing anxiety. It has become a regular part of my days. The ritual of preparing tea, and sitting quietly while drinking tea, is in and of itself a mind-calming and heart-opening ritual.
- Take a 30-minute walk. Thirty minutes of walking is proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety, lower heart rate, and reframe how we perceive stress. Walk at the pace that feels healthy for you.
- Two minutes belly breathing at an even pace. Lie on your back with one or both hands on your belly. Breathe into your hands. Inhale for a count of 5 and exhale for a count of 5.
- Reach out to a friend. There is self-care and there is community-care, and we all need both in order to establish feelings of safety and ventilate strong emotions. Sometimes we feel so anxious that we need the presence of someone else to help process our feelings. The courage to ask to be cared for is a profound act of self-love. Think about how much you love to help and support others, and remind yourself that your friend will be so happy and relieved that you reached out. It’s even likely that they could use a moment of fellowship, too.
- Choose your own adventure. Ask yourself, “How can I give myself some relief?” or “How can I show myself some care and kindness today?” We are most vulnerable to anxious feelings when we are neglecting to take time for our own relief and renewal, when we are not actively practicing feelings of care, appreciation, and compassion toward ourselves. You know best what you most need. Take some time to ask and listen.
Dear friends, we are going to take good care of ourselves, and we are going to take good care of each other, and that is how we know we are going to be okay.
With palms together,
Teach us to care and not to care. September 11th, 2020.
We all have them, I think. Lines from songs or poems we love that roll around inside of us for years, even decades. Once in a while, when I feel intensely overwhelmed, I hear that line from Ash Wednesday … teach us to care and not to care, teach us to sit still.
I like how we can be attracted to a turn of phrase long before we comprehend its meaning. Words are a true magic in that way. A specific combination stirs something unspoken in us, and wisdom unfolds as it makes its way to the surface. Even if we can’t explain it, or live into it quite yet, it becomes a star in our sky.
There is plenty to feel overwhelmed about these days and so that verse has become an accidental mantra. With its repetition, a budding comprehension comes to me, and a way of living into it.
The striking point in the verse is the prayer to be taught not to care. Teach me not to care. I feel my exhaustion when I say it out loud. And a glimpse of liberation.
We hear a lot about the value and virtue of caring. What is the value and virtue of not caring? When caring depletes me and paralyzes me, is it wholesome? What would it look like to care, and not to care, at the same time?
The ability to hold two opposing but equally true things at once is the fruit of equanimity. For instance, life is both beautiful and brutal. The brutality of life is splashed each day across the pages of the Washington Post, in the careless insults exchanged on facebook, in the carcasses strewn along the side of the highway. The beauty of life is in the squirrel chewing walnuts outside my living room window, in the faces of students gathered on my computer screen to practice safely in community during a pandemic, in the sounds and smells of dinner being prepared in the kitchen, in my Mother’s rosary that adorns my meditation altar.
Both the beauty and the brutality of life are fundamental truths. The existence of one does not negate the other. The practice is to make ourselves big enough to witness and be with them both.
In the same way, to step away from caring for one thing, in order to care for another thing, is not the absence of caring. This is how it looks to care and not to care. It looks like expansion. It looks like stepping back to see a wider angle.
Lately, when I notice myself reaching a point of overwhelm, exhaustion, irritation, a sense of being trapped, or of spinning my wheels in the mud, I remind myself that it is time to care for something else. To widen my circle of caring. It’s time to put this care down, go care for something else for a little while, something that is easy to care for. Like a moment of compassion and listening, a quiet time with myself. Like caring for my body with a stretch or a walk, a piece of fruit or a period of lying-down. Like writing a postcard or calling a loved one, doing a small kindness for a friend. Like caring for the practices that freshen my spirit, reading or writing, time in nature or on my meditation cushion. Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.
When I become mentally and emotionally fixated on specific concerns – conflicts with others, conflicts in the world, obligations, deadlines, something someone said or did to upset me, a worry for a loved one, worry for the world — the fixation causes the world to narrow into a kind of fearful and angry realm, heavy and dark, chaotic and constrictive. I strain and struggle, become frenetic with activity or else paralyzed with empty distraction. I lash out, withdraw, deflate, collapse under the weight. Prolonged churning on specific concerns generates tumultuous waves. I get sea sick.
Learning not to care can mean learning the value of caring from a place of inner stillness. This doesn’t mean we are less empathetic, informed, or engaged. A seesaw can be in motion – one end going up and the other going down – but right in the middle is a place that never moves. Up-ness and down-ness go right through it, and still it keeps the balance.
Just like the center of the seesaw, the sanskrit word shunyata is like an axis around which movement pivots. It means emptiness, openness, spaciousness, stillness; a vast expanse. Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still. Learning not to care can mean coming to a place of stillness where the heart can reopen.
When my body, my mind, and my heart are clenched with tension or weary with exhaustion, I am no longer fully in a place of caring. Even if caring is what got me there, it has morphed into something aggressive. The body literally hardens when the mind and heart harden. No longer in a place of caring, I’m in a place of fear and force.
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air,
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry,
Smaller and dryer than the will,
Teach us to care and not to care,
Teach us to sit still.
The Tibetan word for equanimity is tang-nyom. Tang (let go, release) and nyom (equalize). I can lay down this care for a moment and pick up another. In the moment when my wings are no longer wings to fly, but mere fans to beat the air, the air having become small and dry, smaller and dryer than the will, I can shift my attention to something that creates a sense of expansion for me, something that connects me to the clarity and brightness of calm seas in the mind, to the life-giving warmth of an open heart. Enlightenment is finding a place of expansion in the mind and the heart in response to each moment. When I feel myself contract, I release. Then I equalize. I return with one foot in the stillness and one foot in the tumult, one eye on the beauty and one eye on the brutality, reaching one hand into the darkness and one into the light.
There are many things to care for. What are you neglecting to care for? What are you affixing too much care to? We often forsake caring for what nourishes us in favor of what taxes us. We care for what is far away to the point of blindness to what is right here in front of us. We care for others, but not for ourselves. We care for the doing and care not for the being. We assign great importance to the future, but little importance to the present. Great importance to work, little importance to play. Great import to gravity, little import to levity. We give great attention to the human stage and minimal attention to the cosmic stage, the world of the earth and sky.
We don’t have to choose one over the other.
We can widen the focus of our caring.
Release and equalize.
Not everything that is faced can be changed,
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “What is that good that is productive and that produces every other good? I am convinced that it is love. I am convinced that love is the greatest power in all of the world.”
King was not referring to the waxing and waning kind of love that we generally deal in, giving or withholding our love on the basis of approval and disapproval: “If you do good, you have my love. If you do bad, I withdraw my love.” This selective and temperamental love is self-serving, fearful love. It is often well-meaning, but it is not yet a fully matured love. It does not strengthen nor stretch our hearts to grow into the steadfast courage, humble discernment, compassionate understanding, loving conviction, and joyful generosity that the human spirit is capable of, and that this apocalyptic moment requires of us.
The ability of human beings to achieve a profound openness and generosity of heart is a bright light in the world that we should never lose sight of. Be astonished by what the human heart is capable of. Be buoyed by those who embody it so brightly. The Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Fred Rogers, Thich Nhat Hanh, Gautama Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that such fully realized human beings have walked this earth is amazing to really consider. They became beacons of what is possible, not by magic or specialness, but by way of contemplating and comprehending the true import of unconditional love as a medicinal and transformative power, and by realizing this power in themselves through dedicated and unwavering practice. We will not change the world with our clucking and growling and dismay. Daily, we can change the world by forging ahead on the path of becoming fully realized human beings, capable of unconditional and transformative love.
The love King refers to is absolute love — love set free from fear and judgment in order to illuminate and transform. Absolute love is action love. Where conditional love withdraws and easily submits to division, absolute love amplifies and propels itself toward creating bridges and systems of care in the face of conflict, suffering, hardship, weakness, failure, illness, violence, and adversity.
Far more than a feeling that we either have or do not have, absolute love is an orientation. It is something that we open ourselves up to, that we practice feeling our way into. It is a state of being that blooms in us when we stretch beyond our reflexive patterns of closing our hearts in response to what makes us uncomfortable. Rather than retreating, shutting down, disassociating, hanging up, or withdrawing in response to pain, anger and aversion, we expand our hearts to hold the discomfort and we contact a place of caring. Even and especially in the midst of fear, rage, disappointment, and deep heartache, we make a conscious decision to step into a place where the heart remains open and caring — willing to look more closely with the eyes of curiosity and compassion rather than condemning or averting our gaze, willing to learn and to teach, willing to do what is necessary to move in the direction of greater understanding and healing.
In strengthening our capacity for a love that heals and transforms, we are drawn toward discomfort rather than repelled by it. Ahhhhh, discomfort!!! Here is an opportunity for learning. Here is a chance to enter into greater love, greater understanding, greater intimacy, greater insight, greater courage. Here is my chance to relieve suffering and remove the causes of suffering, in myself, and for others, and in the world. Here is an opportunity for practice.
Absolute love is not a thing that you attain or that you give. It is a human capacity that you have. It is already in you, lurking somewhere under the surface of your learned aggression. It is what you are, it is where you shine. It is what you express when you are able to soften around the false protection of ill-will, harshness, bitterness, and despair. It is the most intimately familiar state of being you could possibly imagine, a sense of unarmored connection, an immersive sense of belonging, being unutterably at home. We may have encountered this state of being as a child while exploring a woodland stream, or sitting at our grandmother’s table, or snuggled under the covers at night absorbing the marvels of life. We touch this love as adults when we connect to the fabric of nature or the universe, when we snuggle with our beloved, when we tap into creativity or spontaneity or synchronicity or revelation or humor, when we are in the presence of certain people that make us feel deeply witnessed and at home in ourselves. What we enjoy, what we delight in, what expands our minds and solicits our hearts, what we take refuge in, is an expression and manifestation of absolute love.
“Essence love,” as Tibetan teacher Tsonyi Rinpoche calls it, is a touchstone for the human soul. It is a predisposition for affinity toward yourself, toward fellow beings, and toward life. This feeling of loving, and of being loved, and of belonging, is a fundamental and irreducible human need. Our physical and mental health depend on it far more than we actively acknowledge in the modern era, yet the science is clear on this point. Feelings of isolation, separation, despair, and being unloved increase the likelihood of disease and premature death in humans by 200 – 500 percent (independent of the detrimental lifestyle behaviors that often feed on these feelings), the biological mechanisms of this phenomenon not yet fully understood by the medical community (Dean Ornish, MD). Brene Brown has demonstrated through her popular research findings how positive psychological growth hinges on basic needs being met, of love and belonging and self-worth. Essential love is a key to the human psyche and a critical factor in human health.
The reward-and-punishment variety of love that we do trade in may be well-meaning, but it has grave consequences for both the giver and the receiver. Conditional love is prone to criticize, covet, and cower. It demeans us into believing that being loved is something we have to earn. We cannot rest, we cannot enjoy or inhabit our own being, we must ever be hard at work proving ourselves and becoming a different person. We feel, at any given moment, either love-able or unloveable. Self-worth and worthiness of care cannot simply be a given or a constant. The level of perfection we feel we must achieve in order to be worthy of love (our own love and the love of others) is nebulous and elusive, a constantly moving target. Telling ourselves routinely that we do not meet the standard of love is incredibly abusive and aggressive. When we do not have basic love and care and compassion for ourselves, we are always depleted, always operating in the negative. We are dependent on external sources to get us into the positive. If we do not love ourselves, we are like a leaky bucket. Whatever love gets poured in from the outside will leak out through the wounds of self-condemnation.
When we live in this depleted state, loving others feels like a risk we cannot afford. If we are not busy disappointing ourselves, we are busy being disappointed by others. The weaknesses and shortcomings and imperfections that naturally come with being human become an obstacle to loving others and the imperfection of others can feel like betrayals of our love. It is not safe to love others, because they will always fall short and their mistakes will inevitably generate harm. Our love becomes unredeemable and we feel a terrifying isolation. The world, and life itself, can seem darkly unloveable with its mass suffering and violence. The world is not what we wish it was, so we feel a withdrawal of the heart on a planetary scale.
We are confusing love with a thing that is given rather than a space to inhabit. This is why, in some ways, absolute love begins with the self. Learning to love ourselves, even and especially at our weakest, helps us to normalize and have compassion for the broken places inside of us. This unwavering and friendly affection frees us to acknowledge both our limitations and our boundlessness. We discover a sanctuary within, an atmosphere for healing and learning, growing and caring. We see our brokenness reflected in others and in the world and we want to shine that internal atmosphere on others and towards the world. Our vision expands to see both the brokenness and the boundlessness in the world and in others.
In the reward-and-punishment variety of love, our thoughts turn easily toward wishing others harm or suffering or retribution when they cause us pain or behave immorally. But isn’t what we truly desire instead for them to awaken, to extend compassion to us, to be freed from their ignorance, self-loathing and delusion, to break the cycle of harm? We can recognize that wakefulness and compassion and wellness in spirit is a good outcome for us all, and that points to our basic goodness. A steadfast practice in unconditional love takes root in us when we recognize that our own wellbeing, the wellbeing of others, and our greatest human potential hinges on how skillful we are in keeping the warmth and wisdom of absolute love glowing in our hearts, shining outward toward others, most especially when there is darkness, most especially when it feels challenging to do so.
Absolute love frees you to be angry, irritated, hurt, saddened, concerned, lonely, and disappointed, without the toxicity of animosity, exile, and retaliation. You can be with these natural and healthy expressions of discomfort without being made sick by them or controlled by them, because you are routinely anchoring yourself in the medicine and insight of an open and caring heart. Absolute love guides you toward healthy boundaries for yourself and for others. On the path of practicing unconditional love, wellbeing is the north star, and wellbeing is defined by healthy relationship with yourself, mindful relationship with others, wise discernment, accountability, physical and emotional safety. When love is not a thing that we give but an atmosphere we inhabit, we can withdraw energetically from others and still inhabit a realm of caring for them and for ourselves. We can disapprove of other’s transgressions, we can disapprove of our own transgressions, we can be paralyzed with fear or depression or rage, and still we inhabit a space of fundamental caring and openness to healing and transformation. To love is not to condone or even approve of. To love is to fundamentally care about the welfare of yourself and others. Our own welfare, and the welfare of others, is defined by the presence or absence of love.
Expositions on love can sound kitschy or pie-in-the-sky. We’ve probably all heard the term “snowflake”‘ by now. But the reality is that living into love takes courage and grit. It’s easy not to love. It’s easy to give in to aggression. It’s easy to flee from discomfort and pain, conflict and sadness. It’s easy to respond to the darkness in others by engaging in our own dark responses. It takes elbow grease, patience, challenging practice, working right at your very edge, to perceive the harmful ways that you relate to yourself and to others, to perceive your own ignorance and bias, to peer into the darkness and be emboldened by it rather than harrowed by it. It takes fortitude and bravery and selflessness to attempt to bridge division. We must face the ignorance, greed, and violence that we see in the world. Instead of fuming and loathing, or crumbling in despair, or falling to our knees with discouragement, we allow it to reinforce our love and our care and our courage. If what we wish to see in the world is an awakening of the mind and an opening of the heart, then we would do well to remove the dirt from our own eyes and maintain the openness of our own hearts, rather than eagerly reaching for the dimmer switch every time the world scares or disappoints us.
Discouragement is a failure of courage. Courage is the bravery of a heart that remains steadfast in the conviction of what is right, regardless of outcome. When you are willing to face the moment in front of you with a compassionate heart that is willing to care, and an open mind that is willing to learn and understand, courage arises. Fully invested in seeing the world as it is, in being with the world as it is, and in caring for what you see, you release dependence on outcome. The goal is not to win or lose, the goal is to witness and to care. You are less caught by fear and frustration because you are not reliant on success as your source of comfort nor do you despair in failure. You take comfort in the love that is here in your heart and the peace that comes of that love. You become more skillful in educating yourself and others because you are not on the winning side or the losing side, you are on the side of helping each other, you are on the side of love and enlightenment. Your goal is not to triumph but to deepen your capacity for compassion and to nurture personal and collective awakening. Your courage rises with the knowledge that, regardless of circumstance, more love and more awakening are always possible.
Absolute love is expressed in many languages. The Greek word agape (non-discriminative affection that rises from the source of our being), the Tibetan word nying-je (noble heart, highest love) and the Sanskrit word, maitri (benevolent awareness, unlimited befriending) are among my favorites.
Through prayer, contemplation, meditation, mind-body practice, and mindful action, we take refuge in the absolute love of a noble heart. We enter into prayer and practice, not to escape discomfort, but to lift it up. Prayer and meditation should not implore God to bend to the soul, but rather, to bend the soul toward God. Unconditional love is the boundless love of God operating in the human heart. You do not have to believe in God to believe in what is attributed to God in any healthy spiritual worldview: mercy, compassion, the sacredness of creation, the ecstasy of belonging, peace that passes understanding.
Spiritual practice above all reminds us to delight in everyday graces and attend to the suffering in ourselves and in the world. The concept of “yoga” is often reduced to a stretching practice that makes your body more flexible. But the original aim of yoga as a system of healing extends far beyond its physical benefits. Yoga is fundamentally about gaining flexibility in the mind and expanding the reach of the heart. This is the work of unconditional love. So, let us come to our practice.
Breathe. You are alive. May 5th, 2020.
During the course of my illness, I had a second significant dream. In the dream, I have to go out into the world to sing to people, but I am afraid to do so. Until, in the dream, I discover a large black ankh that I can strap to my back. Ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that represents the word for “life” or “breath of life.” It is interesting to note that I was not fully conscious of this meaning until I awoke from the dream and had to google “ankh.” In the dream, I stand in the back of a pickup truck and I parade through the streets of Asheville with this great Ankh strapped to my back as a radical act. Almost in protest. The ankh then becomes a microphone that I can sing into, out in the world, with total fearlessness.
It is a radical act in America to give attention to the sacredness of life. The fact that we are weighing the economy against human lives bears this out in no uncertain terms. It is a radical act to put nurturing your connection to life before profit-making and productivity. Heaven forbid that we even consider how nurturing our connection with life could be an ideal foundation from which to direct our productivity and inform our approach to profit-making. It is a radical act to, in the midst of your day to day life, pause all activity and internal pressure to be productive and get back in touch with the simple, primordial touchstone of breathing. To remind yourself that you are alive. This practice is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, of the yoga paradigm, and indeed of many spiritual traditions. What does the word YAHWEH, the word for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, sound like? It sounds like a breath. It means, I am.
We routinely forget that “we are.” We forget we are alive. It’s unsurprising to me that Americans are suffering with boredom during quarantine. We don’t know who we are if we are not constantly in a state of doing or distraction or rolling forward along a track of empty compulsion. Slowing down, simply being, simply listening feels awkward and selfish and uncomfortable and unproductive. But the silence and the stillness of breathing, the spaciousness of suspended activity, the slowed down turning toward the innermost self, is a place where we can touch that sense of I am, the kingdom of heaven inside us and around us in the here and the now. Moving in the world from that place of deep connection and awareness is a powerful way to be in the world. A radical way to be in the world. It requires a willingness to set aside time just to breathe and connect to life. Especially when that feels unattractive or unimportant or unproductive. It is in these moments of resistance that we can have the greatest impact on our habit energy, reminding ourselves that meditation does not take time, it gives time. To be radical means to make an effort to inhabit a space that rides against the current of the collective norm, that resists your forces of habit and your urges toward complacency, privilege, irreverence and business as usual.
Bodhisattva is the Buddhist term for someone with great compassion whose life work is to ease people’s suffering. Buddhism talks about a bodhisatttva named Avalokiteshvara: the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening. The name Avalokiteshvara means “the one who listens deeply to the sounds of the world.”
According to Buddhist tradition, Avalokiteshvara has the capacity to listen to all kinds of sounds that can heal the world. If you can find stop to breathe and to find silence within yourself, you can hear the five true sounds.
The first sound is the Wonderful Sound, the sound of the wonders of life that are all around us if we take the time to receive.
The second sound is the Sound of the One Who Observes the World. This is the sound of quieting one’s internal chatter in order to hear well, to pay attention, and to discern with the heart. We associate learning with listening to others speak, but this is the special learning that can only be gained through our relationship with silence.
The third sound is the Brahma Sound. Brahma is ultimate reality and the Brahma Sound is Om or Aum. In eastern spiritual traditions, this sound is considered to be representative of the cosmic sound. The sound of all things together, the sound of ultimate reality, the sound of the place where your innermost self connects with the great Self in all things. The story goes that the cosmos, the world, the universe was created by, and unfolds in endless cycles with, this sound.
The fourth sound is the Sound of the Rising Tide. This sound is the wisdom of our world’s great spiritual teachers and traditions. The spiritual teachings that guide the human heart and mind toward awakening and enlightenment and a deeper understanding of love. These teachings help us to clear away our misunderstandings, soothe our afflictions, and transform our suffering into awakening.
The fifth sound is the Sound That Transcends All Concepts of the World. This is the sound of what we cannot grasp with our thinking mind – it is the sound of truths that transcend language and human concept. Even and especially the world’s greatest scholars have a tendency to overcomplicate things. The fifth sound is the sound of deep, simple knowing that tends to transcend words or thought processes. The fifth sound counsels us that if a teaching feels overly complex or abstract or intellectually intimidating, it is probably wandering away from the true sound.
May you take the time this week to nurture your inner radical, to get in touch with your breath, to know you are alive, and to listen for the sounds that heal the world and that give you the courage to be in the world from a place that feels true.
The practice of surrender. April 28th, 2020.
Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is bearing me across the sky. (Ojibwe Saying)
I am in week 7 of presumed COVID19 recovery, though what’s left of my symptoms is a mere echo of previous weeks. I am feeling much better. I had a strong relapse after my last communication and was down for the count these past two weeks. I hope and trust you were able to repeat and enjoy an earlier practice. You will find a link at the bottom of this email to a newly recorded yoga practice and a newly recorded guided meditation.
As many of you know, I had health complications with the virus, cardiovascular and neurological. I have felt a moral obligation to share about my experience, my symptoms, the lack of testing in Buncombe County, what helped the most in my recovery, and what you should consider keeping on hand to be prepared to take good care of yourself or a loved one in the case that you or someone you love should contract the virus. I wish I had known this stuff going into the experience, so it’s only logical that others might benefit. To disseminate the information widely, I made a series of facebook posts on these topics, and have now compiled them into a single page on my website. If you would like to read about my coronavirus experience and insights, please CLICK HERE or navigate to my website and click on “Writings.” It has been a relief to see that even in just the week or two since I wrote these posts, there is significantly more information available in the media, and amongst doctors, regarding the broader symptoms of the virus, so that we all have a better idea of what to be on the lookout for, and why it’s so important to exercise caution to slow the spread of COVID19, which can have a devastating health impact on people of ALL ages. We’re all flying blind here, the medical community included. There is a lot of misinformation and incomplete information out there, so it is critical that we share firsthand experiences as much as possible to help connect the dots and raise our collective coronavirus IQ.
At the height of my most horrifying symptoms, I had a dream that has stayed with me. In the dream I am lying on my back, and an angel with enormous black wings is lying gently over top of me, with his hands interlaced over my eyes. A comforting gesture. His weight is reassuring. The angel repeats into my ear, over and over again, through the entire duration of the dream, “surrender … surrender … surrender … surrender … surrender … surrender…”
Only when I surrender am I unafraid.
This pandemic experience is, for all of us, a practice in surrender. Surrendering our ideas of normal. Surrendering our desire for control. Surrendering our expectations, over and over again. Surrendering our insistence on business-as-usual. Surrendering our fantasies of immortality. Surrendering our assumptions about the future. Surrendering our sense of the natural world as a submissive backdrop to our human lives. Surrendering our sense of dominion over our bodies.
As a yoga therapist, one thing that struck me most about my COVID experience was how utterly at the mercy of my body I became. When you feel that you are in mortal peril, you become an instrument of deep listening. Totally attentive to your body’s queues, you recognize that it’s ability to function ultimately determines whether or not your mind will live or die. When it comes home to you how utterly reliant you are on your body to live, you treat it like the lifeline that it is. When your body says rest, you rest. When your body says eat, you eat. When your body says move, you move. When your body says breathe attentively, you breathe. When your body says listen, you listen. When your body says bedtime, you better believe it’s bedtime. Your ability to be able to see the people you love again, to walk one more time through a sun-dappled forest, to wade up a cold mountain stream in your bare feet, to wake up to another day fresh and warm and heavy with sleep, all of this is contingent upon meeting the needs of the most sacred temple of your body, wholly dependent on the health of the Earth body. We are SO accustomed to neglecting and ignoring and abusing our bodies and the Earth body. We are SO habituated to bending to the will of our minds rather than the pace of our bodies and the Earth body. We say that we want to live, but our actions and priorities do not reflect the sacredness of life. Many of us will come out of this experience with a much more immediate sense of the preciousness of our lives, and of all Life. May we use this wisdom well. With a visceral knowledge of how lightly we are here, many of us will awaken to a fulfilled kind of love, a love that rejoices in the simple graces and joys available to us in each moment, obscured far too easily by self-concern and the privilege of modern dissatisfaction. May we nurture this appreciative love to the dismantling of the greed, aggression, exploitation, apathy, and never-enough mindset of consumerist culture.
In the wake of my dream, as I endured hours of dizziness, galloping heart rates, out of rhythm and unsatisfying breaths, icy sensations in my arms and wrists, muscle constriction in my chest and ribs, I considered what it meant to surrender to this experience. In doing so, I discovered the solace of trusting my body. I began to interpret the scary physical sensations not just as something going wrong but as my body doing everything in its power to right itself. As my body endured these ravages week after week, I began to marvel at the true power of my body. This amazingly intelligent organism, this community of organ systems all working together, communicating and troubleshooting, busy, laboring, endlessly occupied with a million processes that my conscious thinking mind knows absolutely nothing about and cannot even begin to name. This creature, my body, doing everything in its power to keep me alive and deliver me safely to my loved ones. Fully appreciating its remarkable capability, I decided that the best way to support my body was to get the hell out of its way. My thinking mind – this chaos of distracted thoughts and assumptions and self-inflated certainty that I give the majority of my attention to and assume to be the center of my power and identity, an overly glorified means of sussing out all the answers to all the problems – was utterly impotent in the face of this threat to my life. Its best response was to make things worse, with its dour predictions and stressful churning and ceaseless chattering anxiety. Never have I ever been so appreciative of my hours spent in meditation. When I could acknowledge that my mind was working against my body, I started practicing lying-down meditation even in the midst of my scariest symptoms. Eyes closed, focusing all my attention at the space between my eyebrows, and the fullness of sensation in my body, I invited a feeling of deep love and faith in my body, and a sweet motherly compassion toward my suffering. Where my mind instinctively wanted only to go to war — war with what was happening, war with this terrible virus, war with my shortcomings and weakness, war with what I did not or could not have — my attention transformed it into a bastion of love and concern for my body and spirit, a humble awakening presence toward the unknowable moment before me. The tiniest measure of fearlessness grew in the midst of my panic, the tiniest measure of loving wakefulness in the confusion and fatigue, the tiniest measure of wellbeing in the midst of ill-being, this tiny light in the darkness arising out of a little bit of love and a quieted mind. That tiniest little bit was just enough. It was just enough to help me to not know, to help me to be there, to help me to relate and connect instead of dissolve and withdraw, to help me have a little more faith in the process, to help me sense a spectrum of experience more expansive than a tight frozen ball of anxiety and resistance and ill-being.
To surrender is to let go. To cease resisting. To yield. To open. To go with the flow. To stop trying to force your agenda. To “trust the process.” What does that mean, anyway??? It means that we have a basic awareness that there is always more going on in any given situation than our thinking mind can know or comprehend or predict. It means that though we can become easily overwhelmed by what we perceive to be hostile forces, we have a basic awareness that there are also great protective forces at work, forces that we can sense and lie back on, easing up our scrambling energetic over-spending, our often self-defeating efforts at desperate self-preservation. It means that we have a basic awareness of our mind’s built-in negativity bias that quickly grabs hold of threat and assumes the worst, obsessively, such that we blind ourselves to endless possibility, including the good and the grace that we cannot see. It means that we have a basic awareness that we are only a part of a greater whole, and being a healthy part of a whole means stepping back to allow other parts to do their thing, and to allow the whole to do its part. It means a tiny bit of questioning of the certainties of the mind, a tiny bit of faith to release our greed for control, a tiny bit of love where fear and hardness take root, a breath-taking surrender to the mystery of life and of death, a great big surrender to the unseen and unknowable currents of spirit bearing us across the sky.
Only when I surrender am I unafraid.
One Breath At A Time. March 13th, 2020
My dear friends.
A few things to keep in mind
as we navigate the waters of uncertainty together.
ONE. The safest place you can ever be is in the present moment. By taking care of the present moment, you take care of the future. By doing what you need to do right now to bring peace to your body, you create the right conditions to skillfully handle whatever lies ahead. We can move through all experiences one breath at a time.
TWO. In times of suffering, people need to feel heard, not counseled. This is the distinction between reverent empathy and well-intentioned conceit. Feelings are meant to be felt and expressed, not judged or coached. Let yourself off the hook of coming up with the best advice or responding with sagely wisdom. Compassion is simply bearing witness to another’s pain, and your own pain, without judgment. By speaking about our discomfort and having it witnessed by others, we are able to digest and ventilate our suffering. Sometimes advice-giving causes a person to have to swallow their feelings or feel judged for being human. Your deep listening and loving presence helps your friend create a space of loving awareness around their suffering. Now the suffering doesn’t feel so big, and now your friend’s heart feels lighter. Thank you for being a loving and non-judgmental refuge for yourself and for those around you.
THREE. Supporting your immune system is as important as washing your hands. Your immune system relies on healthy sleep. Our sleep is poor when we spend too much time in front of screens. At a time when we may be tempted to spend even more time on devices, we could ask ourselves how our stress levels would be reduced if we disconnected from devices and reconnected with our innermost self, our loved ones, and the natural world around us. We can use this time to gather our spirit, or we can use this time to scatter our spirit. Furthermore, our immune systems are significantly impacted by how we respond to stress. “Stress reduction” is a misnomer. If you are experiencing stress and suffering, that means you are human. We are limited in our power to control certain circumstances of our lives, but we can have great power over the impact of stressful circumstances if we turn toward our suffering with love and kindness. We can reduce the effects of stress on the body and brain by giving priority to everyday self-supporting practices like yoga, meditation, prayer, mindful breathing, time spent in nature, and time spent with people we love and trust. Even two minutes of slow, mindful breathing to bring peace to your body can change how you experience the course of an entire day.
Becoming the thunderbolt. January 11th, 2020
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth
what is within you,
what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
Gospel of Thomas
Sankalpa is the practice of developing internal resolve. A promise you make to yourself to live in accordance with your innermost wisdom. A strength of will that responds full-throated to the call of awakening. Sankalpa is the unwavering determination that arises when we maintain contact with the core of our being.
The philosophy of sankalpa can help us to understand the radical and consummate nature of sustaining personal resolve. Some 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail within the first 6 weeks, a statistic that points to our individual struggles to care for ourselves, and to stay true to ourselves, in a society that excels at knocking us off balance.
The process of developing sankalpa is three-fold. Srvana, Manana, and Nididhyasana together
Sravana means “the ear.” The practice of dedication begins with listening. Deep down, we know what is important. Deep down, we know the way. How can we live close to this truth if we are not taking the time to be near it? If we are always talking over it, always obstructing it with incessant thoughts, always busy, always indulging in distractions, how can we hear what is deep down inside of us? Srvana teaches: “When your mind is quiet, and your body is calm, you can hear the message of your heart.” The poet Roethke wished a graduating class not success but “pockets of silence” in which to root and grow. The poet Whitman “invites [his] soul” by reclining in a field and observing a spear of summer grass. Srvana is associated with the word upanishad – “to sit at the feet of” – to sit at the foot of life, to humble oneself to a source of knowing greater than the workings of your own mind. Silence allows us to come into an intimacy with life that is beyond words. Taking a hot bath, spending time in nature, progressive relaxation, prayer, meditation, lying down for a short rest, mindful breathing, rocking in a hammock. There are many ways that we can create pockets of silence in our days to just be, to enter the gateway of silence, to spend time with what is deep down inside of us.
Knowing what is important, and knowing the way, is not enough. We have to stay true to what is important. We have to follow the way. Studies show that the driving factor in the failure of most New Year’s resolutions is self-sabotage. What is stopping you? You are stopping you.
Srvana is “hearing.” Manana is “seeing.” To open your eyes is to awaken. Manana is to open one’s eyes, to stay awake from moment to moment, to unceasingly engage awareness. Moment to moment, you observe the nature of your thoughts. Moment to moment, you observe the nature of your choices. Witnessing the automated blindness of your default mind, you expand your vision to see what the tunnel vision of the mind is not seeing. What is the nature of my current thoughts? To help me or to hurt me? To be with what is or to resist what is? Are these thoughts turning me toward love or feeding my fear? What is the nature of my choices? How do I choose to spend my free time? Is this activity strengthening my spirit or dulling my spirit? Is this activity feeding my darker urges to become unconscious, making me feel empty, or is it lighting me up, lightening my burden, making me feel connected? In my thoughts and in my choices, how am I gathering my spirit and how am I scattering my spirit? Am I renewing myself or depleting myself? How do I, in this moment, move myself toward feelings of wholeness? How do I, in this moment, move myself away from feelings of isolation and disembodiment? This kind of seeing is extremely powerful. It is the kind of seeing that frees you. You are sharpening your powers of discernment.
Srvana is “hearing.” Manana is “seeing.” Nididhyasana is “becoming.” By practicing moment-to-moment awareness, you see each step along the path that is made of healthy thoughts and choices. Nididhyasana is the realization and conviction that the action you choose to take on your own behalf leads you closer to yourself, and the action you take against yourself distances you from life. Directing your thoughts and choices toward self-allegiance versus self-sabotage, you realize yourself, you realize your innermost knowing. Rather than moving along the repetitive grooves of unchecked habit, you create new grooves in accordance with your greater awareness. What is important to you, the promises you make to yourself, the call that you hear, the way you resolve to live your life, is what you become. Caring for yourself and staying true to yourself is no longer a thing you try to do, but a way that you are.
Self-sabotage, self-harm and self-loathing are machinations of the mind acting unilaterally, unchecked by the relational wisdom of the body and heart. When you strengthen the muscle of your awareness, you see clearly the nature of mind, and you become less and less impressed with its pontifications, defenses, anxieties, and cruelties. More and more, you want to identify with the creative freedom and spaciousness of your greater awareness, the relational space of the body and the heart, rather than allow your thinking mind to constitute your identity and define your reality. When you are in charge of your mind, rather than your mind in charge of you, you have the power to dispel the poisons of self-doubt, self-effacing thoughts, and feelings of wretchedness. Underneath those destructive tendencies lies something indestructible: your innate goodness.
Sri Nisargadatta said:
All that you need is already within you,
only you must approach yourself with reverence and love.
Self-condemnation and self-distrust are grievous errors.
All I plead with you is this:
Make love of yourself perfect.
Vajra is a symbolic weapon (pictured above) that represents both the properties of a diamond (indestructible) and the properties of a thunderbolt (irresistible force). Your indestructibility arises out of the love you bear for yourself. Your tenderness toward your suffering is your strength. Gentleness is the power to hold and protect what is fragile, and what is fragile is precious. Your fragility invites the strength of compassion. When you wish yourself no harm, when you truly desire to relieve your own suffering, when the choices you make are in accord with self-care, self-dignity and self-allegiance, you will be indestructible as a diamond. To love yourself is to be whole: you hold your shadow in your light. To be whole is to be at peace with yourself and desiring of the choices that bring you peace. Inner peace comes, not from the circumstances of your life and the world around you, but from your own inner fulfillment. Awakened to the incomparable joy and clarity of inner peace, you are immoveable as Mount T’ai. When living with peace and love inside of us becomes our utmost priority, the quick temporal highs and distractions (that we usually pay for later with feelings of ill-being and emptiness) become much less attractive. Reaching for indulgences becomes a thing we do because we want to, not because we need to cover up a void of peace and a void of self-love to get us through the day. Freed from the power of destabilizing thoughts and choices, you will no longer be standing in your own way. Acting in accord with yourself, you become the thunderbolt. You are an irresistible force of nature because you have become what you are. You hear what is deep down inside of you, you see in each moment where to set your foot on the path, you walk the path with peace and love inside you. That is the wisdom of sankalpa.
The noise in the quiet. November 6th, 2019
The quieter you become, the more you can hear.
– Ram Dass
Recently, a wise friend said to me, “When meditation is easy, everything is easy.” Over the years, many people have expressed to me that seated meditation is not for them and that moving meditation suits them better. I myself used to say this. What I have come to realize, though, is that every form of meditation – walking meditation, lying-down meditation, moving meditation and seated meditation – are all part of a well-rounded diet. Each form yields its own unique benefits. Foregoing seated meditation is like skipping the main course.
I know why people feel that seated meditation is not for them: it is difficult and it is uncomfortable — physically, mentally, and emotionally. But the very fact that it is such a challenge and an ordeal for us to simply sit and breathe is why it is such a profound practice. If being stuck in absolute stillness with the chaos of your unchecked thoughts and the roller coaster of your undigested emotions is so uncomfortable, imagine how liberating it is when, through persistent practice, the frenetic thought whirlwind settles into a clear, calm reflecting pool of the mind and the heart opens into a tender, courageous and unshakeable wholeness. At this moment, when it becomes easy to just sit and breathe, everything else in life becomes easier too.
The difficulty and discomfort that occurs in seated meditation is an essential part of what makes it so powerful. We are forced to sit with all of ways that we are blocking our own peace, our own love, and our own aliveness in this moment. By sitting through the discomfort, we get to see the ways that we are getting in our own way. The way that we allow our wandering mind to be the control center of our being, the way that we doubt and chastise and abuse ourselves, the way that we reach for distractions and quick highs to ignore our pain and suffering, the way we try to manage other people and life circumstances rather than listen to them, the way we choose judgment over revelation and fear over tenderness, the way we look to the future for outcomes to make us happy rather than allow ourselves to savor the graces of this very moment.
With nothing to do but sit and breathe, we are forced to peer under the surface to see what’s going on inside of us, and which whacky versions of ourselves are running the show. Usually there’s real carnage in there, and it’s a circus in there, with no one responsible working in management, no mature parents keeping the little ones feeling safe and loved and encouraged to grow and explore and create, no peacekeepers reminding the war-mongers about the fragile sanctity of life and how to honor and protect it and preserve it.
The internal mess is like the house of a hoarder that doesn’t clean or organize or get rid of things, and allows the trash and the perishables to sit there and putrefy, and allows illness-causing parasites and dangerous, rabid varmints to nest in the house and run amuck. To deal with the mess, we have to sit in the mess while we sort through it. To withstand that acute discomfort, we must learn the survival skills of meditation: how to not fear discomfort and dysfunction, how to relax in the midst of discomfort and dysfunction, how to love ourselves through discomfort and dysfunction, how to be okay with pain and suffering and challenge and disorder and have total faith in our capacity to work through it, to be supported through it, and to bloom more wildly and with a rare beauty as a result of it. I cannot think of a more valuable life skill. The challenge of meditation grows us into creatures of immense fortitude, unyielding love, and ever-trusting patience. It makes alchemists of us all.
If we persist in wading through the bog of discomfort during our meditation, we will suddenly and quite expectedly arrive on a beautiful sunny shore. In the midst of the whirling thoughts and bubbling emotions during seated meditation, some part of us is hard at work focusing and refocusing the mind and connecting to the body and the present moment, which strengthens our awareness and expands our consciousness. On a routine basis in our practice, a moment comes, sometimes quickly or sometimes slowly, and usually quite unexpectedly, when the thinking mind suddenly loses control of the ship and we find ourselves, instead, centered in our conscious awareness. Our conscious awareness is that peaceful shore, with its clear waters and its soft, sun-drenched sands. That conscious awareness will be a juxtaposition and a breathing room and a guide, to help us to transform the dark and messy shack into a love-lit and welcoming sanctuary, a place where it is always a joy to just sit and breathe.
Meditation is easy when we recognize how important it is. Meditation is easy when we honor ourselves and our life by showing up regularly to practice. Meditation is easy when, by showing up routinely to our practice, our mind is not left unguarded (No enemy can harm you as much as your thoughts unguarded – Shakyamuni Buddha). Meditation is easy when, through practice, we learn to love ourselves as we deserve to be loved — the kind of love that allows people to forgive and to be healed and to be lifted up and to grow and to feel safe and to be allowed to have joy and to feel the bliss of intimacy with others. Meditation is easy when we are fearless enough to hold our own hand and reassure ourselves and reach out for support as we walk through the scary stuff. Meditation is easy when we respect the unequalled power of the breath, of breathing mindfully and peacefully, to keep us centered and relaxed, to remind us that we are alive, and to regulate our nervous system against the harsh modern paradigm. Meditation is easy when we recognize the value of respecting our body and the Earth.
The difficulty of meditation helps us to grow all of these achievable superpowers. Even when our meditation is difficult, we are gaining ground. Even when our practice is unpleasant, we will see the inner world and the outer world more clearly after the hard work of our practice, as if we have wiped the fog from our glasses. When we persist through the difficulty of meditation, there come moments — more and more and more moments — some short and some considerably long, when meditation feels very easy and very pleasant. The mind is calm and clear, the heart is strong and tender, the body is relaxed and humming with the bliss of connection. And with that, everything feels easier. We come into a harmony with the universe, and we see that our inner universe and the outer universe are one. What intimacy.
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought can bud toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads — of indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
– Mary Oliver
Permission to feel what you’re feeling. October 15, 2019
When there is a place for people to listen to the voice of their own emotions,
it leads to the opening of a wider door that allows us to truly connect,
to ourselves and to others.
With the recent change in the weather, we are finally moving into the western shield. The soul moves westward in autumn, toward the fire-lit cave of memory, reflection, and introspection. It is not uncommon for our essential woundedness to bubble up in the fall, and with it feelings of anxiety, doubt, tenderness and grief. For those of us willing to spend some time in the shadows, something of ourselves will emerge transformed into a greater maturity and awareness. If we soften rather than harden against the churning, the heart will open in a fundamental way, affording warmth and nourishment and intimacy to sustain us through the barren days of winter.
If there were a measure of mental health, it would include the ability of individuals to embody the fullness of each season, at any time of year. Autumn and winter are not only inevitable but necessary, as are soaking rains, wildfires, storms, earthquakes and volcanoes. To be happy and calm, functional and productive, all of the time is not what mental health looks like. The ambition for eternal spring and endless summer is like a juicy scrumptious piece of meat wrapped around a fish hook. You can either flow along with the internal shifts in weather pattern or you can get yanked out of the lazy river by the gills.
We do not often allow ourselves to slow down, to go quiet, to lie fallow, to feel poorly, to dissolve, to be less than our best self, to feel pain, to express strong emotion, to work through the hard stuff. This leads to neurosis or stagnation, and the soul gets suppressed in either scenario. To be sure, living separated from our souls is at the heart of the modern grind. And so the churning deepens, sometimes unfathomably and impalpably far below the surface. Malidoma Some writes, “People who do not know the power of shedding their tears are like a time bomb, dangerous to themselves and the world around them.”
Just so, if we pay attention, the unsettled weather and the dormant half of the seasonal cycle remind us that there is nothing wrong with responding to the need to go inward; there is nothing wrong with the churning tumult of grief and anger; there is nothing wrong with the fallow suspension of sickness or exhaustion; there is nothing wrong with the bright intensity of death and dying. These things are, in fact, what make spring and summer possible. They are not to be resisted, but expected.
Despite the relentless forward momentum that the modern world tries to wring out of us, the dormant seasons remind us that vitality and renewal are dependent on pauses: pausing to rest and rejuvenate; pausing to listen or process; pausing to fall apart and be in utter disarray; pausing to play and dilly dally; pausing to die and morph. Go ahead. Make a scene while you’re at it, why don’t you. Interrupting your own and everyone else’s regularly scheduled program is a tall drink of water for the soul.
These past few weeks I’ve found myself thrust into the cave. Periods of extreme fatigue, a mild resurgence of vestibular symptoms, fits of crying, and brief but high volume waves of depression. Nothing changed in my external circumstances; it’s just something inside that needed to be let out. For the first two weeks I resisted it like one might resist a cold. Huh, maybe I need more rest? maybe I need more meditation? maybe I need more vitamin C? Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I thought maybe it was just something I ate … there’s more of gravy than of grave about this! But no, the specter was real. And shaking its chains until I looked it square in the eye. I started worrying about how long this would go on, and then I started critiquing myself. What’s your problem, Jenne? Get it together. Your weakness is showing. What a disappointment you are.
Once I noticed that I was being a jerk to myself, going to combat with my own energy, and that resistance was only making me suffer more, I stopped putting up a fight, listened to my inner yoga teacher and allowed it to happen to me. I let myself feel depressed, I let myself feel exhausted and dizzy and brain foggy, I let go of my agenda and to-do’s and timetable; I observed my intense insecurity around not feeling “like myself” or not being “my best self” and for seeming “weak” or “flawed”; I observed my cravings for a quick high or something to numb it out or lift it or override it; I let myself cry even if I wasn’t sure why I was crying. After all, the heart often knows things before the mind does. So I let it be. And it flowed right through me, churned me all up inside, turned my inner soil, spun my head all around, and then left me, a few days ago, with a big appetite and a bright clarity, a handful of insights and a sense of renewal.
Shunryu Suzuki says of meditation, “Do not try to stop your thinking. Observe it and let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. If you are not bothered by the waves of your mind, gradually they will become calmer and calmer. If you leave your mind as it is, it will find its way back to calm. This is called big mind, which experiences everything within itself, and abides the fluctuations of the small mind. When we pull out weeds, we give nourishment to the plant. We pull the weeds and bury them near the plant to give it nourishment. So even though you have some difficulty, even though you have tumultuous waves, those waves will help you and are simply a movement contained by a bigger ocean. Be grateful for the weeds and the waves, for if you let them be, they will turn into nourishment and enrich you.”
The same is true with our emotions. Our task is always to wake up to what is. If we are bothered by unsettled weather patterns, by seasonal shifts, and by the dying part of the life cycle, then our goal will be to feel good and appear good and we will confuse the spiritual path with a measurement of how good we feel and how good we come off to others. The irony is that feeling good, deep down and in a lasting way, is contingent on our willingness to acknowledge discomfort, to relax around discomfort, to express discomfort, to love ourselves and to love others even and especially in the midst of discomfort. If we avoid the discomfort, we fall back asleep. The task is to wake up, in every moment. I awaken to my depression. I awaken to my sickness. I awaken to my grief. I awaken to my insecurity. I awaken to my fear. I awaken to my exhaustion. I awaken to my dormancy. I awaken to my dying.
If I do not judge my emotions, if I do not judge my need to rest, if I do not judge my suffering, if I do not respond to these things with irritation or fear or avoidance, the only other response is acceptance and compassion and curiosity. Where there was once the energy of sadness or fear, the energy of exhaustion or irritation, now there is also the energy of love and mindfulness. Not absorbed with one energy, but in relationship with two energies. Meditation helps us to cultivate the second energy. Loving-kindness and mindfulness are our practice both when we are feeling good and when we are not feeling good. My suffering, my sadness, my sickness, my dying, my fear, my insecurity, my loneliness become a necessary grist, a transformative practice, toward greater love and acceptance and awakening. Spring, summer, autumn, winter, bring them all on.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Modernism means unemotionalism, or that which owes emotion to the world.
I am weak in my strength and strong in my weakness.
M. Scott Peck
Just Peel The Potatoes. September 13th, 2019
Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
Someone recounted to me recently an experience that used to be quite common but is now rare: a clear and bright night-time sky. The wonder of the universe was freshly stirred in them. Without words, the stars convey the mystery and magnitude of life. As this person put it, “they were a physical reminder of the spiritual.” The conversation moved along to discussing a health issue. The speaker had been listening to a lot of Eckhart Tolle and was working on “dissolving her pain body” in response to her health issue. I don’t hold Eckhart Tolle in high regard, and this sounded like his usual dissociative hullabaloo to me, so I just nodded my head skeptically. “I want my spirit to be uninhibited by my body, which is subject to pain,” she said. “I am working on perceiving my body as it is — just a tool, a shell that houses my spirit — so that I can be more in touch with my spirit.” I winced. This made me feel really sad. Had it been appropriate at the time, what I wanted to say was this …
Our bodies were formed out of the remnants of exploding stars.
No less than the stars, our bodies are holy emblems of the spiritual mystery and magnitude of life.
The physical IS the spiritual. There is no separation. The spiritual IS because the physical IS. “Physical” and “spiritual” are just concepts. The experience we are having exceeds the limits of these mere words.
“Be here now” means be HERE now. Here. Alive, in this universe, on this planet, in this body, subject to these natural laws. Reverence for life means coming into harmony with this great cosmic body and with the natural laws that govern it. When white people catch up to this truth, we’ll all be the better for it.
The cycles of creation hinge on change and mortality. No matter how “spiritual” you are, illness, injury, hardship and death will befall you. These vulnerabilities are inherent to the human spiritual journey and are portals for awakening. Through the crucible of the temporal, we gain the eyes of the eternal.
To have disdain toward your own suffering, to attempt to avoid pain, to entertain delusions of bypassing natural order is arrested development. “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it.”
The Earth is currently demonstrating to humanity the limits of our power and the limits of ignoring, neglecting, abusing, and exploiting the Earth body. We treat the Earth like a tool and look where that has gotten us.
The body is its own ecosystem. Ecosystems rely on continual nourishment, restorative cycles, and interrelated faculties functioning together as one (body, mind, breath, spirit, consciousness). If you listen well, your body will teach you how to be sick and how to be injured; it will teach you how to restore balance; and it will teach you how to die.
The body is far more than a tool. It is the checks and balances of the mind. It is the conductor of consciousness. It is the conduit of the subtle energy body. It is the power to connect to everything around you. It is living Nature, living scripture, a reservoir of primordial wisdom. It is a generator for the palpable energies of love, joy, compassion and peace. Through the body, we cook, we craft, we garden, we make art, we express affection, and we feel emotion.
“We have a map of the universe for microbes, we have a map of a microbe for the universe. We have a Grand Master of chess made of electronic circuits. But above all, we have the ability to sort peas, to cup water in our hands, to seek the right screw under the sofa for hours. This gives us wings.” (William Carlos Williams)
“Oh Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” (Heart Sutra)
“The creative transformations of true voidness (formlessness) and marvelous existence (form) freely conceal and reveal themselves through all things in the universe, throughout vast eons without beginning: this is the truth of Il-Won-Sang / Ensō.” (Il-Won-Sang Vow)
The first time I practiced yoga was a revelation. Up to that moment, my body was a place I was always trying to get away from. I felt awkward in my body. It was an uncomfortable world that I had no control over, simmering with anxiety and insecurity and craving. My back and neck were an aching sheet of tension. In my early twenties, while working at a summer camp, a friend sitting behind me tried to rub my shoulders. I remember the concern in his voice as he asked me over and over again to relax my shoulders. “Jenne,” he gently chided, “That is not what relaxed is. Relax your shoulders. Relax. RELAX.” I could not. My body was so heavily armored.
It took a certain level of personal pain and desperation to get me to try yoga, but good fortune landed me in the hands of a skilled instructor. Coaxed by her nurturing attitude and mindful guidance, I breathed and moved my way into a kind of relaxation and self-kindness I had never experienced before. I was in awe of how pleasant a place my body could be. I remember thinking that it was like taking a nature hike in my own body: exploring, discovering, familiarizing myself with a personal landscape as capable of beauty and balance and tranquility as it was capable of discomfort and turmoil and terror. I noticed little details about my hands and feet that I hadn’t before; I noticed what it felt like to move my hips; I noticed muscles I didn’t know I had; I noticed what was tight and what felt good to open up that tension; I noticed how my nervous system responded to my breath.
It dawned on me that my body got all of the blame for simply communicating to me about my undigested emotional pain and my aggressive lifestyle choices. What I had failed to realize was that my body was a command center for healing and cultivating my inner world. By releasing tension in my body, I released constriction in my heart and mind. By loving my body and healing my body’s wounds, I was loving and healing my self. By striking a stable or flexible posture, I invoked a feeling of inner stability and personal expansion. By breathing calmly and slowly and peacefully like the ocean, I generated an internal oceanic feeling of love and safety and tranquility. My body appeared to me as a steering wheel for regulating my nervous system, for calming my mind, for opening my heart and for digesting emotional pain.
Yoga is many things, but westerners think of yoga primarily in terms of asana or physical postures. I think this is as it should be. In the West, we need first and foremost to get back into the body. We have left the body far behind and have holed up obstinately in our heads. We are born with a profound human gift for integrated awareness and expanded consciousness, yet we choose not to explore this capacity. It is as if we have inherited an enchanted mansion and instead of exploring the splendor of the whole house, we hang out in the attic of the mind playing virtual reality games all day. We are born into this luminous mystery, and we choose not to walk in it on our own two feet, with all of our faculties awakened. We barely dip a toe into our full potential. We barely arrive.
I believe that we have Descartes and the Puritans to thank for this (and by the way, “Descartes and the Puritans” would be a great band name). All of us are harboring unconscious beliefs from these formative personalities about the unquestioned rightness of subjugating the body and the ultimate goal of corporeal transcendence, whether secular or divine. The mind is the place where it’s all happening, so we must keep pace with the mind. The natural world, the body, and the heart are frivolous and slow-moving and interrupting backdrops, subservient to the obligations, rationalizations, projects, goals and all-important to-do lists of the mind.
We drag our body around behind us, demanding without question that it carry out the will of the mind at whatever the cost. We perceive the body as an afterthought: a crass and indulgent thing, and mostly a thing that gets in our way. The heart is also an afterthought: we speed past all those little pings of emotion we get throughout the day. We don’t have time for it. Emotional digestion is tedious, requiring us to slow down and notice and be with, which is too high maintenance for these busy modern times and all of the entertainment we could be consuming instead. Hearts are impractical, unpredictable, and too fragile and vulnerable to lead with, prone to irrational hysterics. Doing the work of growing into a greater love is for snowflakes. We’ll suffer the starving isolation and numb disconnection just to “get through the day” so we can come home and be colonized by our screens and devices. We’ll sacrifice any sense of depth in relationship or community on the altar of the mind being “right,” and skip the transformative growth and rapturous intimacy that comes of humility and the admission of not-knowing. The thinking mind, after all, is what sets us above all of nature, so why prostrate ourselves to anything else? The sole source of consciousness, according to Descartes, is the unequalled mind, venerated as superior and far more sophisticated and objective than the animalistic information coming from the body and the impractical messages coming from the heart. “I think, therefore I am,” said Rene Descartes. To which I counter: You think, therefore you are distracted, disconnected, unfulfilled, and out of touch with your greater integrated faculties and the interactive super-consciousness of the here and the now, dude.
Yogis and meditators are not immune to this unconscious conditioning. I am continually amazed by how westerners can take embodied philosophy from other world traditions and unconsciously morph it into another way to get stuck in their heads and to push away reality. The practices become not one of discovery and unconditional love and acceptance of what is but of dissecting and covering up and removing parts of themselves, or floating off and escaping to some celestial realm that separates them from this place and the people around them. When “spirit” or “spirituality” is removed from the body, we perpetuate a western pattern of the self being nothing but an extension of the mind. “Spirituality” becomes a hyper-intellectualized filter to layer over the unmediated experience of reality that embodied practice is meant to bring us closer to.
To use a real world example, I recently had an interaction with someone in which they bypassed witnessing my personal pain due to a chronic illness by waxing poetic about “raising the vibration” and engaging objects that operate at “high vibrations.” This person was on some sort of mental escape into new age cloud coo-coo land while I was here trying to listen to and respect my body’s needs. The spiritual elitism and subtle judgmental was not lost on me: maybe if I were more attuned to the higher celestial vibrations then I wouldn’t be caught in the limitations of this subpar body. Puritanical indeed: high and low, pure and impure, above and below. This was spiritual makeup, not being with the world as it is. This was a failure of compassion.
I want the low vibrations. I want all the vibrations. I want to open my heart to the deep, dark vibrations of shadow and struggle, of suffering and doubt, of wrestling and grappling with growth and decay, of messy and painful death and rebirth. I want the down and dirty vibrations of sensuality and sexuality, of crass humor and unabashed play, of courageous honesty and transformative confrontation, of uninhibited creative expression. I want the broken hallelujah vibrations of unapologetic weeping, of the mind admitting defeat so that is has nothing left but deference to the heart’s humble reaching out for love and support. I want the bass-y, booming vibrations of the Earth; of loam and galax and scat.
Our path is not to reject any part of this experience but to pay homage to it. Our path is to be walked in this body with a humbled mind and an open heart. The spiritual journey is not one of ridding ourselves of pain and imperfection, nor of transcending this lesser body and earthly domain. The boundary to what we are willing to accept is the boundary to love and freedom. The deeper workings of liberation and belonging require an inward dive, not ascendence. My friend and mentor, theologian and cultural historian Thomas Berry, called this inscendence (vs transcendence) — going inward and downward, toward the body, toward the heart, toward the Earth, and toward the primordial cosmos as spiritual path. Rather than transcending toward greater perfection, we are turning toward the world and toward ourselves to embrace what is here, to discover what is already in us. Beneath the surface dissonance of the mind arguing with reality is a still point, a peace that passes understanding.
We are living outside of our bodies and so we do not have peace in our bodies. There is great tension there. There is exhaustion and there is pain. If we want peace in our bodies, we must learn to inhabit the body. We must swim against the tide of cultural conditioning and recommit, over and over again, everyday, to nurture and live in service to our body. Deep relaxation practice, mindful breathing, gentle stretching, going for walks, stilling the mind through meditation, and sensory awareness practices are all tools that can help us to restore peace to our bodies. We need structured time and practices to listen and to learn more about our body’s needs. Yoga and meditation practice provide us with this structured time, and furthermore teach us how to be with pain that cannot be relieved; how to attend to ongoing suffering in the body with gentleness, attentiveness, fortitude, and unrelenting self-compassion. Through embodied practice, we learn to create pleasant sensations to counter-balance pain. We learn to generate feelings of safety and nurturing to embrace feelings of hardship and brokenness. Bringing peace to our bodies starts with one conscious in-breath and out-breath.
We are speeding past the communications of the heart, and so there is not peace in our hearts. Our hearts get tight and filled with unresolved pain. We have fears and anxiety, we have anger and irritation, we have overwhelm and despair. Taking time to experience and look at these feelings honestly is the pathway to greater love — for ourselves, for each other, and for the world. We can restore peace to our hearts by engaging our body and our breath to generate internal feelings of safety and nurturing that allow us to approach challenging emotions without being overwhelmed or consumed by them. By acknowledging our suffering and our feelings of separation, by slowing down rather than speeding up in response to sadness, by leaning into our feelings and having the courage to express them, we can ventilate them and digest them; we can move through them and allow them to expand us into more loving people. By welcoming challenging emotions without judgment, and with unrelenting compassion (and a good helping of humor when possible), we come into a greater intimacy with ourselves and others. We transform suffering into a practice of healing and growth. If we live only in our minds, and outside of our bodies, then we will pull our emotions up into our ruminating and dissatisfied mind, which steers our emotions toward greater magnification and distortion. By locating our emotions in the body instead, we can be with the energy and sensation of them, getting to know them and express them as they are, unfiltered and unexaggerated by the mind. The purpose of emotion is to feel, not to be rationalized, analyzed, or suppressed, as the mind is wont to do. We can bring peace to our heart by arriving back in our body with one conscious in-breath and out-breath.
Because the mind is unchecked by the body and the heart, and because it is always wandering far away through some distant imaginary world rather than the world right in front of us, we do not have peace in our minds. There is restlessness and unease; there is craving and dissatisfaction; there are scary stories being told of failure and isolation, and there are fantasies being entertained about control and having more. We can bring peace to our mind with one conscious in-breath and out-breath: the conscious breath an agglutinant that keeps the mind anchored to the body. The body is, always, literally touching the here and the now; by bringing the mind back to the body, we awaken the mind in the here and the now. With mind and body together as one in the here and the now, it is possible to walk in the kingdom of god with every step; it is possible to touch deep peace and unyielding compassion in every breath; it is possible to truly see each other and to truly touch the Earth. That is what spirit is, and it happens through the body.
Yoga means “union.” Zen means “seeing oneness.” Meditation, dhyana, means sustained absorption, sustained attention. Our goal is not to be able to touch our toes or put our foot behind our head. The goal is not to be perfectly enlightened and pain-free and always happy and well-behaved. The goal is not to accumulate heady knowledge and right answers or to spin endless philosophy. The goal is to be fully engaged, right here in this moment, informed by your heart and body and mind as one, attentive to yourself and to all these beings around you, absorbed with this unnameable experience, and with the practical earthly task at hand. When you are stretching, the practice is to be fully absorbed with stretching. When you are sitting in meditation, the practice is to be sitting and breathing and nothing else. When you are driving, the practice is to be fully absorbed in driving. When you are brushing your teeth, the meditation is to slow down and brush your teeth. When you are washing the dishes or taking a shower, the practice is to feel what it is like to wash the dishes and to take a shower. When you are walking in nature, the spiritual task is to be fully there, walking in nature. When you are crying, the practice is to be crying. If you let your mind run constantly — mind running into the future, mind running into the past, mind running into what could be happening, mind running into this fantasy or that nightmare — you will miss out on the subtle glory and grace of being here, in favor of the neurotic and distracted childishness and conceit of the mind.
Our body is here to help us fully arrive in the unknown quantity of this moment. When you are peeling the potatoes, the spiritual goal is to just be here peeling the fucking potatoes. It requires a body to do that. Enlightenment hides in the mundane. The spirit is bejeweled by the physical. Wisdom resides in the body. Peace comes to us in one conscious breath: the lungs expand to take in this unfathomable world and then contract to send us out into it. “No separation,” was the Buddha’s enlightenment. Union. Oneness. Absorption. With that realization, the first thing he did was reach down and touch the Earth.
The world is perfect. Pay attention to the details.
Scripture without paper or ink. July 26, 2019
and sit watching the clouds.
My favorite Korean zen koan goes like this:
I have a volume of scripture
It is not written with paper or ink
It does not contain a single word
Yet always radiates light.
What does this mean?
When I am on retreat with my teacher, she intones a zen koan every morning about halfway through our seated meditation. Once the koan is spoken, it is followed with the question – what does this mean? Usually my internal response is: Ummm? (not to be confused with Ohmmmm). Perhaps the koan above is my favorite because I do know what it means. Well, what it means to me anyway. My three-fold answer is as follows:
Nature is a volume of scripture without paper or ink. I recently read a book that details the effect that the natural world has on the human brain. It was 300 pages of interesting statistics written with grating academic neutrality and hip modern-day cynicism, with little whiffs of white imperialist arrogance thrown in, all dancing and dodging with ironic reluctance to admit what those of us who don’t need to read the book already know: our very being is an expression of the natural cosmos, inextricably dependent upon it, not only biologically but psychologically. When we come into contact with our primordial context, we thrive. But, alas, at this bizarre juncture in human history, we need to write books about the neuroscience of what nature has to do with anything. Both religiously and scientifically, we have grossly overestimated ourselves as a species and grossly underestimated the natural world as a rightful parent, a critical teacher, and a true God in many ways, but especially in the way that our reverence, or lack thereof, determines our survival.
We are not foreigners here. We are not supreme beings here. As David Abrams points out, “Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix – our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, soundscapes, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interactions with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams, these breathing shapes are our family, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate in this life. We need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations – we are truly human only in contact, and in conviviality, with what is not human.”
Without any effort on our part, without sophisticated philosophy, without 8-step programs or 4-fold agreements, without special postures or rituals, without having to do anything but simply show up, nature meditates us, clearing our minds, relaxing our bodies, imbuing us with insight into our lives and special knowledge about the nature of our existence. The lone wildflower, the blooming sunrise, the hushed desert, the numinous stars, the interrupting thunderstorm, the cheerful creek, the snow-silent woods, the bright meadow, the backyard bird feeder: the unparalleled solace and aliveness of nature elicits from us a feeling of homecoming. Because that’s what it is.
We need do nothing but take the time to place ourselves in its care. The internal expansion happens all on its own. We come into contact with the beating heart of life and the timeless urgency of this moment. The scripture inherent, comes alive in us.
Inside of me is a volume of scripture without words. The sanskrit word srvana, as it appears in the Yoga sutras, means “the message of the heart that we can only hear when the body is calm and the mind settled.” In Buddhism, the word prajna similarly describes the human faculty of receiving spontaneous insight when the doors of perception are cleansed enough to come into direct contact with reality. This capacity to access subtle realms of consciousness and to channel insight is innate in all of us. Yoga and meditation offer us unparalleled tools to hone and wield that power. When the mind, breath, and body are in concert with the heart of the moment, we access a deep inner knowing.
Our dear poet Walt Whitman said it best:
We consider bibles and religions divine – I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still;
It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life,
Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth,
than they are shed out of you.
In the holy in-between realm, where living beings connect with one another, is a scripture that always radiates light. Remembering to arrive here and now in the presence of one another, therein lies the salvation of the world. The doorway into relational space is the doorway into true magic. Human consciousness is marked by the gift to witness other beings with reverence and compassion, and in doing so, be changed by it. When we greet the holy other – human or non-human – we expand the painfully restrictive confines of self, freeing our identity to become a permeable and unfolding artwork. We could perpetually work to solidify ourselves, or we could work to strengthen the way in which we relate and come into presence with others as a means toward an even greater stability. For to have the courage to give ourselves up to this process is to be sustained by currents of power larger than our own. Walking and talking together, sharing a meal, sitting in silent meditation together, releasing tension together, singing or listening to music together, reading to one another, laughing and crying with one another: the two of us connect, or however many, but there is an additional presence – a coalescent third – our collective entity, a vital energy that radiates light. I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel this at the culmination of yoga class when we sit in silence with palms together, or when we are sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers witnessing a particularly powerful music performance. An inrush of creativity and novelty occurs, an upwelling in the heart, a peace that passes understanding, unleashed in this collective connecting around something that feels so magically alive because it is beyond words or beneath the words, expanding us beyond the world while rooting us more deeply inside of it.
The magic of relational space ignites when we are willing to lead with caring for others – both human and non-human entities – friendly curiosity toward the other rather than certitude, self-armoring, judgment and presumption. When we are willing to embrace paradox and accommodate a wide spectrum of viewpoints, we can straddle the complexity of individual experience, accessing great clarity of perception and depth of insight into ourselves and one another: a rich fluidity and convergence occurs where once what appeared like hard angles had us knocking into things. Tapping the nectar of communion involves a kind of softening in the midst of the hard western world; it requires stepping outside of linear time into deep time; it requires a reawakening of consciousness in our bodies to feel the solid mystery of the earth beneath our feet; it requires an attentiveness to breath – YHWH – another word for God.
We need continual reminders that listening is so much more than hearing ourselves think, and that to remain inward is to be in exile. The key to accessing the in-between realm is not to label and analyze and filter through individuated self but engage in conscious wonderment and unabashed connection: to hold an experience between language, to stay with the experience of this moment while holding one’s intellectual and rational breath. Not only the mind, but almost more so our sensual bodies and our breathing are instruments of language and perception: we have the power to transmit and receive through them.
Here we call on the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi to give it to us plainly:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
Peace of mind is rooted
in caring and compassion.
The Dalai Lama
that the universe is held together.
I am sitting on my meditation cushion trying to focus on my breath when I finally admit to myself that I feel terrible. Empty. Not in a Buddhist way, but in an isolated-free-fall-into-an-
I say to myself: “Right now, in your meditation practice, something destructive is happening.” I observe that I am uncontrollably marinating in sewage, hoping and waiting for the act of meditation to transport me to another state of being. “Is meditation about getting away from uncomfortable feelings?” I ask myself. Hell no, it isn’t. Meditation is, in part, about leaning into discomfort when it arises, while cultivating as relaxed a state as possible in which to greet it, by directing attention and breath. A very mindful, sometimes messy, and certainly harrowing walk towards the bear. The compassionate, inquisitive welcome of whatever arises – ugly or beautiful, painful or blissful – is a practice in open-hearted fearlessness.
So I lean in and ask, “Jenne, what is really going on here?” And what is really going on is that I feel totally disconnected from everything, and I am floundering to gain some kind of foothold on feeling connected or alive, but there isn’t one, so I’m just free falling in voidness. It’s like viewing the world through death-colored glasses. It’s like being a ghost. I am here in the world, but I’m not reallyhere. I can’t touch anything. There’s numbness and a feeling of exile and a long-nurtured fear that this stark cosmic impersonal coldness is some ultimate truth that’s too hard to admit to ourselves and I just happen to be in contact with it right now. “Okay. That’s pleasant. So why do I feel this way right now?” And when I poke around, I notice that my self-image in that moment is really demeaning. In an unconscious way, I feel bad about myself. The condemnation is so substratum and non-specific that it’s barely visible, only perceptible via the symptoms, primarily a feeling of being torn from the world. And no wonder, as self-condemnation is like a tearing at the roots of oneself. A deep deep down disapproval of myself is happening, and a subsequent sense of discouragement, defeat, and separateness that suggests being outside of love. Subliminal messaging.
“Jenne,” I say to myself, “I forgive you for whatever you think you’ve done.”
Deep peace bubbles up. No one is being punished for nebulous crimes, rejected for a million petty missteps, or scorned for the legitimately harmful blunders on my part in moments of ignorance, selfishness, and desperation. The internal punisher steps aside, like the moon stepping aside from the sun during an eclipse, and I feel warmth and I feel at home in myself and I feel love coming from the world on all sides. The world is alive even if damaged, and I am in it even if damaged, and I belong to it.
These days, I want myself to feel safe and well, which is why I meditate. The problem is that at times there is really uncomfortable stuff inside of me that I end up having to sit with in meditation, causing me to become reluctant to sit because maybe meditation, actually, is to blame for being uncomfortable! But that projection gets turned on its head in the moment when in the light of my awareness on the cushion I do not try to move away from the creeping darkness, but instead muster the fortitude to dig in and look deeper on my own behalf from a deeply caring desire to free myself from suffering. Looking deeper, I am often able to see that at the root of my suffering is some illusion of separation. In this particular instance, I find self-condemnation, so impulsively I extend forgiveness as an antidote. Where once there was a feeling of horror, a cascade of forgiveness and love starts to happen. Meditation is the practice of creating internal refuge, a safe container in which to explore our inner wilderness.
To extend forgiveness to myself means that I cannot recoil from my perceived sins and shortcomings, but rather I must reach out and look the poor self-images full in the eye in order to embrace them like one would wrap a child in their arms to let them know that YES, of course they are loved, reassuring them again and again that the world of these encircling arms is a safe and caring place in which one can totally fuck up, but that the fucking up does not ever, EVER, cast us outside of love. This is what unconditional love looks like: to care for someone as a fellow human being, regardless of our approval or disapproval of their behaviors and actions. Care for someone and frustration toward someone can coexist. Unconditional love acknowledges our shared humanity: to be human is to be vulnerable to suffering and confusion, fear and greed, desperation and poor choices; the people around you are as vulnerable to the harrowing darkness and bumbling ignorance of this experience as you yourself are, and perhaps even without some of the graces that you enjoy; and, all humans (yes, even that one!!!) are as capable of generating love and insight, affection and beauty, as you yourself are capable of when the right conditions are present. Meditation is not a project where we approach ourselves as if something needs to be fixed, getting rid of this thing or that thing in order to get something else – because that is not what love looks like! Meditation is about learning to love ourselves so defiantly that we get in touch with our innate goodness. In meditation, we cultivate the right conditions for our innate goodness to shine forth.
Each and every human being is deserving of these fundamental reassurances: caring, patience, honesty, kindness, mercy. These reassurances have the power to awaken a greater love in the human heart, irregardless of and concomitant with the necessary arc of justice and action toward accountability and reparation.
When I remove even the possibility that I could be unworthy of love, I am no longer afraid of my perceived flaws and shortcomings, and without fear fueling the game, I am no longer consumed by my perceived shortcomings (negative narcissism). No longer consumed by aberration, I see my whole self more clearly: there is beauty and goodness and tenderness, as distinctly visible as the yucky stuff. The yucky stuff, when I look at it without fear or shame or condemnation, is something that can be understood. When I see the yuckiness for what it truly is, I find that it does not in fact set me apart from everyone else but rather connects me to everyone else. The things that I disdain and recoil from in others are here in me, too, in greater or lesser measure. And, just like me, other people’s flaws are only a part of their bigger picture, which also contains a measure of beauty and kindness and tenderness, of seeking and striving, insecurity and fear, fumbling and failure, and desperate attempts to escape that empty feeling that can only be filled with a painfully courageous awakening and reaching toward love.
When I see how hard it is for all of us, not just myself, there is an expectation of imperfection. And there is a recognition that courageous, almost kamikaze-level, stretches into embodying kindness toward ourselves and toward others can make life so much lighter. Forgiveness is the doorstep into the great expanse of unconditional love, where the air is much more breathable.
There are many shades of forgiveness, just as there are many shades of love. Forgiveness does not mean condoning destructive actions, nor does it have to mean actively or externally reconciling. Forgiveness is extremely powerful even in its smallest concession, which takes the form of a simple question: when I feel this hardening against myself or against someone else, where can my heart open and soften? when I feel this hardening and bracing in fear or in anger, how can I open myself into a small love in this moment? when the traumatic feeling of separation or rejection or violation descends, is possible to feel my way into even a small sense of caring for myself, or a small sense of caring for the other person? At this point, it is critical to note that, generally, when we cannot connect to a sense of caring for someone else, it is because we are too freshly or intensely hurt, or we are too self-condemning, such that we need to be focused first and foremost on caring for ourselves. It is not at all a loving thing to forsake yourself in an attempt to feel care for someone else. Once you yourself are properly cared for — safe and loved and supported — exploring a small measure of care for someone that has done damage is not only good for them, it is good for you. Even just a drop of unconditional love is a powerful digestive aid for anger, outrage, hurt, disapproval, and disappointment. Healthy digestion of strong emotions can lead to their full authentic expression, which is at the heart of taking right action and constitutes a cornerstone of inner peace. When I recognize that I myself am worthy of forgiveness, I can extend some measure of forgiveness to many people in my life; and when I feel even a little bit of forgiveness for others, I realize how much more freeing it is to care for them alongside other important emotions like anger and sadness and disappointment. To wish healing and awakening for us both (either inwardly or outwardly), feels far more medicinal than the bitter feeling of condemnation and the disturbing feeling of craving retribution from a place of ill-will.
I saw the film Philomena several years ago around the time of its release, but it has stayed with me all this time for one very specific reason. Aside from its being based on a powerful true story (and starring the phenomenal Judi Dench and Steve Coogan), the film features human forgiveness. I mean, think about it. In this dominantly Christian nation, you have to wade through a thousand vigilante movies before you find one even loosely flirting with the work of forgiveness.
Contrary to what the bumper sticker says, I’m not convinced that critical thinking is the other national deficit. As a society, I believe that thinking and criticizing and being rational and objective is something we now do in harmful overabundance, and it separates us. Our brains, bodies and nervous systems were designed within the context of hunter-gatherer culture, where survival depended on our interdependence and connection with one another, and where survival also depended on the mind being a servant to the intelligence of the body — heightened senses, instinct, intuition were imperative — and we developed and thrived in relational reality. With the advent of agriculture and industry, capitalism and modernity, the body has become enslaved to the priorities and ingenuity of the mind — we now primarily inhabit and struggle to reconcile ourselves with artificial reality.
Neuroscience tells us that the mind has a fundamental negativity bias that in hunter-gatherer times was a function of protection against potential predators. Now that we have chosen to be ginormous minds sitting atop distant bodies, our sense of self is in a constant state of threat against the predator of the critical minds of others and of ourselves. Everyone feels as though they are everyone else’s prey on a subconscious level, and we are all prey to our own harshly judgmental minds. Our interactions with one another are performance-driven; we barely make true contact with each other. The impossible standards, the grudges and denouncements, the fear of failure, the hunger for approval are bottomless and looming.
In the hunter-gatherer culture that we descended from, to be separate was to be in exile. The sense of separation that modernity demands is all wrapped up in pervasive feelings of shame. When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned, intones Leonard Cohen.
Father Richard Rohr points out that human development on an individual scale and on a collective scale can be simplified into three stages: Order – Disorder – Reorder. Western civilization has been “discovering” its way through the adolescent disorder phase for the past several centuries to near destruction via genuflection to the discriminating intellect. If it’s the near-death initiatory experience into adulthood we’re subconsciously seeking as a species, it’s safe to say we’ve arrived. Staring down the barrel of global warming, we feel the “Reorder Phase” labor pains: hungry ghosts endlessly scanning the isles of the entertainment industry, spiritual thirst sacrificed at the altar of cool reason, mechanistic science consoling us with empty materialism, direct contact with reality strangled by analysis, exploitation and oppression under the guise of freedom, unprecedented autonomy in exchange for unprecedented feelings of isolation, luxurious comforts in exchange for terrifying existential discomfort. We have it all, and we have nothing. Some of our liberties are not quite as freeing as we thought. We are stunted and sheltered and bound by the freedom to disconnect and disassociate.
Connection, not critical thinking, is the other national deficit. “Reorder” on a cultural level is contingent upon each of us individually resetting the true north of our internal compass to connecting in each moment. Our salvation is contingent on a subjugation of the mind in deference to the heart and in reverence to the body, our own body and the Earth body. The heart has got to open in a fundamental way, sings Leonard Cohen. Without love, it’s just a house where nobody lives, croons Tom Waits.
In that empty loveless moment on the meditation cushion, I was the house where nobody lives. I could not connect. I was a casualty of modern culture. The mysterious magic of breath awareness, the aliveness that comes with the awakening of the senses, the primacy and unparalleled medicine of the natural world, faith in ancestral contemplative technologies, the fearlessness to witness suffering instead of tumble down a rabbit hole of distractions, the heeding of the call of countless sages and visionaries to make the work of opening into a greater love our central human project — these are the practices that reconnect. Awakening from the illusion of our separateness was the very heart of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
A twist of fate in my early twenties led me to an extremely rural village in Africa. High atop a grassy escarpment, Chepterwai overlooks the Nandi Hills in all directions, 6,700 feet above sea level along the Great Rift Valley in western Kenya. My personal version of Walden, I lived in a mud hut with no electricity and no running water.
Connection was still a way of life there. When you have no electronic screens and no artificial light, you go to bed when it gets dark and wake before dawn. The kitchen and the outhouse are separate from the living quarters, so upon waking the first thing you do is to go outside. With no light pollution blunting the night sky, you wander outside to watch crystal clear stars wink out in the rising glow of dawn. You acknowledge to yourself, “I am part of a universe.”
In Chepterwai, you get where you need to go by walking there. You meander along red dusty paths through green meadows where human buildings are a subtle overlay. Along the way you pass many neighbors, many kids, and many intimidating cows. You greet one another, asking, “Where are you headed today?” You want to know where the day is taking your friends, and you want to wish them well on their way.
In Chepterwai, when you walk into a shop to make a purchase, the clerk expects that you will first make a connection, that many kind words and gratitude for the day will pass between you, before making a transaction. I had to learn this the hard way my first visit to the village store, embarrassed afterward by my body language giving me away as a closed-up, me-first, agenda-driven, charging-like-a-bull westerner, graciously interrupted by a big open hand extended across the counter for a traditional Nandi handshake and a spot of friendly conversation. The gesture said, “In Chepterwai, we value connecting with one another as the primary vehicle to carry us through our day.”
When I returned to the United States, the first thing I noticed was not just how much stuff we have, but how many opinions we have. Individuation is the order of the day here, and so we continually distinguish ourselves from one another in an endless process of mental separation. Discernment and caring are not mutually exclusive, and they are equally important, like two wings of a bird, both necessary to fly. To balance the scales, we would do well to explore how it feels to lead with our caring and not with our criticism, toward ourselves and toward each another.
One of the ethical precepts of yoga is kshama, translating from the Sanskrit as forgiveness and forbearance, patience and letting go, releasing agenda, releasing time table, and functioning in the now.
Let it be.
I am enough as I am. I can love them as they are. Right here, right now, I can just be with love. This moment is enough.
Kshama suggests forgiveness of and patience with yourself; forgiveness of and patience with others; forgiveness of and patience with life; forgiveness of and patience with limitation. Kshama asks of us to recognize that what we are seeing is incomplete; ourselves and those around us, the circumstances of life, are in process. Kshama asks of us a willingness to trust in the unfolding of things, in the holy contour of life. Kshama asks of us a slowing down, a letting go, an easing up, and a shoring each other up against the riptide of the artificial world that we’ve created by keeping our feet rooted in the real one. Kshama points to the transformative power of what is taking place in this very moment and the magic of connecting to what is alive — to the living beings here with us in this very moment. Whatever this thing is that we have been born into, whatever this life is, surely it is an opportunity to connect and to love above all things. Love beyond liking or disliking. Love beyond infatuation and condemnation. Love that is a willingness to stay, in the heart, with each other, through the discomfort and the disorder and the death, allowing both the darkness and the light to transform us and to lift us up.
spring comes and the grass
grows by itself.
Before I made my way down the winding gravel road to silent retreat, I had an insight that I shared with my therapist: the safest, truest place that I can ever be is in the present moment. When my mind projects into the future or past, I enter into a kind of non-reality, a world that only exists in my mind, a speculative fantasy realm based more on assumption than fact. My inner demons live in this realm. In the shadows of what I cannot yet see, in the specters I raise from the past, they eagerly fill in the blanks with worst case scenarios, potential threats and disappointments, suspected enemies, and harsh critiques of myself and others. I get swept up in strong emotions (anxiety, excitement, despair, infatuation, craving, horror, anger, shame), vivid reactions to something that is not actually taking place in this moment.
My mind loves a good horror movie about the future; it feels like preparation for the worst. The unsettling re-runs of the past are usually cued up to make me feel bad about myself. How productive and unentertaining! So, when I see the opening credits start to roll, I let my mind know I’m not interested, and I hit STOP on the fear/shame reels, coming back to the fundamental safety, loving acceptance, and incomparable true-ness of this moment.
The past is just echoes. Strong though those echoes may be, they are only scattershot snapshots taken by a narrow lens telling an incomplete story. I greet those echoes when they arise, holding with loving and healing wishes the people that appear in the freeze frames: myself, my friends, my family members, my enemies, people who are now strangers to me, past versions of myself that are now foreign to me.
The future is conjecture; a fixation on the things I most fear and the things I most desire. The outcomes I most fear rarely come to pass, and even if they do, they are always more nuanced and grace-filled than my stark imaginings. The outcomes that I most desire don’t always turn out to be desirable things. That thing that I obsessed over gaining or achieving may turn out to be a thorn in my paw. Things not going my way may ultimately lead to a better outcome than I ever could have imagined. Terrible things happen, and moments of unique beauty arise within the terrible things. Wonderful things happen, and moments of immense distress arise within the wonderful things. A dear friend once said, “We are not fucked. And we are not fine. We are just here in the mystery.”
The past is not here. The future is not here. I exist in neither of those places, nor does anyone else. The only place that I can exist is right here and right now. Like vampires annihilated in the light of day, my inner demons are extinguished by the clear light of my consciousness coalescing in the present moment, touching what is.
The artificial world of the mind entrances us with memory and expectation, distracts us with illusions of control, compels us with endless planning and problem-solving, so absorbing and so addictive that it can feel more real than the present moment where life is actually happening. Such busyness in our minds, worrying about what happened or will happen; such busyness in our minds, making the plans and solving the problems. We miss out on the healing silence and the clarifying stillness – the most true thing – that the busy mind obscures. The solace of relaxing into spontaneity and imperfection. The power of trusting the nature of problems to work themselves out. The strength in walking one’s own path rather than trying to walk others’ paths for them.
On the final day of my retreat, my fellow sojourners and I lie on our backs in the meditation hall while my teacher offered reflections. “I promise you,” she said, “the safest place you can ever be is in the present moment.” I was unmoved by the coincidence of my insight coming out of my teacher’s mouth. Of course she said it. It’s truth.
wide awake in the current of Reality must,
with the intensity of an obsession,
be your one and constant endeavor.
Do not invite the future.
Do not fear appearances.
Do not alter your innate wakefulness.
There is nothing more than that.
After months of scary symptoms (dizziness, cognitive impairment, inability to focus my eyes), a specialist ascertained that I had sustained damage to a nerve in my inner ear. This was after more doctors than I can count on one hand mainly pointed out to me that I’ve been under a lot of stress as a caregiver and that I should not underestimate the power of the mind to somatize stress in the body. Had I considered trying to reduce stress? I even got the “everything happens for a reason” platitude, and “maybe your body is trying to tell you to slow down.”
There is more than a seed of truth in their observations and admittedly there is a part of me that needs a doctor’s permission to give myself more time to recover than I think I deserve. However, I knew that something was going fundamentally wrong with my body, and I felt certain that it wasn’t so ambiguous as “stress-itis.” I became worried at appointments that my very real medical concerns were being minimized by an assumption about how I was handling stress or what “the universe was trying to tell me.” Turns out my brain was just trying to tell me that it was getting faulty signals from my ear.
Because I persevered to get to the root of the problem, I am now feeling much better after only three weeks of vestibular rehabilitation. This hardship on the heels of hardship has yielded jewels of insight into my relationship with suffering, but that’s not to say I believe that I was “meant” to suffer. I tell this story because I continue to feel concerned about how we talk about stress and hardship and illness in our culture, and most especially in yoga culture.
First things first: You cannot avoid stress. By virtue of being alive, you will encounter stress. To be sure, we can make mindful choices and engage in practices that build resiliency and help to reduce the effects of stress – yoga gifts us with these very superpowers. Regardless, both positive and negative stressors will arise for anyone in a body with a brain and a nervous system wandering through an impermanent and unpredictable lifescape. That this body/brain must secure resources for itself in order to survive, and do so within the uniquely dysfunctional context of the modern world? Yes, there will be stress. And, in smaller or greater portion, all of us at some point will encounter tsunami-sized, knee-knocking waves of stress by virtue of circumstances that are entirely outside of our control. How our body and psychology respond to that stress can, up to a point, also be outside of our control, according to our exposure to childhood trauma, our level of social privilege, our access to psychosocial support, and our genetics. Yoga practice has the profound power to help us attenuate that response, but not delete it. “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it!” as those of us who have gone on a bear hunt know.
Second: It’s not your fault. Self-improvement, or “self-help,” is more popular in the United States than anywhere else in the world. It is a $10 billion dollar industry. Also trending? Perfectionism, judgment, “Type A” personalities, shame culture, and a high-speed chase to achieve productivity, bypass pain, and mask weakness to the point of health hazard. This is not a coincidence. Self-improvement and self-judgment are two sides of the same coin and feed on one another in dysfunctional ways. I routinely witness people blaming themselves for hard things happening to them. And, furthermore, criticizing themselves for being emotionally upset over hard things happening. The contemporary malfunction of assigning blame to ourselves for being vulnerable to illness and sadness, subject to hardship and struggle, is intensely toxic. To believe that by “improving ourselves” we can eventually become immune to suffering is a dangerous psychology. It is on the one hand aggressively disconnected and unreasonable, and on the other an incredibly insensitive and demeaning way to be with a person who is suffering, yourself or anyone else.
Spiritual practice is meant to help us come to terms with and relax into the messiness of life, not set about trying to clean it up or rationalize it or pretend it’s not there. I don’t want to hear the metaphysical implications of why you caught the flu, I want to hear how your practice is helping you turn toward your suffering with kindness, and how you are taking mindful action to ventilate it. At no point on this path do we become immune to life or discover that everything is now going to go our way because we’ve finally mastered our practice. To the contrary, signs of mastery are that you “improve” at loving and accepting yourself as you are and trusting yourself to the changing currents of your imperfect life. If all goes well, you will learn to be happy and to suffer at the same time. Stress will befall the spiritual people and the not spiritual people. Stress will bring both the strong and the weak to their knees. It’s not your fault.
Third: Working on how you relate to stress is more effective than trying to reduce it.
I cannot tell you how many articles on caregiving I read over the past few years that listed “reducing stress” as a suggestion. If I had the power to set flame to something with the touch of my finger, I would have burned every one of those articles to ash and used it to draw magic symbols on my forehead to protect my ravaged spirit from the insult of empty platitudes. If anything, I was painfully aware of my minuscule power over mine and my Mom’s overwhelmingly stressful circumstances, and for someone to blithely suggest otherwise made me feel like a failure. To “reduce stress” in my life during that time would have been a miracle on par with “arise and walk, my son.”
I had occasion to visit Vilano Beach, Florida a few weeks ago. During the last leg of a 9-mile hike in the Guana Tolomato Estuary, I got stung by a scorpion when I stepped off trail to get a closer look at an impressive falcon perched in a nearby tree. When I got back to my vacation rental, I googled recommendations for how to treat a scorpion sting. One of the suggestions from an article on Web MD (I shit you not) was to “avoid getting stung.” I laughed so hard. This struck me as the quintessential American piece of advice.
For those of us who have not yet discovered how to avoid getting stung in life, Stanford research psychologists suggest that how we relate to the fact of stress in our lives is more important (and more realistic) than attempting to “reduce stress.” They suggest that the emphasis on “reducing stress” can actually generate fear of stress, a sense of deflation when stress cannot be reduced, a sense of discouragement and heightened anxiety when stressful circumstances arise, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when stressors occur one after another. Taking the perspective that “stress is harmful” leads people to fear it and to cope in unhelpful ways like shutting down, avoidant behavior, and entertaining worst-case scenarios. Conversely, viewing stress not as a threat but as a normal part of life, an inevitable challenge to rise to, is associated with more positive outcomes – like humor and levity, greater trust in personal resiliency, and proactive measures to support oneself such as reaching out for help and taking extra measures toward self-care.
Given that life is going to be stressful, what do you gain by not accepting it? Changing how you think about stress can balance your mindset, so that you feel less intimidated or singled out by stressful circumstances. A core component of stress resiliency is a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. This is one of the primary aims of meditative practice: sensing the possibility that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. It can be true that going through something stressful can make you sick and depressed; and it can simultaneously be true that the stressful experience invites you into a greater love, generates moments of grace and breakthrough, makes you a more resilient human being, gives you unique insight into relieving the suffering of others, and ultimately sets you out on a new and novel path with creative outcomes that you could never predict. Psychologists call the process of learning and growing from a difficult experience stress inoculation. Stress leaves an imprint on your brain that prepares you to face similar stress the next time you encounter it. If we recognize that stress is something we all share, stress can become an avenue for connection in an isolating society. Stress can inspire us to renew our dedication to our spiritual practice and to remember the importance of taking solace in the healing arms of nature.
Finally: You can develop a beautiful container for stress to occur in.
Atta diipa saranam, said the Buddha: “Take refuge in the island of oneself.” Mind-body practice brings us into conscious relationship with “the self in us that is aware.” The self that is aware is fundamentally okay, riding the unpredictable wave of the present moment without labeling good or bad. Over time, mind-body practice more fully realizes this part of you, generating a palpable space of awareness. Awareness resides where the mind is anchored to the body. What part of you is always, literally, touching the present moment? Your body. When your mind is anchored in your body, they come together as one, and enter into direct relationship with the world around you and inside of you. This space is a refuge. All of the things that you love about being in nature come alive in you when you enter into this space. It is an equanimous container as vast as the cosmos because it is you connected to the cosmos, a space in which stress can occur but not consume you. Ancient yogis used the Sanskrit word garbha to describe this place. Garbha means inner sanctum, womb, sacred dwelling – a place where we are completely intact, a place that has in no way been diminished since we took our very first breath – our fundamental nature where we are connected to, and belong to, all things. When we encounter stressful circumstances, we have this incredible opportunity to reap the fruits of our practice by remembering what it feels like to swim up to the safe island of awareness inside of us. This is a place of deep unyielding compassion, as soft and enduring as an angel’s wing. A beautiful container to experience stress in.
When you learn how to suffer, you suffer much less.
Thich Nhat Hanh
At the dawn of 2019, I sat in 5am darkness on my meditation cushion. I sat with a lot of suffering. Last year was a dramatic crescendo of three years as a strained caregiver. Once my Mom was placed in 24-hour care, I had to face the damage to the caregiver, which was substantial. During a time when I felt I should be frolicking in liberation, brushing the dust off my neglected guitar, enjoying more social time, dating — having awoken like Rip Van Winkle from a three year blur of caregiver chaos — I instead found myself largely at the beck and call of aggravated chronic illness.
Bringing my palms together for the traditional bow to conclude my meditation practice, I off-handedly questioned what exactly I was bowing to. A merciful deity who might bend to my plea to take this suffering from me? A more noble, perfected version of myself that would prove itself too worthy for such dissonance, dropping it like Marley’s chains? Was I bowing to the righteousness of my meditation practice, which at times feels mired in the same dysfunctional habits that lead me to suffer?
“No. I want to bow to my suffering,” I thought. “In this moment, I bow to the one who suffers.”
The suffering itself, not indulged or pitied, but truly seen and honored, cupped lovingly in hand. The merciful deity placed on the pedestal. The noble, highest expression of the self on the pedestal. The unswerving virtuous practice on the pedestal. What about the one who deeply suffers, to be placed on the pedestal? Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
To the extent that I can transform my suffering into liberation, as the Buddha taught, I am the all-powerful deity, but rarely a merciful one. When faced with my own suffering, half the time my internal deity looks more like the annoyed and disappointed God of the Old Testament; the other half looks like a very Eeyore-ish version of Job. Worse, I sometimes take the aloof and avoidant stance toward my suffering as someone who quickens their pace when they pass a homeless person on the street or someone in need of assistance. I try to step over it. I numb out. I get frustrated; exasperated. I shut down.
To my credit, through the merits of study and meditative practice, I do at times remember to turn toward my suffering with compassion, which is a step up from the zero times I did it in my teens and 20’s. But when I do, it’s somewhat awkward, brief, and outcome-oriented like a well-meaning narcissist … there, there … now, give me what I want. More often than not, I go relieve someone else’s suffering instead, which does help; up to a point. Relieving the suffering of others has been an ingrained and largely unquestioned motivation of mine for as long as I can remember. It’s a beautiful and sensitive reflex, but it’s not as entirely wholesome as it appears, or could be. The somewhat misguided subliminal motivations lead to severe burnout, codependency, and self-neglect. Why? Because I still behave aggressively toward myself, routinely. And I do not take care of my own suffering as I do that of others. Despite my practice, an overwhelmingly powerful part of me insists on seeing my own suffering and illness as weakness, flaw, curse, or punishment. In which case, of course, the suffering is ugly and must be redeemed, rather than held or healed. It’s the psychological equivalent of ushering a disabled person to the back of a hiking group and scolding them to either pick up the pace or earn their keep for slowing everybody else down.
But from that first spontaneous and reverent bow of 2019, toward “the one who suffers,” sprung an unprecedented and visceral experience of tenderness and attentiveness toward myself. It came with a clear insight that if I put in the time, effort and care to investigate the root of my suffering so as to understand better how to relieve it, combined with the proper motivation to take practical actions to heal, then I will be healthier and happier. More available, to myself and others. These kinds of realizations sound painfully obvious when you say them out loud. But being able to say it is not the same as being able to know it. To feel the truth of something, a truth that arises from the wisdom of the heart unclouded by the noisy whims of the mind (prajna), resonating with such power as to silence and disarm the dominant and misguided inner voice, that is why I come to meditation practice over and over again. I am the one who suffers, and I am the one who scorns and avoids the suffering that is there, and I am also the noble, enlightened one who, rather than collapsing or bypassing or shooing the suffering away, turns toward it with great respect and unyielding compassion, coupled with the dedication and perseverance to investigate and understand its nature, so as to comfort, uplift, and relieve it. To bow to “the one who suffers,” and to take resolute action on your own behalf, is a practice in positive neuroplasticity that expands your consciousness with the understanding that you are more than the sum of your parts: the one who suffers, and the suffering itself, is not alone, but in good company; surrounded by a vast, too oft untapped consciousness that holds endless potential for nourishment, creativity, peace, and freedom.
Deena Metzger wrote many years ago that in order to achieve a healthy Democracy we must first topple our own inner tyrants. We must shift the imbalance of power from the destructive, entitled, dominant and blindly indulgent factions in ourselves toward the oppressed, subjugated, underserved indigenous factions. It is in this spirit that I commit myself this year, not just to learning, but to becoming a skilled expert at noticing and relating kindly to my own suffering, investigating and taking action on its behalf, and rising to the level of proactive, compassionate self-discipline in my diet, physical activity, sleeping habits, leisure habits, spiritual practice and daily routine that is worthy of myself, whom I love. I’m not resolving to change myself in 2019. I’m resolving to change how I see myself, care for myself, and support my own being.
Ill-being, the causes of ill-being, the end of ill-being, the Path, insight and attainment, are not separate self-entities. Whoever can see this no longer needs anything to attain.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Heart Sutra translation
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the Earth.
that though the flesh be bugged,
the circumstances of existence
are pretty glorious.
I never aspired to become a yoga instructor. I stumbled into it. In retrospect it makes perfect sense: a popular and profound vehicle through which many of my personal callings and cumulative studies find voice. The most challenging aspect of becoming a yoga instructor was, for me, navigating the spiritual and psychological baggage of mainstream yoga in America.
In the beginning, I was pretty self-conscious about having allergic reactions to what felt like spiritual bypass and syrupy sentiments about gratitude, light and love, usually coming out of the mouths of people who looked more privileged than me.
You see, I wore heavy black mascara and a spiked dog collar in high school. My teenage years were marked by choking on my first taste of the different forms of mental illness that I would have to grapple with for the rest of my adult life, juxtaposed with the cultural pressures to appear normal, demonstrate achievement, and “fit in.” In my vulnerable and repressed state, I took refuge with the goth kids, to become (for better or worse) a walking reminder of America’s shadow. In my early 30’s, yoga found its way to me and gently held my hand as it walked me back into the temple of my body, demonstrating that it could be a safe and loving place, even after years of fearful dissociation.
As I continue to nurture a snail-paced recovery from 3 years of chronic stress as a caregiver without the requisite resources, in this season filled with messages of gratitude and joy, I feel called to bring the “gratitude messaging” down to earth for all of us, but especially for those among us presently struggling with chronic illness, mental health challenges, grief and loss, lack of financial resources, and overwhelming adversity during this holiday season.
When life gets so tough that the words “gratitude” and “joy” make you feel sad, cynical, or repulsed, it’s time to call in the angels of fierce self-compassion. In spiritual practice, we explore how it feels to open our hearts, and to peer closer into our fears, at a healthy pace. Whether or not feelings of “joy” and “gratitude” come easily for you is not a ruler by which to measure how virtuous, how courageous, or how ungrateful you are. The foundation of ALL spiritual practice is to move toward greater love and seek understanding, and that starts with greater love and understanding for yourself. In yoga and meditation practice, we generate feelings of safety in the body, creating a space inside of us, and cultivating the right conditions, for feelings of peace, love, joy and gratitude to arise in us regardless of external circumstance. Usually, the more challenging the external circumstances, the more challenging the practice. To love your best friends in their worst moments is like hiking up Looking Glass Rock; it’s pretty steep terrain, but it’s doable. It can be like climbing Mount Everest, however, to access that level of love and understanding for the relative you dread seeing during the holidays. You may not be ready for Everest; that’s why it’s called a “practice.” Just because you like the idea of playing piano concertos, doesn’t make you a concert pianist. Recognize and honor what is and isn’t beyond your skill level, meet yourself where you are, and sense what it would feel like to move beyond what now seems possible. Self-discouragement and harsh self-judgment are red flags that indicate the need to go back to square one: becoming a compassionate ally to yourself. If talk of “joy” and “gratitude” feels heavy to your soul, it’s time to take drastic measures to call in the angels of fierce self-love: take a hot bath; allow enough time for a good nights of sleep or take more naps; let nature be your nurse, in the woods or by a river; find someone to connect with – a trusted friend, a therapist, a support group. Keep a list of small things you can do to bring in the angels in times of crisis – especially those times when joy and gratitude feel difficult to access.
Gratitude and joy are not rewards you reap when things are going your way. Joy is the soulful pleasure of being and connecting, regardless of circumstance and surface happiness or unhappiness.Brother David Steindl-Rast defines joy as “the spiritual happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” You can experience moments of joy in the midst of great discomfort. Sadness can contain an element of joy. The opening of the heart that occurs in moments of deep joy or deep grief often leads to feelings of gratitude.
Joy is far more than an emotion. Like grief, it is a life skill. Joy and grief are two sides of the same coin – equally necessary and fundamental ways of coming into relationship with being. Joy and grief are kin; both require an opening of the heart and a shedding of personal and social armor. Raw and honest grieving can be a pathway to joy. Opening to an experience of joy can open up the floodgates for suppressed grief to flow through.
Slowing down and setting aside quiet moments to see and appreciate the ordinary, everyday blessings in our lives, as well as marking and celebrating the extraordinary blessings in our lives, is the heart of gratitude practice. Beautiful clouds during your morning commute, a home-cooked meal, a hot shower, a simple peaceful walk from here to there, two minutes of mindful breathing. Although we have many such fleeting ordinary moments in our days, we usually speed right past them. We forget what joy they can bring if we bring ourselves more fully into the present moment. Neuroscience teaches us that, evolutionarily, the human mind developed a negativity bias as part of our threat response system (don’t worry, it’s not just you!). Due to this negativity bias, it takes 10 – 30 seconds to develop an emotional memory, a residue, of joyful moments and feelings. Therefore, a central practice in cultivating both joy and gratitude is “noticing the good” and “letting it steep.” Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to consciously say to ourselves, “this is a joyful moment.” Throughout your day, when you experience a joy or a feeling of gratitude: slow down, mark it, stay present, and let it steep inside of you. Even if this is all we do, it’s revolutionary. This simple practice can change the neural pathways in your brain to become more aware of joyful moments and to deepen the experience of joy.
By taking care of ordinary things that support our aliveness and well-being—our bodies, our pots and pans, our plants, our vehicle—we take gratitude in them. When we scrub a vegetable or wash our bodies in the shower or wash the dishes, we are expressing ritual appreciation for our food, our bodies, our material belongings. We can turn daily acts into an expression of friendship toward everything that supports our being. In the Zen tradition, students are taught to bow not only to other people, but also to non-human beings like plants and rocks and animals, meals, glasses of water, brooms and toilets, as a way of expressing respect and true appreciation for these things we are fortunate to have.
Everything in life may be a teacher, but everything in life is not a gift. There are many things for which you cannot be grateful; be wary of naivete and victim-blaming when yoga instructors and spiritual teachers veer into the realm of magical thinking. War, violence, oppression, and sickness are not gifts. The wisdom and life skills gained from these difficult experiences are gifts. We cannot be grateful for everything, but in every moment, we can find something to be grateful for.
As with all spiritual practices, the road to joy and gratitude, especially in the midst of hardship, begins with loving-kindness, curiosity, and the willingness to be with “what is.” In our most difficult moments, joy can emerge with the relief of finally accepting where we are instead of fighting it or pushing it away, and sensing the possibility that where we are is workable, even if it’s far, far away from what we wanted or expected. Joy can emerge from respecting our limitations and practicing unconditional patience in our healing processes. Joy can emerge when we consciously acknowledge we are suffering and take action on our own behalf, reaching out to others or engaging in activities that help us to process and aerate our suffering.
When your mind is predicting CERTAIN DOOM, make a conscious choice to trust that joy and unexpected blessings can (and will) continue to happen. My new favorite practice when my mind takes a dip or a dive into feelings of despair (while reading the Washington Post, or having a bout of insomnia, or feeling overwhelmed with caregiving responsibilities) is to make a counter-argument, and even collect and present evidence to the contrary, for my mind. My mind’s darkest predictions … “the world is ending” or “my world is ending” or “this terrible thing or feeling will never end” or “now this will never happen” … have, thus far in my life, never proved true. Life comes with both harm and grace, built-in. There will never be just one or the other. There will always be both. It will get better. Then it will get worse. Then it will get better. In our meditation practice, when the mind wanders, we bring it back to its anchor in the body and the breath. In equanimity practice, when the mind wanders into certain doom, we bring it back to the everlasting and unseen potential for joy and grace, for creation and rebirth. We are not clinging to the idea of joy, nor are we clinging to the idea of suffering – we are keeping ourselves open to both. Returning the forecasting mind, again and again, to the great mystery.
Wear all your clothes and do what you do.
Slow poke, we’ve got some things to find,
When I was faster I was always behind.
In his book, “The Five Invitations,” Frank Ostaseski, Buddhist teacher and founder of the Zen Hospice Project, tells the story of a common phenomenon in people newly diagnosed with cancer who express a quiet sense of relief after the initial shock. “Now I can finally rest,” they say, or, “Now I have a reason to say ‘no’ to things I feel obligated to say ‘yes’ to.”
“Do we need to die in order to rest in peace?” Ostaseski asks.
The rhythm of nature espouses a slow walk with life, a quiet day-to-day kind of existence. The modern industrial-technological world, heavily dissociated from nature, steams through life like a locomotive, fueled by careless waste and leaving destruction in its wake, moving us faster and faster along, as we are progressively emptied out of our emotional, spiritual core. There are two things we can never do living in this fast lane: we can neither deepen our experience, nor integrate it.
This month I enjoyed my first true vacation since taking on the mantle of caregiver three years ago. It was total bliss; all the time in the world to sit and soak up the St John’s River, which ran right through my back yard. That enormous swath of river was one of the quietest, most serene places I have ever been. I cannot emphasize enough its quiet grandeur. The rich presence of wildlife was stunning–barred owls, bald eagles, great blue and pure white herons, ibis, egret, alligators, bull frogs. The morning after my arrival, I sat staring at the river for nearly three hours, receiving something like a blood transfusion as I allowed its soft power to wash over me, the scenery continually changing with the growing light of day. The first noisy speed boat that sliced through the river was the most outrageous offense. How could anyone in their right mind disturb such a thing?
I watched the sun rise over the river every morning. One morning, well after sunrise, I was delighted by a family of river otter playing close to shore. Then I realized they were not river otters. They were manatees. Jaw-dropping awe! There were two groups of them, one close to shore, one rolling around and snorting closer to the central part of the river. I cringed every time a speed boat slashed through. A little research revealed that the very human-like eyes of manatees are a source of mermaid and mermen legends. Although they can no longer be hunted (which once threatened their extinction), power boats are now the greatest threat to the endangered species. Manatees are slow, near-surface swimmers, and they don’t have the agility to get out of the way of fast-moving watercraft. Many living manatees bear the scars of speed boat collisions. Whatever destination those speed boats are in a hurry to get to, do they know they are blazing through paradise? Or is it simply the thrill of speed that is of greater worth than the lives it claims and the health of the river that provides it passage?
Consider that our lives are the exquisitely serene and soul-singing St John’s River. And that we are power-boating through paradise.
More and more on my commutes to teach, I navigate the stress of people driving in too big a hurry or with a reckless need for speed, dangerously riding my tail on the highway. I observe a correlation between the increased processing speed of our tech devices and our increased need for speed on the roads. People want to get to their physical destination as quickly as they can get to their smart phone destination. Now that we can map the exact amount of time it takes to get somewhere, we feel the need to cram in a couple more tasks or distractions before leaving the house. When unforeseen obstacles arise, the specter of being late becomes a major source of stress. Noting this tendency in myself, I’ve begun to make a point of leaving for destinations with time to spare; enough time to ENJOY the drive. Riding in a car is a great opportunity to do breathing or chanting practices, even meditation practice, in the midst of a busy day. We are responsible for our own lives and other people’s lives on the road. People ride my tail, they weave and honk, they flash their brights, as if it’s my fault that they didn’t leave with enough time to get to where they’re going. As if their personal agenda, or need for speed, is worth risking my life and all the lives that depend on me.
When I returned from my vacation, I made a point of creating a photo album. Every day of my vacation, I journaled my experience. Taking time to mark and process our experience is becoming a lost art, a sacrifice for screen time. We have too much of everything these days. Too much music in our iTunes, too many photos clogging our storage space, too many connections to keep up with on Facebook, too much paperwork, too much stuff to fit in our house. We accumulate bazillions of photos on our tech devices like we collect bazillions of experiences in a day, with little or no time to process, digest, revisit, make special. Art anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake observes that “people in modern times become so concerned with getting on with the next thing that they don’t have time to consider their experience, and then to mark it, to care about it, and to make it special. When you have the time to think about it, then you see within a particular experience that something someone else says suddenly connects, something you read about connects, something you remember from a long time ago connects; that, in a way, is making artwork of your experience.” When we notice things and mark them, intentionally take time to process them — little parts of our day or big experiences — bringing significance to them in a ritualistic way, we return to our roots as human beings. Petroglyphs, storytelling, sacred sites. Cultural/ecological historian and catholic sage Thomas Berry wrote that “[humans] are the universe becoming aware of itself; through our eyes, the cosmos perceives itself.”
The present nature of society requires us to become inhuman. To wait until we are dying to slow down; to make radical choices in order to more deeply experience the specialness of our day-to-day existence. It is nothing less than the greatest human tragedy that for an insatiable infatuation with luxury, entertainment and human-centric advancement, we are forsaking a sacred contract with life, a soul-consummating relationship with all beings and the incomparable miracle of the cosmos.
An entertaining google search of “the fastest way to…” presented me with the following options:
THE FASTEST WAY TO BECOME A MILLIONAIRE
THE FASTEST WAY TO SUCCESS
THE FASTEST WAY TO PRE-ORDER iPHONE XR
THE FASTEST WAY TO GET RID OF A HANGOVER
THE FASTEST WAY TO GET FASTER
THE FASTEST WAY TO BECOME AN EXPERT AT ANYTHING
THE FASTEST WAY TO HELL
THE FASTEST WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT
I would like to propose something superior to all of these options:
The fastest way to become a slowpoke.
Take care of your inner manatees. They are slow-moving, playful, and mystical beings.
Bodhicitta is a sanskrit word that means “awakened heart, open mind.” Although it obviously speaks to the condition of loving-compassion, the emancipation of the mind by an experience of emptiness is its central feature. Loving-compassion is the organic result (or precipitating factor) of that release of agenda or themes in the mind. Bodhicitta is strongly correlated with equanimity. Equanimity can be described as spacious awareness (versus tunnel vision), freedom of mind (versus obsessive or habitual mind), not being controlled by the demands of the ego-self — all side effects of practicing or having an organic experience of sunyata – emptiness.
Okay. Let’s get away from the fancy concepts and turn our attention to kittens.
The past couple weeks will go down in my personal history book as some of the most adverse. You’ve heard it a million times from me and you’ll hear it a million times more: caregiving for a parent with early-onset dementia, and extremely limited resources in a country with a profit-based healthcare system and increasingly strangled social aid, sucks. Toss in a dash of broken timing belt at an extremely sensitive moment and YOU JUST SANK MY BATTLESHIP. Enter kitten, stage left…
Fela, a 6-week old female kitten, woke me up mewing her head off outside of my screened-in front porch last week. She was soaking wet from the rainstorm and trying to snuggle with my 10-year old male cat, Huck, through the screen. She was desperate for rescue but also afraid of rescue (who can’t relate with that?). So, after two days of sweet talking and leaving food out for her, I managed to lure her onto the porch and close the door behind her. As soon as I started petting her tiny head, she let out a purrrrr of relief and was full-blown domesticated. This was a mutual rescue. The currently heightened hardship of caregiving is slamming into my health, stability, work responsibilities, and personal routines like a wrecking ball nearly every day right now. At my worst moments, when my mind is made infinitesimally small by titanically overwhelming circumstances and my heart clenches under the weight of exhaustion, fear, anger and frustration, it’s like I’m drinking a 6-ounce glass of water with a pound of salt in it. But. When I come home to the tiny doting mews of Fela the kitten, who stretches out into a fierce downward-facing dog with excitement to see me, who looks the most cute when she’s doing something she knows she’s not supposed to, who gets so gushingly filled up with joy that she prances on her tippy toes like the tile floor is made of cookie dough, who slapsticks her way around the house like Chevy Chase… well, that 6-ounce glass of water turns into Lake Superior and I cannot even taste the salt. THAT is bodhicitta.
When you walk into yoga class with the weight of the world on your shoulders and then walk out of class like a great bird is bearing you across the sky, that is bodhicitta. When a gentle, persistent, all-day rain persuades you into an hour of rest instead of trying to push your way through exhaustion at the price of weakened productivity, that is bodhicitta by way of rain.
This past Wednesday, I was running on only 4 hours of sleep. I had a hundred things to do on behalf of my Mom and just as many personal obligations eclipsed by hers. My Mom and I were leaving the Minnie Jones pharmacy and I was weary to the bone and cranky as Ebenezer Scrooge. As we neared the bottom of the steps into the parking lot, I looked up and made eye contact with an elderly man sitting in his car, looking similarly tired. When I caught his eye, he lit up with a smile and asked how I was. “All right,” was the best I could muster. “And yourself?” I asked. “Oh, I’m thankful. I’m thankful.” He replied as if joining hands with me in a moment of humble celebration. I was kind of stunned and touched. I had never gotten or given that answer to a “how are you?”. The sky of my mind, which was full of low-hanging fog, was shot through with a tiny sliver of blue sky. My circumstances had not changed. The fact of my exhaustion and daunting obligations remained, but there was a little space around the plaque where my fear of those things had magnified and cemented to form an obstructive wall that blocked circulation. Little bit of circulation can start the process toward a re-awakening of the heart, a re-opening of the mind. That, my friends, is bodhicitta. Meditative practice enhances our capacity to recognizethose moments when they happen and to have the reflexive power to initiatethose openings of bodhicitta, not solely by external catalyst, but also from within.
On a personal note, I am purrrring with relief and fierce gratitude to those of you who contributed to caregiving assistance this month. Truly, there but by the grace of loving community, go I.
The path is the goal. June 23rd, 2018
In the garden of gentle sanity,
May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
A disciple once asked Shakyamuni Buddha, “Teacher, what is the goal of meditation?” To which he replied, “The goal is the path.” Not a utopian static state of being, not a perfected version of you, but a moment-to-moment, awakened engagement with what is happening in the here and now. Not a gradually gathering and penultimate outcome, but an ongoing exploration, an ever-unfolding relationship with the world around and within you, as it is. Yoga and meditation practice help to awaken us to that relational space.
Yoga and meditation have a positive impact on our overall health, but those are happy side effects. If we make things like achieving a certain standard of health, balance, and stability our primary goal, well, life will mess up our plans. No amount of stretching, OM-ing, healthy eating, or cleansing your chakras will exempt you from the fact that you are involuntarily swept up in a matrix of life that exists by virtue of transformation, limitation, and mortality. Health, balance, and stability will always be elusive to varying degrees. Meditative practices are not about getting what we want; in a way, they are about being okay with not getting what we want. You can play at “manifesting” what you believe you deserve, but ultimately, you will be humbled by what you cannot control. No measure of discipline, organization, visualization or being-all-that-you-can-be will rescue you from the fact that life, in all its holy contour, is by it’s very nature fragile, complex, and unpredictable. Life is a relational space between many interdependent beings. Life is not about you, and it’s not about getting what you want. Life will gift you with treasures you could never have imagined to “manifest,” because true treasure comes all wrapped up in a stunning package of unexpected, blissful marvel; the treasure is in the not-knowing. That amazing grace will arise when it damn well can, for all beings, and not according to your personal schedule. “One dwells in suffering if one is without reverence and deference,” said the Buddha. Through meditative practice, we put ourselves in the way of the health, balance, and stability that is available to us at any given moment, and we relax into the lack thereof. We put ourselves not in the way of material graces, or the love of desired outcomes, but rather, we put ourselves in the way of the limitless grace that wells up from simply loving for the sake of loving, and simply being present for the sake of the wonderment of what we do not know and cannot predict; the fathomless and marvelous NOW. Through meditative practice, we put ourselves not in the way of the ignorance and greed that gathers around personal agendas and invulnerability and comfort-seeking, but in the way of wisdom that lies behind the doors of discomfort, death, and darkness.
The goal is not to succeed or conquer or transcend, or to finally arrive at a new place or a new you. The goal is not to feel good all of the time. The goal is not to be good all the time. The goal is to turn toward this messy and seemingly unremarkable moment as it is and to gaze open-eyed into the simple joy and the petty discomfort of it and not look away. Don’t wait for an end goal. Find the love and the peace and the relaxation right there in the middle of the turmoil, and you may have to reach out to others for help with that. We need each other for this truly advanced practice.
Ride the rough wave of mortality into an ocean of no separation. Turn toward your suffering and your struggle with kindness. Walk the wild edge of imperfect life and be imperfect back. Respond to the unexpected with your own unexpected response. Every moment of our lives offers up a fresh opportunity to trust in and engage the energy of what is happening, of what is so, rather than to quantify it, analyze it, bend it to our will, or bore it to death with habit and assumption. In the midst of constant change, unrelenting challenge, and unrealized expectations, we can take refuge in the practiced constancy of RELATING, lovingly and fearlessly and freshly, TO THIS MOMENT AS IT IS.
The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Our first obligation is to live in the universe. Thomas Berry
I loafe and invite my soul; I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass. Walt Whitman
Bought and sold,
And bought again;
The dove is never free. Leonard Cohen
I have a volume of scripture. It is not written with paper or ink. It does not contain a single word, yet always radiates light. (Won-Buddhist Koan)
The yogis and the meditators, the psychologists and the neuroscientists, teach us that, at any age, we have the power to shape the structure of the brain, to direct the flow and attention of the mind, to heighten consciousness, to deepen our capacity for love, to fundamentally change how we relate to our inner and outer world. The four boundless qualities …
… loving-acceptance …
… compassion …
… joy …
… equanimity …
absolutely can, with practical practice, become the foundation from which we move in the world, relate to ourselves and others, and deal with the innate suffering of life. With every breath and every step, we can craft a masterpiece of an ever-awakening self, because steadfast practice shapes how our brain, body, and nervous system respond to stimulus, sending roots deep down into the heart of the highest good that human beings are capable of. The practice of anchoring the mind to the body and touching in to the present moment, with an open heart and a calm mind, brings us home. The volume of scripture without paper or ink is the shared consciousness we find there, the unspoken language between ourselves and the vast cosmos. A deep knowing, without words, that always radiates light, guiding us to take action in harmony with all things. To take refuge in the awakened self is to become a refuge for the whole world.
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.