stop, hey, what’s that sound

“You and I are just swinging doors,” Suzuki Roshi says.

The tidal rhythm of the observed breath provides clues into what that might mean.

Out? In? Neither? Both?

In Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, Zenkei Blanche Hartman explains,

When we all concentrate on our breathing and we become a swinging door and we do something that we should do, something we must do, this is Zen practice. In this practice, there is no confusion. If you establish this kind of life, you have no confusion whatever.

Tuesday I felt unsettled. I wanted to be outside enjoying the perfect autumn afternoon instead of in front of a computer or, honestly, “sitting” on my folded meditation blanket facing a wall.

But that unbalanced, dissatisfied feeling, like all feelings, is temporary. I decided to help it along the pot-holed Feeling Road with a few minutes of focused breathing, a form of mindfulness meditation.

In The Washington Post’s Health & Science section, infectious-disease physician Manoj Jain describes his experiment with mindfulness meditation during a week-long summer vacation.

Experts define mindfulness as a state of moment-to-moment awareness that emphasizes attention without judgement, without thinking, for example, that the sound of cicadas is irritating or that the lawn needs to be trimmed or “Why did I say that to so-and-so?”

He cites studies supporting benefits of mindfulness and shares his students’ reactions to the practice. As for his own attitude,

I have come to think that encouraging patients to adopt meditation as a way to mental well-being is as important as encouraging them to jog as a way to physical well-being.

He points out that,

Today, our lives are filled with stressors, from work, home, financial pressures and digital devices. Mindfulness is a low-cost, medication-free way to manage and reduce the ill effects of stress.

Having found this to be true, I rode the elevator from my first floor apartment to the building’s rooftop patio. No one else was up there. Good fortune! I set the phone’s timer for 20 minutes and sat down.

sky
Looking up to look in. Tuesday’s D.C. sky.

 

Eleven stories above the street, breeze on my cheeks, I thought of Charles Simic’s line,  I am happy to be a stone.

I imagined as I settled myself to be a river rock, water coursing around.

A hundred feet below, sirens brayed. One buzzing insect passed. Jets droned overhead.

Hartman offers an explanation for what Dr. Jain and I experience in mindfulness. She writes,

When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door and we are purely independent of, and at the same time dependent upon everything. Without air, we cannot breathe. Each of us is in the midst of myriad worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment by moment. We are completely dependent and independent. If you have this experience, this kind of existence, you have absolute interdependence; you will not be bothered by anything.

 

green chair
The green patio chair-cum-meditation seat.

Preparing her workshop students years ago for a public poetry reading, Julia Connor told the jumpy among us that nervousness is just a kind of excitement.

Feeling antsy, feeling confused, is agitation, it’s excitement. That good old prefix ex– is a call out and away; excitement is a calling forth.

It’s a version of curiosity.

Having satisfied his own curiosity, Dr. Jain recommends meditation to his patients. He concludes,

Meanwhile, I have taken my own advice. I am still at it: sitting on the deck, focusing on my breath, watching my thoughts, clearing my mind amid the shrill end-of-summer calls of the cicadas. I think I have noticed an effect–I feel a deeper sense of acceptance in my life, without losing a passion or resolve to change things for the better.

Just as we stop at the red and white octagonal traffic signs, we need to stop at the signs in our own lives that tell us to stand still. When we stop, we can listen. We discern inside and outside and the door of perception that connects them. We are calmer and more motivated. We are the stone and the stream.

Sit still for a few minutes, Dr. Jain-style

Or try this guided ambient sound meditation .

More ideas for mindfulness here.

Insight. Aura. Story. Breath.

An epiphany in a short story needn’t be a sudden flash of insight. It can be more like an aura, Joy Williams told 20 of us yesterday afternoon during a reading from The Visiting Privilege at Politics & Prose. And in her stories, awareness does dawn slowly, almost imperceptibly.

A reader, experiencing the character’s thoughts and events in a time and space removed from her own, is both onlooker and participant, looking at and responding to the writer’s created world.

Aura, a lovely little word that made its way to Middle English from Greek through Latin, originally denoted a gentle breeze, or breath. The aura of a story is ever-present as breath.

When we pay attention, breath effervesces a quality beyond mere mechanical process. When we turn our attention elsewhere, it goes on without us anyway.  We experience this in the practice of breath awareness: we become both observed and observer, then neither. This is the ordinary/extraordinary process of the respiring rhythm, a body’s most basic measurement of time.

A story, like a life, can pack a lot in in a short time, especially if it’s honest and true. “What a story is, is devious,” Williams describes in the Paris Review.

It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excellent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages.

Her stories are organic, she said at P&P. She does not know the ending before she gets there.

Like M.C Richards in her poem, Behold, Now here like artists in our search/we make a vessel for the spirit’s birth, the writer pursues the waft or glimpse or echo of something, and readies a space for it.

Williams,

I do believe there is, in fact, a mystery to the whole enterprise that one dares to investigate at peril. The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it. There’s a word in German, Sehnsucht. No English equivalent, which is often the case. It means the longing for something that cannot be expressed, or inconsolable longing. There’s a word in Welsh, hwyl, for which we also have no match. Again, it is longing, a longing of the spirit. I just think many of my figures seek something that cannot be found.

(Sometimes, what was sought is not found and something else is. A character’s voice arrives like an invitation and leaves as suddenly.)

There were few questions for Williams yesterday. The feeling in the audience was there isn’t much to say about work and life, and certainly not the writer’s working life.

There’s observation and there’s practice.

Each of us figures out what we can do and we do it, writing a story or reading one. Teaching or learning. When we do what we’re called to do, that’s enough. We slip into moments of is-ness, of what is nebulously referred to as “the true self.”

Cumulus clouds over a yellow prairie. A good place to find one’s true self? Or read a book? Or make a yoga pose? Or take a breath? Yes.

Williams says,

There’s a story about Jung. He had a dream that puzzled him, but when he tried to go back to sleep a voice said, “You must understand the dream, and must do so at once!” When he still couldn’t comprehend its meaning, the same voice said, “If you do not understand the dream, you must shoot yourself!” Rather violently stated, certainly, but this is how Jung recollected it. He did not resort to the loaded handgun he kept in a drawer of his bedside table—and it is somewhat of a shock to think of Jung armed—but he deciphered the dream to the voice within’s satisfaction, discovering the divine irrationality of the unconscious and his life’s work in the process. The message is work, seek, understand, or you will immolate the true self. The false self doesn’t care. It feels it works quite hard enough just getting us through the day.

Practice without expectation of result. Right now. In this way, wisdom and knowledge align.

Sutra 1.1, the first of Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms, Atha yoga anushasanam, is translated as “Now, the teachings of yoga.” The idea is to accept and pursue understanding in the ever-present.

In the fluidity of time we find stories, we find ourselves. Shunryu Suzuki says,

Time constantly goes from past to present and from present to future. This is true, but it is also true that time goes from future to present and from present to past.

Is it any wonder, then, that insight arrives like breath, steadily and subtly, as necessary and as natural as air?

 

 

 

(Mindful) Morning!

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.

Home practice

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.

O’Keeffe often practiced her art alone teaching herself skills, trusting her wisdom.

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.

Moments and meditations

        I have continued, for almost a year now, capturing a daily moment – mostly in quatrain form.  Thank you for introducing this practice to me; it has been life-altering!  I am still not a “good meditator,” but this practice seems to bring a meditative quality into my days.
Out of the blue, a Day Poems student shared these words with me last week. Of course her comments made this teacher’s day! And, curious, I found in the dictionary’s serene sanctuary that moment derives from the same word as momentum, having to do with movement.

 

Both poetry and yoga are localized, moment-by-moment endeavors. 

They rely on knowledge of community, the community of words and the body, the community of people who share these interests, the community of the natural world that is both companion and provider. Yesterday, I heard Gary Ferguson on West Virginia Public Radio saying that ancients believed that beauty, community and mystery are essential for health. In addition to being community activities, poetry and yoga tap beauty and mystery.

And meditation clears the heart and mind to receive mysteries of beauty and community. 

 

Meditate derives from the word for measure; we measure moments through meditation. With Day Poems, small poems accrue to form a log of a life lived. I devised the process as a way of attending to the world outside of ourselves while maintaining sensitivity to unique perspectives. It is a form of meditation.

Think also of walking meditation: steps measure a passage through time. If we start by counting the steps, often the numbers fall away. Similarly with swimming. It’s enough to be moving. Forward, yes, because that’s the way we face, but not necessarily toward a destination.

Purely for movement’s sake. As the tidal rise and fall of the breath is the movement of life.

Yoga can also be experienced as a moving meditation, inviting a sense of  flow or ease. This needn’t be elaborate. One motion loved by my students of all ages is a rhythmic combo of a gentle lean into the legs with arms along.

A technique I use to introduce people who are new to breath awareness is to track the breath by silently saying the word and on inhalation and 1 on exhalation, continuing to and2, and3….

Pause and try it for yourself now, counting to 12.

That practice was inspired by Martha Graham. In Blood Memory she mentions how a dance starts by landing on the and.  It makes sense to me in the dance of life: we are always in motion with the breath, even when we are sleeping.

In this way we are not so different from the shark that sways to keep from sinking.

With and, we join with all who’ve ever breathed. In counting the exhalation we intentionally link that precious breath.

We expend our breath as we pay attention. There’s no “good” or “bad” in that. It just is.

Wild breath

Sometimes, as I guide students through breath awareness, I liken the breath to a wild animal. In constructive rest or sitting supported and upright on the floor or in a chair, we can sidle up to the breath, see how it moves at its own natural rhythm, exercises its own curiosity in the habitat of the body. I tell the students the breath has been there all day, now we are sitting still beside it, to observe it without changing it.

We can take the analogy further if we think of the breath as a wild animal that is undomesticated, but not unfamiliar with people. A pet is an animal that is not eaten, has been brought into the household and is named. Neither stray cat or feral dog, the breath is never fully domesticated. We do not name the breath, we certainly don’t voluntarily seek to end it, but it does live in the houses of our bodies.  The breath is a dolphin that recognizes a swimmer in a bay or a crow that caws hello to a gardener every morning. Breath is in us and of us, like animals in the umwelt we share, trainable, like a marine mammal or bird, and always capable of moving outside the mind’s control.

Through the laboratory of yoga, can we understand how the body is both tamed and untamed? Can we then courageously make space for the rest of the world to remain a little wilder, too?

Some naturalists say there are no wild animals anymore. Humans have reached long arms of technology into every corner of the skies. Oceans’ waters carry traces of discarded chemicals, plastics swirl through tides. Roads criss cross remote regions. The omnipresent noise of machinery has altered the sound landscape of every other species’ lives.

Sitting with the wild animal of the breath is one of the surest ways I know to come into intimacy with one’s own body, the body that houses the what of who you are. I believe that a deepened intimacy with oneself — I mean something beyond acceptance, closer to a knowingness that we are animals also, alive organisms — will bring us into a deeper intimacy with every other living thing, from the neighbors we are instructed to love as ourselves to the mountain lion wandering into a subdivision in search of water, from a fish in a desert lake we’ll never see to a frog yet undiscovered and unnamed.

So, try it. Exercise the imagination. Sit or lie down. Close the eyes. Sidle up to the breath, your wild animal of inspiration and exhalation. Observe it. What does it sound like? Where does it like to linger? How does it move and in what way? Give it some attention. Try to understand it for what it is. Knowing is where love begins.

Back-to-sleep

“The breathing up one side of the body and down the other has helped me get back to sleep in the middle of the might. My body feels gifted.” When a student reported this, I knew I had to share this breath practice. My thanks to Kimberly Carson for introducing it to me.

Waking up in the night, checking the clock to see that it’s 1:30 am, 2:42 am, 3:56 am–too early to leave the blankets? It happens to me, too.

Position yourself on the back, face up. I call this “cowboy style,” resting,  looking up at the sky.

Let the feet be floppy, a little apart. Rest hands and arms anywhere that’s comfortable. Engage the imagination, eyes open or closed. Imagine breathing in through the sole of  the right foot, all the way up the leg, through the torso, arm, and neck, arcing over the crown of the head and back down down down the left side–neck, arm, hand, torso, hip, through the thigh and calf and out the sole of the left foot. You might notice a slight pause at the end of the exhalation. At the end of that pause, let the inhalation sweep in through that left foot, up the left side, over the crown and down, exhaling through the right foot. Tiny pause. And then breath returns through the sole of that right foot, up and around, out the left. In the left, up and around, out the right. In the right….

Vikram Seth’s All You Who Sleep Tonight is a lovely poem to learn, too. The soothing rhythm serves as a lullaby.