Are You Listening?

thI was uncomfortable with the idea of my turning sixty, which is going to happen in late November.  

I have friends who are older than me who thought they were laughing with me when they saw what they considered feigned distress. “You’re a child,” they said. “Just wait until you’re my age.” 

I have friends who are younger and, with what I read as a patronizing tilt of the head told me, “You look great. Besides, age is just a number” (I’ll get back to them when they’re approaching sixty to find out if they’ve changed their opinion).

They believed they were offering support but I didn’t feel heard. Their words invalidated my complicated relationship with aging and I felt myself becoming invisible.

And then, one day after class, a student said to me, “You’re right – turning sixty is a big deal.” The moment those words landed in my heart I reclaimed my focus and returned to being sharp edged and filled with color. 

Someone listened not just to the words coming out of my mouth but the meaning behind those words. Someone heard me and I was no longer alone. It was time to celebrate.

Hearing is easy. Listening? Not so much. How often do we formulate a response before the person with whom we’re engaged in conversation has completed their thought? How often do we try to finish someone else’s sentence? How often do we interrupt?

I’m guilty of all three more often than not. What about you?

Listening can be part of our daily practice. We hear in a rush. When we listen we are mindful. 

Give this a try. Find a friend and a timer. Pour a cup of tea. And then choose someone to go first, set the timer for five minutes and begin. One person will talk about anything or nothing, the other will listen. No questions, no comments, no chatter in the mind. Just pure listening. When the five minutes are over, switch roles and practice again.


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.


Small Rituals

fullsizeoutput_5dfI threw off the morning’s rhythm on Monday and made everyone cranky. Even Bruce the Cat. I rose early rather than settling in for a second round of snooze control. I filled the kettle, ground the beans and sifted the matcha. I gave Bruce fresh kibbles and changed his water.

This is not my job on a Monday morning.

My job is to linger under the covers, snuggle with Bruce the Cat and to listen as my dear Ben shuffles into the kitchen to complete the tasks that on this particular Monday morning I completed instead.

And now the rhythm is off and the morning (at least Ben’s morning) has been not quite ruined but most definitely bumped from our household’s comfort zone. Bruce the Cat, however, is doing just fine. He’s eating breakfast and has already forgotten that I didn’t rub his belly this morning. I’m doing just fine, too. It was nice to boil the water, grind the beans and sift the matcha. I know that I barged unfairly into a weekday ritual that is Ben’s, but my intentions were pure.

Ben has gone back to bed. His morning ritual stolen, the day has temporarily become too much to face.

Rituals pull together the loose threads of our lives. We all have rituals, whether we label them as such or not. Some rituals are obvious: attending church or temple, family meals taken together or the walk we enjoy with loved ones at the start of the new year. Others rituals are less obvious. Like sifting matcha in a dark kitchen by the dim light of pre-dawn or counting the number of turns it takes for the burr to grind enough beans for the cafetiere.

Rituals shift and change – at least mine do – depending on the season. When I was a child, before I even knew the word ritual, I sat on the deep windowsill in my bedroom and watched muskrats swim upstream in the steep-banked creek toward their den. The creek was one of many small afterthoughts that broke from the larger Ontaulaunee, which originated in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In spring heavy blooms of white and purple lilac leaned down over the water to drink. In summer the giant weeping willow standing guard on the far bank kept the creek in shade. Sometimes, after the winter snow melt, the waters would rise a foot or so up the bank, turn from clear to muddied grey and push downstream with violent energy. Once, during Hurricane Agnes, the water breeched the banks and threatened to spill through my window. I guess when that happened the muskrat dens were washed away. I didn’t think about that as a young girl. When I was a girl, watching muskrats swim against the current calmed me and reminded me that there was a world beyond the view from my window that my heart ached to explore.

My small rituals as an adult are also tied to the world around me. On my walks to the yoga studio I am certain to keep to a particular side of one street in order to walk past the lemon tree that has, from time to time, left fruit for me to enjoy. And I make sure to walk through the abandoned lot where a fig tree grows. If I didn’t follow this path on my walks to work it wouldn’t feel right. And when I walk to the pain clinic I keep my eye on the persimmon trees growing in Peers Park. Watching the lemon, the fig and the persimmon trees blossom and bear fruit season after season, no matter the depth of chaos and suffering shown on the news, reminds me of the long afternoons I sat at the windowsill and watched muskrats. It keeps me calm and reminds me that it is still a beautiful world.

What are your small rituals? What pulls together the loose threads of your life?


Judgement and Discernment

IMG_3147I’m a judgmental woman. It’s not charming and not something of which I’m particularly proud. Nevertheless, I own my judgmental nature in the same way that I own my adorableness, my ability to empathize and to be kind, my sense of humor, my lack of math skills, my ability to organize and my fear of driving. I judge. Sometimes harshly, almost always unfairly.

Understanding who we are and owning the qualities that make us who we are – qualities that shift and change shape from moment to moment – opens the door to deep self-inquiry. I am, at times, a judgmental person. If I deny this character flaw then I am unable to observe my actions and correct them when necessary.

Self-inquiry is part of our yoga journey. We can study the self through meditation and journaling or when we step on the mat to take our asana practice. Self-inquiry is also, for me, a daily examination of how I live my life. Did I tell an untruth today? Did I cheat someone or steal from someone? Did I honor my friends and students with kindness and generosity? Or did I snap and growl, caught up in my own story. The truth is I am human. And being a human means that there are moments when the truth eludes me, moments when my integrity sags and moments, too, when my grace and integrity shine as bright as the sun.

Where does judgement come from?

My harsh judgements are reactionary, fleeting, biased and not based on evidence. They momentarily allow me to feel “better than.” My judgements are like sentries protecting me from truths I don’t want to examine. But after the heat of judgement cools the truth still seeps in. When that happens I feel “less than.” My harsh judgements sit next to my fears, just a few pews away from insecurity’s quagmire. That’s where my judgement comes from.

As part of my personal practice, I acknowledge those moments when I judge harshly. I take a step back to consider why I’m being reactive. I look for the evidence and attempt to discern whether my judgement is based on an external reality or is answering an insecurity that I carry within.

Our practice as students of yoga is to understand how judgements can arise, the difference between judgement and discernment, and how right understanding can move us closer to the truth.


The Wonder of a Blood Red Moon

lunar-eclipse-factsI know very little about the science of astronomy, yet I’ve been captivated by stars, satellites and transits since I was a little girl standing in the driveway with my mom in Lynnport, Pennsylvania searching the sky for Perseids. The anticipation I feel when I know we’re about to experience a meteor shower, an eclipse, an unusual alignment of planets along the ecliptic plane or those same planets’ transit across the solar disc is as giddy as a child’s anticipation of Santa Claus.

The cosmos is a vast and constant beauty, as it was on Wednesday morning when the earth’s shadow turned January’s blue moon blood red.

I am compelled to bear witness to these celestial events. When I do, I am one with the motion of the planets. I feel connected to the stars. I feel connected to the spinning earth and the energy of every other creature craning her neck on a frosty pre-dawn. I’m part of a collection of craned necks looking up in amazement and wondering what lies beyond the sparkling dark and inky pool above.

Being present for the stars, the moons and the planets reminds me of my infinitesimal smallness and the terrible burden of weight I place on the most insignificant of circumstances.

It’s a wondrous, wonderful thing to know that on Wednesday the brick red glow reflected back to earth was the light of all the planet’s sunsets and sunrises. For those few hours, anyone who looked up at the moon saw the beginning of every new day and the close of another. It was like looking at the breath of Gaia.

 

 


This is Not a Test

rocket-launch-693256_1920I love Ben. He’s been my friend and partner for four years this month. I have friends who have been married longer than I’ve been alive, and so I understand that four years is a very small stretch of time. Yet if feels long enough for life to have always been this way. Me and Ben.

Our views on the world as individuals are slightly different shades of the same color. Like many couples, they are similar but not identical. Where we differ is in our reactions to the mutability of life.

On January 13th the State of Hawaii informed its residents that ballistic missiles were twenty minutes away. Forty-five minutes later they learned it was a false alarm. Long after Hawaiians breathed a collective sigh of relief I remained glued to the news. I watched the same images of clear Hawaiian skies and people running for their lives in what they believed might be their last moments again and again as the videos played in a continuous loop on CNN.

I wasn’t reacting to the thought of missiles raining down on Maui. I was reacting to the thought of what it must have felt like to feel the vibration of an incoming text, to reach for the phone expecting a funny message from your family on the mainland, and instead seeing words almost impossible to process: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Meanwhile Ben, one of the most compassionate and caring humans I know, shrugged his shoulders. His only reaction was to tell me that if we found ourselves at home and in the same situation there would be no reason to panic. He would take my hand and tell me he loved me. We would simply sit down, hold one another and wait for our lives to continue or for our lives to end. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I believe he would want to reach out to his family. But after that, what else could we do?

After all, life turns on a dime.

Yoga, I’ve learned, is about self-regulation. Self-regulation means having the ability to manage of our actions and emotional states. Instead of rarefied peaks and dark valleys, we learn to bring the peaks and valleys in our lives closer together until they become gentle, rolling hills. I suppose it’s a little like transforming the Rocky Mountains into the Appalachians. Our lives do not become flat. We don’t become emotionless automatons. We do, however, build resilience. We cultivate the ability to choose wisely. We see our lives more clearly and are better able to move forward, grounded and confident. Stress and cortisol levels lower in tandem and our health improves.

We practice self-regulation in our yoga when we move through asana thoughtfully, at the intensity and depth that is appropriate for our bodies. We practice self-regulation in our yoga when we breathe with intent. We practice self-regulation in our yoga but off our mat when we respond to criticism – whether it’s directed at us from friends, family, strangers or the voice in our head – with composed equanimity.

In truth, as yogis, every moment is a practice preparing us for the next.


Peace and Reconciliation

images-2I landed in Ireland around the same time that peace and reconciliation was breaking out. It was a wonderful time. It coincided with the Celtic Tiger – that period of great economic growth – and people were happy. There seemed to be more space in everyone’s lives. Yoga classes and wellness centers were popping up like the thorny yellow gorse on the Donegal hills in springtime. It seemed everyone was in training to become a massage therapist or reflexologist, myself included. All of this happened in part because the air was temporarily cleared of anger and hate. It was a little easier for hearts to love and for hands to reach out.

Peace and reconciliation can be a far reaching movement that builds communities, as it was in Ireland twenty years ago. It can also be something that we struggle with on our own.

My mother is an elderly woman with whom I did not speak during my entire decade in Donegal. From 1994 until 2010 we were completely and, I was certain, irrevocably estranged. This is something of which I am not proud. As someone who has worked most of her adult life to walk a yogic path, this shames me.

When I did, finally, reach out it was because I believed I was strong enough to be a good child. But despite my dutiful phone calls and yearly visits, the pain I still feel from the real and imagined wounds of my youth prevent me from being the woman I want to be – the daughter all mothers hope for.

Maybe the peace and reconciliation I need in order to shape a compassionate relationship with my mother is, like yoga, a practice. What holds my heart back from giving her the love she craves is this: My mother is a racist who glues herself to Fox news. She does not seem capable of finding the good in people. The good in the world. She is also an elderly woman who lives alone and depends upon social assistance to keep her in the crusty single-wide trailer she has lived in since I left for college over forty years ago.

Two days ago the rent she pays for the land on which her trailer rests was increased by twenty-eight dollars and she is terrified of losing her home.

I will, of course, help her. I will help her because I do believe that people are good. I believe there is good in the world. And I’ll help her because I know that there is no peace without reconciliation.