Sunday, May 31, 2009

Letting go of the past

"Do not seek to have everything that happens as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."
-- Epictetus

Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure."
--Rainier Maria Rilke

This morning in class, we worked on Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hang-to-Big-Toe Pose). I know the lovely lady on the Yoga Journal site has a big smile on her face, but this is one of those poses that pushes all my buttons and makes me lose my cool. Between sides, Nikole asked us to let go of our struggles on the first side and start the pose on the second side with a fresh and open mind. She said, "We spend so much time living in the past, don't we? Even the things we worry about happening in the future are just things that happened to us in the past. Just let it go."

Fear is a useful thing when you're being chased by a bear. It's much less so when you're trying to balance on one leg with your foot in the air or considering changing your job or moving to a new city. And there's a fine line between learning from past experience (arguably good) and assuming that because things did not go the best way possible last time you tried something that it will be so again in the future (arguably bad). The question is how to know when fear serves to protect us, and when it holds us back from reaching great treasures.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sipping the rainwater

Just because you can’t drink all that falls
doesn’t mean you give up taking sips
of rainwater. If the nut
of the mystery can’t be held,
at least let me touch the shell.

-- Rumi

Today is a rare misty day in San Diego. This almost-rain makes me nostalgic for the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I want to put on some gortex and go sit under a big fir and look at the ocean. Thinking about rain led me to this Rumi poem. This life is such a mystery, but one we should dive into with our entire beings, even though we cannot see or comprehend all that there is. We don't have much choice, really. We are part of it all. We can close our eyes and our ears and our minds to the unknown, or we can open our hearts and try to hold a sense of it: Life! Without fear, try to taste what you can.

Rumi also wrote:
Do you pay regular visits to yourself?
Don't argue or answer rationally.
Let us die,
and dying, reply.
The mystery is within us as well as outside. I'm not even sure there is an inside and an outside. Yoga and meditation take me to that place where the two meet. So do the tops of mountains, and the forest, and the ocean. So does wild weather: the wind and the rain. Poetry. Music. That moment on a run where thoughts end and you become part of the trail, part of the world.

I think that Rumi means that in the moment of death, if we have regularly lived life from the heart, we will accept this too. The final mystery. The last merge. And that our readiness to connect cannot be argued rationally but can only be known in that moment. I have no idea what it means to die, but maybe I am starting to understand what it means to live. To feel the nutshell, rough under my hand. To turn my face to the sky and taste the rain.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Making decisions

"Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love."
-- Rumi

So this theme has been recurring in my life about the decision-making process. It's an impossible process really; every issue has multiple sides and there's always so much unknown. In the end, there's nothing for it but to turn inward and see what is in the heart, to commit to a choice and the consequences of that choice, no matter what those may be.

I'm someone who could agonize over something as unimportant as a menu for hours if I thought people would put up with it. So often, when asked by my dining companions what I'm going to order I'll say, "I'll see what comes out of my mouth." It's not unusual that what I ask for in that moment is not at all the dish I thought I had decided on.

It's odd that a menu can cause me so much anguish, but at work on a daily basis I make quick, sometimes ruthless decisions without hardly a thought. That's not to say I take workplace decisions lightly, but I think that in that context so many of the contributing factors are simply ingrained; I have a wealth of experience that gives me a pretty good idea who these decisions are going to turn out. Add to that the fact that it is my job, my responsibility, to make these calls. People are relying on me. A similar force to that which makes me finally choose a dish from the menu when the server comes to the table, the need to follow procedure and hold up my end of the deal.

In this article from Seeker Magazine, Susan Kramer talks about the idea that yoga practice can help us become aware of tension in our bodies as we make a decision. Paying attention to the sensations in the torso can help you to become aware of when considering a course of action brings increased stress and when an alternative creates a sense of relaxation. In other words, the physical body may communicate to us when we are making a decision that goes against our instincts. It's good to have tools!

I think there is more to this than just tension in the body, but maybe I'm wrong. For me, the hardest decisions are those that could hurt other people and those which have a lot of unknown elements, as well as those where the results don't really matter (such as ordering a meal). That's probably pretty typical. Sometimes I can get paralyzed in these situations, completely bogged down in a state of inaction. All options generate tension. But yoga offers us a solution: get quiet, connect with the breath, turn inward... and then act. (Yes, Erich, I hear you. "Googling the Internet of Infinite Mind" again.)

I've said here before that I believe what happens on the mat is just practice for what happens off the mat, and this is another example. If you have a home practice and you create your own sequences, there's only one way to decide what pose to flow into next, how long to hold it, and what adjustments to make. You guessed it. Get quiet, connect with the breath, turn inward... and move. From the core, from the heart, from the energy within. I think any creative process is like this: music, writing, art. You might know a lot about the mechanics of yoga, music, writing or painting - but when it comes down to the art of it, decisions are not made with the head but rather with the heart, or maybe by a higher power. Sometimes it's as though the poems or music or asanas write themselves.

If you are not used to listening to your instincts, it can be difficult to trust yourself to make decisions from the heart. If your logical mind is arguing one way and your heart another, it takes a great deal of faith to go with your instincts. This reminds me of something I was told when I was about 15 (by a boy I had a crush on incidentally - you'll see why.) He said, "If you flip a coin and then do the opposite of what it tells you, you'll know that's what you really wanted to do all along."

Flip a coin. And then do what you really wanted to do all along. You know what that is.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Satya - To tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about satya, or truthfulness, one of the five yamas (ethical restraints) proposed by Patanjali. The concept is deceptively simply - be truthful in your words and actions. But in reality, it is an extremely difficult precept to follow.

For one thing, satya comes into direct conflict with the restraint of ahimsa, or non-harming. The use of the word ahimsa is an interesting one. Yoga does not simply ask us to be kind to others, it asks us specifically to restrain from causing harm. That is a much broader and more difficult practice. When it comes to satya, the trick is to tell the truth without causing harm to others - or to ourselves. Another challenge is that satya includes not only our words, but also our actions. We must always act in such a way that our behavior expresses our true thoughts and intentions (and don't forget ahimsa.)

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all is the fact that so many of us spend so much time being dishonest with ourselves. It's very difficult to know if your words and actions are not truthful when you are not even consciously aware of your own truth, what you really think and feel in any given situation. For many of us, the fictional stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we want have become such an integral part of the fabric of our being that we are unable to recognize the lies we tell on a daily basis. The tricky thing about truthfulness is that it refers to the absolute truth - so the embroidery and exaggeration that we may be used to using, all of the fish stories and half-truths and white lies that have become second nature to us - these too are not satya. Just because something closely resembles the truth does not make it true.

I admit it - lies perform some very important functions in my daily existence: creating my desired fictional sense of self, preventing hurt to myself and others, avoiding uncomfortable situations, etc. The thought of trying to unlearn these behaviors is pretty daunting. I'm relatively determined - but still, overwhelmed. For one thing, speaking the truth might mean that all of those lovely defense mechanisms would go away, leaving me vulnerable to those classic demons What Might Happen, and worse, What People Might Think. I'm a pretty private person (which you might not know from this blog, but blogging is not real life), and I'm also a little bit introverted by nature so the thought of speaking my truth on a daily basis is way up there with skydiving on my list of terrors. (I'm also pretty afraid of heights.) But I've done a pretty good job of doing things that terrify me, and I'm not totally ruling skydiving out of my future either. Speaking the truth to strangers is a pretty good practice.

An interesting system of speaking truthfully to others without causing harm is Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication (NVC), which I think I've mentioned here before. I've dabbled in NVC and it's one of those practices that I believe in but have trouble implementing regularly in life. For one thing, it goes against our entire ingrained culture of expected communications. The idea is basically founded on the expression of universal and specific emotions which result from universal needs. It's a very non-judgmental way of communicating the truth without blame.

The tricky thing is that when the processes of lying, exaggeration, embellishment, and unauthentic action are ingrained, how do you become mindful of the process in order to stop it? I believe that some yogis will even take a vow of silence in order to facilitate the process of awareness of the thought patterns that lead to dishonest and/or harmful speech. Unfortunately my work will not exactly allow me to do this. I'm trying to just work with awareness, but it's a long slow process. I don't exactly have or easy answers on this one.

I'm half-Japanese and have a little Japanese cultural influence, and I think this is something that causes me particular challenges in this area. So much of Japanese culture is based on creating smooth and harmonious social relationships, and communication patterns tend to be very indirect. I've noticed that if someone asks me the right questions, I'm often able to speak truthfully, but if not, I have a tendency to leave the truth implied or completely unsaid. I've been accused of expecting others to read my mind, and there's probably some truth in that. I also sometimes act the way others want or expect me to, rather than in a truthful way. I've noticed that the result can be that my needs are not met in my relationships with the other people in my life or that the relationships are not completely authentic - and sometimes things build up to a point where the truth comes out suddenly in an unpleasant and hurtful way. I don't intend to mislead anyone ever; very often I am not even aware of the truth myself.

So this all sounds really awful - but it's honest. And don't get me wrong - I'm not beating myself up over it. I think it's a pretty common experience - and great practice. Adopting the practice of satya is like unravelling an enormous knot. Something that takes patience - but which I happen to be pretty good at. We'll see if the skill transfers. Like everything else, satya comes back to mindfulness, back to the breath, to the present moment, to tapping into instinct and figuring out what the truth even is.

Like living itself, satya takes a big dose of courage. I'm giving myself a big pat on the back for even trying. Maybe one of these lifetimes, I'll get it right.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More on the online community

On March 17, I posted some affirmations here. I'm pleased to report that I've made some progress towards many of the things which I named as making me feel alive. I'm actively seeking connections with people who can support me in these endeavors. One tool which I've found useful is this website. In their FAQ, they describe the site as follows:
People have known for years that making a list of goals is the best way to achieve them. But most of us never get around to making a list. 43 Things is great for that! Make a list on 43 Things and see what changes happen in your life. Best of all it’s a way of connecting with other enthusiasts interested in everything from watching a space shuttle launch to grow my own vegetables. So the next time someone asks you, “what do you do?” you can answer with confidence, “I am doing 43 things!”
Basically, once you create an account, you use the site to list goals. If others share the same goal, you can access a page for that goal, see who else is doing it, and see who has completed it. Those who have completed the goal can write about how they did it, share resources they used to help them, and let others know if they felt it was worth it and why.

Also, while you are working on the goals, you can write entries about your progress. Others can then comment on your entries or can cheer on your goals or entries - and you can cheer them on in return. This is such a simply concept, but since I joined the site about a week and a half ago, I've made some really noticeable progress on many of those goals I listed back on March 17 and did not do anything about for two months. I think this is due in part to the support of the (unknown) online community.

I am a list maker by nature and by nurture, so this site works really well for me.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


I recently talked in this blog about being open to messages from the world around us. Sometimes these messages take the form of animals that come into our lives and seem more meaningful than chance encounters. This is akin to the idea of a totem in shamanistic traditions, a guardian animal or spirit that watches over an individual, family or tribe. Whether or not you believe in the existence of totems, I think that it is worth considering what we can learn from the creatures that come into our lives.

Some of you know already why I call myself "dragonfly". When I lived in Japan, I had a significant encounter with dragonflies one fall day in the mountains. At that time of year, the dragonflies are always around - but this day I had a spiritual experience that was particularly significant to me, and when the dragonflies appeared, I had the distinct sense that they were there to guide me forward in my life. They danced around me in the air with such joy, and I felt drawn to their energy. It was much, much later that I read about the significance of the dragonfly totem. This source looks at dragonflies a bit more scientifically, and this one is a bit more metaphorical. Common elements of the dragonfly totem are:
  • Change and transformation
  • Seeing through illusion; seeing things from different angles
Learning about this amazed me because I had already decided that the dragonflies appeared to me that day to teach me: to reveal some truths and to guide me through a significant personal transformation. Ever since the dragonflies have been with me, there's no question that I have been through a pretty major metamorphosis. (I know that many, many people, especially women, are drawn to dragonflies, and normally I try to avoid popular symbolism. ;-) However, the dragonfly experience was so significant and personal to me that its popularity does not dissuade me. Given the symbolism of the dragonfly, it does not surprise me that many people rely on its energy, as transformation and true seeing are key goals of this life on earth.)

In the last few days, I've been visited by a different creature. Each time I leave my apartment, there is a hummingbird sitting outside my door. When it sees me, it flies up, hovers in front of me intently, and then takes off. I tried to tell myself that it's a coincidence, but I can't help but feel that the hummingbird has been waiting for me. I tried to take a picture of it, but it declined to be photographed, so here instead is the plant where it has been sitting:

This view is literally one step outside my door!

This bird was waiting for me so many times that I became curious about whether it was trying to tell me something, so I looked up hummingbird totems. Wow! Among other things, hummingbirds are associated with:
  • Renewal and resurrection
  • Awakening to the beauty of the present moment, to joy, to the five senses
  • Achieving balance
  • Independence and courage
There is no question that these four things summarize where I am on my journey right now. Hello, hummingbird. Thank you for reminding me that I have everything I need right now, to rise up and hover in this moment, in this moment, in this moment, joyful and open.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Words to live by

In October, at the end of a 6+ year relationship, I knew there were things I had to remember if I was to survive. I wrote them on blue Post-Its and stuck them all over my apartment. I have since taken many of them down, but two remain. When I put them up, they were just words - but I knew they were the keys to recovery and that I would need to believe them and live them in order to find meaning in life again. After seven months of looking at them every day, I know they are the reasons why I am filled with peace and joy on this Saturday morning.

This one is by my front door. I look at it every time I leave or come home. It's also in front of the only space big enough to do yoga in my apartment.

This one is in the kitchen.

Trust and celebrate. These are the words that help me through. (These, and Stephanie's email on my kitchen cupboard with Rilke's quote: "For all that is unresolved, try to love the questions themselves." Stephanie, your emails and blog have kept me going through some dark days. I am so blessed to know you. Namaste.)