Gold in the Shadows

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“In the beginning, we are mostly asleep. Society conditions our consciousness. And so we remain unconscious to our true self for at least the first half of life."  - Scott Jeffrey

The shadow is a psychological term for everything we can’t see in ourselves. Everyone and everything has a shadow: the kindest person you know has a shadow, all spiritual groups have a shadow, teachers have shadows. Unawareness of our own shadows or that of organizations and other people causes us to project an unreasonable expectation of perfection for ourselves and for the groups with which we are connected. The result can be a misplaced reliance on the perceived perfection of teachers and groups as a way to avoid difficult interactions and thoughts. Sometimes called spiritual bypassing, this tendency reduces our capacity to hold the truth of opposites and simplifies the complexities of all the realities that are always present in one person or a group of people.

How to work with our own shadows? Author Robert Bly has an image of a black bag we drag behind us which contains all our shadow material, the things we don’t want to look at or acknowledge about ourselves. He says “We spend our lives until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.”

Notice what you don’t like about other people or groups. Are those qualities alive in you? Jung said “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” In psychology we would say that you are taking back the projection onto others and owning it as your own.

Many of us identify ourselves as being a “good person." We are praised as children for being a “good boy” or “good girl.” This intensifies the split between our conscious identity and our shadow. If you see yourself as a disciplined person, you’re repressing your lazy part. The lazy part is hiding in the shadow. So identify with this lazy part. See it. Accept it. Make friends with it. It’s okay to be lazy too.

Befriending one’s own shadow material creates compassion and understanding toward the challenges of others, who are also struggling to love and accept the parts of themselves that aren’t pretty or nice. Yoga class is a great place to practice this, surrounded as you are by the bodies, energies, and influences of others. If we’re all flawed, if we all carry repressed material, if we are all struggling to hold compassion for our own broken selves, this understanding creates a deep compassion for all the ways in which people are a little bit crazy. Welcome to being human!

Recommended Reading
“Owning Your Own Shadow” by Robert A. Johnson
“A Little Book on the Human Shadow” by Robert Bly
“Meeting the Shadow” by various authors, Edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Adams

Grace in Aging

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True confession: when I practiced yoga as a younger woman, I always had a subtle agenda that my years of yoga would inoculate me and protect me from the effects of aging. 

Humans have always had the desire to conquer old age and death. And unfortunately, many of the messages in the yoga sub-culture tell us that youthful beauty and capability are most desired and valuable. There is an underlying assumption in these messages that being vulnerable means failure, and that the body breaking down is a defeat of some sort.

The physical manifestations of time and change I have experienced in my own life have been surprising and humbling. I’m reluctantly realizing that my loved ones and I will not escape the vulnerability of the human experience, no matter how many downward facing dogs we have clocked, no matter how pure our diet, no matter how dedicated our meditation practice.

Nature teaches us the beauty of the seasons. In her wordless intelligence, she knows when to burst forth youthfully, when to succumb to change and when to go underground and rest. My deepest wish is to align myself with her wisdom, which for me is what yoga is all about. For humans, this is astoundingly difficult, as we have become accustomed to being able to control so much of our environment. Aligning with nature, especially in the process of aging, means somehow learning to make peace with chaos, unpredictability, loss and pain. This is very advanced yoga.

I remember a spiritual teacher I admire saying to a woman who was bemoaning the loss of her youth, beauty and energy: “That time is over. This must be seen.” Although this could seem like a harsh perspective, it is one that we must all, as we age or deal with sickness and the limitations of the body, eventually accept. And in that surrender is freedom.

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.

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.