March 22, 2011 § 6 Comments
This evening, while taking a walk through this gorgeous spring night, I re-listened to Seane Corne’s podcast: Yoga – Meditation in Action. It’s incredibly beautiful and perhaps the best explanation of yoga I have heard. I was especially struck this time around by this:
“To really understand love, to understand what they call the Light, you have to understand the opposite. You have to understand and embrace the Shadow, or what love is not. The Shadow is also considered the Dark. The darkness within us. And that’s the beautiful part, because if it’s in me, it’s also in you. And if I can understand it in me, then I can also understand and recognize it within you without judging it. I will only judge your Shadow if I am judging my own.”
There are so many aspects of myself – of my own Dark Shadow – I want to understand and transform. Many times I feel selfish spending so much energy towards this when it’s so petty and small, but Rolf Gates says, “What you heal in yourself, you heal in the world. And what you heal in the world, you heal in yourself.” So I hold fast to the belief that if I can transform my own darkness into light, then I can help to transform those dark qualities in the world as well.
Words I am drawn to lately include: healing, clean, light, love, surrender, gentle. For a while now, I have been actively intending these qualities and seeking them, but they haven’t really been showing up in my life except for love, which I have in spades from my family and friends. I have been frustrated by the fact that I keep doing the same things I always do, saying the same things I always say, thinking the same thoughts I always think. I have been making baby steps at changing my diet, but not really. I have been toying with joining a running group but I haven’t yet. I have only now, in the last month – after a decade of trying – been making meditation a daily practice. I want my life to mirror my yoga practice but I don’t stay plugged in to that divine hook-up past noon. I forget. I stay solidly human instead of remembering that we are all made of light, that we are really spiritual beings having a human experience instead of the other way around.
Last week, I told Alana at Life After Benjamin that I was doing a 21-Day Challenge and was going to give up wine, chocolate, and dairy products and see what happened (I picked these because these are things I am “attached” to). It’s 6 days in, and it would be an understatement to say that it has been perfect. But I don’t think that is the point. The point I think is to notice what a change in habits brings up in me: Anxiety. Fear. Craving. Aversion. What I learned by doing, is that true freedom requires letting go and letting go is scary. Intense feelings come up but intense feelings are only sensations. And sensations pass. Change is uncomfortable, but by holding our discomfort and breathing through it, the burning pain becomes a cleansing fire. I learned that I will inevitably fall but that I can always begin again.
This small act (which let me be very clear here is not being executed perfectly or even very well) gave me a bit of courage to look into more intense feelings, such as my own Dark Shadow. Bruce, at Privilege of Parenting gave me some guidance lately to look into my own Shadow. He suggested that my fear of raccoons on my morning runs might actually be able to tell me something about my deepest self if I approached it with a sense of curiosity. He told me this a few weeks ago, but I have been too afraid to look very closely until now. The Shadow concept is so obtuse for my linear, analytical mind.
Last night while meditating, I imagined the raccoons and their terrible arched backs, their dirty fur, their sharp, yellow teeth, those beady eyes. Bam. There were those feelings of terror and aversion and extreme distaste. I tried to breathe and not think, to imagine “raccoon” without thinking “raccoon.”
What came into my head was the word Protection. Instantly, I thought of Lindsey’s reference to one of my favorite U2 song’s “Kite” in her post. “You need some protection, the thinner the skin.” Then I thought: Protection? What needs protection? The raccoon? My dark side? Myself? And I reminded myself that I was meditating for crissakes, and I wasn’t supposed to think.
Today, the word Protection has been in my thoughts. I have often been told I am too sensitive. I feel many times as if my skin is on inside out. I am very anxious, I always want to do what I am supposed to do, I am deathly afraid of Doing It Wrong. Many times, I am a doormat, throwing my own needs aside for someone else only because I believe that if I don’t, they won’t like me, that I will be filled with regret and guilt and sadness. And then of course, I suffer, my family suffers, and most people that come into my path suffer when I am in this space. I have no boundaries. Actually, I have no Protection.
Yesterday, on Facebook, my yoga teacher, Jessica – the one who said that if you are going to walk through this world with an open heart, you better have a strong core – posted this:
“I am ready to really “Spring” forth along my path and without apologies or hesitation open up the the full realm of womanhood. There’s a certain fierceness with me right now that has been unfamiliar but I’ve prayed for it to come and balance out the softness of the mother and to support the young one within. Here we go….”
Fierceness. Ah. That word lit a fire within me. Yes. Tonight, listening to Seane Corn’s podcast she said that yoga was “anything but fluff. It’s a fierce journey.”
I keep trying to analyze my shadowy raccoon teacher. I try to understand it, but shadows defy logic. If you turn to look at them, they move, they shift shape and mock our attempts. But somehow, out of my own darkness, I have retrieved two words: Protection and Fierce. All along I have been trying to cultivate Gentle and Good and Light, but these qualities cannot survive without protection or ferocity.
Tonight as I was walking, I stopped to touch the buds on the trees. For a month now, I have been watching them through a snowstorm, sleet, rain, grey skies, and cold temperatures. They stayed closed, refusing to yield, safe under their tough shell. Only now, when it is safe, have they come out, gentle and soft. I think of the raccoon who stood on her hind legs in front of me a month ago in the snow, who refused to let me pass, while I stood, my heart pounding and breath steaming in the cold air. “Maybe she was protecting her babies,” my husband said at the time.
I am grateful to Bruce for his gentle guidance and wisdom and to all those who have stopped by here. Each comment is full of grace and wisdom. I am so grateful to this glorious spring. After a decade in California I forget what a reprieve it is, what a gorgeous rebirth it is, what a celebration of color and light. And I think now I may also be grateful to the Dark Shadow, what I try constantly to cover up. Perhaps it was only trying to give me its own dark wisdom. Maybe it was only trying to give me what I needed all along.
September 27, 2010 § 2 Comments
The idea to give up suffering is not unique to me, of course, but I have been thinking about it a lot. Always I am in the process of giving something up: chocolate, wine, complaining, dairy products. I have this idea that if I restrict some part of myself – the feline part, the aspect of myself that craves warm sunshine and sweet pleasures – that I will fit the mold I am supposed to fit, that I will somehow be able to lop off all the parts of myself that I am not as fond of. I realize that this doesn’t make any sense. I just finished a yoga workshop with Rolf Gates who asked us this very question. “Why is it that we think that if we kick ourselves around enough, we’ll be good people?”
On Saturday, I decided to try out this idea. What would happen, I wondered, if I stopped trying to get my life to look like the inside of a magazine, if I stopped obsessing about the outsides of things: fluffing the pillows just so, cleaning up the endless parade of Thomas trains, trying to get the golden tan and perfect abs of a swimsuit model?
I lasted about two minutes. As soon as I left my bedroom at ten of seven Saturday morning, I tripped on a stack of children’s books and immediately told my son (not even five) that he needed to be a bit more responsible about his things. “It’s OK, I’ll clean it up” my husband said, coming out of the bathroom with toothpaste still on his lip. “Go. To. Yoga,” he mouthed. I sighed. Already I was failing. Only now I was beginning to suffer about the fact that I couldn’t seem to stop suffering.
In yoga class, I felt like I had been given someone else’s body. Someone older and remarkably inflexible. I have just started running again and my hips are tight. I could barely manage downward dog and still breathe. What would not suffering look like right now? I asked myself. My body answered by sinking into child’s pose, which I rarely ever do. My usual mantra is “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” Hardly conducive to a lack of suffering.
On the way home I decided to stop at the store. Instead of calling my husband and checking to see if he needed anything, I continued on and took my time selecting apples, some chocolate chia seeds, coconut milk yogurt. No suffering, I thought to myself. I am going to enjoy myself. When I came home, Scott came running out of the house to meet me. “I almost called the yoga studio,” he said. “We’re really late for Oliver’s project.”
“What?” I asked. “I just went to the store.” Then I looked down at my watch and realized I was home almost an hour later than I said I would be.
“Oliver’s project,” Scott repeated. “It’s today at Lowe’s.”
“Oh God,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I had forgotten that Scott signed he and Oliver up for a father-son-build-a-firetruck project from ten till eleven. And then I added, “But you didn’t tell me. How was I supposed to know? I really wish you would learn to communicate more with me. I can’t do all the work here.”
Later, after they left, I found the word “LOWES” in big letters on today’s date on the wipe-off calendar we have in the mudroom. Oh, I thought, he did tell me. And I just made him feel awful. In my desire to end my own suffering, I had somehow passed it on, chucked it into my husband’s lap. Even the silence in the house felt accusatory. Gus, my baby, not yet two, walked in. “Mommy, play,” he said. But I was already gone into the buzz of feeling bad, and on top of that, the pressure to not suffer. You are just not doing it right, I told myself.
Also on the calendar under “LOWES” was a reminder about an Octoberfest party I had forgotten about. And I needed to bring something. “Let’s make brownies,” I told my son, and instead of playing, I sat him up on the counter with me as I took brownie mix from the pantry and added melted margarine and water, letting Gus taste the thick batter. I made frosting too, following a rich vegan recipe that made me feel a bit better about myself. After I frosted the brownies, I tried a small spoonful of icing and then another. Pleasure, I thought to myself. I am going to make this day about pleasure. I am going to allow myself all that I usually restrict, all that I typically deny. The spoonful of frosting was followed by another and then more, until half of the bowl was gone.
“Mommy, play,” Gus said, wandering into the kitchen again, after the leftover frosting was in the trashcan, safe, where the part of me that can’t be trusted couldn’t get to it. Now, in addition to being miserable, I had a stomachache, a head flying with sugar. I wanted to cry with the failure of it all, with how hard I try, only to come up short. I had just been to a yoga class. Why wasn’t I fixed? I felt like a fraud, like someone who goes to mass and then yells at the car behind then while still in the church parking lot.
Somehow I had mistaken a lack of suffering with hedonism, I had confused letting myself off the hook with allowing myself to get out of control. I had thrown self-discipline out the window. I had simply externalized my suffering, handed it off to someone else, and in my pursuit of external pleasure had created a brand new type of pain. I had just gone from one extreme to the next. I had abandoned my northern Puritanical roots for a day on the Las Vegas strip and had completely skipped the middle. Why, I wondered, did moderation feel so extreme?
In the same yoga workshop in which Rolf Gates talked about the way we beat ourselves us, he stressed the need for stability. Equinimity. A sense of happiness with ordinary things, with the way life was at that moment. The workshop was held in a large gym, and even though outside, it was a normal, swampy D.C. summer, inside the gym, the air conditioner was on full blast. Those of us in yoga tanks were shivering. “How many of you practice yoga in a warm room?” Rolf asked. All of us raised our hands. “Is this room warm?” he laughed. “But it shouldn’t matter,” he continued. “You show up, you do yoga. It’s hot, it’s cold. It doesn’t matter. You don’t feel like it? It doesn’t matter. You show up. Yoga isn’t what you are doing. It’s how you are being.” I thought of that now. Being yoga. Practicing equinimity. Ignoring the whining voice in my own head the way I sometimes ignored my son’s: “I can’t understand you when you talk like that, sweetie.” A way of only paying attention to my power, to the truth, to the way things were, regardless of how I felt about them. A way to end suffering by simply ignoring it, by waking up to the present moment and just sinking in to whatever it offered. Maybe suffering was optional?
When I was moving, my yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson suggested I make a self-care package for myself, something to get me through these days and weeks of change and uncertainly. She herself had a book full of inspirational quotes, photos, poems. She told me about how she paves her weeks on Sunday nights, making sure she had what she needed in the days ahead to be her highest self: time to meditate, healthy food in the fridge, time with her children. A way of caring for the powerful part in her. I, on the other hand, had forgotten the discipline it took to be an adult. To take responsibility. I had mistaken selfishness for self-care.
So I wrote down a list of what I need for the week. Green smoothies for breakfast and chocolate-flavored tea. Poems by Mary Oliver and my fleece-lined flip-flops. More vegetables. Time on my mediation cushion and time watching Glee. Talking like Sir Topham Hatt and watching my sons giggle and race Thomas and Gordon around their wooden track. Snuggling with my husband. Simple, simple things. Things that take me out of my head and into that soft, still place behind my heart.
September 24, 2010 § 13 Comments
It’s nine pm and the boys are asleep. Oliver (almost 5) has taken off his pajama top and is snuggling both his NY Mets teddy bear and his stuffed baby cheetah, gripping them tightly while his eyelids flutter at his dreams. Gus (21 months) is splayed out in his crib, his curls sweetly sticking to his head. He has no need for stuffed animals. If we would allow it, he would sleep with only his soccer ball.
I sneak down to the basement playroom under the guise of cleaning up LEGOs and Thomas trains, the abandoned game of Trouble, the blocks that were alternatively a tower, a bridge, a hardware store. And I do start to clean up. I clear out a small patch of space by the wall without bookshelves before I can resist no longer. Until I give in and place my palms on the floor and line my feet into a tight downward dog. I move my right foot just a bit closer to my hands and kick up with my left. There is a brief instant before my toes find the wall. A tiny moment in which I am weightless. A miniscule period of mastery, a sliver of time where I am walking on my hands.
Before we moved this last time, I used to dread doing handstands in yoga class. The moment my instructor told us to drag our mats to the wall, I felt a rock fall to the bottom of my stomach. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t. My flabby, two-baby stomach would be on display for the entire world to laugh at. My ankles would bash too loudly into the wall. I would fall. I would break my neck. I would be found out for the failure I knew myself to be.
Then, last January, three days before my birthday, my husband took me out for sushi and told me that we were going to be moving to Washington, D.C. in April. We had been in Ventura for almost two years. Two blissful years of living in a tiny strip of paradise, perfectly poised between the rugged Topa Topa Mountains and the gentle crashing of the Pacific Ocean. I ran on the beach, skirting the waves before the sun came up and then later, took my son to a lovely preschool founded by J. Krishnamurti and nestled into a sacred bowl of mountains. I knew we were going to leave Ventura eventually but I didn’t think it would be so soon. I wasn’t ready yet to leave the west coast, my beautiful friends, my yoga studio with walls the color of robins’ eggs.
The next week I got a cold. Then my asthma kicked in. I had bronchitis for six weeks and then an ear infection so painful, a small scream – my own – woke me up in the middle of the night. Obviously I was just a little bit too attached to my idea of home, to living in Ventura, to the illusion that we would stay there forever, even though I had known from the beginning, that it was only going to be for two years. In yoga, they call this clinging. Grasping. Struggling just a little bit too hard against the present moment. Stephen Levine, a Buddhist teacher, says that hell is wanting to be somewhere other than where you are right now. Or where I was going. I felt groundless, as if I was being held upside down by the ankles, the treasured pieces of my life falling out of my pockets, floating down around my ears like old pennies or pieces of lint.
Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun wrote that “The present moment is the perfect teacher. And lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we go.” But I didn’t feel lucky. I felt jipped. Terrified of the unknown. Somehow, my cozy little nook in Ventura had been transformed into the part of yoga class I detested. My mat was up against the wall and I had nowhere else to go.
So I took a breath. I watched while my beautiful yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson, placed her palms on the floor and gracefully stepped into handstand as if she were only climbing up a ladder. I watched how calm she was. How her ankles hovered just a second before her toes touched the wall. Maybe I could do that, I thought, then. Now I know that what I really thought was I need to learn how to do that. I need to save my own life.
Every day during our move I worked on my handstand, finding empty walls in hotel rooms, my parents’ house, a rented apartment, our new home. In yoga, the Sanskrit word for handstand is Adho Mukha Vrksasana, or downward-facing tree pose. I felt as though a tornado had ripped through my world. But maybe, I could learn to be a little flexible. Maybe I could manage that.
Because, while there is something in me that feels the need to fix everything, or at least make it look good, I could not fix this. I could not put ground under my feet where there was none. I could not convince the Navy to let us stay in Ventura. I could not prevent my son’s tears while he packed his own cardboard box of toys. I cannot ever be sure that my husband will never leave me, that my children will never be hurt, that we will always be safe. i cannot prevent towers from falling or oil rigs from exploding or women from being attacked while jogging through parks. There is so much that I cannot do, but I tell myself that I can do this: I can try to be OK with my feet hanging over my head. I can try to learn to walk on my hands.
Tonight, in the downstairs playroom, I kick up into a handstand, and for a millisecond I am suspended. For just a moment, everything lines up. I am in one plane, my body perpendicular to the earth, my toes reaching for the ceiling. I hover in stillness for only a second, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like anything big and beautiful: a sunset, a new baby, the first kiss. Time is irrelevant. Once you see what’s possible – if only for a second – you can’t not see it anymore. Upside down, my body seems weightless. Groundless. I am only my palms rooted in the earth and my heart, floating up between my ears. It’s only a second, but I am thrilled, shocked, humbled. And in that magical instant, right before my feet fall back to earth, I realize that there is very little difference between groundlessness and flying.