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.


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.


Fate, Faith & Free Will Part I: Or Maybe I’ll Just Keep My Nose to the Grindstone

Tarot from Piedmont, n° 0 (Ël fòl / The fool]

Image via Wikipedia

On Thursday afternoon I stepped out of character for an hour and had my Tarot cards read by Susan Levitt.  Susan has written several books on the Tarot, astrology and Feng Shui. In the early 1980’s I attended her workshops at the now defunct Two Sisters Bookshop, across from Stanford Park Hotel. In fact, for a time I dabbled in card reading myself.  But I could never get past thinking, “Seriously.  You’re telling me that the card I pull from the deck is my destiny?”

The answer to that, of course, is, “No.”  Maybe a card reading can offer some counsel, or maybe act as a guide.  Maybe it can gently usher someone toward the right path.  But rather than predicting the future, perhaps a card reading simply offers an interesting look at current conditions and how conditions might change based on the choices we make.

I chose to talk to Susan because I wanted confirmation.  Reassurance.  Proof.  Oh, let’s face it.  I wanted answers.  In the end, I did not hear what I wanted to hear.  But I was given plenty to think about.

So today I’m asking myself:  what is the difference between believing in the power of a deck of cards and the power of what most folks call God?  Because I don’t know that I believe in cards, but I do believe that there is an Energy in the Universe that is bigger than me.  I have Faith.  I believe in pre-determined Fate. And I know there’s a strong chance I’ve screwed up what was meant to be my Fate with a little bit of errant Free Will.

Quite often I find myself wondering what life would have been like had I not gone to Ireland.  In 1994, the year I left for my decade long Odyssey, I was a sullen woman consumed by envy.  I wanted what everyone around me seemed to have:  Love and connection.  Success.  Family.  A home.  I believed if I moved away from what fed my envy, I would find the life I craved.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Part Two:  Hanged Men, Magicians and Learning to Yield to the Situation (no, not THAT Situation!)