poem: Chemical Elements

Chemical Elements

My heart is tired today. Tired of the round black zafu,
its unflagging suggestion of a conical haven.

Tired of flat pink September roses, the glass
of shattered beer bottles at the bushes’ roots.

Along the avenue relentless joggers run, ears
plugged with music or news. City dogs wait

nervously to go-ahead across the pitted street.
They have twenty minutes to crap and pee.

From the urban trees catbirds hawk
the hot chocolate of enlightenment as

butterflies struggle into their condensed
existence. My students know to seek beauty

in the fissure between O and K
on either side of all and right. But,

I’m lost this morning in the captions
for all that’s happened, the twilight sortie

into nothingness from humanity’s
so muchness.

My tired heart has set on ocean’s deep sand
where sightless gelatinous creatures twirl

through aquatic space, where sound
is movement and everything smacks of salt.

– Alexa Mergen

 

This poem arrived after a period of extended “sitting,” as in sitting Zen. I’d gotten up and exited my DC apartment building to take the dog for a walk on the crowded city avenue; I started noticing things. My thanks to poet Luis Omar Salinas, who once was and may always be my favorite American poet (along with Walt and E.D.) ; he’s kept me close company for many years. 

Although this poem arose from sitting still, it might be helpful to remember that meditation doesn’t always lead to a feeling of creativity, bliss, or even contentment.

After a day-long sit with Edward Espe Brown years ago, I remember feeling very pissy as I rode my bike home. Brown is funny and low-key like most Zen priests: it wasn’t him. It was the intensity of sitting still and being with the big question mark of existence ?. 

Another time, I bailed on a day-long sit at my home zendo, All Beings, knowing I didn’t have the composure yet to put aside my agitation from weekend travels. Sometimes taking a walk and receiving a poem are best for body and mind.

Sitting meditation feels sometimes like being a loaf of rising bread dough. Something’s happening all on its own, both very ordinary and quite magical.

Meditation can be simple, even joyful, but it isn’t always easy. It does lead to clarity…eventually.

Insight can pop up like a praying mantis on the other side of a screen door.

Or all of a sudden a bit of advice sounds in your ears like the seemingly random chorus of cicadas.

It’s all about possibility, receiving it and letting it go.

 

“Poetry,” Alice Oswald says, “is not about language but about what happens when language gets impossible.”

Yoga, I’ll add, is not about the living body but about what happens when the distraction of that body dissolves.

And meditation?

Meditation is not about the mind but about what happens when the mind, as Kosho Uchiyama says, opens the hand of thought.

Peace, all.

 

No-bake Apple Butter Breakfast Bar

These breakfast bars will start your body’s engine and keep it revving all morning.

breakfast-bar

In a large bowl, combine

  • about 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • about 3/4 cup smooth “natural” peanut butter
  • about 1/2 cup apple butter
  • dash of cinnamon

Microwave for 30 seconds to one minute (optional.) Stir until smooth.

Stir in,

  • about 2 cups rolled oats
  • pumpkin seeds (raw, unsalted work best)
  • sunflower seeds (raw, unsalted work best)
  • sesame seeds
  • currants.

Spread in an 8-inch square baking pan lined closely with aluminum foil (let the edges of the foil overlap the pan). Place a square of waxed paper to fit on top and press with fingers and palm of hand until even and close-packed.

Refrigerate for 12 hours or more.

Lift out of the pan using the foil edges and place on a cutting board. Remove the waxed paper. Slice into squares. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Delicious served with juicy fresh fruit like sliced peaches. In winter, a glass of orange juice washes the bar down nicely.

Any combination of nut butter and seeds and dried fruit might work. I’ve been meaning to try almond butter and dried apricots. Another liquid sweetener might do in place of maple syrup. Try other spices, too, like ginger and cardamom.

Experiment and enjoy.

Whiffing breath

A technique to practice when feeling overwhelmed is the whiffing breath.

Sit in a chair with the body at ease. Look for length in the back of the neck, ears aligned over shoulders and chin parallel to your lap. Rest the eyes on a spot straight ahead. Notice the movement of the breath through the body, inhaling and exhaling through the nose.

Sniff in the next inhalation. Sniff-sniff-sniff as if taking a whiff of a scent on the air. You might feel a contraction in the abdomen with each whiff as if the navel is moving toward the spine, but this is not a forceful action.

Really, it’s as if you’re a wolf catching a scent on the wind or a house cat investigating a bouquet.

Exhale slowly through the nose or pursed lips.

Repeat two or three times. Then sigh, shrug the shoulders a couple of times and resume a normal breath.

Adapted from Complete Yoga by Stella Weller.

How (we) animals grieve

At the start of her lesson, a young student of mine reports that she fell down the stairs at her middle school during a passing period. She has the bandage to prove it. A friend who was with her told my student that she’d never seen someone fall so slowly. The student came up with bruises and a scratch. She wondered if her complete absorption in the present moment helped protect her from greater damage.

What did you think of when you landed? I asked.

I wondered if my arm was broken and if it was if I’d have a purple cast.

So comfortable in her body, when it’s experiencing equilibrium and when it’s not, I can hope she’ll be somewhat safeguarded from stockpiling the anguish and pain one’s tissues, skin and muscles invariably go through.

Working as intimately as I do with my students, one-on-one and in groups of two or three, I get to know the stories of their bodies. Not a therapist, not a doctor, I’m primarily an extra set of eyes and ears. Seeing students, receiving their reactions as they move and breathe.

I’m thinking of students who have been operated on, once, twice and sometimes more, pieces removed, scars left behind.

A student lifts an arm and winces. I ask if she’s in pain. She replies she’s not, but that something happened. I remind her she’d once had surgery in that place and she responds it was a long time ago. The body remembers.

The issues are in the tissues, yoga teachers like to say.

Yoga…direct sensation…immersion in experience.

Like a linguaphile in a new country, a willing yoga student arrives on the tarmac of his mat eager to explore, to try out new ways of communicating. Only he seeks not to bridge the space between himself and another but between his perceiving self and his latent self.

This dual awareness may be one way we humans differ from other animals.

Generally, we anticipate pain, we anticipate death.

We fear feelings before they even occur. We dwell on those that have passed.

Barbara J. King writes in How Animals Grieve,

Other animals may alter their behavior when a companion is ill, as did the chimpanzees who surrounded a dying female at the  Scottish safari park, or the goat who leaned hard against her friend the Shetland pony to help keep her on her feet. They may feel concern and act on it. But only we look far ahead with dread, or relief, or a mix of the two, aware that death is coming.

The 6th grader–tripping through time and space without clutching to it –was merely moving. This oneness with experience could be a result of her four months of yoga study, or her personality which is curious and lighthearted, or circumstances, or youth. None or all.

Human beings categorize. We have to in order to catalog information in time, to build knowledge and acquire things.

My hope is that as this student’s mind strengthens in its ability to analyze, synthesize and evaluate, her body remains awake to sensation.

So that if and when she suffers a bodily loss in the course of living, her mind might cede to the body and allow it to feel. And when she suffers an emotional strain, her body might support the mind’s attempt to integrate the information. That she may feel, even pain, knowing that the only way out is through. (And that applies to joy, too!)

Alone of all species, we may pour our lamentations into art, as grief-memoir writers do. With the exception of the embodied grief that may be expressed in dance, though, it may be when we still our unique creativity that we feel closest to other animals who grieve. We grieve with human words but animal bodies and animal gestures and animal movements.

I wrote of grief for many years, others’ and my own. As much as I cherish the decades I devoted to writing and as grateful as I am for readers and publishers, it’s been accrued minutes on the yoga mat, and directly on the grass or the ground, under the shelter of a trusted teacher’s attention or alone, that has admitted forgiveness, solace, love and compassion into the cells of my being.

Breaths after breaths without syllables filling them.

The precious silence of feeling.

 

 

the navigatio of yoga

In The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane quotes waterman Richard Kearney,

In antiquity, Irish scholars were known….for their practice of ‘navigatio’…a journey undertaken by boat…a circular itinerary of exodus and return…The aim was to undergo an apprenticeship to signs of strangeness with a view to becoming more attentive to the meaning of one’s own time and place–geographical, spiritual, intellectual.

The study of yoga is a navigatio, a recursive journey of beginning and beginning again until there is no beginning without an end, only study, travel, movement and stillness.

In practice, we undergo an apprenticeship into the strangeness of making shapes and sounds. We step from that practice into the world and engage.

 

 

 

poem: Desert Heart Home

A late summer love poem for the Great Basin and for my desert grandmas, one born September 12, the other September 18.

Alexa at Pyramid Lake

Desert Heart Home

Wind blows through skin,
flesh & bones. Crows swing through air.
Six raindrops release the smell of creosote–
the scent of tires burning. Bats & their star
flowers bloom at night. Dust, ash.
Blue sky, scorching sun, steel-colored clouds.
Must is a modal verb, carrying a mood of ‘can do,’
of survivors, loners, a family of few.

-Alexa Mergen

You are the seasons, you are the seas

 

A beautiful passage from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad underscores interconnectivity among this and that, me and you, him and her, was and is, up and down, in and out, sun and rain.

Look at something or someone today as if seeing it or her or him for the first time.

Look at something or someone today as if seeing it or her or him for the last time.

As Albert Einstein says, “We are all life trying to live, among other life trying to live.”

You are woman. You are man.

You are the youth and the maiden too.

You are the old man hobbling along with a staff.

Once born, you are the face turned in every direction.

 

You are the dark blue butterfly,

you are the green parrot with red eyes.

You are the thundercloud, pregnant with lightning.

You are the seasons, you are the seas. You are without beginning,

present everywhere. You, from whom all worlds are born.

O’Neill Pickering: I am the Creek,

Have you known “the place of wading/into muddy beginnings/and pools of clarity/changing my course often”? 
This is yoga.
Savoring the end of summer, looking ahead to the wonders of fall, please enjoy this beautiful poem from Sacramento artist and poet Jennifer O’Neill Pickering.
Workshop of Johann Teyler, Snake and Butterfly, 1680s/1690s, National Gallery of Art
I Am the Creek,
slow and easy
in this fall of Han Lu†
mother of minnow
swimming in nursery schools
sleeping in cradles
of algae and sedge
 
dance floor 
to Damselflies
gyration of  blue unions 
to the tambourine of leaves
 
tomb to families of oak
anointed in my waters 
last rites repeated
in the currents passage
 
riparian spring
to hare and fox 
drunk in the tent of dusk
and the apricot light
of a Samhain†† moon.
 
the place of wading 
into muddy beginnings
and pools of clarity
changing my course often
lithe as the water snake’s glide.
†Han Lu (Chinese season of cold dew)
††Samhain (Celtic Autumn Equinox Celebration)
 –  Jennifer O’Neill Pickering (Published with permission of the poet.)

This poem is included in the Sacramento public art installation, “Open Circle” by artist Les Birelson. 
 

Breath inside the breath

Practicing breath awareness, the tiny pause at the bottom of an exhalation is the small space where movement and stillness merge.

It often makes me think of this poem.

The next time you breathe out, linger. Ride the exhalation a little longer, a surfer skimming into shore.

Are you looking for me?

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.

When you really look for me, you will see me instantly –
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.

Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

– Kabir

poem: In Place

George Washington National Forest holds a lot of memories; some come together in this  (love) poem.

In Place
George Washington National Forest

The way sunlight on ripples makes moving
water visible, words gloss currents of time.

In Shenandoah, light shifts and bonds do, too.
Long ago I loved someone here. Now, here, I love

another. One blue butterfly the size of a thumbnail
is a sweet pin feather fallen from the ever-same sky.

Out of the creek bounds the white dog made skinny
as a signboard by water he drip-drops onto rock.

On surrounding farms late summer has arrived.
Tomato vines hampered by red ripe fruit brown

on aluminum trusses. Cream and grey goats
doze shadily in the lee of maroon-colored barns.

In this month we married at noon, emptied of busy-ness.
Hummingbirds lured by the landlady’s sugar-water

served as witnesses. Alongside Passage Creek
this day we do naught. Diddly-squat.

The road hidden near we neither see nor hear, our
things stashed in the hatchback on its shoulder.

One cardinal flower flares bright among green,
a droplet of blood that draws a honeybee.

Long ago soldiers forded this crossing place;
here they dipped tin cups.

– Alexa Mergen