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!

A Moment to Experience Stillness

Cat, East German Castle

I’m overloaded with knowledge and weariness and unbelievable energy from my healing arts class, but I wanted to share just one slip of wisdom that I gathered today.

Without stillness, we cannot reap what we sow.

Maybe this is just stating the obvious, but when my teacher said it I found my pen scratching furiously across the page.

It is only by resting between yoga postures or during final savasana that we integrate the work performed by the moving body. The slumber of winter is necessary to rest the fields so that all of that reaping and sowing is possible. Only a quiet mind can make sense of the barrage of information that assaults it every day.

Stillness is one of those precious paradoxes. We know that we need it, but as soon as we give in to our desire to describe it, it vanishes like an unrealized, unrealizable dream. So many people skip though the years without ever pausing to assimilate the stuff that makes up their lives. It is more than possible to tumult through time at breakneck speed indefinitely, but what sort of shape are they in – mind, body, and soul – when they finally reach the end of their frantic race?

How do we cultivate stillness so that all the work we do as spiritual seekers, as healers, as people of compassion actually roots into the deepest levels of our true selves? Where do we find the space for stillness between doing our jobs and loving our families and recording our thoughts in all of these glorious words?

Before we can tackle the daily “how” it is important to first to come to terms with the fact that stillness is necessary at all. I do not believe that anyone else can convince you of that, but experiencing it just might give you an idea of why this crazy idea of doing nothing may just work.

  • Try to sit and listen to that every day symphony and cacophony that dances inside your head .
  • Give it time to play for a few maddened minutes, and then just let all of the extraneous sounds fall away. Focus on your breath, on the way you are settled into your seat, on the dark infinity behind your own eyelids.
  • When all that noise fades, notice what it is like to sit in peace, just for a moment.

Letting things just fall away may not be easy at first, and it may be scary if you think that silence in your mind means that you are sitting in some sort of void, but when you are really still, the mind is the safest place you will ever know.

I am hoping that a glimpse of the bliss that is stillness will be enough to convince us all that we just might be able to consider finding a few moments each day during which we can simply stop, we can simply be.

I just need to quit typing long enough to find it!

Witnessing this Moment

Do you feel it yet? Did it really happen? Can America actually have elected a black man running on a ticket of hope and change?

I know the realization has not seeped into my soul yet. I cannot integrate the events. I have not yet found a way to make it real.

When I visited my healer a couple of days ago, she followed her usual practice of kinesiology, or muscle testing, to discover words and concepts that resonate with me on a psychological and spiritual level. Usually they are ideas that trouble me, and this session was no exception: “experiencing my mind.” At first the phrases she comes up with almost always sound like they belong in fortune cookies, but they eventually make sense, even if I had never parsed my experiences in quite the same terms before.

My mind is my shelter and my weapon whenever the emotional world gets too hot. Refusing what my gut or my heart are trying to tell me, so often I try to muscle through on brain power alone. I resort to analyzing the situation rather than feeling it, I look for wisdom in the table of contents rather than in my own experience. Today, I jumped from website to website trying to find a way for the joy to penetrate, but could not find a way to truly feel my way through the moment.

Our worth in this world is so often determined by our perceived intelligence, by how swiftly you can take in information and sort it and use it for your own gain. The brain is such an inadequate organ, however, when you want to be moved and inspired by something so awesome and intense as Barack Obama becoming our next president.

There are a few brilliant moments in all of our lives, be it a marriage or a birth or an historic election that requires we do more than think about how everything just might change. This is one of those moments that must be fully witnessed, body and soul.

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.

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.

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.”

Healing Through Questioning

Listening to the podcast of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith the other day, I was introduced to Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor who has pioneered the “integrative medicine” movement that pulls the modern medical establishment’s attention to the mind/body connection. I was reminded yet again that holistic healthcare is actually considered quite radical in most circles and that many well meaning doctors have been (and continue to be) surprised by the fact that a person’s experience of her illness is as important as the clinical symptoms she may demonstrate.

The airing of this radio show is yet another instance in which the Universe seems to be conspiring to make me think about wellness and infirmity, and the place of health and illness in my own life and the lives of those I touch every day. When I was trapped on the couch with another sprained ankle last week, I plunged into a bout of self pity while speaking to a friend, listing all of the ways that my body has betrayed me over the last handful of years, including six months when I was reduced to debilitating exhaustion most of the time due to a nexus of calamities. She suggested that I might be taking good enough care of myself that none of these health issues became insurmountable, long-term issues. That is a nice thought, but I really think that I am being taught what it is to be temporarily unable to meet the days’ challenges so that I can allow that knowledge to become empathy that will eventually be transformed into the power to help others heal. These days, I am working on developing my sense of perspective on the moments when my body does not perform exactly as expected, hoping to realize that I should just be overcome with gratitude for all that she accomplishes each day.

All of this is merely meant to be an introduction (that I will surely explore later) to a passage included on the program from Remen’s book’s Kitchen Table Wisdom:

The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.

At this moment, this quotation gives some shape to my thoughts about what I talked about yesterday, my struggles with conforming to the fullness of any particular church. I think one of the elements of the Catholic Church that I grew up with that leaves me so conflicted is that claim to the Truth with an absolutely knowable capital “T.” I am still in a place of delicious, torrential questions. Perhaps the reason we have religion in its modern sense is to find solace in a monolithic entity that seeks to comfort its flock with creeds and commandments and promises of the ultimate wisdom. The only answer I have received to all of my questions so far is that this is not my path.

From my reading of the Christian mystics I know that the tradition that has its most obvious manifestation in the one-way communication of Sunday mass (all priestly answers, it seems), also has guided centuries of questing souls who have interrogated issues more deeply than I can possibly imagine. I am just left to wonder how to reconcile these two expressions of communion with the divine.

Reconciling, ever reconciling…