My pets have taught me about kindness. Kindness and its cousin, love.
In graduate studies for psychology, I learned from Professor Michahelles that showing a child that you understand he loves you is as necessary as showing the child he’s loved by you.
I think this is because children, like animals, inherently expect affection to be a colloquy.
They unlearn this expectation through living. That’s not a bad thing. Experience includes suffering and joy. (Sit with each of the words in your upturned palms and feel how they balance the scale of life.)
Loving is an action; it sets forth a purpose. It gives meaning. Children, and animals, so skillful at engaging with the now, thrive on being received. They need to know we know they love us.
How do we do this? With children, accepting what they have to offer is key. As a school teacher, I was handed dented playing cards, ribbon bits, smudged poems, and other tokens and, wonderfully, hugs and smiles.
The moment something is offered provides a potential for connection.
The mind thinks, “I’m busy. I don’t really want a pencil stub.” The wiser heart, however, pipes up, “How courageous is this child to extend her hand.” Then, aloud, “Thank you.” In a flash it happens. As adults we must be ready to glimpse it, to, as Georgia O’Keeffe urges, see.
We receive the love of animals by honoring their needs for safety, food, play, learning and comfort. By providing for them we acknowledge their single-pointed focus on us, how they wait for us, watch our faces and gestures for cues, acquaint themselves with our language, and make us feel necessary. As Vint Varga writes, animals provide an opportunity to connect with the less intellectualized side of ourselves. That side matters, too.
Isn’t love in this small-big world ultimately about paying attention?
My Little Bird this week published my article on how to pay attention to pets, particularly apartment pets. I dedicate it to my roommate, Tucker, the terrier mix, trained in love by our dog friend, Molly, and to Sasha, the first doggie.
Broadly put, through our imaginations we are able to create images, which need not necessarily be visual. These images can involve sound, touch, smell, or movement. Most people find it easiest to generate visual and auditory images, and the former can have an especially potent influence on the physical body. In most cases, however, the imagery we create tends to lack vividness and vitality. Therefore, yogic practitioners, like initiates of the magical arts, spend a great deal of time strengthening their faculty of imagination.
I love this notion of strengthening the creative capacity through guided meditation or the physical movement of asana practice. And without leaving after the fact anything material–no poem, no picture, no product. Is-ness without will be or was.
Again we see the close relationship between asana and the natural world. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine that the world itself is ensouled and practicing yoga; that it, too, is searching for its authentic self; and that humans are playing along, matching the world’s asanas.
Klein had said,
Part of what fuels manic consumption is the desire to fill gaps in our lives that emerge because of severed connections of various kinds—with community, with one another, and also with the natural world.
We tend to think about connections to nature as something you have to get out of the city in order to build. We’ll say, let’s take urban kids to the wilderness. I think doing that is really valuable, and I believe everybody should be able to experience that. But I also think that we have to be able to engage with the fact that we are still profoundly dependent on nature even when we are in urban environments.
I had a yoga teacher for years who was really good at getting large groups of people at the YMCA to think about the earth beneath the concrete, to connect with the fact that animals all over our world were breathing the same air as us. These practices are critical for us to realize that especially in our protected, air-conditioned bubbles, we are dependent on the natural systems that are being destabilized by climate change.
A challenge for me in moving to D.C. from Sacramento has been adapting to the “air-conditioned bubble” of the apartment house that is now my home. In my unit, I open the windows. They face north, toward an abandoned and re-wilded section of Klingle Road in Rock Creek Park. The gravel-topped roof of the parking garage keeps the treetops out of reach. I hear birds. Occasionally a sparrow, cardinal, mourning dove or white-breasted nuthatch lands to rest.
In other posts, I’ve mentioned the treasure of the garden conservancy Tregaron–amazingly and generously maintained for the public by a private trust–, and Rock Creek Park where one sees white-tailed deer and the stylish-looking black squirrels. Thanks in part to my grandmother, Kay Mergen, a Nevada transplant who had a large hand in raising my brother and me in D.C. in the 70s and 80s, I know to seek the non-human, that wilder things share the city.
Monday night, I left for an evening walk rattled by unexpected news and feeling out of sorts. The sun was setting. I stayed outside in Tregaron through dusk and into darkness, watching the little brown bats darting through the blue-purple sky. Who can watch a bat and not be transformed?
A few weeks ago, sitting by the frog pond as evening arrived, Matt, Tucker and I were startled by the POP POP POP POP of what we thought was a tree branch cracking. Before us, about 150 yards away, an entire oak tree smashed to the ground. When we investigated, we saw the tree had been over 100 feet tall. Fresh-wood smell enveloped us.
This morning, one of my students practiced her yoga lesson mostly supine. She’s recovering from a toe injury and an infection. We began in mountain pose, her feet against the wall. Then she entered tree pose lying on her back. As I listened to her breathe, I remembered the Rosen quote, and the interview with Klein.
The world is practicing yoga. When we choose to devote a little time to asana practice, meditating, reflecting on our actions and noticing our breath, we join with it.
These past couple of months I’ve been taking my meditation practice outside, experiencing movement, place and mindfulness at once. Walking meditation can be practiced just about anywhere.
Any walk becomes mindful through breath awareness and focus. In walking meditation, we notice surroundings at the pace of the body. The ability to just be, with ease, reduces stress and contributes to mental and physical health.
Stand. Feel the connection of your feet with the ground. Sense the body’s organization, hips aligned over ankles, shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders. Relax the outer corners of the eyes. Keep the chin parallel with the ground as the gaze lowers. Clasp hands in front of or behind the torso or let them swing freely.
Start at a crossing-the-room pace. Then walk more slowly. This may feel off-kilter, as if you are relearning the body’s relationship with gravity. Slip into what meditators call “beginner’s mind,” a perspective of openness and receptivity.
Apply a sense of spaciousness to thoughts as well. Imagine the mind made of baleen, the keratin bristles found in a whale’s mouth. Gather through the senses what nourishes; filter out what doesn’t.
Continue reading here.
There are as many versions of Metta meditation as there are meditation teachers. When I’m teaching, especially a private lesson in the idiosyncratic space of a student’s own home, the instructions I offer vary slightly.
As you guide yourself through the practice today, tomorrow, or years down the road, modify the wording and steps to create the causes and conditions for you to experience and share a freshet of pure friendliness.
What’s a freshet?
The term freshet is most commonly used to describe a spring thaw resulting from snow and ice melt in rivers located in the northern latitudes of North America. A spring freshet can last several weeks on large river systems, resulting in significant inundation of flood plains as the snow pack melts in the river’s catchment area.
Here’s how this Metta meditation works.
Four sentences provide a chassis for the vehicle of sharing compassion.
May you know safety.
May you experience contentment and joy
May you be well in body and mind.
May you live with ease.
Home-base is friendliness: You’ll call to mind an image of yourself, contented, or an image of someone you love deeply and unconditionally. (In this practice, animals count as people, too!)
You’ll take the mind and the heart on an excursion through friendliness, kindness and compassion. Notice where that feeling abides in the body. Let the feeling spread to suffuse the whole body.
Sequentially call to mind and offer well-wishes from the heart by silently reciting the sentences for:
- someone you consider a loved one, a friend or family member
- someone you don’t know well and you appreciate, an acquaintance, a service provider
- someone for whom you feel neutrally, an attendant, a neighbor
- someone who presents difficulty for you, toward whom you may react with aversion
- someone you love…use an unqualified feeling of kindness to bring you back to home-base
Moving through the images of each person is like watching a slide show. Keep a sense of the previous slides of the people you recall even as you conjure the next.
You can conclude the meditation here, resting in the easy chair of the heart. Breathing.
Or choose to conclude with a final image of yourself, at this moment. Know that friendliness is a limitless well into which you can dip your cup to satisfy your own thirst or another’s.
Or conclude with a broad well-wish for the world. (This is how the recorded version ends.)
Settle into a comfortable seat. Be sure your posture is awake and alert and carries a sense of sincerity. Support yourself with pillows and blankets. No need to be distracted by discomfort.
Guided Metta Meditation (approx. 10 minutes)
Pleased to have “Make It a Mindful Morning” published in today’s
WITHIN OUR MORNINGS, there are moments as expansive as giant soap bubbles we could step into and inhabit. This is mindfulness: that intentional “stepping into” the current of right now, with curiosity, without judgment.
Why bother with mindfulness? After all, by the time the sun comes up there are cats to feed, coffee to brew, news feeds to read and cereal to chew.
Mindfulness, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Noticing what’s happening in our mind and body, as it’s happening, appears to offer a host of benefits from greater relationship satisfaction to increased focus, strengthened immune system and a more functional memory.
Even better, the cat can eat, the coffee can pour and the cereal can be crunched. Routine activities provide the perfect home base for practicing mindfulness.
Reading the news, on the other hand, will have to wait. But after a few mindfulness moments, when you do turn to headlines, chances are you’ll feel more focused. A mindful morning increases the likelihood of continued mindfulness throughout the day.
How do we measure a moment?
Continue reading here.
When I moved from Sacramento to Washington, D.C. last spring, I wrote about creating space in my studio apartment for a yoga home practice.
Since then, I’ve happily started teaching students in their own spaces. We may set up in the foyer or the living room. Sometimes we have to roll up a rug or push a coffee table out of the way. Often, furniture becomes a prop. My students see that they have on hand what they need to make an asana practice: a sturdy stool stands in for yoga blocks during a forward fold; a rolled towel serves as a bolster for the knees. Last week, during a breath awareness flow, I noticed a student tensing her hands as her arms extended overhead. I grabbed two tomatoes from a basket on the kitchen counter and asked her to hold them in her palms. No more squeezing!
The greatest value of a home practice, whether practicing yoga, meditation or poetry, is focused attention. Working privately with a teacher, of course, provides you with a set of eyes: it can be challenging to see yourself, even in a mirror.
But practice any art alone and you become your own teacher, training yourself to notice and to trust what you notice. I practice alone and with teachers. I love to teach my students privately…and I assign them homework.
On Real Simple my yoga teacher Cyndi Lee offers advice on on how to keep a home practice steady. She points out if you have a pet you won’t likely be practicing alone. I know my dog Tucker will come from wherever he’s resting to join me on the mat for yoga or beside the folded blanket for meditation. Good company.
Tears, seeds, snow.
Arising, abiding, dissolving. This is the process of a whole life, a single breath, a simple yoga flow and the cycle of poems. I love how Holly O’Meara’s poem arises from reading, abides through an imagined conversation in a specially created space, and dissolves in the strength and ephemerality of water as snow.
What are the causes and conditions that make a poem happen? Holly says,
This poem came from my practice of writing after reading another poet’s work. I was fortunate to encounter Benny Andersen’s “Goodness” in This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from around the World, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye. I didn’t know at the time that Andersen is famous in Denmark as a musician and writer. I felt a personal connection to “Goodness,” and allowed myself to respond imaginatively from that place.
To the Man in Denmark: Your Letter Took So Long to Arrive, I’m Writing the Answer Now
I sit all alone
with my watch in front of me
spreading my arms
again and again
-Danish poet Benny Andersen, “Goodness”
I spoke to him once
the man who sits alone
practicing goodness with his body
by opening his arms.
I do that in yoga, I said.
The teacher shows us how.
Yoga? he said.
And when you hold yourself like that,
does someone come and cry on your shirt?
No but sometimes I feel the push of a spotted seed
baked inside the earth.
Ah said the man. Here it would be buried in snow.
Holly O’Meara lives for her yoga practice, and the mind/body/soul dance where poetry arises. She is a poet, art therapist and psychotherapist living in Los Angeles, CA, where she also leads poetry writing circles.
At a benefit at Bloombars for All Beings sangha Tuesday night, I saw “States of Grace.” The movie traces Grace’s recovery from a near-fatal car accident. Her partner, Fu, a Zen priest, does what needs doing, making additional space and time for Grace in their Green Gulch Farm home. Together, they are raising their adopted daughter, Sabrina, the step-granddaughter of writer Isabel Allende. Fu’s frank about saying that she never anticipated the additional caretaker duties; she meets them without resignation and with dignity.
Acceptance and appreciation, are words offered up in a recent meditation class I attended.
Like the two spreads peanut butter and jelly that together become the ultimate power food, the pairing of the two words is more effective than either alone when sandwiched between life’s bookends of now and then. By accepting, we take into and onto ourselves what’s at hand, right now. With appreciation, we recognize the worthiness of what is.
There’a a Hasidic teaching that might be helpful here. It is ‘God assigns a small sector of the universe to each one of us to take care of.’ You each know what your little part of the world is, so your job is to take care of that. Face what is. See exactly what’s happening right now, and see what is needed.”
– Larry Rosenberg in Stephen Cope’s Will Yoga and Meditation Really Change My Life?
I never felt afraid up there in the hills. The hummah-hah stories described the conversations coyotes, crows and buzzards used to have with human beings. I was fascinated with the notion that long ago humans and animals used to freely converse. As I got older, I realized the clouds and winds and rivers also have their ways of communication; I became interested in what these entities had to say. My imagination became engaged in knowing what can be known without words.
– Leslie Marmon Silko, The Turquoise Ledge
What can be known without words? Sitting in meditation, moving through yoga asana, walking outside with my dog or a human friend…I’m learning.
And finding that as with writing, these non-verbal ways of communicating take guidance from a teacher who knows more than I (human or non-human), and practice, as well as the patience and concentration of an artist or scientist, and the stamina of love.