Category Archives: Gratitude

My Big Brother: On the Gift of Compassion and Love

944134_10200616498431719_528146544_n

In the back of my closet, under a mountain of dust bunnies, there’s a packet of letters. Not, as you might imagine, letters from an old lover, or anything so romantic. These are letters that I wrote over 20 years ago to my older brother. I was in middle school, or high school, and he was at college (before the Internet was available to us, can you imagine?).

The thought of this package makes me cry, not so much because of the heartbreaking content- and it’s pretty wrenching for me- but because of the great kindness and love that it created.

I wrote these letters to my brother during one of the first great bad times of my life. I had always been a depressed and anxious kid, but adolescence was really pretty awful. I woke up every day sick and miserable at the thought of having to go to school, where I felt that I never fit in- that I was too ugly, too fat, too literate, too just not cool. I had some friends, of course, and there were always those who were worse-off than me, but I took my share of bullying* and there was no escape- nobody to tell. My friends all knew and their lives weren’t much better. What could I say to my parents- I’m miserable because nobody likes me? Who’s going to admit they’re a total loser? Of course I wouldn’t disappoint and hurt them like that. Instead, I cultivated a sort of evil mantra for myself that sticks with me still, two decades later, in moments of great darkness- I wish I were dead. 

Seth, seven years older, had escaped to Pittsburgh for college, and wrote me faithfully. I don’t know why, but he found time in his life to think of his little sister, who had always idolized him and generally been an irritant- but there was some good karma here, and he wrote asking how I was. I found that I was able, in writing, to share the pain I felt. Don’t tell Mom and Dad, I said. I’m so unhappy. I don’t know how I am going to make it. I just want to die. 

Rural central Pennsylvania is not a place to be different in any way, as my brother had found out 7 years earlier. He’d grown his hair long, and I’m sure he was called names, as I was when I shaved my head a few years later (Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” always makes me think with pride of us both: “Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can/ All the same old cliches: is it a woman or a man?”). He was a becoming a vegetarian and an animal-rights activist in a time when that could have been a recipe for someone kicking your ass. Like his little sister after him- like so many people in small towns, and everywhere- he was just trying to be himself in a culture that valued conformity deeply. In a bigger city (our town had one red light and two gas stations), neither of us would have been anything out of the ordinary.

But here is the great gift he gave me: having “survived,” so to speak, he remembered the difficulty he experienced, and instead of turning away from it, he let it open his heart. He felt such compassion for me that he continued to send me letters encouraging me. You will make it. I promise it gets better. I know it seems like it won’t, but it all gets better after high school. I love you. I understand. I’m sorry you’re going through this. He told me I was smart and beautiful and interesting and cool, when nobody else** believed it, including myself.

Over the years, Seth has become closer to me than a friend or family ever has to be. In typical Seth & Laura fashion, he sometimes has felt very self-critical of his treatment of me. I’m sorry I wasn’t more there for you. I’m sorry I was mean to you. This too, makes me feel quite bittersweet sad- because I understand regret and shame, but there’s just no need for it anymore. I can’t overemphasize for you the depth of the gratitude and love I feel for him when I think of the  depth of his unconditional love.  In times of distress, I have always been able to call him and, like a gentler reflection, been shown the situation from his perspective. He understands- he does not judge- and he says, this will end. I understand, I love you, I’m sorry you’re going through this. He reminds me that things will change, as they always do, and that I can get through whatever it is.

I’m fortunate to have had this close relationship with someone who has understood me so fundamentally that he can be a light in the darkness- not only because of the help that it’s given me in my own life, but because it has shown me that I can be a light for others. I can be a well of unconditional understanding, compassion, and love for those who are broken-hearted, suicidal, don’t fit in, think the pain will never end. I can listen, and, instead of saying, I wish I were dead, say I understand. I love you. I’m sorry you’re going through this. 

For many of us, there are times where we’re not strong enough to endure our own lives without this kind of support.  I’ve spent the last five years learning to believe what Seth has always said. I am smart. I’m cool. I’m beautiful. Everything does end, and I can be kind and support myself with love and understanding. As a result, my way of handling pain has shifted a bit. Now, in times of great personal misery (and those will still come, I believe, as long as we’re suffering through this human life), I allow myself to feel the pain, and I ask: May this open my heart. May this pain be of service to others.

So, you might wonder- how did the letters come to be in my closet, if they were the ones I mailed to Seth in Pittsburgh? About seven years ago, Seth called me. He was moving out of state, and cleaning out his own closet. If you could have heard the emotion in his voice, you would know what it is to love someone fully. “I found these letters,” he said. “They’re so, so sad- I can’t just throw them away-” We agreed that he would mail them to me, and I would keep them in my own closet. I’ve never opened them- I don’t need to- but oh, what a reminder they are.

In recounting this story to you, I’ve cried quite a bit. Please understand that it’s not my own pain, grief or sorrow I’m feeling- it’s deeper, broader than that. It’s a thank you, to my brother- to the misery we both suffered- for giving me this love I have for those who need it. I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience.

Happy Birthday, big brother.

 

*Speaking of compassion- the girls that picked on me- well, looking back, their home lives were much worse than mine. No “forgiveness” needed; they were doing the best they could to manage their own unhappiness.

**Mom, I know you and Dad always did. The fault was mine for not telling you how unhappy I was. You’re wonderful and I love you.

Advertisements

A Long Post About How I Made it to Yoga Despite Ridiculous Social Anxiety

social_anxiety

Sunday (two days ago) I received a really nice email from geoYoga, the studio that I manage. It was an automated email (it would have to have been, since I didn’t send it to myself), but I liked it anyway. “Dear Laura,” it said, “It’s your anniversary with geoYoga!”

How exciting. I love this kind of thing and the opportunity it presents for self-reflecting. (Yes, I’m a dork in this way. “You sure do like to check in with yourself, don’t you?” someone observed not too long ago. Darn tootin’. I like to know what’s up with me and how it measures up against how things were with me before. It might be a little obsessive, but at this point I figure it’s better than ignoring my innermost feelings).

Prior to my geoYoga experience, I had done some yoga classes through the local adult education program. These were at a gym, an hour each. The teacher was pleasant, led us through some postures and included Savasana (challenging, due to the Eagles music inevitably blasting through the walls from the weight room outside). I thought it was all pretty fantastic, until another student said to me, “I’ve been going to this guy’s classes at the Civic Center, you should check it out. He’ll tell you if you’re doing the postures right. And he lights candles! The class is 75 minutes long.” Wow, 75 minutes, I thought. “That’s a LONG TIME,” I said, not realizing that she was intending this to be a selling point. Oh, how things change.

It had been really, really hard for me to get up the nerve to sign up for that first yoga class. I felt like such an idiot walking into the gym, as though I were wearing a sign that said “I AM A CLUELESS SHMUCK. YOU SHOULD LAUGH AT ME.” Making the transition to the second yoga venue… well, that required even more courage on my part. I had to find the location (I drove by a few times to be sure I had it right).  I also included some Internet research, which helped me to feel more anxiety about whether or not I needed a special towel to cover my mat. I called and asked how much and when it was (I dreaded showing up at the wrong time, with the wrong sort of money- how people would look at me pityingly, poor dumb broad, can’t even get to a yoga class).

The hour arrived- I think it was 6 PM on a Thursday, as though it mattered- and I walked into the classroom. In one sense, this should have been easier- I’d already done some yoga classes. However, I now understood that, by yoga-world-rules, the yoga I’d been doing was sub-par. This was REAL yoga. Longer-than-an-hour-yoga. With candles. When the teacher walked by me, I sweated more. Please don’t talk to me, I prayed. Please don’t look at me, don’t talk to me, don’t engage with me at all until I know what I am doing. From the corner of my eye, I studied my fellow students and attempted to blend in. Aha, a block-shaped thing (later I would find this was called a “block”) could be placed by the mat. Crazy thing that looked like my brother’s childhood Boy Scout belt also at the ready. Crap, she’s got the special towel. I knew I should have bought the special towel. Once the stage was set, it seemed, one sat down on one’s mat and closed one’s eyes. I did so and immediately regretted not going to the bathroom before I left work. Do I have time to go before class? What time is it? Why didn’t I wear a watch? Why didn’t I put my mat where I can see a clock? What if they start while I’m gone? What if I miss some important information? Forget it. I can hold it for 75 minutes.

But this yoga class- ah, it was so worth the emotional distress, and that soon melted away. The room had many windows overlooking the river, through which we could watch the sky change as the sun set. The teacher played fun music. He read inspirational quotes and just generally made the whole thing feel super, super special. I fell in love with yoga. And I began the healing process of getting-more-comfortable-in-my-own-skin- so I wasn’t quite so afraid of things as I used to be. I even started saying “hello” to the teacher, although anything beyond “hello” caused me to become tongue-tied. I felt that if I were to pause too long before him, all of his insight and wisdom would penetrate through my guise and see what an absolute mess I was. The mask would fall away and it would be clear that I was not a terribly functional human being. 

It was a few months into this practice that another student suggested to me that I might want to check out this yoga studio- where they offered a free class Wednesday mornings at 7 AM. Once again, I invested my emotional energy into detailed planning for and strenuous worrying about my first visit to a Real Yoga Studio. That morning, I still felt unbearably shy and awkward, sitting in the mostly-empty parking lot before class. What made me think I could handle a yoga class at a real yoga studio?

But: the teacher that day was one of the owners, and was so kind as I was shepherded into the practice space, I felt that I must have made the right decision. Of course, that was before the sweaty torturous practice began.*

And I loved this yoga studio. It was so perfectly warm and inviting. A special place just for yoga. Where yoga people went, and did yoga things, and shared yoga ideas.

During the following year, I spent more and more time at geo, buying passes and doling the classes out to myself like a hoarded sweet. At the time I thought of myself as being poor** and yoga seemed like a luxury item.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The time I spent on my mat, especially under the guidance of trained teachers, was invaluable. Finally, it felt like there might be a crack in the mask I’d worn for so long. This mask was both a costume (“Normal Person,” the label may have read) and a protective shell.

Up until that point, in any new social situation, I’d been sure that others were thinking what a loser I was. If someone laughed nearby, I knew it was at my expense. I felt most comfortable at home, but it was a sad and lonely thing. I was sure that nobody liked me, and I didn’t know how to change that. I cried a lot. I took a lot of medication. And when I did go out, I put on the mask. It was a lousy mask, really, because it just made me look like I didn’t like you very much.

Yoga gave me the stillness to hear my inner dialogue and the confidence to question it. Am I really klutzy, or is that just something someone told me once? What if I am not ugly? What if they’re not laughing at me? What if I AM worthy of the teacher’s attention? and, most importantly, perhaps… What if other people are feeling this same way?

I began to notice all the ways that I avoided interacting with other people, based on fear. I even found that I had chosen not to buy a new bag to carry my mat in because I thought it might take me too long to put the mat away after class, meaning that I not be the first one out the door and might have to actually talk to people.

The change was gradual, but I think you probably know by now that somewhere along the journey, the mask just fell away.

One of my earlier teachers was a beautiful young woman who was so open. I clearly remember walking into the room- she turned to me and smiled and her whole face lit up with her “Hello!” I thought, wistfully, I want to be that way. I want to be open and smiling and friendly and filled with love. 

I’m looking back from the edge of this anniversary to that sad and lonely Laura, clutching at her mask, and I don’t know how I look to you, but I feel open and smiling and friendly. I am filled with love for her, and with compassion and kindness. There’s gratitude, too, because when I meet new students, sometimes I recognize the trepidation, the self-doubt, the fear, and it helps me to know how to meet that with love and understanding.

Happy Anniversary to me! Sorry this was a little long- I so enjoy a good check-in. 😉

* It was an Intro to Astanga Class, and it was harder than any practice I’d ever done before. So many vinyasas! I thought, Nobody can do this many and still walk out of class alive. I didn’t realize at the time that, out of pity for us, the instructor was only doing them between postures, and not between sides, as is traditional! …and when she explained Janu Sirsasana B, I  thought, What! This can’t be right. Nobody’s foot should go there. When we finally got to Navasana (FIVE TIMES?!), I was trembling, drenched with sweat and wondering how I’d make it through a day of work after the experience. On the positive side, I was so exhausted that social anxiety fell away and I remember being able to chat with other students as I left. Not the teacher (she, like my previous teacher, was on an untouchable pedestal in my mind), but at least the students. Had you told me that morning that in just a few years I’d be doing twice the practice with twice the vinyasas 6 days a week, I simply would have thought you were talking to the wrong Laura.

** once again, I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me how much poorer I could get!

Courage

courage-ee-cummings

Back from retreat and right into new duties as studio manager for geoYoga– on top of some other big changes.

Things can be pretty scary sometimes, can’t they?

However: I am encouraged by my students and friends, those I meet on the path, to be strong, to remember that all things are temporary, and that we can find some measure of ease even in the discomfort. I am grateful to remember that you don’t always have to do things alone. I am reminded that I am not the first person to face these challenges. I see signs that I’m growing up, and, as ee cummings says, that takes courage.

Etymologically speaking: have you ever noticed that the word “encouraged” includes the word “courage?” Seems silly now, but I hadn’t seen this until today. The idea that in being encouraged, you are given courage- how brilliant, simple, and true.  I am given courage by my community, by my family, by what is called in the yoga and Buddhist traditions a sangha.

There have been times in my life where I did not know how to ask for help- or I thought I didn’t deserve the help- or maybe I was just afraid to look like I needed help. Now, I can look with eyes of love at the compassion and kindness of my family and friends (I never knew how many I had!) and know that sometimes it’s just your time to receive.

I recently received an especially sweet and compassionate encouragement from a senior teacher:

Move toward whatever nourishes you- to whatever illuminates the path for you.

I’m sharing her words with you as well, in the hopes that you may find courage there when you need it.

Finally, noticing how the quality of courage can change as we grow and mature, I am inspired by this beautiful poem that I’ve used in class recently. I hope you enjoy.

Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off our heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

“Courage,” by Anne Sexton, from The Awful Rowing Toward God (Houghton Mifflin)

With love and encouragement- and wishes for, perhaps, a more specifically yoga-related blog soon-

Laura

New Year’s Postcard from Retreat

Fuzzy iPhone picture of beautifully dramatic oak trees, garlanded with Spanish moss, at Marywood Retreat Center

Fuzzy iPhone picture of beautifully dramatic oak trees, garlanded with Spanish moss, at Marywood Retreat Center

Happy New Year, friends!

It’s  January 1, 2013, and I couldn’t not write today.

I’m on a silent Buddhist retreat in Northern Florida- it’s a sunny and breezy 60-degree sort of day- and I am out on a dock overlooking the St John’s River. A seagull is looking plumply at me. I am full of white chocolate-macadamia nut cookies and I am pleasantly drowsy, which I hope to shake before this afternoon’s mediation session.

So I’m not sure whether or not I’m really breaking the spirit of silence by writing this blog post- I think if I do this instead of journaling, it’s okay, provided that I do this as honestly as though it were my journal and you weren’t going to read it. I’ll do my best.

Waves are lapping, the dock is gently shifting, and two Minnesota natives are sunbathing nearby- I forget, sometimes, how different it is to live in Florida, where, for most people, it’s harder NOT to get a tan than it is to get one.

I’m having an overwhelmingly positive experience, despite my initial reservations. I was lucky enough to be able to attend this retreat on work-study, or it would not have been a possibility. You may recall from my last post that the few weeks leading up to this one have been really crazed with work and stress. I brought a lot of that emotion with me and it has taken a few days to really relax into being here- into remembering that even if I am working, even if I am busy, I can still be relaxed.

The style of mediation that I practice is shamatha, sometimes translated as calm-abiding. Sometime in the past few months, although I continued to meditate, I lost some of the sense of how it can be a metaphor for the rest of my life. The idea in shamatha meditation is that you meditate “without meditating,” by allowing things to be just as they are and just bringing your awareness to them.

{Please note that this is not an instruction and possibly not even a good explanation, and you should absolutely read The Joy of Living by Mingyur Rinpoche for a brilliant introduction}

2012 was an enormous year. I’m going to indulge myself here by recapping- you’re welcome to skip it, but since this is in lieu of a journal entry, I feel entitled. This year I: completed yoga teaching certification, quit my banking career, halved my income, got married, husband lost job, started working for 6 different people (studio owners and business owners), taught a total of 461 hours of yoga, finally quit taking anti-depressants (after 15+ years), helped plan a Buddhist retreat (which I’d never attended), became a chicken owner. Almost every day has been a chance to live outside of my comfort zone.

2013 is, so far, no different. I’m on this retreat, practicing silence, meditating 4+ hours per day,  and feeling an overwhelming sweep of emotions. Gratitude. Love. Fear, excitement. I am practicing resting in each of these awkward moments, feeling the discomfort and living through it, and then watching as the emotion changes to something else.

I woke up early this morning- couldn’t sleep anymore, had to move! I almost ran through the dark, couldn’t wait- I took my overindulged (the food is great here) and sore (sitting for so long is not easy) body to my mat and somehow I found the courage to do something else I’ve never done- a mala of Sun Salutations. That’s 108 of them, not all of them pretty, some of them sloppy, and I think I did more like 112, cause I lost count and made myself do a few extra just in case (never did care for numbers, sorry, Banking Career).

As I moved, I was aware of how my body felt, how my mind experienced the sensations of practice, and how the experience changed. Emotions, judgments, ideas, were born and died in the space of seconds. And I kept moving, kept practicing, and look: here I am. A living, breathing, metaphor, for this life, never easy, always beautiful, a life that has me by turns feeling like a proud party host- come in, let me show you how gorgeous everything is!- and then again, at times, more like a sullen teenager who wants nothing more than to crawl under the covers and die of her own misery. That’s life. Can I rest in, relax in, the weirdness of it all? I’m trying.

I’ll leave you with a beautiful aspiration from this morning’s practice- what more fitting way to open a new year?

Dedication from Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life By Shantideva

May all beings everywhere

Plagued by sufferings of body and mind

Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy

By virtue of my merits.

May no living creature suffer,

Commit evil or ever fall ill.

May no one be afraid or belittled,

With a  mind weighed down by depression.

May the blind see forms,

And the deaf hear sounds.

May those whose bodies are worn with toil

Be restored on finding repose.

May the naked find clothing,

The hungry find food.

May the thirsty find water

And delicious drinks.

May the poor find wealth,

Those weak with sorrow find joy.

May the forlorn find hope,

Constant happiness and prosperity.

May all who are ill or injured

Quickly be freed from their ailments.

Whatever diseases there are in the world,

May these never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid

And those bound be freed

May the powerless find power

And may people think of benefiting each other

For as long as space endures

And as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I too abide

To dispel the misery of the world.

Gratitude: The Universe Unfolds as it Should

The poet Kahlil Gibran suggests that we “wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.” What a beautiful sentiment, and how far it is from my typical dawn, in which I wake with a stiff back, a chorus of barking Pomeranians, and a deep and cranky longing for a little more sleep! If you feel less like Kahlil Gibran and more like Laura Wenger, this post is for you. 

Thank You Stones

One of my friends and students shared Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata with me recently. I hadn’t seen it in years and I was struck by these lines:

“And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.”

So straightforward- it cut right to my heart. Gratitude is not always natural for me and I love these reminders. It is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Suck it up, sister! (Now I’m just paraphrasing).

Sometimes ingratitude can sneak up on you. Not sure how you measure up? Check out this idea of the Gratitude Ratio from meditation teacher Phillip Moffit’s online essay on Selfless Gratitude.

“You might ask yourself about your ‘gratitude ratio.’ Do you experience the good things in your life in true proportion to the bad things? Or do the bad things receive a disproportionate amount of your attention, such that you have a distorted sense of your life?…When you look at how much griping you do versus how much gratitude you feel, you realize how far off your emotional response is from your real situation…Why would you want to go around with a distorted view of your life, particularly when it makes you miserable?”

Naturally I don’t want to have a distorted view of life, and I am fortunate (see, there’s gratitude!!) to have tools that keep me on track. Meditation and practiced mindfulness are a tremendous help to me in my own personal gratitude practice. The style of meditation that I practice teaches that thoughts and emotions are like weather in the sky of my awareness- familiar, but temporary and ultimately inconsequential to the sky itself. Noticing thoughts and emotions as they arise and seeing them as “mind-weather” helps my gratitude ratio to look a little more balanced.

Nonetheless, it is a practice, and there will be days when your inner child is throwing a tantrum about something or other, and your awareness is completely clouded with dark and stormy thoughts. Perhaps, as Ehrmann says, all you see are “shams, drudgery, and broken dreams.” On those days, some common sense from the Bhagavad Gita might be helpful:

“What is it you lost that you are grieving for? What is it that you brought into this world that you have lost? Whatever you gained, you gained from this world. Whatever you lost, you lost to this world. What belongs to you today, belonged to someone else yesterday and will belong to someone else tomorrow.”

Remember Aparigraha? Knowing that all things are temporary, that both abundance and suffering will come and go as part of your life, is a lovely place to find a spontaneous source of gratitude. I am grateful for the many gifts of my life. I am grateful that suffering does not last. Sometimes I even manage to be grateful for the lessons found in suffering.

Albert Schweitzer: “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” It wouldn’t be a Thanksgiving post without me saying: Thank you to you. You light my flame, and not in a weird or gross way, but in a profound and generous way that keeps me going. I am so grateful to all of you who take the time to come to my class, to read and comment on these thoughts, and to those of you who email to share in return. I am passionately grateful for my teachers and my students, who are also, of course, my teachers.

No doubt, the universe is unfolding as it should. Thanksgiving blessings, friends!

Photo credit: Incognita Nom de Plume / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND