During summertime where I live in Harpers Ferry, families and friends are having fun. People cool off in the rivers, tubing and paddling, sets of cyclists pedal past our house, hikers set down their packs for breakfast at the cafe next door. Birders are on the ridges. Tourists soak in ranger talks on the history of what occurred not-so-long-ago right where they’re standing now.
When we’re having fun, we let go of worry. The challenge is to let go of worry when we’re in a mode other than “play.” Take a look at the origin of the word “worry.”
Old English wyrgan‘strangle.’ In Middle English the original sense of the verb gave rise to the meaning ‘seize by the throat and tear,’ later figuratively ‘harass,’whence ‘cause anxiety to’ (early 19th century, the date also of the noun).
Regular old actions become murky with worry. Worry throttles simple decisions. Worry is about control. Effort is about releasing control.
Take a look at the origin of the word “clarity.”
Middle English (in the sense ‘glory, divine splendor’): from Latin claritas, from clarus ‘clear.’
“Yoga lessons and yoga practice,” I tell students, “are preparation for what you do with the balance of your day, your life.”
With asana, we accept that yesterday we could touch our toes and today we can’t. We allow ourselves to be surprised when we forget that our knee hurts because it doesn’t just then. Though it may another time. With meditation, we sit or walk for the sake of it. Paradoxically, while seemingly doing nothing but breathing, the mind declutters, the heart calms, the stomach soothes. There’s a symbiotic quality to the goal-less goal of un-fixedness:
Acting without attachment to results leads to contentment and joy.
Contentment and joy lead to acting without attachment to results.
Then there’s no more to be done. Because what’s to be done is done before you know it and all that’s left is doing.
Like a good idea, joy arises from being in receptivity, of allowing, like a sieve, to let every emotion pass through body and mind.
Joy is a boon, to be welcomed, not sought, like finding a stand of ripe wild grapes on a summer walk.
Happily, happiness can be pursued, apparently, by simply prioritizing positivity.
Whoa, if this holds true, yoga might be a happiness avenue.
On the yoga mat, we prioritize what’s possible by placing ourselves intentionally in time and space, then breathing and moving. That’s pretty positive.
What will happen? We find out along the way. (Moments of joy?)
There are other ways to get your grin on. This from the study published in the journal Emotion.
The integrative model of sustainable happiness…, in which a genetic set point, circumstances, and intentional activities make up a person’s chronic level of happiness, suggests that engaging in pleasant activities may be the most effective route to increasing happiness. Indeed, the results of many positive psychology interventions provide evidence that engaging in certain activities may make a difference. Research on interventions, such as writing gratitude letters, engaging in acts of kindness, and learning how to meditate, reveals that incorporating pleasant activities into one’s life reliably yields increases in happiness…. In addition, an effective strategy to increase positive affect among individuals suffering from depression is to schedule pleasant events, such as playing with pets, into everyday life…. In summary, there is reason to believe that people who seek positivity, by habitually taking into account their potential happiness when organizing their everyday lives, may be happier.
Life is complicated and awash with suffering.
How we choose to spend our time has everything to do with balancing our efforts on the air mattress of ease.
The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it. But don’t overlook all the healthy trees.
Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life–the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don’t be imprisoned by your suffering.
When I found a small sangha within walking distance of my D.C. apartment last summer, I was exposed for the first time to a sincere zendo, a dedicated sangha (community) that made space for me to learn and practice meditation. This changed the way I think about stillness, integrity, simplicity and joy. Yoga Stanza was enriched by Dogen, Suzuki Roshi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Blanche Hartman and more.
Meditation helps me reconcile a streak of extreme independence with a foundation of affection for community, a pattern of iconoclasm, restlessness and rebelliousness with a respect for pattern, ritual and service.
As I assimilate puzzle pieces of myself, pieces labeled history, personality, experience, desire, I’m at last sensing how integration must feel. Having probed the subterranean depths of the stream of seeking, I’ve drawn up water for the millpond of teaching and living.
These sustaining waters spring from the Buddhist well and other teachings, from faith traditions, naturalists and poets, as well as conversation with friends, family and strangers and time under open sky.
Yoga, with its postures of moving meditations, its honoring of the breath, sutures various quilt blocks of knowledge into the blanket of values and beliefs that warms me.
Moment-by-moment attention to this life, through study of movement and philosophy, has been the catalyst for happening upon the peace that passes understanding.
Peace offers a sense of security that leads to quiet joy.
In Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser eloquently explains the value of meditation (for Westerners, as in Americans).
Meditation is a matter of slow and steady experience. It is not a cure. It is not a set of moral values. It is not a religion. It is a way–a way to be fully present, a way to be genuinely who we are, a way to look deeply at the nature of things, a way to rediscover the peace we already possess. It does not aim to get rid of anything bad, or to create anything good. It is an attitude of openness. The term for this attitude is mindfulness.
Buddhists call mindfulness meditation maitri practice. Maitri is often translated as “unconditional friendliness.” Meditation is the practice of unconditional friendliness toward whatever is happening in the moment–the moment during which we sit in meditation, and all the other moments of life, whether things are going well or falling apart.
We may be drawn to the practice out of suffering, but meditation is not just for pain relief. It is also about joy. It is like a magnifying glass in the hands of a child on a sunny day. He holds the glass steady; the light concentrates on a spot on the ground; a dry leaf goes up in flame. Meditation can be the magnifying glass that lights the fire of happiness in our hearts….Over time, mindfulness practice sensitizes our capacity for joy so much that even tiny physical and emotional pleasures can bring great happiness. When our minds are quiet and our hearts are strong, we see that the whole world is full of grace.
If you want to start in a small way right now, here’s the link to Make it a Mindful Morning. I encourage you, though, to find a teacher. This may be a book, a class, a sangha or yourself.
Adam Grant reports in this week’s New York Times that,
When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”
Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.
Curiosity and flexibility fuel passions that lead to insights. Feed curiosity with travel, poetry, music, crafts. (Yoga!)
Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.
We need to feel love.
No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight. “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition,” Albert Einstein reflected. His mother enrolled him in violin lessons starting at age 5, but he wasn’t intrigued. His love of music only blossomed as a teenager, after he stopped taking lessons and stumbled upon Mozart’s sonatas. “Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty,” he said.
Last week, my mother handed over her copy of Tassajara Cooking. I smiled as I reread it.
A party-loving Episcopalian, a gourmet who appreciates a sommelier, my mom looks puzzled sometimes by her Zen-practicing, quiet-seeking, veg-centered, yoga teaching daughter who considers club soda a cocktail.
Zentatsu Baker-roshi (Green Gulch Farm, 1973) writes in the book’s introduction,
Food is our common property, the body of the world, our eating of the world, our treasure of change and transformation, sustenance and continuation.
I grew up in a home where food was celebration. We walked to Eastern Market to choose it and to learn from the people who grew it. Thanksgiving and Christmas my parents hosted visitors from around the world and neighbors next door. Sometimes we nestled two long tables together under one large cloth so more could find a seat.
Days in advance, my mother and I started prepping, organizing the cooking, polishing silver, ironing napkins. We had a tiny wall oven latched by a piece of kitchen twine, a lopsided stovetop and no dishwasher.
The maxim was “Clean as you go.”
In a cookbook poem, Edward Espe Brown writes,
Cooking is not a mystery.
The more heart we put out
the more heart we put in.
To bring cooking alive
we give our life. Giving
our life willingly we don’t
get put out.
The proof is in the pudding. Here’s one of my favorite delish-es I throw together with cranberries and apples.
Combine five or six peeled and chopped apples and two handfuls of raw cranberries in an iron skillet. Drizzle with maple syrup. Sprinkle with cinnamon and ginger.
In a bowl, combine a cup or so of whole wheat pastry flour, a half cup or so of brown sugar, more cinnamon, a splash of vanilla extract, a pinch of sea salt, chopped walnuts (optional) and a dollop of fat to bind it all together. I use the soy-free version of the Earth Balance stuff. You can use unsalted butter. Or coconut oil. Stir it all together. If I need more liquid, I add walnut oil until the topping is moist.
Place the topping over the fruit. (You can see it doesn’t need to completely cover.)
Bake at 400 degrees until irresistible smells waft from the oven. Peek occasionally to make sure nothing’s getting too crispy.
You can be fancy and serve with ice cream or dairy-free whatever equivalent. I like the crisp as is. Simple.
Store leftovers in the refrigerator. They make a snappy breakfast.
I’ve heard it said say if you want to remember your true self, think back to who you were in first grade. Along with DC Comics, Moomins, The Cricket in Times Square, and fairy tales, I grew up reading Tassajara and other cookbooks such as Diet for a Small Planet (1971) and Laurel’s Kitchen (1976), which is famously dedicated to a glossy black calf.
At seven, when I announced I wasn’t eating animals anymore, my mom, a registered dietician, taught me about nutrition. When he cooked, my dad set aside a meat-free version of his chili. My brother and I were encouraged to experiment in the kitchen. He assembled tasty tacos. Desserts were my specialty.
And, in constant use, the lemon-fresh Joy.
And, like soap suds filling the sink then dissolving, everything changes.
The house was sold. The kitchen remodeled (I sneaked a look through the window!). The tablecloth folded away. Eastern Market burned down and was rebuilt.
We’re all using different dish soaps in my family now — Dawn, Meyer’s, Method — various versions of water, detergent and scented foaming surfactants employed toward the same end: living.
Everything is connected.
At Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento a few years ago, I participated in a one-day meditation retreat with Ed Brown. He was funnier than he comes across in his cookbooks and as patient. He sat with us. During the break, he showed us a few simple stretches to do while waiting for morning coffee to brew. He seemed amused that we were amused by him.
Walking through the Green Gulch farm garden one winter, I scrambled into a shed for a scrap of newspaper and a pencil stub to record this poem.
Rows of lime green, beet and rusty reds: lettuce leaflets in loam.
What more do I want, but leaves to feed on, someone to pass the salt cellar?
The back cover of Tassajara Cooking reads,
The recipes are not for you to follow, they are for you to create, invent, test….There are plenty of things left for you to discover, learn, stumble upon.
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.
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.
There is something powerful about allowing one’s heart to be so open that other beings can sense it….Many yoga postures give us the opportunity to release fear from our hearts….When fear exerts its grip, it can be an overpowering force that keeps us closed and therefore separated from the brilliant opportunities to connect that constantly surround us….Fear lives in us as tension, and asana postures are designed to release tension from our bodies. The absence of tension is the absence of fear. And the absence of fear signifies the presence of joy, love, and open-heartedness.
Myths of the Asanas, Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij
I grew up in a very urban, noisy Brookyln, and have always been intrigued by silence. At first I wanted external silence, but that goal soon became internal silence. It’s a vast realm. People have said space, or the ocean, is the “last frontier,” but I think there’s another frontier–each of us is an entire universe to be explored. Enjoying the quality of stillness and joy that comes up in practice, being with whatever is there, is just wonderful.
– Larry Rosenberg in Stephen Cope’s Will Yoga and Meditation Really Change My Life?