Softness and Strength, In the Soul and On the Job

Hanging up the phone, I stretched and sighed and immediately got up to fill the office teapot. I had to get back into my body and find peace in my rapidly beating heart. It had been a success – I had just convinced a vendor whose faulty service had disturbed the smooth flow of a conference I had organized to cut our bill in half. Mixing firmness with resignation, verbal gymnastics with pregnant pauses, I had gotten my way and saved some of the grant money that I badly needed to apply to other causes.

This is one of the things I am good at – making the person on the other end of the phone realize that he is dealing with a redhead who knows what she wants and what her organization needs and refuses be denied. It is a valuable skill in my professional life and was essential when we bought our house, but sometimes I wonder if it is a liability as I search for a deeper connection with my soul.

Swagger and confidence are treasured commodities in so much of the world, and I know that I have cultivated more than my share. These qualities have been a fine shield that have insulated me from that dreaded vulnerability. Thing is, such a shield blocks a lot more than just a few guys who seek to swindle a poor defenseless maiden. Walking around with an acquired tough girl attitude has made too many people believe in my callousness and irreverence. It is awfully hard to convince someone that you are a healer interested in affairs of the spirit when you just threatened (oh-so-hollowly) to make somebody come to the library to fix the leaking pipes.

At the same time, there are rings in this steely suit of chain mail that have their own spiritual purposes. Schools of thought in the world of energy healing differ about whether or not the healer can take on her client’s negative energy, but regardless, it is necessary to establish boundaries between practitioner and recipient. I know that I have an ability to say “no, I am sorry, but that is not acceptable” when I am staring down a contractor, and I can do the same if something comes up when I have someone on my table.

In the same vein, it requires a great deal of strength to be the firm hand that guides people through the places within that scare them. A healer encounters a great deal of resistance when she tries to help someone break their deepest patterns.  Even as she listens to the needs of the client, she must have the confidence to take a stand in the battle against a person’s well constructed – but essentially harmful – defenses.

I fear the extremes – weakness on one side, stridency on the other. If I become a completely spiritual being, will I lose that edge that can be so useful in the world? If I indulge the parts of me that dare someone to mess with me, am I making this endeavor for wisdom nothing more than empty rhetoric?

There has to be a way to marry these aspects of myself, to cultivate supple strength and mighty tenderness. It is a vital sort of balance, one that permits me to revel in my humanity and yet still linger with the Divine. Dancing, always dancing, with these seemingly opposite drives…

Caring for the Self: Selfish or Selfless?

“The work you are doing on the mat is a gift to everyone you love because it will make you strong and supple and allow you give the best of yourself to the world.” So many yoga teachers have offered this sort of encouragement and I have drunk it in greedily during many a long shoulder stand.

My cynical little shadow laughs that teachers who want to fill their studios at dinner time have to say such things in order to convince the class that it is better to focus on breath and form rather than whip up some pasta for the kids. The rest of me that understands the essential truth: we must nurture ourselves before we can ever offer authentic comfort to anyone we love.

Many of us have internalized this wisdom and understand its weight and worth. It brings us back to the mat and to these blogs and to countless other sweet habits that sustain us every day. To talk about these things in a space like this is just so much preaching to the converted.

At the same time, we constantly encounter those who do not make the choice to care for the body and the spirit. They don’t see that correlation between tending the self and being able to support for those we love. For me, “these people” who constantly put business and housework and the needs of others before their own are not disembodied, rhetorical devices: they are many of the people I live and work with every day.

I think it is obvious which path I believe is most effective, but I do not mean to stand in judgment over this other camp – they are doing the best that they can with the tools that seem most obvious to them. The dark circles under their eyes and their mysterious chronic pains are proof of their dedication to being all things to all people. All people except themselves, that is.

When I dodge out of work a little early to get to the chiropractor even when I know my colleagues suffer from much deeper back aches than me, I can’t help but wonder at how my choice may be perceived. Am I a self obsessed hypochondriac who puts her own spine before her career and getting dinner together? Am I judged for my weakness, for being a childless flibbity gibbet who spends her time and disposable income on new agey foolishness?

For the most part, I realize that analyzing actions that I know to be vital and necessary through such a cruel, hypothetical gaze is a useless game that serves no one. I just worry because I know my path is not the commonly accepted approach. It is often challenging to stand against the “do it for profit, do it for security, do it til it hurts, there’s no crying in baseball” American way, especially when family and friends seem to subscribe wholeheartedly to that maddened creed.

I suppose all we can do is dedicate ourselves to self healing that is free of selfishness.  I think this is only possible when such deep work is not focused strictly on the individual, but is dedicated to the good of the community and the good of the sacred within us all.

Rather than simply pitying or becoming exasperated by those who don’t understand the idea of slowing down, of investing in the power of deep stretches and even deeper breaths, perhaps we can think more about how to share the inner peace that we are cultivating. How can we figure out how to make pure-hearted attention to the Self an epidemic that everyone wants to catch?

My Witness is Shaped Like a Bottle of Guinness

A new visitor, Lauren from Earthy Yoga Mom, made a brilliant comment on my post from yesterday about the “Woman at Head of the Table.” She offered that this Woman, a being she has met in meditation in the form of her “inner Buddha,” actually is transcendence. Lauren says that this transcendent force “has all of the wisdom I need to respond to whatever random challenges my mind is manufacturing.” Perhaps she was telling me that I don’t have to discount the Woman at the Head of Table as a mere human resources lady just because I want to connect with an other-wordly part of myself that talks to God. This is a comforting concept, and one I am very grateful to consider.

With all of the different sources of spiritual knowledge out there, it is easy to be overwhelmed by which strategy or symbols or prayers I should employ on any given day. I tend to forget that so many of them are using a different vocabulary to move you to a similar point along the spiritual journey. Once I allow the Woman at the Head of the Table to be like an “inner Buddha,” then I can associate the Woman that helps me in daily life with a seemingly more sublime power, the Witness, the being that presides over the dialog of my soul.

Stephen Cope talks at length about cultivating the “Witness consciousness,” the pure awareness that is always there, watching, and which serves as a calm in the mind’s worst storms. I conceptualize this Witness to be like Lauren’s little Buddha. It’s meant to be a metaphysical entity, not a person or a place. The thing is, I always picture my Witness as a bottle of Guinness. Yes, Guinness, as in really dark beer.

When I was studying in Ireland in 2001 a huge music festival called Witness was being advertised everywhere. Guinness was the sponsor and every beer mat and bus stop was plastered with advertisements that featured the silhouette of a bottle and simply the word “Witness.” I worry about the queen who rules my mind and instead turn to a container of stout for spiritual guidance! (I am sure that Guinness has surely lead to its own sort of spiritual revelations, but that is for a different blog on a different day).

It seems that it may be more important to look at the end rather than the means as we try to move along the spiritual path. I could spend all sorts of time critiquing the vehicles that get me into those places of stillness where real wisdom can be gathered, but maybe I should use the symbols that I have been given and trust that they will fall away when I actually arrive in that transcendent state to which I hope I am headed.

Or maybe I should just relax and buy the Woman at the Head of the Table a pint…

Re-membering the Divided Self

One basic tenant of Wise Woman Working is the dedication to personal integrity. By that I mean recognizing the seemingly disparate parts of the self – the lover, the worker, the writer, the philosopher, the dreamer, the cynic, the timid child, the warrior queen – and realizing that they are all just part of the universe that is you.

To make such a statement is still a kind of magical thinking for me; if I say it aloud maybe it could happen for me as well. This sort of unification is exactly what I would tell you stops me from emerging from cave of own dramas into the open vistas of the True Self.*

I don’t want to eke out my life like a resource in short supply. The only selfish life is a timid one. To hold back, to withdraw, to keep the best in reserve both overvalues the self and undervalues what the self is. Here’s my life – I have to mine it, farm it, trade it, tenant it and when the lease is up it cannot be renewed. Here’s my chance. I’ll take it.

from The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

In my pursuit of some sort of idealized self I have shattered my being into tiny shards. I send one version to work; she is wraith-like and incomplete. Giving all of myself to something as unenlightened as the pursuit of a paycheck may somehow diminish the real me who is meant to be extraordinary, who is meant to create and to heal. Another version of myself exists in a marriage and learns how to keeps pieces of herself in shadow so that she does not appear too selfish, so that my husband will not think that I value the written word over a good clean kitchen (because this incomplete version of me forgets that our love is forged on a lot more than sparkling counter tops). The me that sits and types in the early hours of the morning and meditates and chants Om on a yoga mat is meant to be the truest expression of who I am. I rely on her when the other characters in my cast cannot provide enough sustenance. She must be constantly ready to conjure something wonderful, even if I have been starving all of the other aspects of who I am by telling them they are not enough.

The thing is, the idealized version of me who has fairy wings and a halo and a yet unwritten book that will eventually change lives can never support the dreams of a complete person because she herself has been winnowed away. Every day I forfeit too many parts of my being to ever pretend to have the sort of integrity that can lead to real wisdom.

And so I dedicate myself to the task of re-membering a self that was never meant to be a prism, refracting the light and bouncing colors in a million different directions. Instead I will be the rainbow itself – brilliant with different hues, but still a united spectrum that cuts across the sky.

Wise Woman Working

When faced with the impossible problem of what I want to be when I grow up or who I want to be for the next twenty minutes I often panic at the multiplicity of options. Sometimes I am crushed when I realize that whatever path I choose will inevitably eliminate a host of other equally attractive, urgent possibilities. So often I become completely mired in all that I cannot do; I just freeze up and let the night dissolve into television for fear I might waste time chasing after the wrong star. I suppose this is one reason why many passionate people who really want to affect positive change end up being stymied by the weight of their own potential. The vastness of the universe, with all of its beauty and ugliness, is devastating in its scale and the abilities of one person seem laughably inconsequential.

Of all the causes that call to me but do not seem to fit into a single lifetime, I think I have finally distilled my raison d’être to one articulable goal: I want to be a wise, wise woman.

For some time I have been sitting behind my eyes, watching as I move through the world, keeping an inner score card. My awareness has been heightened and I surf from epiphany to epiphany, so often conscious of this phenomenal world with its limitless possibilities. But I constantly find myself forgetting all I know about the life of the soul and the love of the Divine and the power of healing. The epiphanies all turn to dust as I find it impossible to practice all that I know when I am confronted with another unenlightened day at work or a quiet night when I am too tired to think.

And so I am ready to introduce a second stage to all of this shouting about revelations: it is time for Wise Woman Working. The pursuit of wisdom seems a relentless one that takes dedication and conditioning. At the same time, I think there is a need to let the world pass through you and allow the knowledge to pool at your feet, but I think that certain groundwork must be laid first. All those books I have read, all the classes and seminars I have attended – their brilliance dulls and I just find myself becoming an enlightenment junkie dying for a new hit. Wise Woman Working is about practicing what I have heard preached and letting all those lessons marinate until they are not airy-fairy icing, but the real sustenance one can build a life upon. It is about living through these flashes of insight and distilling them to their essential stuff so that I can blossom into being that wise, wise woman who contributes something to this miraculous, fucked up world.