Saturday, May 28, 2011

Settled: Good. Clingy: Bad.

This weekend, I undertake two journeys. First, I will delight in my childhood friend's wedding, humbling myself by going "all-out": hair and makeup, a navy evening dress, festivities and well-wishing. Then, my father and I fly to Guatemala, where we will travel through jungles, beaches, colonial cities, and whatever else the universe has in store.

A thought hangs  in the back of my mind, like a bat reluctant to let go and whip out of its cave and into the evening sky: I've been feeling so ... settled lately. And not in an "I'm settled because I scooped me up a good guy" kinda settled. But lately, stuff 'round these parts just feels right. I delight in a morning yoga class, followed by an hour spent reading a novel for fun, eating what I want, and sleeping when and as long as I want. Why would I want to leave?
Settled is great. Clingy, however... not so hot. When I get super-honest about what holds me back from complete friendliness to this experience, however, I notice a lot of the clingy stuff--my friends and family, my cats, my school, my yoga, my computer, my cereal, my Jon Stewart :-) I'm trying to remember that it will all be here when I get back and that the experience that awaits me--beaches, long bus rides, colonial cities, underwater adventures, Mayan ruins (even the recent drug cartel attack in Guatemala)-- is no worse, no better. Trying to remember that the clingy stuff is just fear. 
My Jon Stewart
For some reason, this quote from Pema Chodron is on "repeat" in my head this week: "I've seen it all, and I love it all."

Namaste, y'all!

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Serves me right!

Right after my post about rockstar classes--the audacity with which I spoke of driving the yoga truck--I was back to my normal ho-hum yoga classes: painful standing series, temptation to sit out Triangle and/or the next posture, and an overwhelming desire to leave the room during spine series. The anticipation (and, admittedly, anxiety) of travel and the changes it brings have hit.

"What's the use?" I whined during a particularly growly class. Our bodies are borrowed. Each time we look in the mirror, we're older. We're all marching steadily toward the grave, funeral pyre, etc. Why bother struggling and straining as we do in yoga?

I feel like an uber-nerd mentioning Insight Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield again, but I've just gotta. He addresses the question that I'm posing quite beautifully in an article of his. In honor of Oprah's farewell, I allow myself to say, I had a total "Aha" moment.

Kornfield writes of a meditation student so full of anger and judgment at the other students. At just the moment the student was about to leave the retreat from frustration, he ever-so-faintly noticed that he had the ability to see the connection between the physical manifestations of anger (tightness, shortness of breath) and his thoughts toward the students that were pissing him off. This realization was enough to keep him at the retreat. "He realized that his body had become a mirror," Kornfield writes, "and that his mindfulness was showing him when he was caught and where he could let go."

There's not really much more to say here. I think that most of us who practice yoga are comfortable with the idea that the body manifests its emotional traumas. As one of my teachers recently mentioned during class: "I have a very tight hip. When I was little, something happened, and my hip contracted." She had no need to elaborate further--those two sentences spoke volumes. That tight hip is her bodily reflection of whatever pain (emotional, I assume) she experienced as a child.

So... what's the point? "Aha!" There are a lot of good answers to that question.

If you're interested in reading the (pretty awesome) Kornfield article, you can check it out here at the Shambhala Sun.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Self-Hatred? What is that?"

Earlier this morning, I read the comments on my most recent blog post. I always love reading comments, but the encouragement here resonated especially deeply. In the post, I fumbled around with the idea of taking pride in my own actions. It sounds like I'm so not the only one who struggles to be able to do that!

Again and again, one of the recurrent themes that comes up amongst friends and acquaintances is the idea of not being good enough. At the end of the semester, teachers often feel a sense of failure mixed in with "it's all gonna be over soon" relief. We think that some students didn't "get it," or that they won't pass, and we take that on ourselves. In the locker room after yoga, I hear students engage in similar self-flagellation over a class that didn't go well. "I just didn't drink enough. I shouldn't have had that second brownie last night. I was thinking about my kid, and my standing series sucked." And these aren't simple observations--we seem genuinely disheartened by our own perceived shortcomings.

A divided mind
Where does this come from? It's so pervasive, despite our varied life experiences. Maybe it's partly a western culture thing. That would explain this reaction from the Dalai Lama, anyway. (Yeah. I'm finally quoting the Dalai Lama. It was bound to happen, right?)

On one of the Dalai Lama's first visits to the US, Sharon Salzberg raised her hand and asked him about how to work with self-hatred. "Self-hatred?" he repeated in English. "What is that?" It took some back-and-forth with the translators and questioner before he finally understood. The Dalai Lama had to ask Sharon for clarification, and he needed the help of translators before he finally understood what she meant. Finally, he said, "I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange."

There's probably more than one way you could interpret this lack of understanding. Naysayers might say he lived too sheltered a life, or that his teachers overlooked a really big concept. I've also heard it explained, though, that self-hatred is a very western concept. Possibly, Tibetans have their own slew of neurotic tendencies, ones that simply don't encompass self-hatred. His Holiness probably had to spend a few months in the US before he witnessed the vast expanse of self-loathing behaviors. Or maybe he finally watched a Woody Allen movie.

While I am certainly in no position to draw a conclusion about cultural differences between East and West, the story about the Dalai Lama floored me, probably because it gives me hope: it is possible to live so appreciatively that it doesn't even seem possible to grasp the idea of self-loathing. May any human be so lucky as to exchange that problem for a horse of a different color!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Shadows. Yoga. Narcissists. Gold. Suddenly, it got all ephemeral.

I've been having such rockstar classes lately. I just love it.

Yogis joke about the yoga truck. Some days you get hit by the yoga truck, some days you ride it. Dare I say that today I kinda felt like I was driving the yoga truck, as if I were a unionized trucker schlepping goods across the state in record time. I'm gonna allow myself this little dip into narcissistic thinking 'cause, well... it's rare for me to do so. Typically, my thought turns toward what is wrong with my practice, behavior, teaching, grading system, etc, and when I'm momentarily released from it, dammit, I'm just gonna wallow.

 I mulled over the rockstar class, as I typically do with every class (except for the nightmare classes that threaten to haunt my dreams). Yes, my teachers are pretty freakin' great. Yes, I'm almost done with grading. Yes, I'm about to take an amazing journey to Latin America. But none of those things really get at why periods in our yoga practice are just better than others.

I am certainly not qualified to answer that question, but I've noticed that my practice "goes downhill" in the middle of the semester and revs back up again once the finish line is in sight. That cause and effect is obvious. But what's behind it? I tend to start getting very un-narcissist about myself halfway through the semester. Spirits flag in class, students start dropping, my grading load triples, and I figure pretty much everything crappy in the universe is my fault. Then, yoga becomes one more place to practice counting the reasons why I suck. It's almost like I have this idea that because things are "not going well," yoga should reflect that. Probably, the opposite should happen. I'm strong, I'm remarkably flexible, and dammit, I've been doing the same freakin' 26 postures for two years without a break, to say nothing of the years of other types of yoga I've done before.

This is an oft-quoted passage from Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson that might explain things:

"Curiously, people resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously than they hide the dark sides. To draw the skeletons out of the closet is relatively easy, but to own the gold in the shadow is terrifying. It is more disrupting to find that you have a profound nobility of character than to find out you are a bum. Of course you are both; but one does not discover these two elements at the same time. The gold is related to our higher calling, and this can be hard to accept at certain stages of life. Ignoring the gold can be as damaging as ignoring the dark side of the psyche, and some people may suffer a severe shock or illness before they learn how to let the gold out."

Wow. So much there. The gold metaphor doesn't really work for me personally, but the concept of being frightened by what I'm good at really resonates. Glad I'm not the only one on that. Thanks, Jungian analyst guy, for making me feel a little less alone there.

I think yoga gives us the perfect opportunity to see "these two elements" so clearly. When I'm in class, I'm so aware of my body and thoughts. The criticism of self and other, as well as the pride I feel for myself and the other, are observable. So, I really feel those "shadow" classes and those "gold" classes.

No idea if I'm making sense here. No idea at all. Did it all get ephemeral? I'm sorry.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Good Movie. Memorable Mother's Day.

Holy Madre de Dios. 100 posts.

I just felt I had to acknowledge that. I'm not going to mention it again. I think. I'm actually going to fill my 100th post's text box writing about pain.

I spent the better part of the past weekend (or is it the worst part?) dealing with a migraine and its after effects. I don't get migraines nearly as often as I used to, thanks to yoga, growing up, eating slightly better, and having hormones that don't belong to a teenager.

I've always been floored by the pain migraines create. All headache sufferers know that even a small one bugs waaaay more than it should. And migraines give you the extra benefit of making you queasy and throwing up! And then hurting your joints and muscles because you're doubled up in pain! What a good reminder that the body is interconnected. Yay.

Now that I don't get migraines as often as I once did, when they come, I'm floored by the riveting fact of pain itself. I spent a good half-hour slumped on the bathroom floor, my head leaning against the cool tub, trying to focus on the pleasant smell of Dove soap while I moaned through the pain like a teenager experiencing her first hangover. I may have even thrown in a "Mom, heeeellllllpppp meeeee"--to a mother who passed away five years ago--for good measure. (Believe me, the fact that I'm got one of the two migraines I've had this year the day before Mother's Day is not lost on me.)

But all that isn't really what I wanted to say about pain. There was something almost profound about what I was experiencing. The really bad part lasted about six hours, and that time was like a six-hour meditation. There was no distraction from myself. No turning on the TV, no Youtubing, no phone calls, no yoga poses, no emails, no cleaning the litterbox, nothing but my own unpleasant thoughts and sensations to lie/slump/sit with.

Perhaps because I was finally forced to sit so still, all this mental and emotional pain came roaring up. A lot of stuff about my mom that I had simply not dealt with came out and whacked me across the face. It was like that time I was a kid, minding my own business on the playground, sitting by a tree with a book during recess, when a soccer ball randomly fell out of the sky and onto my head. (Seriously, all that happened.) It was there, waiting for me to be captive by something to go, "Oh, remember this? You knew you'd have to face it at some point." There was no escape.

Eventually, the pain began to lift, ever so slowly at first, as if feathers were being pulled off me. I could finally focus on something of my choosing. Many Buddhist scriptures begin, "Oh nobly born, you sons and daughters of Buddha, remember who you really are." I recited that in my head like a mantra, and each part stood out so clearly. I could write paragraphs on each part--being nobly born, remembering who we are instead of learning who we are, etc. There was some real comfort there in spending some time with that one line.

Finally, I got out of bed and watched Terms of Endearment until I knew I was well enough to sleep. Good movie. Memorable Mother's Day. Peace out, blogging world. I love that I can come and write here.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Soup that Makes Up Yourself

1950's TV Dinner
 I ate a frozen dinner today that looked a little like this. I suppose the food itself was slightly less disgusting-looking than the 1950s version to the right, but the packaging was just as neat. Everything was politely divided--mushrooms, rice, tofu. Play nice, kids. No touching.

I got to thinking after I ate the frozen dinner after a particularly gooey yoga class: is that at all like human nature?
A friend posted that she'd reconnected with someone she grew up due to Facebook. For some reason, her post of gratitude for FB's powers of connection reminded me of soup. It's almost like those forgotten or shuffled-aside experiences are part of the soup that makes ourselves up. Sometimes, that pot of soup simmers away on the stove for so long, by the time you sit down to enjoy it, you forgot what was in there. You go back to the cupboard and remember: Maybe it was the old bottle of thyme you found on your mother's shelf. Rosemary taken off a neighbor's bush. Maybe it was the basil, picked fresh and chopped lovingly from the yard. Or, less elegantly, it was the expired teaspoon of Mrs. Dash seasoning salt.
Remarkably, the Mrs. Dash can actually blend with other ingredients that seem distinctly different. Simmer on the stove for a few hours, though, and it begins to really be something. And just try to take out the flavoring from a pot of soup (what do scientists call it? A chemical change?). It's not possible, because they've melded together to form something distinctly new.  
Soup... much closer to who we are, I think. A colleague asked me to do something today, and I was struck by the complexity of my response. There was an immediate desire to say yes. But I didn't think it would be best to do what she asked of me, so I also felt a sense of confusion: she wants me to do X, and I think X is wrong. And then guilt for knowing I'd say no and let her down. All of those feelings boiled up, surfacing simultaneously.

There just doesn't seem to be much of a dividing line. I am not inclined to use this blog as a platform for my views on hot-button issues, but when I hear about people rejoicing in the death of others I can't help but think of soup.
A line from Aleksandr Solzenitsyn:
"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
He's right, I guess, especially in his desperate "If only it were so simple!" cry. If only we were TV dinners. We could just cut out the pathetic attempt at fried chicken and feast on mashed potatoes and succotash. But we're a little more like soup, I think... just try and fish out an ingredient of the soup that makes up yourself.

Monday, May 2, 2011

College. Yeah.

"College, huh?"

Tonight, I was reminded yet again how our multitude of neuroses can be reflected right back at us in the hot room. I must warn you: even as I blog in the cool evening from the comfort of my captain's chair and sip from a cold glass of water, the neuroses are flying off the shelves. I think they're forming a tornado in the middle of the room.

I slunk into my Monday evening yoga class, dreading the experience. It's pretty warm in San Diego this week, and the studio seems to absorb that extra heat. Plus, it's Monday, y'know? Blergh.

The hardest part of tonight's class, though, was not the heat. It was the bitchy comment this fellow practitioner made to me in the changing room before class. OK, OK, it was probably my reaction to the comment that got me all worked up. Damn, though, did I get worked up.

I've talked to this yogi before. She's a teacher, and she knew I was a teacher, too. When she learned I taught at the college level, she raised her eyebrow and said, "Really?"

Tonight was more of the same. She walked into the dressing room, took one look at me as I was changing, and said, "College, huh?" Uhh. I look young. I know I do. Fine, OK, I am young. And I probably don't deserve my job. And I'm probably just scarring the 120 students that come into my class each semester. I'm a giant waste of time and money. I'm such a loser. I should be kissing this teacher's feet. She has every right to question my existence on this planet.

Please tell me I'm not the only one who knows this downward spiral.

Class started up right away, and I didn't have time to ask her what she meant by her question. I spent the class in a mental tug-of-war: "What was her problem? She doesn't know me. I'm a good teacher. No, I suck, I don't deserve this job, I want to be eating salad. Blah!"

The balancing series reeeally sucked today.

Then, right between the first and second set of Triangle, I got it. What a perfect mirror this yoga is. Yeah, I guess there's a possibility you could question the motive behind her comments. But I torture myself with those negative thoughts about my work all the time. I don't need an actual human to get me going on 'em. Until I excavate through those thoughts that are already there, they'll come back, again and again.

After class, I dragged myself to the locker room and managed to gasp a request for explanation of her "College, huh?" comment. She didn't answer directly, but she did share that, like many teachers across the state and nation, she's been pink-slipped. If, by some miracle in the state budget, she does get to keep her job, her class size will increase, and funding for their materials and activities will drop. And even more than getting that "don't judge" reminder, I saw she was a really nice person. She was just fuckin' worried about her life.

The conversation was really humbling. Seems I got a double message: some people have a right to bitch. Also, I'm as quick to judge myself as I am others, and that's just never helpful.