Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gateway to Compassion

I had an interesting article in my inbox this morning. Its theme is related, I think, to some issues I have written about here before. To loosely paraphrase, it talks about valuing and fully experiencing your own feelings as a gateway to compassion. I think this is a nice counterpart to the question of aparigraha, letting go. Paradoxically, it is sometimes harder to let our feelings go because we repress them and refuse to fully experience them, or because we belittle them and somehow do not think we have the right to feel so strongly about what may seem to be relatively minor issues. However, many yogis have found - and this holds true in my experience as well - that by fully experiencing a negative emotion without repression or judgment, that emotion then lessens and becomes more bearable. In addition, remaining open and compassionate to ourselves and our own pain, allows us to approach the world with a heart that is open and loving in the face of suffering. The Buddha said, "Life is suffering," but he also offered an alternative. And the beautiful thing about suffering is that it is universal, it is what brings all beings together in mutual understanding.

This is kind of an accidental blog entry for me! I hope it gives you something to think about.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Wild Yoga Photos

I hope to be back blogging just as soon as I get all these other looming deadlines out of the way. In the meantime, check out these inspirational photos by Andrew and Clara Woodburn of Yoga Warrior in South Africa. Clara's story is a pretty inspirational one too. Thanks to Clara for sharing her journey!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Aparigraha/ balance the two efforts

Aparigraha, often translated as non-grasping, is the fifth of the yamas (ethical practices listed by Patanjali). "Grasping" here refers to clinging or attachment: to people, possessions, dreams, ideas, expectations. You can read an interesting perspective on the practice of aparigraha here. The trick, as described by this writer, is not to reject yourself or others, but rather to experience fully without clinging to your experiences or your perceptions of them.

Those who know me personally know that I have suffered some loss recently, including the death of my grandmother, the departure of friends, and the end of a long-term relationship. Grief and sadness are pretty normal in these situations. Grief and sadness pass with time; however, I think that loss can be a gateway to long-term suffering if we choose to cling too much to the past or to our expectations of the future. The ability to let go and trust the flow of life is essential to happiness and inner peace. Clinging to the way things were could make you miss a beautiful future opportunity. The same goes for clinging to the way things "are supposed to be".

This is always a difficult precept to apply. "Letting go" is different from not caring or pushing away. In Awake at Work, Michael Carroll introduces a slogan that he calls "balance the two efforts". This means to balance "the effort to get somewhere with that of being where we are completely," which he suggests makes up "the core competency of being awake at work" (p. 31). This seems to me to be closely tied to the practice of aparigraha. By letting go, we are suspending our self-talk and personal stories to simply observe what is happening, allowing us to be "available to our immediate circumstances" (p. 28). This gives us the alertness and access to our own instincts which is essential to optimal job performance. This concept of letting go of thoughts and opening to grace and awareness is probably very familiar to performers and Olympic athletes, but maybe less familiar to the average working person. Nonetheless, it is an essential skill for all of us.

In my own work, I definitely struggle with this concept on a daily basis. I am responsible for so many different things, and the day sometimes flies by as a serious of crises and loose ends. When I have a student in tears at my desk, angry letters from agents in my email, piles of documents demanding attention in my inbox, a deadline for exam entries looming, missing paperwork, and a pile of school assignments waiting for me at home, it is extremely difficult to let go and just be. I often find that an entire day has passed without me taking the time to quiet my thoughts and observe my instincts before taking action.

Carroll suggests that when we let go, "irritations that we may easily dismiss - the predictably late report, the sullen receptionist, the unresponsive customer - become reminders to pay attention" (p. 30). Indeed, I find that the times that I do remember to let go and give something my full attention, I am usually invited to do so because someone else's crisis is greater than my own. Sometimes, another person's pain or frustration jolts me out of my thoughts to a place where I can listen to them, observe, and react from a place of compassion. At these moments, I find that I have the skill to deal with incredibly difficult situations with finesse ~ and it is almost like another force is steering me, choosing the words to say and the actions to take. At these moments, I love what I do.

I would like to learn to respond to my own crises with equal compassion. Again, Carroll suggests sitting meditation. My own practice made it two days after my last post before it got buried in the rush to do, do, do. I need to begin again today.

It seems like the International Education field is in need of people who know how to let go and pay attention. When working with other cultures and language barriers, instinct and compassion are essential to diffuse tension and avoid conflict and misunderstanding. We need to develop a sixth sense and look below the surface of our daily interactions. Maybe everyone does. When I take the time to slow down, I communicate better and I attain better results.

I have also noticed that I have a tendency to cling to my past experiences with people, and respond to them from a place where assumptions are made according to past baggage. The worst is when I judge an interaction based on previous experiences with other people from the same culture. Sometimes I am surprised to find that a person is not speaking from the point of view I expected. I would like to work on letting go of conflicts, insults and misunderstandings that occur in the workplace, and allowing each individual situation and interaction to unfold independently of past experience.

Balance the two efforts. Let go. Meditate. Just be.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Tonight we are going to work on balancing our past and our future"

Tonight's yoga class was with Joshua Graner; he studies Taoist Yoga among other traditions, and has a really unique teaching style. He focuses on the connection between asana and life, philosophy, and fine details of alignment that help to find what is sometimes translated as "steadiness and ease" (from Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2.46). I have only studied with Joshua three times so far, but each time I felt that I broke through somewhere new in poses I have been doing for years. Each class has a theme, usually metaphorical, bringing together what happens on and off the mat (echoes of what I wrote about yesterday!). Today Joshua walked in and said, "Tonight we are going to work on balancing our past and our future." I almost giggled. It's quite the ambitious project for an hour-long class! :-) But I feel incredibly alive, aware and present at the moment, so maybe it worked.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Practicing at work

Awake at Work by Michael Carroll offers, as its subtitle puts it, "35 practical Buddhist principles for discovering clarity and balance in the midst of work's chaos". Sounds pretty good, right? Of all the things that go on in my life, work is when I feel the least yogic. So often at work, I find myself goaded into gossip and malice. I become frustrated and lose track of my center. I speak without thinking.

Carroll suggests that this is precisely the reason why work is the perfect environment to cultivate one's practice. Of his own working life, he says "The daily grind, the successes and failures, the hard work and stress, all gradually unfolded as a profound teaching. And central to that teaching was the realization that the spiritual path is nothing other than living our very life, fully and confidently, in the immediate moment... Work becomes our spiritual journey when our destination is no longer just becoming more successful or more wealthy or getting a paycheck, promotion, or job security, but when we also work to resolve a most fundamental question: Can we be at home in our lives - can we be open, honest, and at ease under all circumstances, moment by moment?" He goes on to acknowledge that work is frustrating for many people because it is something that we cannot control, that inevitably unfolds in its own way, messy and complicated. However, he suggests that if we stop treating work's problems as obstacles, but rather as invitations to wake up and pay attention, we can find "a profound sense of freedom and fulfillment in our jobs." I want that!

Carroll proposes a couple of practices for cultivating mindfulness at work. The first is to develop a regular mindfulness practice; he suggests daily sitting meditation practice. I have always had good intentions regarding the development of meditation practice; however, this hasn't ever turned into an actual practice for me. Life ~ as it likes to do ~ keeps reminding me. In my last post, I talked about how every moment is a good moment to begin again. It is clear to me that a regular meditation practice will help me to move forward with my practice at work. I even wrote it into my learning plan for school. I guess now's the time! We'll see how that goes.

The second practice is the contemplation of slogans, adapted by Carroll for the modern workplace from those used in lojong, a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice. I'll be referencing Carroll's slogans as I explore them in this blog and in my own life.

Again, we'll see how that goes... :-)

On and off the mat

Some of you may be familiar with The Holographic Universe in which Michael Talbot asserts that the Universe could be a hologram. Whether or not you buy into that idea, the ideas laid out in this book are engaging. One of the features of a hologram is that the entire image can be reconstructed from a fragment. Talbot gives examples of this in the real world; for example, the concept in acupuncture that the entire body can be mapped on the human ear.

I think that asana practice is holographic in this sense. From any moment of her practice on the mat, a yogi can reconstruct all the processes that take place in her daily life off the mat: all the patterns of self-talk, of holding and letting go, of ego, of resistance, of pushing too far, of denial, of connection, etc., etc. Not only that, but a breakthrough on the mat can translate into a breakthrough off the mat.

Like anything else in life, one can practice asana without being present. One can work without being present, eat without being present, talk without being present. The effects of this lack of mindfulness in asana practice can range from injury to simply not experiencing the maximum benefits of the poses. The same goes for not being present in life. Sometimes the effect is simply less joy, less appreciation, less benefit. Other times, you end up hurting yourself or someone else.
The effects of being present can be astounding. On the mat, the yogi can discover endless variations and directions in which to take the pose. There is always another level, a new discovery. Sometimes, on or off the mat, being present can result in absolute joy and peace where before there was discomfort.

Lately, with everything going on in my life, I've been finding it hard to be present. This morning, I brought my lack of mindfulness onto my yoga mat with me. It was hard to focus, hard to find the right alignment in poses I practice all the time with ease. It was time to back off and treat myself gently and kindly. This week too, I want to maintain this patience with myself. This has not been an easy fall for me, and sometimes I deserve not to push so hard. Today was a day for child's pose instead of the 100th downward facing dog. Today is also a day to nap a little and blog a little, even though my schoolwork needs to get done.

The beautiful thing about a yoga or meditation practice is that it is so incredibly forgiving and compassionate. In meditation or asana practice, the mind wanders and wanders and wanders. And yet, any moment is a good moment to begin again, fresh, from the beginning. In yoga and meditation and life, one is always beginning again. And that's OK. When you are present, the focus is not on the past, how you failed to hold attention, nor is it on the future, whether you will fail again. In fact, infinitely holding your attention is not the practice. Beginning again is the practice. We all begin again and again: it's never too late.

Tomorrow is Monday and at work, I will forget to be present. I can pretty much guarantee it. What a glorious opportunity to practice!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Everything is connected

If you've heard Erich Schiffmann speak recently, you know about the Internet of the Mind analogy. If not, you can listen to him here. (Erich is awesome!) To summarize, Erich talks about the idea of our mind as being like a personal computer, with limited capacity. However by "getting online" we can open to what he calls the "Internet of Infinite Mind".

I find this is easiest to do through asana practice (physical poses). Asana was originally developed to prepare the mind for meditation, and however it works - it does work! Walking home from class tonight after a particularly good asana class where we focused on the concept of "rooting to rise", I was suddenly aware of everything and totally dialed in to whatever it is that connects us... I suddenly remembered the first time I came to San Diego, over 5 years ago, with my boyfriend at the time; we drove down the 805 freeway and came off the off-ramp right next to the apartment where I now live. I probably looked right out the passenger window at the building I now call home - my first real glimpse of a San Diego neighborhood. At the time, of course, I had no idea that I would ever live in that apartment by myself - but here I am. I am who I am and where I am because that moment happened, and all the moments in between happened. And standing outside my building in the dark like an idiot, I felt the concrete reality of this moment and that moment both occurring. Back then, I had no idea I would stand here now... but the moments are connected, inevitably, and somehow I can feel the Infinite holds both these experiences, and more, simultaneous and equal. And somehow I can feel how powerful the flow of life is, and in this moment, surrender. Every moment exists, and doesn't exist, like a drop of water merging into a lake. Every moment is a chance to connect and begin again. Just like on the mat, I root to rise. (I think this concept needs a whole separate post. It was an amazing class and I'm still processing it.)

The question is how to hold this sense of connection after stepping off the mat. I think the answer is: practice. If I can train myself more often during my day to breathe deep and open my mind, it will get easier to operate from this place of connection. And in International Education, where we operate often from different cultures, different sets of communicative norms and expectations, we need this. We need to dial in to the Infinite that connects all of us so that it is harder for us to create the Other - and harder for us to obsess about the Self.

Last time I heard him speak, Erich suggested that if you connect to the Infinite, you will discover for yourself all the teachings of yoga. For him, the main practice should be this connection. The other precepts, the ethical behavior and the guides to practice will rise from it. As my teacher Nikole humorously put it, there's more than one way to skin a cat in yoga. :-) I like thinking about yoga philosophy. But I also think it's true that the Universe is its own guide.

This week at work, my practice will be connection. Making decisions from that place where the Infinite runs through me. Especially, speaking and reacting from that place. These days, I'm so busy that I forget to really connect with the people who sit at my desk or talk to me on the phone. This week, I will try to Google the Internet of Mind as much as I Google the Internet. I am amused to realize that part of my mind wants to reject Erich's talks when I hear him - oh, I've heard this before, say something new. But then I realize I haven't been doing it.

Thank you, Infinite Internet of Mind, for letting Erich know I need to hear it again. Thank you Erich, for listening. :-)


Tomorrow is Election Day! This is an excellent opportunity to practice. I plan to be at my local polling place before 7 a.m. Normally, I believe that one's vote is a private matter and not to be discussed. However, I am happy to publicly cast my vote tomorrow for Barack Obama, a Presidential Candidate who seems to embody many of the principles of yoga. From reading Barack's writing, I sense a striving to cause as little harm as possible through his actions (ahimsa) and to speak and act truthfully (satya), as well as a desire to really serve others. If he is even half as good as he seems, the whole world would be better off with him as President.

Here in California, there are a number of key measures on the ballot which relate to some basic human and animal rights. I am looking forward to voting to give all beings a better chance at freedom! (A small ironic aside - when I was looking for a succinct and beautiful description of ahimsa to link to above, I got to a dictionary site on which the advertisement banner said "Yes on Prop 8" - the California Proposition which would ban gay marriage. On the ahimsa page - really?! I'm sure it was just a random coincidence - the universe is often quite amusing! I did not find a satisfying article, so look for more information on ahimsa and satya in later posts.)

Whether or not you agree with my points of view, if you are a registered voter in the US (or any country) I urge you to vote. It is important to take action and speak clearly on these crucial issues that are on the table in this, and in any election. We can only be responsible for our own actions, but if each of us acts responsible, we have the power to change everything. Please go out and vote to the best of your ability from a place of peace, good-will and clarity.

Although I feel it is very important to vote with conviction, I am trying very hard to practice aparigraha - non-grasping or letting go - this election season. There will be more about this concept in a later post. (It is a pretty intense practice!!!) If tomorrow's results are not as I hope, I will need to let go of my expectation and continue to exist peacefully in the new reality. Once again, I can only be responsible for my own actions and reactions. It is hard to practice compassion for people whose actions and beliefs seem to cause widespread pain and suffering. And yet we are all beings doing our very best to live on this earth in the way we think is right. Every one of us suffers, and harms others from that place of suffering.

I am off to yoga class tonight, where I will dedicate my practice to John McCain, Sarah Palin, and those who will vote against me tomorrow. :-) Oh yeah, and George W. I've been trying to practice compassion for him for years. It's pretty deep and powerful stuff!

lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu ~ may all beings in all worlds be happy and free

om shanti ~ peace to all ~ goodnight

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Embarking on the journey

So many people in the Western world think of yoga as asana practice, the practice of postures or poses. In other words: exercise, a way to lose weight and get fit. What many people don't know about yoga - and what may seem wildly impossible - is that yogis have known the secret of happiness for thousands of years. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, written some time around the second century (although the date of origin is disputed), describe a system that can lead the practitioner away from suffering. Put more simply, in the words of my teacher Lanita Varshell, "life is better when you're doing yoga". The sutras described practices that were already in use at the time, so who knows how long we have had this knowledge!

If yogis discovered the secret of happiness thousands of years ago, why do we now still live in a culture of so much suffering?! And to put it more personally, since this is to be my personal journey, why do I still suffer so much? Why do I forget to practice in my daily life, when I know that it will not only make me happier and healthier, but also decrease suffering in the lives of those around me?

In June, I started a Masters in International Education at the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont. I chose the school because I believe the SIT philosophy is highly compatible with my attempts to increase the practice of yoga in my daily life. In formulating my learning plan, I stated as my second learning objective "Explore ways to bring my career into harmony with my yoga practice." In fact, this is one of the key reasons why I am doing this degree - to give myself the training and the tools to adjust my working life to facilitate my practice - and yes, cheesy cheesy, to do more good in the world.

Under learning methods, I listed things like:
  • Identify key concepts of yoga philosophy and list potential ways to utilize these concepts within the field of IE
  • Keep a journal to track my reflections on the challenges and successes related to the process of integrating these concepts
  • Practice asana and/or meditation for at least 30 minutes daily

Yesterday was November 1, and I find my yoga practice is as spotty as ever and I have done very few of the things listed in my learning plan. I decided that having witnesses to my journey could be an important component in motivating me to persevere. And there is an added bonus - by sharing my journey, maybe some of you will decide to come with me down the path of yoga. Sometimes we will walk, sometimes dance, sometimes crawl but I hope we will learn to travel with awareness.

Thank you for witnessing me. And walk with me for a while. Namaste.

I'm off to yoga class!