“I’m Here, But…”: thoughts on making your practice your own

image1Often, my newer students come into class with disclaimers: “‘I’m here, but…” or, “I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do tonight…” they start, sometimes with a shamefaced look, “because I’m just really tired,” or, “Something’s going on with my left wrist,” or “I tweaked something in my back,” or “I’m still recovering from this cold I had last week.”

I think most of my regulars know me (and our studio) well enough by now to know what I’m going to say. It’s okay. I’m glad you’re here. You can do as much or as little as you want, and if you need to lie down for the next 90 minutes, nobody else minds a bit. You don’t need to apologize for the state of your body. 

During class itself, as I observe our students,  I can tick off the issues mentally: this one has tendonitis, that one a neck issue, she’s going through a hard time with her family, another one is suffering from almost crippling anxiety, there’s a foot issue in the front row and an ankle problem behind her. My friend in the back can’t raise his arms above his head or support weight in his shoulder. In other words, we’re all kind of messed up in some way. Or maybe, better said: our bodies function on a spectrum of change, and it’s pretty rare that any of us are in peak athletic form. I think that’s pretty average for the general population.

What’s not so “average” is that in this group, we’re learning to be okay with this. Throughout the practice, my students have learned to modify for themselves. So it might look a little bit like controlled chaos (are we all even in the same yoga class?!)– but we’re learning, together, that we can all do yoga and it doesn’t need to look the same.

In my early yoga years, I was a slave to my practice. I struggled to force my body into shapes– binds, backbends, balances– despite the messages of pain that my body was giving me. I practiced whether I was sick or tired. I never allowed myself a day off or an “easy” day.

This worked pretty well for a few years. My body adapted and compensated- I hyperextended some joints (developing a chronic elbow issue), aggravated an existing lumbar issue, and learned to push through the pain to achieve an end goal. I allowed teachers to push and pull me into poses that my body was begging me not to do. I had a beautiful yoga practice, strong, fluid, graceful, and a body that was crying out in pain and neglect.

I recognized that this wasn’t working when my body began to give out on me. I was exhausted all the time, unable to walk up a flight of stairs without resting. My muscles no longer responded to my commands. I couldn’t go on. “If my yoga practice were my spouse,” I said to a friend, “someone would have called the police by now for domestic abuse.”  I simply couldn’t do what I had done before, and had to modify my practice. At first I felt apologetic, and ashamed. Like my students, I wanted to explain, justify, what I was doing.

So many vinyasa yoga classes speak contradictory messages. We verbalize self-acceptance, self-love, encourage compassion. And yet the unspoken message is push yourself a little further. It’s not okay to rest. Intricate sequences without pause, countless chatturangas, and no options given to modify. Our culture (and by osmosis, our yoga culture) values hard work, discipline. How do you know you did a good job? It hurts. How do you know it was a good yoga class? You feel a sense of relief when the effort ceases and you can relax.

This was how I taught for many years. As my own practice changed and I could no longer ignore my body, I found that my teaching had to change. I don’t want my students to hurt, or collapse, or ignore the signs that their bodies are giving them. I want them to know that it’s okay to have an injury and you can still practice mindfully. That some days are strong practice days, and other days are for nourishing and restoring. This is a truly mature yoga practice- working with the body you have, rather than forcing your body to work beyond its capacities or resources.

It makes my heart happy when I see our yogis modifying their practice. During a vinyasa, for example, some students will skip it and take dog or child’s pose. Others take cat-cow, or do cobra pose, or locust. Some will do extra chatturangas or practice a handstand. I do my best to create a community where students know what the options are, how they can modify, and that they are always encouraged to engage in inquiry and dialogue with their body.

After a while, when students come in the door, they don’t need to apologize or disclaim their practice anymore. There’s a confidence that comes from understanding that our body is not an object to be used but a source of strength and vitality, which requires deep listening and nourishment in order to be our thriving partner on our mat and in our lives. As we learn use our energy and our bodies skillfully, we become more available to ourselves and others, and our kindheartedness can encourage others to do the same.

 

 

 

 

The Yoga of Self-Expression

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” -Martha Graham, as quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991) by Agnes de Mille

When I was a little kid, I loved to draw. I could draw lots of kind of funny-looking things: people, flowers, animals. Often there was a joy in the simple expression of putting pencil to paper. As I grew older, however, and began to compare my artistic attempts to others’, I would get frustrated. I could see that what I was doing wasn’t the same, but I didn’t know how to make it “right.”

One particularly upsetting day, I was struggling to draw a person. I tried again and again to draw a nose that made sense- that looked like what I thought a drawing of a nose on a face should look like- but it just wasn’t happening. I was overwhelmed with frustration and maybe even the beginning of a sense of grief that I wasn’t able to live up to what I thought I should be able to do. This is when my mother intervened with a little bit of absolutely brilliant parenting.

She opened one of the many magazines that we had around the house and flipped to a cartoon of some little kids that was part of a frequent column. “Look,” she said. I looked: the children had been drawn with no noses at all. And yet they were still clearly children. They were a different expression of an idea of children, but they were people, and the nose was assumed, or it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter, because suddenly it became clear to me that there were many different ways to draw, to visualize, to convey the idea of something.

My lovely mom in that moment, took on the role of a teacher. Teachers can cultivate our individuality  or (perhaps with the best of intentions) impose someone else’s idea on us. My mother had given me a gift that is still carrying me 30 years later: the knowledge that self-expression is individual, unique, and not better or worse than anyone else’s expression.

Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt stifled by a teacher. Last week, for some reason, I recalled with stunning clarity a picture of a potato that I drew in high school. Well, let me be clear– I had started drawing this potato in my art class, but it wasn’t going very well. My attempts to capture the essence of potato in colored pencil form were failing pretty spectacularly. Our art teacher was a demanding and troubled guy, and the best you could sort of hope for in that class was to be left alone. Sadly, his eye fell on me and the potato art that day. He sat down beside me, took the drawing, and completed it for me. It was a masterpiece. Subtle shading, deep-set eyes and utterly potato-like curves. It could have been promo material for the Idaho Potato Board.

I remember watching him draw my potato, explaining where I’d gone wrong; I remember taking it home and somehow it even ended up framed over my dresser for a time! But every time I looked at it, I felt sad, a little shamed- it wasn’t really mine, and in fact it was a reminder of how I had failed as an artist according to the teacher’s standards.

This memory came to me during a class I was teaching last week, actually. I was watching a group of my students in Warrior 1. Each of them looked different. Their feet were in different places, their knees were more or less bent, their arms were doing slightly different things, and their hips were in varying degrees of proverbial Warrior 1 “square”-ness. And I thought of how, in previous years, I would ask them to place their feet in particular ways, and move their hips into a certain position, and place their arms just so, in an attempt to “get them into the pose.” I’ve attended classes recently that asked the same thing of me. And knowing now what I do about my body, and my students’ bodies, I wouldn’t confine them to exacting specifications. The cues I give to the class at large are much broader and likely to ask them to explore their own range of motion and comfort. My assists or adjustments are becoming more rare- while I love the idea of communicating through touch, I’m more cognizant now of how I may be inadvertently indicating “wrongness” on their part- that I might be sort of metaphorically taking their pen and drawing their potato.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that we are always trying to do the best we can as teachers. I certainly was. It’s simply that with time, I’ve gotten more information- injuries in my body, observation of my students, research from teachers that I respect, and communication with my students.  While I have no interest in taking on the role of a guru, there is an element of power inherent in the word teacher. I believe that entails moral responsibility. For me, it means that I want to empower my students to recognize their own power, grace, and strength within their yoga practice. I want them to learn the value of their own unique expression of creativity in their body.

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How could I do better than to emulate the instinctive wisdom of a mother? To demonstrate to my students that however their creativity presents itself- as artists, as yogis, as human beings- is not only okay, it’s an expression of their luminous, radiant nature and an opportunity to celebrate their singular essential goodness. To me, if a yoga practice is making me feel like I am wrong in any way, I’m happy to hand the pencil back to the teacher and move on.

(Gratitude and love to my wonderful mother, whose love of me and celebration of my life is so complete that she would be proud of me if I lived in a cardboard box down by the river). 

 

 

Falling From a False Summit: Or, The Less I Think I Know, The Better

The longer I teach and practice yoga and meditation, the less I am sure I know. That being said, I do have some critical questions we can ask ourselves as students, and teachers, to be sure we’re on the right path. 

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This is, perhaps, the largest reason for the remarkable decline in my once-prolific blog posts. At the onset of my teaching career, I felt quite confident in many “truths-” alignment truths, meditation truths, insights I’d reached, etc.

I’m sure I’ve shared this with you before, but one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from my valued meditation instructor Tim Olmsted: “Every insight is a false summit.”

I cringe to think at how many times I’ve confidently asserted some yoga “truth” as a teacher- whether in this blog, or in class- only to discover later that this truth doesn’t work equally well for all bodies.

…which leads me to another one of my favorite pieces of advice from Tim (although he didn’t intend it as such): “The older I get, the less inclined I am to give any advice at all.”

We all have different bodies. Different lifestyles. Different needs for our yoga practice. Why, then, did I ever assume that one instruction would work equally well for an entire class of students?

When we begin our yoga practice, or our practice as a teacher, we have to start somewhere. So we emulate our teachers. As students, many times, we take their suggestions as ultimate truths. As new teachers, we repeat the instructions we heard from our teachers. At this point, we’re like toddlers finding our feet- just beginning to occupy our bodies, or our roles as teachers- and we’re still just learning about these bodies.

Along the way, we start to find “truths,” “insights.” Sometimes an injury leads us to discover that a pattern we’ve been following doesn’t work well; or we attend a workshop where a respected teacher gives an instruction that resonates with us. We have a revelatory experience and feel that suddenly, everything has changed. In my case, I tend to become evangelical about this new, better way of doing things. I can remember many times where I suddenly changed how I was teaching a pose because I was sure THIS NEW WAY was the definitive best way to do it.

Then: the false summit. Looking around class one day, I realized that the instruction I was giving for Virabhadrasana I was great for some newbies, but wasn’t allowing more experienced students to explore a greater range of motion or sensation. On another occasion, having taught Janu Sirsasana with square hips for about a year, I felt a lightbulb coming on over my head as I realized that there might be a benefit to doing it differently for some bodies. In these moments, I recognized that being caught up in a concept I’d taken for an absolute truth was causing me to offer advice that wasn’t helping my students. I felt ashamed of my prior confidence and assertiveness.

There have been times, I’m sure, that I was even aggressive in this way: offering this “truth” as an absolute, telling students that they needed to do a pose in a particular way. I deeply regret these moments. I believe now that forcing students to do a practice in a particular way (even by means of suggested alignment) can squelch their ability to experience the sensations of embodiment that can make the practice transformational. Instead of teaching us to feel and explore our bodies, rote alignment instructions turn it into an intellectual exercise: “Am I doing it right? How am I supposed to do this?” Worse, instructions couched in preventative terms (“engage the core to protect the back,” “align the knee this way to prevent injury”) set up a mentality of fear and divisiveness between the mind and body. For me, this is exactly what I don’t want to do. I want my students to learn to trust, accept, appreciate and eventually love the body they’re using.

So, with regard to group instruction, my verbiage has changed greatly. I’m conscious that what works for one person will not work for another. When addressing the group (unless it’s one that’s quite experienced), I am much more general, and emphasize the quality of exploration and feeling. I’ve found that specific directions offered to a class at large tend to work for very few people.  Ajahn Chah, in his book “A Tree In The Forest,” puts it beautifully:

At times it may seem to some of you that I contradict myself when I teach, but the way I teach is very simple. It is as if I see someone coming down a road he isn’t familiar with but which I have traveled on many times before. I look up and see him about to fall into a hole on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him to go left. Likewise, if I see someone else about to fall into a hole on the left, I call out to him to go right. The instructions are different, but I teach them to travel in the same direction on the same road. I teach them to let go of both extremes and come back to the center where they will arrive at the true Dhamma.

When giving individual instruction, when offering specific suggestions, I try to ascertain what the student really wants and needs. Then, I can encourage experimentation and remind them that what works at one point in the practice will change over time. I have some experience and I can offer ways build strength, gain range of motion, and work one’s way into more intricate postures, if that’s what’s appropriate. What’s more important to me, though, is that I am helping the student to have an embodied experience and to feel good about it. That may not include things that once felt important to me- like those particular nitpicking alignment details.

Keeping in mind that this way of teaching may just be one more false summit, I will add that I know that this way of teaching is not what everyone wants or needs. There were times in my own practice as a student that I would have resented an instruction to explore for myself, and that I craved specific, explicit, detailed alignment direction. But- and this is maybe the crux of the matter- I know now that I wouldn’t feel I were offering a real service to my students with this sort of teaching style. I’m less inclined, as Tim said, to offer advice.

As students, I would suggest that it is important to ask ourselves the following:

  • What do I want from my yoga practice? Is my teacher’s style supporting me in my goal?
  • Do I feel that I “need” or “should” do something particular in my practice? If so, why?
  • Is there one right way for me to do this pose every time?
  • How does my body feel after I practice?
  • How do I feel about myself mentally, emotionally, after I practice?
  • Does my yoga mat feel like a place where I am embodied, alive and aware?

As a teacher, I am continuing to explore and ask myself the following:

  • Is my ego invested in this instruction that I’m giving? (I’ve found that if I’m feeling protective or defensive of a particular instruction, there’s something behind it that has little to do with my students’ experience and more to do with my own)
  • How can I help students to feel good mentally, emtionally  and physically?
  • After I teach, how do I feel? Did I learn anything, and how would I handle it differently next time?
  • When I do have an “insight,” am I allowing myself space to believe that it may be contraindicated for some people?
  • Is what I’m offering as a teacher authentic to my own belief system?
  • Is what I’m offering a service to the students?
  • Am I remembering as often as possible that I may be completely and totally wrong?

 

 

Presence in Yoga, Presence in Love

I love to teach yoga to newbies. There’s an almost palpable sense of coming alive in those first few classes. As students learn to move in new ways, it’s not unlike a toddler explore her range of motion- testing out a foot here, or the gaze here, or marveling at what her body can do and how it feels to be in different shapes. Finally, when savasana comes and a group full of workaholic adults lies down to rest and breathe together, I love to watch as their faces soften and their bodies relax into their mats. I think most teachers would agree: it’s pretty magical to watch and work with the someone waking up through the practice of yoga.

There’s also quite a visual distinction between the novice and the experienced student, of course. As a new student moves into a standing pose, you might observe a sort of “floppy” quality to his arms and legs. He’s watching the teacher, following the verbal instructions, and simply moving himself into what seems like it might be the correct position. You might observe that the hands and feet seem disconnected, even lifeless; an afterthought, or a forgotten accessory.

A more senior student, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the sensations in her fingers and toes; the lines of energy lifting and expanding from uddiyana and mula bandha; the subtle changes in the breath and the micro-shifts of flesh, bone and breath within the external shape.

So we see, then, that there’s a distinct difference between simply bringing one’s body into a shape, and bringing the feeling of the shape into the body. The beginner student moves (or, in many cases, forces) the body-pieces into an approximate puzzle-shape and then stands lifelessly in place. The senior student moves her body into her variation on the asana and then begins to occupy it actively, breathing and moving within the pose in a way that feels completely embodied and alive- full of presence.

Tara Brach’s latest book, True Refuge, defines this quality of presence beautifully:

Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience.

I remember very well what it felt like to “wake up” through this process- suddenly I was in my body, and breathing with it, and truly, there is such a sweetness and tenderness to being completely with yourself, aware, awake, alive. It was quite poignant and almost, in a way, heartbreaking, when I realized how I’d neglected myself in this way.

As is so often the case, the on-the-mat experience provides a fantastic metaphor for our lives off the mat. Recently, I’ve been examining my relationships with others- current and historical- in light of this quality of presence.

I believe that it is not enough to simply move ourselves into position with another person- that is, to say, I’m your lover, I’m your friend- and then occupy that space lifelessly. True love- romantic or otherwise- is only, I think, alive and breathing when it is infused with this wakefulness, openness, tenderness.

Maybe it’s inevitable that this will happen with certain relationships, at certain times in our lives. Perhaps we are so occupied with our own challenges that we can’t embody love in this way. Maybe we’ve never learned how. In my own case, I can see quite easily that while I might have called myself a wife, or a girlfriend, and truly felt that I was living in that role, there was an inauthenticity, an incompleteness, to my actions. At the time, I didn’t know how to fully be present with that person- to love him fully, actively- because I was so unhappy with myself. It’s also clear that we were poorly matched, in many ways- so that to be fully present would have meant to acknowledge a painful truth.

In another case, I can recall asking myself why I felt so terribly lonely when I was with someone who said that he loved me deeply. I knew that it was true- and yet I believe at the time he simply wasn’t capable of completely embodying love. He was in the pose, so to speak, but the presence, the attention, the wakeful, open and tender quality was not there- and so our relationship could not flourish.

“If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing. When you are in the car together, if you are lost in your thoughts, assuming you know everything about her, she will slowly die. But with mindfulness, you attention will water the wilting flower. “I know you are here, beside me, anti makes me very happy.” With attention, you will be able to discover many new and wonderful things- her joys, her hidden talents, her deepest aspirations. If you do not practice appropriate attention, how can you say that you love her?” -Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

As part of the spiritual path, bringing mindful presence to our relationships is far more challenging than the work we do on our mats, at least in my experience. While I can do hours of asana practice or meditation with some degree of awareness and presence,  I’m challenged deeply by the daily work of embodied love. My concern with my own self-image, my need to protect myself in some way, often stands between me and full presence with others in my life. Like most people I know, I’m struggling to somehow look good and feel in control. There’s a vulnerability in setting that aside in service of this quality of presence. With practice, this grows easier, I’m finding, and the feeling of really, really giving your full loving attention to someone is its own reward.

Some yoga students never make it past their first class. It’s not easy to work with ourselves in different ways. Sometimes the pain of waking up may feel like too much. And yet- that tenderness, that feeling of being fully present- oh, that’s worth it. We deserve our own kind attention in this way, and we find that because we are kind to ourselves, we’re more able to give that same kind attention to others. And, waking up, we become open and receptive to embodied, active presence from those who are also learning to love fully and completely.

 

 

Who the heck do I think I am, anyway?

Dear Whomever,

The other night I dreamt of an orchestra. It was an odd dream (aren’t they all?)- it had nothing to 10857830_10153961465707729_1143988602728086179_ndo with how the music sounded. Instead it was sort of a broad overview of an orchestra as a unit. I saw my dream-orchestra clearly as a collection of people, musicians with instruments, a conductor, the players who created the whole. I noted how, over time, individuals joined, lived out their careers, retired, and were replaced by new individuals. In my dream, I thought, ‘The orchestra changes over time as people come and go. It’s made up of many different fluid parts, and yet we refer to it as one solid unit- a thing- as though it were permanent, individual, and unchanging. That’s how you see yourself, too. But it’s not true.’

This thought woke me, and I opened my eyes in the dark to look toward the ceiling. I felt myself breathing and absorbed this thought. This wasn’t a new concept to me- my teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and many other Buddhist writers speak of this frequently. But I felt I wanted to share this with you, to try to explain how it’s unfolding for me.

“A river flows with fresh water, always changing, and we still call it a river. If we visit that place a year later, we think it is the same river. But how is it the same? If we isolate one aspect or characteristic, this sameness falls apart. The water is different… ‘Appearance’ is quite an unstable basis for ‘truth.'” –Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, What Makes You Not A Buddhist

In my experience, it has taken some time, coupled with meditation and contemplation to begin to have a felt sense for how this might be true. After all, isn’t there some continuity to our experience? Aren’t I the same person I was when I was a baby, a child, a teen? Upon examination, the facts don’t really support this assertion: cells in our bodies die and are replaced. Studies show that through meditation we can alter the structure and function of our brain.  And I certainly don’t look the way I did 10, 20, or 30 years ago. We can accept that some things will change. In another part of the same passage listed above,  Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche notes,”of course, we say that some things change. A bud blooms into a flower, and we still think of it as a truly existing flower as it changes. That growth and change is part of our fixed idea about the nature of the flower. We would be much more surprised if it became permanent.” Still, I think, it feels more comfortable and familiar to feel that we are essentially the same person, with a quality of identity, self, or me-ness that we reinforce through habits and labels.

Initially, I experienced some discomfort with the idea of not being the same me. I began to unravel some of the stories that reinforced my idea of a continuous, ongoing, more-or-less-unchanging Laura experience, and found that I had some nostalgia, an attachment, to those labels- even when they were negative. I remember seriously asking myself- “Who am I if I’m not depressed?”- Yuck! There was a sense of fear, emptiness, and an immediate need to fill that gap with a new label. “I’m a yogi- or a recovering depressed person- or something-!”

Returning gently to this inquiry again and again- who am I?- or, even better, letting go of the “I” and asking, “‘Who is it that is experiencing this/breathing/eating this piece of chocolate cake*”- I began to feel that I could loosen up and relax into the ambiguity of moment-to-moment experience.

“In a book I read recently, the author talked about humans as transitional beings- beings who are neither fully caught nor fully free but are in the process of awakening. I’m in the process of becoming, in the process of evolving. I’m neither doomed nor completely free, but I’m creating my future with every word, every action, every thought. I find myself in a very dynamic situation with unimaginable potential. I have all the support I need to simply relax and be with the transitional, in-process quality of my life.” -Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change

What does it feel like to ‘relax’ with this quality? Like most humans I know, there are things I’ve said and done that have caused others and myself great pain or even harm. You know: moments that used to make me cringe; things I’d tucked away into dark corners of my memory as too painful to recall. The time I threw a plate at my ex-boyfriend. The hurtful, mean things I said to a friend. The way I ran out on friendships or relationships rather than dealing honestly with the challenges. If I experience myself as a fluid, changing, “transitional being,” I am able review these past actions with a quality of genuine kindness and understanding while still feeling remorse. Because I can now look honestly and critically at these events, I’m able to resolve to handle myself differently in the future.

Yet habits are strong, and the more we repeat them, the stronger they grow (remember this blog entry?). So, in many cases, I’ve found myself repeating many of the same “mistakes.” I forget that I am fluid, in-process. Sometimes I even feel trapped, as though I have to do something simply because I’ve done it so frequently before!

A few months ago, I experienced this when I visited a friend for a weekend. He’s an incredibly kind person, and when he asked me how I was, I crumpled like a Kleenex- I was sad about the end of a relationship and his warmth just triggered my tears. After I pulled myself together, I felt the pull of my past habits. “Now,” I thought to myself, “I’ll be depressed for the next two days. I’ll skulk around and avoid everyone because they saw me cry and be sad.” (Hey, I’m not saying this makes any sense, I’m just saying this is how I had handled this in the past. Maybe you have your own neurotic tendencies. I bet you do.)

So here’s the “aha” moment- I felt an almost physical shift-lightness- in my body as I realized- “I don’t need to do that at all. In fact, that would be really kind of silly, and a huge waste of time.” I remembered this passage from Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living (yes, i do have it memorized):

“At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts, emotions and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited, or to remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned, and incapable of being harmed… If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so, and that the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.”

That’s it, guys- the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available. You’re not the same person you were yesterday. You’ll be different tomorrow. The orchestra seems like a continuous, solid entity- and for convenience, we refer to it that way- but it’s constantly changing, and so are you. So is your partner, your best friend, the guy in front of you at the grocery store who’s maybe a little bit smelly or rude or whatever offends us.

Again, I am speaking here to my experience- for me, one of the dangerous things about the earliest steps on the spiritual path has been my tendency to feel like “I’ve got it!” So, in reading a piece like this, for example, someone may be feeling like, “Yeah yeah, I’ve got this, I’m changing, I’ve changed, I quit smoking, I do yoga, things are great now! High-five, soul sister!” One of my meditation instructors- a compassionate, kind, brilliant man- frequently says, “Every insight is a false summit.” I return to this again and again. Every time I think I know something- every time I think I understand a concept or really “get” impermanence, for example, I find that I really don’t know anything at all. It’s humbling: the more I learn, the less I know. So right now in my life, I’m asking myself, again and again, Who Am I? Who Is This?- and hoping that maybe I’m continuing to loosen up. Flow on, fluid friends. You’re not trapped. You’re not stuck. You’re in process. And that’s really good news.

Love,

Laura

 

*This is Pema Chodron’s idea- in fact, I believe she says she might ask herself, “Who is eating this third piece of chocolate cake?” More reasons to love her!

Creating New Karmic Patterns, & Some Crazy Good Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

In last week’s post, I talked about the self-sustaining karmic energy of recurring habitual patterns. I mentioned that meditation has been helpful in creating the space to identify the pattern and then to create a new pattern.

How exactly, though, does the new pattern get created? In the past year, I was lucky* enough to find myself facing similar situations again and again. In fact, sometimes it was really almost the identically same situation, with the identically same person. Thanks to my meditation practice, I was able to see this happening (okay, after a while. Not so much right away) and I gained some time between stimulus and response.

Then I’d ask myself: 1) How did I handle this last time? 2) Was I happy with that outcome? and 3) If not, what had I not yet tried that might have a different, better outcome?

This was a pretty painful process at times. It caused me to look back at the many previous times I’d been in the same situation, and how my actions had caused suffering to others, as well as to myself. There were days where I felt like a total scumbag and thought it might be best to stop interacting with other people. But seeing how I’d hurt others was powerful enough to enact change where the fear of simply hurting myself wasn’t enough. As I mentioned in last week’s post- I just had to try something different.

No doubt I’m still wreaking havoc with my life, but I’m certainly trying to do better. Being able to ask myself those three questions feels a bit like standing at the entrance to a labyrinth- which way to go?- knowing that even if I screw up, I’m still moving forward. In Richard Buckminster’s words, after all, “there is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”

In the spirit of trying something totally different, I offer you this delicious recipe for vegan ginger chocolate chip cookies. If you’re a fan of soft molasses ginger cookies, and love a dark chocolate fix, I think you’ll enjoy this mash-up. This recipe started with this delicious recipe from Oh She Glows. Thanks, Angela!

(Oh, and to illustrate my point? The next time I think, “I’d like a cookie, why don’t I bake two dozen,” I’ll stop and ask myself those three questions. Because really, I don’t need to be unsupervised with two dozen cookies. 🙂 )

Try Something Different: Vegan Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses (I like sorghum)
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp ground chia seeds (I ground them in my coffee grinder, but you could leave them whole if you had to. They add crunch that way)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • a sprinkle of cardamom, or get creative with any spices you like!
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark (vegan) chocolate chips (if you leave these out, it’s still a fantastic recipe)

Making It Happen: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine coconut oil, sugar, molasses, vanilla, and chia seeds until well-mixed (I throw it in my Kitchen-Aid and let it run while I mix the dry stuff). Separately, mix the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the wet until combined, but don’t over-mix. Add chocolate chips. Wet hands lightly, and roll into small balls. Flatten lightly with your hand and bake 10-12 minutes or until done. Rest on baking sheet for a few minutes before moving to cooling rack. Enjoy! photo

 

*Not being facetious. Until I was challenged in this way, I was likely to keep creating the same karma again and again. I was forced into growth!  

Getting off the Ride- The Karmic Energy of Habitual Patterns

Summer at the amusement park: unrelenting, humid, hot, hot heat. You find yourself in a line of sweaty bodies, too close for comfort, snaking half a mile through a hot indoor maze. Fans drone from the corners, their sad, smelly breeze offering a brief moment of sparse relief. You feel ripe, over-damp from sweat and over-stimulated by the crowds and poor nutritional choices you made earlier in the day. Maybe you don’t really want to be in this line. How can a 10 minute ride be worth this 30 minute wait? Your eyes are on the crumpled plastic Coke bottle in the corner, which has become a symbol for how slowly you are moving, and a metaphor for everything about this experience that you despise. In another five minutes, you think, I’ll be past the Coke bottle. Perhaps you plan to pick it up and recycle it, in a quiet show of self-righteous dignity. Before you is a family that you have come to know too well during your time there. You think critical thoughts about hygiene, discipline, and the poor manners of other people’s children. Your judgment turns inward: Stop being so mean. Why did you do this to yourself? There’s NO WAY this is worth it. 

But- great joy!- finally, you’re a few steps from the gate. The family in front of you- minutes before, downtrodden and miserable- is transformed as they squeeze through the turnstile into a bouncing, joyful photo opportunity. “I’m in the front!” one shouts with glee.  A benevolent fondness toward them warms your heart, knowing you will never, ever have to see them again. And it’s almost your turn!  In a few minutes, you’ll be on the ride. You feel lighter, excited, the previous hour’s suffering forgotten. A bored teenager waves you into your seat and you strap in for the exhilarating rush of emotions.

In ten minutes- probably more like five- it’s over. As you disembark, heart still pounding, dejection has set in, and you’re already planning the next ride. How many times have you done this? How many times will you do it again? As many times as you can. Even when the pain of the line no longer outweighs the joy of the ride, maybe you will keep going- it’s the thing that you’ve always done.

A friend’s recent assertion that karma is all “bullshit” felt like a challenge to me, and I’ve been thinking about how I can share some of my (really limited) understanding with you to de-mystify the concept a bit. This week, I want to look at one aspect of karma: the cyclical energy that drives us to repeat the same actions again and again.

While I have not been to an amusement park this summer, I have been doing a lot of meditation and working with my understanding of karma- and the roller-coaster metaphor really worked for me.

Let’s say you have a bad habit. Okay, let’s say I do (cause I do). When I am feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, or otherwise emotional, I eat. Actually, I binge. The formula is simple:

Stress Occurs -> I Eat Too Much -> I Feel Awful Cause I Ate Too Much

Every time that this happens, I am creating more karma that makes it likely that I will do the same thing again in the future. This makes sense, right? From a neuroscience point of view, every time I repeat an action, I strengthen the connection between the neurons in my brain so that it becomes easier and easier to do it again in the future. And because I’ve always done it, it feels “good”- even when it feels super awful.

Pema Chodron, in No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattvaspeaks directly to this: 

“The…fault of the kleshas (afflictive emotions)  is that we welcome them. They’re familiar. They give us something to hold on to, and they set off a predictable chain reaction that we find irresistible…. Each of us has our own personal ways of welcoming and encouraging the kleshas. Being attentive to this is the first and crucial step. We can’t be naive. If we like our kleshas, we will never be motivated to interrupt their seductiveness; we’ll always be too complacent and accommodating… It is just as difficult to detox from emotions as it is to recover from heavy drugs or alcohol. However, when we see that this addiction is clearly ruining our life, we become highly motivated.”

As I look back at my life, at my sense of who I am, I can see that I am a collection of habits: given certain situations, I am likely to react in a certain way. As in the ride at the amusement park, the habitual rush of emotions is familiar, comfortable, even stimulating. But there’s suffering afterward, and suffering again leading up to the next “ride.”

Pema Chodron is often quoted as saying, “Nothing goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” This is true, in my experience: we will be presented with similar situations again and again. Each time, we can make a choice to react in the same way we’ve done before (because that’s our brain’s pattern, or, if you will, the karma you’ve created for yourself)- or, you we can try to make a different choice, creating a new habit. Better karma.

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When I encountered this Sharon Gannon quote earlier this week, it really clicked for me. Of course! I’ve had a lifetime of being Laura, of reacting in predictable ways, but there’s no reason that I can’t be a different collection of habits.  There’s no reason I can’t create good karma for myself. Get out of line for the roller-coaster.

Here’s why it’s not so simple: it is hard work creating new habits. It’s hard work even noticing the old ones. But, through meditation, some space has opened around my habitual reactions so that I can see more clearly.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s Turning Confusion Into Clarity puts it this way:

“With shamatha practice, we learn to detect impulses in their early stages. We can check an impulse toward anger before exploding like a volcano. If we do not recognize that impulse, then the repetition of angry outbursts strengthens the tendency toward anger and creates its own karmic energy, its own propensity for reoccurrence. Recognition allows us to disrupt the habitual identification that we have with the impulse, and therefore to separate from it.”

I’m going to go ahead and give a testimonial here. Meditation has helped me to handle some of the biggest challenges of my life in a way I didn’t know was possible. The type of meditation practice my teacher mentions above- shamatha- is a simple technique that is easy to practice and completely forgiving. I cannot recommend it enough. You can learn more about this style of meditation at the Tergar website (this is Mingyur Rinpoche’s online community). You can even participate in a free Introduction to Meditation course that is really fantastic.

Yes, it’s work. Hard work! It’s not always easy to make the time to meditate, and it’s really, really uncomfortable to clearly see your own negative patterns. It takes time and patience and a big amount of kindness. So you can start small, with a few minutes a day, and gradually build up.

The alternative? Well, I could keep doing the same things, I guess, couldn’t I? I could spend the next half of my life repeating the choices I made earlier. But I’d rather not suffer in those particular ways anymore, and a lot of the choices I made caused suffering for other people, too. Once I saw that, I couldn’t consciously go on without at least trying to change my patterns.

Happy Labor Day Weekend, and good luck with your habitual patterns (and wish me luck with mine- I need it)! I’ll leave you with a picture of Stanley, me, and one of my favorite karma shirts.

 

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Much love,

Laura