Breath and belonging

I like being calm.

Some days, when I’m sipping morning coffee, reading the newspaper without railing at the news, or serenely waiting to be connected with a customer service agent while ads stream scratchily through the phone, I can’t believe it’s me who is breathing so evenly. Am I the same person who used to pitch fits? Slam doors? Who punched (yep) her high school boyfriend on the subway platform?

Am I the same person who was curled in sorrow on the sofa? Sprawled drunk in the hammock too early on a weekday afternoon? Stepped away from, stepped down from, stepped over every difficulty and obstacle instead of stepping through?

Sure. I’m that same person who feels deeply, cares mightily and lives with the genes of addiction. In fact, the more years I acquire the more I recognize the seven-year-old girl who is devoted to animals, sunshine, rain, who is skipping, swinging, cooking, laughing and sitting on the stoop with a friend.

Yoga scholar Richard Rosen teaches that the ancient yogis believed we’re each allotted a number of breaths. Pranayama, the yoga practice of breath control, allowed the yogis to extend their breath. I think of it as adding water to the last of the orange juice in the jug so it covers breakfasts until the next shopping run.

Meditation is the heart of yoga.

The postures, Rosen emphasizes, developed as a means to prepare the body for extended periods of sitting. Why sit?

Why live long? To increase the odds of acquiring knowledge, and wisdom, knowledge’s joyful, loving appendix.

When I picture old-time yogis sitting under trees on antelope skins, buying time by slowing their breaths while accruing awareness of bird song, breeze, their own ragged feelings and tangled thoughts, I recall people I have known who died too soon. They include my 8th-grade student, Carrie, who took her own life in a moment when no one was looking; a friend’s baby, Lindsay, who was shaken into silence in a fit of caregiver’s frustration; my husband’s best friend, Mike, whose last breath was underwater near the boats he’d restored. I think of those who made it to the end, last breaths tied off like a knot in run-out thread–my grandmother who held my hand as hers stilled; my husband’s grandmother, who had held her great-granddaughter shortly before she died; and my stiff old dog, Sasha, who accepted the veterinarian’s kindness with a slow blink of brown eyes followed by a quick release from pain.

When I played guitar as a child, the metronome taught me to keep time. I’d mark out a period to practice, establish the space by placing a cane bottom chair beside the music stand and setting one foot on the dented blue stool, pick up the guitar and begin to play. Tick-tock, the notes from the strings aligned themselves around the measured beat. I wasn’t particularly good. I could synch with the rhythm, but my ear is far from pitch-perfect and I have little recall for tunes. So simple scales made sense to me. The even repetition of finger movements and the predictability of the notes rocked me into emotion. Alone in my little pink-walled room at the back of the house, where no one could hear me but robins and sparrows in the trees along the alley, I lost track of time and place, the action of moving and making transporting me to a sense of belonging.

Trace the stream of the word “belonging” back to its spring and you find the Old English gelang, meaning “at hand, together with.”

Yoga is translated as union, with connotations of yoking or joining with, as in linking breath and movement or attention with movement or self with whatever the other is, a past-time, a friend, a sport, a book, a gesture or god.

Home practice is both the effort of stretching a bit, literally and figuratively, by making a shape with the body, an “asana,” filling it with breath, then releasing that breath to let the next one return. The Sanskrit word asana is related to the English “sitting” or “seat.”  The idea is that in a stable, easeful seat, we feel situated in an essential part of our selves, peaceful and aware.

Try it a little home practice right now

Sit where you are. Come forward on the chair seat so the back body is freed of the chair back. Establish sitting bones with the chair bottom. Let the feet rest solidly on the floor or a stool or a pillow. Imagine drawing the breath up through the feet, as if they have gills, up the legs, around the hips and waist, straight up, up, up through the neck and cresting at the crown of the head and then exhale imagining the breath showering down the outside of the body. Breathe steadily, un-forcefully. Align mind and breath. Express nothing more, nothing less than your being, alive.

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.

 

Like an animal in the forest

“Meditation does not have to be hard labor. Just allow your body and mind to rest like an animal in the forest.” – from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

Charles-François Daubigny, Deer (Les Cerfs), 1862, National Gallery of Art

Graceful state of being

A lovely explanation of the body/mind, asana/meditation relationship  and how meditation “works.”

It will always be tempting to fidget, flee or Facebook update instead of inhabiting the present moment, which can be challenging and uncomfortable, even tragic and terrifying, at times, but it’s this lack of consciousness that leaves us feeling like we need yoga in the first place. The feeling of missing our own lives as they are happening. For the modern yogi, the mat is the place where he/she goes to address feelings of disconnection: from the self, our health, what we feel, who we are, and who we want to be. If life feels busy, complicated, crowded, or lonely, a yoga mat offers the opposite. Yet, the asana practice addresses who we are from the outside in, and unless we get to the root of what distracts or distresses us and let those distractions go, things will not change much.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Old Man in Meditation, Leaning on a Book, 1645, National Gallery of Art

Meditation is the natural, graceful state of being yourself and knowing who that is. When we are fully absorbed in the present moment, paying attention on purpose and without judgment, we are meditating.

from Rebecca Pacheco’s, Do Your Om Thing

 

Close with animals

There are so many reasons I am grateful to yoga, its study and practice, the students and teachers I learn from. They include less physical pain, easier breathing, healthier digestion, better sleep, happier relationships and more joy.

Topping them all is a greater intimacy with the natural world.

Practically, improved balance and proprioception (essentially body awareness) allow me to enjoy hiking more. A couple of years ago when I slipped on a slick rock and took a tumble in the Yuba River I escaped with no more than a gash on the chin. I attribute that to falling fluidly. I’d had some bad falls in my twenties, including mild concussions. Slipping in and out of equilibrium as we do in asana has helped me cooperate with gravity. (I’m six foot one, so when I fall it’s a long way down.)

On a more cryptic level, being at ease generally, a result of millions of practice moments in breath and meditation, and a resulting ability to listen and still, has brought me into a greater intimacy with the non-human world than I could have hoped for as a little girl observing ants at Folger Park on D.C.’s Capitol Hill, stepping outside on a summer night to count the little brown bats catching mosquitoes under street lamps, crawling through the dewey grass with Jeoffry the tabby cat, or sleeping on the linoleum floor, my head resting on the soft side of the family dog.

I believe the ability to feel intimacy with the natural world–not just appreciation–is as important as policy in protecting what sustains us: air, water, open space.

Images I offer students derive from the animal body, from the movement of wind and water.

(Naomi Klein mentions the value of such imaginings in this interview.)

Trailhead lessons put new meaning in the notion of “grounding.”

So when I heard these stories on NPR, I was moved to tears. They include accounts of Laurel Braitman arranging concerts for wolves and Judy Collins describing the first time she heard whale song. Alexandra Horowitz weighs in with common sense.

E.O. Wilson calls for setting aside half the planet as permanently protected area, linked expanses.

This Smithsonian story tells more.

Maybe the answer is to surrender to interconnection/intraconnection. Union? Yoga.

To cultivate both wonder and stillness.

How wonder and stillness come together.

More on staying calm and keeping still.

Be well.

The Earth, a poem

For Earth Day, a poem from one of my eighth-grade students at Martinez Junior High. It was 1993, my first year teaching school. My charges were so bright and friendly, and my colleagues so dedicated, smart and helpful, it’s no wonder I fell in love with teaching.

My education professors trained me to create “life-long learners.” I’m so grateful to continue this work by bringing yoga, meditation and writing to adults (and occasionally teens!), and through self-study.

“Allegory of Mother Earth” by Christofano Robetta, 1462 – 1535

The Earth

I see the pretty light blue sky.

I see the dark brown bark on

the sky-rocketing trees.

I see the brown dirt with pine

cones layered upon it.

I remember the pretty white snow until

it all melted away.

I care about the animals that get

tested for cures.

I believe that we will pull out of

this world problem that we’re in.

I hear the wind whistling through

the branches of tall trees.

I hear the birds chirping in the

green and lush branches.

I smell the car exhaust of my Dad’s

truck when he starts it in the morning.

I smell the vanilla on a crisp piece

of bark. I touch the rough bark on

the healthy trees. I touch all the waste

that we throw away. I understand the

economic problem that we’re in. I am

frustrated with the rain forests being

cut down. I try to help by recycling.

I try to help by saving water. I try

to save by not littering. I will help

the world by recycling and not using

deadly things for my hair to hurt the

ozone layer. I hope that I will live

long enough to see the rain forests

stop being cut down.

 

– by JS

Words of wisdom

Sunday I spent in retreat with D.C.’s All Beings sangha at Woodburn Hill Farm in beautiful St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Seventeen of us enjoyed a special visit from Dairyu Michael Wenger Roshi. We studied the poem the “Hsin Hsin Ming” by Seng-T’san, in a translation Dairyu’s working on.

Dairyu Michael Wenger. Not only does he look cool and has a sense of humor, his voice sounds raspy  as Voight’s on “Chicago P.D.” lending  special power to every syllable.

Michael moved to California in the 1960s to climb mountains. He met Suzuki Roshi, stayed on to study at San Francisco Zen Center and became ordained in the tradition.

St. Mary's County, Maryland
St. Mary’s County, Maryland in April

Highlights from Dairyu’s teachings:

  1. Everything in the world is happening all at once.”
  2. “Don’t confuse opinions with the person.”
  3. “There’s no distinction between thinking and feeling.” Allow head and heart to align.
  4. Be aware that the language of psychology influences the interpretation and translation of Buddhism in the West and the language of Taoism influences Buddhism in China.
  5. Be aware of the limitations of words. See number 3.

 

Woodburn Hill Farm
Woodburn Hill Farm. We sat on the second floor.

More that I’m pondering after the day:

  • Be aware of what are habits and what are choices. Yoga is great for disclosing habits in posture and behavior.
  • Forms help us recognize habits. That means the ritual of any ceremony, and yoga asana practice has qualities of ceremony, show us when and how we are or are not in alignment with our values and with our bodies.
  • Inclusiveness. Retreat participants included people who identify as Catholic, Muslim, Episcopalian, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, Democrat, Republican, male, female, retired person, activist, and more. (I know this because our discussion did not shy away from politics!) This circles back to number 2.
  • Mindfulness practice is a step along the meditation path and falls away. I have found this to be true. I’ll share more in my classes and on the blog.
  • Buddhism in America has too much head and needs more heart. Let us open our hearts.
  • Suzuki Roshi, Dairyu told us, said upon raising a cup, “I drink the whole universe with this tea.” See number 1.

Just let things be in their own way

and there will be neither coming nor going.

Obey the nature of all things (your own nature)

and you will walk freely and undistributed.

-from “Hsin Hsin Ming”

I’ve met a few people within whose presence I felt flashes of wisdom. Father Bob Tsu, of St. Anselm’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Calif., who (I am so grateful!) married my husband and me in 1992; Father John Talbott of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., yoga teachers Mary Paffard and Richard Rosen, some professors, some writers and musicians, and strangers.

These are people who walk the talk, often forsaking renown to tend their garden of ideas.

As Dairyu said, quoting Thich Nhat Hanh, “We need more Zen corners, not Zen centers.” I agree. Small, simple places.

If you are at all interested in meditation or Buddhist philosophy, I recommend All Beings in D.C., led by Inryu Bobbi Ponce-Barger. She shared some of her words of wisdom for an article on stillness.

If you’re in the Harpers Ferry neighborhood, I hope you’ll stop by and practice yoga with me, share your thoughts or just take a moment to breathe. If you’re in D.C., consider arranging private yoga lessons, and we’ll form, as one student put it, “a sangha of two.”

a small space for simple, joyful yoga
a small space for simple, joyful yoga in Harpers Ferry

 

Why meditation matters to me

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.

 

 

 

Thank you, timer

Thursday, I packed the remaining odds and ends from my D.C. apartment–broom, jacket, lamp, shampoo, toothpaste etc.–and headed just a little bit West to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to set up camp.

A thrill shimmies up my spine when I drive across the Potomac and then the Shenandoah rivers, past the battlefield where the Union suffered a terrible defeat at the start of the Civil War and where I now walk my dog every evening meeting new neighbors and listening for ghosts, to arrive at the yellow rental with the red door in Bolivar (my town, literally a stone’s throw from better-known Harpers Ferry).

So, it’s okay to have another change, just shy of a year leaving Sacramento, a settlement at the confluence of two of my other favorite rivers, the American and the Sacramento, a vibrant valley city that for 10 years made a place for me, my poetry and yoga, and remains full of friends, teachers, colleagues and students I think on every day. Thank you.

It’s okay to have another change after being welcomed last April by the beautiful glass and brass doors of my D.C. apartment building perched like a mighty gryphon along Rock Creek’s Klingle Creek.

So many good things happened there in such a short time.

Most of them logged on this blog. Thank you, students. Thank you, friends. Thank you, readers.

During the transition from D.C. to West Virginia, this copper tea kettle was my anchor. That same kettle lived in a dozen homes throughout California before crossing the country last year. It sat in D.C. on this plain white range and heated water for countless cups of coffee and green tea.

IMG_0011

The oven timer on the range has been my meditation buddy. It’s simple to use and provides a helpful one-minute warning.

Situated on my zafu I’d hear, “ding!” and refresh my posture, staying with it for 60 more seconds.

Prepping for a yoga class, I’d set the timer to provide a reminder to roll up the mat and hop the L2 bus, or speed up the stairs to the conference room for chair yoga, or hightail it up the hill to my students in Glover Park.

IMG_0012

A memo slipped under my apartment door conveyed that building management is remodeling the apartment’s kitchen. This range is destined for the dump. Thank you, range, for granola, chocolate chip cookies, kale chips, savory mushrooms, roasted potatoes, sweet potato fries and cornbread.

Good-bye, timer. Thank you for watching the clock.

The kettle’s whistling on another range now.

Three Meditations

What is it about bodies of water that pull our human bodies toward them for reflection and renewal?

I’m so happy to share with you, readers, this poem by Jeanine Stevens. I love, love, love it and I hope you do, too. Please breathe and enjoy.

 Three Meditations

by Jeanine Stevens

 

 
Pond

Trees drop shadows. Purple filters asparagus green.

Cool water barely moves,

yet the pond breathes sage: a gentle summer.

Hidden in the riparian belt near Arcade Creek,

     bugs flit, skim circular.

Oxygen is here in the exhale of fish.

I sit cross-legged on the bottom, arms folded waiting

for thoughts I know will come:

    the worry of a life resurrected,

    my own tardiness. Each flaw

I morph into a silver minnow that swims in loops.

I’m patient until I weary of its motion, then encase

each in a bubble and release to the glassine surface.

 

River

I stand on the Salmon Falls Bridge.

Autumn wind spins the pines,

water cascades over boulders,

    scatters stellar jays and mountain chickadees.

These are cool-season colors: bone clouds, pale sky 

The air is pungent with late sun on dry buck-brush.

Upstream, a medium-size log tumbles in the current

    thrashing anxious.

Other birds land on the railing, also looking.

I absorb the logs agony, watch it travel underneath

    steel girders, reappear and pause for my gaze.

Enough introspection: it disappears downstream.

 

Ocean

Near Goat Rock on the Sonoma Coast, my skin sticks

    with salt spray and yellow sand.

Surf roars, soaking up speech. White foam laps knees,

     bronze kelp, slimy and wet, hugs my body. 

A brown pelican glides overhead, drops its lunch near

    my feet, a fish chunk oozing pink gills.

Mid-winter, I brought all my concerns with me.

A gray gull harps the wind.

Her angle of flight spirals, embeds in my repetitious

    monkey mind, a century familiar

yet temporal— like fish breath and catapulting log,

this gull, so ordinary, exits

    behind a twisted cypress hugging the cliff.

 

Jeanine Stevens spends her time writing poetry, constructing collages, practicing Tai Chi and thinking about water.