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Thoughts

NOTE: If this illustration and focus look familiar, it’s because in December, I wasn’t able to teach to this focus due to unexpected travel. So we’re coming back to it.

Ponder this for a moment.

Nature and experience (and last week’s focus!) show us that everything is connected. Nothing exists in isolation. The body, mind, and emotions are the same. They are all energy in different forms. And they are utterly and inextricably interconnected.

Not long ago, I was running late to teach class and I was all up in my head about what I was teaching and would I be able to pull it off and how I really needed to stop rushing around and how I wished my low back would feel better than it did.

As I slid through the employee breakroom to clock in, there was a basket I’d never seen before with an Alice In Wonderland sign on it:
Inspirational Words ~ Take One.

So I did.

It said, “Your body hears everything your mind says.”

Of course. I know this and I forget. My body is always doing its best for me. Like a loyal and kind friend, it is always doing whatever it can to support me. And it believes me. It believes everything I say.

So if my mind says, “I don’t like the way you look” or “my stupid old low back” or “I hate my knees/thighs/skin” my body hears it all.

If I say out loud, “I’m not angry” when my body knows full-well that I am, what can result but confusion?

If I think, “everybody moves better than I do” or “I am the oldest/fattest/most injured person here” or “nobody is suffering the way I am” or “nobody is as crazy as I am,” my body believes the illusion of disconnection.

If I think, “oh sweetheart, you’re doing great” or “I can feel that you are suffering. What do you need?” or “you have a beauty that no one else has,” how does that feel in my body?

The practice is to pay attention to what my mind says and ask:
Is that something I want to say to a loyal, supportive friend who unconditionally loves me?
Is that what I want to say to a friend who believes everything I say?
Every. Single. Thing.

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2012-10-19 flash mobMy friend Kate and I led three flashmobs in Charlottesville (see them here and here and here).

Once we made a YouTube video of me doing the choreography in Kate’s kitchen so people could learn it and join in.

Someone commented that I looked stupid in my polka-dotted pants and I was too old to be dressing like that.

I must have had some of those voices in my head, since at first it hurt my feelings.

But then Kate turned off the comments on YouTube and I turned off the comments in my head.

What comments are you listening to?

practice on your own mat savasana room 2Counter-intuitive perhaps, but when I practice on my own mat I deepen my connection with myself and I see other people more clearly. When I sense my own pain, annoyance, happiness, pleasure, anger, fear, I remember that everybody else feels those things. When I’m in my head thinkingandthinking and tellingallkindsofstories, I’m disconnected from me and from others. Drop in and connect.

“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant with the weak and the wrong. Sometime in your life you will have been all of these.”
~ Dr. Robert H. Goddard

practice on your mat stick pose classMost of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” – Chicago Tribune, 1965

Practice on your own mat, my yoga teachers remind me.

Bring my gaze inward, and I deepen my connection with myself. Practicing on my own mat gives me the information to more skillfully make choices based on what is actually happening, rather than what my mind thinks is happening (or thinks should be happening).

It’s true in yoga and it’s true in my life: when I stop distracting myself with shallow stories about those around me, I can actually sense what is true right now for me – the only person I hold any sway over.

The instruction of practicing on your own mat might lead you to practicing alone, just you and your mat. No sweaty, grunting guy behind you, or perfectly bendy girl next to you. And it can be good: solitude and quiet can be meditative and healing. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, taking time alone without distraction is deeply restorative.

We need to practice on our own mats, and maybe alone … but at least sometimes, we need to practice with other mats around.

When my yoga teacher, Sara, instructed me to bring my attention onto my towel, she helped me get out of my head, off of everybody else’s mat, and into my body. What it also did was to remind me of my real connection to other people. Her instruction, counter-intuitively perhaps, helped me see that we are all have suffering and that we support each other by practicing together.

In the midst of a 90-minute yoga class in a 105 degree studio, it’s fairly likely that I’ll be faced with some internal resistance, if not outright struggle, at some point. When I’m caught in some tangle of discomfort, it’s easy to distract myself with stories about how mean the teacher is, or how easy this is for everybody else, or how a cool shower and a cold beer is all I ever really needed to be happy.

It takes real courage to practice on my own mat and show up for whatever may be happening, no matter how stressful. But when I do, when I make that brave choice to show up for my own practice and really notice everything that is happening in my body and mind, something else shifts. I begin to see beyond the superficial in myself … and in everybody around me.

When I quiet the distraction of stories about others and about myself, I can actually feel my direct experience. Instead of “Dang, I’m good. I got my head to my knee!” or “Heavens, that guy sweats himself a lake!” I can focus on what I’m feeling. When I admit that the heat is kicking my ass, that my knees in Fixed Firm are screaming bloody murder, and that I am feeling a little desperate to be finished, I can use it as a reminder that everybody has something that is kicking her ass, screaming bloody murder, and making him desperate. As I deepen my connection to my own experience, it can (perhaps paradoxically) deepen my connection with everybody else.

When I find myself twisted in my own trouble on the yoga mat (or out in traffic), it helps to open my eyes and look around at the other mats (or cars). Instead of fabricating a empty story about them, practicing with other mats around reminds me to cultivate an attitude of compassion, inclusion, and care for all of us.

practice on your own mat savasana feet“[Marichi’s twist] is one of the relatively few poses in yoga where your gaze ought to extend beyond your mat. You look into the distance. There are fewer poses like this than you think. Most of the time, you should keep your gaze close to you. Keep your gaze within the area of your mat. That will keep your concentration where it needs to be: inside.” ~ from Poser by Claire Dederer

An hour into a Bikram yoga class, I’m supposed to be mindfully minding my breath. I’m supposed to be perfectly still, eyes open, paying attention to my body, quieting my mind. Usually, I’m not. Usually, I am looking at the person next to me and wondering where she got that cute shirt.

The spine strengthening series comes an hour or so into a 90-minute Bikram class. Four poses: all variations on back-bending, all performed belly down. Cobra (bhujangasana) targets the low spine. Half Locus (salabhasana): the middle and upper spine. Full Locust (poorna-salabhasana) and Bow (dhanurasana): the entire spine, stem to stern. I’ve suggested renaming the series to the “spine bending ass kicking series.” So far, it hasn’t caught on.

Between the two sets of each pose is a short corpse pose (savasana). Resting on the belly, head turned to one side, eyes open. It’s during the belly-down savasanas that I mentally wander the room asking questions, making up stories … just generally distracting myself. (Evidently, the mind roams even more wildly when the eyes are closed — which is startling.)

Here are thoughts I have had during the savasanas in spine strengthening series:

“Interesting tattoo. I wonder what the story is. I don’t think I’d ever get a tattoo. It’s more permanent than marriage.”

“Wow. She looks really good in those shorts. I would not look good in those. At all. I bet she’s twenty-five. Good lord, I could be her mother. I wonder if my legs ever looked that good. Probably not. I had Early Onset Cellulite.” (And then I smile to myself because I am so very amusing.)

“He’s wiggling his fingers. Does he know that he’s wiggling his fingers? Maybe his hand hurts. He’s supposed to be still during savasana but he’s not. He’s wiggling his fingers.”

Instead of watching my breath, this dialog rolls around like a big ol’ bocce ball in the pickup truck of my mind.

One Saturday, Sara took us into the first belly-down savasana and said, “Relax your left ear onto the towel and let your eyes focus on that magic spot on your mat.”

“Magic spot”! Sounds good. So I did. I found a little loop of towel to look at and – zhoom! – just like that, I was in my own skin, sensing my body. I could suddenly feel my heart beating and my breath moving. Instead of insinuating myself onto my neighbor’s mat, I was present and connected to how my practice felt for me right now. By taking my gaze onto my mat, I got into my body.

Many times before, I’d heard teachers say, “Practice on your own mat.” I thought the instruction was intended to avoid comparing ourselves to others. (Which is cool and helpful since I have a similar running dialog in regards to how much I either suck or rock compared to who’s practicing next to me.) But this was the first time I understood that practicing on my own mat is the most direct way I can connect with what is actually happening for me in this moment.

I notice the same as I move through my day. I can spend a good deal of time looking around, mentally making up stories and offering ever-so-wise suggestions.

“He’d feel much better if he didn’t eat that way.”

“A more thoughtful person would clean up their dishes.”

“She romanticizes the way things were instead of living her life right now.”

Oy. While I’m rolling on like this, my thoughts feel so real and true. But they’re meaningless. They are just distractions from whatever I’m feeling that I would like to avoid.

Either in yoga or out in the day, when I notice that I’m having my bocce ball dialog of stories and judgment, I practice bringing myself back onto my own mat. I do my best to literally or figuratively find that magic spot on my own towel to focus on. Inevitably, as soon as I do, I notice sensations that my dialog had rolled right over: pain, fear, sadness, anger, loneliness.

Practicing on my own mat brings me back to myself and reminds me to pay attention to my own experience. It is the only one I have true access to and the only one I can really do anything about.

sanctuary red doorsSanctuary. It’s such a beautiful word. For centuries, church doors have been painted red to show that they were a place of sanctuary (and for other symbolic reasons). Anyone who passed through those red doors was safe from harm or persecution. If you were hungry, or frightened, or broken in spirit or body, the church was a haven.

The caretaker of the sanctuary would have to be strong, compassionate, relaxed and alert to whoever might appear at the red doors. It might be someone desperate or terrified or hopeless. There’s no telling who might cross over the threshold.

As human beings, we have the ability to make ourselves a sanctuary. By creating an internal environment of strength, balance, and relaxation, whatever presents itself  — be it internal or external — we can allow it in and take care of it.  On a physical level, we can do this by allowing the nervous system to relax.  One way of doing this is to activate movement in and awareness of the hands and feet, which have proprioceptors which sense the body’s position in space.  On a mental and emotional level, we can bring awareness to our thoughts and emotions, allow them in, and allow them to move through.  You can be a sanctuary for yourself.

Below is the playlist (mostly from the 1997 album Songs of Sanctuary) from the class I taught on Friday, October 11, 2013, at the Buck Mountain Episcopal Church Community Center. And here is the poem about allowing ourselves to embody sanctuary: The Guest House by the 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Thanks to all who joined us for the movement, music and magic!
Dance on. Shine on.
Susan

Sanctuary at Buck Mountain Episcopal Church Community Center

Adiemus – 4:02 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley
Tintinnabulum – 11:03 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic/Miriam Stockley
Cantus Inaequalis – 3:18 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic/Miriam Stockley
Cantus Insolitus – 5:40 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic/Miriam Stockley
In Caelum Fero – 7:49 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley
Amaté Adea – 5:23 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic/Miriam Stockley
Kayama – 7:58 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley
Out Of The Silence – 6:22 – Aeoliah
Hymn – 2:42 – Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley

Nature of Mind shooting

A bonus post this week: an essay from When In Doubt, Dance, the book of essays I’m working on.  Enjoy!

Something deep inside me softens when I’m in nature. Breathing clean air, seeing landscapes – be they forest or mountain or canyon or seashore – gives me a sense of ease and space inside and out.

And the sounds! There is something particularly healing about the sounds of nature. Stillness dappled with bird song and bug chirp. Wind through reeds or pines. Water gurgling over rocks or lapping against shore or crashing into beach.

All that…and incessant volleys of gunfire.

Yes, it turns out that during a visit to a state park in rural Virginia, the nearby 4-H Camp was having their annual “Shooting Week”! As Frank and I hiked the trail around the lake early on a Saturday morning, boy howdy, those guys were shooting holes right through every other sound in a 10-mile radius. Every bird, chipmunk, and salamander that we had been hoping to see on this forest hike had taken flight or cover long before we even got our hiking boots on.

At first, I thought I could just pretend the booming was an approaching thunderstorm and have it blend into the scenery. But then the trail turned up near the camp right behind their targets. Each shot reverberated deep in my belly and snapped in my ears. Ignoring it or pretending it was something pleasant was like a friend’s toddler who climbs into your lap and has a diaper blowout. Ignoring or pretending: impossible and silly.

So we changed tactics and instead imagined that this was what it must have been like during the Civil War (not a great intellectual leap given that the park is in Appomattox, Virginia). But then I was off and thinking about how frightened those poor men must have been, heading into the sound of gunfire, and what a ridiculous waste that whole war was, and all wars, come to think of it, and what a dumb-assed way to solve a problem, and wouldn’t it be better if women ran the world, and well, you can see it, the rough and tumble ramble inside my head.

Next, I found myself composing a comment card to the park about how (a) this asinine week of shooting must be publicized on their web site so unsuspecting, nature-and-quiet-loving hikers and campers could avoid it like the godforsaken plague that it was, and (b) how they should just abolish the stupid thing since it truly went against the goals and mission of the Virginia State Park system, nay, of all park systems everywhere. There. Panties fully twisted.

After a time, there was a break in the shelling, and we breathed a sigh of relief. We sat on a mossy rock and ate an apple. We watched the surface of the lake reflect not only the just-turning colors of the leaves, but the touch of every insect. The bird sounds came back and we could hear the wind moving the trees. We even saw a squirrel (albeit an alarmed one). The softening and ease came back into my body and my eyes relaxed.

And then the shooting began again with freshness and fervor.

I had to laugh. It occurred to me that the whole experience was a lot like what goes on in my mind. In fact, what had been going on in my mind all morning. Given the time and the encouragement, my mind is spacious and relaxed, open and creative. But introduce some anger or fear or irritation and — bang-zoom — it’s tight, alarmed, hyper-vigilant and writing strident comment cards. The real practice, it turns out, to stay soft and relaxed even in the face of Shooting Week…and the accompanying thought-brambles.

Because just like the 4-H Shooting Week, thoughts arrive unbidden. I can be caught unawares by their intensity. And just like with Shooting Week, I have a choice. Instead of attaching to my thoughts — feeling either annoyed or angry or making up a story about them — I can just let them go. It’s just a thought, after all, so rather than getting all tangled up in it, I can just allow it to pass through.

Like a puff of gunpowder on the horizon.

~ Nature of Mind ~

Dance Break

• “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield on Buffalo Springfield

Dance it Deeper

• Dr. Daniel Siegel has a number of excellent books on the neuroscience of mindfulness, and one of the tools he developed is called the Wheel of Awareness. In it, he invites us to consciously choose where to direct attention, like changing a channel on a television. You can download and listen to his guided instructions at http://drdansiegel.com/resources/wheel_of_awareness/ .

Dance it Forward

• Take a few minutes to watch your thoughts. Sit alone and quietly and just let your mind wander – but while it does, witness where it goes rather than getting caught in the thoughts.

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