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.


Words, Walking and Making Art

One of the best things about my Spiritual Perspectives class are the projects we’re asked to complete. For example, on Tuesday I enjoyedAsh of a Lost Heart a three-hour walk as a meditation on the idea of ‘journey’. Today I began work on my spiritual autobiography. This project can take any form: song, essay, collage. We were asked simply to be authentic and inspired. I’m using the idea of reliquaries. I’m selecting one or two events from each decade of my life and creating an assemblage from found materials, text and photographs. The project is immensely challenging but creatively refreshing. Thinking in terms of symbols and images instead of words is a tonic for my brain.

It’s easy to look back on life and list by rote, “This happened and then that happened.” The challenge is to look back on life, remember the difficult moments and remember the astounding moments, too. And then contemplate how those moments transformed the spirit. Contemplate how those moments made you a better person. I’ve had so many stops and starts on the path – from a “Jesus-freak” in the 1970’s to a wannabe-atheist in the 1990’s. But in the past few years I’ve learned the lesson that so many of us have: that religion and spirituality are two very different things. I’ve learned that our journeys are intensely personal. I’ve learned that there is no one true path and that it’s all right to wander off the trail a bit from time to time.

I thought I’d share a bit of my essay about the walk I took on Tuesday.

Take ShelterThe wonderful thing about walking is that the rhythm of the foot falls become like a meditation. The chatter in the mind stops and the head suddenly has room to consider new ways of seeing. That happened to me around the two-hour mark. I remembered that, unlike all my other walks, this walk was different. This walk was not about non-stop movement. It was about a journey. A journey’s pace ebbs and flows, just like the tide. It slows down and it speeds up. Sometimes it even stops. And that’s what I did.

I stopped. Pedometer be damned I stopped right where I was. I looked across the water. I examined the banked earth for signs of burrowing owls. My eyes followed the small hawk who took off from the grass in front of me clutching her rodent lunch. And I took photographs of the bloated grey clouds blustering over the East Bay hills.

And nothing bad happened.

On our journey it’s fine to stop from time to time. To take it in. To witness from a fresh perspective. Today I was a witness.

 


How the Faux-Grinch Made Christmas All Her Own

yogaI’m not really a Grinch. I’m just one of those folks who love winter not for the shiny tinsel but because their’s nothing quite as cozy as a cold winter day burrowed under the blankets with a few good books and a hot toddy.

Too much burrowing, however, does not a festive yogi make.

This year I’ve decided to celebrate the season doing what I love. Yoga.

And I hope you’ll join me. Over the holidays I’ll be teaching these four classes at the California Yoga Center:

Monday 24 December – Christmas Eve

7:00 – 8:30’ish PM (please note earlier start time)

Yin Yoga

Donation Based

Tuesday 25 December – Christmas Day

9:00 – 10:30 AM (please note extra half hour)

Hatha Flow

$18 drop-in

Monday 31 December – New Year’s Eve

7:00 – 8:30’ish PM (please note earlier start time)

Yin Yoga

Donation Based

Tuesday 1 January – New Year’s Day

9:00 – 10:30 AM (please note extra half hour)

Hatha Flow

$18 drop-in

CYC Students – Please note the time change on the Yin Yoga class.  We’ll be starting at 7:00 and NOT 7:30.  Also note the extra half hour added to the morning classes.  

I think we deserve a longer savasana on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  Don’t you?


Heart, Soul and Purple Doc Marten Boots

I prefer to not surround myself with too much stuff.  I hesitate to put down roots and hold the belief that I can pack up and take off at a moment’s notice.  A friend tells me I’m looking for something that I haven’t found.  I’m more inclined to think I suffer from chronic commitment issues and spiritual claustrophobia.

And so I clear my closet of clothes not worn for years.  I purge the shelves of books rarely opened and cull the desk of knick-knacks whose sole purpose for existing is to catch dust.

With the space around me cleared, so somehow is my heart.  Yet what I’ve done is create a fleeting illusion of space that requires tender care.  Only mindful vigilance will prevent a new collection of bits and bobs from building a jumbled barrier that distracts and blocks my path.

It has been one hundred and eighty days since my last hefty donation to Goodwill. Pride in accomplishment allowed my guard to drop.    The space around me has filled. As a consequence, so has my spirit.  It’s time.   Time to plunge into the mess.  Time to choose.  Time to let go.  Again.

The questions I’m asking are simple.  What do I need for my life to have heart and meaning?  How many layers do I have to strip away before I find Truth?

I am beginning to realize that my constant craving to pare back the physical layers is not enough.  Taking away the stuff around me – breaking down the barriers – isn’t enough.  Maybe my friend is right.  Maybe I am looking for something.  But I won’t find it in the space where my purple Doc Marten boots used to be.


Eknath Easwaren’s Passage Meditation

At first I was put off by Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation.  The prose was too anecdotal, the advice too simple.  The book was for beginners.  Didn’t I already know all of this?  I wanted the answers to my deeper questions, not a parable on the hectic pace of life.

But because I promised my meditation teacher I would finish the book, I continued to read. And once I tucked my ego and arrogance away (and admitted I am a beginner!) I discovered that this book is a gem of subtle yet powerful insights.

Embracing a daily meditation practice requires discipline that, quite honestly, isn’t easy for me to summon.  I keep trying.  There are rare mornings when finding my seat and watching my breath feels like my natural state.  As if this is how it has always been and always will be.  On most mornings, however, the clarity and stillness I’m looking for spends most of the thirty minutes competing with random thoughts about clients, classes and topics for my next blog post.  On these days I sit, I breathe, I wait and then, when the timer sounds, I smile.  Have I failed?  No.  I showed up.  And as long as I continue to show up I know that eventually the days I feel meditation is my natural state will outnumber the days when stillness has to compete with my chattering mind.

Tonight I was reading about the power of thoughts and control of the senses.  Easwaran writes that this is our goal:

 

When we stimulate the senses unduly, vitality flows out through them like water from a leaky pail, leaving us drained physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Those who indulge themselves in sense stimulation throughout their lives often end up exhausted, with an enfeebled will and little capacity to love others.  But when we train the senses we conserve our vital energy, the very stuff of life.  Patient and secure within we do not have to look to externals for satisfaction.  No matter what happens outside – whether events are for or against us, however people behave towards us, whether we get what pleases us or do not – we are in no way dependent. 

Then it is that we can give freely to others; then it is that we can love.

 

Initially I thought I’d write that Passage Meditation is a simple book.  It feels like a simple book.  But once the heart and mind are open to its teaching, it becomes a rich and layered set of ideas that will move us forward in our practice.

 

 


This Present Moment: Adventures in Meditation and the Arrival of a Mantra

English: All Solutions By Yogi Tamby Chuckrava...

Image via Wikipedia

It began with the purchase of my iPhone, this new bad habit.  The cold weather, this cold apartment and my laptop encouraged me.  I began to love curling up under the blanket and surfing in the hour before sleep.  And if I woke in the night, which I do sometimes, I’d pick up the phone or the computer and surf again.  When the harp sounded on my iPhone alarm in the morning, guess what?  Out came the laptop.  I just needed to know if Matt’s gig in Oxford was a success, if it was snowing in Michigan or if I could chat with a friend in Nevada I’ve never met.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve a stack of books next to my bed, too.  And sometimes I even read them.  I jest.  Of course I read.  Since ditching the cable and television I’ve had plenty of time to read.  But it’s clear to me this new bad habit is filling the gap those ten-year-old episodes of “That 70’s Show” once held.

If I really want to quiet Monkey Mind and to have a life long, transformative meditation practice, then I need to break this new bad habit and begin a new good habit.

Here’s where I’ve gone wrong:

Rather than dedicating the same time each day to practice, I’ve been fitting it in when I can – four or five days a week, ten or twenty minutes at a time.  The only dedicated periods of meditation are the forty-five minutes a friend of mine and I take prior to a yoga class we attend and the hour of practice I enjoy on Thursday evenings with a local Daoist Meditation Group (I’m new to this group and have only attended twice.  Still, it feels as though I’ll continue indefinitely).

I don’t want meditation in my life as something I practice on a whim.  Meditation should be who I am, not something that simply hovers around me.

Fortunately, I have a mentor who is gently guiding me in the right direction.  He’s the teacher who recommended Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to me – a book I’m now recommended to anyone who is on a path similar to mine.

Last night my mentor gave me the gift of a mantra.  He said it would change my life.  He said it would settle me (how did he know I was unsettled?) and that if I repeated this mantra each day very soon nothing would ever again ruffle my feathers (how did he know my feathers were ruffled?).

Seriously.  All that from one word? Almost less than a word – my mantra is one single syllable. He’s telling me one single sound can change my life?

I surfed before sleep last night.  And when I dreamed about earthquakes I woke and checked the USGS website.

But when my iPhone’s harp began to play this morning I swung around, placed my feet flat on the floor and set the timer for thirty minutes.  I let my hands rest on my lap, right hand nestled in the left with my thumbs touching and I closed my eyes.  And then, for one hundred and eight rounds, I began to repeat…


Yoga is More than Skin Deep

When I began to practice yoga twenty-five years ago, the emphasis was on the physical.  In fact, it would be closer to the truth to say I wasn’t practicing yoga at all – I was practicing asana.  And while my early training included work on the philosophy and history of yoga, I listened about as carefully as I did during fifth-grade arithmetic (and my friends are all too aware that my ability to add and subtract leaves much to be desired). 

What was I afraid of?

I convinced myself that asana was enough.  But I was only swimming on the surface.  To me, deeper work meant something physical, nothing more than graduating from half to full lotus without damaging my fragile left knee. The thought of moving deeper spiritually was too uncomfortable.  My asana practice strengthened  but I failed to see beyond its gifts. Deeper examination meant diving into the unknown.  And I was uncertain of what I might find.

But twenty-five years after my first utthita trikonasana I now see awesome beauty in the unknown.  I’ve yet to reach center – do we ever?  But to paraphrase one of my teachers, I know that when I do find my center, freedom will be waiting for me.

Although I have no proof, I think it is reasonably safe to assume that most yoga practice in the West is asana-centric. There’s nothing wrong with that.  I mean, what’s not to love about asana practice? It brings us to a place where we feel balanced and alive.  It calms or energizes depending upon our needs and our sequencing.  And if we pay attention to the sensations we feel after our practice we’ll realize they are more than physical. More than skin deep.  Our asana practice influences our emotional state.  It influences how we perceive the world around us.

But this is just a tease.

When we broaden our yoga practice with elements of pranayama and  meditation we build a practice that is deeply integrated and holistic.  The physiological and spiritual sensations that asana practice hints at become intensified. We begin to dive beneath the surface.

The same teacher who taught me where to find freedom also offered a metaphor.  He suggested that our day-to-day lives, our random thoughts, our unconsidered reactions to the world around us are like the surface of the ocean: rough and unsettled with white caps and tides that rush in and just as quickly rush out.  But beneath the surface of the ocean there is calm.  If we can turn away from chaos and turn toward the calm found in a measured breath and silence then our spirits – and our asana practice – will be nourished.