This morning I’m reading Shantideva- an 8th century text that will form a frame for this weekend’s deeper practice meeting. I want to be clear about the deeper practice group: there is a 12 module syllabus, with a backbone of reading and personal study, that you go through. But each time I teach, I’ll be teaching from those bones, differently. Each time I’ll be introducing a different text or practice for us – for you – to work with. So you can start at anytime – the backbone is there for you to work with. It’s a thread you pick up and follow, regardless of whether you can make every month this year or not, the thread is there. And you should come back: the changing skin and deeper textures and tones aren’t things you could understand or live with one brush through. We’re trying to create community, create a sanctuary of depth practice. That is a rare thing. I’ll give you a certificate and you can register as a yoga teacher once you’ve completed the syllabus. But that is only the surface.
Shantideva’s text is a handbook for living the way.
We’ll be using it because the heartwood of the book talks about the middle. The time after the honeymoon. We all fall a little in love with this practice, have moments of awe or startle or release. But those don’t last. So it’s important to tend to our practice, after the first fire has been lit. I think this is an important reflection for us to have, as teachers and students. How do you go on? How do you protect the practice and it’s insights? How do you develop trust in the practice even when your body can’t practice, or life throws you a little chaos, or you remember – because we’re all going to have to remember – that there is such suffering in the world? What is the point of practice if there remains such suffering?
To me, Shantideva hears that hearts cry out: don’t let me be lonely. Don’t leave me. He understood, and he wrote this book.
I was talking with a friend who has had a lot of grief in his life, about my grief. We fumbled. Grief is such a hard question. It touches that bone: please don’t leave me. We all want to feel secure, to feel love, to feel at home, to feel like ourselves. And we’re all a little neurotic because at base, we know we might lose the job, or our health, or our family.
When we find a practice, we tend to think it’ll stay. Just like when we fall in love or get a good job. We think we’ve finally found it.
Then life kicks in.
Shantideva helps. Come read with me, come sit. There are photocopies of Shantideva’s chapters on the table in the prop room if you want to come. I want you to come.
Anyway, I came across this in one of the commentaries: bodhisattvas are passionate about awakening. I say again: this is a passionate practice. Wake up.
so hard to render meaningful this human life. #deeperpractice has explored psychology and subtle body (as psychology) in the last few months: I think this month we’ll explore shantideva’s chapters on keeping the heart awake. How to be, awake, even in the most challenging and lost places. How to make a life in groundlessness. How to love.
Today is a Monday, late in the year. I have to say this because I get confused, recently: I was supposed to be headed to New York City, yesterday, and a Zen retreat center early this morning. Instead, I’m at home nursing Ty, listening as cancer swells his abdomen and pain laces his bones. We wake and sleep all night long, The neighborhood went silent and empty over the holidays, and I cancelled my flight, and there didn’t seem to be any sound anywhere. All the people went away, to family and parties and airports. I stayed. Snow fell, eventually. Time stopped. We – the dog and I – fell out of the world.
Time moves, for us, differently. Time is measured by his breath, this waking and sleeping all night long. I measure time since he last peed or ate, the hundreth time I clean up after him, the thousandth time I lay my forehead on his heart.
When I wrote to my teacher to tell him I wasn’t coming, I used every word I could: cancer, diagnosis, uncertainty, responsibility. He answered simply, and intimately, as he does. Using the one word I didn’t.
I’m sorry your dog is dying, he said.
I didn’t say that, I realized. I didn’t say the one thing. I didn’t say: death.
Late in the cold, silent night I sat on the stoop and watched him limp around the yard. Put my hand on his big square head when he came back to me. Here is the gist of it: I don’t know how many more times he will come back to me, anymore. It’s a limited number, now, but I don’t know what the number is. While on this retreat, I was to take my buddhist vows, to say out loud to my teacher I vow to follow this path, I vow to practice, I vow to practice until all sentient beings reach enlightenment. In the way of late, silent nights, it occurred to me that I am vowing: I am crossing over with this sentient being.
At four am, he fell asleep with his head on my lap. I sat still. I sat so still. I’ve often sat at four am, and this morning I remembered all of those times. I often joke that there was no transition period for me; I went from still being awake at four am as a drunk to waking at four am as a yogi with no interlude. The threshold of one day to another goes back a long time for me, touches a lot of people and places. This morning, my heart opened like an umbrella in my chest. I started to chant my chants, and then I sang old folk songs, and then I sang nothing at all. My throat stayed, wide open.
I wrote this much, this morning, and then stopped. I took Ty out to the woods and he refused. He looked at me as if apologizing. So I lifted him, carried him, back to the car and then the house. I took him out hours later and he left blood all over the snow. I want to write about blood on snow, but I can’t find any words for it other than blood, on snow. A few hours ago, with his head up against my chest and my lips on his head, Ty died.
There is no direct lineage to this tradition, yet there is said to be a bloodline. The bloodline is the vowing, by countless human beings over time, down through time, that brings the length and breadth and abstraction of this practice to the bruisy aliveness of your own heart. We vow to use this moment, this experience, to wake up, to not be asleep, to not break. In some ceremonies, you chant all the names from the Buddha to your own teacher. Joan Halifax has a ceremony in which you chant all the names of the women ancestors, down to your very own. Bloodline ties abstract ceremony and intention to your own veins, to the reality of hot blood on cold snow. To say, right now, I use this moment to wake up.
I lost a dear friend, last February. Now Ty. Both of those beings formed me, or informed me, or something. Without their being in the world, I don’t know who I am. Or, who I am isn’t real any longer. All the meanings and things that tethered me to a schedule, a role, a relatedness, are undone. They are words that don’t reflect reality, signposts that point to nothing, maps to things that no longer exist. I tried to study some of the work another mentor has sent me, but was absent minded and couldn’t concentrate. I tried to review what I’m going to teach and couldn’t understand my own handwriting. I can’t remember the train of thought my notes were intended to map out. I feet lost: disconnected from my teachers, disconnected from what I am doing or why, disconnected from the ones I love.
Of course, grief is not my story. Getting lost, having the things that make our life, change, is the only certainty there is. We do something for a while. We love people or places or landscapes for a while, we say oh this is how it is, or find a practice and say oh I’m going to do this everyday, this is the beginning of the rest of my life, but then it changes. The marriage you’re in today is not the marriage you started with. The body you have today is not the one you had a few months ago. Michael Stone once said he used to wonder how people go on living. We continually have to find new meanings for our lives.
Sometimes, the changes feel wonderful. You fall in love. Sometimes, they are death.
As Leslie says, you’ve never been this old before. And you’ll never be this young again.
Bloodline is a question of how to enter where you are, now, amidst all these changes, as honestly and as bravely as you can. Because of this practice, over time, I have learned and can see how much depth there is. There is so much depth for me to move in my life, and so much depth for students to move into their own. Bloodline, a depth practice, is a way for us to not just ‘know’ things about yoga, or ourselves, but to really go for it, to go all the way. To keep giving ourselves to the practice, so that the practice can give you to yourself. It’s so important that you not waste your own time.
You are on this threshold, too. Of time. Certain things have come to you in the last year or months, and certain things have gone away. Where you stand is a question, how to really go for it, into it, to find the deep heart of the question that is, ultimately, you. There are parts of this heart that are mechanical, routine, and rote. And there are parts of it that are wild. Parts of it that are poetic, mysterious, unknowable as a dog’s deep eyes and unsayable as blood on snow. It’s this part we come closer to though the bloodline. The wild bit of the heart that both loves and mourns. The part that screams out for healing. The part that is murky and unborn. The parts you suspect but can’t quite explain.
I don’t have much to say today other than grief, but time spins: if you’d like to go deep, deep into practice, deep into your own mind and your own experience over the past year and coming blank slate, I recommend the intensive at Saint John’s January 17-22 or in Costa Rica this March. How can we let go, without ceremony? How can we make space for all that rushing newness in you, without marking space? How can you know what deeper means, if you don’t open to deepening?
Costa Rica is 10% off if you book by January 31 (use GIFT4ME at check out here). Saint John’s is 20% by the same date (use link below). And everyone who has NOT been to the studio in the past three months is welcome to come back at the intro rate of $30 for 30 days. Use this moment. Wake up.
Yesterday, snow, and today the cold. My body doesn’t do well with cold snaps. Sudden cold seems to be the sure fire trigger to fibro flares. So I’m tender today. Sore and slow. I’ve never been able to figure out if sadness is a symptom, same as shouting bones and sour muscles and confusion, or if it’s a natural consequence. I stub my toe and it doesn’t stop that panging all day long. All day. I walk cautiously, which helps and doesn’t. I am teary and sad, but also not. I am both sad, and sweetened. Things are so beautiful, I’m made sweet.
I walked the dog yesterday in the new fallen snow. It was so quiet, so still, so detailed in it’s millions of black branches and millions more snowflakes. My pain doesn’t bother me as it used to. I’m not as afraid of it as I once was. There are whole days I can’t do asana or eat or sleep, but this doesn’t seem very terrible any longer. I’ve learned some things. I’ve learned to breath. I’ve learned that most of the time there are things I can do, squiggling on the floor and moving my spine, opening the siezing muscles, letting my weight find a not so sore spot to drop. And somedays, I can’t. I never know which day is which, until I start.
When I walk in the new snow, it seems the sound of my walking is the most beautiful sound on earth.
And then when I stop, it seems the silence is.
Someone asked if I was angry or disappointed in yoga: wasn’t it supposed to heal me? I certainly have moments of that. But also, no.
No: at some point my practice became a way to work with pain, rather than a fantasy about ‘curing’ it. I tend to think my practice has, largely, healed my fibromylagia. But it hasn’t cured it, and that is okay.
Last night, in dharma talk, I told people this practice would make their lives harder. They would become more aware of everything going on in themselves. They would see and not be able to unsee. At the same time, their lives would become much easier. They would enjoy themselves more. The world is a mess and they will know it; their minds and bodies are a mess and they’ll know it; but they will have an equanimity in which those things don’t belittle us or need to be pushed aside.
This morning, someone asked why we’re doing 108 saluations for the solstice. Why 108, in particular. One symbolizes everything, I said. Zero symbolizes nothing. Eight symbolizes infinite relationship. There are dozens of other meanings of 108, but this is my favorite. Everything, and nothing at all.
As in, this practice is nothing. The postures don’t matter much, and you’ll lose all of them in the end, anyway. The meditation doesn’t get you any cash and prizes. And accepting the ethics and an inner awareness doesn’t necessarily make you happy. They often make life more hard.
But it is also, everything. It is the absence of fear and the walls of fear. It is a remedy to re-activity and expectation and chosen ignorance. It is a way to be in our life, pained or anxious, terrorized or privileged, with an ability to work with those things rather than suffer them. We work with our conditions, with our heart, with our bodies, and we become people able to know pain, fear, or death, without fear. Yogis will die just like everyone else will. But the time before might be spent, differently. Dying itself might be a wonder.
You can’t hold or quantify the gifts of this practice. They are immaterial. Last night I said it’d be like taking a mason jar out into the snow and gathering some up, intending to keep it. Or bagging a breeze. Boxing an angle of sunlight. They aren’t yours, and they don’t last, and you can neither create them nor claim them.
You can only stand in wonder.
In a few weeks, I’ll be leading retreat at Saint John’s Abbey. You won’t really get anything out of that, either. You may be working your way toward certification. You may be developing your capacity to teach, or to sit. You may learn a new chant or get some insight during meditation. You might develop. But it’s only real outcome is a quality of wonder, an experience you do or don’t have intimacy with, a depth to your inner life that you could never explain to another, anyway. I think it’s everything. Sign up here: Spine, Soul, and Breath 2016.
108 Sun Salutations December 20th, 7 pm
Paula is adding a 6:30 am Friday class, starting in January.
I’m opening up more time to privates – in studio or via skype – for $108.
The Deeper Practice curricula is about to launch into the feet, which is a very good time to start, indeed. We’ll meet January 9 and 10th.
The Art of Self Care 11 week online course will run again starting Feburary 1, on a new platform hosted on this site.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”. HD Thoreau
“Be a light unto yourself.” – The Buddha’s apocryaphal last words
Winter is hard. I used to know a musician. I still know him, I suppose, but not intimately. I only talk to him on the phone now and again and every few years go to see him play his music. It’s hard to know him. His sadness makes me sad. If you’ve ever watched an alcoholic dying or lived with someone who struggles over and over and over again with mood disorders without breaking through, you understand the kinda sadness I mean. It’s hard to know the sweeter aspects of life and that this other person believes they can never, ever have them. I once said to a girlfriend with a major depressive disorder that I believed she could be happy, and she wept.
This musician I know wrote a song 20 years ago. It was a heartbroken love song, using winter as a trope. Winter being the thing the lovers shielded themselves against, in their love. Winter being the ominous, the threatening, the mundane, the chill. The final verse verse describes the lovers as having broken, gone cold, even while initials are still carved in benches. Worst of all, says the song, winter came. He’s still singing that song. As we do, when songs are good. Songs last. But when I hear him sing it, I am aware of how much I have changed, how sweet my life is. He sings it because he hasn’t written new ones.
There is something terrible about winter. I sometimes wonder about us, Minnesotans. What in god’s name we think we’re doing, living in such a place. The dark comes and it stays. It wearies your soul, just close enough to too much to make us bitter but not total enough to make us leave. Or maybe spring is just so much a relief we forget, every single time. I don’t know. And I don’t know if it’s the speeding up of time as I age or a growing intolerance or just accumulated strain, but each winter seems a little harder. Still, in the woods this morning I stopped to listen to a chickadee, and that caused me to look up at the bare branches, which made me think of veins, and more than being burdened by the cold I felt it as beautiful. More than being sad in my life, I am reverent. There is so much to love.
This is what I was trying to say about hopelessness: that entered, we change. The dying of hope is where hope is actually born. This has happened to me, often; if I am honest and verbal about the reality of my experience and feelings, inevitably someone else hears me and what I’m telling as humility they hear as hope. I think I’m there all grotesque and vulnerable, all done in, and what feels like the end turns out to be the the beginning to someone, else. That’s how it works.
Michael Stone is a teacher, like me, much committed to bridging the gap between ancient teachings and modern day social justice. He was touched to the quick by the Occupy Movement a few years ago. He was passionately, irrationally, and personally invested in the camp in Zucotti Park, even as he watched events from Toronto. When the camp was dismantled by the authorities, his heart broke. He felt it was the dismantling of the whole movement, of what the movement stood for. His hope, that had been ignited by the movement, died.
And then he saw a clip of a march across the Brooklyn Bridge, of thousands, with his teacher Ajhan Chah amidst them. He later realized most of those marching were marching out of despair; their movement ended, their efforts shut down, their march a retreat. But seeing them, his hope was reborn. His teacher’s presence called him through his sadness. His teacher symbolized his whole practice, his whole heart. There was his practice, his teacher, his heart, walking in the movement even when the movement seemed finished. Right straight through, and into it, And then he couldn’t be apathetic, any longer.
Martin Luther King used to say he was praying, with his feet.
I don’t know of any other kinda prayer that works.
I didn’t go to the protests last week because I was angry, or because I thought my presence would change racism in the criminal justice system. I just went because I felt hopeless. I needed to cry with other human beings, needed to be present if I wanted to be able to fall asleep without feeling gross and useless. It is because I go to such things that other people feel comfortable with me as a teacher, I think. They trust me with their own hopelessness, whether it be about broken relationships, winter, race, aging, hurt, or crazy mind. Yes, I teach yoga classes. But that doesn’t make me trustworthy.
We have to act. To pray with our feet and hands. We have to do something or the cycles become so monotonous they suck the heart dry. Without any self knowledge, we don’t even recognize the passing of time and the repetition of cycles. With some self knowledge, we see the cycles of winter and then spring and they wear us down. With a deeper practice, the cycles become trajectory. There is more than just sometimes snow, sometimes rain. We know, as yogis, that everything changes and cycles, that time passes and we can hold on to none of it. Without touching something deeper, this is pointless and hurts. We mean nothing. With a practice, things aren’t meaningless, any longer, and we become more than we were.
We have to light fires, in the winter’s dark. Without them, we’ll go cold. The point of a practice is fire ceremony, is tapas, is practices that are a little more cunning than ourselves so that we can become new selves. Jon Kabat Zinn recently spoke with Angela Davis. She asked: what’s the point of mindfulness, in a socially unjust world? I think we need to ask that, and to ask what we’re doing with ourselves, and if the question makes us squirm we know we’re asking the right questions. These are the questions that make us squirm and bolt us out of bed in the morning, into purpose and enthusiasm. It’s honestly acting in our lives that give us hope and there isn’t any other, but false hope. I think her question is the answer: without mindfulness, the world is dark. Light is the only thing that works.
This is the point of Return Yoga, and of the Deeper Practice curricula. To make the practices, matter. To make this winter, and next, and the next, a period of pregnancy and incubation and not just one more year off of our lives. To give us, personally, a way to live so that we don’t – as Thoreau said -discover at the end that we had not lived.
Yoga Sutra 1.14: This practice becomes well-grounded when continued with reverent devotion and without interruption over a long period of time.
Without developing a courage practice, we’ll be flighty and insubstantial. Our yoga will be one more escape from our lives, rather than an intimacy with it. It will become resignation, rather than resilience.
This takes time. Without an extended period of developing our practices, we’ll never break through. Yoga study creates the compassion and resilience necessary to turn inwards. Without compassion, we won’t have the ability to befriend ourselves or act meaningfully in the world. Without resilience, we can’t face our own shadows. Without the experience of depth we won’t have the tolerance needed to hold the confusion that comes when we start meditating. Nor will we have the patience to sit with the discomfort that is part of really showing up on the mat. We won’t be real enough to hold the vulnerability that lies just below the glitter and fluff of spirituality. Without these, hope is false hope. Without these, the initiation, the alchemy, the passion that something deep in us calls for, can’t happen. All our love songs will be brokenhearted ones, played on repeat, for 20 years. We’ll just get by, rather than getting through. Yoga is the practice of something, more than just survival. More than realizing we’ve missed it.
We have to light ourselves on fire. The last few months of deeper practice have worked to cultivate awareness, shamata, a container big enough to hold our hearts. Now we step into subtle body and find the desire, born there. The Shakti. The hope.
Let there be light.
- Sunday, December 20 at 7 pm we’ll celebrate the winter solstice and mark our practice, mark time, with 108 salutations instead of the Tapas class.
- Wednesdays at 7:30 pm through December I’ll guide a freewill donation class on yoga for Seasonal Affective Disorder, Anxiety, and Depression.
- The Deeper Practice group will meet Saturday December 12 and Sunday December 13. This month we’ll be exploring the subtle body. Sunday afternoon, grads of the curricula and local yoga teachers are invited to come share their own practice, teaching, and experience. This month we’ll look at passages from Carol Horton’s Yoga Ph.D and Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known, We’ll have some networking time, some practice together, and some restorative yoga nidra.
- Please register (by clicking the paypal button and paying for) for the winter retreat Spine, Soul, and Breath if you intend on coming. I can’t think of a better way to begin the new year than in practice, in reflection, in the woods, by a fire.
- If you’d rather go to the rainforest and vacate the winter cold, join me in Costa Rica this March.
The Dalai Lami responded to the terrorist attacks in Paris, like this: “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place . . . So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.”
Meanwhile, I was making preparations for a silent retreat over the New Year, during which I plan to take my Buddhist vows. Also, meanwhile, an unarmed black man was shot by the police, possibly while he was handcuffed. And while police brutality against blacks has been increasingly covered in national news, this time it was local. I haven’t said much about this shooting. I’ve talked about the others. Someone asked why; if I was just overwhelmed, or was afraid that students would get tired of finding anxiety and pain in the studio instead of a respite, from it.
That isn’t the reason. Or all of it, anyway.
I haven’t spoken of it yet because this local incident also involved domestic violence. And while there was an immediate furor, protests, media coverage because all of our nerves are so frayed and this has happened so often, there was really no mention of the woman beaten by the man who was then shot. I haven’t said anything because I haven’t been able to find the words for this tangled, complicated problem. It is racism. It is police brutality. It is, also, domestic violence.
It is my niece’s second birthday today. Also, the birth of one of my best girlfriend’s first child. I was in the grocery store when I heard her daughter had been born. I was shopping for milk, but staring at the tinsel and aisles of candy cane colored cheap shit that replaced the orange and black cheap shit of Halloween. It isn’t thanksgiving, yet, but Christmas insanity has descended upon commercial America. Two pictures, via text message, that made me stop in place.
I am trying to figure out what gratitude means. Or how to have it, when everything feels so very hopeless and I myself feel unable to make any difference at all. There is so much harm in the world. There is so much, wrong.
I’ve said, often, when I teach, that gratitude is the first thing I lose when I lose my practice. I’m not making that up. It’s a palpable measure. But I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to say how to find gratitude in the first place.
It’s often hardest for me to sit meditation or to practice asana when the world seems awful. Easier to practice asana. Perhaps because tension and heartache are things I can feel in my body and I want, in a very controlling, urgent kinda way, to work out. This is experienced truth, and I use it.
But it’s probably also harder to sit meditation because I know how that works, too: you sit and the real of whatever is happening comes up. Complicated, terrible, terrorized, unsettling. When days are hard I often just want to get through them, not sit with.
Yet I teach this stuff, and I know it, and so this morning I bolted myself to my blanket and I sat.
As expected: tears, anxiety, and a whole lot of “i don’t know what to do I don’t know what to say I can’t do anything I can’t help but this contradicts that contradicts all of it and nothing nothing nothing I can’t”. Outright exhaustion, more tears, flippity heart and tight chest that is my brand of anxiety. Rape victim rage, domestic violence victim rage, images of infants and nieces and black friend’s faces, and handcuffs, and guns, and roaring sounds in my ears.
Not expected: gratitude.
I believe many things. But some days, there isn’t any hope left. Without hope, there isn’t any reason, either. And from there, just nihilism, rank and pissy.
Truths, left to their literal selves, stun me to helpless and I do nothing. Meditation is where hopelessness becomes gratitude, and then action.
Truth number one is that black lives matter. It’s ridiculous that we have to affirm such a thing, enraging that we do, and yet true that we have to. It’s also true that all lives matter. And it’s also true that to say so as a retort to #blacklivesmatter is racist, completely dismisses the reality of racism, and redefines terms. It is also true that gendered violence is endemic, silent, and taboo. To say Jamar Clark was an abuser detracts from the argument that he was killed by the cops because he was black. To not say he was keeps domestic violence taboo and silent, less an issue than men’s lives and politics. Mr. Clark’s attack on his girlfriend is directly related to the fact that he was shot as an unarmed black man, yet this is just too complicated to talk about. And it is also true to say that every single victim of the terrorist attacks in France, every single one of their family members, are all just as heavy, soul and flesh wise, as my very own.
I’m saying that anyone who tells you they have an easy answer to these things isn’t telling all of the truths. There isn’t an easy answer to this. There is only growing evidence of a systemic problem, a sick and completely shattered society.
I am not saying gratitude is simply a realization of how lucky I am. Luck is undeserved and impersonal. I didn’t earn my skin.
Realizing privilege is not gratitude.
That would be mistaking an impersonal thing for something personal.
Meditation is often misunderstood or misrepresented as being somehow a resolution. Somehow a clarifier. Somehow a truth reveler.
I think this is a dangerous misinterpretation. Meditation does not simplify. Meditation proves how subtle and complex everything is. How tangled. We can’t use meditation to analyze our problems or look for answers. There aren’t any answers. To keep looking for them even in our ‘mindfulness’ practice is to superimpose our ego, our flaws, our compulsions, and our dualistic thinking onto something that simply will not resolve. We can’t ‘resolve’. We have to change. There is a difference. The difference is gratitude.
The only thing meditation is any good for is honesty of what is present. And the contradictions, therein. And the feeling, thereof. I think meditation is about embracing hopelessness, not a resolution of it. Just as meditation becomes a way to embrace illness or pain, grief, anxiety, depression, and trauma.
I used to think gratitude was about simple things. Grateful to be alive; grateful for food on the table; grateful for the handful of human beings in my life who love me in their messy – our messy – ways.
This year, I don’t think that definition works. That version of gratitude, of ‘attitude adjustment’ and the decision to be happy, feels as tacky and as untruthful as all the cheap plastic shit in the grocery store earlier today. It feels selfish and full of denial.
I think gratitude is endlessly complicated. As finely striated as muscle. Infinitely complex and far beyond my comprehension, control, or will. It isn’t a thing of decision or trying. And this is good, because simplifying is an insult. Because somedays there isn’t any hope left.
Gratitude is a thing more fleshy than thought. And it comes from hopelessness, unresolved, and sat with intimately. I think you only get gratitude – get hope – by acknowledging the pain of hopelessness and helplessness. By realizing how truly impersonal world hurt is, yet how personal response must be. It’s the razor thin paradox between knowing my opinions cannot heal the world, and that my actions matter.
In 1996, Bernie Glassman started a meditation retreat to Auschwitz. Anybody who isn’t a mediator might see this as crude spectacle, as garish, or outright pointless. Just as anybody who hasn’t really sat with the concept of Dukkha dismisses ‘life is suffering’ as pessimistic. According to Glassman, you sit with the pain, you face it as honestly as you can, and then you come back, changed. Pain informs your humanity, wakes it, startles it. Pain is the doorway to loving action.
When I sit on the hard days, I often start with agitation, frustration, and apathy. I don’t want to sit still, but to break things. Or to run away. To say screw the world and its pain, let me get the best I can on my own. That was whole chapters of my life. You can read them, elsewhere.
But now, in this chapter of my life, I sit. What shows up is both expected (anxiety, discomfort, sadness, restlessness, tears) and not (a softening, a gulping, a slowing of time, a realization I’m making fists. Gratitude).
When I stand up from meditation, awareness of moments and of feeling go with me. And then I can’t be apathetic anymore. When you have really allowed yourself to feel the unresolved problems, the very unsolvability of them, each new pain is both unbearable and trifling. When I hear of the suffering of others, I care. I care. And this is the only way I have any hope.
I speak to my dog and I hear the modulations of anger, fatigue, and wavering love in my voice. I notice it, too, projected onto other drivers when I’m in my car. I notice it in the way I handle the silverware and plates as I’m washing the dishes. Noticing, I soften. The dog forgives me, because he always does. The drivers don’t know any different, because it wasn’t road rage but muttering. The dishes don’t clash so hard, but I don’t think they’re conscious of the shift. I’ve been to protests before, and black men have died after them. So I can’t quite say that my actions matter in the world. But I can’t quite say that they don’t.
I’m going to the protests. Tomorrow I’m buying a gift for a newborn baby girl and one for my niece. On Thursday, Thanksgiving, I will teach a gratitude asana class in the morning, go to dinner with my family, and maybe go to the protests again.
I can’t, really, say that my actions resolve the issues. But they do change the world. Gratitude doesn’t seem to be a realization of how privileged I am, right now. That is a completely moot point that answers nothing and resolves to apathy and doing nothing. No: Gratitude is admitting how hopeless I feel, and how much I love the bloodied world, anyway. Gratitude is a question of how willing I am to touch it, blood and all.
Emotions are physical, not psychological.
There is a basic misunderstanding about yoga in our modern day world. We understand it as postures. From there we assume that the postures can be mastered, and further, that poses intrinsically do something.
This isn’t true.
Yoga is an ancient practice of accessing, healing, and integrating body mind. It is a place of pausing – and from the pause being able to see where we are physically or emotionally stuck. The point of practice is what happens after practice. We stand up less reactive. Less inclined to repeat the things that keep us stuck. Less likely to contribute to a crazy world out of balance, and more likely to stand for clarity, resolution, and love. We stand up and the emotions that seemed to keep us stuck have begun to shift.
Yoga is a practice of getting out of our own way. Postures don’t do anything. They are an un-doing. They undo habitual tension and stress, the residuals of trauma or anxiety, burn through the dross of lethargy and stuckness.
Emotions are typically dismissed or thought to be something we should ‘control’ or manage, and when they get out of balance we are trained to right the imbalance with pills or by changing ourselves. We go to therapy to get to the root of problems or talk our way through difficulties.
Yoga begins the healing process, differently. Yoga begins by assuming that emotions are our best opportunity for greater love, self confidence, ease, and a more balanced life. Depression, as a student said after a workshop once, is actually a healing. Emotions are guides. They are breadcrumbs on the path. There isn’t anything wrong with emotions unless we’ve become mired in them: we lose the range of emotions and begin to feel only a few things, all the time. We begin to think that the emotion is more real and lasting anything else. We begin to think our emotions are harming us, and we try to push them away. Crazy as it may seem, our pains want us to be happy.
Christiane Northrup says “Your emotions are your inner guidance system. They alone will let you know whether you are living in an environment of biochemical health or in an environment of biochemical distress. Understanding how your thoughts and your emotions affect every single hormone and cell in your body, and knowing how to change them in a way that is health-enhancing, gives you access to the most powerful and empowering health -creating secret on earth.”
The poet Rumi says it this way: “Every forest branch moves differently in the breeze, but as they sway they connect at the roots”. Each arising emotion provides a pathway. The path – or yoga marga – guides us to a place of balanced awareness. This place exists in everyone.
Wednesday evenings in December, I’m going to teach a class on Emotional yoga. Yoga to help you release stuck emotions back into a state of flow, and sooth the places in body mind that have become over strained or worn down.
I can explain why we sometimes cry during savasana.
There are tears of relief, tears of gratitude, tears of exhaustion, and tears of mourning. There are 10,000 kinds of tears. Generally, we know why we’re crying. Or at least we think we do. We stubbed our toe. We get divorced. Something dies.
Or there’s just one straw too many; after waking up late, fielding two hundred incoming emails, having an unhelpful and largely inane conversation with tech support, your boss gives you another responsibility without having said thank you for the last three weeks of around the clock work. Then you pick up the kids and your kid’s school has sent a note home that feels mostly like you’re not giving enough time to the school district and the classroom, you’re a failed parent, you don’t dress your child adequately and their behavior reflects your own disorganized finances. When you get back to the car, a traffic cop is writing you up a parking ticket. And then suddenly there you are. Holding on the the steering wheel and crying, and crying, and crying without there seeming to be an off switch. Crying that is disproportionate to the day. Crying that has more than the day in it.
It has the whole of your career at this bloody job behind it, all seven years of your kid’s life and the difficulty you had in pregnancy, the whole garbled romance and relationship with the kid’s father, the failed relationships before that one and the way you tend to short sell yourself, contort yourself, try to make someone love you, and how you’ve done this since you yourself were seven carrying a note home from school.
Or whatever. Or maybe you have very good off switches. That would prove my point, not unmake it.
We think we know what we’re feeling and why. And we tend to think we’ve got it all under control. But sometimes, without knowing why, we cry during savasana. Emotional release – tears or laughter – aren’t actually things we understand or do not understand. The 10,000 things between relief, gratitude, exhaustion and mourning don’t comply with reason and they live outside of time. They live in bone, in fat tissue, in old songs, and our perfectionism. Yoga calls them samskara. Scar tissue. Effective yoga practice softens, elongates, heals deep body tissue. Letting the breath and the light shine on the old places, the gristled tissue, the storage around your pericardium and the ballast around your lower back is evocative. It is healing. This isn’t an understanding, thing, but a bodied one. Your mind and your body are not “related”; they are the same thing. It’s deeper practice weekend. We’re going to:
- understand yogic ideas of scar tissue, neuro plasticity, character and why we keep doing the same things in our lives.
- see how stress affects metabolism, cognition, and immunity
- learn how to effectively practice to relieve built up tension, rather than creating more.
- Explore how this moving in or toward is ultimately where the healing happens, not in the final expression of a pose. This is the vinyasa or mindful, attending, movement, more than sequence is.We’ll also look at transitions in asana practice, the way we move from pose to pose and into a pose.
- Thus we’ll understand how to get where we’re going with clarity, strength, openness, and integrity. This in terms of asana, but also in terms of life. We move differently and make different choices and ultimately, rocket ourselves into change if we move from openness, clarity, strength, and integrity.
- We’ll look at relaxing the diaphragm and getting better at reading our own bodies, making asana more effective
sometimes I feel I am a thousand bodies; trying to navigate other people’s injury and read a body like a map is the impossible and necessary work. And then the mystery of my own. I move through healing into deeper injuries, old ones. I thought I was better only to find a new twinge. An odd practice, that takes us miles inside to find where we got lost in the first place, and begin making maps all over again. Six years ago a teacher saw a crooked hip. Four years ago I could trace that to a strange unmoveable place in my back. Six months ago a teacher got me to move it. Now its plainly visible, like a scar. And it hurts. What is it? Is it pure psychosomatic? Is it a cause of my fibro stuff or a result of it? I tend to think it is just an old injury- one of the times I fell, too drunk to walk, or one of the times I felt violence. Does it’s hurting now and being visible mean I’ve made it worse, this practice wrong? No, this is an unravelling practice, sure. A tender one. But as I work with bodies with MS, bodies with broken bones, bodies with ligament tears and broken hearts and PTSD, I realize my wounds are my way in. Not a reason to stop but the subtle and tangled language of compassion and feeling in. We are all wounded. Our wounds are not worse than any others, and they aren’t any less. They are what we’ll start to know as we become more sensitive people. caring for them will be our hardest and best work. creatures who have been harmed, who vow to cause no further harm, are the hardest and sweetest creatures I know. #yogateacher A photo posted by Karin L Burke (@coalfury) on
I received an email today from a former student. “Something is happening to me that I’m pretty sure the yoga did,” it began.
I walked out into the year’s first snow to contemplate this.
How this isn’t the first time some one has said it. I can’t count the times it’s been said.
Or how often I’ve found myself, smitten mid thought or action, with the same realization: Something is happening. Yoga did this. Yoga does.
The first snow is rarely more than the sky, spitting, and the air all tangled and raw. Like thoughts, made outside the forehead and pelting the face. Rarely can we be so conscious, as when we’re trudging.
In New York last week, it was 65 degrees and the gold of all the sycamore leaves made the air itself, gilded. Or perhaps I’m romantic. Or maybe I’m just touched.
I spent the last two weeks working closely with a mentor. Privately, hungrily, confusingly. He alternately threw me right off cliffs and affirmed what I most needed to hear.
In particular, he affirmed: I am this, pathwise.
And secondly, that that is the way I want to be teaching. Depth wise and smiting. Hurling the air around and affirming, alternately. I want to mentor, not teach an hour long vinyasa class.
Yoga was never, is not, an hour long vinyasa. It never was. It’s principals are not those of a Walmart or a McDonald’s. It’s promise is not it’ routine or its sanctuary – those are happy but ever changing side affects – but that you are on a progression, and that if you commit to it, everything is going to change.
I announced this morning that I’m dropping all but my weekend classes. I was met with a kind of shocked and flat lined silence. It wasn’t what people expected, let alone wanted, to hear.
But I don’t want to teach an hour long vinyasa class. Yoga isn’t like that. Yoga never was.
I’m dropping all but my weekend classes. And there will be weekends I’ll be away. A friend cautioned me: people won’t like that. People will be hurt and disappointed. People identify the studio as me.
The studio isn’t me. It never was.
Yoga is the stuttering, blindly walking on, a little high colored and pelted. The smitten, as in smote, realization: something is happening. Yoga did. I am.
Yes, there will be disgruntlement. That’s okay. But hear me out:
There are half a dozen teachers about. Quick hearted, smart, trustworthy. If I never step out of the way, there will never be a reason for them to teach. They aren’t alone. There will be more. I’m not saying that I’m trying to push them into a pressure cooker, or even that I want to step aside. I am saying I want to step, forward. And that there are plenty, plenty of yoga teachers in the world.
I want the studio to go on. To not be dependent upon me, but established and lasting. It will never do that if tied to my own performance, health, or ability to be there.
I want my teaching to deepen. To have the time to be a mentor. Let alone, to write. Let alone, to gather the administrative reins of a thing that has always been stapled together and spur of the moment because I’ve been trying to both teach and manage. The management aspect, suffered.
I’m not really going, anywhere. I’m easy enough to find, if studying with me is a priority. The offerings of deeper practice are unique, they’re real, and they don’t last an hour.
Yoga is not an hour. It never was.
- November 1, there will be a number of schedule changes. Give it a week or two to get used to.
- The deeper practice curricula, weekend format, gives you more time with me than you’d probably want, a deep dive into yoga as personal path, and steps you into a deeper relationship with me, with your practice, and with you. It doesn’t end: it’s an open door to workshop and discussion. If ‘more yoga’ is what you want, that’s your ticket.
- Retreat style learning is incomprable for occasionally filling your well, pushing your edges, and driving you home. You’ll start over again from a deeper place, find the clear hard light of clarity and direction, and have fuel for months and months after. There is really, startlingly, nothing like it. Stay local with a retreat to St. John’s Abbey in January, or go global to Costa Rica in March.
- Yes, regular practice (which is usually, class) is one of the backbones of this path. You can’t do much, without it. But to feel there aren’t classes available just isn’t quite true. There are plenty. And reality means sometimes schedules shift, teachers change, snow storms fall. Your practice goes deeper than those passing circumstances, if you want it to.
- I want to ramp up my online offerings to once a week, as originally intended but lost to the amount of time I was teaching in studio. With better sound, a consistent development, both a never-done-yoga before option and a stronger sequence. There is no way that could ever happen if I stay teaching during the week.
The light shifts, and is shifting. A few weeks ago I would wake to dawn. Dawn is late, these days, and I wake to thready dark. I would sit – a few weeks ago – bare legged and bare armed in front of my biggest windows, close my eyes, and feel summer in the floorboards underneath me. In that last gorgeous blast of heat, there was so much humidity, my bones felt bloodful and not dry. This morning, I shivered. Goosebumps on my skin, and the shifted light itself was threaded not with indian summer humidity like the pulp of Honey Crisp but something thinner, something more wan. I have to meditate now with a sweater on.
This shift of seasons is tentative. A bit precarious. We aren’t sure if we’re coming or going, and never sure if we’ll need a sweater or not. For the most part, we’ve survived the shift back to school and autumn communities and there’s a sense of returning from vacation that is, really, like coming back from a foreign country to home and real life. There is, always, that mild sense of whineyness but also a sense of quiescence. My birthday, and half of my families birthdays, are in the fall. The knowledge of passing years and aging lives, spinning without much progression, is palpable. Like leaves, lifted and dropped and spun in the channels of air, we bluster and churn more than experience pure drop or straight rapture. Nothing is linear. Depressions ripen like wine and careers meander rather than follow the course we’ve charted. Children buck expectations and their bones riot through growth spurt and delay.
All this is time.
On Monday, I taught a group of women in the community garden of the Common Grounds CSA at St. Ben’s. Generally, I dislike teaching outside. I have to shout. People get distracted. There are bugs and sticks and sun in your eye. But the world was at just the right angle. We sprawled with squash and carrots and onions and leeks. Zinnias – I think they were zinnias but I am not a gardener – nodded in the otherwise imperceptible breeze. Just after the sun went below the horizon, but before the dark, a line of sand-hill cranes crossed from a distant tree line to the more distant and invisible Fields beyond. When you lie there, sprawled on the earth just after a blood moon said to only pass every 20 years, you can feel the spin of the earth under your bones. The soil holds the summer’s warmth, but the thinner grasses are already cold. Crows hawk.
It’s said a student once asked his teacher how long he should meditate for. Just blink, said the teacher. Just blink.
Just blink, and the moment is gone. It’s gone forever. In blinking, you have a singular moment of being aware of death, time, gravity, and breath. For a moment, your mind doesn’t wander, but hangs suspended. Like a leaf, hung for a moment on nothing, before force returns and you have to go either up or down or sideways.
The nature of a human mind is wandering. This is a tremendous evolutionary and cognitive accomplishment. It comes at an emotional cost. Only human beings tend to think of things that aren’t happening. Only human beings tend to suffer poignancy, hope, ambition, and aging.
All we as leaves are tossed and scattered. We’ve lost the deep inner narrative that pulls our bones to migration or hibernation. I was talking about caterpillars and monarch butterflies with my niece. I said cocoon. You mean chrysalis, Auntie, she said.
Which I didn’t until she proved to be more educated than I. Then, wholeheartedly, I did. I did mean chrysalis after all.
I meant the way we do not fly on frail wings to Mexico and Venezuela in the course of a day. I meant we do not, like a plant, necessarily feel seeds rumbling in the soil to be new growth. I meant this year has been marked by death and birth and bones and teaching but I wander, my mind heart wanders, and I don’t necessarily know what it means. But I do know there are moments I realize we need to leave a better world for our children. And better children for our earth. That we’re blinking, all the time, but hardly know this.
Sunday’s dharma talk (9 -10:30 am, little meditations and little discussions) will explore mind wandering and somatic awakening. How to be suspended, like a leaf, between earth and sky.
Carl Jung, writing in 1936 on “Yoga and the spiritual crisis of the West”
“Western man has no need of more superiority over nature, whether outside or inside. He has both in almost devilish perfection. What he lacks is conscious recognition of his inferiority to the nature around and within him. He must learn that he may not do exactly as he wills. If he does not learn this, his own nature will destroy him. He does not know that his own soul is rebelling against him in a suicidal way.”
Sunday. 9 am. Freewill donation. Come, if you can blink.
This morning I’m reading Shantideva- an 8th century text that will form a frame for this weekend’s deeper practice meeting. I want to be clear about the deeper practice group: there is a 12 module syllabus, with a backbone of reading and personal study, that you go through. But each…