41

January 28, 2014 § 30 Comments

No matter how old, there must be cake.

No matter how old, there must be cake.

The number forty is highly significant across all traditional faiths and esoteric philosophies. It symbolizes change – coming through a struggle and emerging on the other side more enlightened because of the experience. – Dr. Habib Sadeghi

Usually, I begin my yoga classes with child’s pose or a simple seated meditation, but really, meditation is too strong of a word. We breathe in. We breathe out. And inevitably, a Marine in the back of the class is trying so hard not to laugh out loud that he is silently shaking. Usually, I have to close my own eyes and press my lips together so that I don’t start laughing myself.

It’s always a bit awkward in the beginning when I’m asking them to come into cat cow pose and then downward facing dog. Some people are looking around and vigilance pulls up the chins of others. No one is breathing and you can feel the tension rising off bodies like steam.

Then I ask them to come into plank pose, and like magic, all the giggling stops. After about ten seconds in plank, the vibrations in the room begin to settle. After thirty seconds, the disparate streams of energy begin to gather. After a minute, the quiet comes down like a curtain falling.

I don’t have them hold plank to prove anything, or even to quiet the laughter. There is something so familiar about that pose for Marines and athletes – something almost comforting about being in a high push-up. And yet there is something else about plank that gets right to the heart of our own vulnerability. Maybe it’s that our pelvis wants to collapse in a way that would showcase our weakness. Maybe it’s that plank pose demands us to soften the space behind our hearts. Or maybe it’s the quiet of the pose itself, the stillness required to hold ourselves straight and stare at a single spot on the floor.

After plank pose, it’s different in the room. I can say inhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe in. I can say exhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe out. I can place my hands on someone’s shoulders and they no longer want to flinch.

It was my birthday this week and I have been thinking an awful lot about vulnerability. 41 is a year that lacks the spunk of the thirties but also the dire nature of that four-oh milestone. 41 is not yet old but definitely no longer young. 41 is a bit like jumping into the shallow end of a freezing cold pool and hopping up and down, your arms over your head. 41 is about being in it but just barely. It’s about stopping by the mirror and knowing that you still look much the same as you did at 20, but undeniably, your skin is thinner and creased. What is left may look the same, but it’s only a veneer of who you used to be, and soon that will be gone too, and the true self – the real face that reveals our own creased and softened souls – will emerge.

41 feels a lot like being in plank pose.

Most of my fortieth year was spent on my back, staring up at the clouds that seemed to be rushing by too quickly. Last winter, I woke up in the cold sweat of panic attacks and during this past summer, I couldn’t sleep. 40 required waking up to the fact that I was living in a way that was not sustainable, that I couldn’t forego rest anymore in the name of getting things done, that I needed to stop saying yes when I meant no, and that I desperately wanted to stop asking for permission. Chocolate and wine were no longer staving off that terrifying feeling of fragility, and the warning hum underneath was becoming so loud I felt a little crazy. Last year, a line from Hamlet wove its way into my days: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

For 39 years, what I wanted more than anything was to be tough. I would rather be angry later than vulnerable now. It’s easier to be the master of my own fate than to place it into someone else’s palm and close their fingers around those thin shards of glass. I had thought that toughness would scare the fear away. But it turns out that fear stays anyway and makes you want to giggle. It makes you want to yell or run or it wakes you up in the middle of the night and squeezes at your heart.

People talk about vulnerability now as this great thing and I suppose it is. But what they don’t often tell you is that one part of vulnerability is to take a good and honest look at yourself, which feels a bit like sticking your head into the mouth of a monster. Asking the questions is only one part of the equation. It’s sitting still with the answers that’s the kicker. There is the way that I think I am in the world, and then there is the way I actually am.

Sometimes I wonder how on earth I became certified to teach yoga. Of all the experiences in my life, teaching renders me the most vulnerable. It feels like taking off my skin. Before each class I feel like Hanuman, when he ripped open his chest to show Ram his devotion. Ram, Ram, Ram beat his heart.

I am working with Rolf Gates on my 500 hour teacher training, and in our last meeting via Skype I shared some of my challenges with teaching, mostly, that I don’t feel I am up to the task. Rolf laughed after I was finished and said,”Welcome to your first ten years teaching yoga,” which I found oddly comforting. He could have easily been saying, Welcome to your forties. And then he told me that teaching is like pointing at the moon. What’s important, he said, is that our students understand the moon.

The way I see it, there is no way to understand the moon without first standing alone in the dark. There is no way to understand anything unless you pay attention to the way it waxes and wanes, to the way it turns its back to you or slips behind a cloud. The glow and the radiance: it’s only a fraction of what it really is.

About three years ago, I wrote that I felt as if I was on the precipice of something, but couldn’t see far enough down to know what it was. Now, I see that what I was gazing into was the mysterious space that houses our hearts. That my task is to simply crouch in the doorway and pay attention to the storm, to the call of the wind and the violent lashing of the branches. My job at 41 is to sit in the eye of the hurricane, rip open my heart, and listen.

§ 30 Responses to 41

  • Thank you for this. I read very few writing blogs, but yours I read them moment it comes into my in-box. This was one of my favorites.
    “People talk about vulnerability now as this great thing and I suppose it is. But what they don’t often tell you is that one part of vulnerability is to take a good and honestly to look at yourself, which feels a bit like sticking your head into the mouth of a monster.”

    This is SO true.. I teach a workshop called the Journey to the Center of Your Heart” The focus is on waking up to our own voice, heart, truth and needs. The looking inside, and waking up to our own selves is a terrifying idea for many women who have been numb for a long time. You have captured that beautifully. I shared this on Facebook and I know my friends are passing it around.

    Oh- and- Happy Birthday!

  • Michele Rusinko says:

    Yes. Yes. and Yes. So good to read/hear your voice.

  • Well, my dear one, you know that this is much on my mind lately too. I have the eerie feeling, sometimes, reading your words, that we are one soul in two bodies. So much of what you write resonates. Yes. Yes, yes, and yes. I would say I gave up on being tough earlier than you did, probably because I just couldn’t fake it. But there is such discomfort is vulnerability, and, as we’ve discussed, it can bleed into a place where others have too much control over or impact on our happiness. That’s not good, surely. I am still parsing that border. But I am so, so grateful for your words, every single one of which brings me back to what matters. Here. This. Breathe in. Breathe out. xox

    • Pamela says:

      I feel much the same way – that we were separated at birth. I am parsing that border (I LOVE your words) with you, often going too far into enemy territory.

  • tinyvarner says:

    Pam,

    There is always at least one thing in each of your posts that really hits home for me. It makes me realize that we may be different people on different paths in our lives, but when it comes down to it, we experience the same feelings, wants, and needs, and we need to be gentle with each other. Thank you for being part of my journey. I may not have seen you in more than 20 years, but Im grateful to have you in my life.

    Love & Peace, Christine

  • what is so strange to me this week has been my fascination with the plank pose, althought i have not once entered into it, i’ve been thinking about it a lot. my mind must be trying to soften my heart. damn, more work. meh. at least now i’ve got something new to think about, and i’m, as always, glad to read your writings…

    • Pamela says:

      Go for it Kate!

      Start with your knees down and soften that place behind your heart. Arms hugging in, shoulderblades on your back, jaw back. Belly button forward, tailbone back. Creases of your elbows forward. You’ll get all the benefits with your knees down. xoxo

  • I kept thinking about trust as I read your words here, echoing Lindsey’s feelings, some odd sense that we’re all working on courage and softness and vulnerability and some inexplicable yet rising sense that we’re not so alone as we fear, nor so inadequate as we fear, and yet we know this about each other, grasp its beauty, before we know it about ourselves, trust it to live and love in those spaces between us that define us better than the contours we think of as “self”; perhaps all our doubt is also connective tissue, that when combined with our honesty and our vulnerability, drops us into that place we whisper of in our poetic strivings, that place we yearn for—free and secure—home. Thank you for writing, Happy Birthday, Wishing you a fantastic year ahead!

    • Pamela says:

      I love the idea that we are all working on courage and softness and vulnerability. And, I do think doubt is our connective tissue – that’s beautiful.Rather than something we are doing wrong, maybe doubt is part of our humanity and connects us.

  • Pamela, so beautiful as always. I love how you make the connection between plank pose and turning 41, and how you write about the “shadow side” of vulnerability, which is SO much “easier said than done.” I am turning 36 this year, and 36 feels a lot like 41: not a flashy year, but an important one, I suspect. Happy Birthday, Pamela! Wishing you much ease in your 41st year of life.

  • Petra Bunnik says:

    I love the cake…. :) And as always, your words that couldn’t be more striking…. thank you.
    And of course: congratulations :)

  • As we know, it’s so very much harder to be vulnerable than to be tough. One reason I love your writing so much is because you not only DO hard things, you talk about how humbling and challenging it is to do them. This one is just beautiful — and I can absolutely hear Rolf saying that to you. Happy 41 my dear friend.

  • Vulnerability is so disquieting to me, so scary. I am not good at it and after reading your words, I think I just may be able to try, once again, to practice. Trying to hide that I can’t do it all, or have all the answers, just may be worse than just not doing it all or not knowing?

    Your sage, beautiful words calm me, as always. Happy birthday to you (and welcome to the 42 club).

    Much love. xo

  • Pamela says:

    I am terrible at vulnerability as you can see. But yes, I think we just keep trying and stumbling forward. And making sure we are vulnerable with the RIGHT people.

  • This is just so beautiful. I wrote the following in my quote book, “Asking the questions is only one part of the equation. It’s the sitting still with the answers that’s the kicker.” I have a good friend who teaches yoga and I have taken her class a handful of times. I can’t seem to embrace but know that when I am reading to sit with the answers that yoga will be the place I do it. Thank you for these gorgeous words and happy birthday! I will be 41 in April and it does seem like a strange age, doesn’t it?

  • Nina Badzin says:

    So excellent, Pamela. I really like that analogy of 41 to a plank pose. Lots that we aspire to is easier said than done. Here’s to another year of trying. Happy birthday!

  • A beautiful piece of writing Pamela. I love your description of the difference the plank pose makes in your classes and how you relate that to vulnerability and the emerging of a real self. I turn 43 this year, but my forties have definitely been the best period of my life so far for so many reasons!

  • Wolf Pascoe says:

    “The way I see it, there is no way to understand the moon without first standing alone in the dark.”

    To understand is to stand under, no?
    Happy birthday, moonbeam.

  • “…there is no way to understand the moon without first standing alone in the dark.” I love this line. And what an exercise in self-compassion it is to do this! Your writing is gorgeous. xoxo

  • Wow, Pamela! You said so many beautiful things I’m having trouble picking one to focus on.

    I found your relation to being 41 and plank pose very profound. Plank is one of those poses that helps us see inside of ourselves. And, we must be fully engaged to pull it off. I think we can slide through life a lot when we’re younger, but there comes a point when you either recognize who you are, or you don’t.

    Standing alone in the dark to explore the moon is a great place to start. : )

  • Today, I went to the beachfront with my children.
    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.”
    She put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside
    and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic
    but I had to tell someone!

  • Hi there to every body, it’s my first pay a visit of this weblog; ths blog consists of amazzing
    aand really gopod information in support of readers.

  • I am so fascinated by how what we spend most of our lives pursuing can become the last thing that we would want. Wishing you a very happy year.

  • I’m sorry I didn’t get here earlier to wish you a happy birthday. My last couple of months have been full of good intentions with very little follow through. Your words today are a gift and a reminder that toughing it out is rarely the answer (despite being my m.o. for most of my life). May the years ahead teach us both how to sit in the stillness of vulnerability. Much to love to you, my wise, beautiful friend. xo

  • Nina says:

    I’m so glad I found my way to this beautiful post! First, happy birthday! You already got me hungry looking at that cake.

    And I love your words: we can be tough, and sometimes it works, but it never fully banishes all our fears away.

  • Lisa Ahn says:

    Oh, how I love this post — and wish you were my yoga teacher! I love this line, one of many: “That my task is to simply crouch in the doorway and pay attention to the storm, to the call of the wind and the violent lashing of the branches.” And there are so many storms, for different phases of my life. Lately, I feel like I’m successful if my head is still above the water. Breathing. Breathing.

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