Coming to senses

My apartment building has a wonderfully musty book-filled room in the half-basement near the laundry center. Paned windows look out on Rock Creek Park; a freight elevator groans in the hall. Cushy discard couches and chairs with a table to set your feet on. Regular time slips away in this un-clocked space.

Anonymous attempts have been made to organize the books, but the tomes seem to roam on their own volition and comforting chaos reigns. Inventory turns over with the steadiness of cookies in an untrendy neighborhood bakery. You can always find something good.

One Tuesday night, in search of something to read, I took the back steps and narrow hallway to the room and browsed until Stargirl glowed like a lightning bug from a high shelf.

In this scene, Stargirl shares her go-to slice of Arizona desert with new friend, Leo, the story’s narrator.

A minute later she stopped. “We’re here.”

I looked around. The place couldn’t have been more ordinary. The only notable presence was a tall, dilapidated saguaro, a bundle of sticks….The rest was gray scrub and tumbleweed and a few prickly pears. “I thought it might look different,” I said.

“Special? Scenic?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“It’s a different kind of scenery,” she said. “Shoes off.”

We pulled off our shoes.

“Sit.”

We sat, legs crossed.

What happens next is a sweet account of stillness as a way of engaging with life, and love.

“So,” I said, “when does the enchantment start?”

We were sitting side by side, facing the mountains.

“It started when the earth was born.” Her eyes were closed. Her face was golden in the setting sun. “It never stops. It is, always. It’s just here.”

“So what do we do?”

She smiled. “That’s the secret.” Her cupped hands rested in her lap. “We do nothing. Or as close to nothing as we can.” Her face turned slowly to me, though her eyes remained closed. “Have you ever done nothing?”

I laughed. “My mother thinks I do it all the time.”

“Don’t tell her I said so, but your mother is wrong.” She turned her back to the sun. “It’s really hard to do nothing totally. Even just sitting here, like this, our bodies are churning, our minds are chattering. There’s a whole commotion going on inside us.”

“That’s bad?” I said.

“It’s bad if we want to know what’s going on outside ourselves.”

“Don’t we have eyes and ears for that?”

Leo and Stargirl are practicing mindfulness, merely regarding the landscape, watching, receiving, stepping aside from expectations and anticipations, from control.

She nodded. “They’re okay most of the time. But sometimes they just get in the way. The earth is speaking to us, but we can’t hear it because of all the racket our senses are making. Sometimes we need to erase them, erase our senses. Then–maybe–the earth will touch us. The universe will speak. The stars will whisper.”

The sun was glowing orange now, clipping the mountains’ purple crests.

In yoga, we practice pratyahara, becoming aware of sensory stimulation in order to avoid escaping into overstimulation. Judith Lasater describes pratyahara as “a tool to improve daily life. In these moments I begin to understand the difference between withdrawing and escaping….”  I describe it as “leaning away.”

Leo’s experiences in the desert with his friend mirrors the haven of silence some find in pratyahara.

…I could not seem to leave myself, and the cosmos did not visit me. I could not stop wondering what time it was.

But something did happen. A small thing. I was aware of stepping over a line, of taking one step into territory new to me. It was a territory of peace, of silence. I had never experienced such utter silence before, such stillness. The commotion within me went on, but at a lower volume, as if someone had turned down my dial.

The first stanza of Patanjali’s 2,000 year old guidebook begins “now.”

Atha yoga anushasanam
Now, the teachings of yoga.
—Yoga Sutra 1.1

The simple word reminds that there’s no time like the present. If not now, when? Vow now to, like Leo, turn down your own dial in the days ahead, once in awhile. Richard Rosen suggests,

Sit with your spine straight, close your eyes, and slow your breathing. With each exhalation, say the word “now” to yourself, drawing out the “w.” Feel how the present moment becomes suspended even as time passes and transforms into another moment of now.

Well-come!

Mossed wall

On walks to a student’s house I stop to admire this wall. On this drizzly yesterday, the moss appeared particularly silently joyful making a home among life’s crumbling bricks. Mosses, Bryophyta, have neither flowers nor roots, just specialized anchoring hairs.

IMG_0107

Thank you sun. Thank you rain. Thank you clouds between.

Voices in the ocean

Solstice invites us to stop and acknowledge interconnection. We share one planet with others. No matter how many varieties of light bulbs human invent, we still, like all living things, are subject to the sun. We’re in this together. Notice. Listen.

In Voices in the Ocean, Susan Casey conveys what she’s learned from paying attention to dolphins and the people who study them. The reader is reminded of how marvelous the world is.

Only now are we beginning to understand what the word, together, means to a dolphin.  In the wild, dolphins are minglers, gadabouts, flirts. Their existence revolves around relationships. Like us, dolphins form intense, long-term attachments with others and maintain them over time, even when separated for extended periods….Their bonds are so strong, in fact, that when dolphins are in jeopardy they will not leave one another even if it costs them their lives. And when dolphins do lose a loved one, they behave in ways that suggest deep grief.

Just as people develop regional dialects, dolphins do, too. A pod speaks its own language.

In fact, dolphins are so tightly bound to their pods that they may be operating with a degree of interconnectedness far deeper than our own.

The animals are self-aware.

The idea of self is a pretty far-out abstraction, and to get that I am me and you are you and that we both have autonomy but that there’s a relationship between us–this capacity was long considered unique to our own two-legged, opposable-thumbed species. It’s not an ability that can be taken for granted: children don’t begin to develop self-awareness until they’re nearly two years old, along with feelings like sympathy and empathy. To know that dolphins operate in the same realms of consciousness we do raises a raft of fascinating questions about their interior lives and, in turn, the ethics of how we treat them.

They pay attention to us as we do them. Casey asks toward the end of a book the reader doesn’t want to end,

What if nature spoke to us in music, and the dolphins were her chorus? What if we stopped talking, and joined their harmony?

What if the world was singing to us all the time?

Breath marks the spot

Life can be busy.

Seize a few minutes of stillness when you can, wherever you can.

Here’s a list of suggested places to sit in mindfulness meditation that I put together for Do You Yoga.

1. An airport bench or a patch of carpet. – Some airports, like Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, have lounge chairs. Prop yourself comfortable with a scarf or jacket and breathe.

2. Outside. – A friend built me a plywood platform that I moved around the yard when I lived in a house. Now I sometimes go to the rooftop patio of my apartment building.

3. Standing, anywhere. – Try a deck, a patch of lawn or a different room in your home. Feel the ground beneath your feet in tadasana, mountain pose.

4. Highway rest areas. – Seek a flat rock or a picnic table.

5. On the bed of a pick-up truck. – Parked, please!

6. In the quiet car of a train.

(Train travel inspired this poem.)

7. Beside your pet’s bed while he or she is resting. – Allow the animal’s breath to guide your own.

(More here on connecting with your pet.)

8. Beside a sleeping baby.

9. With someone who does not normally meditate. – Sit beside them on their sofa and be with them.

10. Under a desk. – No one needs to know you’re there.

11. At a shopping mall. – Tip: The quietest benches are near the stairs.

12. By the a pond, lake, ocean, bay or river, on a bench or dock. – Smell the water!

13. By a fountain in a city.

14. At a botanical garden.

15. At the bus stop. – Cultivate a feeling of centering amidst schedules, bustle and noise.

The word “meditate” derives from the word “measure.” Even just a few minutes of any form of meditation can be a tool for us to apply a different assessment to our lives—one based on fully inhabiting the present moment.

By viewing public spaces as places where we can bring moments of peacefulness, we can better integrate meditation practices into our daily lives, bringing meditation and mindfulness practice with us wherever we go.

Prefer to dedicate your meditation to another, sending some good will? Try this metta meditation.

Does your mind think in numbers? Count your way into mindfulness.

Do you notice sounds? Try this guided ambient sound meditation.

Breathing with your pet benefits you both!

Prefer to walk and meditate? This will get you started.

Edging Exotic into Consciousness

A poem from Sacramento anthropologist, poet, friend, Jeanine Stevens.

Jeanine began the poem in an At Home in Our Bodies workshop held in my living room in early 2014. It was a peaceful and powerful gathering of smart women reading poems by other smart women across all stages of life that I was fortunate to lead.

Thank you, Jeanine!

Edging Exotic into Consciousness

White space as breath holds narrow interstice, a small pocket that grows
multitudinous inhaling the entire Artic Sea. The scent of balsam

as from stately firs is gobbled up as fragrance by hungry lungs. Incense
becomes smoke, slips down vessel and tissue to mid-section. Even if

tarnished like an acid etched mirror, belly wants its share, devours
all, nothing frittered away. Rumblings of metaphor, the is ness

of mulled-over images chewed into morsels, reformed, released
to rest in golden channels. The conduit is assembled, the smoke

extinguished. If my thigh feels chafed and I rubbed hard enough, what
would emerge? This great human shank sprung from the center of green?

 

Note: First published in Edge. Poem used with permission of the poet.


More from Jeanine on Yoga Stanza:

House Wren

Moonshadow

Evensong

Enjoy!

 

Spy an ecosystem!

Climate change is news.

climate: the weather conditions prevailing in an area over time

change: making different

Anything related to the our ecosystem–isn’t that everything?–gets me thinking of how yoga and meditation inform a human’s experience of the world. They provide us a creaturely engagement with time and space, and other living things.

A single yoga practice is an exploration of change within a small space over a short period of time, 30 to 90 minutes.

By observing the breath moment-by-moment, we accept the body as it is on any given day. We explore ways to broaden (change) the range of motion in joints. We lengthen. We remind the nervous system to rest. To conclude each practice we enter savasana, corpse pose.

Meditation practice is a process of accepting the transitory nature of existence.

We let go of solid notions of self upon which we affix a social label–brother, sister, boss, writer, friend. Or a company label–Raiders, Gucci, Adidas, Jeep, Rolex, Budweiser, etc. Some meditation traditions include sitting in cemeteries, even meditating on a dead body. (Not unlike praying beside a body during a wake.) Releasing the arrogance of singularity, we sit on a cushion on the ground, a reminder of how we begin and end on earth. (Not unlike the practice of sitting shiva on a stool or low box.)

Through stillness practice, we learn to recognize the conditions and causes that create the climate of our lives. Sure, we apply the analytical approach of how and why, familiar from psychology, but–stilled–we may also intuit.

Physical, yoga and meditation occur at the pace of the body.

Anyone who has exited a studio in a bliss of yoga-ness may have experienced the jarring sensation of stepping up the tempo to match automobiles, text messages, status updates and deadlines.

Anyone who has stood up from meditation with crystal clarity may have experienced the sensation of hyper-sensitivity to the noise of sirens, the brightness of security lights.

Like our bodies and minds, the atmosphere responds to external, including man-made, conditions. We know that as the body is an interconnection of systems–circulatory, endocrine, and more–our earth is an interconnection of systems, including the water cycle. The more we pay attention to these systems, the more we learn.

 

 

Gravel, sand, cement & water

Yoga asana can be scary.

In a recent class with other yoga teachers I wanted to vaporize when the teacher said to do ___________ (fill in the blank).

My scary pose may not be yours. For some of my students, balancing on two feet without the assistance of a chair takes grit. For others, bending into a forward fold or flipping into an inversion shows moxie.

Of fear, Zenkei Blanche Hartman writes in Seeds for a Boundless Life,

Allowing it to arise and to subside, and not allowing it to chase us around, making us run off and hide or distract ourselves with foolish activity. We want to choose our life in the face of the certainty of our death.

Earlier in the poem that familiarly closes with the question, Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver says,

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

We know where we’ll end up.

We have a number of moments. Do we fritter them away? Do we bring them into play?

Mary Oliver with friend

Patti Smith records shifts in time. “I believe in the moment,” she says in M Train.

I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose.

The word “life” is related to Dutch lief, and the German Leib  for “body.” The body exists in time.

We can figure out our relationship with time and live it with impunity. I’ve heard the ancient yogis believed each person is allotted a number of breaths over the course of a lifetime. We practice pranayama, breath work, to maximize them. This creates more time to pay attention. Perhaps to become more wise.

For Octavio Paz, poetry enlivens time. He writes in “The Consecration of an Instant,”

Unlike what occurs with the axioms of mathematicians, the truths of physicists, or the ideas of philosophers, the poem does not abstract the experience: that time is alive, it is an instant packed with all its irreducible particularity, and it is perpetually susceptible to repeating itself in another instant, to reengendering itself and illuminating new instants, new experiences with its light.

Paying attention concretizes experience and widens time. When I taught eighth-grade language arts in the 1990s, the California curriculum focused on writing. One of my failsafe strategies for deepening the writing of 13-year-olds was to have them “expand the moment,” transforming a simple sentence like, “The shopkeeper locked the door,” into a detailed paragraph.

Octavio Paz

No need, however, to pick up a pen. Transmogrification of a moment might mean focusing on the breath mindfully, making the shape of a yoga pose and staying with it, memorizing a line of a poem, holding a friend’s hand, sewing a quilt, carving a knife handle, growing a tomato, baking a pie, repairing an engine, playing an instrument, touching a finger to an infant’s cheek. Or really savoring a single sip of something.

Ordinary fears, what might be termed anxieties, are abstractions, drawing us into the past or future. Ordinary fantasies are abstractions, delusions of what might have been or what could be.

“Scary,” (scare) comes from the old Norse skjarr, meaning ‘timid.’ We needn’t be timid. Nor need we be forceful.

What changed my scary yoga pose for me?

Docking my hair four inches and ditching the ubiquitous ponytail. By removing the 30 seconds I’d spend fiddling with my hair before entering the pose, and deleting the pause that created, I can stay in rhythm with my heartbeat and its courage. I’ve no time to catastrophize, no time for the mind to interfere.

I’d been stalling.

“Trust” derives from an old Norse word for “strong.” The stronger we are, the more we trust ourselves. Strength is not a matter of numbers–pounds hoisted or steps counted. Strength is knowing oneself. Being able to identify limits in order to stretch into them, in order to honor them. It’s the solid–hard–work of paying attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grounded

HOW SETTLED ARE YOU in your seat? If you’re sitting on a chair of any sort, you may have already joined the ranks of the uncomfortably settled.

The health hazards of sitting are making news: A recent poster published by The Washington Post graphically depicts the disease, degeneration and correlating death that may result from too much cushion warming.

The Post’s tips suggest sitting up straight, away from the chair back, shoulders relaxed, arms bent at the elbows and close to the sides, relying on the body’s underpinnings,

A rarer option is abandoning the chair to come to the ground. Sitting on the floor gives new meaning to supporting oneself. And because most of us can’t sit on the floor for any great length of time, we move around more than we would when planted in a chair.

Sitting on the floor reconnects us with the earthiness of being alive. It can be easier to find one’s center of gravity without furniture’s encumbrances. Some consider the practice “grounding,” believing it calms and centers the mind while energizing the body.

“It’s a confidence builder,” says Sally Craig, who teaches gentle yoga at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in D.C. “Being aware of where your body is in space. Having that level of body awareness is critically important for avoiding falls or falling safely, with the least amount of damage.”

Continue reading in My Little Bird where the story ran last week.

Prefer to stretch in a chair? Check out these moves.

Want to stick with the mind? Practice morning mindfulness.