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Thursday, August 18, 2011, 6:57 PM
Flying Dog Ranch is a glorious little oasis snuggled into a picturesque pocket in the foothills of the Sierras. Flying Dog is home to four humans, three dogs, two cats, a rabbit, a school of koi, and a 250-gallon reef tank ecosystem of tropical fishy fantasmagoria. A tempting hammock hangs between two giant pines in the front yard. A hawk lazily circles overhead. Birds and butterflies flit and soar. I can almost hear Snow White softly singing in the distance as I settle in for a few days of house-sitting and pet-loving.
One of my three canine charges is Joey. Joey’s beloved human, my friend Ginger, has warned me about Joey. “Careful with him. He’s got the wanderlust and if you don’t keep a good eye on him, he’ll be gone. Even if he’s just moving from the house to his ‘compound’, put the leash on him. Or at least hold him by the collar. I’m telling you, he’ll take off when the open road calls.”
I look at Joey. He’s a black and brown short haired mix looking up at me through deep brown eyes - the kind of brown where you can’t see any white around them, just giant chocolate pools under fluttering eyelashes. Joey is short and thick. The old man of the group, he doesn’t look like he could run ten feet, let alone burn rubber down the open road. He casually glances up at me between licks to his various body parts. Splayed out on his abundant belly, Joey chews his fingernails with delicious ferocity between bouts of steely-eyed wall staring. I love him instantly.
Joey’s compound is a huge gated area with plenty of trees, a trough of water, a covered shelter, a comfy bed, and favored toys. If Joey isn’t in the family house, he’s in his compound. That’s the way it works. The other two dogs, mind you, do not have to deal with this leash business. They ramble alongside, happy and mouthy. Joey seems content with the system and I am delighted by their canine camaraderie.
The first morning of my house/pet sit, the dogs wake at 5:30am. (!) I stagger out of bed, open the door and with a whoosh all three dogs take off outside. In my sleepy fuzz, I do not put the leash on Joey. I watch him as he does his business, smiles at me with those sweet chocolate eyes, and takes off like a shot. The other two dogs come obediently back into the house, look to me for a cookie, and lay down like the good, balanced beings that they are. The Old Man has hit the road, born to be wild.
Sure enough, about an hour later, the prodigal returns and I can exhale. I have learned firsthand that the Old Man cannot be trusted. But why? Why would a happy and contented dog habitually run off like that? Why would he leave his blissful home where all his needs are met and he is deeply loved? Does he think he’ll find something outside his home that will bring a deeper satisfaction? What fuels his relentless roaming? What a goofy critter he is! I considered Joey with an open curiosity. As I examined his problematic behavior, I had a flash of recognition. Something began to feel vaguely familiar.
In meditation, I’ve used the instruction bring the mind home. Ah, yes. That sounds so lovely, eh? Bring the mind home. After all, as we learn firsthand in meditation, the mind loves to wander. If I don’t keep an eye on it, it can take off without warning. Even when supplied with everything it needs for a good experience, if given the opportunity, it will go AWOL. Just like….just like….
Shanan’s mind, meet Joey. You two have so much in common! You share the wanderlust, that’s for sure. You both have a tendency to follow whatever distraction may present itself. Squirrel? Go! Weird noise? Go! Painful memory from the past? Go! Fear of future? Go! Capacity to choose a skillful, balanced response to outside interference? Um. Not so much.
I recognize myself in Joey’s behavior. We both require assistance to keep us from running amok. Joey depends on a leash to keep his paws from wandering and I depend on the breath to keep my mind from moseying. Dog as mirror? Sure, why not. Dog as teacher? You bet your ball launcher.
Occasionally during meditation these days, as I call my mind home from its wanderings, I sense a brown and black stubby flash go zooming by. It’s Joey! He’s on a walkabout! I gesture to him that it’s time for us both to head back. He smiles a toothy grin and turns the corner for Flying Dog. I follow him part way and then peel off for my address on the meditation cushion.
As we both reestablish our residences, I hear us call out in unison, “Honey, I’m home!”
Saturday, July 30, 2011, 2:06 PM
I have a very painful slice in the meatiest, tippy-top part of my right index finger. A slice wrought from rifling through my favorite Virgin Mary of Guadalupe plastic mesh bag that I got in Mexico. (You can’t leave Cabo without one.) My beloved bag is fashioned with sets of now-rusting grommets which hold the double plastic handles in place; rusting metal grommets that have pulled out just enough to create a small, exceedingly dangerous little shard which subsequently ripped the crap out of my pointer finger. I shrieked several unholy words as I threw the Virgin across the room, danced a lively jig of searing pain and sucked on my bloody finger. It hurt like a mofo.
This tiny slice in my finger has completely rocked my world. At first, I ignored the heinous hacking. Leaving the finger unattended, the slender slit would pull apart at the slightest provocation. By applying a band-aid in hopes of protecting the severed skin, I’ve created a new obstacle: a thick, sticky wad of glue and cotton gauze making the simplest tasks insurmountable. Because of my suffering digit, I can’t sign my name, can’t wash my hair, and most tragically, can’t open a bottle of wine. My yoga practice is decidedly off. How can I do a solid downward facing dog if I can’t push my finger fully into the floor? This miniscule slash has shaken things up mightily. One little screw loose is unhinging the entire machine. So to speak.
My sliced finger reminded me about connectedness. Injuries will do that. You never know how vital and precious your pinkie toe is until you slam it into the bedpost at night and spend the next week hobbling through the Piggly Wiggly. I have a profound new appreciation for the tip of my pointer finger. Its loss has taught me its value. Who knew my fingertip dexterity was so deeply connected to my sense of ease in the world! What a discovery. Everything is connected. Even the tip of my finger. It all matters.
As I write this blog, there’s a serious threat of nuclear meltdown due to the devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami that ravaged Japan. The Middle East is exploding in revolution. Our own country is in tremendous turmoil. Wars rage on. With so much suffering in the world, it’s tempting to feel helpless and overwhelmed. The need is so great. What can we possibly do to make a real difference?
I begin to feel the rumblings of my own impending meltdown. It’s all just too damn much! I also realize that my personal meltdown helps no one. So to relieve the heat of my simmering core, I use the breath. Smooth, gentle breath to cool the raging fire of my own sadness and pain. Steady inhales and exhales quiet the heat and prevent a spill of my own toxicity all over the place. I remember my slivered fingertip. I remember connectedness and it all matters. I recall my experience when the tiniest action created a significant change. A fingertip transformed a yoga teacher. Maybe the yoga teacher can join the communal fingertip to transform a planetary consciousness. A tiny action can create significant change. It all matters.
So I sit on my cushion and do a meditation on global compassion. I connect energetically with all those who are suffering because I, too, know suffering. I visualize walking beside them, holding a hand, stroking a brow, offering relief. I send aspirations of peace as I look deeply into their eyes. I know that my consistent and devoted meditations support an energy of loving kindness. Now more than ever, I vow to remember that my thoughts and actions affect the world around me. I am not helpless. I co-create an energetic environment for healing and compassion and kindness. For me and you and everyone else putting one foot in front of the other as we hurl thru space on our spinning blue dot, stumbling towards enlightenment, sliced-up bloody index fingers posed in namaste.
Friday, July 29, 2011, 7:34 PM
When I visit my mom, I sleep in the spare bedroom. You know the one. It’s at the end of the hall with the door perpetually closed. No one enters that forsaken space unless they’re lost, broke or family and at select points in time, I have been all three. The room is fitted with the bedroom suite from Levitz Greatest Hits, circa 1977: white faux bamboo veneer Mediterranean with matching nightstands and mirrored dresser. An explosion of purple and green flowers on a poly-blend tufted quilt serve as bedspread (with matching shams, ‘natch). A papasan chair and wicker bookshelf complete the ambiance, although I keep hoping the shag rug from the den will land here someday soon. As I read by the light of the pole lamp, I sense my mood ring turn from a restless beige to a calm, loving, relaxed powder blue.
While recently staying in my mother’s Time Machine, I did my meditation practice sitting on the bed, facing the mirrored closet doors. When the session ended, I gently opened my eyes to gaze upon the mirrors. In my post meditation fuzz, I could barely make out a shape of a body sitting on the bed. . (If only my eyesight could be like it was in the ‘70s.) I could eke out a lump of flesh, tufts of hair, color of pajamas, but no detail. I softly stared at the familiar outline but could not decipher content or detail. I could not distinguish my own face. My face had been distorted, like on 60 Minutes when someone is being interviewed and they don’t want their identity revealed. My face was just a blur on the front of my skull. Anderson Cooper, in his deliciously tight black t-shirt, was nowhere around.
I spent some time with the odd experience of perceiving my body but not my face. Who is that watching me in the mirror? I can see her vaguely and I’m fairly confident it’s me, but without that familiar face, can I be sure? Who am I without my face? I’m smiling on the inside, I can feel the muscles moving, but there’s no visual evidence of my grin. Am I grinning? How much do I depend on my face to define and express who I am? Am I my face? Who’s in there?
I am reminded of a parable put forth by Alan Watts to describe the greater "self". Imagine you are at a masquerade party with countless others dressed in all manner of costumes and disguises. You’re having a grand old time with all the revelers. You dance, play games, laugh. Some of the guests are friendly and kind. Some completely ignore you, as if you are invisible. Some are extremely attractive and some are just downright repulsive. One is particularly loud and obnoxious. One thinks he is the smartest guy in the room and wants everyone to know it. One has overconsumed adult beverages and is touching everyone inappropriately. One is so shy, even with the mask, she can barely lift her head. One is supersexy, dancing provocatively and taunting the men. One is overweight, sad, depressed. One sparkles and is the delight of all she encounters. One is pouting – seems he wanted to leave but his partner didn’t. You observe all the masked guests with curiosity and probably a heavy dose of judgment. Then, at the magic midnight hour, everyone removes their masks and you discover that they are all you.
No face or multi-masked face, who looks out from those eyes?
A traditional Buddhist practice that asks the question, “What is your original face? What was your face before your parents were born?” In meditation, I’ve contemplated my original face, before my parents were born. It’s a real mind-bender that makes for intriguing reflection. I have no answers, mind you, but I enjoy the inquiry.
I’m thinking of throwing a masquerade meditation session and inviting all my comrades from the Watts parable. I’ll make it a sleepover and we’ll party in the Salute to 1970s spare bedroom while gazing at our blurred-out skull fronts. We’ll contemplate our original faces. I’ll also invite my parents, and ask them to wear their costumes from before they were born.
I’m breaking out the fondue set and Fresca. This is gonna be a mind blower.
Thursday, July 28, 2011, 3:40 PM
Recently I was invited to a party which included a “Giveaway.” A “Giveaway” is choosing something of your own that you consider special or of great value but now you are ready to pass on to someone else. It is most definitely not the typical white elephant exchange. This Giveaway practice has some meaning, some merit. How marvelous! Giving a personal treasure away is certainly no problem for a highly accomplished yogi like me. Non-attachment is my middle name.
I open my closet and spot a forgotten, yet beloved scarf. Ah, yes, that would be perfect. It was given to me by a dear friend and it has cool Sanskrit writing all over it. Yeah, that’s … the … one …well, maybe not. I really love that scarf and it’s loaded with memories. Nah, not the scarf. In fact, I think I’ll wear the scarf. Ah, yes, it looks so beautiful on me! So, on to the next item. Uh, no, not my Spin Doctors World Tour 1997 t-shirt. How about …well … no, not that either. I made my way through two closets before I came up with something that I felt appropriate.
This whole Giveaway idea was beginning to annoy me. After all, I’ve always considered myself a generous girl. In years past, I’ve cleaned my closets regularly and given my discards to charity. And, boy, was I ever proud of my amazing generosity and non-attachment! But then I began to see how it’s easy to be generous with crap that I no longer want (Billy Bass plaque, anyone?) But when I’m asked to give something that actually has value for me, something that I truly hold dear, well, mister, that’s another story. My amazing generosity sputters and coughs to a selfish standstill. My attachments become swollen and painfully obvious. I am reminded of the Simpsons episode where Homer gives Marge (who doesn’t bowl) a bowling ball for her birthday with HOMER engraved across the top. D’oh!!
What is authentic generosity? The willingness to give unwanted items away? The willingness to share, but only when there’s plenty available? How about putting restrictions on the gift? Does that still count as a virtue? Not so much. Now consider the capacity to give unconditionally, wholeheartedly. The willingness to give even your treasured scarf to another. The willingness to share your last bite of chocolate. A genuine concern for the happiness of others coupled with non-attachment.
By the by, the item I eventually chose for the Giveaway was a small antique mirror that I had owned with my first (and now deceased) husband. As I presented my hostess with the gift, she sweetly smiled. She said she’d been having a weepy day even though her house was filled with people she loved. She had found it easy to express that love to everyone in the room; everyone, that is, except herself. Except the girl she was now seeing in the beloved mirror. The mirror that had once reflected love for me was now reflecting love right back at her. And that, my friends, is the magic of authentic generosity.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011, 12:19 PM
mala – Sanskrit for garland; usually refers to a sacrednecklace made of 108 beads and used for meditation; an Indian-style rosary (which also shares the 108 bead thing).
When I first started this yogic journey many years ago, some friends gifted me a “Beginner’s Yoga Kit” which included some sacred texts, a few sticks of incense and a simple sandalwood mala. This mala became my constant companion and an indispensable part of my meditation practice. In the years to come, even as I gave away most of my belongings to become a yogi gypsy and travel the world, I always had the mala. It accompanied me through Italy, Germany, Mexico and half way across the US. I’ve imbued it with hundreds of hours of meditation. It symbolized my spiritual practice. Whenever I felt like I might need some extra protection, I turned to these beloved beads with a deep inner confidence. And then, just recently, the unthinkable happened. My mala broke.
No, really, my mala beads broke. I was sitting doing my meditation, passing each bead through my fingers as I chanted away, and suddenly I felt the string of beads crumble in my hands and spill into my lap. Unbelievable. Impossible. The symbol of my spiritual practice broken, crumbled, unstrung, wrecked, kaput. What could this mean? I’m convinced there must be some deeply significant meaning to this incident. But what??
I became obsessed with this disastrous turn of events. I regaled a fellow meditator with my sad tale and she informed me that when your mala breaks, that means you’ve learned something. You’ve made a breakthrough. Well, needless to say, I loved this concept. Although I had absolutely no idea what I’d learned or what my miraculous breakthrough could be, I really liked the notion that I’d made progress. Ha.
My meditation sessions following this tragic incident seemed hopeless. Something was missing. My mind was even more unruly, undisciplined, unskillful. Without my dear mala, I was lost. Lost? Really? All these years of practice dashed just because I no longer have my beads? Oh. Wait. I’m starting to get it. My precious mala was a tool, to be sure, and that’s all it was. A tool. An assistant. And here I am losing steam in my practice simply because I’ve lost my holy gizmo? Have I become so wound up in the prop that I’m now ignoring the Real Practice? Can anyone say “attachment”?
The use of props is a defining and brilliant feature of Iyengar style yoga asana. If a pose is not manageable in any way, props can lend support to help the student experience the pose. But at some point as your practice progresses, you want to be able to discard the props. I’ve observed many students continue to use props when they were no longer necessary. I’ve actually barked at students to get rid of the block, strap, blanket, whatever when I saw that it was hindering their progress. Yeah. I’m getting it alright. (Mirrors, mirrors everywhere and no black curtain to hide behind.)
In the spirit of saving the best part of the story for last: after mourning the loss of my beloved mala and getting a glimpse of my deep attachment to the prop, I gave the precious unstrung beads to an innovative friend who transformed them into an amazing piece of sacred art that now hangs above my altar. She then used the few remaining beads to fashion a necklace that I absolutely adore. Usually I am not one for jewelry, but this necklace has a special mojo that is undeniable. I truly adore both my art piece and my necklace. Creation from destruction. Only my destroyed mala could have provided the raw materials for these two brilliant creations. Such amazing transformation. Can I be equally transformed?
I have since acquired a new mala. I can hardly wait until it breaks.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 6:52 PM
I am pondering the quality of gratitude. And how each of us has so much to be deeply thankful for. And how the consistent and conscious practice of gratitude is innately life-affirming and joyous. And just how darn lucky we all are to be here. Praise be to all saints of all religions. I bow at your lotus feet and am eternally grateful for it all. Well, most of it all. Some of it all. The nice parts anyway. Wait. My gratitude practice feels a bit unbalanced.
I have come to realize that I excel at being thankful for all the beauty in life. The no-brainer stuff like sunshine and sex. But can I give thanks for the crappy stuff in life? It’s easy to be thankful for good food, loving friends and kittens. What about the stuff that’s not so gratitude-inducing? Can I find thankfulness for my aching right hip? How about the fly that has been slowly circling in my kitchen for the past two days, stalking me? Or Big Ticket items like war and injustice?
There’s an intriguing Buddhist teaching that says: When I come down stairs in the morning, may I see my worst enemy sitting at the breakfast table. Crazy, I know. Those goofy Buddhists. But the idea is that if my enemy is waiting for me with a bowl of Frosted Mini Fruity Coco Pebbles, then I’ll have a strong opportunity for mindfulness practice (possibly accompanied by diabetic coma). Can I offer loving-kindness to someone I don’t particularly like? Can I be grateful for someone who pushes my buttons with fervor? And wouldn’t it be beautiful to be able to behave that skillfully? I know that when I can somehow keep an open-heart, even in the face of something that makes me want to run screaming from the room, I feel better. I’m a shinier, happier, more peaceful girl.
One beneficial technique is to see my perceived enemy as my teacher. I can contemplate how this benevolent person has taken it upon themselves to be a sacred irritant to my peace of mind so that I may learn patience and compassion. How kind my Irritator is! How thankful I am for my generous teacher! And I reflect on another good slogan: no irritation, no pearl. Without the irritation of a grain of sand in the oyster’s flesh, there can be no pearl. The pearl requires friction to make it smooth. So I can be grateful to my ex-husband for his kind service on my behalf and hold deep gratitude for his assistance in my spiritual evolution. Bless his heart.
I’m thinking that to truly, fully live gratitude in its pure essence, I gotta be thankful for the cool and the crummy, the happy and the sad, the sweet and the bitter. (And really, what defines cool and crummy?) Be thankful for it all. And eventuallylet even the notion of stuff drop away and be just purely and fully thankful without any specific motivation whatsoever. Just grateful for the pure delight of being grateful. Period. Embodying the quality of gratitude. In my travels to Cambodia, I visited the native nomadic river people. They live in cardboard shacks floating along the water and have nothing. I mean, nothing. Seriously nothing. My companions and I felt tears well up at the imaginings of their deep poverty until one of my wise friends noted that all the kids were running around happy and smiling and looked all loved up. Grateful just to be alive. Author Melodie Beattie opines, “Gratitude turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events.” Like a magic wand of transformation!
So I welcome my enemy at the breakfast table and am grateful to run into my ex with his hot new girlfriend. After all, the more I practice, the stronger I become, the happier I become, the freer I become. In the spirit of skillful practice, I say: Bring on the crap and let’s get grateful!!
Monday, July 25, 2011, 2:18 AM
When I first began yoga way back in the last century, a group of us decided to attend a Big La-Tee-Dah Yoga Workshop being taught by a Big La-Tee-Dah Yoga Instructor. We were initially very excited as we signed up and paid the big bucks. But as the date approached, our excitement turned to deep anxiety. We were new to this yoga thing and not terribly experienced. Would we be good enough? What if they did some poses that I’ve never done? Headstand!? Handstand!? What would the other students think if I were to crash to the floor? Could we manage to complete the sessions without humiliating ourselves? How can I navigate this dangerous, deadly yoga workshop nightmare without losing the last few shreds of self-esteem that I have? We can’t do this! I want my money back!!
Aaaah, the sweet taste of complete and utter panic. I realized I was spinning out of control from the terror of not being good enough or smart enough or thin enough or whatever enough. Even back then, I understood that a disturbed mind would be a distinct obstacle if I wanted to actually learn something from a world-class teacher. If I’m so caught up in how I’m appearing to others, I’ll lose the capacity to truly listen and study. I needed a new mind set, a new perspective. As Einstein once said, A problem cannot be solved from the same consciousness that created it. And with that in mind, I made a mental shift and a dazzling new philosophy was born. Instead of the typical fretting over being the smartest one in the room, or the funniest, or the most successful, I went in an all new direction. And thus, these words of wisdom were coined: There’s a very real possibility that I may be the suckiest one in the room. And I’m okay with that.
My Suckiest-One-in-the-Room Philosophy was a big hit with my yoga buds. We had a laugh and I discovered a new, refreshing perspective. When I abandon the tendency to judge myself or compare myself to others, I can relax. When I take my ego out of the equation, anxiety dissolves and I am free from the incessant drone of my insecurity. I’m just showing up with all the other yogis and rolling out my mat and doing the best I can at this point in time. If I have the crappiest pose in the room, well, that’s okay with me. Do I suck? You bet I do! Thanks for noticing! Namaste!
This revelatory concept, later known as the Hoover Sutra, has been invoked on many occasions since that first fateful workshop. (As it happened, we all survived nicely and developed major crushes on Rodney Yee, Yogi Stud of the Universe 2001. He even called me by name and whispered in my ear to soften my hyper extending elbows in Downward Dog. I almost collapsed with ecstasy.) When I traveled to India in 2004 to study with the Iyengar family, there were close to 500 students in the ginormous hall and I was obediently sucking right in the front row.
I realize that one must be mindful to avoid Hoover Sutra abuse. I don’t want to become so comfortable in the Suckiest One role that I neglect to grow or improve.
By the same token, I don’t want to effort so hard that I snap a hamstring to compete with my Gumby neighbor. Balancing the fine line between the yoga philosophical tenets of Effort (tapas) and Contentment (santosha) is a subtle and intriguing practice. Too much Effort leads to egoism and injury. Too much Contentment leads to dullness and stagnation.
So practice the wisdom of Yogashanan’s Hoover Sutra with discernment! When you notice you’re comparing and demeaning yourself with all your perceived inadequacies, try adjusting your consciousness to consider the delight of being the Suckiest One. Lighten up. Have a gentle laugh at your sense of self-importance and accept where you are in this moment in time. With the companions of Effort and Contentment by your side, establish your own best practice. And if anyone says you suck, thank them. And feel free to quote the Hoover Sutra.
Sunday, July 24, 2011, 2:28 AM
I have a dearly beloved friend who has the unique habit of making a clicking sound while sucking on her teeth. It’s like she pulls the air into the sides of her mouth and
then sucks her tongue and clicks. (Imagine the sound a rider makes as she urges her horse to giddy up.) She usually does it whenever there’s silence in the room.
(She’s not one to enjoy silence. Silence must be filled with humming or tapping or this weird sucking sound.) I’ve actually counted the number of times she’s done
this as we take long car trips. I’m sure she’s completely unaware of her habit while I, on the other hand, am acutely aware of her habit. I’m excruciatingly aware,
painfully aware, agonizingly aware. In other words, her mindless habit is a source of torturous agony for me. Annoying is almost too light a word, too forgiving. She
annoys the hell out of me. Or, more exacting, her habit annoys the hell out of me.
C’mon, now. You must know someone who has a habit that makes you into a crazy person. (Perhaps a family member or mate? And if you say no, you’re a damn liar.) Some insanely insignificant thing that just sends you over the edge? And how can they be so blissfully unaware that they are dancing on your last nerve??
If only they could just shut up or stop coughing or cease their endless sniffing or clicking or scratching. Don’t they see how they’re disturbing you? How can you
possibly practice peace when your neighbor relentlessly continues to click her teeth? Where is the way out of this mental torture of the vexing habit of my dear friend?
Firstly and most importantly, I have to understand that it’s not my friend that
is causing my unhappiness and annoyance. Blaming others is fun, to be sure, but not very wise. To find any true peace, I must shift my perception. Instead of blaming my friend for being such a blatant obstacle to my serenity, I must turn the light of awareness onto myself and observe how easily I’m pulled off center. Just some simple teeth clicking can turn me from a non-violent, compassionate yogi into an agitated, wild-eyed fiend. Really? After 15 years of practice? Well, uh, yeah.
Many spiritual communities have a ritual of ringing the “mindfulness bell.” At the sound of the bell, each member of the community stops whatever they are
doing and takes a few conscious breaths, bringing their awareness back to center while remembering their true Self, and then returns to whatever job they were doing with a renewed presence. This happens throughout the day so that they are continually reminded to be fully aware in whatever action they’re undertaking. Imagine such a practice! So as I’m cleaning the toilet, balancing my checkbook or shoveling snow, I’m gently and continually reminded to be present with who I truly am. My true nature. My eternal Self.
I decided to tweak the idea of the mindfulness bell and in that dreaded teeth sucking sound, I hear the call of Yoga saying, “Hey! Wake up! Look at how easily
you can be disturbed and pulled off center. Drop your judgments for a minute. Practice some patience. Practice some mindfulness, because damn, girl, you’re an easy mark if a little teeth clicking is all it takes.” And then I get to have a good laugh at myself and get ready for the next teeth suck as a ringing of the bell. Because it will come soon enough. And again. And again. And again.
Can I begin to see that wretched habit as a thoughtful assistant in my mindfulness training? As a kindly reminder to be present and accepting? Well, sometimes, yes. And then sometimes I just want to reach into her evil, taunting little mouth with both hands and pull out those 32 heinous instruments of torment.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Thursday, July 21, 2011, 5:51 PM
As a highly intelligent, deeply sensitive human, I have a good sense of who I am. I know what I do and what I don’t do. I know I’m a vegetarian Buddhist yogi; organic and local; politically conscious and TV-free; riveting conversationalist; stunning middle aged beauty. It’s a nice, neat little package of Yogashanan. My life’s practice is about having self-awareness and I think I’ve got it dialed in. I’ve been working this whole consciousness thing for decades now. I know who I am.
Upon visiting my beloved and nutritionally delinquent mother, this vegetarian Buddhist yogi watches mindless television, swills Diet Coke and downs scary little snack packages of weird, unholy orange crackers and pretend peanut butter. All activities that I absolutely do not do. I have a crystal clear understanding of who I am and what I do. And these are things I do not do. Until, of course, I discover myself doing them.
My friend Constance does not eat biscotti or drink wine. She informed me of this one evening as we were eating biscotti and drinking wine. I’ve often had yoga students tell me they can’t balance on one leg as they do a steady Vrksasana (tree pose) which requires balancing on one leg.
Why do we do this? Ever notice that urge to put yourself in a category? Define yourself? We seem to enjoy strong ideas of who we are and what we do, whether there’s any validity to those ideas or not. And the more we feed any particular attribute, the more solid it begins to feel and the boundaries of our self-imposed Box start to harden. We create a fixed notion of me. We write the Almighty List of Things I Do and Things I Don’t Do. Our personal official manual of likes/dislikes, fair/unfair, beneficial/detrimental, paper/plastic.
Unfortunately, our idea of who we are can become rigid. So rigid that we cannot imagine another choice. Change is not an option. And ultimately, the whole mess hardens into “this is the way I am.” Fixed and unyielding. No possibility for change or growth. One big solid slab of death, lurking over our shoulder, convincing to us to protect the Box at any cost.
It has been my experience that something usually happens to challenge the Box. That’s when the real fun begins. The challenge could come from an external source: a beloved grandson asks a technically challenged grandma to play a video game; a dancing wife requests the non-dancing husband out on the floor. Or it could be an inside job as you suddenly find yourself exhibiting a behavior that you know is definitely on the Things I Don’t Do list. (Like sucking down your third Diet Coke while watching back-to-back episodes of Law & Order.) The boundaries blur and the Box has just had a hole blown through it.
Pema Chodron refers to the idea of flexible identity. With flexible identity, we throw away the Almighty List. The rock solid boundaries of the Box fade and soften. With flexible identity, we recognize that nothing remains the same, including our idea of who we are. When I’m not tied to any rigid construct of who I am, I am liberated. Flexible identity frees me up to examine things from a neutral, balanced perspective. I don’t feel the urge to instantly react from any specific (my) point of view. Now there’s room for growth and conversation. There’s breathing space for evolution and understanding.
I do not refer to the same Rulebook today that I was using back at Texas Tech University or as a young mother or as a newly-divorced forty-something floozy. Besides, I think I burned those Rulebooks. Or sold them on e-bay.
I am acutely aware that even with the teaching of flexible identity, I continue to make Almighty Lists. But now those Lists aren’t written in stone. And when I remember that the boundaries of the Box are constantly in flux, I can relax a bit. The pressure to maintain a solid personality is relieved by the willingness to embrace impermanence. I am willing. I am so willing.
After all, it’s one of the Things I Do.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011, 12:19 PM
You know how you can be wandering through the jungle and spy a herd of monkeys and say to yourself, “Damn – I sure would like to catch me one of those little critters!” No? Well, you are familiar with the clever technique for catching monkeys in the jungle, right? No? Well, listen up kids, cause this is some fascinating stuff.
And it’s all true. I’m not making this up.
In a questionably humane way, monkey captors use heavy bottles with long narrow necks into which they deposit a handful of sweet-smelling nuts or other monkey-jonesing treats. The bottles are then dropped on the jungle floor in anticipation of a random monkey wandering by. Once the unsuspecting primate picks up the scent of the sweet nuts, she becomes extremely curious. She reaches her furry little arm into the narrow-necked bottle to retrieve the tempting delicacy and then, oops! She’s stuck. Her closed fist around the morsels will not fit back through the long neck of the bottle. If she would open her hand to drop the nuts, she would be able to withdraw her arm and escape. But the treats are too enticing and she is unwilling to let go. So she sits on the jungle floor with her clenched fist tenaciously clutching the prize. The bottle is too heavy to carry away, so she is a prisoner. The clever captors soon return to find the trapped monkey with her arm in a heavy jar, a hostage of her own desire.
When I originally heard this story, I laughed at the foolish monkeys. Don’t they know that if they’d just let the prize go, they could escape? Can’t they understand how they are impeding their own freedom? Can’t monkeys appreciate irony?
Upon further investigation, the monkey story began to sound oddly familiar. How about my inner monkey? What do I hang onto with relentless determination? What am I unwilling to release so that I might experience greater freedom in my life?
My inner monkey shows up around a local restaurant that sports t-shirts and bumper stickers that declare: Vegetarian (noun): an ancient native slang for the tribal idiot who could not hunt or fish. As a vegetarian, when I first saw this quote, I was deeply insulted. My furry little monkey arm reached inside the bottle to hold tightly onto my righteous indignation. Then my b-b-q-loving son came to town and I was forced to drag my heavy bottle to the insolent restaurant. (Only a beloved offspring could have gotten me inside the joint.) While there, with fist sternly closed, I grudgingly ordered a meat-free side dish and informed the teenager behind the cash register that I found the prominently displayed slogan to be offensive. She smiled sweetly and replied, “Ok”. Moments later, I was consuming the finest macaroni and cheese that I’ve ever had. (Seriously. And I know mac and cheese.) With each bite of the scrumptious noodle-y wonderment, I could sense my monkey fist softening around my prized resentment. Any chef who could conjure up this creamy carbalicious bowl of bliss couldn’t be all bad. I also know the eatery is a devoted community supporter. But that damn slogan….
From the jungle floor to Main Street, the path to liberation is about letting go. How willing am I to let go of my attachments? It’s hard enough to let go of material things, but how about the more subtle aspects of letting go? I can happily drop off a bag of discarded clothing at the thrift store, but how about dropping off a bag of discarded opinions? Just how devoted am I to protecting my righteous indignation? When I stubbornly hang on to my resentment or anger or fear, just like the monkey, I’m stuck. When I’m willing to let go of those rigid opinions, I’m free to join my other monkey friends for some congenial lice picking and poop throwing. (Good times.) The tropical forest rings with freedom as abandoned bottles litter the jungle floor.