Monday, July 25, 2011

Right Sizing the Ego

For years I've been told by authorities in books and by people I know that spiritual growth is dependent on the right sizing of the ego. As someone who has allowed low self-esteem to shape my life, I would listen respectfully to advice to check the ego and politely conclude it didn't apply to me. Because how could it? My problem was not enough ego.

In the home stretch of this phase of yoga teacher training, it's pretty clear that this advice does indeed apply to me. My ego is attached to the fact that I don't have to work on surrendering it because I never really had an ego to begin with. Father Tom at Resurrection University Catholic Parish in Bozeman observed that there were no in betweens for me. I considered myself to be either the best person, or the worst person. I didn't get what he was trying to tell me then. Negotiating those extremes was my idea of balancing. I wish I could say I've steadily advanced toward the Buddha's Middle Way since my mid-twenties. It's only been during the course of the yoga training that I've had to come to terms with just how much I'm getting in my own way, which is, by the way, the very definition of excessive ego involvement.

For instance, my academic training in English and journalism was all about honing inquiry, a great skill to have as a writer and an interviewer. Not so great for a yoga teacher trainee. Experience, not intellectualism, is where it's at. I can get there, if I persist in feeling and experiencing the postures and pranayama and meditation instruction. I've been told repeatedly to stop asking so many questions and to be less verbose in my cueing of the postures. I could resist this advice and hide behind my academic training and the fact that I'm a writer, and that I'm bringing these things to my teaching. That's all well and good and probably true for me. But what do my yoga teachers care about that when I have so much more to learn? Incorporating my life experience into my teaching is something that comes later. I'm not there to get my analytical and writing skills validated. Learning to teach students the postures is much more urgent work. I have other skills to develop, other talents to tap into. That's what I signed up for.

And it's not only the experience I need, I want it. Or I would have gone away a month ago as it became clear to me that I was exasperating three of my five teachers with my resistance to listening and experiencing, rather than speaking and analyzing. This is really what the training is about--abiding with the practice, no matter what comes at me. That's only fair. If I'm going to ask students to abide in the practice, I need to have that foundation myself.

One of my teachers gave me some great advice. As I'm cueing a class into a posture, cue one sentence, and then take a deep breath. Then add one more cue, and take another breath. She also suggested I take a breath before I ask a question or make an observation. Actually, in my case, I need to take three breaths, and if the questions or observation is still there, then it's probably worthwhile to say something. Otherwise, just keep breathing.

So I'm going to do a good deal more breathing than talking from now on. Here's hoping that adds some potency to my thoughts and words.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Limits of Cold Turkey

I'm a little bit more than halfway through my twelve-week yoga teacher training. I didn't know just how much I was signing up for. What is demanded of me is nothing less than transformation. Going in, I knew I needed some work, but really? I'll never be able to go to another yoga class without thinking about the way I'm being taught,? Couldn't I just go and be guided, without critiquing the nature of the guiding?

The answer is no.There's no going back, if I'm really taking all of the teaching I'm receiving to heart. And I am. Despite the calls to change my sloppy, lazy and garrulous ways as a yoga practitioner and as a human being, it's all been done with my best intentions in mind. For the first time in my life, I've been able to accept this as the constructive advice it is, instead of allowing myself to nurse hurt feelings and thereby resist doing what I know deep in my heart needs to be done.

I have never wanted to quit. I've been told, very yogically of course, to curb my tendency to chatter too much as I teach (and in general), to seriously work on improving my physical imbalances (I won't bore you with those, except to say they begin in my feet and have worked their insidious way up), and to completely change the way I approach the poses. This last involves changing the patterns I've built up over the previous eleven years of practice. I'm in the beginning stages of this process, and it won't be complete when I graduate on August 17. It's only the beginning.

In the same way, it's only the beginning of our country's struggle to deal with the debt problem. Our leaders are not going to wave some magic wand and make all our troubles go away by year's end. These problems have been a long time in the making, and it's going to take some time to undo our addiction to debt.

When dealing with any addiction, cold turkey is strong medicine. Anyone who's ever gone through drug or alcohol withdrawal will tell you that the physical and emotional tremors are overwhelming. Heroin addicts would come off the drug with methadone. Alcoholics Anonymous recommends the cessation of all alcohol. Many alcoholics have tobacco addictions, too, but the wise course of action is to deal with one addiction at a time. Otherwise, the chance of relapsing is too high.

The same is true with debt. That's why Congress needs to quit dithering and raise the debt ceiling already. Going cold turkey on debt has consequences ordinary people like you and me cannot begin to fathom. And forget about listening to Tea Party demagogues, who insist people who've studied world economies are exaggerating. Ignore the Tea Partyers, and listen to the experts.

Megan McArdle, a business and economics writer for The Atlantic, who is incidentally no great fan of the Obama administration, writes that linking the rise of the debt ceiling to budget reform is a form of blackmail. Here she writes about the consequences of failing to bite the debt bullet this year:

"The tea-partiers who are proud to stick to their guns are not actually tough enough to weather the television coverage of homeless families, the doctors regretfully turning away their Medicare patients, the angry constituents beating down their office doors.  They'll fold--but not until they've lost virtually all their capital, and have no way to get back in the game.

"I know I've said it before, and I'll say it again: there is no game-theoretic substitute for political legitimacy. There is no neat strategic maneuver which will allow you to bypass the American public and cut their government benefits by 40% overnight if they don't want you to.  And if you think that the American public actually wants you to do it . . . well, then it's not Washington, DC that's out of touch with the rest of America."
Let's say our country's addiction to debt is analogous to heroin addiction, and raising the debt ceiling is methadone, a necessary but lesser evil to letting the addict rattle himself to death. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that we can be on methadone for the rest of our lives. It's time to get serious about negotiating budget cuts and tax increases. Because there are some things we can as Americans agree we all need to support--good schools, clean air and water, decent roads, affordable health care, a sustainable energy policy. And that means paying our taxes, because we're responsible adults who want to live in a civil society. 
There's no going back, just as there's no going back for me in my yoga training and future adventures in the practice. Destroying institutions that have benefited society, just because a small minority of anti-tax crusaders are telling us we can't afford them, or worse, that education and the EPA are evils that deserve to be destroyed, is definitely the wrong way to go. Notice they have no vision of what America could be--just so long as they can keep their money out of the tax coffers. All they're proposing is that the so-called job creators will suddenly free up the $2.9 trillion dollars they're sitting on to create jobs. The time to do that was nearly three years ago, when financial institutions and the auto companies received their bailout from the American people. It's time to stop waiting around for these so-called "job creators" to give us the jobs 15 million of us need now. Job creation has been voluntary, and the "job creators" have clearly chosen not to. Taxpayers involuntarily paid to bail out these "job creators" in their hour of need. Now is the time for them to reciprocate. Justice would look like raising the debt ceiling and taxes on the wealthy. Only then our leaders can do the gritty work of  reconfiguring what the nation needs, and what it can afford.