August 22, 2011 § 11 Comments

Wild and Still.

Wild. I have been somewhat obsessed with this word lately. Maybe it’s because our own summer is a little wild with most of our days spent outside and the two boys growing like wild flowers. Today, Oliver asked if I had put Gus’ clothes in his drawer because they were all too small for him. I stared at Oliver in his too-small shorts. “No,” I said. “Those are yours.” Were yours. Were: that is the word that is used most often when you are a parent. Once you were my baby. Now you are my boy.

Wild is also this month’s Jivamukti yoga theme. The way Jiva classes work is that each month, the teachers design their classes around a universal theme. What’s interesting is to see how each teacher explores this theme differently. Or, to see how a teacher evolves her classes during the month. My favorite teacher, Kathy, started out this month teaching an uninhibited class. She played “Wild Wild West” and had her students dance. When I took her class last week, she admitted she was tired of that. “I’ve been thinking about wild animals,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how sensitive and still they are. How they listen.” The class she gave that day focused on listening – to ourselves, to each other, to the world. “In nature,” she said, while we were in pigeon pose, “One bird begins to fly and they all follow. One giraffe begins to run and they all organize around that single moment. They all act as one because they know all is one.”

I have been thinking about my own wild self, about how I haven’t paid very much attention to it. “Shh,” I always say. “Be quiet.” Perhaps, I am worried that if I listen, I will become so completely out of control that my life will become unmanageable. Perhaps, I believe that my wild self cannot be trusted.

In my late teens and twenties, I suffered from pretty much every eating disorder that has ever been diagnosed. It’s not something I really want to write about, but as I get older, I realize that of the thousands of women I have met, maybe three have been immune from eating disorders. Food seems to be the universal sword by which we women wage war upon ourselves. “I am not enough,” is what we are really saying when we eat too little or too much. I am so useless and unworthy that I don’t deserve to eat. Or, I am so worthless, I need to be filled with something other than myself. It’s all the same thing: We don’t believe we deserve to be here. We don’t believe we can be trusted.

This Saturday, I took Jivamukti from Hari (or “Uncle Hari” as he is affectionately named). Hari talked about wild. He talked about our relentlessly wild minds. He talked about the chaos that ensues when do whatever we want. He talked about the beauty of rules to tame our wildness. Specifically he spoke about the Yoga Sutras, about the Yamas of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), and Brahmacarya (moderation). He talked about how within those rules, we can experience great freedom and how sometimes, it is the rules themselves that enable us to be truly wild. His words reminded me of what Shakespeare once wrote about the sonnet, that it was because of their strict structure that he could come up with such lyric poetry.

On Sunday, when Scott went out for a morning bike ride and threw his ClifShot wrapper away, he discovered a raccoon in our trash can. All I know is, it’s good he found it and not me. Nothing fills me with fear more than small North American mammals and rodents. And a raccoon looks like both of these combined.

“Anyone want to come help me get the raccoon out of the trash can?” Scott asked when he came home.

Oliver and I both shook our heads.

“I’ll go!” Gus called and followed his dad outside in his bare feet.

Oliver and I stood inside by the window and watched as Scott maneuvered the trash can and leaned it on its side, away from the house. Gus came dancing in a few seconds later, he eyes bright. He held out his arms. “The raccoon was this big!” he said.

There seems to be this balance in dealing with our own wild minds, and it’s one I haven’t quite figured out yet. On one hand, if we let ourselves go completely, life becomes crazy. We can’t parent our children or successfully sustain any type of relationship. On the other hand, if we force too many rules upon ourselves, we end up hiding out somewhere in the dark, eating trash. The raccoon reminded me of what Anne Lamott once said about her own thoughts: “My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.” It reminded me of what Rolf Gates says about compassion: “Starving people eat garbage. And sometimes we are those starving people.”

After a month of “Wild” Jivamukti, I am no closer to understanding the term. I think of wild horses and snow-capped mountains and wild geese landing on a lake during my friend’s beautiful wedding.  I think of children who crave rules and structure and a rhythm to flow into. I think of myself as I approach the age of 40, which is undoubtably the beginning of middle age. I think of the lack of rules and structure and rhythm we have for midlife unless it is the sting of a Botox needle or the sound of a wine bottle opening or the pain of a breakdown.

But there has to be more than this, right? RIGHT???

When I was young, my father listened to Joseph Campbell’s audiotapes while we were in the car, which now, I am grateful for. Somewhere in my brain are the transcripts to all of those tapes. In my mind, I can hear Campbell talking about the importance of ritual and how our current society is sorely lacking, especially in adolescence.

He didn’t speak about middle age that I remember, but that period of life is most certainly lacking in ritual as well. I knew how to be wild in my twenties. I know how to be wild with and about my children now that I am in my thirties. But how am I supposed to be wild in my forties? How do I know which voice to listen to? Is it the one who tells me follow the rules or is it the one who tells me to abandon them and carve my own path.

Luckily for me, as these things go, I received a message, just when I needed it. It was from someone I do not yet know who read my “Heart” post. She shared the following poem she wrote when her own child was a toddler, and in her poem, I found that harmonious balance between our wild nature and our civilized selves. I found that connection with another soul, which I am thinking may be the only ritual that counts for anything.

What could be a better symbol of the relationship between savage and civilized than our own wild hearts beating in their cages of bone?

Thank you Holly.


In the dawn of my awakening
I reach over
and put my hand
over the soft skin of her small chest
over her tiny heart

I feel it beat with strength, with rhythmic determination
that same tiny heart that beat inside my belly not so long ago
that beats faster while she pedals her two-wheeler
that same growing heart
that closes a little more with each life lesson learned

Eckhart Tolle tells us to be quiet, to be still
to open to the extraordinary moments, that define presence
that life really is beyond our senses, beyond our consciousness
and that she and I, you and I
are really one

So be quiet, be still –
listen and feel the beating of her heart,
my heart, your own heart
the pulse of the universe
and the voice of God

-Holly Brook Cotton 7/24/08


February 16, 2011 § 6 Comments

Yoda in jammies.

Yesterday, I received a comment from Kristin Noelle about my post Uncertainty. She wrote: The raccoons are everywhere. That is my new go-to quote when talking about reasons to fear.  Now we just need a comparable one for trust…

I have been thinking about her comment for the last two days. Especially yesterday when I got so caught up in my own fear, I made myself miserable, even when nothing was wrong. Trust, trust, trust. You would think it would be easy, but I forget all the time. And yet, if fear is the poison that holds us back, trust is the anti-venom.  In yoga, there is a practice called Pratipaksha Bhavana or “cultivating the opposite.” What it entails is simply thinking a positive thought immediately after thinking a negative one. When fear is felt, one should cultivate trust  – if one remembers. The problem is in the remembering.

I have been thinking about a way to remember to come back to trust after fear much as we try to remember to come back to our breath in meditation after the mind takes us away. What I thought about was Joseph Campbell and his discussion of ritual in The Power of Myth. In his book, he talks a great deal about the lack of rituals in our culture, especially in adolescence. ( I also think we lack rituals in middle age as well.) In my own adolescence, running became my ritual. Every day during high school and college, I tied up my shoes and tried to outrun prelims and rejection and leaving home.

The rituals I cultivated in my 20’s were achievement! advancement! ambition! Now, in my late 30’s, my rituals involve small children. Making the beds. Cutting apples. Spreading peanut butter. Folding laundry. I unfurl my yoga mat and come into downward dog. These are the acts that now ground me in the now, in the present moment. And of all my “rituals,” these are undoubtedly the most healthy.

Today I was wondering if I could cultivate some sort of ritual to disarm the fear and general ickiness I feel once the clock strikes 2 pm. Lately, I have been feeling “stuck” during the late afternoon. This is an empty time of day, without structure, and it mimics the uncertainty in my life as a military wife. Usually, everything is fine during these hours, but my fear transforms this time into a bit of a panic. What are we doing? Where are we going next? If I could think of some way to imbue the quality of trust into these difficult hours, perhaps I could  cultivate the opposite of what I usually feel. Then,  rereading Thomas Moore’s amazing book, Care of the Soul, and I found this:

Ritual maintains the world’s holiness. Knowing that everything we do, no matter how simple, has a halo of imagination around it and can serve the soul, enriches life and makes the things around us more precious, more worthy of our protection and care.

A halo of imagination. Holiness.  What if I could infuse my dreaded “unhappy hours” into something holy?  What if I could make the ordinary sacred? I need something to remind myself to trust.That even though I may not know where I am living in 15 months, I know where I am living right now. That bad things may happen to me but right now, there is nothing wrong. That some day I will die but right now I am alive.

Moore cautions against “making up” rituals because they “may support our pet theories but not the eternal truths.” But still, I can think of many everyday rituals that are ordinary but also support an awareness of something greater, something timeless. In my son’s preschool, they taught the children now and next. We wash the clothes and then we dry them. We breathe in and we breathe out. These are small, ordinary gestures that remind us to trust that in the present moment, nothing is wrong. And present moments are all we have.

I am thinking about maybe taking the boys for an afternoon walk as a way of creating a ritual or something sacred in the pre-dinner hours. Here in DC, spring is arriving timidly but most assuredly. It is in the 40’s and 50’s most days and there are oceans of mud to run through. For me, connecting to nature dissolves much of my panic. I am not sure if Thomas Moore would call it a ritual, but it is something that can be a little holy, at least to me.

Today, we walked down a path near a local park. Gus insisted on carrying a rock the size of his head and Oliver imagined that we were Star Wars Kitties, which is kind of a heartbreaking portrait of where he currently is right now: one foot in his preschool world of innocence and the other in a world where light and dark, good and evil are so clearly evident. In a way, it was almost fitting as he was calling to mind Joseph Campbell himself, whose book Hero with a Thousand Faces inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place. I was Anakin, Oliver was Luke, and Gus, of course, was Yoda. “Hold you me,” is what he says when he wants me to carry him. I tried to make the walk feel sacred, if only to myself. I tried to notice the air, the warm sun, the buds starting on the trees.

It was good. I am not sure if it was a quality of trust, or of simply having to remember to meow and use the force at the same time while also attempting to keep Gus from wiping out, but the afternoon was pleasant. I didn’t feel the yawning abyss of uncertainty. It was peaceful. Maybe, it even felt a little bit holy.

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