Monday, December 28, 2015

Year in Review

Ever since I can remember, I have had vivid dreams. Some I remember for years afterward. I have come to see my dreams as stories that are telling themselves to me, often having some bearing on my waking life.

Last night I had two dreams. Both were with Don, my husband. In the first we are in what seemed to be the eastern part of Colorado, a few hundred miles away from our home. He had bought a car. But this isn't just any car. It is shaped something like a car, with the aerodynamic lines of a race car, and a small passenger compartment. It also has absolutely no leg room, and no wheels. Even stranger, Don is expecting me to drive this contraption back to our house.

I envision myself being poured into this vehicle, like gunpowder in a bullet, my legs sheathed in its nose. How am I supposed to operate this thing? Where are the pedals and the ignition?

I protest, "I'm going to have to stop every five miles to stretch my legs! This is going to take forever!"

A cenote in the Yucatan

The second dream takes places on Hugh Jackman's ranch in Australia. Don and I are doing a self-guided tour of a pumpkin patch that Hugh (yeah, because it's my dream, and I'm on a first-name basis with the hunky Mr. Jackman) and his sons planted. Like the car in my previous dream, this is no regular pumpkin patch. It's planted in the bed of a cenote, an underground river found in the Yucatan, and pictured above. As if cenotes aren't spectacular enough, this one has sandstone ceilings swirled with gaudy desert reds and oranges that loom at varying heights. The pumpkin plants are growing lushly in the bed of the river, in water of varying depths, the vines, stems, leaves and fruit undulating together to resemble elephant heads. Don is riding alone in a vehicle without wheels (similar, but different, from the contraption in the previous dream), and I am on foot, making my way from one patch of high and relatively dry ground to the next.

It is all so weird and beautiful, I think to myself.

This sums up this year pretty well. First, the weird and the disorienting. In February, Don got a diagnosis of intermediate grade prostate cancer that he ultimately elected to treat with Cyberknife, high-intensity, external beam radiation, and Androgen Deprivation Therapy, which is exactly what it sounds like: lights out on the male hormones, to starve any remaining cancer cells of fuel. Every cancer treatment exacts its tolls, many of which are visible to others, like hair and weight loss. Don has had neither. The tolls of his treatment are largely invisible to others. They are of such a personal nature, it has been difficult to speak of them with family, friends and acquaintances. During the most stressful period of our lives, we have had to lean on each other more than ever before.

Even with the numerous side effects, Don has been a trouper. One of the worst moments of this process was watching him walk for the first time into the room where the radiation would be administered. In his baggy surgical pants, he looked so small and vulnerable. But this is just one moment of so many. I am learning so much from watching this man navigate the toughest experience of his life with so much courage and grace.

As my first dream intimates, I have struggled to keep up with the pace of this challenge. How am I supposed to operate this new vehicle? Where are the controls? I'm being squeezed and molded, like a newborn making its way through the birth canal. Whatever trip I'm required to take in this vehicle is probably going to take too long and be very uncomfortable, with numerous starts and stops.

Don in his new Ganesha meditation shawl

During walks, Don and I often reflect on this journey we're on. Like so many things in my life, contemplating the future makes it seem more difficult than it turns out to be once underway. So now for the beautiful. After years of watching me meditate, he asked me to teach him. He's taken to it like a duck to water. Last summer he took a four-week meditation course at Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram, and the group jelled so well it's continuing. He's making friends there, and he often accompanies me to Monday night services led by my beloved Babaji Shambhavananda.

As for me, the vehicle is operating just fine, without me needing to know where the controls are, or even where it's going. At the moment, the trip is taking as long as it takes, and I have plenty of leg room. Along the way, Don and I are growing, separately and together, just as it has always been with us. Plus, there are beautiful sights along the way--an underground, underwater pumpkin patch/elephant herd. It's all so good I'm looking forward to what the Dream Maker has in store for me. Who knows? Maybe Hugh will make an appearance.

Yeah, baby. Because it's my dream, that's why.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"It"s Always Ourselves We Love the Least"

A great line from Bruce Cockburn's Song "Burden of the Angel Beast

A few years ago an intuitive healer noticed my Vitamin S deficiency--self-love, that is--and recommended a remedy. As I put lotion on my body after bathing, I would repeat, "I love myself, and I support myself."

I grew up in a family, like many in the United States, that prizes humility. No one loves a braggart. Telling myself I love myself was not only counter to my conditioning, it felt embarrassing and, frankly, ooky. Loving other people and making myself loveable was my job, and in exchange, presumbably, others were supposed to love me back. Only sometimes they don't. More often, I find loving others to be difficult. 

I had nothing to lose by taking Kelly's advice. After all, feeling high on others wasn't helping me feel better about myself. The first couple dozen times I did it, I practically had to hold my nose it felt so unnatural. What if I became a narcissist? I continued for a few months, without noticing any perceptible change, before dropping it.

Within the last year during an Ayurvedic consultation with my friend and sister yoga teacher Heidi Nordlund told me I am very good at loving others, and not so good at loving myself. I was still deficient in Vitamin S. Heidi recommended repeating as often as possible, "I love me," like a mantra.

I chant mantra every day to celebrate and summon the qualities of the deities. But really? A mantra devoted to loving myself, ala Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"? Again I was resistant. I let Heidi's advice go without even trying it.

One dark day a few weeks after my husband's prostate cancer diagnosis in February, I let myself imagine what being widowed would feel like. [Update: he is undergoing treatment, and all indications are that it is working. His PSA dropped from 4.5 to 0.56 this month. He will definitely survive this. Weird states of mind like mine are all part of the process of coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis.] My first question was, "Who would love me?" I didn't want to think about that any more than I wanted to repeat "I love me" a couple hundred times a day.

But a few days later as I was meditating, I got a two-word message: "Love yourself." There it was again. I didn't think of the means Kelly and Heidi had offered me until a consultation with Heidi last month. She again suggested repeating "I love me." Same resistance on my part. How could that work, and so forth.

After a couple of weeks of stalling, I tried it on a particularly rough day. I kept beating back my doubts about its efficacy as I hiked with my family. All the way up I felt I no sense of uplift, much less of self-love. Instead I felt annoyed by my lack of progress, and with myself. 

But as I approached the summit, the thought came to me, It's acts of faith and daring that constitute love. I was expecting too much too soon from the practice of repeating "I love me." I need to keep at it, in the same way I persist with my yoga practice, the same way I keep at it with writing, and all the other things I enjoy doing and/or am good at. Not many of us actually make the effort to love ourselves. The belief is that it will take care of itself. In 54 years on the planet, I can tell you it will not. I could free myself from a whole lot of angst and co-dependency, if the person I'm with always loves me always. It's a radical proposition that so far has yielded only this modest realization. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Alert to Growth

I have a history of killing houseplants. It's not that I set out to do so. I sincerely want to be surrounded by leafy, blossoming things, as I was growing up in my parents' house. I am an inconsistent plant parent. I alternate between overwatering and underwatering. I have better luck in the garden. Under the sun and sky, my efforts matter less. 

Last summer we inherited a banana tree plant from one of Don's co-workers. We left it on our patio, which gets the hot morning sun, and promptly forgot to water it or to pay any attention to it at all. Eventually Don rescued it by putting it in a larger pot and setting it on the hearth inside. It began to thrive, growing taller and sprouting a new stalk within the first few weeks. At Christmas time, I decorated it with sock monkey ornaments.

Who doesn't love a sock monkey in a purple tutu or a Santa costume?
Earlier this summer I noticed the central stalk's leaves were getting brown. I figured I was performing my usual involuntary plantslaughter and tried to ignore it. 

Last week I took a good long look at that plant and decided to do something on its behalf. With kitchen shears I cut away a few dead leaves. It still looked like a dead plant, but with a few less dead leaves. It needed stronger medicine, so I took a sharp knife to the central stalk and cut it almost to the top of the potting soil.

Remember the new stalk that sprouted after it was transplanted and brought inside?

There was already a whole new healthy plant growing alongside the dying part.

The plant was now two healthy, thriving, green-as-could-be stalks that were apparently waiting to be recognized as the replacement plant. So captured was I by the plant's withering leaves, and my part in this failure, I was not captivated by the fresh growth.  An unfortunate part of my temperament gets so caught up in grieving what's lost, I forget to be alert to new growth. 

More new growth

On closer inspection yesterday, I noticed a new shoot sprouting out of the stump of the central stalk. This is a good plant. It has survived neglect, transplantation, my clumsy care and an amputation. My yoga training teaches that death and rebirth are happening simultaneously, in life writ large and small. This is not a matter of faith. It is a fact of life, illustrated beautifully on my hearth. It happens in its own time, of its own accord, independent of me and my efforts.

Monday, June 29, 2015

If You Really Want To Help

Don't get no better than this. This postcard from my friend Rhonda is the best example of what the bewildered caretaker of a loved one going through cancer treatment needs to hear. Simple, sweet, telling me how valued my friendship is.
Heading into the sixth month after my husband Don's diagnosis of prostate cancer, I'm just now coming out of the numbing shock of it all and heading straight into choppy waters of hope mixed in with depression, anger, gratitude--well, hell, the whole spectrum of emotion. He has made it through radiation treatment, and started a six-month course of hormone suppressant therapy. We're hoping for a good outcome, while knowing with certainty that the future is uncertain.

Many people have been very kind and asked me what they can do to support me and my family. Some, like Rhonda's postcard above, have hit all the right notes. Nothing complicated, simply offers of support and a personal message of appreciation. Before Don's diagnosis and treatment, I am sure I said and did some things that were intended to be supportive, but fell short of the mark. I wish I'd known then what I know now. I wish someone had told me, for instance, that, "Keep your chin up. It's going to be OK," is probably the most superfluous thing to say. Yes, I'm on an emotional rollercoaster, but overall I'm taking care of the usual business. How does anyone else know that it is going to be OK? Not even the radiation oncologist offered such certainty. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook whose 47-year-old husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly in May, writes much more poignantly on the topic of "It's going to be OK" than I hope I ever will.

Here are two other ideas for how to support someone who is squarely facing mortality issues.

When you ask me how my loved one is doing, also ask how I'm doing. As Don's spouse and caretaker, I appreciate the attention. I'm not going through what he's going through, but I'm going through it with him.

Please let me be honest about what's going on in my life. I have gotten the message from some that going into the details is not what they want to hear. Before Don's treatment, I was the kind of person who will tell you exactly how I'm doing. I'm even more that way now. Yet I have gotten the distinct message from some that going into the details is not what they want to hear. Fair enough. But remember, you asked. I now ask people if they want the spruced-up PR version of how things are going. I can certainly do that. Know you're not really supporting me, though. I'm actually supporting your illusion that everything must be sailing smoothly along.

I truly hope no one reading this ever goes through this kind of ordeal. But surely we will all experience losses and will need comfort, and have already. In the meantime, there are plenty of people out there in need of a safe place to share their doubts and fears. Offer a little piece of your shoulder for them to cry on.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Cliff in Shirohama, Japan

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

--Leonard Cohen

I took this photos in Shirohama, Japan, the day before I came home. The growth of flowers and vegetation along the seam of the volcanic cliff seemed intentional, as if someone had planted a garden there.

As I sat in church contemplating all that is happening in my life, I thought about the sensation and texture of sadness and how it feels like what was good and whole is falling away. Separation is a natural part of life, but oh, it's so damned painful and so full of hard, hard lessons. What could be the blessing in that?

Because of course there is blessing in all that happens. All one needs to do is look and see that a great crop of blessing and grace is happening all around us at all times. As my heart breaks, it opens up little seams where new things can grow, like the flowers on that cliff in Shirohama. Seeds of hope and transformation, love and joy, are already planting themselves in the freshly opened cracks in my heart. Grief's tears are purposeful, urging the seeds to sprout, so all that was lost is replaced. Not as it was before--God never promises that--but new and different and reminding us of goodness' constant presence in the face of loss.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

No Regrets

Saying you have no regrets is popular in our culture. Most of us want to feel we're in control of our lives, that we make good decisions, and those decisions don't have a negative impact on others. Feeling sorrow and remorse for something we've done that results in harm to others is also painful. This often motivates people to take corrective action, whether it's offering a heartfelt apology or taking a course of restorative justice. Only when you take these steps with humility and sincerity can you say you have no regrets.

The first weekend in May, Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative hosted an event in Texas she called the Muhammed Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest, with a $10,000 prize for the winning cartoon. She knows full well that Muslims consider blasphemous any depiction of their prophet, so the very premise of the event was regrettable. What could go wrong? The event attracted the attention of two unbalanced individuals identifying themselves as Islamic freedom fighters. They arrived armed, wounding a security guard before police shot and killed them.

In an Associated Press interview after the shootings, Ms. Geller said she has no regrets about holding the event, predictably citing her right to freedom of speech. (Many eloquent and learned people contributed to a terrific survey on the rights and responsibilities of free speech.) She says she's already planning similar events in the future. Holding the first events was borderline sociopathic, but insisting she'll organize more of them leaves no doubt that she has psychiatric issues.

To say she has no regrets is also an incredibly entitled statement, as if her lack of regret is of first and foremost importance. People were shot at, one was wounded, and police killed the gunmen. There was a lot of avoidable trauma that occurred because she set up the conditions for people to take offense, and two fools took the bait. How can the person who hosted the event not have regrets about what happened? Does she think that not having regrets makes things right for the wounded security guard? After what happened, having no regrets is a luxury she can no longer afford.

Ms. Geller has a history of sticking her finger in the eye of those she considers enemies of freedom, namely all of Islam. Her organization Stop Islamization of America did its best to stop the development of a Muslim community center near the World Trade Center site, calling it the "Ground Zero Mosque," though it was neither. Here are some of the posters her organization sponsored on subways across the country:

No one with a conscience could post such things.

Ms. Geller says she will wear a bulletproof vest at the future events. Will she offer them to security and attendees, too? Actually, anyone who would attend one of her contests is either terminally naive or looking for a fight. As a practical matter, no insurance company would ever underwrite another conference of this kind. She's clearly blowing smoke.

There are citizens of our country who equate this drivel about having no regrets with leadership. They say they want a leader who makes a decision and sticks to the letter of that decision, no matter the consequences. They want a leader who, in the words a Daily Kos' editorial used to describe the presidential candidacy of Ben Carson, says the Affordable Care Act "is the worst thing to happen to America since institutional slavery." This is not considered a gaffe by the same groups egging on Ms. Geller. "It's considered speaking truth to power," the DK editorial continues. "These are things that a vast swath of the conservative base believes in their bones, and they're damn happy to have someone finally willing to say it out loud." Ms. Geller certainly falls into this category.

OK, so this happened. I actually agree with something Donald Trump said about the debacle in Texas.

"What are they doing drawing Muhammed? Isn't there something else they can draw? I'm one who believes in free speech, probably more than she [Geller] does. What's the purpose of this? She's taunting them."

If Ms. Geller was so inclined, now would be the perfect time to change course. An organization that is for something rather than against Islam and Muslims is likely to be more durable. She could accomplish this by creating and encouraging dialogue between those who are concerned about security and moderate Muslim leaders who share similar concerns. There are plenty of organizations already doing this work, including Free Muslims.  Ms. Geller could rehabilitate her reputation and do good work by teaming up with them.

It's entirely possible that she and those who follow her lead may be unrepentant haters. But I can't and I won't stop dreaming of days when the voices of harmony drown out the voices of dischord.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Vulnerable and Half-Baked

When I was working in restaurants and catering in my early twenties, I must have baked a thousand cheesecakes. Cheesecake is easier to make than most other cakes. There is no sifting of flour, separating of eggs and precise mixing. You put all the ingredients--cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, sugar and flavoring--into a standing mixer. It's even easier than pie. The traditional graham cracker crust requires no rolling, and some recipes forgo crust altogether. There are no-bake recipes, too, but none compare to the baked versions. Dress up a cheesecake with glazed fresh berries, and it's an elegant dessert.

The difficulty with cheesecake is in the baking. It's all about achieving the desired consistency. Cheesecake is supposed to jiggle, to have give. A half-baked cheesecake will jiggle, but not in the right way. Too much jiggle and it's runny and impossible to sell. This is an easy problem to fix. You simply bake it longer. Too firm, and it dries out. I suspect that's one reason why glazing it with fresh fruit came to be a thing. Shiny, happy fruit covers many sins.

At that time in my life, I felt I was myself half-baked. Too much jiggle in my life, not enough solid ground beneath my feet. This may have accounted for why I erred on the side of baking my cheesecakes too firm. I estimate I ruined ten cheesecakes before I knew by sight whether they were baked to perfection. Luckily there were always prep cooks and dishwashers ready to eat the evidence.

People in public life who unfailingly present themselves as confident, competent, and invulnerable  amaze me. These confident performers apparently never walk around, as I do, feeling as vulnerable and half-baked as my first-effort cheesecakes. I'm not thinking of House Speaker John Boehner, who is known for tearing up during speeches, or even President Obama. Though known for his eloquence and cool, the president liberally sprinkles uhs and long pauses in some of his impromptu addresses. These jiggles make both leaders more human. If you like your politicians to be human. Some voters do not want their leaders to show any human frailty.

The late Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords, is an example of someone who was authentically confident. He was the guy you wanted to set things in order in tough places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had the education, Peace Corps experience, directness, and the diplomat's uncanny ability to balance listening and speaking. He was properly firm, never half-baked. Confident as he was, even the good ambassador turned out to be vulnerable. A New York Times column attributes his death at age 69 in part to the elusiveness of peacemaking in Afghanistan.

For other reasons, I'm also thinking of Alex Rodriguez. Such a talent. Such a hard worker, dedicated to the sport of baseball and his performance. Such a physical specimen. Always so well-dressed, well-groomed, unflappable, smooth. Not even when Yankee fans heckled him did he loose his cool. A-Clod when he fumbled ground balls as he transitioned from playing shortstop to third base. A-Fraud with his high salary and mediocre performances in the World Series.

Not surprisingly A-Rod was extremely competitive, willing to do whatever it took to stay on top of his game. You don't get to be in professional sports without it. Turns out that one crucial thing behind A-Rod's confidence was a warehouse full of performance-enhancing drugs. Add A-Roid to the chorus of taunts. He had the cojones to deny it until a court of law forced him to confess under oath. In the end, A-Rod's cheesecake rating: overdone. 

Like A-Rod, Bill Maher is another confident performer whose aggressiveness threatens to undermine his status. He regularly mocks all religion, but heaps most of his scorn on Islam. Maher insists there is something fundamentally wrong with Islam and is unmoved by experts who object to how his schtick inflames Islamic extremists and Islamophobes alike. Maher's cheesecake rating: same as A-Rod's. Overdone. Inedible and undigestible. Give it up, Bill. Find a hungry busboy to eat the evidence, and start over again already.

Many people accept that confidence is a "fake it until you make it" proposition. Presenting a facade of invulnerability is the same as being invulnerable. Do whatever you have to do to prove yourself right, even as the evidence keeps stacking up against you. The trouble is, this isn't confidence. It's bravado. Confidence is much more solid and authentic. It is also about knowing one's limitations and choosing whether to accept or transcend them. Confidence can be trying something new, when all else has failed, knowing you don't have total control over guiding the outcome.

Many Americans believe our country can have its way with the world by threatening military action, and they are frustrated with President Obama for not using it. I am more frustrated with him for using alternative forms of warfare, like drones and intelligence overreach. Military action would seem to be "working," except that it hasn't achieved the country's national goals since the end of World War II, or at least not the goals that were originally stated at the beginning of each conflict. Spinmeisters take over the messaging of the war once it's clear that the stated objectives will remain unmet. Because war is inherently so confusing, they get away with it. Invading Iraq in 2003 was originally about eradicating Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. When no such weapons were found, the mission morphed into rebuilding Iraq, casting the same military that had just invaded the country as humanitarians, even though Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said at the beginning of the war, "We don't do nation-building."

Check out this bit of Newspeak from the fork-tongued Rumsfeld:

Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq again have all ended in draws, or worse. No one could seriously argue that the American war machine made any lasting positive difference in these countries. All have been very costly, economically, socially, politically, morally and to our country's standing in the world. Nor have threats or the actuality of American military might deterred countries from picking fights with their neighbors (Russia and Ukraine) or killing their own citizens (Syria).

This is why Holbrooke is my guy rather than Cheney. Talk is cheaper than war any day.

I'm enjoying President Obama's approach in the last two years of his second term. He's tried joining those who oppose him, giving away too much in my opinion. Because no matter what he does he hasn't won them over. I'm glad he tried, but enough already. I trust that he cares enough about the country to work with his opponents if and when they show a willingness to collaborate. In the meantime, he needs to do what he can as the chief executive of the country. He is taking a tack that makes sense to me. He's summarizing what he's been doing all along, and that is turning more than a few pages between the belligerent approaches of the past as he works toward his vision for a less conflicted world. Many of his policies, of watching or withdrawing from fights rather than getting involved in the internal political affairs of other countries, are challenging the idea that American military action begets peace, or if not peace, order. Believing that violence begets peace, or that the chaos of war begets order, is as absurd as believing that hatred begets love. It is clear that peace is more, much more, than the absence of war. Making peace is a series of creative acts, and with every creative act, including making cheesecake, there is no guarantee of success. Obama's policies could very well end up as jiggly as half-baked cheesecake. Remember, though, that the fix for an underbaked cheesecake is to bake it longer. If someone could explain to me in ways that make sense--no fair using silly obfuscations ala Rummy--how Obama's approach to Syria, Russia and Iran could be worse than getting involved in a couple of more wars, I'm all ears. Because if there's anything good that can be gleaned from the Iraq War, it would be a healthy skepticism of the arguments for future military action.

It's no accident that Dick Cheney has turned up the vitriole and the volume on his attacks on President Obama. Cheney sees a way of moving through the world, a way he personally helped perpetuate, as being exposed for what it is--purposeless hostility without end. It's destroying his health, and these attitudes and their implementation are a threat to the integrity and well-being of our country.

Many have been critical of how President Obama abandoned candidate Obama's calls for change we can believe in. I believe he has upheld that promise, at least in part. Much has changed, and is changing, whether Obama initiated it or not. A vocal portion of the electorate doesn't believe in the changes he's made, and they are digging in their heels against any additional change. The unwillingness to move and be moved--to experience together the jiggle and vulnerability of change and evolution--is at the root of our conflicts. To try new things is frightening. So is changing old habits, even whey they're clearly not working. Some believe our government and our military must act decisively and make sure our opponents exploit no opportunity to attack our vulnerabilities. Another definition of strength is one tai chi masters teach: The tree that bends will not break. Our definition of strength needs to expand from force and firmness to include responsiveness to change . That involves not just the willingness to work toward a more just future. Being vulnerable isn't weakness. It's a fact of life that is best faced with courage and confidence.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Do You Want to Be Healed?


Covered in colorful Mexican blankets I use in yoga classes, I keep an old couch in our dining room. When we moved into this house fifteen years ago, Don's friend and co-worker donated the couch to us. She'd had it for some years, and since then, we, our kids and the cats have sat on it regularly. One evening Don gave it a good once-over and suggested it was long past due a cleaning.

"We can't do that!" I exclaimed. "It's the dirt that's holding it together!"

Sometimes I feel that way about my life. It's the dirt and gunk of my tensions holding me together. If I were to let them go, I would disintegrate. Who and where would I be without my anxieties, opinions and controversies?

The yoga center where I learn yoga and how to teach it offers a technique called tension release Swami Rudrananda developed. It's very simple, like most of the teachings, and very effective when done regularly and sincerely. Sit down on a meditation cushion or a chair. Close your eyes and release your fingertips to or toward the floor. Inhale, drawing air in through the nose around your heart. As you exhale, release the breath through your nose and say to yourself, "I consciously wish to release all negative psychic tension." As you say this, you may feel your fingertips tingle. Imagine that you're draining away your accumulated tensions through your fingertips. For more on the subtleties of tension release practice, I recommend "Sacred Journey: A Guide to Meditation in the Shambhava School of Yoga," by Swami Kripananda.

I have been doing this exercise regularly for the past four years, and I'm happy to report that not only have I not disintegrated, I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. Many of the tensions I'd been carrying around are released or releasing. The anxiety that I'm not good enough. The resentment about sharing life and the world with a bunch of assholes. Vague and specific fear. I can simply sit down and let my breath and intention remove them through my fingers. Or if not remove them all at once, begin to move them.

Being freer from the inside has a positive effect on the externals of my life. Strangers smile at me. I don't waste energy I don't have chasing after those things I can't control. The people in my life are nearly always happy to see me, because they sense my happiness.

Jesus asked the man who had been an invalid for 38 years, "Do you want to be healed?" That's as pertinent a question as it was when he asked it 2,000 years ago. Making ourselves whole is within our power. Healing does not mean that all wounds are healed or all missing parts restored. One image of wholeness is the china plate that split into several pieces and is lovingly put back together. It may be missing a few slivers of porcelain, with clearly visible fracture lines. But it is whole enough to serve your dinner on it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The blessings of meditation

Today I went to teach yoga to my neighbors, a couple in their eighties, for our regularly scheduled session, only to find that L had taken a terrible fall in a parking lot late last week. She landed on her face, and though she is healing quite nicely, she was in no shape to do even the gentle class we typically do. She has balance issues and has taken several less serious falls in the two years we've done yoga together. I suggested that she needs to make sure she's not putting herself in situations where there is only a narrow space to walk in, because a wider stance improves balance. I also suggested that they consider having at least some of their groceries delivered, to avoid icy parking lots. L is a sweet, soft-spoken woman, but my innocent recommendation touched a nerve. She launched into a tirade about how she'll never have groceries delivered, because she isn't ready to be chained to an armchair for the rest of her life.
When I came home from our visit, I started thinking how grateful I am that I have an established meditation practice. I am thankful to my teachers, especially Sri Shambhavananda, for so generously sharing the gift of silence. Twice a day I practice sitting, doing nothing other than opening my intention to the Divine Guide. If I am forced to sit in a chair or stay in a bed because of some catastrophe, I feel confident my practice has prepared me to deal with these restrictions as gracefully as I can.

The cultivation of silence and stillness is totally countercultural. Students have told me they won't or can't do pranayama because their minds race and it makes them feel bad. They believe they need a more active practice that allows them to escape the menace of their thoughts. This complete connection to doing at all costs, linked with a fundamental inability to be with oneself, is to me totally sad. Because what happens when they get to the place in their lives where they can't do an active practice of any kind, when perhaps even going about doing their daily chores is too big a challenge? Because if they're lucky enough to live a long life, they're going to get to that between a rock and a hard place.

If you've successfully set up your life to avoid facing and taming the rollercoaster of your own mind, you're going to be ill-prepared when you can no longer hop onto all the carnival rides the world offers you. Even then, there's time to begin to meditate and learn to understand and calm the mind's fluctuations.

But why wait? It's as simple as sitting in a chair, closing your eyes and paying attention to your breathing. Start with at least ten breaths, because that is the minimum needed to reduce the circulation of stress hormones. The goal of meditation is not to cease all thought. Thoughts are inevitable. Let them pass by as if you're watching clouds float past your window.

This will likely be so welcome you'll want to continue. When you open your eyes, you might find that five to ten minutes have passed. For one month, commit to practicing every day in this way, first thing every morning. Over time, it's best to build up to thirty minutes of sitting. I guarantee you'll feel more open, relaxed and able to face the world, receptive to all its joys and challenges.

Once you get a taste of the pleasure that comes from being better acquainted with the rhythms of your mind and breath, you may want to consider joining a meditation group. I find it enormously helpful to meditate with the yogis at Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram and with my yoga students. It's like linking train cars to a mighty engine--the shared momentum allows everyone to roll along with ease. If you're lucky enough to live near a yoga center, you can receive instruction from experienced teachers there. Some recreation centers offer meditation classes. Most also offer yoga classes. Not all yoga teachers are meditators, but ask if any of them also teach meditation.

There are no failures in meditation. Even if you stop for a while, it's always there for you. The worst that can happen is that you get to know yourself better.