Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bird with Lace Wings


I ditched grading and yoga today. In my desperate attempt to cling to the bliss of spring break, I left work, put on my hiking boots and revisited a lovely spot not far from my house. I saw a coyote slinking around the creek, lizards mating, cocoons, a giant millipede (yikes!), and these cotton candy-like tufts of seeds being blown across the canyon.

On the hike, trying to escape from a blaze of tedious, work-related thoughts, I thought about those moments before thoughts start to form. You know the ones. You witness something spectacular--an overpowering smell, a marvelous sight, or an enrapturing song. Moments arise when you're just "there," and your mind stops. For a moment.

At one point during the hike, I noticed something flying overhead. I had one of those thinking gaps where I simply experienced. It was like a black bird with light beaming through its wings just happened.

Then my mind started up again. My first thought was "bird with lace wings." It didn't even seem like a thought. It was more like a flicker of energy, this gentle label. I looked longer, though, and my thoughts formed a more cohesive (and depressing) story. It was a crow. It didn't seem to be flying too straight. It had patchy spots in its secondary feathers, where pieces were missing--due to illness, a fight, I don't know. Maybe it couldn't chase after food or other birds very quickly now.

I'm describing a process that happened in less than the blink of an eye. I saw something so startling it shocked me out of that powerful blaze of thoughts. Then, a story started to form, and things quickly went from good to terrible. The holes in the crow's wings that had initially inspired the beautiful thought, "bird with lace wings," immediately took on a very sad quality. Talk about an Easter moment: how quickly birth and death occur! A bird happened, my thoughts flared up, and my mind kinda stabbed the whole experience to death by forcing relentless thoughts on it.

I'm reminded, again and again, how tremendously powerful our thoughts are. Forget weapons of mass destruction: it's our thoughts that do the most damage of all. I suppose that's why we crave yoga and meditation. We set time aside to allow those moments before thoughts to happen. We observe our mind (and body!) in action. I think Bikram puts it as "You walk the dog or the dog walks you!"

How powerful these thoughts can be, huh?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I got an F? Good.

I'm good at a great many things. I'm a good baker, a good friend, a good nature-watcher, a good traveler, a good reader, a good teacher, and a good morning-riser. Part of me hates the idea of grading, but as a teacher, I'm compelled to do so ;-) In these things, I give myself a solid A or an A-.

If I had to grade myself according to polite society's standards and give myself F at something, I'd fail myself at finding a partner, at "being in a relationship." (As I type this, in a reflective state, I see the absurdity of the statement. In truth, I'm in relationship all the time. Always was, always will be.)

Polite society would tell me I've failed at every attempt at forming a life-long partnership. Some men have left me, and I'm tempted blame myself for being leaveable. Most I have left, and, apparently, I enjoy blaming myself for leaving. I realize that there was nothing "wrong" with them, that they're no more flawed than any of us are.

Still, I leave. And, if given the opportunity, I just might leave again!

Upon leaving/being left, there is an initial sense of despair. It usually comes from the agonizingly universal "WTF is wrong with me?" question. As the years idyll by (ahh, the turning of another decade--I'll soon be 30!), I can no longer cling to the "I just haven't met the right guy" delusion. Time to take stock, time to look at who I really leave when I walk out the door. Time to see who it was I left long before the guy walked out on me.

So... where to go from here? How to take stock? Or, a more immediate question: how do I comfort myself in the face of this pretty painful realization?

Darlene Cohen, a Zen teacher who passed away recently, writes of how her pain has been a source of great strength in years past. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and despite this, it's said that she had a tremendous healing spirit. This passage is a little long, but bear with me--it's pretty powerful:

  • "People sometimes ask me where my own healing energy comes from. How in the midst of this pain, this implacable slow crippling, can I encourage myself and other people? My answer is that my healing comes from my bitterness itself, my despair, my terror. It comes from the shadow. I dip down into that muck again and again and then am flooded with its healing energy. Despite the renewal and vitality it gives me to face my deepest fears, I don't go willingly when they call. I've been around that wheel a million times: first I feel the despair, but I deny it for a few days; then its tugs become more insistent in proportion to my resistance; finally it overwhelms me and pulls me down, kicking and screaming all the way. . . I can never just give up to it when I first feel it stir. You'd think after a million times with a happy ending, I could give up right away and just say, 'Take me, I'm yours,' but I never can. I always resist. I guess that's why it's called despair. If you went willingly, it would be called something else, like purification or renewal or something hopeful. It's staring defeat and annihilation in the face that's so terrifying; I must resist until it overwhelms me. But I've come to trust it deeply. It's enriched my life, informed my work, and taught me not to fear the dark."
There's so much here, really. But what stands out to me now is that Cohen recognizes this pattern: pain, resistance, despair, and finally, the giving way to something beautiful, to an energy that inspires everyone that comes into contact with her.

I think that pattern is evident everywhere. Yogis know it. The more we resist the hot room or a dreaded posture, the greater the pain we feel down the line. But it's precisely that depth of pain that enables us to feel tremendous joy when we finally surrender. The depth of pain enables us to radiate a fuller joy that is reflected by those whom we encounter later.

I'm fortunate not to have a lot of physical pain, but with each F I earn in a relationship, I add to the mucky shadow Cohen talks about. I'm really not complaining, though. I'm actually quite happy! What a powerful reservoir to draw from in the future. Maybe one of these days, I'll stop resisting ;-)

F? Good.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

To suffer, to be restless

Warning: this will be reflective and rambly. Until tomorrow, when I reluctantly drag myself into the office to get caught up on work, I'm on spring break. I'm sleeping a lot, observing cats, reading, hiking, doing yoga, and catching up with friends. As a result, the normal constrictions of time, routine, and purpose have been loosened. I love it.

One of the things that often comes up when I'm "on break," though--be it summer, spring, or winter--is a sense of restlessness. When I am in the throes of grading, when my day is accounted for in 15-minute intervals, I crave a break. Try as I might to balance things out by taking it slowly and appreciating the moment, at a certain level of business, I shift into a hyper-manic mode. Whatever I might be feeling deep down is completely washed aside by the tsunami of activities.

Then, the break finally does come. And it's beautiful. I have a deep appreciation for things I ordinarily don't even notice: the cats' daily routine. The feel of the finished wood on top of my computer desk and the rough, unfinished wood beneath. I notice way the dirt crunches under my feet; the way the pavement refuses to break apart under my weight; the squish of mud next to a creek.

I also notice a profound sense of restlessness. "The break is here! Lovely! ....And, now what? OK, we'll read for a half hour. Then, some light yoga. Then, a snack, meditation, a nap, and finally, Bikram." And before I know it, half a day has been spent in planning the day. It was this dharma talk by Sally Clough Armstrong that gently reminded me how great a part restlessness plays in Westerners' lives. (In the talk, she also refers to her experience teaching meditation to new converts from India, and how students from the region don't seem to have the same problem. Interesting stuff.)

If you find yourself also noticing a deep sense of restlessness, maybe this insight I got will help you too: it's progress to notice your restlessness. If you notice this at any particular moment, treasure that realization, because that feeling is probably there most of the time, but it's been hidden beneath layers of activity. As I see it (and as I derive from Armstrong's talk), restlessness is one layer beneath the "doing," the relentless onslaught of activities we schedule to avoid boredom or anxiety.  Under the layer of restlessness is probably something even deeper we've been avoiding. But we can't get there unless we keep diving past the layers!

I remember reading literary criticism of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, and critics referred to both of these authors as having an "unflinching gaze," a willingness to look, and look, and look, despite how ugly (or restless) the picture seemed. So, I'm thankful for the break's opportunity to continue looking, despite that continual urge to run away by going to Target or out to dinner ;-)

To end, here is a quote by Woody Allen on suffering that Armstrong refers to. On my better days, I compare myself to Tina Fey in 30 Rock. On my rougher days I've been known to think of myself as the female Woody Allen. That can't be a good thing. Don't be like Woody Allen.

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be happy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.” --Woody Allen

Monday, April 18, 2011


I'm stunned. I've been leveled. I've been flattened by a joyful steamroller.

It's spring break in my corner of the world, and it got kicked off on a most lovely note. A gorgeous childhood friend is getting married in a month, and to celebrate, I took a drive up the coast with some girls I've known since elementary school. The gloomy SoCal weather magically dissolved, and we spent the weekend lounging by the pool, picking citrus, and soaking in a hot tub under a luminous moon as we celebrated marriage, babies, and almost 25 years knowing each other. 

So, where's the "stunned" part come in? I'm not quite done processing, but we all came home and, via a chorus of emails and text, agreed that the experience was even more amazing than we'd anticipated.

I think, in part, that these girls have finally grown up. We were never an uber-catty, high-drama bunch, but what little of that there was seemed to completely drop away. It was almost dream-like--it seemed like each of us had learned to make room for the other person in the time that had passed from our last trip together: my lovely friends knew that I would be the first one to sleep, the first one to wake, and to spend a quiet hour to herself doing yoga and basking in the sun before everyone else arose. I could see that this recognition, this knowing,  was felt as deeply by them as it was by me.

I lowered my achy, stiff torso into standing backward bend in my Bikram class this morning and felt so grateful for the warmth, friendship, and this sense of being unbound that we all seemed to experience this past weekend. I bow to it, and I let it go, trusting it will be felt again and again.

Santa Barbara loveliness

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Body is a playground," or, How I got into Yoga

I must confess: I've become a Bikram traitor! Again! Heheheh.

OK, I know there's really no such thing. But I admit to feeling a little naughty when I walked back into my Bikram studio after taking a few days off to try some vinyasa classes. I have been having a great time at this studio. I've been humbled, I've been uplifted, but mostly, I've been reminded that, as my newly-favorited self-help guru Byron Katie says, "The body is a playground."

I have not shared much about my history with yoga on this blog, but my time at these classes inspired me to reflect on how I came to it. I've been doing yoga since I was 16. I can hardly believe it--that means I've been doing yoga for 13 years! I can actually say I have a history of doing yoga now.

When I was 16, I joined a gym to impress my then-best friend. She wanted to "get in shape," and I wanted her to like me more. (Typical E!) She wanted to take step classes and lift weights. I was drawn to one of the (only) two yoga classes the gym offered.

(**I should mention that I do not come from a gym-rat family. My dad golfed and played racquetball, but no one ran or worked out for the sake of staying healthy. I was never overweight as a kid, but I was always un-athletic. I couldn't touch my toes, do ten sit-ups, or run a mile. I surely failed all those presidential fitness tests--you can forget the competitive sports. No, seriously, I'm still trying to forget tetherball.)

I finally got up the courage to go yoga without my friend. From my first class, I was hooked. After all those years of awful P.E. classes and feeling lame because I couldn't even touch my toes, I finally found this way in. And it was all for me. It didn't matter that my hamstrings and shoulders were tight, that I couldn't balance for shit, couldn't breathe right, or that I didn't know what I was doing. It was like someone had given me this permission, this key to enjoy how I felt, regardless of how "good" I was actually doing in comparison to others. Body is truly a playground when you're open to it, no matter how you feel.

Wouldn't you know it? That key has continued opening doors. I was an introverted kid--still am, in many ways--but I don't doubt yoga gave me the ability to stand a little more confidently on my own. Of course, I touched my goes. My friendship with that mean gym girl dissolved. I started looking forward to school, rather than hating the world when my alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. to wake me up. I made cool, new, happy friends through that yoga community. I even convinced my mom to let me go on a yoga retreat in Mexico when I was 17, something I never would have wanted to do if I hadn't known yoga's ability to open me up, to tug gently at the tension binding me together.

I remember overhearing my mom, who had initially wondered about my new-found interest, talk on the phone to one of her friends a few months after I started yoga. "There's something different about her. She even walks straighter."

In coming back to that vinyasa style class, things are definitely a little different. It was humbling. Though I could be wrong, I doubt I'll ever see the physical progress I saw when I started at 16. But physical strength or flexibility were never really the point, were they? I needed to get myself to that yoga retreat when I was 17, and that had nothing to do with touching my toes. Who knows what other journeys await? I might become the most social person on the planet ;-)

I'm so glad I went to that new studio. Even though some of that playground equipment was rusty, it was so fun to give it another spin. After two classes there, my Bikram return was the most phenomenal class I've had in a while. I look forward to finding a new balance!

Yay, yoga!