Is Gratitude a Spiritual Bypass on the Road to Samadhi?

IMG_3246I’m at a four-day yoga therapy conference at a Hyatt Regency in Virginia. I’m sitting on the floor of a large, carpeted ballroom. It’s filled with one hundred beautiful, mostly mid-life women dripping in Lululemon, Om symbols, prayer beads and diaphanous Shakti-printed shawls purchased at the ashram in Buffalo where they attended their last silent retreat. 

Scattered among the women are a few earnestly bearded men dressed in baggy cargo shorts and shapeless, faded tee shirts.

This is my tribe. My people. We are all devoted to our practice. We are all devoted to helping others. But we’re all just a bit too grateful. We use gratitude as a balm to protect us from truths we’d rather have slide off our souls like rain on an oil slicked street. It’s no surprise then, that as I listen to the call and response of platitudes, I begin to fidget. My brain begins to twitch. It’s time for action because if I make no effort to stop the next person from proclaiming their gratitude for an injustice served my head will almost certainly explode. 

I raise my hand. It’s a first for me, speaking up in a crowded room. I’m a happy introvert and chutzpah is not in my nature. But when I see a woman across the room raise her hand, too, I take mine higher and suddenly it’s as if we’re competing to see who’s the most logically evolved. I win. I consider the repercussions for one tiny moment and then open my mouth.

“Gratitude is over-rated.”

Do I really mean that?

imagesThe Naas Bypass, opened in 1983, was the first of its kind in Ireland. Otherwise known as the M7, the highway connects the town Naas in County Kildare to the town of Limerick one hundred and sixty-eight miles to the southwest. In the thirty-four years since the ribbon cutting, new and upgraded bypasses have woven there way across the country. But the Naas Bypass has the honor of being the first road in Ireland to take a driver around rather than through a town. In doing so it relieves congestion in Naas’s town center and slices minutes from the journey.

UnknownIt’s a nice trade-off. We crave speed and ease and so when the goal is to get from Naas to Limerick as fast as possible then the town’s charming character, with its retro Eddie Rocket’s diner and Carphone Warehouse, is not a priority. We can avoid being slowed by the locals on their way to do a weekly shop at Supervalu. We don’t have to dodge truant children chasing runaway pups across the street. We can avoid anything at all that threatens our smooth journey to someplace else and enjoy the open road. The bypass is an alternative that’s both fast and direct.

In the ballroom I avoid the few pairs of eyes turned on me and look toward the instructor for some sign of understanding. She nods vague approval but to be honest I was expecting more. I thought there would be at least a smattering of knowing smiles and a few light chuckles. But the ballroom is silent. It’s not the dead silence of drop-jawed shock. It’s just silence. Silence that in one reckless moment I decide is my responsibility to fill. I attempt a clarification.

“Don’t you think we need to wallow in the muck before we can be grateful? When shit happens to me I need to sit with it. I need to figure out how I feel about it and hang with it until I can step back and stop reacting. If I can do that, then after the dust settles maybe then I can be grateful.” 

I don’t know why I feel that way. I don’t realize until later that anything less than standing in the middle of our discomfort is a spiritual bypass.

We hope that moving from pain to gratitude and bypassing the sticky stuff in the middle puts us on the fast track to samadhi but there are unintended consequences to avoiding suffering. Moving through misfortune directly to gratitude, without stopping to acknowledge and experience our suffering – or without considering the cause of our suffering – leaves an imprint of unresolved issues and open wounds. While the Naas Bypass is efficient and time saving, a spiritual bypass circles around our pain. It distances us from and delays the discovery of our authentic spiritual nature.

Changing the language we use to describe our suffering – whether it’s to a friend, a partner or the family cat – can rewire our brains to think differently about it. Saying “I’m sad” is very different than “I’m feeling sad.” In the former we are the situation. In the latter we are the observer of the situation. Prakriti and purusha. The ‘seen’ and the ‘seer’. This simple shift creates the space for us to sit in the middle of our discomfort without becoming the discomfort.

If our goal in practice is to still our fluctuating thoughts it doesn’t serve us to avoid the unsavory circumstances in which we sometimes find ourselves. Instead of choosing the bypass, let’s choose the slower scenic route.


When Gratitude is Too Big

fullsizeoutput_6e7Over the past few weeks in the creative expression classes I teach we’ve been creating gratitude journals. Gratitude journals are, as they say, ‘trending’. There are studies, in fact, that suggest keeping one benefits our mental and physical health. This might be true. Shifting our energy toward the positive rather than nurturing our habit of catastrophizing the difficulties we encounter builds our emotional resilience and reminds us that living is a group experience. 

But sometimes the concept of gratitude feels too big for me and at the same time too elementary. It’s difficult for me to winnow down all the reasons I have for being grateful.  The simple act of creating a daily list of well-meaning gestures, happy accidents and unexpected outcomes might remind me of the good in life, but it doesn’t satisfy the yearning I feel in my heart to understand how acknowledging these moments feeds my soul.

How can we add depth to the act of recognizing the positive in life?  The things that turn our frowns upside down?

In yogic philosophy we study Patanjali’s niyamas. The niyamas are a collection of five virtues. One of these virtues is self-study (‘svadhyaya’).  Anchoring the contemplation of gratitude in self-study provides an opportunity to embrace those moments for which we are grateful and then to explore the deeper nature of gratitude and how we can express the gratitude we experience. 

If we want to narrow our focus even further we can turn to Naikan – the Japanese practice of introspection. When we practice Naikan we ask three simple questions:

  • What have I received?
  • What have I given?
  • What difficulties have I caused?

The questions might be asked about a relationship, a situation or even an event. For example, if I choose to practice Naikan on my mother then the questions I ask are:

  • What have I received from my mother?
  • What have I given to my mother?
  • What difficulties have I caused my mother?

The obvious fourth questions, What difficulties has my mother caused me?, is ignored. It is human nature to shine a spotlight on that question, but it is through the examination of our answers to the first three questions that we’ll find enlightenment.

When you open your journal tonight, how will self-study or a Naikan practice influence how you consider gratitude?


We All Have Something to Say

IMG_1815Last month I walked past the sandwich board outside of University Avenue’s Lululemon emporium twice every Tuesday and Thursday for two weeks and each time I wanted to kick it. In my wildest moments I envisioned myself carrying a can of spray paint so no one else would walk past, read its message, and have that little moment of feeling less than. What words did I find so offensive?

My mascara runs faster than you do.

I’m guessing the marketing genius who came up with that tag line believed she was being light-hearted, and that it was meant to inspire those women for whom running is a passion. But for the rest of us – the walkers and Sunday bikers, or the woman balancing work, kids and all of life’s unexpected surprises – it was offensive.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe.

Except that it happens all the time. Social media is crowded with words that, on the surface, appear to inspire. But pick at the corner and peel back the shiny veneer and underneath you’ll find a subtext – intended or not – that is mean spirited and ugly.

If your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough.

What?

I have dreams that are small enough to hold in my hand. I have bigger dreams, too, and I have dreams that are the size of all the beating hearts in the world and are unlikely to ever come true – but they still make me smile. Dreams that scare? Those are called nightmares.

We need to consider the words we choose, the words we share.

We’re all writers now and it’s a dangerous thing because it’s so easy to stick to the slick surface of a pretty sentence. But words and sentences and the messages we’re trying to send have layered context and connotations.

There’s an essay making the rounds on social media from a young yoga teacher. You can read that essay here. She screams her way through five hundred or so words, lambasting the yoga industrial complex and layering her argument with more than a few expletives. She ends her rant with this:

…It is ALL f***ing yoga! There is no concrete, set in stone, no if ands or buts way to teach or practice yoga…

As I watched the likes and hearts, the shares and affirmative comments pile up I had to wonder what I was missing.

Because I believe she’s wrong.

And she’s wrong in the same way that Lululemon’s sandwich board sign was wrong and that passive aggressive adages reminding me that my dreams should be scary disguised as deep and meaningful philosophy are wrong.

The nuances of teaching are, of course, up to the individual teacher’s personality and whims but the core of yoga and the asana we practice is part of a system that has evolved over thousands of years. If we play music at savasana does it interfere with our practice of concentration and truthfulness? Yes, it does. It transforms savasana – the most difficult of poses – into sleepy relaxation. What is our intention as teachers? As yogis? If our practice has evolved to a state where anything goes – as this yoga teacher’s essay implies – then I want out.

Yoga, at its core, is about self-regulation. It’s about observing, understanding, reacting – all with clarity and honesty. It’s about being aligned with the Yamas and Niyamas.

I know that a dear friend of mine would suggest I’m taking myself too seriously. Taking yoga too seriously. Of course I am.

Yoga is not a witty aphorism. It’s my life.


Time Out!

IMG_3243Time Out!

Remember when we were too loud in class and our teachers’ made us put our heads down on our desks?

I’m putting my head down on my desk and taking a time out until the New Year. At least that’s my intention. Shutting down Facebook, not thinking about Practically Twisted – the blog I sporadically post on – or the blogs I have in my head with the catchy titles I won’t reveal.

It doesn’t feel as though that long ago when I announced I was headed to graduate school for my master’s in transpersonal psychology. And yet, here I am, looking at the bright light at the end of the tunnel. The school I attend – Palo Alto’s Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology) – is a good school with a self-inflicted tarnished reputation that it is in the process of restoring. Despite the trauma Sofia experienced last year I trust the education I am receiving because so much of it depends on what I choose to put into it. And in this last term before graduation I intend to give it my all.

Meanwhile, my studies with Niroga Institute’s Yoga Therapy Teacher Training program in Oakland continue.

And, of course, I continue to teach my classes at Samyama Yoga Center in Palo Alto: a Viniyoga inspired slow flow on Monday and Wednesday mornings from 8:15 to 9:15 and my Pure Yin classes on Tuesday evening from 7 to 8:15 and Friday afternoon from 1:30 to 2:45.

There are a few class schedule changes, however. For the following two Saturdays I’ll be teaching a hatha flow from 4-5:30 in the afternoon but because I am away at Niroga for one weekend each month I’ve decided that it’s unfair to the students who want consistency in their practice and so I’ll be handing that class over to a new teacher beginning September 6th.

The Tuesday evening Pure Yin class will go on hiatus in October for eight weeks for an exceptionally cool reason. Samyama will begin the Dharma Path, its own Yoga Alliance approved 200-hour teacher training program. I am honored to be teaching Asana and Methodology with the visionary John Berg. This is going to push and pull me in wonderful ways and I am very excited! If you’re interested in a teacher-training program or would like to deepen your practice I encourage you to contact Samyama for more details. If you’ve been to our two Pathways programs then you have some idea the high expectations we set for ourselves at Samyama. We want to take you on a journey unlike any other.

Finally, I’ll be doing some traveling between now and the end of the year. I’m so looking forward to these adventures – my studies, my training, my teaching and my travel. I want to embrace them all with my whole heart.

I hope to see you in person at one of my Samyama classes and, if not, I’ll see you here in a few months.

 


Pathway to Stillness

CIMG2892

The Opening Circle for the Pathway to Stillness Immersion will take place this Sunday the 27th of April at Samyama Yoga Center from 1:30 to 3:30 pm.

I am extremely honored that I was asked to join in this beautiful program. For four weeks participants will dive into an experience that will burnish the hard edges and soften the soul. We’ll be introduced to new ideas about meditation and how we can live our meditation moment to moment. We’ll enjoy sound and energetic healing. We’ll deepen our practice through pure yin and yin flow. Breath work, yoga nidra and journaling exercises will open our hearts and minds.

But I’m just a very small part of Pathway to Stillness. Leading our journey is John Berg, founder and director of Samyama Yoga Center. Also guiding us are teachers Natalie Donofrio and Lindsay Amrein, sound healer Devin Begley and vibrational healer Joanne Brohmer.

It’s not too late to enroll. If you would like to know more visit the Samyama website or stop by the studio at 2995 Middlefield Road.

Samyama Open House

To celebrate the beginning of our second Pathway immersion Samyama is hosting a Therapeutic Open House. Massage practitioner Paul Crowl, Sound Healer Devin Begley, Cranio-Sacral and Reiki specialist Joanne Brohmer and little ol’ me, the house reflexologist, are providing free (yes, FREE) sample treatments from 10:30 to 3:30 on Saturday 26th April and from 10:30 to 12:30 on Sunday 27th April.

Spaces are limited and appointments are filling up fast. Visit the website or stop by Samyama to book your time. Each treatment is twenty minutes long.


Breath Taking

IMG_0190Breath taking.

That’s what change can be.  It can take our breath away with the most wonderful gasp of delight, or the breath can be caught tight in our chest, sharp and immovable.

My life has seen so much change in the past six weeks.  The beginning of exciting new projects and sudden changes in circumstances that I didn’t expect.

Awe inspiring change can make us feel lighter than air.  Awful change can make us feel leaden and stuck.

I prefer awe-inspiring change.  Who doesn’t?

Here’s the thing – how we describe change depends on how we process the change.  The story we write about it in our heads and our hearts.  The peace or the violence we ascribe to it.

I’ve been thinking about this because of the labels I’ve been using to describe the changes in my life.

One of our assignments during our first month of training at Niroga Institute in Berkeley was to give some thought to Ahimsa.  Ahimsa is the first of Patanjali’s Yamas – or moral codes.  Ahimsa asks that we be compassionate.  It asks us to walk a path free of violence.

What is violence?  Is there ever a time when an act of violence can be justified?

This is what I wrote for my assignment:

 

Ahimsa

Violence is a small thing.

It is a girl child running through the jungle, arms stretched out, mouth open in silent cry,

clothes seared from her body.

It is a small thing.

Violence is an act of war.

It is a jetliner ripping a skyscraper in half.  It is men detonating the bombs they strap to their bodies.  It is women being gang raped on the back of busses.  Violence is the sting of a mother’s slap on her young son’s frozen cheek.

Non-violence begins when I remember that violence doesn’t ask for much.

Because violence is a small thing.

Violence begins when I wake to curse the haggard reflection staring back at me.

Violence ends when I wake and offer thanks for my humble life.

Violence begins when I whisper secrets that belong to someone else.

It ends when I sit in quiet contemplation.

Violence begins when I fill my eyes with gratuitous images.

It ends when I change the channel.

Violence.  Non-violence.  Ahimsa.  Himsa.

Two sides of the same coin that we toss into the air without a second thought.

We can choose the side on which it lands.