The Theme of 2009: Align

img_10611I almost hesitated to write about my chosen word of the year for 2009 because everybody else is doing it. Then I remembered how many great things I have missed out on because I’ve felt the need to be a rebel and refused to follow healthy collective wisdom.

It is also possible that I didn’t want to air my intentions in this town square because I didn’t want anything to hold me to this alternative sort of resolution in case I decided to take a detour off this road to consciousness and bury myself in some unenlightened misery for a spell.

(Am I the only contrary minded creature out there who wants to keep all of her options open – even those options that are all about limitations and hibernation and go against all of my better judgment? I doubt it. Oh, how we cling to those terrible ties that bind us!)

At any rate, inspiration struck today and I finally settled on my word, my guiding concept for 2009:

align

Maybe it came from too much time on the chiropractor’s table yesterday, somehow this word seems to be strong enough to carry me through all of the lessons I want to learn in the next year.

  • Align with my soul’s purpose.
  • Align with truth.
  • Align intention and action.
  • Align body, mind, and spirit.
  • Align the energy that swirls in my chakras.
  • Align with the positive energies of community.
  • Align the dueling parts of myself.

img_1069“Align” feels stronger than “balance” (holding space for all those opposites forces) and more immediate than “integrate” (folding the energies into my being), though both of these ideas are certainly vital parts of this intention.

I trust that I will be able to move through life with greater sensitivity, beauty, and wisdom when I can draw my power into one column of life affirming strength.

The physical body functions at its best when the spine is in alignment. The energy system functions at its best when all channels are lined up and open so that things can flow freely. Yoga teaches us to pull in toward the mid-line to find stability in our limbs. I will align even the most disparate seeming parts of myself as I work on finding the secret of wholeness.

In the same ways that the stars seem to align to bring forth the great events in life, I align self and soul to greet the potential greatness of the new year.

What will your theme for 2009 be? Please send along your ideas and links and plans and schemes along so the collective wisdom can continue to build!

Graffiti Philosophy: Everything Will Be Alright

Everything will be alright”

This phrase is written in tiny letters on the bathroom wall at work. Assuming that the staff has not taken to expressing themselves through gentle vandalism, I can only guess that a student plagued by looming deadlines or a broken heart that might never mend took it upon herself to share her affirmation with the rest of the world.

I cannot help that smile that I am lucky enough to work at a liberal arts college library where the graffiti is dedicated to such sweet, pure wisdom. It is one more thing that helps put into perspective the world of work in times like these.

Heart in the drive

For all that I loved the scholarly life when I was in school, all the emotional turmoil that sprang from too many hormones and too much beer and too little sleep and too few quiet moments are still vivid. I would never discount whatever drove that student to express herself in that hastily scribbled line, but I cannot help but think of those of us who already have our diplomas and who live in the “real world.” What do we think when we read “everything will be alright” each day?

This phrase hold special significance to me because it makes me hear Stephen Cope‘s voice every time. This aptly named author a few great books on yoga employs this phrase often (though to be exact, I think he says “everything will be OK”). He uses it to bring the scattered “puppy mind” back to stillness, to stop that constant monologue spurred by fear and regret that plays constantly in our heads. It isn’t Sanskrit, it isn’t much of a mantra, but what else do you really need when you are looking to create a moment of peace for yourself in the midst of chaos?

“Everything will be alright” is such a simple phrase, almost trite and probably over used, but why complicate things? Julian of Norwich gave us “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” Her line is little more like fine wine when it rolls off the tongue, but it is the same idea. We can wrap it around ourselves even when things seem to be at their darkest.

If the bedrock of capitalism starts to shift and a sanctuary like an elite college begins to feel the tremors when the greedy beast of our economy stumbles under the weight of its own foolish gluttony, is “everything will be alright” going to be enough?

If jobs are endangered and mortgage payments start to loom too large are those four little words going to protect us?

I think my answer to that is: they will have to.

We have always lived in an uncertain world, for all that it was not so obvious until this latest rash of bad news. It seems likely that all of our spiritual practices and all of our work to be centered and whole will be tested in new and powerful ways. I know I worry that my lovely little coping mechanisms might fail in those moments when “real life” in all of its insistent ugliness comes to call.

Again, I think there’s a simple answer: make sure those coping mechanisms are more than idle strategies you play with when life is smooth. Find a way to love yourself enough that you can gather your power and hone your strength and begin to truly believe, come what may, every little thing is gonna be alright.

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?

Little Bits of Bliss and Balance

Christine Kane is collecting intentions. She is inviting everyone to contribute their dreams in delicious sort of group effort to manifest their hearts’ desires. I threw my wish for balance into her Great Big Prayer hat. I want to be able to dance more effortlessly between all that I want to be and all I want to do, and yet still live in accordance with the plans that the Universe has set for me.

Essentially, I want to quit fighting with the fact that there are only 24 hours and I am only going to be functional for 16.5 of them. I want to quit worrying about all that I cannot do in a day (90 minutes doing yoga, 30 minutes meditating, 60 minutes writing a blog post, churning out 1,000 words of fiction, practicing as a healer, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, reading inspiring books, being a fully present spouse, talking to God) and just be content with what IS possible.

This morning, fifteen minutes of yoga to really wake up my hamstrings took me to a place of such deep breathing that it felt as powerful as a half hour on a mediation cushion. I was a couple of minutes late to meet my carpool buddy because I stepped out on the back porch to hear the birds and watch the squirrels.  I  was offering my prayers and setting my intention for the day more powerfully than I ever could if I had scheduled time for the Divine. Though I dislike being in  perpetual rush,  I know I was a better commuting partner and a better employee because of those few precious, stolen minutes, so it was a fair exchange.

We miss out on so much when we hold ourselves to all or nothing rules. How simple it is to limit ourselves by refusing to engage in all the activities that nurture and sustain us, just because we decide we cannot give them enough time or focus. I am not about to start advocating leading a half-arsed life, but I am rethinking my perspective on the fact that a little is almost always better than nothing at all.

There may not be time to make love, but there is nearly always time for a lingering kiss. I may not be able to immerse myself fully in the world of my novel, but I can at least add a few lines of dialog. These days I may not be up for a full speed ahead one and a half hour yoga class, but how can I expect to get back there if I will not reintroduce the postures a little bit at a time?

I was blessed tonight to steal away for the 37 minutes that a yoga podcast by Eoin Finn requires. It is a sweet little sequence of standing postures that reminds me that there is so much truth in the union that is yoga. Find this little gem, called “Honey Routine,” as well as several others at http://www.eoinfinnyoga.com/downloads.php or on iTunes. There’s my unsolicited free plug of the day!

So here’s to taking little sips of bliss and balance and walking in abundance instead of running ever onward in that torturous state of “not enough.”

The Bipartisan Body

In a conversation about navigating the election season when one holds vastly different views from the rest her family, a friend told me a story about a bunch of apes (or baboons or some other really intelligent primates). Scientists were studying the animals’ behavior in their natural jungle habitat that bordered a lake that they never approached. This aversion interested the observers, so they began throwing food into the sand to test them. A few brave apes risked the foreign territory of the sand to eat, and a couple especially clever creatures actually entered the water to wash the grit off the snacks even as the rest of the clan screeched in hungry disapproval.

My friend translates this into a need for both liberals and conservatives: someone needs to try something new and potentially end up with a tastier lunch, while others need to hang back and preserve the tribe just in case entering the water really does mean certain death.

This evening I gave myself time for another of Elsie’s Yoga Podcasts; this particular class was all about attuning oneself to the respective qualities of the right and left sides of the body. She spoke of the left as the cooler side, that of the moon, of receptivity; the right is the warm side, that of the sun from which all of our actions originate. In recognizing the difference between the joints and muscles and realizing that each side had its own sensations and means of communicating with the brain it becomes possible to look at the entire body with a holistic perspective. For all that I thought of my left and my right as separate entities for an hour, I can say that I feel a deep sense of integration that I might not have discovered had I not explored all that separates the two halves of my body.

Of course, it was impossible to listen to all of this talk of the right and left without hearing it as an allegory (Elsie actually recorded it over a year ago, so discovering it tonight was sweet synchronicity). I think you could read the Eastern perspective on the left and right sides of the body into our blue and red parties in a way that would serve both camps, but that would do little to describe the political realities of today.

Binary systems are ancient and useful and allow us to draw lines in the sand about the really big stuff like heaven and earth, female and male, spirit and body. At the same time, these dichotomies can lead to laziness rather than discernment and can create uselessly artificial enmities. They are handy rhetorical devices and make textbooks easier to write (understand the mood of an era by studying who were the good guys and who were the bad guys!), but in practical application, those carefully forged divisions must break down.

We live in a world so completely colored with shades of gray that we long for the simplicity of column A or column B. For the next week we can imagine that our decisions really are as easy as picking that one or this one.

I know I am premature in seeking a reconciliation between the sparring factions since we have to think in terms of blue and red, not violet and indigo for the next seven days. Still, I am already more interested in examining both the entire picture – the body, our country – and all of the pixels that constitute that image – each cell, each individual. I hope we will come to realize that both these macroscopic and microscopic perspectives are much more enlightening than trying to hack our whole nation in half.

Yoga as Metaphor, Suffering as Reality

It was one of those unexpectedly commitment-free rainy Saturdays, and I spent much of the day at the computer, mostly dodging work on my novel. Eventually I willed my way through one of Elsie’s yoga podcasts and though there were a couple of shining moments of bliss as I unfurled cramped muscles and remembered the strength of my shoulders, most of my practice was like wading through a personal hell. Marisa over at Creative Thursday talks about whether blogs are “too nicey nicey” and lacking in honesty. Here’s an honest confession: sometimes yoga is not a beautiful affirmation of what it is to be an aware being, sometimes it is just a miserable parade of all of the body’s limitations, the otherwise hidden aches of ligaments and sinews. Sometimes it is like lifting lead weights with nothing but balsa wood bones. Sometimes you cringe at unsightly flesh you never imagine bulged in hidden places and are haunted by memories while you lie prone in pigeon pose. Oh yes, sometimes yoga is transcendence, but how can I talk of it’s solace unless I admit to its torture?

Of course, countless teachers have talked about how yoga is mat-bound metaphor for the rest of life, so mine is not a fresh epiphany. Like so many of the realizations I record on these pages, however, this bit of wisdom didn’t become reality until I actually groaned my way through another miserable bid at a well formed chattaranga. If I am going to apply the lesson that the mat is a microcosm of existence beyond the relative safety of asana, then I must come to the recognition that, despite our noble dreams, sometimes life is truly suffering.

Perfectly illustrating this realizations of the life’s vicissitudes, I came across Bono’s speech to the California Women’s Conference in which he talked about his work with The ONE Campaign and their bid to eliminate global poverty, hunger, and disease. I found his entreaty that we not only care about what is happening to the people of Africa, but to actually do something to be deeply affecting. He closed with “America: We are asking you to help put humanity back on this Earth.”

My struggle on the yoga mat not only made me receptive to the devastating reality that half the world lives on $2.50 per day, but also reminded me how difficult it is to understand true, base need from the middle of a cozy weekend when I berate myself for too many trips to the fridge. To compare the crippling nature of my privilege or a lousy yoga session to the reality of starvation is irresponsible and detestable, and I do not dare to tread on such territory. I only remark on how it is challenging to understand the sheer scale of deprivation and decide how to react to it in a more active fashion than lending my name to another petition.

The revolution that we need will undoubtedly start from within.  Still, I must ask: when must your focus on the internal work expand beyond the borders of your own mind and daily experience to allow yourself to be so affected by the plight of others that it is no longer enough just to pray, but becomes necessary to act?

I think that’s a rhetorical question.

Embracing the Need to Heal

Since I have started reading David Edwards’ Burning all Illusions, as I have discussed in the last two posts, it is amazing to me the new lens through which I gaze at my experiences. One of the topics that he has illuminated for me is the uncomfortable degree to which we are forced to bear the mantle of modern society, “the way things are” in that resigned fashion that is meant to excuse all of the excess or the pessimism or the difficulty that marks the age.

In accepting “the way things are” we must stomach living in a state of constant contradiction. We’ve all listed those ridiculous phrases that roll off the reporters’ tongues and only begin to fester in our ears when we take a little step back: “peacekeeping missiles” is the one I find most odious. One of the less neatly packaged paradoxes that we encounter all the time is the celebration of both senseless strength and fragile victimhood in our culture. On the one hand, we are told face the world with an aggressive, competitive stance, to quit whining and arm ourselves with a stiff upper lip (whatever that is – I notice it is my bottom lip that is most likely to betray me when I find myself on the verge of pouting or crying). Yet, at the same time, as Caroline Myss discusses at length, we use our wounds as currency; we let all of the bad things that have ever happened to us be our defining elements and we demand others recognize what we have suffered.

Images of soldiers in distant deserts on one channel and confessional talk shows on another.

A conversation with my chiropractor the other day brought my own struggle between these two poles into perspective. I have been visiting this network chiropractor for over three years for various issues with my back and have been to see him more often lately as I struggle with sciatica. After a month away from his table and almost that much time away from my yoga mat, I returned last week with that same nagging pain in my right leg. After my treatment we chatted for a while – he was telling me that I needed to come more regularly to deal with this issue and I was trying to express the fact that I had spent more than enough time in his office. Thing is, I know that what he does can work for me, but what does it mean that I end up “broken” again after only a few weeks away?

I am a healthy young woman, so how is it that visiting alternative health practitioners has become a pastime that eats up a significant portion of my “discretionary” income? I do plenty of yoga (or at least I do when I am not afraid of a forward bend damaging this cantankerous nerve I never knew I had until this fall) and I know how to breathe healing energy into my body. I’ve been practicing Reiki for years and I understand a good deal about the connection between body, mind, and spirit. What is it that makes me so passive in my healing process? How did I become so dependent on these people with their gentle touch and well-placed needles and singing bowls? I never thought I understood that old adage “physician, heal thyself” until I realized that I was applying “body-attuned creature, sort out your own aches and pains” to myself.

Upon expressing these competing concerns to my chiropractor, I think a moment of true understanding blossomed between us. It was not that I wasn’t committed to healing, it was just that I felt guilty plunking down a $15 copay a couple times a week instead of doing the work myself. As we talked, I realized that placing myself under someone else’s care did not make me weak; it just proved that we are all part of a connected universe that hums along by creating constant webs of interdependency.

The other thing that he reiterated to me, but which finally made some sense, is that the symptoms I experience are just part of my body’s reaction to stress. Previously, this just made me more annoyed with myself – what was wrong with me that I was not using the ample tools at my disposal to deal with this alleged stress? What was I forgetting to do that made it possible for all that stuff to get lodged in my vertebrae?

This was the moment that I recalled all that I have been reading in Edwards’s book. If I truly believe that something is out of joint in terms of how we live in this world, if we are forced to conform in millions of insidious, soul compromising ways, then it only makes sense that my body is under more pressure than a human form was ever meant to bear. Since I believe so strongly that emotions manifest themselves in the physical form, it seems inevitable that my body would find her own way to rebel against the ideas my mind is only beginning to comprehend.

I have spoken of compassion many times before, and it seems time to employ such lovingkindness in the way I treat this body of mine. She is neither soldier nor victim; she is my soul’s home that deserves to be cared for and understood.

A Lenten Offering from the Tabletop of My Body

PEI Sunrise, MGGMy knowledge of Lent has not progressed very far since I once gave up chocolate until a trail of shiny wrapped candy lead my sister and I to our Easter baskets. This year, I intend to spend some time understanding the real significance of this season starting with Andrew Harvey’s Son of Man. In the meantime, I have tried to focus less on abstention and more on creating the life I want to lead for a set period of forty days. How many days is it that you have to engage in an activity before it becomes habit? I am making an attempt to wake up early enough to write or meditate every morning and to practice some form of yoga each day.

At class tonight I was able to move deeply enough into my breath, beyond the soreness of muscles that took me through a vigorous class yesterday to a place closer to my spirit. After a series of postures that brought to my core what instructors sweetly refer to as “heat” and what I bet many part time yogis like me know as screaming sinews, the teacher guided us into reverse tabletop position (I can’t seem to find the Sanskrit term – any ideas?). It is a relatively simple pose: hands and feet planted on the mat; stomach flat, facing the ceiling; head and neck relaxed back towards the floor.

In this moment when a position I would never adopt in everyday life seemed comfortable and effortless in comparison to the the other things I was asking my body to do, I was able to feel my heart open to the Universal. An circle like a great bowl that was without color or weight, merely marked by a sense of space, glowed from my chest. I felt as if my being was offering itself to the Divine. I was a table upon which a feast of worship was spread.

An unorthodox to begin to understand what it is to surrender to God in this season of Lent? Perhaps. But I know in that moment I shone with the purest sense of my true self.

Yoga and Finding the True Self Beyond the Self

At the conclusion of yoga class last night my teacher said “Just remember, this is all you have to do to come back to your true self.” I felt a smile wrap itself over my lips as I heard her voice exactly what I had been trying to lose myself in order to find.

The practice of living has made my studio yoga attendance rather erratic. Time constraints but also the demands of the hermit aspects of my soul have caused me to become a more solitary yogini (with the help of Elsie and Hillary‘s podcasts). Somehow, I had almost begun to parallel my inability to find a place in an organized religion with my resistance to getting back to class. Both injuries and the discovery of the spiritual potential of my practice made me avoid the dictates of a teacher; I sought an unmediated relationship with the yoga muse and any resulting revelations.

Finally, last night, however, I got back to the yoga space that has been such a vital part of my life for four years.

I have always enjoyed this particular instructor’s classes even if I am often contemplating collapse halfway through (she sometimes tends toward the “ass kicking” style that Suzi at Yoga Like Salt mentions), so I was joyfully surprised that last night’s session was marked by long forward bends and a creative take on sun salutations that was more about deep lunges than constant movement through the Vinyasa. The fact that her class was exactly what I needed again showed me that I need to be open to the promise that the Universe will always send me guides and that everyone and everything can act as a teacher.

It had been a long week, and I arrived on my mat heavy with an exhaustion I had willingly invited to consume me. I knew deep down that focusing on my practice would energize me, but I was taking a skeptic’s stance on such a miracle: “ok, yoga, you think you are so magical, just try and wake up this sorry excuse for a body.”

The miracle on the mat settled over me despite my disbelief. Instead of fighting my way through a warrior pose sequence that set my quadriceps screaming, I remembered my own rhetoric and applied the wisdom I spend so much time studying. I allowed myself to realize that yoga truly is a moving meditation and an essential part of my spiritual practice, not just an alternative to the gym.

It became such that truly being present in a pose meant to forget that my arms were outstretched to the edges of my being and that my legs were the pillars connecting me to the earth. It meant that all thought and breath could fall away so that I could lean into a back bend and feel my inner vision clear to reveal a deep, sweet void full of everything and nothing, a space that was infinitely larger than the individual yet sized perfectly to hold me. In this forgetting of my body, I could find my truest home within myself and realize that my limbs were stretched to their truest expression and my breath had found its essential rhythm.

In reading James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints I found voice for my worry that to cast off elements of the false self (the proclivities and neuroses and dramas that make me me) in the search of the True would leave me somehow bereft of personality. Finally in finding glints of bliss in surrender did I begin to understand “Our personalities are not eradicated as much as they are made fuller, more real, and finally more holy.”

Up Dog. Down Dog. Bad Dog?

Saoirse on the matLife took something of a turn in the days since I walked my parents’ dog Saoirse under that Epiphany sky on Sunday. The most notable causes of difficulty this week were the left ankle I sprained later that very night while on one last stroll with the the beloved hound as well as the fact that said canine was such a nervous wreck in the face of two territorial cats that she has alternately panted or whined through the night since she has arrived. Any semblance of routine my husband and I might be trying to establish in this new year was dashed as I hobbled around with this old injury I thought I had left behind me and we learned what it is like to add a loving omega puppy to the pack.

Tonight I was going to accomplish everything on my list including an ankle-safe walk, whipping up dinner, and finally doing some yoga to unkink these confused muscles and sinews that were shocked by the indignity of lurching around on crutches over the last few days. When I finally had a chance to get to my mat, Banshee, the savasana kitty who loves Saoirse UP CLOSEto curl up on my belly the moment I lie down, started her bid for affection. Saoirse was not about to let that sort of love pass her by, so she quickly took her spot in my lap – all 100 pounds of her. I pushed, I yelled, I growled, I pleaded, I tried to extricate myself but she just kept twisting us both in knots of limbs and tail and seeking doggy tongue.

I have just started reading Eknath Easwaran‘s translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. I am sure I will be writing a great deal about it, but my first impression was just how true and practical and applicable it all can be, especially through this wonderful teacher’s perspective. He talks about an Eightfold Path that lead to Self-realization, and ultimately to the realization of the Divine. In one of those rare moment when I actually have the ability to practice what I read, I recalled two elements of his Path: slowing down and putting others first. Though I was seeing a sweet, disobedient dog as a distraction to what I was meant to be doing – practicing what yoga I could on one foot – what if I stopped for a moment and looked at what she might need? What if I recognized this situation not as a lack of training but as the Universe suggesting I try something else? Here is a six-year-old only “child” who had been stolen from her life that features daily walks on the beach who is now being left alone all day with strange little creatures who look like little dogs, but most assuredly are a very foreign other. She has had to walk thought mountain slush and ice in woods full of deer and coyotes and other creatures that are so foreign to the sand dunes she is accustomed to roaming. The person sitting on the floor in the middle of prime puppy play space is her only link to that regular life she knows and loves, and now this person is rejecting her.

Surely Easwaran’s wisdom can be lavished on much more complex and serious issues than the classic struggle of yogini versus black lab, but this is a decent place to start, I should think. How is it that we think we can fill our house with adorable, furry fonts of unconditional love without occasionally stopping to realize what their experience of life must be like? The moments I spent holding on to her were the closest to meditation I had experienced in days, but I had fought them as ferociously as she fought for my attention. For once I feel a little closer to understanding what it means to listen to nature and silence that demanding ego-driven self who needs to believe she is in control.Angelic Saoirse