There is one poem that I can’t stop thinking about.
Like large dark
butterflies they sweep over
the glades looking
to eat it,
to make it vanish,
to make of it the miracle:
resurrection. No one knows how many
they are who daily
minister so to the grassy
miles, no one
counts how many bodies
and descent to, demonstrating
each time the earth’s
appetite, the unending
waterfalls of change.
wants to ponder it,
how it will be
to feel the blood cool,
the blaze of our own bodies
we watch them wheeling and drifting, we
honor them and we
however wise the doctrine,
however magnificent the cycles,
however ultimately sweet
the huddle of death to fuel
those powerful wings.
Sometimes another person can do or say or write something that helps us to see something more clearly. There is darkness and they shine in that illuminating flashlight and then we see something that we didn’t ever think was in that dark box. (Thank goodness I’m not trying to be the poet in this story…) This is the definition of a guru, really. A guru dispels darkness. Today I give a shout out to guru Oliver. This poem has helped me to see.
I was pondering “Vultures” as I drove Hazel to school. Hazel usually takes the bus. But as summer approaches, a year’s worth of low-grade resentment over having to wake up early and go to school for yet another day has reached a critical mass. Hazel and I challenge school-bus fate by leaving for the bus stop a little later and later each day. Today, it was just too late. For the first time this year, we actually missed the bus. So after waiting and wondering on the cul-di-sac corner longer than we needed to, we came back to the house. We had a few minutes before I had to drive her to school so I sat on the couch to read this poem again and drink a little more tea while she worked on a Barbie mausoleum made of blocks and fabric scraps. I was thinking about vultures and the huddle of death when we finally got into the car. “Mr. Jones” was playing on the radio and the Counting Crows guy was singin’, “We all want something beau-ti-ful. I wish I was beautiful.” I think he’s right even if he does have bad grammar. We do want beautiful. Locked into the blaze of our own bodies we get wrapped up in our ideas of what that means but then a poet uses words, so useful at times, to help us to see beauty in a broad and expansive way. Oh yeah, Mary Oliver, sometimes beauty does come in the form of Vultures. Like large, dark lazy butterflies, for example.
I have been anxious lately. I’m a little too busy. I have some uncertainties about some stuff. I don’t sleep quite enough. And then I read this poem about vultures and what it is that they do and I feel better. Vultures and their business seem messy and grotesque and so earth-nature-reality bound. There are equal parts repulsion and fascination that kick in when I think about vultures…kind of like rubbernecking as I pass an accident. Reading this poem, seeing the grotesque and the power and the fascinating beauty, helps me to feel less anxious. This is what is possible with life on this planet. Things die. Then birds eat the death. Then the birds go on living and flying and huddling. Guru Oliver calls this a resurrection. Isn’t that amazing? She evokes the central sacred and spiritual act of resurrection, the miracle of resurrection, and because of it hope stirs inside of me. It’s this vague desire for a resurrection of my own.
I think this is what keeps me coming back to this beautiful and difficult practice of yoga. Can this Self inside of me be uncovered and brought into the light so that I can feel whole of mind, body and spirit? Can it be resurrected. I know the answer. I know it can. That’s why I keep practicing and teaching and connecting to this essence and this feeling inside of me. It’s this desire to use this life to fuel the powerful wings. Mary Oliver. I love you.
At the end of Pranayama and Meditation class the other day students were filing out into the hall and one woman said, “Oh, I never want to leave your class. I always feel so relaxed and peaceful here.” She had invited her mom to class that day and she had such a nice smile on her face as she left. I smiled and thanked her. I was feeling pretty good after that. I thought to myself, “it’s so nice when students have such a good experience.” A little more quietly I also felt, “Whoo-wee, I must be a good teacher. She really likes me, I can tell.” I leaned down to grab my bag and another student who has been coming to class regularly asked about other classes I offer. I let that complement soak in, my smile got a little brighter and I threw my bag over my shoulder as I answered her question.
I’m feeling pretty good at this point because people showed up this week, they like my class and I’m a good teacher. So, after this student rolled up her mat and put away her blocks, I mentioned that I’ve been thinking about offering a pranayama and meditation workshop. I described it a little bit and then asked if she would like to give me her email so I can let her know about it as it comes together. This is kind of a big deal because I want to offer workshops but I haven’t quite mustered the confidence to just put one together, get it on the schedule and teach it. On this day full of complements and high spirits, it seemed possible. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t think of why I hadn’t done it already. So here’s a student who likes me, comes to class regularly and we had just had this really nice personal exchange about stuff so I’ll ask her and I’m pretty sure she’s going to get really excited. I do, and she hesitates. I start to get worried. Then in a kind and truthful way she says something like, “I really like the breathing and the movement stuff that we do, but I’m not sure how involved I want to be with the meditation part of it.” Something about it makes her uncomfortable. I could see that and I wanted to ask her more, but I couldn’t formulate any question because I was being flooded with the debilitating feeling of rejection. How could I have misread this situation? I thought she loved the meditation. That’s what the class is all about. I thought I was such a good teacher. Maybe I’m not. Waah, waaah. I felt like I just got dumped for prom. It’s crazy how strong the feelings were– I felt dumb for even asking. My chest started to tighten up. It was difficult to speak. It was bad. All I managed to do was give a weak smile and say, “okay” and then turn back to my bag and looked for my keys while she left the classroom.
I think we can agree that this wasn’t an ideal response. As it was happening, I could see what was going down and I knew I was missing a beautiful opportunity to ask her more. Had I asked and she been willing to share, maybe I’d know what it was that made her uncertain. Maybe she has some questions about the practice. Perhaps her response would have helped guide my teaching in a way that makes it more accessible to her and to others that have similar uncertainties. But I couldn’t because I was so freakin’ upset and dejected.
I knew these feelings would eventually pass, but since I was still feeling whiny and I had a little time between classes, I decided to call my friend, Katherine, who is really smart. Katherine listened as I told the story and she encouraged me to get over it and think about the other lady who really loved the class that day. When I kept whining about this other conversation, she changed tactics. “You probably felt like you were getting turned down,” she said. “You have this thing that is important to you and sharing it makes you vulnerable. You put yourself out there and asked her to come to a workshop and she didn’t get all excited and sign right up. I can see why you are upset.” She was right. I was starting to feel better. Katherine continued, “She likes the class, and she said so in several ways. It’s just this one part she isn’t excited about yet. Plus, this isn’t about you, Amanda. Who knows what she has going on.” See, I told you that Katherine is smart. I try to remind myself all the time that very little that other people do is actually about me, but it helped to hear it from Katherine. I eventually got on board, only whined a tiny bit more and after hearing Katherine talk about her incredibly adorable and advanced baby, I felt much better.
Teaching is so awesome partly because it requires that I stay very clear about my role and what it is I’m offering. Like this thing, here—I felt vulnerable and nervous and so everything I heard seemed to be all about Me Me Me. And then when what I heard didn’t sound like I wanted it to, it was a huge blow to my ego. This was great. Painful, but great, because it helped me to see how important it is to know how I’m feeling and the mode I’m in and to stay clear about what my role is and how this yoga teacher stuff really works. When I talk about breath or meditation or the way to move in and out of an asana it comes from my very personal experience. The most effective teaching days are the days that I can be very open and honest about my less than glamorous process. The relationships that develop with my students are personal. And I know that as a student, my teachers have said and guided me through experiences that touched me at a deeply personal level. But here’s the thing. Even though I am all in, I’m invested, I care very deeply about the practice and the people who come to learn and share, what they get or don’t get out of it isn’t about me. That part is the yoga and the experience of the student. I can neither predict nor control how that happens for her or him. I show up, teach the thing I’m there to teach and remember both the connection and the boundaries between me, yoga, and student. And when I fall back into feeling like the reason one student loves yoga or the other one is uncertain is all me me me, then I get these gentle reminders that it actually isn’t. I whine a little, find some clarity, and then I go out there to teach another class and try again.
For the last few months, I’ve been thinking that I need to shift my teaching schedule. This means that I’m going to have to stop doing one thing and start doing something different, which means that there’s going to be change. And as much as I like to pretend that I can just go with the flow, I’m confessing to you here…change isn’t very easy for me.
I’ve been taking my time with this scheduling decision and feeling it out from every possible angle even though, as soon as it occurred to me, I knew the exact change to make. I need a few more hours to offer to my private clients. Right now, there is this one 45-minute class in the middle of my Friday morning and because of that one class, there is a 4-hour block when I can’t schedule anyone. The class needs a time-shift or to be given to another teacher. Obvious, right? I went along for months as if there really was stuff to consider. Maybe I should just wait and teach the class for a couple more years. What if no one wants private lessons on Fridays? How much am I going to miss all those students? What if I really regret giving up the class? What would my dad think of this? What would my mom think? Does this align with my third chakra? I’ve contemplated every permutation of the above questions over and over again even though the answer was and is clear. I need to give up this Friday class.
This is my pattern: See that I need to make a change, freak out, avoid, fret, spend so much time considering things from every angle and then finally, I bite the bullet and make the decision. Or I might set it up so that someone else makes the decision and then I have to go along with it. I’d like to change this pattern to one that is more efficient, healthy and mature. Thank goodness there’s yoga.
I had a professional development group meeting with some cool yogis and my teacher, Chase Bossart, last week and he shed some light on this thing that I do. He referenced Patanjali’s yoga sutras 2.18, 2.25 and 2.26 and explained that experiences provide opportunities to see how we react under a variety of circumstances. Noticing how we react lets us see more clearly how our mind works. All of a sudden, my decision-anxiety went from neurosis to helpful information on the path to super-yogini.
When we begin to see that the mind is influenced by all sorts of things (what we ate that day, memories of what we are seeing, habits and patterns, hopes for the future, digestive issues), we start to see that the current state of mind has a big impact on how we act. On a day when I’m rested, I might be able to laugh when Nora slides a big pile of spaghetti onto her lap but on a day when I’m freaking out about changes in my schedule, this same spaghetti mishap might become evidence that she wasn’t paying attention or sitting close enough to the table and I get so annoyed. How we behave and how our mind processes the experiences we have depends a lot on how we are feeling.
In contrast, there is something inside of us that is unchanging. In Heart of Yoga, Mr. Desikachar talks about this aspect of ourselves as the “perceiver.” When we can identify with this perceiver inside of us, then we have much more clarity about who we really are. We are different from the mind and senses. The mind and the senses are tools that help us to perceive the world around us and our internal experience. So if we aren’t our mind, thoughts and senses, what are we? What is this perceiver? Aaaaaah. Here’s the question. Even though there are words to help find that perceiver inside of us, we have to do the work that helps us figure this out. We need to pay attention and notice how the changing mind, body and breath behave as we engage in a variety of experiences and then perhaps we also begin to notice that there is something within us with a different quality. (Sutra 2.18)
This is how experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, can become really useful in understanding both our human and our spiritual nature. I get all worked up when I have to make an adult-ish decision but if I use this experience to notice what happens in these circumstances, I might be able to better understand that this behavior is a response and it can change AND that I have a bigger sense of connection to the world that helps to put this moment into perspective. I’d like to cut my decision-contemplation time by 3 months or so. How do I do it? I begin to consider what it is I’m doing, where that pattern started, and what I can do about it. If I can understand this then I might have more clarity around my decision-anxiety. (Sutra 2.25).
Admittedly, I haven’t come to any resolution or huge self-discovery. I know I’d like to work on really listening to that first hunch I have and be able to place more faith in that voice. I’m pretty sure that this initial hunch comes from somewhere other than the ole mind/senses operation. We’ll see how that goes when I’m faced with the next seemingly simple decision. Patanjali cracks me up because after all this talk about increasing clarity and understanding the difference between perceived and perceiver, there’s sutra 2.27 that says, the attainment of clarity is a gradual process. Thanks for the reminder, P-man. Sure is.
I made the decision last Tuesday. I’ll teach my Friday class through May and then say goodbye. Sigh. On Wednesday (not even kidding), I got a call from a yoga studio. The manager offered me two classes at the location nearest to my house. It only took me one day to decide to say yes to that. Even after all that worrying, things worked out very nicely, and I consider this experience to be a carrot of encouragement saying, ”Carry on, Amanda. Carry on.”
Yoga Sutra 2.23*
svasvamisakyhoh svarupopalabdhihetuh samyogah
All that is perceived, whatever it is and whatever its effect may be on a particular individual, has but one ultimate purpose. That is to clarify the distinction between the external that is seen and the internal that sees.
However powerful or disturbing something may appear to be, it is our reaction to it that determines its effects. Therefore, we can, by distinguishing between what perceive and what is perceived, what sees and what is seen, put the object into its correct perspective and ensure that we determine its effect and influence on us.
*This and other quotes from the Yoga Sutras come from the Heart of Yoga by T. K. V. Desikachar, 1995.
If you are wondering about my new class…
Mon/Wed Hatha Star classes at Yoga Yoga Westgate 7pm.
Class begins Monday 5/6! Come on out.
Someone told me that we really can’t expect anything from anyone and it is kinda blowing my mind.
When I first heard this, I loved it, but I also thought it impossible. In order to survive, we need things from other people. Plus, we have all of these unspoken agreements with people, sometimes even promises that we make out loud, to do things for each other. Aren’t expectations part of the territory? We come to expect and depend on certain behavior from family, friends and even strangers who are supposed to be complicit in these laws and social order things that would have us behave in certain ways. We greet each other and wear appropriate clothing and say please and thank you. Our partners are supposed to help with the housework and we expect the government to provide healthcare. Or do we not? The list of expectations is lengthy, I’m sure. When other people don’t do the things that we expect, we can be thrown off or angry or disappointed. Sometimes it goes the other way and people exceed our expectations and delight us. Challenging expectations can also make for some hilarious comedy. But let’s be honest. Much of the time, expecting things from other people causes a lot of angst. Plus, there is a butt-load of presumption that goes along with expectations. (Yeah, I just said “butt-load.”) “I thought he loved me and that he was going to stay with me forever.” or, “She said that she wanted to have lunch this week, but she didn’t ever call to make a plan. “ Or, “He should have known that would hurt my feelings. Isn’t it obvious?” Expecting things from other people is often a set-up for disappointment.
Another thing…Expectations give a lot of power to other people. If we’ve been on this planet for more than 5 seconds, we know from experience that we really don’t have any control over what other people think, say or do. And I can tell you right here, trying to manipulate people into doing what we want rarely works well for anyone. So when we believe that the only way that things can turn out well is when someone else does what we expect them to, no es bueno.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with having no expectations of people. I’m sure that I’m not actually practicing a pure version of this because I’m probably going around with all sorts of unspoken and low grade-expectations, but whatever. At least I’m thinking about it. And I’ll tell you what… I feel lighter. There is so much less to worry about when I arrange my day so that I only expect myself to meet my responsibilities. I have found that I’m more reasonable in how much I schedule into my day. I also like people more. I’m not going around thinking that all these people I encounter owe me something. Instead I think, “no one has to do anything for me at all.” As a result of this alone, when I do receive something, it is a gift — a gift of someone’s time or energy or knowledge or kindness. And I feel grateful for it.
The Heart of Yoga, my number one favorite book on the practice of yoga, speaks to this expectation thing in the discussion of ishvarapranidhana, often interpreted as “love of God.” Mr. Desikachar says that the term also describes a certain quality of action.
All [the things we do as a part of normal life] should be done as well as possible. Yet we can never be sure of the fruit of our actions. That is why it is better to become slightly detached from our expectations and to pay more attention to the actions themselves.
The fruit of our actions = expectations of how things are going to turn out in the end. Or maybe it can be extended to how someone will behave or what they will do for us if we act in some way first. We just can’t predict the future. We certainly can’t know what someone else is going to do. All we can do is take care with our own actions.
Mr. Desikachar goes on to say, “Yoga is not passive. We have to participate in life. To do this well we can work on ourselves.” This is what we’ve got people. We have our own very special selves to come to know, to work on, to keep healthy and to encourage. We can improve our clarity and understanding of ourselves and we can act in ways that support and align with that understanding. If it’s all starting to sound like “every man is an island,” then consider this: Knowing ourselves allows us to know and understand other people, too. Part of that is understanding that we can’t know all the events and circumstances at work in others’ lives, their motivations, nor the emotional needs or struggles. No matter what we’ve come to believe, no one owes us anything, really. So we act. We do our best. We admit that we can’t know the outcome of any event with complete certainty. We celebrate with others when they do well and we appreciate when someone offers us the gift of kindness or help or time. No expectations. I’m pretty sure that’s where it’s at.
I was having a cup of coffee with my mom this morning. We like to start morning coffee chats by talking about how great, funny and charming her grandchildren are – Funny things they say, how cute they look in the outfits they pick out, how smart they are. We might talk about the challenges of being mother and grandmother to such precocious children, then we come back to how great and clever and funny they are. So, we did all of that and then we still had coffee and time so we moved on and she told me that she saw the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild. She had the same look in her eyes that I had after seeing it. There is something so mysteriously human about that movie. When I saw it, I cried and cried which is something I tend to do when there is truth that is beautifully spoken. It speaks to our very basic need to be free and to the strength within each of us. It is really good.
My mom and I talked about the themes of freedom and aloneness and of connection between people. We talked about the amazing girl and her character, Hushpuppy, and the independence that she was both blessed and burdened with. And then the beasts entered the conversation.
In this movie, there is a herd of mammoth, prehistoric beasts that appear in the midst of a very vivid and raw reality. Hushpuppy knows vivid and raw. She lives in poverty with a dad who loves her in strange ways, is sick and doesn’t function all that well. There’s no mama. These beasts seem to embody this destructive power-force that is out there in the world and that Hushpuppy knows, firsthand. These beasts are powerful, necessary and frightening.
The first time the beasts appear, they are way far away, tearing down glaciers and raising the water levels in the oceans. This is a problem for Hushpuppy’s island community. If the water levels rise in the bayou, their island goes underwater. That’s why they call it the “bathtub.” Later, the bayou does flood. Some people leave. Hushpuppy and her dad stay. And once the water starts to recede and everything is dying from the water, the beasts appear again, much closer this time. They root and stomp around in the dead and flooded parts of their island. They appear to be feeding off of the carnage.
The movie continues and Hushpuppy’s dad is dying. The beasts come with their bulk and speed toward the hut where he is. Hushpuppy has something that she must give her dad before he dies and she’s walking toward the hut, knowing what her purpose and job is. There is all of this tension as the beasts come running toward the hut, stirring up and shaking the earth as they come. I watched and wondered if Hushpuppy was about to be trampled or if she would refuse to turn around to see them and they would pass her by and get to her dad before she made it there. Or maybe she would be so overcome with fear that she’d just freeze or sob or fall down and cover her head. Very unexpectedly, as the beasts approach, Hushpuppy turns and looks at them and they slow down to a trot. And then they walk. And then they stop. These huge mythical destroyer beasts see her standing there and then they stop and look into the face of this small child. She tells them that she has to take care of her own and they wait. She goes to her dad and then he dies.
It’s so good.
Today, it’s these beasts that are so interesting, because this week, in the aftermath of what happened in Boston, I’m reminded how hard it is for me to look at the powers of destruction and to see past the disorienting fear. Hushpuppy has to take care of important work. The work of delivering something to her dad is something only she can do and she doesn’t let these really huge and thundering beasts knock her down. She faces them, standing, and she says with simplicity and clarity what she must do. And they listen.
Yoga teaches that each of us have our own svadharma—the personal work and role that each of us is here to carry out. It’s one thing to actually know my svadharma with both clarity and conviction. It’s a whole other thing to be able to do it and this is because there can be scary beasts out there that stir up fear or seem too forceful or that can make my resolve breakdown into dust. This is what is so captivating about Hushpuppy. She turns to look at what is coming and she does not fall down and cry or beg them to stop or pass out from the fear. In the past, when I’d start to feel overwhelmed with the horrible things that happen out there, my self-soothing talk would go something like, “well, that probably wouldn’t ever happen to me for all these reasons…” I’d ignore the faulty reasoning and then I’d attempt to put the hard stuff out of my mind. In yoga speak, this is avidya. This is not seeing things clearly and for what they really are. Arguably, avidya is the cause of much suffering because when shit does hit the fan, then not only are you cleaning up the shit, but you have all this angst because you didn’t see it coming and you didn’t think it could happen to you. Maybe you are in such a deep state of avidya that you convinced yourself that shit doesn’t really exist. When the really difficult and destructive did happen in my life, to me, I had a painful avidya lesson. Not only was I dealing with the new circumstances at hand, but I had to admit that bad shit did and can actually happen to me today or anyday. My perspective on life and living changed dramatically. There’s a strange freedom in knowing, at a cellular level, that life can change, inexplicably and without seeing it coming, at any moment. In some ways it is liberating, but I still don’t like it. And yeah, I still fear it, too.
I guess I’m saying that I admire Hushpuppy’s clarity and presence with her duty. I admire her ability to see the destruction and not be thrown off course. She doesn’t hate the animals for what they are. She sees the situation with equanimity and this allows her to do her job and do it well. That’s something to admire and aspire to. And for the record, I’m perfectly convinced that yoga is a fine way to get there.
I’ve always been into personal development and it used to be that I’d have pretty big ambitions for myself. When I was a girl, I worked on developing the powers of telekinesis. I also really wanted to be able to talk to animals, though those aspirations were short-lived. Oh my goodness! I just realized that maybe that’s why I have an unreasonable love of talking animal commercials. This blog is so useful in my continued personal development and self-awareness. Thank you for reading it.
These days, my ambitions aren’t so fantastic. I’m working on incorporating one very specific and seemingly simple thing into my life: Pause. I have this idea that if I pause and take a moment to see what my stomach or heart-rate or breath is up to, then I might have a little more time and information to behave in a way that I don’t regret later. Or if I used the pause to wonder, “Amanda, what is it that you want right now?” then that might be useful, too.
For now, I’m not even aiming for better decisions. It’s just the straight-up pause that I’m going for. If I feel something a-quiver in my intestinal region and I notice it and pause, I’ll consider that a win even if I just carry on with the scenario that has been set in motion and that I know very well. I know what role I’m expected to play and a lot of the time, and I just do it because it’s easy and I’m used to it. Eventually, I might aim explicitly for pause with behavior-modification, though pausing is modifying my behavior so maybe I’m already doing it. Whatever. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to stick with this pause thing.
Now, let me share a story with you that has very little to do with yoga but a lot to do with telekinesis. Of course, if you are like me, then you believe that everything has a lot to do with yoga, but I thought I’d give you a little warning. There isn’t any sutra at the end of this or anything. It’s just a true story.
When I was in elementary school, I saw a t.v. movie where a creepy kid could move and control objects using the power of his mind. I really remember the scene where he was on his bed in his dark and dank bedroom. His parents were down the hall screaming at each other and he was slumped there raging and sad and wishing he didn’t have to hear it all. The shot zoomed in on his eyes and then panned over to the door. He stared very intently at the open door in his room for about 3 seconds, it started to shake and then it slammed shut. We are led to believe that HE closed the door with that stare. I wasn’t convinced but I was curious, so I continued watching. As the movie progresses, the kid works to develop this ability. At some point his hands get involved in this process. There’s one part where he reaches across a table and claws up his fingers and he makes this pencil slide over to him. He can knock over a glass of water. He can make wind chimes rustle. He gets pretty good at controlling things with his mind, which I liked, but he used his power for evil, which freaked me out.
After seeing this movie, I decided it would be awesome if I could move things with my mind, too. Because I was convinced that I was a very special child and that I had untapped gifts or perhaps even a superpower yet to be discovered, it seemed likely that I’d able to do this kind of thing. I did consider that telekinesis might fall into the same dangerous and forbidden category as the Ouija board, which I was not allowed to experiment with. I guess there were rumors at our church that the Ouija board is moved by the devil. I don’t think my mom believed that, but she said we still couldn’t get one or play with one. Just to be safe, I didn’t discuss this telekinesis thing with my mom. I took my chances with the devil and I devoted myself to the task of learning to control the movement of inanimate objects with my mind. For about a year, maybe it just seemed like a year, I worked on my superpower in small concentrated spurts. I’d spend time with my hand in a claw, and my gaze lazer-locked on any small object that was lying around. I started with small flecks of paper. I figured the lighter the weight, the more responsive it would be. The paper didn’t move so then I thought that maybe there needed to be some personal connection to the item—like my doll or my underwear. I tried doorknobs and the ceiling fan. I tried a pencil on a desk. The closest I got to success was when my cat, Pollyanna Whitesocks, saw me reach out in her direction and make the claw hand. She thought I was beckoning her and she walked over to me, barely agreeing to let me pet her. Nothing else ever trembled or moved or indicated in any way that I was connecting to it through mental powers…or through the devil. Eventually I determined that telekinesis might not be within my ability or worth the dedication it would require, so I gave it up.
My default operating position is “closed,” which is weird, because I think of myself as a very open person. I’m open to new ideas. I’m generally open around people I meet and people I love. (I say generally, because there is one particular relationship where I find openness difficult. More on this later.) I’m open to touching moments. I am touched when something beautiful happens. I am open to the connections we humans have to nature, art, machines, and other stuff. And just so you know and you are fully on board with how open I am, sometimes my openness overwhelms me and these moments even make me cry. It sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? I thought so, too.
Over the last few months, I’ve been working with a meditation practice, which is an opening and softening practice. It began because in that one very significant relationship I mentioned, I didn’t feel all that open. Hard times, splitting up, hurt feelings made OPEN difficult and unsafe-feeling so, with the guidance of my teacher, I began to work with the intention of opening and softening with the hope that something would shift or become more clear in this relationship. A little opening and softening every day for many days started to shift how I felt. I’m here to tell you that meditation is for realz. It really works. These very small shifts toward openness and softening began to accumulate until there was a rather big experience of being open and it was SO DIFFERENT from the other version of openness that I thought I was having. At first I was into it. Things were coming to the surface of me that had been buried somewhere in there and it was surprising and sometimes a little overwhelming to be open in this new way. It seemed manageable and even kind of wonderful to get a glimpse of how open open can be. But then without even really knowing how or why, the openness became difficult and a little exhausting. The experience was new so I wasn’t clear on how to get through my days with all of this feeling and vulnerability and space. I felt soooo sensitive to other people that I sometimes lost a clear boundary of what was my stuff and what was other people’s. I cried even more and not in that good way. My morning meditations were big and significant and followed by a lot of post-sitting writing so I could try and process what was going on. It turns out, actual openness takes a lot of work and on top of that, some of it is painful and unpleasant. Let me draw what is perhaps a hyperbolic picture of what this is like… Imagine living in a dark-underground bunker for 35 years. You like it down there, probably because you don’t even know you are underground. Then you find a door. It’s the kind of door that is in the ceiling and all rusty and painted black and really heavy. Probably metal. You walk up the stairs and you are so excited to push open that door—and with the superhuman strength that you contain, you do it! Slowly then, recovering your breath, you take those last few steps, crawl out onto the sand and, what’s this?? You are in the Kalahari Desert! At noon!!! The sun is so bright and hot that your eyes freak out and start watering and it huuuurts. You can’t make sense of what’s around you because you can’t see anything but light. The light is sort of nice and you sort of like experiencing brightness, and you know your eyes will adjust eventually, but eventually is taking a long time so without consulting you, your arms fly up to cover your eyes and your legs carry you right back into your bunker. This is a bit of a relief. You like it down there because it is dark and you can easily find your cans of old greenbeans.
My story was a little like that, had it been on fast forward and set in a bunker in the desert instead of in Austin, above ground. I’m starting to see how OPEN was a little too much for my system, because slowly and almost imperceptibly, the part of me that was used to the dark bunker and the greenbeans fought back. I started to close up again. I became less engaged with my practice. I began to eat the food that makes me moderately uncomfortable—lots of sugar, caffeine, wine, so that the food-related discomfort would take precedence over the open-related variety. I started to have protective, guarded urges when in conversation with my significant person. And then, just the other day, it dawned on me—The authentic-openness is gone and the old kind of open is back and I didn’t even realize it was happening.
As I write this, I cringe a little because this all sounds kind of dramatic, or weird or something. But, I carry on because this is SO IMPORTANT. Deep down, I really want more of that actual-open feeling. I want to be able to not freak out when I start to feel what open is really like and I want to hang out there long enough so my eyes don’t burn and squint and water like crazy. I guess some things are like this. You get a glimpse, but you aren’t really ready. Hole-up, recharge, then try again. Then again. And then again. It goes on like this until the visits to open-land get longer and the discomfort is less and eventually you even prepare ahead of time by grabbing a sun hat and your hammock so you can stay a while.
I really love Patanjali’s yoga sutra 1.17, because it gives me such hope about how things like this work.
Vitarka vicara ananda asmitarupa anugamat samprajnatah
I think of it like this: As we are learning something, we start with the gross or rough understanding of how things work (vitarka) and we move towards an understanding of the subtleties (vicara). That process brings us satisfaction and joy (ananda). Eventually, we come to know these things so deeply, that they are a part of us, so what was once a rough understanding is now known and integrated and easily accessed. But you might not notice because you are continually engaging with the ever-more nuanced and subtle aspects of your subject. It goes on and on like this until we know our subject very, very well.
I’m hoping 1.17 will come through on this openness project of mine. Someday, I won’t be writing about openness at all because it will be so integrated into my being and existence that I might not even be thinking about it. I’ll just ooze it through open pores.
I’ve been a mama for about 10 years if you count the time I spent pregnant with my first baby. For as much time as I’ve spent reading, thinking, and being “mom”, I feel like I am just beginning to understand what it is all about.
Hazel is my oldest and she turned nine this week. Nine. Birthdays are much anticipated events in our household so we’ve spent a lot of time talking about being eight, wondering about turning nine, and imagining all the things ahead. Usually Hazel is pretty excited about an upcoming year. But the other day, she stepped out of the shower and was standing in front of the bathroom mirror after having a very fun and a very long day and she looked at her growing body and sighed. She said, out loud and with a little sadness in her voice, something I often feel. She said, “Mom, I don’t want to get any bigger. I really like being eight. I like my life right now as it is.” On another occasion, I might have acknowledged that feeling and then launched into how cool it is to get older, or the inevitability of change or something equally annoying, but not this night. Because I was feeling it, too.
For the first time as a mom, I really love the time I spend with my girls just as it is. I’m not half here and half wishing they were out of diapers or doing their own laundry or more independent. These days, the time spent talking, cleaning, eating, dancing, reading or whatever we are doing together, is some of the best time I get during my week. I’m beginning to see it for what it really is: Moments that will change as time passes. As much fun as it is to watch my children grow, there is part of me that is clinging to this. Part of me really wants it to stay just like it is.
For the most part, I’ve been really happy to be a mom. There was the period when I was depressed after Hazel was born, but other than that, I have enjoyed being a part of a bustling house with small people around. Even so, I didn’t know this kind of happiness. Now it just seems so clear and so good. The earlier kind of happiness was often accompanied by overwhelm and even resentment. I didn’t think I could “do it” or was doing this motherhood thing well enough. I also really wanted to be able to just be me and to have time to do my thing without having to always think about kids and time and laundry and schooling and burdening the other people who supported me in this parenting journey. Part of me was happy and part of me was wanting, or confused or feeling pulled in another direction.
But things have shifted. As the girls grow, there is more balance between mom-responsibilities and time for myself, I think I’ve matured, and I have the practice of yoga which is helping to clear some of the confusion and conflict away so that I can really see what is happening before my two eyes: TIME IS PASSING. My children are growing. The hours that I have to spend with them are so wonderful and so fleeting – Our time spent being silly, talking, listening, snuggling, the time I have left to drive them around and make their lunches, it is a privilege… one that is uniquely mine. I get to keep Hazel company when she is bathing AND I get to be there to hold a fresh towel open for her when she is done. She steps into that towel and into my arms and I get to give her a wet warm hug as her body, now wrapped up like a burrito, leans into mine. The hours are passing and I want to be present, fully present, for all of them.
So when Hazel spent that moment reflecting on how she felt looking at herself in the mirror, already nostalgic for her life as an 8-year-old, I completely understood. We stayed there in silence for what seemed like a long time, seeing her beautiful 8-year-old body as it is, and I felt awash in gratitude for how good we have it right now. And then, when we were both ready, I wrapped her in a towel, she leaned into me and I gave her a hug.
Last week was spring break so the girls and I joined friends in a river-side cottage for a few days. Lovely. Then, I had some nasty flu that has been going around so I spent two whole days in bed. Less lovely. I share all of this with you because this vacay-illness combo meant I had the luxury of time away from home and then time away from the ability to move due to fever and fatigue. This was time I spent reading a whole book! Cover to cover, I sped through a retelling of the Indian Epic, The Mahabarata by William Buck. The Bhagavad-Gita is sandwiched in the story of the Mahabarata so I’ve been curious about all the people mentioned and the context in which this battle was taking place. Now, this isn’t a strictly yoga discussion because yoga isn’t a religion and doesn’t try to explain where we come from or where we go after we die. But like me, some of you yogis out there like to read the Bhagavad-Gita and maybe even the Mahabarata because it gives you insight into your practice. Along with the insight on yoga, we also get to know larger religious structure of Hinduism. Which means we get some talk of reincarnation.
Reincarnation. I can’t say that I believe that I have a soul that has been in lots of other beings in the past and because of my particular collection of karma, I was fortunate enough to be born into the life of a yogini. I have to admit that I also don’t think it is impossible. Either way, I’m not trying so hard to figure out what happened before life as Amanda or what is going to happen when this body of mine dies because I’m mostly interested in what’s happening here on earth in this body and life right now. That said, when I read all this business about reincarnation, I wonder how to think about it so it is meaningful to me in this life.
So here are some thoughts I had about reincarnation when I was sick with the flu:
1. Reincarnation as allegory—Perhaps the cycles of rebirth can be seen as the repetitive cycles of suffering that we must face again and again until we really do have the wisdom, surrender and humility to relinquish a way of being that isn’t serving our Self.
i.e. Stuff that comes up in one relationship somehow keeps happening in all the other relationships that come along UNTIL I see that maybe there is something I keep doing and I need to let that behavior DIE and be REBORN as a new pattern or way of dealing with stuff.
2. Reincarnation and Einstein, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” Is our soul made of energy? Can it keep getting transformed and become the soul of another being? I don’t know. Not a very good follow up to number 1.
3. Reincarnation and Carl Jung. Maybe reincarnation is related to the idea of the collective unconscious and the archetypes that come to the forefront of our consciousness as we move through life. And maybe it isn’t archetypes that are passed down from the whole human race to each baby, but our ancestors, the ones that came before us, the ones that we are connected to, have some influence on how we are in the world — on our soul.
i.e. Have you ever seen a documentary about scientists who taught a mother octopus to go through a very complex maze and then when she had offspring and the offspring went through the maze, they actually mastered the maze much faster than babies from a different octopus mama? I saw this when I was 12 at some science museum and I looked for evidence of this study on the interwebs because it is so crazy-fascinating. I didn’t find it and several sources said that thought-transference doesn’t actually happen with octopuses, but I’m pretty sure I remember it all with great accuracy and it might be related to reincarnation. (thank goodness this is a blog and not a scientific journal.)
4. Reincarnation as a means to deeper compassion. Perhaps the belief that we might come back as a creature or a person who is struggling or someone very fortunate gives us a sense of connection and compassion toward all creatures. If we feel we are a part of the world and the people and the life around us, our behavior will be different than if we see ourselves all alone and separate from.
I think number one is probably the most useful in my life. “Kick the habit” becomes a little more exciting when I think of letting a habit die and be reborn as something more lovely.
I’ve got the Ramayana in the book queue. Hanuman’s story is in that one. He’s the monkey god who leaps over some ocean to help save Sita for his god-friend, Rama. My friend suggested that I might need to put the Indian Lit down for a while because when I saw the photo of my kid in a tiny text message, my first thought was that she was wearing a yoke. She might be right…
I went to a memorial service this weekend. It was a Catholic mass and a beautiful ceremony in honor of the life of someone who was, so clearly, a deeply religious and much loved man. I was honored to be there, to gather with others for this very important reason, and to revisit the ceremony of Mass—one I came to love during my time in Catholic school.
I don’t think I got how meaningful rituals and rites of mass or other church services are to so many people before I started to practice yoga. Earlier in my life, and maybe a little now, I was really resistant to doing anything that lots of other people did. I think it was a way to reinforce an insecurity I had—the feeling of not being connected and not feeling included. I was also really resistant to any influence that came from the outside. If it was supposed to make me feel something, then I probably wouldn’t. All the years I spent going to church, it wasn’t really a spiritual experience or a way that I engaged in rites and rituals. Which is funny, because I really wanted it to be just that. Which isn’t actually that funny, now that I think of it. Maybe, I got in my own way or just wasn’t ready.
Now that I have been practicing yoga, I’m much more engaged with the ceremony and the spiritual part of things when I go to church. I allow myself to notice how certain movements or body shapes can inspire that spiritual feeling. I can see that the ritual of putting our body into a shape (hands at the heart in prayer, kneeling, offering peace) day after day or week after week, can be a way of preparing ourselves to connecting to something bigger, something divine. Church has become meaningful to me in a way it just wasn’t before. Walking into a space that others believe to be sacred has meaning. Movement, song, chanting, rites—it all has the potential to get us ready to connect. I get that now. All these things that the congregants do in a Catholic mass are actually quite similar to the things I do in my yoga practice. We prepare to be able to focus body, mind and senses on something spiritual. There is even incense that gets spread around to bring our sense of smell to attention. All of these elements are a part of my yoga practice so I get it. It is meaningful to me. Except for the incense. Incense gives me a headache.
How we use our voice– singing, chanting, speaking words in unison with other voices– this is something that happens in Mass and it happens in the other churches I have attended. It also happens in yoga. I have been chanting during my morning practice for a few months and it does something. It brings my attention to the words, meaning and sound and the way I hold my mouth and create the sound has a feeling that goes with it. I’m also pretty sure it does something to my brain that I’m not conscious of. Even so, I’m becoming aware of how sound is a really powerful way of connecting or creating a feeling if we tune in. And this is what really struck me at mass. After “peace be with you” and communion and prayer time, a woman stepped up to the apse to sing. She sang “Ave Maria.” I don’t really know what that song is about and it is in a language that I don’t speak, but I’m telling you, this woman opened her throat and sang the sounds of that song SOOOO beautifully that after that very first “aaaaaah-ve” the waterworks began. I felt something and it made me cry. Not a hyperventilating type of cry, just a pouring down of the tears. And I wasn’t the only one. All the women around me were weeping.
Music moves me. It has for a long time. And when the music is made by someone’s voice, it resonates so deeply. When I first started practicing mantra in Sanskrit, it seemed so weird and foreign, but even though the formal practice differs from singing, the intention can overlap. Making certain kinds of sounds—open throat, gutteral, closing at the mouth, hard sounds at the back of the throat, these sounds communicate something to our feeling self. Mantra is a very sophisticated way of connecting to sound and how it resonates in our body.
For the last couple of months, I have been chanting as a part of my meditation practice. The parts of my practice: asana, pranayama, chanting and meditation, are aspects of a practice that aren’t so different from the Catholic mass. They are there to prepare my mind and body to be able to tune into something deeper inside of me and around me. So when I sit there and begin to chant, and I open my throat to say, “oooooom” and then “Aaaaaaaaaaahpaya Swaaaaaa-haaaaaaaa”, it isn’t unlike the open throat sound of “Aaaaaaaaaavee Mareeeeeeeee-uuuuuuh.” It’s like this channel just opens right up from my mouth, deep into my belly, perhaps to my SOUL and what is outside is vibrating deep down inside of me or maybe it’s what is deep down inside of me starts vibrating out. Or maybe both. Maybe it is a way of connecting and opening to something that is so deep and meaningful that the tears can come. The longing for connection can be felt so profoundly that emotion is stirred.
The open mouth and throat “Aaaaah” is a sound of relief. It is a sound of deep wailing. It is open from the mouth all the way down to the gut. Making that sound stirs feelings. So different than “ugh” that closes at the back of the throat, or “Shhhhh” or “blegh”. “Aaaaaah” and “ve” and “Maria” is open and relief and deep sorrow at the same time.
I just never would have expected that becoming a devoted yogini would help me to appreciate the rituals of Christianity and all the meaning and devotion that other people express in their communities of faith. When I say it that way, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch, but I just couldn’t have anticipated it. And yet here it is. I Love that.
All of this reminds me of a stanza from the Bhagavad-Gita –
many forms of sacrifice
expand toward the infinite spirit;
know that the source of them all
is action, and you will be free.
Many forms of sacrifice. Many paths to the infinite spirit. Action. Soak it up, baby. Seek it out and soak it up. It’s so good.
Ave Maria in a tank. This went viral for a very good reason– giggles.