Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Offering

What I Have Learned So Far
by Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world?  Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just,
the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?  I don't think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance.  The gospel of
light is the crossroads of -- indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

Here is the promised Mary Oliver poem--hallelujah!  I came upon this at a church book sale, during a fellowship hour between services.  I drank the obligatory cup of coffee before the service, but left once it began. I am a lady who loves her church, but I have been very discriminating when it comes to worship lately.

There is one church that is always my home, however.  The thing I look forward to most about Christmas this year, is not spicy gingerbread, or sinking into conversation with my sisters-in-law, or stealing away to my mother's living room, twinkling with white lights.  These are all things that feed my soul, but what I look forward to most is the Christmas Eve service at my parents' church: the church where I was baptized as a baby, the church where I was married just this year.

This church, as much as the skin on my back or the cozy den I have found in my heart, feels like a real home to me, one of the few places where I walk in and feel completely known.  Like no words are necessary, only song. I get goose bumps when I walk in, like walking into a room I dreamed of once and never thought I would make it back to.  And on Christmas Eve, when I make it back to that place, with my brothers packed into the pew beside me, all the lights in the sanctuary turned out, the bodies in the room like shadows, faces flickering with candlelight we pass to each other, everyone singing verses of Silent Night, everyone retreating silently into the cold electric night...the experience is a purification for me--a celestial event, a rebirth.

I suppose it is natural for me to lead with the subject of church, although I had not intended to.  I meant to start in with the image in Oliver's poem of sitting on a hill watching the resplendent sun rise in its field.  But I've been hooked on Mavis Staples' music lately.  And if any of you have listened to Mavis, you know she has some things to say about Jesus, among some other incredible figures in history.  She has a new album out, produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who I am also pathologically addicted to at any time.  (Yay melancholy, yay beauty.) 

As usual, I have come late to The Staples party.  (Today I bought note cards that say, "Be not afraid of growing slowly, only of standing still" to affirm my eternally slow process.)  The good thing about good music is that it truly is timeless.  I have been blowing out the speakers on my car, on my computer, on my home stereo (am I the only one who still has one of these?) listening to Mavis, her songs, and her voice like an angel who starting smoking at eight.  I am especially obsessed with, Jesus Is On the Main Line, and Wrote a Song for Everyone.  The first is on the Ry Cooder-produced cd, We'll Never Turn Back, and the last was written by Tweedy for Mavis, and performed with Wilco (hallelujah again!) on the new album, You Are Not Alone.  It contains the lyrics: “Wrote a song for everyone/ Wrote a song for truth/ Wrote a song for everyone/ And I couldn’t leave it up to you.” 

Although I believe in art and music as much as I believe in the need for every person to draw breath, the real reason I want to talk about what I've been listening to on my metaphoric I-pod lately is because I've been getting those same home-church-entrance goose bumps from listening to Mavis sing her songs.  Her voice is a force, so full of passion, compassion, honesty, and grace.  And the heart of her songs singing about the fight for civil rights, and for freedom and justice for all people, has been shaking me to the core. 

Returning for a moment to the band, Wilco, (which I am always returning to, over and over), I used to put up with their political activism and Tweedy's involvement in different causes as a girl might put up with her beau's excitement over a new book.  A book about Grover Cleveland.  Good for you, I thought.  Glad that topic does it for you.  Now shut up and play me song (give me a kiss), etc.  Admittedly, I didn't really get it.  I knew that I didn't, and I knew that was kind of a bad thing, but I plainly couldn't relate.  I tried, sort of.  But I knew my heart wasn't in it.  (And I really hoped Tweedy didn't know.)

Sometimes I am afraid that people see the practices of yoga as navel-gazing.  And as someone who struggled through spiritual practices in her twenties, I can attest to the fact that it can be a lot of navel-gazing.  But yoga is founded on the tenet that we are All One.  It is sometimes hard to accept that the radiance you cultivate on your mat, or the forgiveness, or the discipline, is not only important to you personally, but that it literally lifts the world's vibration.  But it's true.  When you sit down on your little pillow to meditate, you are having a tangible energetic effect on the rest of the world, and certainly on those closest to you.  

It is also true that I have met some greatly self-centered people who religiously attend yoga classes.  But I have also met those same personalities in bookstores, coffee shops, and on paths in the woods, too.  Getting caught in the ego of self-study is part of the perils of a spiritual path.  Some might even say it is the path.  The challenge is to get through or around all of those tendencies, to the connect to the great heart that feeds us all.

I had the opportunity to take a class with Seane Corn recently.  Holy fire, batman!  That lady is charged.  I was surprised to say the least by the class, which was Vinyasa-based and a little rote in its postures.  But Seane weaves prayer and deep intention into her classes, and at one point she paused everyone in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and asked everyone to ask themselves what hurts their hearts more than anything else in the world.  She then offered the chance to make a dedication to ourselves, to take a step toward changing that thing within the next 40 days.  (Now that I write this, it sounds exactly like something I experienced at a Christian youth camp when I was 15.  Ha ha!)

Out of nowhere, I was overwhelmed by sadness I feel about people mistreating each other.  And I began to weep.  I wept through the next ten minutes of poses, tears dripping down my nose and onto my hands and mat, making it hard to keep from sliding.  I was thinking about a particular outreach program for people in prison - something I have been thinking about, in fact, for almost ten years.  I've never followed through on my desire to bring my passion for writing to prison programs.  It's been on to-do list after to-do list in my life, but I have rarely done more than mentally strategize about it, and shelve it again and again. As I stood on the mat with Ms. Fire asking me to ignite my compassion and to stand in its ring, the seeds of my original idea awoke in me with their need to offer light in the darkest of places, and tears just poured out with the compassion. 

I came home from the conference--where I took Seane's class--with dozens of new resources, with the buds of beautiful new friendships, and a whole mess of unknown changes that are still making themselves known in their quiet, surprising ways.  (I promise I will someday soon write about something other than this conference!  Maybe.)  I wanted to tell a friend who believes that yogis are hopelessly self-centered that every master teacher I studied with talked about bringing the lessons you learn on your yoga mat back into your community.  But I didn't.  I just  drank in the advice, the generosity, the wisdom rolling around in my memory of the weekend, and tucked the point away for further exploration.  I am much less interested in convincing my friends of anything lately, than of just getting into the things I care about, and letting others do the same for themselves.

Action--the understanding of it, the voice of it, the hands and feet of it--pops up to follow me like a dog in the morning now when I wake.  I still have moments of lethargy, and self-pity, and plenty of confusion about what steps to take to honor my heart and art, but I stand as an amazed witness that songs about civil rights have me crying on the freeway.  This is new.

On November Second, I voted at the poles for only the third time in my life.  And I wore my "I Voted" sticker like a heart on my sleeve all day.  Because that's what it was.  Someone I work with said, "Of course you voted," when he saw the sticker, as if voting was a no-brainer for me.  But it wasn't.  It was a personal victory.  That little sticker was the sign of a big shift of consciousness: a bud yawning open, hoping to see the sun rise.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Little Cloudy

by Rumi
When I see you and how you are,
I close my eyes to the other.
For your Solomon's seal I become wax
throughout my body.  I wait to be light.
I give up opinions on all matters.
I become the reed flute for your breath.

You were inside my hand.
I kept reaching around for something.

I was inside your hand, but I kept asking questions
of those who know very little.
I must have been incredibly simple or drunk or insane
to sneak into my own house and steal money,
to climb over the fence and take my own vegetables.
But no more.  I've gotten free of that ignorant fist
that was pinching and twisting my secret self.

The universe and the light of the stars come through me.
I am the crescent moon put up
over the gate to the festival.

So, I promise I am not trying to make this space into a small anthology of Rumi poems.  What can I say?  It is crazy windy outside and I have been trying to make sense of my head, or heart, or schedule, or something, while all that seems to make sense is the kitchen: heating oil in a pan, salting the onions, wrapping potatoes in foil....The Mary Oliver poem I chose yesterday, full of spearing clarity and cries for action, seems inappropriate this morning, hypocritical even, for I really feel like sitting in blankets all day, baking myself in questions.

In Anusara yoga, there is a lot of talk about the mid-line, both a physical center line in the body and a metaphysical space.  There's also a lot of talk of hugging in.  So much talk of these two things, in fact, that for a while in my old Anusara classes, whenever someone said one of those phrases, I wanted to throw up.

I recently finished a beginner's meditation course in town with the fabulous Gwyn Tash, who was the first yoga teacher I met and took a class from when I moved to Colorado with my husband, Tim, after graduate school.  I remember feeling that there was something deep, almost smoky about Gwyn, and yet playful and lusciously real.  So when, more than a year later, Gwyn invited me to this meditation course, I said yes yes yes, even though I had already been practicing meditation for a number of years.  I basically wanted to spend time with Gwyn, and meet some new people. 

Part of the first class assignment was to set a Sankalpa, basically an intention, a promise you make to yourself that you intend to hold, explore, and honor.  My Sankalpa was to work two, twenty-minute meditation sessions into every day for the length of the course, which was six weeks.   Before that point, I meditated sporadically.  Like a guilty pleasure, my sittings tended to draw on and on.  It felt good to be sitting, something I didn't do regularly.  But because of this unbounded quality, I tended to fear sitting: What if I don't want to get up?  Am late to work, skip dinner, let the dog pee his bed? Etc.

A friend (the famed yoga conference roommate of the previous post) once learned that if she tells herself she is going to sit for ten minutes, then she should sit for ten minutes, no less, no more.  If she decides she wants to sit for longer, then she should get up, do something else (like what?  clean the toilet?), then come back and set herself a new intention.  That sounds lovely.  And highly improbable.  Maybe one day I will grow into such solid commitment to myself.  Actually, that sounds divine.

This is a long way of saying that I wanted to work two short sessions into my day for, I suppose, the same reasons my friend was taught to stick to her time limits: to set and respect the sitting boundary.  The idea was to calm the voice in my head that says, Are we there yet?

Sometimes, it worked. I sat and poured myself into the moment, comforted by the knowledge that soon, sometime, my alarm would sound.  Some days, impatience was loud and unruly anyway.  And some days, I wanted to break something if I had to sit there for the full twenty minutes.  On those days, I would chant a favorite mantra, say a prayer, and end very early.  Oh, well.  On other days, I was so in touch with the tenderness and power of life that I wanted to go to my cushion and stay there in devoted attention forever.

I had a very simple realization when I was at Tim's parents' house for a wedding in the middle of this six-week period.  (I would hereafter refer to my in-laws as the outlaws, as that is a favorite joke in our linguistic heritage, but these people are far too sweet for that.)   Tim and I arrived a few days before the wedding, and everyone but I had chores or obligations to take care of.  While Tim entertained his brother, and his parents were off at work, I had a lazy long yoga practice with a deep meditation, then made myself a giant lunch and ate it on the back porch.  I sat on a weathered swing listening to the open melodies of a set of windchimes as I polished off lunch and took in the dozens of skinny barn cats splayed around me like little sun worshippers.

The next day was overcast.  There were more people around, lots of  errands to run.  I woke foggy-headed, thick-tongued, puffy-eyed: a grump.  I went to check on the air outside and felt the weather's absolute inhospitable nature.  It wasn't cold, or windy, just thick.  Stubborn.  I'm told this is like most weather in Ohio, excepting summer.  Since I hold that state in unlikely romantic position in my head, I tend to forget this. 

Taking in the gray shrug of the day, I remembered the lusciousness of the day before, the cats sunning themselves like proper divas, the wind in the hypnotic chimes as I ate my lunch.  This is like consciousness, I thought.  Or it is consciousness.  A physical manifestation of its constant shifting, its number of moods, its shades of light, its sensations.  I congratulated myself on seeing this (I was meditating a lot, see?), on accepting the day just as it was.  I went back inside, hoping to keep that equanimity of spirit, that openness in my heart, instead of crying out for the unparalleled luxury of the day before.

This is, I suppose, what practice is about - learning to see and embrace each moment for whatever variation on oneness it is.  And now, as I peer into the light of my thirties, I am seeing how the present builds on the moments that came before. 

In her audio-book, Don't Bite the Hook: Finding Freedom from Anger, Resentment, and Other Destructive Emotions, Pema Chodron says that if you have a fight with your lover, you are essentially destroying all of the goodwill and peace you have built up together. 

I used to feel incredibly guilty about this when Tim and I fought. Now I see the other side of this lesson, too - that I can build on the sweetnesses, the trust, the quiet joy in my days.  And as I make a new space in my newlywed house with my husband, I am beginning to understand that which I always thought of as the crazy devotion between my mother and father. I now see it as endurance - devotion still, beautiful and wondrous, and maybe crazy, too.  For to choose happiness everyday is still a radical act. 

Though this happiness, this source energy comes from a relationship to the inside, to the heart, as opposed to rote repression, which I think people sometimes mistake for inner stability (myself included), I now see that one can build up the connection to joy through the days, through the years, like building up muscle in a body.  This is the mid-line.  This is why we hug in.  Why I meditate.  To see where I am.  To check the weather.  And when I am gravely inhospitable, when my mind is stormy and the world looks thick with clouds, I practice to get clear.  To come back in the house, to come home.

P.S. There is a beautiful memoir out about this subject of choosing peace over suffering.  It is by Laura Munsen, called This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness.  Read it! I say.  

Monday, October 11, 2010

October, Lighting Candles

The Guest House  
by 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 whoever comes,

because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Hello! This is my first post in what I hope will be a weekly or monthly post about all things heart--the energy center in our bodies, not the band! The idea for a blog started last winter, when I was looking for a place to explore ideas about yoga philosophy and how I relate to it in my life, and from a few nudges from my brother's darling wife. 

The blog is called Sut Nam Bonsai for a few reasons I can explain, and a few that are still landing in my understanding. The Sut Nam part translates roughly to the phrase or idea, True Self, in Sanskrit. The Bonsai part comes from a little box my husband gave me that contained, apparently, the fully-equipped kit for a  bonsai tree. He got the kit as a gift, and it sat in a junk crate in his office for as long as I knew him. That is, until he gave it to me, whence it sat on a junk shelf in MY office for a number of years. I finally admitted to myself that I also did not want to grow a real bonsai and the kit is now believed to be in a Goodwill pile somewhere, awaiting someone who will properly tend its process. So here is my bonsai, one with strong little roots that I aim to tend.

I can't really explain my reticence to open the kit. Maybe fear of something new. Maybe fundamental understanding of my Kapha dosha nature, which would a million times rather drink tea and eat brownies than hunch over a little plant with miniature pliers in hand. However, does anyone know - is this even necessary to do when growing a bonsai, or did Mr. Miyagi give this illustrious stewardship a bad name? See! Already so much to explore...


This week, I listened to an interview with Women's Yoga teacher Angela Farmer on a website called The Way of the Happy Woman. In this interview, which you should be able to download for a fee from the website, Angela said, "Own every part of yourself as far as you can, and go out into the world with [those parts of you] in your arms, and say, This is me."

It got me thinking about the ways in which I hide myself - the times I am quiet when I really have something to say, the times I drag my feet because I am scared to run and holler...essentially, the times that I tame myself out of fear that I will goof up, fall down, split a tooth, mar a reputation.

Already this sounds like a cry for feminine expression. Maybe it is.

I watched a preview for a movie the other night about the suppression of truth in a village (men!) and one woman's desire to uncover all the lies. My husband thought it looked like the dumbest movie ever. (In fairness, he thought it had imperialistic overtones. At least, I like to believe that's what he said. I don't think it was because it featured women as keepers of the truth...?) I sat next to him in our lazy little chair with its buttons missing and watched the preview, mouth-agape. The movie was, to me, one of those things that crossed my path at the perfect moment.

I've been thinking about suppression of spirit lately; how the analytical mind--the masculine spirit--likes to KNOW, intellectually, and the feminine spirit moves (cue Bono's singing) in, yes, more mysterious ways, with a knowing that is altogether deep and certain but less in need of the stories that we are used to stringing together in order to construct meaning in our days. (By masculine & feminine, I mean the essences of form and flow which reside is us all, regardless of gender.)

This is all to say I went to a yoga conference a few weeks ago and roomed with a woman who was talking about a documentary about witches and how women and some men were killed for dancing - ok, maybe it was in the woods - at night, but the point, or rather the problem, was that they weren't dancing in couples, in recognizable ways, but rather, they were dancing together and alone, and all were dancing in spirit. I haven't seen the documentary, but the way I thought about what they experienced, was that they were feared because they called up divine spirit within their knowing forms, without a church, a priest, a pastor, or a crucifix.

This sounds a little simplistic. Maybe I should see the documentary, because I'm not even clear what time period my roommate was talking about. Besides, details would really help here, because I'm afraid I am making complaints that I've heard others speak before. But do you ever have moments when you finally understand where a cliche came from? That moment rises clear and present in front of you, and isn't a cliche anymore?

That's happening to me now. I suppose my inner feminist is rousing from her cave. But she's looking something like a diva, too, and keeps demanding that someone bring her a cannoli.

It's weird that you can still get into a lot of trouble talking about these things - witch prosecution, I mean, not cannolis (unless I'm missing something). And so, trouble is what I hope these posts will be about: the things I have been used to hiding, out of fear of sounding shrill, fear of not quite "knowing" what I'm talking about, and fear of getting into trouble. Trouble has looked like different things at different points of my life. When I was young, it looked like censorious family members, jealous or critical friends, and a limited educational environment. As an adult, trouble takes on the energetic forms of my own mind, body, and spirit. Sometimes those forms are still relatives, still friends, but sometimes they are books, or clubs that I imagine others belong to that I cannot, or passing strangers I hook onto, asking them to carry my fear.

Sometimes fear can be my greatest teacher, showing me what is hurt or afraid. In other words, the places I need to let go. I'm much less interested in safety these days and much more into exploration. Exploration of healing, of taking great leaps. Exploration of mistakes, too. My friend Dhara, who is a great light in my life, once told me that she always says what she needs to say, but that she has learned how to apologize well. Her apology is not one of declension, but of sensitivity. Not of hiding, or back-tracking, but of moving forward in learning.

I tried this out the other night when, cliche of cliche's, my husband and I squabbled while hanging pictures in the dining room. We were embodying the opposite energetic essence of our gendered forms, however, which is nothing new to us. He wanted to slap a picture on the wall and nail it in. I was full of systems, standing back and surveying. I got out the tape measure, for chrissakes. We both were tired. One of us was crabby. And I snapped. I backed away from the picture and ranted about how I have to do everything myself. "Sorry I ever ask you to do anything at all," I said huffily, storming off into the kitchen.


In the past, I would have justified this anger, clung to accusation to stave off the incredible embarrassment I was feeling rather than admit that my words came from a dark and angry place of which even I wasn't aware. Secretly, I would have felt ashamed and confused, but outwardly I would have held my chin in the air and my tape measure aloft. Instead, as soon as I said the words, I heard how stupid they sounded. So I turned around and apologized. "I don't know why I said that," I said. "It's simply not true." Then I marveled at how injured my little heart can become, and how funnyits wild, sometimes inappropriate expressions are when it feels it is not being heard, or worse, when it is being heard but ignored--namely by me.

I didn't laugh outright in the moment, mind you. I shook my head like someone getting up after a bad tackle, and slapped the picture on the wall and called it a night. But these are the moments I am interested in. The ragged edges. The uncorked secrets. The stories drifting up from years of darkness, finding their voice and sinking into their songs.