The Courage to be a Nobody

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“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego, my own and everybody’s else’s. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of splash.” - Franny in Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, 1961

How do we square our higher impulses of being humble, caring, and generous with our unbearable need to be seen, gain approval and be the best? 

Humility can be defined as "a psycho-social orientation characterized by 1) a sense of emotional autonomy, and 2) freedom from the control of the competitive reflex,” which is the impulse to oppose or outdo others.

So humility is ‘control’ (I might prefer the word ‘awareness’) of something innately part of our human program - the desire to win. As I witness the rabid scramble up the hierarchy of social media and the lust for perfection of posts, which can go as far as plastic surgery to increase the image of flawlessness, I feel a great compassion for we humans who are so strongly managed by the fear radar in our brain.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “That tension between confidence and humility is what you get if you are going to relate to reality honestly. You don’t get that security of one hundred percent confidence, which turns into pride, and you don’t get the converse feeling that you are just nothing. You’re big and small at the same time.”

Instead of indulging the “competitive reflex,” we can evolve ourselves and the species by turning more in the direction of emotional objectivity, the wisdom to make the smallest amount of space between action and reaction. In that small space is the potential for human growth and the trust in humility as a great freedom. 

Image credit: Richard Seagraves

Love and Oneness

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I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change Your Mind,” in which he follows the history of altered consciousness through psychedelic substances and meditation and discusses recent research in giving psilocybin to those who are dying, depressed, or anxious. Almost without exception, those who return from these experiences say two things: that the most important thing is love, and that everything is one. 

John Lennon was naively courageous enough to sing “All You Need is Love.” It is an idea that we pay lip service to. The sentiment is simple and profound, and it isn’t about romantic love. Love is a willing immersion in experience, in the radical nature of life itself. Isn’t it amazing that we’re alive at all?  Rather than being guided by the need to be special, better, or higher than anyone else, wouldn’t we make better use of this lifetime if we were guided by love? If we could embrace the spectacularly ordinary in ourselves and in the world?

To put the idea of “oneness” more concisely, imagine that you are a drop of water in an infinite ocean, and at the same time, the entire ocean is in you, in that drop of water. You are part of a vastness and that vastness is part of you. 

Love and oneness. There is an image from Mahayana Buddhism called Indra’s Net. “Here is the metaphor: In the realm of the god Indra is a vast net that stretches infinitely in all directions. In each "eye" of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever affects one jewel affects them all.  Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.”(1)

To experience the love and oneness practice the transgressive art of sitting with a soft body and a curious mind, sensing for the presence of stillness. Listen for what is underneath the noise, like a spider sitting on the edge of her web, sensing for the most delicate sensations. There is a whole world there, beneath the clang and jangle.

(1) From www.thoughtCo.com

Life (and Yoga) Includes Discomfort

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I bet you’ve noticed that life isn’t always comfortable. We spend a fair amount of time and life energy trying to avoid discomfort with substances, rituals, distraction, and moodiness. Yoga includes discomfort—the discomfort of holding a pose, of visiting parts of the body we haven’t touched in a long time, of feeling awkward.

Life itself is uncomfortable. The Buddha’s first precept is often translated as “life is suffering,” but there is an alternate interpretation that says “life is irritation,” which rings truer to me.  I don’t feel as though I SUFFER on a daily basis, but I sure do feel like I’m irritated on a daily basis!

How much of your life is spent trying to avoid any unease at all? Might it be more sustainable to create a self that can tolerate more of the typical unease of daily life—traffic (big one!), the failings of other people, your own negative self-talk, the limitations of your power or influence?

When we were born, we didn’t get a certificate that said there would be no pain in this life. Instead, we were given a body and a nervous system designed to be resilient in the face of challenge. Perhaps if we can practice healthy experiments in increasing the edge of our tolerance, like jumping into cold water, walking barefoot once in a while, holding a yoga pose a little longer, or meditating, which brings us to a quiet space of observing our quicksilver mind and our fussy body, we can find comfort in our ability to accept discomfort. (Up to a point, of course. Always take care of yourself when things are painful in a way that feels destructive.)

Think of yoga as a tool for creating an environment in which we can practice becoming more adaptable and flexible (in all ways) within the grand scheme of life.

Don't Seize the Day

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When I was a kid, some teacher or adult taught me this rhyme: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better, and your better best.”

So the indoctrination into striving and accomplishment, and not accepting anything less than the very best effort and the very best outcome, starts early. Jumping up out of bed, getting right to work, being productive, are all considered markers of a balanced approach to life. Of course the opposite, staying in bed until noon and sleepwalking through the day, isn't optimal either. Somewhere in the middle is a life that honors the rhythms of nature. 

We are creatures of the earth. We are made of clay and water. As I write this, it is winter, a few weeks before the Solstice. It is dark by 5:00pm and the sun traverses the sky in a low arc all day long, a weak winter light. The rhythm of the natural forces around us are all reminding us to hibernate, to withdraw, to rest, to dream, to wait. Can you hear them? Can you follow their example?

This doesn’t mean don’t go to work, don’t follow your calling. It means to do so with one ear tuned to the quiet voice of discernment, which will tell you when to say yes, when to say no. No can be a lovely word when it defends what you hold as sacred.

Let the day come to you, walk a half breath behind, look around at the different shapes of leaves, the moving art that is the clouds. It is possible to “hurry slowly,” when you are required to accelerate to the speed of industry and power. Your contribution to the easing of some of the anxiety of this world could be the quiet calm of your presence as you allow the day to embrace you in its own infinite variety and changeability. Open palms, open heart, nothing seized, nothing grabbed.

-Denise

CHANGE

Image Credit: Mia Lane

Image Credit: Mia Lane

The physicists tell us:
Matter is not solid; it moves, waves,
Unfolds, refolds, expands, contracts.
Matter literally dances.

The sages tell us:
The mind is not firm; it rests in light,
It enjoys clouds, poetry, music, laughter.
It rekindles itself in the preciousness of silence.

And this rekindling changes the world.
Your inner world: from compulsion to compassion,
From fear to a wholesale embracing of this life,
From suspicion to generosity,
From a tight hoarding of your own intellectual property,
To a genuine joy, a simple gladness,
For the enjoyment and triumphs of others.

The Dalai Lama asks, "Do you want to increase
Your potential for happiness a millionfold?
Then practice happiness for others." It takes
Nothing away from you.

Last week I saw: a puppy in a toy car,
A construction worker careening down a city street
On a dolly, his buddies screaming in delight,
A kid doing a handstand in a school bus.
Get out: Practice looking for delight, silliness.
Create some of your own.

Go outside, look at the sky,
Let your mind get that big,
Invite your heart to burst out of your chest,
Feel this earth's pulse of life,
Birth, death, growing, fading.

Isn't that magnificent?
Don't despair just yet, don't believe
You are the only person on earth,
Not entitled to a noble heart.
Wait five minutes,
Lie with your ear to the earth,
And listen to the grass growing,
The grass and the sky will save your life,
Again and again.

Originally published September, 2007. 

Image credit: Mia Lane

Amped Up and Exhausted

Image Credit: Simon McChuen

Image Credit: Simon McChuen

One of the ironies of our current state of busy-ness is that, for all the stimulation we are exposed to on a daily basis, it doesn’t seem to give us energy. Instead, the way we navigate our days leaves us exhausted and depleted. We seem to operate at two speeds—full on or asleep.

Yoga is a practice of living in the middle space, where energy and life force is lifted, but not overly stimulated. And where energy and life force are simultaneously calmed, but not lethargic. There is a Sanskrit word for this balanced state: sattvic. In some ways, the goal of yoga could be seen as an intention to inhabit the sattvic state more and more.

As we know, yoga is not just a physical practice. All our systems are involved. Yoga involves meeting often uncomfortable physical sensations and developing the resources internally to meet them, with curiosity and patience. At the same time, our brains are designed to love novelty—the latest Facebook post, the newest video, the tweet that came 10 seconds ago.

For the hour and a half or so that you are in a yoga class, you are in a device free zone, and there are no distractions from what is most immediately happening; the feeling of stretch in your legs, your breath, the transitions from pose to pose and moment to moment, the tribal delight of moving with a group of people, silently. There is novelty in these experiences, it is just a more subtle and nuanced form of novelty, a novelty that asks us to go inward instead of outward. 

Master meditators will say that every breath they take is different, like every snowflake is different. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Know whether you fall asleep on the inhale or the exhale.” That is the kind of immersion in subtlety that moving and breathing consciously can bring us toward. We are all engaged in a struggle right now with the magnetic and often irresistible tug of fast moving images and information, what author Jared Lanier, a refugee from working in the social media world, calls “dazzlingly designed forms of cognitive waste.”

Our poor brains and nervous systems are helpless in the face of this onslaught of pretty things, ever new things, more and more things. But when you slow down, the compulsions slow down as well. You feel more spacious, more content, more creative. It is in this wide-open space that you can feel into who you are, a precious gift indeed.

Feed Your Head

“I felt in need of a great pilgrimage, so I sat still for three days.” - Hafiz 

It’s not a surprise to anyone that we’re drowning in information. And as Stephen Pinker says “The news is not a good place to get information.” For one thing, the news is primarily fear-based content. That’s what sells. And we are currently experiencing a moment where we are being force fed fearful information like veal being fattened for slaughter.  

Minds are delicate structures. Our psyches are poorly designed to be able to resist the quantity of imagery coming our way. We check the news because we seek reassurance about what’s happening in the world. But checking the news makes us more fearful.  

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The yoga tradition gives us theories of mind and consciousness. One idea is that whatever comes through your awareness leaves an imprint. There’s even a Sanskrit word for this, “samskara,” which roughly means “conditioning” in English, and refers to the processes by which the human mind is imprinted by information and experience. Assuming this, feeding your mind fearful food creates deeper and stronger impressions of fright and anxiety. 

One can potentially progress out of this samskaric state by feeding the mind creative and even transgressive content, i.e. reading the writings of the great saints and thinkers, feasting the eyes on art, engaging in more than surface level conversation.  

If samskaras are impressions created deep inside our subtle body as a result of what comes through our consciousness, this is hopeful. Because the swirling and creative energy forms that make us human are also malleable and changeable. We are still in a process of evolution. Ask yourself what you are “eating” mentally.  Are you ever giving your mind an opportunity to rest? Resist the temptation to overfeed the mind with negative content, resist the urge to rush and ignore the body. Being intentional about your information diet creates the conditions for evolution of heart and mind.

Patiently Springing Ahead

“A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen

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Signs of spring are everywhere in Seattle. Each day my tulips are taller and closer to blooming.  The trees have tiny buds that will eventually form a canopy of green over the summer city. There is a promise of new beginnings all around, and yet it is a slow turning.  It is a practice in patience.

Just as we can’t control nature’s timetable, neither can we hurry or force the unfurling of ourselves through our yoga practices. We set the stage for growth and awakening by coming to the mat and meditating as our time and schedules allow.  We commit ourselves to our practices, but then we must wait.  We soften and permit.  We watch and listen for the gentle stirrings of change.  Sometimes the transformation comes in a burst, like the sun suddenly appearing from behind a dark cloud.  Other times it’s slow to occur.  And just as a windstorm will blow through and remind us of winter’s relentless grip, so too will we experience bumps and stalls along our way.  Our old patterns and habits may cling tightly, but spring will eventually yield to summer, and with patience and dedication we will continue to bloom.