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?


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.

 

 


Satellites, Stars and the Stories We Tell

IMG_0451The last thing I remember is whale watching in May. And then it was September. That’s how quickly summer passed.

Ben and I were on a mission late last spring. We’d been working long hours and needed some time together. We needed an adventure. Until May I’d never been whale watching (don’t tell anyone but I’ve never been to Yosemite, either). We chose a 4-hour excursion with a company in Santa Cruz over an 8-hour journey out to the Farallon Islands.

Our morning began on a positive note with our first sighting just moments after leaving the dock. It was also our last sighting. I rode the waves for the next two hundred and twenty minutes with an ever-optimistic dramamine induced smile on my face while Ben tried his best to pretend he wasn’t miserable.

Back on dry land we warmed our chilly, wind-beaten bones with steaming clam chowder in a bread bowl and washed our dashed expectations down with beer.

And then, as I mentioned, it was September.

I learned a lesson that May morning about putting too much hope on circumstances well out of my control. That lesson stayed with me for one hundred and six days.

My excitement for August’s total solar eclipse began four years ago from the side of a road in Queensland, Australia about two seconds after totality signaled its end with a diamond flash of white light. Last year, after studying eclipse maps and weather patterns, Ben and I booked our hotel on the Nebraska plains and ordered our dark glasses. They were top of the line glasses. No cardboard frames for us.
But when fate intervened with an offer too good to be true we canceled our plans and chose to stay home. I was fine. Ben and I made the decision together and, besides, we’d share a partial eclipse from our little porch.

It’s true that when everyone I know headed to Oregon I began to feel the pang of regret.

But I was fine.

About ten days before the moon was due to pass in front of the sun Amazon sent me an urgent email. Our fancy glasses were worthless. That couldn’t be right. How could Amazon sell such a dangerously faulty product? Besides, I’d already worn them to look at the sun and didn’t go blind. But one test with my iPhone flashlight app proved them right. The glasses were tossed.

No problem. We’d build pinhole viewers. I was fine.

On the morning of the eclipse, it was cloudy in Palo Alto. The only image we managed to see was a multitude of fuzzy crescents through the holes of a kitchen colander.

I was inconsolable. Ridiculously inconsolable. Thinking about it now still makes me cry.

I learned a lesson that day about putting too much hope on circumstances well out of my control.

And then it was September.

I’ll admit it. Summer sort of sucked. I didn’t write. I didn’t see a whale breech. I didn’t get to share the spiritual high that totality invokes in the middle of a Nebraska wheat field with my beloved. And if my next sentence is all about how much worse the summer was for a whole bunch of other people in the world then I am completely invalidating my experience.

And where’s the lesson in that?

The lesson is here: life is not the story we write for ourselves in our head. Life is something else. Life is out there waiting. Life is out there being weird and unpredictable and funny and full of sorrow. Life is right now. This moment.

Our yoga practice asks us to be mindful. Teaches us to be present. When it’s September 2017 and I’m already making plans for the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse in Syracuse, New York it’s obvious that I’m missing something.

I’m missing the lessons yoga teaches. I’m missing life.


Blue Sky Mornings

CIMG2291I love grey sky mornings. I love blue sky mornings, too, but there’s something about grey mornings – at least during the Bay Area summer – that are especially nice. Wrapping my hands around a mug of coffee feels different on a grey sky morning. It feels comforting and somehow warms me more than it might on those days when the world is shimmering with clear light.

The pace of a grey sky morning is different, too. Life – the same frenetic full life that was bright and busy yesterday – rests easy through dawn and then breathes itself awake. Muted, soft and lazy yet full of hope and holding the promise of a blue sky afternoon.

On some mornings the shift from grey to blue goes by almost unnoticed. On other mornings the sun burns through the thick cloud fast and hot like a torch.

But that’s what change is like, isn’t it? Sometimes it hangs gently around us until we’re ready to notice. And at other times it’s unexpected. It’s speed and ferocity with which it hits is blinding.

The way things change has been on my mind this week. Especially today. We have traveled more than halfway through our journey around the sun and it seems that the first half of this year has been, for me, a constant teaching aboutaccepting change. Not the small moment-by-moment changes that each breath of life brings but the big rock em’ sock em’ changes.

I want to write that some of the changes in my life were exquisite and others filled with grief. But that’s what we do, isn’t it? We love to assign qualities to change: good, bad, sudden, unexpected. But with our need to name change we forget that names offer our mutable circumstances a potency that can direct our emotional state and determine how we look at what simply is and always will be the movement of our lives.

One of my instructors at Niroga Institute, where I’m enrolled in the yoga therapy teacher-training course, spoke of the simplicity of being neutral. Her words have stayed with me.

Change is here. Always. If we don’t notice change in this breath we might in the next or in the breath after that. Change is our one constant. And as it is we may as well sit in the middle of it free of judgment, fear and craving. Neutral. Only in that basic state will we see the purity of change. Only in that basic state will our instincts know if we’re waking a grey sky morning, a blue sky morning or a brand new morning.

 


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.

 

 

 


It’s True. I am Practically Twisted.

Photo 188I left home for five days at the last week of January to attend a closing seminar that celebrated the end of my first year in the master’s program at ITP/Sofia and the beginning of my second.  I left home believing in one version of me, and returned embracing another.

One of the irritations of being a student of ITP/Sofia is having friends not affiliated with the school ask you (in some cases, repeatedly) So, Mimm, what is it exactly you’ll be able to do with this when you’re done?

How should I know?  The school, after all, is decidedly left-of-center.  Physically little more than two industrial sized single-story buildings in a doublewide parking lot, in truth the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now Sofia University) is filled with individuals who have chosen to study the spiritual heart of the psyche.  I’ve met young PhD candidates leaning toward a career in research and Pagans in the master’s program destined for academia.  I know graduates who a decade later continue to quietly counsel clients struggling to make sense of their lives and shiny new students walking a path deeply entrenched in the search for a higher consciousness.  Somehow they’ve found ITP/Sofia but even here, they stand out in their choice to initiate a journey leading them further from the mainstream.

When I enrolled, my only intention was to find a course of study that would deepen my practice.  And when I chose my second-year specialization, Transformation Life Coaching, I wanted a practical translation of my deepening practice that I could take out into the world.  I wanted to choose a reasonable course.  A safe journey. Something that might lead to a comfortable retirement plan.

I should have known better.  Right or wrong, I’ve never considered a comfortable retirement plan a high priority even though the thought of not having one can, from time to time, induce a pulse quickening panic attack.

It was Day Three of the seminar when I stood in line for a cup of green tea and felt it coming on.  There was a quivering around my heart. Change is something I like to ease into.  I prefer a slow graceful curve to a hairpin turn.  What I was beginning to feel in my heart was neither slow nor graceful. I took my mug into the assembly room and sat by John.  John has been a long distance anchor and older brother to me this past year.  John, I said, I chose the wrong specialization.  And I already bought all the textbooks.

John didn’t hesitate.

Mimm, he shrugged and said, everyone needs more books.

It was as simple as that.  Spending a little extra money (even money that I don’t have) on a few more books is better than being tied to a specialization that was chosen simply so that I could answer the question everyone but me needed an answer to:  What is it you’ll be able to do when all this is done?

We’re heard it before.  That we’re to follow our bliss and let our heart sing.  It sounds so sweet, doesn’t it?  So easy.  But of course anyone who has committed to a life melody based on the song in their heart knows that, in truth, this journey, like all journeys, has moments of difficulty.  Along the way we’re going to hit a few bum notes.

The difficulties we face, however, on a journey that begins from the heart, seem easier somehow.  They feel less like psychic tsunamis and more like rogue waves.  The difficulties we face on journeys begun from the heart are more easily navigated.

It was not my intention to be a full-time student at fifty-five.  But here I am.  And it feels good.  I know I’m not alone on this road and I know I haven’t made the most practical choice.  But I’m all right with that.  My new specialization is Spiritual Psychology.

You’re probably wondering, what will she be able to do with that when she’s done?

Watch this space.