Monday, May 20, 2013

Becoming like Water

Now that it's spring here in the Colorado Rockies, I hear the song of the western meadowlark every time I'm in the wide open spaces. Their song sounds like flowing water to me. It feels like they're praising its sound in song.

In my yoga classes, I often speak of building the poses from the ground up, whether one is balancing on their seat, their feet, or their tete. Or their front, back and side. Building speaks of solidity, of structure, even of permanence. It's very important to have that sense of structure, of container. Eventually I contradict myself and tell them to become soft and fluid, to pour themselves into the posture.

It's all George Hernandez' fault. George was my tai chi and wing chun teacher. He would tell students we were painstakingly learning the forms, only to throw them out once we mastered them, in five or ten years, depending on how willful we were. Every time he'd say that I'd think to myself, What's the use of learning something we're only going to throw out? He would explain that you would never go into a fight using a form. You'd not only be an easy target, you'd be a laughingstock. You adapt your form and your movements to your opponents' and gain the advantage. Through dedicated practice, your lens becomes bigger than the forms and postures can contain. You see openings, and you thread your punches through them. You're certainly drawing from what you learned in choreographed fights, but the biggest thing you're really learning from them is awareness and improvisation.

Bruce Lee. What a specimen.
The exact same, except for the punches, is true of yoga. It would seem that martial arts and yoga are polar opposites, but they both work with energy, chi, prana, ki, or whatever your tradition calls it. Martial arts and yoga make the best use of the energy each practice generates, for different ends. Wing chun master Bruce Lee famously said, "You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend." It's about inhabiting space to the fullest extent, and being able to move from one space to the next. In both yoga and martial arts, the breath is the catalyst for filling space.

I often feel that certain problems are solid and intractable. Sometimes I dream that the solution to the problem was right in front of me all along. My mind was making it hard. I am not alone in this. I see it in my yoga students' bodies. The chips on their shoulders. Defiant posture. Defeatist posture. Being too hard on themselves. Less often, in go-go, bad-ass American culture, being too easy on themselves. Non-responsiveness. Non-awareness of the unnecessary, soul-sucking tension they carry within their beings. I touch their shoulders, the backs of their necks, their backs, inviting them to let breath and awareness melt the solidity, to find the softness and fluidity that is just beneath, like water beneath hard ground.

I don't claim to know what enlightenment is. It feels like water, letting water carry me where it will, rather than where I will. If I could sing like a bird, I'd sing the meadowlark's song. Yoga is practical enlightenment, in the sense that you are gradually letting go of burdens you never needed to carry in the first place.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"I Need Something to Change Your Mind"

Shortly after voters approved a bond for our local school district in 2002, the school board announced a $13.8 million budget shortfall. District accountants had forgotten to factor in staff salaries for the new schools built in one of the fastest-growing districts in the state.

Around this time I ran into someone I know from church, a physical therapist who contracted with the school district. When the subject of the budget deficit came up, she shrugged. "At least we got a few things we'd really needed for a long time."

Uh-huh. But really? Why were we putting essentials on the credit card? If the district could afford to build schools, and there were more taxpayers moving into the area, why were we in this pickle? My own best, and probably woefully underinformed guess, is that the state's history of skimping on tax collection had finally caught up with itself. There was no evidence of criminal malfeasance on the part of the district accountant. He wasn't embezzling money, but he got fired for incompetence. Chalk it up to human error. SNAFU is another explanation. Mainly because I like to say SNAFU.

The community came through in a big way, as did the state, and the school district eventually climbed out of debt in 2007. Over the last ten years, voters also have voted in favor of two mill levies, something that had never happened in the district's history. People in this community had changed their minds. We got stuff we'd needed for a long time, and not even a budget crisis could stop that from happening. Maybe there's hope for other crises this country faces.

The week of April 15-19 was one of the saddest I can remember. The Boston Marathon bombings. The fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. The Senate's epic fail to do even one thing about gun violence, despite the public's overwhelming support for a variety of measures to address it. This last is the one that hurts the most, because 30,000 people die in gun violence every year in this country.

Twenty kids, six educators, and the shooter's mother dead doesn't change them. Not even one of their own getting shot in the head changes their mind about their position on gun violence.It's all NRA, all the time. SNAFU doesn't even begin to describe the whole sad, pathetic situation.

It brings to mind a Talking Heads song, "Mind," from the band's 1979 Album.

The salient line: "I need something to change your mind," because nothing so far has done it. Not time, money, drugs, religion, or science.

None of it has changed New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte's mind. She voted against instituting background checks and other gun control measures. Watch this exchange between Sen. Ayotte and Erica Lafferty, the daughter of slain Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochstrung:

I'm not going to congratulate Sen Ayotte was doing her job to host Ms. Lafferty in her office. Ayotte's votes on the Senate gun control measures were obviously a slap in the face to Erica Lafferty and others who have been affected by gun violence. Sen. Ayotte brings up mental health, as have many other in public life, including NRA veep Wayne LaPierre, who has proposed a national registry for the mentally ill, but God forbid there should be a national registry for gun owners.

I believe they're as serious about addressing the crisis in mental health care as they are about addressing gun violence. Not a single Republican in the Congress voted for Obamacare, which includes provisons for mental health care reform. Congressional Republicans have voted unsuccessfully to void Obamacare more than 30 times in three years. Given their history of obstructionism on health care and so many other issues, reforming mental health care in this country would be a lot more difficult than passing laws that restrict who has access to guns.

Which leads me to the question--What will change their minds about gun violence? What has to happen that is worse than a Congresswoman with a life-changing gunshot wound or 20 dead first-graders? This question, to quote David Byrne, "comes directly from my heart to you."