spring shadow

Walking on a late March morning, I could barely keep up with my shadow until I stopped it long enough to snap a photo.

shadow

The poem my mother recited when I was a child, “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson, popped into my head.

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, 
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
Is a shadow useful? Maybe so, maybe not. I love how Jane Hirshfield says that poetry is valuable precisely because it is not useful.
Richard Rosen talks about what a slow process the study of yoga is. Its benefits may not be apparent for years, if ever. More on that in this video interview with him.
Whenever I’m on a playground swing, I think of Stevenson, too. Swinging is a time to pick up momentum and go quietly fast, like a bird!

Art of Stillness

Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. – Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness

Matt at river
Matt Weiser of Lodestar Knife & Tool working out a new design along Sacramento’s American River. Photo by Alexa Mergen

Stay calm and keep still

frances photo
A neighborhood garden a few days before January’s snowfall. Photo by Matt Weiser.

STILLNESS CAME to D.C. this January with 36 hours of snowfall.

“Snowzilla” stalled buses, planes, Metrorail and cars. Shops closed. People stayed home. Pets hunkered down.

It was quiet. It was calm.

Then, upon the sun’s return, the city of 700,000 had no choice but to stir.

Movement is inherent to life. Time and space are precious commodities in a city’s busy-ness.

Yet, one action, the snow reminds us, is always available: stilling.

“Stand still.”

This imperative begins the poem “Lost,” by David Wagoner.

“Wherever you are is called Here,” the speaker continues.

Stillness is an intentional pause to think, listen and notice the external world, to observe one’s internal state; it transforms our relationship with time and space and often ourselves.

A moment of stillness is like a brief journey to another place.

“When the body is able to find some quiet,” explains Reverend Inryu of All Beings Zen community in Adams Morgan, “the mind has an opportunity to quiet down.”

Stillness is a precursor of meditation. One settles on a chair or on a cushion, organizing the skin, tissues, muscles and bones of the body to find a steady seat.

Even in the movement of walking meditation, a person cultivates a sense of internal stillness, clearing the sky of the mind. In group walking meditation, the custom is to take the pace of the most unhurried walker, voluntarily slowing. Notions of compassion and interconnection correlate with stillness. Inryu points out that all religions include contemplative practices for quiet retreat.

“Stillness has a lot of virtues,” agrees Washington, D.C., area bird watcher Nick Lund, who blogs at The Birdist, “and one of them is seeing how quickly everything else is moving. There’s a relativity there.”

We know that as long as we’re alive, we’re never truly still. However, by identifying gradations of movement, we increase awareness of ourselves and others.

“Birding is not particularly still in general,” Lund clarifies, “but when you’re in the woods, especially at this time of year when the woods can seem empty and quiet, you can just stop and close your eyes and be perfectly still and listen, and that’s when you start to pick up on how active everything else is. You start hearing birds and squirrels and all the other animals, people and dogs moving around.”

In a room, where meditators typically keep their eyes open, “being settled may open up a vantage to be more aware of what’s happening in the moment,” Inryu explains. “That can be a lot of activity, shifting sunlight or moonlight, shadows on the walls, the breathing and adjusting of people in the room.”

Inryu describes a quality of peace with our essential essence that comes from slowing down so completely. This peace allows us to be present.

“I think of being still as an opportunity to create conditions where you can be a human in your being aspect, rather than your doing aspect,” Inryu says.

Read the entire article on My Little Bird.

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!

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.

 

 

Internal Silence

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?

Joy

Yoga identifies joy–a natural sense of well-being, gratitude, and peace–as the deepest aspect of what it means to be human. – Kelly McGonigal in Yoga for Pain Relief

In my experience, joy has been the most wonderful aspect of bringing yoga into daily life. Like a pilot light, this joy burns low and steadily, deep in the body, flaming extra bright when given the right fuel. The little warm light also persists through physical and emotional pain; its presence dispels fear.

tucker from above
Tucker understands English and Spanish words; he communicates with his body and his gaze.

One does not need a rubber mat to find this joy. My grandmother, Kay Mergen, had it. I glimpsed it when it left with her, extinguished by her final sigh. She was raised in desert spaces and learned early that everything is fragile and strong, singular and connected. Without any training in breath awareness or asana, she knew when to act and when to rest.

Animals embody joy. It’s no wonder so many yoga poses are named for them. They live themselves fully.

There’s not much mystery to any of this. The wisdom of joy is available to anyone. Wisdom from wit, a word related to veda, Sanskrit for ‘knowledge,’ and videre, Latin for ‘to see.’

There’s no mystery, but there is a secret. The secret is silence and stillness. So in yoga, we move the body then pause and feel, we slow the breath and listen, we clear the mind through concentration and sit with what remains.

Here: let more words be keys on wisdom’s iron joyfully clanging ring.

The word listen derives from Old English hlysnan pay attention to.’  The word see derives from Latin sedere sit.

Wisdom–knowledge gained from seeing, paying attention, listening, sitting still with heart.

Now, once you’ve unlocked the doors, throw away the keys. You may not need words at all. You’ve wisdom. And joy?

Wildlife not on earth

I’m trying to wrap my mind around the recently released report informing us that half of all wildlife on earth has been lost in the last 40 years. “Lost” isn’t an adequate euphemism. They are animals gone, dead, no more. The study analyzed trends in 10,380 populations of 3,038 vertebrate species.

“The decline was seen everywhere—in rivers, on land and in the seas—and is mainly the result of increased habitat destruction, commercial fishing and hunting, the report said. Climate change also is believed to be a factor, though its consequences are harder to measure.”

We humans are stealing life from all the other creatures in the world.

I read this report within hours of coming across this lovely analogy: “Three things are necessary for a bird to fly–the two wings and a tail as a rudder for steering.” Knowledge is the one wing, Love is the other, and Yoga is the tail that keeps up the balance. Yoga here does not define physical exercises or mantras. Yoga simply means living with an awareness that both love and knowledge are necessary to individual and community bodies.

In The Wump World by Bill Peet, Wumps hide out while their world is destroyed by carelessness, greed and haste. When the selfish invaders have paved over the ground, cut down trees, filled skies and creeks with pollution, they move on in search of another place to wreck. On Wump World, resilient plants regenerate and the Wumps emerge from hiding to a changed planet.

Sometimes an hour gathered around a table sharing poems or making shapes and breathing together in a yoga studio feels like being a Wump in hiding.

An effective poem calls on heart and head and touches a reader.  More than once, I’ve stood in front of a mic and said, “All poems are a call to action” or “All poems are love poems” and meant it.  I’ve concluded Yoga classes with a suggestion that after we roll up the mats we re-enter daily life with gentleness. And meant it. After asana practice, the body can feel more whole, the mind more receptive.

Like so many, I read newspapers, philosophical texts, how-to pamphlets on conservation, non-fiction on science and economics, novels that offer models of how people cope with being human. I watch TV. I attend lectures and readings. And, like so many, I am “getting and spending.”

And I need to try harder. We need to try harder. Our current approach as a species isn’t working.

One hundred red wolves roam native habitat. Two hundred live in captive breeding facilities.

“The WWF report also tries to measure the state of humanity’s ability to live in a sustainable way. With the planet’s population expected to swell by 2.4 billion people by 2050, the challenge of providing enough food, water and energy will be difficult.

The report calculates a global “ecological footprint,” which measures the area required to supply the ecological goods and services humans use. It concludes that humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to supply these goods and services each year.

This ‘overshoot’ is possible because—for now—we can cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than the oceans can replenish, or emit more carbon into the atmosphere than the forests and oceans can absorb,” the report said. Since the 1990s, humans have reached that overshoot by the ninth month of each year, it adds.”

What I do as a Yoga and poetry teacher, writing guide, editor, recitation coach, advocate for animals, daughter, wife, sister, neighbor, friend–what have you–is alleviation. I offer a little light, a little lift. Moments of quiet. Respite. A chance to remember who we are and what we know intuitively, intuition as the synchronization of experience, knowledge and perception. Poetry and Yoga offer opportunities to connect. I am hopeful by nature; I encourage.

Encourage my students to have courage, to foster hearts that choose actions that mend. I am not a chemist, physicist, policy maker, attorney, farmer, physician, nurse, mechanic, economist, biologist, journalist, executive or a member of any other profession that deals in data. My job is to make your job possible by helping you find ease in your body, clarity in your mind, love in your heart, freedom in your imagination and will, pure powerful will to do what you do.

We need to try harder. We must find ways for all all beings to be happy, for all to live in safety and joy. We’ve no choice.

 

 

 

Virabhadrasana I + Sam Hamill

Raising arms overhead in Warrior I seems to free the wings of the shoulders and lift the heart to worlds away.

Black Marsh Eclogue

Although it is midsummer, the great blue heron

holds darkest winter in his hunched shoulders,

those blue-turning-gray clouds

rising over him like a storm from the Pacific.

 

He stands in the black marsh

more monument than bird, a wizened prophet

returned from a vanished mythology.

He watches the hearts of things

 

and does not move or speak. But when

at last he flies, his great wings

cover the darkening sky, and slowly,

as though praying, he lifts, almost motionless,

 

as he pushes the world away.

 

Sam Hamill

Note: previously published in Finding the Way Home (White Pine Press, 2010);  permission of Dennis Maloney

Pair with: Virabhadrasana I

Speak: Notice the break, mid-sentence, between second and third stanzas.

Consider: how standing in stillness allows us to watch the heart of things.