Thursday, August 26, 2010

We Have Not Come To Take Prisoners

"For we have not come to take prisoners or to confine our wondrous spirits, but to experience ever and ever more deeply our divine courage, freedom, and light!"
 (Hafiz-The Great Sufi Master)

I am often baffled by our ability as modern humans to live our lives as if there were a great war being waged against us.  So many of us often seem defensive and out to protect what's ours (our beliefs, ideas, possessions, our politics).  Perhaps most perplexing of all, we often treat ourselves or our bodies as if they were the enemy-something to be punished.  We punish ourselves for the weekend's overindulgence, for not being tall enough, thin enough, for our past mistakes or current insecurities, or _______(fill in the blank).   We may become obsessive over our style/method of yoga, have "killer" workouts or "punishing classes" all in an attempt to desperately sweat away our problems or our demons.  We may walk away from such grueling pursuits or obsessions with a sense of "high and mightiness"; stunning arm balances, kick ass abs, or buns of steel.  But are we happy?  Are we at peace?

 I have spent more years than I care to recall at war with myself via my body.  In reality I was punishing my body for the lack of clarity in my mind.  In hindsight, I believed that  if I could trick my mind into focusing on something completely innocent, it would forget what the REAL issue was and perhaps that issue would magically go away if I ignored it long enough.  The result was usually an unhealthy and unsustainable way of life and a mind that was weary from trying to outrun itself.

Enter: the practice of yoga!  As our yoga and meditation practice matures and deepens it leads us away from the combative and competitive notions that mislead us.  It opens us to approach not only our practice, ourselves, and the world, but life in general from a place of peace, compassion, and acceptance.  Breath by breath we begin to sort through the muck and mire of the psyche and the reasons for our inner combat become clearer and clearer.  We begin to see WHY we're punishing ourselves with "killer" classes that leave us wobbly, running or walking obsessively, eating too many Cheetos, drinking too much wine, smoking too many cigarettes, _____(fill in the blank).  Once the "why" becomes clear, the unraveling can begin and a truce can be called.  The inner skirmish is resolved and peace presides (at least until the next battle cry is heard).

It is not our purpose to punish, beat-up or belittle ourselves or others, but rather to experience our time with courage, light and freedom.

Try this:
The next time you come to your mat, take a few moments before you begin to investigate what you've brought with you to your practice.  Take a seat or lie on your back, settle into the rhythm of your breath and the sensations in your body.  Sit with what is present without labeling it as "good" or "bad".  Get quietly centered on the breath.  Listen.  Then set an intention to practice-to move and breathe with mindful awareness of what your body, your heart, and your soul needs.  Practice from a place of clarity, stability, and mindfulness, rather than with the intent to fuel the ego or slavishly burn calories to punish yourself over the fact that you ate an extra donut in the break room this morning.

We Have Not Come To Take Prisoners
by Hafiz

We have not come here to take prisoners,
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.
Run my dear,
From anything
That may not strengthen your wings.
Run like hell my dear,
From anyone likely
To put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience
That stand outside of our house
And shout to our reason
"O please, O please,
Come out and play."
For we have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits,
But to experience ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom, and 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Sea, The Sea...

Between dusk and dawn the weather is constantly changing,
Bathing mountain and lake alike in radiant sunlight.

This radiant sunlight filled me with such joy,
That lost in delight I quite forgot to go home. 
When I left my valley the day had scarcely broken,
When I stepped into my boat the light was growing dim.
Forest and gorge were veiled in sombre colours,
Gay panoply of water-chestnuts, lotus,
Rushes and cattails growing side by side,
I swept them aside with my hands as I hastened 
How glad I was to reach my house in the east!
Once the mind stops striving the world loses
Once the heart is content it does not swerve from the
I send these words to those who would nurture their
Try using this method if you want the truth.
(Xie Lingyun)

From the time I can first remember being near the ocean (Cape Cod, MA when I was three or four years old), I have been afraid of it, and rightly so I suppose.  The ocean is immense and powerful beyond measure.  It is also full of strange and otherworldly life forms.  It's depths are mysterious and dark.  There is something primal and ancient about the way it smells and moves.  In hindsight, perhaps I was just afraid; unable or unwilling to see what an apt metaphor for life it is: constantly changing, unimaginably beautiful, inconceivably unforgiving, calm and bright, and at times rough and stormy. 

I recently spent a transformative week at the beach.  Renting a house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with friends, I fell in love with the ocean.  It ignited something deep inside of me, and I felt a profound spiritual shift take place.  Each morning my dear friend (and kindred spirit!), Andrea and I would get up just before sun-up, drink some tea (or coffee in her case-Andrea can't speak before she's had her coffee), pack up our yoga mats and blankets and walk quietly to the beach.  Silently spreading out our blankets and setting down our mats, we would fall right into our deep breathing and begin our separate yoga practices.  For me, asana practice (yoga postures) involves deep listening and movement from a place of inner wisdom and intuition.  Letting go of what each posture should "feel like" or "look like" and opening to what "is" and what my body, mind, and spirit need in this moment. Somehow, practicing near the ocean deepens this connection to intuition.

Each morning I would finish my asana practice and begin my zazen (seated meditation) practice with the feel of the warm wind on my face and the sound of the breathing surf in my ears.  A feeling of openness and contentment would radiate through me.  Often, at the end of my meditation I would be prompted to get up and stand in the surf, to feel the water and its movement and coolness on my skin, and to experience my connection to it all.

There was something about being there at the edge of the sea in those early morning hours with the smell and feel of the ocean breeze: the motion of my body, my breath, the soft, shifting sand beneath my feet and hands, and the pounding surf that awakened something within me.   Although that feeling is largely unexplainable, it was a feeling of pure freedom, a sensation of pure contentment, the notion of being a part of something complete and whole, like I had finally awoken.  I distinctly felt and understood that I am not in control, I never have been, I never will be, and that it was okay not to be.  Everything I am, everything that I have been, and everything that I will be is part of this amazing cycle of birth and death, rising and falling, earth and sky, day and night, beauty and ugliness.  Each one of us is connected to all that is, has been, and ever will be.  We are part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  This realization filled me with joy and a sense of awakening ("There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." -Shakespeare's "Hamlet"). 

As the tide came in, I would stand in the churning surf, my body soft and yielding as the water swirled and waves crashed against my legs.  Rooting my bare feet into the sand I would feel the strong pull of the waves being drawn out with the tide.  There is a moment as the tide is being drawn back into the sea when the sand gives way beneath your feet.  If you panic, or react to that shift without mindfulness you may fall on your butt. However, if you notice the shift and softly stand your ground you start to be aware that although the ground is giving way beneath you, there is a new level of ground beneath it and you are supported.  

This is the essence of zazen practice.  It is truly the practice of freedom.  When you can just sit, having the experience you have, whatever it is, without comparing it to what it should be, you begin to have true ease and contentment (santosha in sanskrit) on your cushion/yoga mat or off.  Practicing asana in the the presence of the mighty sea, such awesome power and beauty, helped me to connect to this ease.  Practicing yoga and sitting in meditation roots us deeply into the truth and this truth is available at all times.  The ocean is indeed an apt metaphor for life.  I am grateful to say that I am no longer afraid...

"Once the mind stops striving the world loses importance,

Once the heart is content it does not swerve from the truth..."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Be and Do

To what shall I compare this life of ours?
Even before I can say
It is like a lightning flash or a dewdrop
It is no more. (Sengai)

I’ve spent much of my 41 years caught in the web of conditioning that most of us find ourselves stuck in at one time or another. It starts when we’re very young and find ourselves wishing to be older. I can remember watching my older sister, Robyn reap the rewards of being a teenager: the freedom of being able to stay up later, being able to go out with friends on a Friday or Saturday night, wearing make-up, getting her first car, and I would think, “Wow, my life will start when I’m 16”. Then, when I was 16 thinking, “When I graduate from high school, that’s when life begins!”. Upon graduating high school, the thought was that once I finished college, THAT’S when life would start. And so it goes, thinking that the next big event (marriage, having kids, getting that promotion, buying that big house) will mark the day when our lives will start and we’ll be perfectly happy and content. Isn’t that what we’re led to believe by the media, by those slick commercials on TV?

I lived this way until the day my mother passed away after a short battle with cancer in 2003. Something shifted deep within me when I saw and felt her exhale for the last time. Something beyond explanation. I realized that life was happening...right now, right here. Indeed it has always been happening, and I had been wrapped so blindly in the belief that life was waiting for me just beyond the next bend in the road.

When I started to practice yoga and meditation, I started to see, breath by breath and pose by pose, those old beliefs slowly begin to unravel. The knots and entanglements of those old conditionings began to undo themselves and I began to see life as a gift to be present for in this and every moment, that only being (here) and doing (this) are real. Be and do, here and now.

The realization comes when, while meditating or practicing yoga, you can let go of the idea that you are in control. What happens from moment to moment is something to experience, not to push away or grasp onto with all your might. When you just follow the breath, just know that you are breathing you become rooted in your life as it’s happening. All the bulls*#t drops away. All the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world drop away and we’re left with life as it is honestly happening. Powerful stuff.

Of course, this is easy to say and hard to do. It takes practice and patience and lovingkindness towards yourself and others and the world. It involves accepting all that is as neither “good” nor “bad”. Be and do. Here and now.

I can’t say it enough: the discipline one gains through a yoga practice or through a daily meditation practice is priceless. You learn that by stripping away the non-essential, you find the essential. You find the truth and an unshakable sense of peace. Life is happening and you are a part of it. This isn’t to say that what’s happening here and now is always going to be pleasant or comfortable. It may be downright painful or full of sorrow. The point is that what’s happening now is life. It’s truth. To be present for that truth is a great and powerful gift. “Peace doesn’t mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” (Unknown) Be and do. Here and now.

(By the way, you DO have time to squeeze yoga and meditation into your daily life. Yoga and meditation, by stripping away all of the “filler” in our lives, creates time, it doesn’t “take” time.)

Here’s a quick way to find your center:

Find a quiet place out of the way of foot traffic in your home or office. Lock the dog/cat out of the room. Take a moment when the toddler is napping (instead of surfing the net or watching the boob-tube!). Sit on the edge of a cushion or pillow so that your pelvis is tilting forward and your spine is straight (it helps if your knees are below your hips).

Begin by watching your breath. Don’t try to do anything to it at first. Just watch. Feel the length of the breath enter your body as you inhale, and the length of the breath leave your body as you exhale. As you inhale say to yourself: “be here” as you exhale say to yourself: doing this. Do this 10-20 times.

Then slowly deepen your breath, inhale silently count “1” to your self, then slowly, completely exhale.

Inhale deeply count “2” then slowly, completely exhale.

Repeat this until you get to “10”

When you get to 10, do the same thing but count backwards to 1.

Slowly open your eyes. Feel better? Be and do. Right here, right now.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Zen and the art of "American Chopper"

As a student and teacher of yoga, and long time practitioner of mindfulness meditation I tend to feel as if I am pretty chill about most things. I eat a simple but healthy diet, my husband, John and I got rid of our microwave oven in 2007, and our cable TV last March (we don’t miss either one), I don’t watch the news or read the daily newspaper (if something major happens, I’ll hear about it). Life is distilled down to its essence and I like it that way.

So you can imagine how astonished I was to find myself freaking out recently at the fact that I had become "addicted" to “American Chopper” (that crazy show on TLC that focuses on the Teutul family and their dysfunctional relationships while building bad-ass choppers and building a chopper empire). Despite getting rid of cable TV, John and I still have Netflix streaming through our digital cable and straight into the tube (500 movies and/or TV shows available at the blink of an eye-yikes!). This I am sorry to say, is worse than having cable in many ways.

Anyway, back to that addiction. While eating breakfast and lunch, I would cycle through the Netflix offerings, and watch a movie over the course of several meals, or watch one TV episode per meal until all of the episodes were complete-you get the picture.

One day several months ago, I stumbled upon “American Chopper” Season One and thought to myself; “this might be interesting.” Five seasons and two months later I finished the last episode that NetFlix offered...the END! What? No more family drama? No more pimped out choppers? The day I discovered I had gotten to the end, I felt as if I couldn't eat without the Teutuls and their choppers. I ended up watching one of the first episodes again just to finish my meal. It was then that I came to the realization that I was addicted (or attached as we say in yoga and meditation) to the idea of eating and watching TV . I had somehow fallen away from my mindfulness training and put it aside in favor of mindlessly shoving food down my throat while numbing my brain with chopper nonsense. Isn't it amazing how silently and slowly we sink into the abyss of mindlessness? Mindlessness is how we're conditioned to live these days. We're bombarded daily by a world that tells us that it's good to multi-task, to "plug-in" to "check out" with TV, prescription drugs (can't sleep? Take an Ambien!, Feel sad? Take a Prozac!), our ever-present cell phones (eat, talk and drive at the same time!), computers, text messages, financial worries. Mindfulness brings us back to the reality that this moment is all we ever have. It brings us back to our true nature which is stillness and simplicity. I let "American Chopper" take me away from my stillness (operative words "I let").

So a week ago, I decided to find my Zen again and started to eat my meals in silence. Breakfast that first day was wonderful. I chewed, tasted, and listened to the sounds of birds out in the backyard. I felt the food, smelled the food, tasted the food with mindfulness and was more satisfied in eating it than I can remember. I stopped eating when I was full (not like the usual-stop eating when the show ends). It was a lovely breakfast.

Then lunchtime came around. I prepared my meal and sat in my usual spot. I started chewing and instantly had an overwhelming urge to turn the TV on. Whew. What did I do? I ate, I watched that urge grow, and then I watched it dissolve when I didn't act on it. When the next urge popped up to open a magazine, I ate, I watched that urge grow, and then I watched it dissolve. And so it continued until the end of the meal. After several meals of just eating and watching, the urges to distract myself from the moment became less and less. The feeling of satisfaction of staying in the moment became more and more apparent.

This is the heart of mindfulness practice, I believe: to be present, here in this moment, to watch what comes up and to act accordingly (not react). I'm not saying that one should never eat while watching TV or that "American Chopper" or TV for that matter is evil (the Teutul's, Vinnie, Rick and the gang are BAD-ASS!). I'm saying that whatever you are doing, be doing it. If you're eating, just be eating. If you're talking on the cell phone, be talking on the cell phone (not driving, talking and trying to listen to the GPS all at once-CRASH!). If you're indulging in a little "American Chopper" therapy, just be watching "American Chopper" (not watching the show, painting your nails and flipping through the newest copy of "The Rolling Stone"). Be available to the moment in all of it's complexities or simplicity. Be available to the stillness within, don't run from it or cover it over with mindless "fluff".

I've been eating my meals mindfully for seven straight days and am happy to say that mindfulness has become my new habit. Life is good. I wish you all the miracle of mindfulness. Namaste...