Amid the world’s insistent troubles, and any of your daily own, may you find in July 2015 some moments of beauty, kindness, goodness, love, joy and light.
From My Diary, July 1914
Murmuring by myriads in the shimmering trees.
Wakening with wonder in the Pyrenees.
Cheerily chirping in the early day.
Singing of summer scything thro’ the hay.
Shaking the heavy dews from bloom and frond.
Bursting the surface of the ebony pond.
Of swimmers carving thro’ the sparkling cold.
Gleaming with wetness to the morning gold.
Bordered about with warbling water brooks.
Laughing the love-laugh with me; proud of her looks.
Throbbing between the upland and the peak.
Quivering with passion to my pressed cheek.
Of floating flames across the mountain brow.
Of stillness; and a sighing of the bough.
Of leaflets in the gloom; soft petal-showers;
Expanding with the starr’d nocturnal flowers.
Silence is an energy giver….A lot of talking creates a spiraling downward. We become restless; we start talking; then it becomes even more difficult to concentrate and the mind becomes yet more restless….Another great help in rousing mindfulness is slowing down. Slow down your actions. Make every movement of the body all day long an object of meditation. – The Experience of Insight, Joseph Goldstein
Inspiration for meditative movement comes from the animals. Yesterday, I observed two mockingbirds communicate in nearby trees as a one-eyed tabby cat rested on a low brick wall near their nest. Each hop, each tail twitch, each sound the birds made functioned as a word in a long sentence enriched with silences.
Now that Matt works from home, we spend more time together than ever. Unlike past years, when we might have shared a summer month before I went back in the classroom, this time is open-ended. The days’ rhythms are punctuated by writing at the computer, yoga practice, meditation, teaching for me, and phone calls with colleagues for him.
We are fortunate to have lunch together most days, often outside at Tregaron with Tucker the terrier. Walking there from the apartment, we catch up with each others’ news. Once situated on a bench beside the pond or under the shade trees, silence settles in. I can vouch for what Goldstein says, “Silence is an energy giver.” And passing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a lunch companion can be the object of meditation, an occasion for clarity and joy. Hello, afternoon.
Just finished ten days of studying mindfulness meditation and the flowing style of yoga called vinyasa with Cyndi Lee. I have a new appreciation for fluid, swift movement, as well as continued wonder for slowness and stillness.
Swift Things Are Beautiful
Swift things are beautiful:
Swallows and deer,
And lightning that falls
Bright-veined and clear,
Rivers and meteors,
Wind in the wheat,
The strong-withered horse,
The runner’s sure feet.
And slow things are beautiful:
The closing of day,
The pause of the wave
That curves downward to spray,
The ember that crumbles,
The opening flower,
And the ox that moves on
In the quiet of power.
The highest goal of modern Yoga is to point out how there is a natural intimacy embedded within everything no matter how large or small, and when we forget this intimacy of which we are a part, we have practices to remind us again and again that everything we do makes a difference. While modern technology like airplanes, indoor climate control and iPhones actually place the individual outside the natural cycles and responsibilities of life, coming back to our bodies and cultivating attentiveness can work to undo those stratifications within and around the human-built world.
On a narrow path along the edge of Rock Creek Park, we came upon a small black rat snake ingesting a dead mouse. We covered both animals with a large bowed piece of fallen bark in the hopes that the snake would be protected long enough to finish its meal. I wish I could have lingered to see the snake gorge with mouse; it was difficult to imagine such a small shape could make space enough to contain another.
The image stays in my mind as I move through the day. And I mean, move. Not just practicing asana but pausing to notice breathing. Or picking up the pace to cross the street before the signal’s green hand turns to red.
The image stays in my mind as I observe my students’ bodies. I’ve refrained from mentioning the snake while teaching: though I searched out snake poems (Levertov’s is a favorite) and wracked my brain for meaningful metaphors to sprinkle into instruction (!) what I witnessed has not seemed relevant to my students’ own full hours.
But the experience of seeing the snake and mouse reminds me of why I practice yoga–to pause and see.
When students are ready, I introduce them to pratyahara, a yoga practice commonly translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” We often use crocodile pose to explore this notion of stilling. I have to resort to cliche: I “hold the space for them” to “give them permission” to “let go” of reaching toward sounds, sights, smells…. If leaning in is the millennium’s code phrase for conquering the world, think of pratyahara as leaning away.
And why would we want to lean away? Because when we then come across something extraordinary, meaning ordinary and just a little extra so, like a baby snake feeding itself on an unlucky mouse, we can literally lean away from the ticking clock nudging us toward our appointments, and lean down and appreciate life happening, not quite camouflaged against the forest floor.
We can learn to shift at will from leaning in–what can be considered acting as an agent to affect the course of the world –and leaning away–receiving the world as it splendidly exists without us. It’s a bit like code-switching among languages.
Somatic researcher Peter Levine says that for humans, awareness precedes embodiment. Minute after minute sitting and breathing in the quiet of a room, moving an arm with intention, standing in stillness and noticing, leads to fully being in the body. “The Body is the Shore on the Ocean of Being,” Levine attributes to a Sufi saying.
With enough yoga practice, we realize that the body is a means of engagement with the world, not a barrier to it. Feeling at home in my body allows me to appreciate people and animals in their bodies.
Yoga has brought me closer to the non-human world. Through gentler observation, I love it more fully.
Empathy begins by stepping imaginatively into another’s situation, human or non-, and to do that we have to first fully inhabit our own situation. Those hours on a yoga sticky mat transfer to a new way of seeing and being with nature.
Cats and dogs are typically more available for observation than snakes are. Next time you see a cat or a dog, notice it. Animals’ bodies tell and hold stories, too.
Cue in on shoulders. Are they even? Drawn forward or back?
Is the head tipped forward or back or to one side or another?
Can you notice the breath moving in the body?
Where are the legs in relation to the shoulders?
How are the feet contacting the ground, or the sitting bones to the ground?
What did you notice about the whole animal?
This practice of observation, along with a personal yoga practice, is one way of coming into union, of remembering that we are all connected by the very act of living, each of us, human and animal, desiring to be healthy, at peace, and safe as we breathe throughout the day.
One of the great joys of being a yoga teacher is attending other teachers’ classes. As I moved through a class led by Sally Craig at St. Alban’s Church this morning, it struck me how like gardening the art of teaching yoga is.
During eight years in my Sacramento house, I cultivated front, back and side yards. Every plant had a story–some purchased at Target, others at Capital Nursery, Talini’s or Green Acres. Favorites started as slips, seeds or cuttings from friends’ gardens.
Transferred to my hands, transplanted to my aesthetic, they took on life of their own.
Just as plants shared and purchased revamped my land, other teachers’ learnings are involved in my own, contributing novel wording or a new way to enter a familiar pose, an unusual approach to a stretch or a tidbit of wisdom.
Head-to-knee pose, janu sirasana, can be effective and satisfying. Last week, in a class at my local library, the teacher had us sweep our arms into the pose in a way I’d never tried; today Sally had us use a strap in a way that I’d not considered. Richard Rosen writes about extending through the bent knee, as well as the more obvious extended leg. There are many subtleties to the pose; these are but a few.
Each new bit of information is grafted to my understanding of the pose. The garden of poses grows in head and heart. Yoga becomes an expression of life shared and shared again.
For years I have experimented with the way qualities move through the body, positive and negative. Fear moving through the body becomes terror in the chest, anxiety in the mind, panic in the skin along the calves. Joy moves up the spine and lights up the whole face from within. Harmony in the bones becomes serenity in the heart, radiance in the forehead. Feel the front in front of the back, feel the back in back of the front. Feel the currents and pulses, crosscurrents and spirals, dances of solidity, resistance and fluidity. Trust the needs and hungers of these strong, vulnerable body beings.
What on earth could be more important than knowing our own bodies, recognizing our bodies as part of nature? As we appreciate more fully the gifts of our own lives, we appreciate more deeply the beauty of all the animal and plant life we live among. The exchange of life force every time we eat, we breathe, we converse, we dance, we make love. What could be more beautiful than to know and celebrate the intricacies of interconnection? Every heartbeat massages the lungs; every breath massages the heart.
To whom or what, and how, are you interconnected? Love.
Last night I joined a couple dozen people for a “Full Moon Circle of Meditation and Healing” sponsored by the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage at the Washington National Cathedral. If you had told me when I was a teenager in college at UC-Berkeley that in my forties I would sit with a bunch of strangers while someone led a long visualization that took us through white light and tiny doors in the heart and over imaginary bridges to magical meadows I would not have believed it.
Telegraph Avenue in the 1980s was chockablock with men and women in purple velvet, tie-dye–or no clothes at all–passing out written and verbal invitations to metaphysical adventures in flophouses and woodlands. At the infamous Barrington Hall, where I had a closet-sized room painted marine blue, I hid out from the residents downstairs at Naked Snack or drugged out in hallways. I sat at the desk under the lone window reading Paula Gunn Allen and Flannery O’Connor, peeking at the normal-seeming couple in the apartment across the alley (they had no curtains) making a quiet supper to enjoy at a table set with flowers.
In reaction, no doubt, to the Anything Goes attitude outside, I preferred mysticism filtered through ethnography and weirdness sealed between the covers of short story collections.
After graduating, I became a newspaper reporter committed to objective truth and then a school teacher ruled by bells and benchmarks. When I wasn’t working for wages, I was writing poetry and reading it.
Poetry provided a secure pathway beyond the material world into realms of imagination and insight.
Having been raised without a religion, lines of poetry–anchored by childhood memories of attending events in the hallowed auditorium of the Library of Congress–fueled a faith in beauty and possibility. The possibility that one could attempt to communicate with another under the firmament of being humane. In words I found a tunnel of peace that, like for Yeats, comes dropping slow.
The deeper I burrowed into poetry, however, the more I wondered what else might be. I’d had moments where I stood beside time, seemingly merging with an unmapped what and where. Among those moments: pressed into a standing-room-only number 30 bus passing down Pennsylvania Avenue heading home from high school one afternoon; pausing to look at the ocean while hiking the shoreline of Marin alone; in a hospital room meeting a friend’s baby girl newly arrived; and, recently, waiting for the walk signal to cross Connecticut Avenue.
I’ve thought about how to describe these moments so you will know what I mean. But, if you have had them, you don’t need my words. And if you haven’t, words will be inadequate; you’re likely to retreat behind the temporary shelter of skepticism.
I can say these moments have something to do with energy, synchronizing with it through the precision that comes with clarity of mind and heart.
That’s why, for me at least, these are fleeting. The spadefoot toad of consciousness is easily startled; watched too closely it hops back into the pond of the mind to muddy it.
Language is energy–languages of speech and of mathematics. Through yoga, we study the energy of life. I accept that energy makes a touch screen respond to a finger pad and sparks of static fly off the cat in winter. It’s also why sometimes we are dark with sadness and sometimes we are light with joy.
Yoga, as I learned it and teach it, accounts for this life energy, and identifies it as lines. This makes sense since architecture, fashion, poetry, and airport boarding lounges use lines, too.
Through yoga we channel existing energy to embody metaphor, to form geometric shapes.
Seated, I might picture breath (energy) passing through the central channel of the body as if through a silver straw or a perforated pvc pipe. In a yoga pose, I might suggest a student look for the feeling of a line of energy from fingertip to fingertip.
Yesterday’s facilitator instructed, “The Universe consists of vibrating energy in forms such as light, sounds and wave. This energy called prana or ch’i flows in and out of our bodies all the time, carrying information.”
When I lived in a house, my yoga and meditation room doubled as a guest room. Those who stayed there commented on the “good energy.” We feel the peace that passes understanding in some yoga studios and in some places of worship, inside and outside. Private yoga clients benefit from practicing in their homes: serenity permeates.
The artist and poet M.C. Richards says we do not have to choose between practical and visionary. As I’ve gotten older, I see this is so, one concerns action, the other Seeing, with a capital “S.”
In Original Yoga, Richard Rosen writes, “One of the biggest beefs scientific skeptics have with books like this one is the use–or in their estimation, misuse–of the word energy. I’m well aware that in scientific circles this word has a very precise meaning: a ‘scalar physical quantity that describes the amount of work that can be performed by force,’ and so on. We yoga types may or may not know about scalar physical quantities, but we can feel, or at least imagine we feel, lines of what we can only describe as energy coursing through our bodies. I understand this isn’t energy in the scientific sense, and I can’t define it as precisely as a scientifically trained mind would like; nevertheless, something is going on, even if it’s an illusion. Let’s just say that it’s a very effective illusion.”
Rosen requests, as do I, that you “have ‘yoga faith,’ as the nineteenth century English poet Samuel Coleridge asked for ‘poetic faith,’ and for this practice, exercise what he called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ Give these lines of energy a try, and you may find yourself coming over to the dark side.”