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…

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

Courage in the Gathering Light

Because I am still trying to work with this unique period that I described yesterday, when we are swirling through celebration even as we are plunged into the darkness of the dying year, I sought out a yoga podcast that is rooted in this particular time. Over at Hillary’s Yoga Practice I found a class from December 23, 2006. I needed to find words that were wrapped in winter, offering the wisdom of this season. Her topic was courage and I realize that it was exactly what I needed so that I could establish the proper perspective as we move away from the Solstice into Christmas and then onward to the new year.

Upon examining my preoccupation with mortality over the past several weeks, I realize that though such emotions were valid, I was walking a line between exploring such territory and wallowing in the darkness. I allowed myself to become unmoored in my ruminations and I forgot to call upon the resources that can protect me from sliding too deep. Now, it appears that the element that eluded me was courage.

Caroline Myss speaks often about our addiction to victimhood and the ways that we allow our “wounds” to control our experience as well as manipulate those around us. I see such patterns in my own life, and I know that they were at work when I invested in bleakness disguised as contemplation. Something as organic as courage would have been the lamp in the night that saved me from becoming entranced by the waning cycle rather than looking to the hope on the other side. It just seemed too difficult to flex that sort of muscle at the time, however. All too often, courage seems to go out the window when it is most required because acting courageously would almost certainly upset the mundane balance that marks the lives of so many of us.

Yesterday I was taken with the way the joyful, bustling holidays are at odds with our animal instincts that demand we honor the absence of the life-giving sun. Today I am less interested in that paradox, in dwelling on how hard it must be for us to deal with the conflicting messages of nature and culture. Instead, I am drawn to that very human emotion called courage that causes us to seek and create light from darkness. Beyond that, I am awed by the power of the Divine that roots such a power in our hearts and shows us again and again the constant rebirthing of the universe.

Savasana, With Feline

Seamus in reposeSavasana, also known as corpse pose, is a pose of deep relaxation most often practiced at the conclusion of a yoga session. It is about letting go completely both bodily preoccupation and racing mind and simply observing and integrating experience into the being. Often savasana is called the most difficult yoga posture to master because we are so programmed to run from thoughts that disturb us and plunge back into the constant “loops of distraction“; witnessing the process that is our own being can be a scary thing.

Cats are masters of savasana. Though known for napping, I have witnessed our own felines spend hours with lids half open, never moving but somehow conscious of the world around them. Despite the strong winter sun streaming through the windows, or perhaps because of it, Seamus and Banshee spent a remarkable amount of the day curled up or sprawled out in complete peace (why they cannot seem to strike such poses while I am cooking dinner and constantly shooing them from the countertops is another matter…). Unlike other days when they do excellent impressions of downward dog right there with me (and leave lovely little punctures in my mat), both were motionless for my entire practice (thanks to another great podcast by Elsie Escobar) . Somehow Banshee seems to have radar that wakes her from deepest slumber as soon as I lie down on the floor; she found true bliss purring on my belly right before I started my final bridge poses. I decided to take this as a sign from the universe to embrace savasana a few minutes early – who can deny an ecstatic black kitty who has persevered in her loveliness (most the of the time) despite the addition of a twerpy little brother last month?

Rather than surrendering to the earth and allowing my practice to settle into my bones and my spirit, my mind continued to spiral. I considered how the beauty of this moment in which I enjoyed complete simpatico with another species was a blessing beyond measure; I wondered how long she might want to stay like this before I got cold or bored; I tried to use this time to meditate and enter my Interior Castle. Generally I pondered how this might be good blog fodder and enjoyed the warmth that was a perfectly contented cat.

Because I guard these solitary Saturdays with a calculating ferocity, I plotted how to maximize this enforced period of relaxation while I was beyond the reach of my computer or a book. It was becoming painfully clear that I was not embracing the spirit of corpse pose, though I am guessing if the dead do any thinking my brain will be more active than most. Instead, it seemed a good time to do some really deep thinking – about God, the nature of my existence, and whether my husband would mind vacuuming on his day off (I did it last week).

My mind drifted to more of the James Finley lecture on Meister Eckart I had been listening to that morning and I began to realize the impossibility and the absurdity of my task. Luckily there is a transcript of his talk: “Every idea of God is God, no idea of God is God, every idea of God is infinitely less than God even a true idea, even a revealed idea is infinitely less than God, and therefore to the extent we cling to any idea of God – clinging to that ideal thought is the obstacle to God.” Even if simply existing in the present moment in savasana is difficult, apparently it is easier that conceptualizing the divine!

In jest Finley also said,”We are not created by God to think about God, that’s why Jesuits were created.” That seemed to prove why I was drawn to Boston College despite my disinterest in the Church at the time – unknowingly I had surrounded myself with people like me who long to ponder the unponderable!

Obstacles, Legendary and Otherwise

All Legendary Obstaclesimageafter.com

All legendary obstacles lay between
Us, the long imaginary plain,
The monstrous ruck of mountains
And, swinging across the night,
Flooding the Sacramento, San Joaquin,
The hissing drift of winter rain.

All day I waited, shifting
Nervously from station to bar
As I saw another train sail
By, the San Francisco Chief or
Golden Gate, water dripping
From great flanged wheels.

At midnight you came, pale
Above the negro porter’s lamp.
I was too blind with rain
And doubt to speak, but
Reached from the platform
Until our chilled hands met.

You had been travelling for days
With an old lady, who marked
A neat circle on the glass
With her glove, to watch us
Move into the wet darkness
Kissing, still unable to speak.

– John Montague

At yoga class tonight when my teacher spoke of obstacles and dancing with them rather than boxing with them, I thought first of the new limitations thrust upon me by an activist sciatic nerve. As I tried to breathe through the frustration that flared with each twinge in my right leg, I remembered the line that started Montague’s poem: “All legendary obstacles lay between us.” My dear friend Perspective slowly overcame the drama I was creating about being a blighted creature forced to wrestle with something as cantankerous and enduring as this mystery pain coiled in my hip. I came to realize that this was not an epic malady but another lesson, another opportunity for growth. No trauma seemed to have set off this affliction that I am trying very hard not to see as a betrayal of the body, so can only assume that some unprocessed emotion has been lodged in the small of my back.

Looking at this poem I am tempted to move beyond that wonderful first line and read it as an allegory for the self and the soul. The restless speaker is caught in the distraction of life even as he eagerly awaits the Beloved. Such distances separate them as to seem insurmountable even as he never gives up hope for their reunion. That doubt and elation he feels when he finally encounters her is the same that we all experience when we finally realize our greatest desire, to stand before the soul, all full of prayers that we are worthy and that this will be a perfect love. I dare read the old woman who accompanied the Beloved to be a spirit guide, a guardian angel, the one who watches from on high and protects us on the journey across what can appear to be unscalable mountains and infinite plains.

Suddenly sciatica seems to be less of a concern…

In the Pocket of a Seashell

Ruaidhri ArtOnly a Cape Cod girl like me could find great liberation in visualizing herself as a mollusk, but at yoga class this morning that image brought me pure bliss.

This week I have been trying to sort out the proper responses to the people and events in my life. The unexamined bits of myself that constitute the mask I so often show the world thrives upon reacting to everyone who looks at me cross eyed or treats me like a secretary. I feel entitled to my (un)righteous rage and revel in the version of me that is stereotypically fiery and red-haired and well-soaked in sarcasm. At the same time, I think of Stephen Cope‘s measured voice describing one of the basic tenants of yoga, letting experience roll through me like a wave, not reacting, but simply being present in the world. I return to the former set of responses again and again because I am afraid that embracing this nonreactive sense of self will obliterate the me that has taken 28 years to cultivate; my negativity may not be something I am proud of, but it is mine, and I will be damned if I am going to trade my identity to be some vessel through which life just passes.

Today, however, I realized that there really is nothing wrong with letting life flow through me, because that has nothing to do with life passing me by. In fact, it may be just the opposite since I can actually enjoy the world and see it fully instead of losing precious time composing scathing comebacks for the next time someone crosses me.

My teacher was describing ahimsa: living without harming or living the practice of universal love. I have always loved the music of the word and have invoked it often when I am trying to avoid cursing my body for its inability to conform to my will (or the confines of my jeans). Somehow the word had new resonance this morning and it conjured the ocean for me, Cope’s waves of experience rolling in and out, a constant opportunity for renewal.

My relationship to mussels and clams and conchs, those amazing, simple creatures who filter the waters of our shoreline and then litter the sand with their abandoned homes, has largely been quite the opposite of ahimsa. Making a meal of something or collecting its remains to adorn my windowsills may be an odd way to embody “selfless service.” This perspective changed when suddenly the absolute simplicity if their existence – pulling water through for nutrients it can provide, allowing the ocean to pass ever through them – was my moving metaphor as I gave myself over Close up of shell treeto my asana practice more fully than I have in some time. I just felt cleansed as I allowed the sea to flow through me, as I allowed my life to flow through me.

Somehow this image feels so renewable, something that I can recall and that can resonate at any moment of my life just as I can always carry a seashell in my pocket.

Assuming Ecofeminism and Other Elementary Topics

In my valiant and stumbling effort to describe yoga to my grandfather I was confronted with the weight of my own assumptions of reality and shared human experience. He asked at the most basic level, what is a yoga class like? Well, you know, it’s yoga in a room full of people with a person leading you through poses. What else is there to say? Come on, let’s talk philosophy and how all these postures are sweeping me along my spiritual quest! Oh wait, first we have to define and describe the room, the teacher, the poses, and yoga itself and explain what brought me to something as foreign as a four thousand year old discipline anyway…

I cannot keep leaving out the breaths between words, the leaps between aspirations, the years of error and fear and breakthrough that led to the person I am always becoming. I have to account for all that I am now before I can expound on such distant abstractions as spiritual quests. This must be a ridiculously elementary realization, but I know my reflections will root themselves in a constructive version of reality only when I ground my words in deliberate consciousness. For all that I have learned of late, the greatest epiphanies have emerged from interrogating the truths that have long been assimilated into who I am.

Rosemary Radford Reuther‘s Gaia and God: An Ecofeminst Theology of Earth Healing took me months to finish as I slogged through discussions of the foundational myths/ideas of Sumerian, Hebrew, Platonic, Hellenic, and Christian traditions – I am sure I am missing a few that she discussed at length, but I was just trying to get to the good stuff. The “good stuff” ended up being the last thirty pages in which she largely agreed with Carol Christ and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (with notable exceptions) and expressed her own theories on how we must live in mutuality with this earth and pursue a biophilic existence. She talked about reimagining energy production and transportation and the food chain and communities – all of the hard stuff that we refuse to hear is necessary to stop global warming (even if we secretly fear it really will be that hard). I skipped millennia of religious thought to get to the bit where she corroborated everything I believe already. After countless generations of destructive, wasteful, egomanical regimes bent on domination, the world is horrifically screwed up and only a lived philosophy based in the interdependency of all living things and the transience of the self will redeem us (but not in the Judgement Day sort of way…). Did I actually gain anything from this book besides a few interesting quotes and a vague reminder of the divisions inherent in Platonism and the negation of the material in Augustine? Is it a failing of the volume itself that the majority of it was taken with outlining the bitterness of patriarchy rather than defining an “ecofeminist theocosmology”? Is there really that much ground to cover regarding the cultural norms of the West that have made the subjugation of women and nature normal and even necessary to the propagation of civilization as we know it? Granted this book was written in 1992 and two theses on the spiritual aspects of Irish women’s poetry leave me in the unique position of having already absorbed the basic truths of Reuther’s thesis without forcing me to unlearn several thousand years of history. She was born in 1932 and I was born in 1979; the choir that educated me had been preached to quite effectively and was nicely won over before I even started questioning the absolute sovereignty of Christianity.

What I wish this book had given me was a coherent narrative that could inform my seemingly inherent belief in the sacredness of the earth and the human responsibility to all life on this planet. I realize my inability to draw such arguments from this book stems from my own lack of attention and the fact that I was an English major not a theology major (Boston College didn’t seem open to teaching my kind of religion as I defined it at 18…). It is my strong academic bent that pushes me to find evidence to support my thesis. I feel I cannot stand behind facts that I have not questioned deeply.

But wait, if my “seemingly inherent beliefs” can be translated into action and become something as fundamental as faith, do I need to find them in someone else’s book?

I introduced Grandpa to yoga. He gave me a bible. Pt. 1

My sister laughed hysterically when I told her that, but that’s what happened last Sunday.

My grandfather is a brilliant man who spent his life in the business world, living on four continents and realizing countless facets of the American dream. Though I know that his Catholic faith has always been an essential part of his being (the family jokes that we’re lucky he didn’t become a Jesuit since none of us would exist), since his retirement, and, also, sadly, I believe, my grandmother’s passing, he has truly been able to dedicate himself to religious study. The divergence between his devotion to the Church and my refusal to devote myself to anything in particular (remember, I was spiritual so I could stay safely outside of any traditions that made any demands on me at all) seemed destined to remain a strictly off-limits topic. I quietly stuck What Makes Us Catholic onto the dustiest of my bookshelves and chose to ignore how difficult it must have been for him to see me married by a female interfaith minister.

At Omega’s Being Fearless conference in New York this past April, several speakers, including Al Gore, talked about the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I nudged my mother as we realized this conference, which seemed so removed from the classical Roman perspective that we associated Grandpa, was constantly reminding us of his great hero. The Catholicism that was meant to remain a forgotten aspect of my history like having braces and the belief that I would marry my high school boyfriend continued to resurface throughout the weekend. I attended a day-long session about Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle with Caroline Myss and began to realize that these great voices of Christianity were speaking the same language as the Buddha and the Sufi poets I was learning about in other seminars. When I got home a few days later I awoke well before dawn to write Grandpa a ten page letter about my first in what would be a long string of epiphanies.

Since then we have embarked upon an amazing spiritual friendship that is at once beautifully anachronistic and of a time not yet realized. Suddenly I use the U.S. Postal System to send my grandfather articles and handwritten correspondence in a way that makes me feel like a Jane Austen heroine. I feel as if we are on the edges of living the vision of all beings perceiving that unification of consciousness that is Teilhard’s “Omega Point.” I still have not started The Phenomenon of Man, which Grandpa gave me for my birthday in June (and so sweetly renamed The Phenomenon of (Wo)Man, acknowledging that my feminism is alive and well even as I begin to embrace aspects of the patriarchal Church that I once dismissed entirely). My knowledge of Teilhard’s work is largely limited to a brief mention in Rosemary Radford Reuther’s Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, which I just completed this afternoon, so I beg forgiveness if comparing our conversations with his theory is terribly ignorant or irreverent. There is so much to learn!