Friday, September 18, 2009

Releasing your Expectations

September 18, 2009
Finding Joy in Life's Surprises
Releasing Your Expectations

As we endeavor to find personal fulfillment and realize our individual ideals, we naturally form emotional attachments to those outcomes we hope will come to pass. These expectations can serve as a source of stability, allowing us to draft plans based on our visions of the future, but they can also limit our potential for happiness by blinding us to equally satisfying yet unexpected outcomes. Instead of taking pleasure in the surprising circumstances unfolding around us, we mourn for the anticipation left unfulfilled. When we think of letting go of our expectations, we may find ourselves at the mercy of a small inner voice that admonishes us to strive for specific goals, even if they continually elude us. However, the opposite of expectation is not pessimism. We can retain our optimism and free ourselves from the need to focus on specific probabilities by opening our hearts and minds to a wide variety of possible outcomes.

When we expect a situation, event, or confrontation to unfold in a certain way, it becomes more difficult to enjoy the surprises that have the potential to become profound blessings. Likewise, we may feel that we failed to meet our inner objectives because we were unable to bring about the desired results through our choices and actions. Consider, though, that we are all at the mercy of the universal flow, and our best intentions are often thwarted by fate. As you grow increasingly open to unforeseen outcomes, you will be more apt to look for and recognize the positive elements of your new circumstances. This receptivity to the unexpected can serve you well when you are called upon to compromise with others, your life plans seem to go awry, or the world moves forward in an unanticipated manner by granting you the flexibility to see the positive aspects of almost any outcome.

The further you distance yourself from your expectations, the more exhilarating your life will become. Though a situation in which you find yourself may not correspond to your initial wants, needs, or goals, ask yourself how you can make the most of it and then do your best to adapt. Your life’s journey will likely take many unpredicted and astonishing twists because you are willing to release your expectations.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Fear of falling

"Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive -- the risk to be alive and express what we really are."
-- Don Miguel Ruiz

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do."
-- Eleanor Roosevelt

Arm balances and inversions are classic ways to work with the emotion of fear in hatha yoga. I've recently been re-visiting both after years of avoidance. These poses raise in me, as for many people, a sense of impossible challenge - both in terms of strength and skill. I was content with my sun salutations, but recently I've been encouraging myself to confront my fears and work on these postures. I've learned a lot in particular from bakasana (crane pose) and salamba sirsasana (headstand) in recent weeks. Both poses evoke fear in me - but that has come about in different ways for each pose - and in both poses I have recently begun to overcome my fear of falling.

I was introduced to bakasana several years ago by a teacher I liked and trusted. I had been pursuing a lot of gentle and restorative yoga during that period, which was helping me cope with a stressful job change. As I returned to more faster, flow-based asana, I discovered that I had built a lot of strength and flexibility working in the gentler traditions. When this teacher demonstrated bakasana, I believed her assertion that I could accomplish this pose. Like a child who has not yet learned that the world holds dangers, I went into the pose innocently and fearlessly. I soon lifted into the beginner variation of this pose, feet lifted but arms not yet straight, and I loved how it felt to balance there.

So where did my fear of this pose come from? In researching for this post, I found this about arm balances on Mark Stephens' web page: "They involve fear and ego while bringing about self-confidence and humility." I was about to experience the ego and humility part of things. Eager to show off this new arm balance one day, I attempted it at home without warming up, went into it too quickly, held it briefly, and then crashed hard onto the bridge of my nose. It hurt! I was wearing glasses at the time, which bent quite badly but luckily could be repaired. My ego and my innocent fearlessness, however, took more permanent damage and for the next two years or more I was unable to lift even one foot off the ground in this pose.

Headstand is different. Inversions terrify me (with the exception of shoulder stand, which I think I went into early enough in my practice that it didn't occur to me to be scared). Of course I can't do that, I tell myself. I'll fall and/or smash my head on the ground! Whenever headstand has come up in class, I've done the preparatory exercises, which were scary enough. Working with my fear in the preparatory poses was hard; it never occurred to me to actually try to kick up into the full pose.

Several weeks ago, I was practicing at home and I just kicked up into headstand at the wall. I have no idea what made me do it. There's no question that I had the ability to do this all along. I could tell that my alignment was good in the pose; my weight was in my arms, and I was comfortable there. All the fear just melted away, and since I've been able to continue working in the pose. It has done wonders for my self-confidence!

Bakasana is harder. I wonder if this is because my body has a painful memory to go along with the fear. I am just beginning to trust the strength of my arms again, my ability to know how the weight of my body should be distributed. It takes me a long time to find the courage, but I'm finally able to lift my feet off the ground again. I hope that one day I'll be able to straighten the arms.

I'm starting to recognize how often these two types of fear come up in other aspects of my life. Sometimes we're afraid that we'll fall (or fail) because of a previous experience; sometimes we're just afraid because of what lurks in our imagination. It's important to acknowledge that fear is a legitimate response to many things. After all, falling heavily on your head or neck is dangerous. Having your heart broken is devastating. Losing your job can put you in dire financial straits. The list goes on and on. But fear is so often paralyzing, and it can prevent us from experiencing our true potential, from continuing to learn and grow. We have to learn to assess our abilities and strength; to know when to go further; to have faith in our own resources and in those who support and encourage us; and to know what is and is not a serious consequence. Whether it's an inversion or love, the results of that trust can be exhilarating.

Let yourself take flight.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Love is powerful stuff

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
-- The Dalai Lama

"I vow to offer joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the grief of one person in the afternoon."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
This morning, I was early for an appointment and stopped at a cafe. I was reading about compassion in The Joy of Living. As I walked to my appointment, I was doing a casual version of a loving-kindness meditation. Last night in yoga class, we had worked on backbends, all heart opening postures. In savasana, I had experienced a momentary breakthrough to a very calm place of connection with everything. So as I walked, I was remembering this moment and thinking about what I had been reading. I began to practice focusing on my heart while thinking about someone I love, and then visualized that love and openness radiating out to all the world around me.

I paused to wait for traffic at a crosswalk. I imagine I had a smile on my face as I waited there. An elderly man walking by stopped and stared at me and then said, in an odd tone of voice, "Thank you."

I looked at him. He must have realized it was somewhat strange because he explained, "I was having a depressing morning, and then I saw you standing there, and I don't know why but you changed my perspective somehow. Thank you."

You can be skeptical about his intentions if you want, but that gave me a chill - the sense that this man had actually received the love I had been sending. Love is powerful stuff, and it's contagious. And I have to warn you, the primary symptom is happiness. Look out - you might catch it!

Who am I kidding?! We all want happiness. Well, here's some loving kindness. Pass it on.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

All phenomena proceed from the mind

I'm currently reading The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. (Thanks Stephanie. xx)

Here is a video of Mingyur Rinpoche teaching. The analogy of the watch is one he talks about in the book.

Today I was struck by his description of one of the Buddha's teachings. In it, a young man comes to a great master seeking a profound teaching. The master agrees to share one - after the young man has a cup of tea. As he's about to drink, the tea transforms into a beautiful lake. The young man stands looking at the lake, and a girl appears. They fall in love at first sight and he goes home with her. Her parents also like him, and the two get married and have two children.

In his teens, their son falls ill and dies, and their daughter is killed by a tiger shortly thereafter. Overcome with grief, the man's wife drowns herself in the lake. Her mourning parents stop eating and starve to death. Having lost everything, the young man goes to the lake to drown himself. As he's about to throw himself in, he suddenly finds himself back in the master's house, holding the cup of tea.

Though he had lived an entire lifetime, harly an instant had passed; the cup was still warm in his hands and the tea was still hot.

He looked across the table at the teacher, who nodded, saying, "Now you see. All phenomena proceed from the mind, which is emptiness. They do not truly exist except in the mind, but they are not nothingness. There is your profound teaching."

As I read the teacher's words, I felt a kind of liberation as a whole lot of fear fell away. I'm still not entirely sure that I know why, but as someone who has despaired after loss, this story gave me an incredible feeling of space and hope. Doesn't this story speak to something we all fear - losing everyone we love? This unspeakable pain... it is definitely not nothingness. But our experience of it arises in the mind, sinks back into the mind. And most dangerous of all is the fear of pain that has not happened. Sometimes we make that into something so solid, so real.

All phenomena proceed from the mind, which is emptiness.

Meditation teachers often use the analogy of the mind as the sky, and thoughts as clouds that arise from it and pass through it but are not permanent. (I've also heard the analogy of leaves on a stream, and I particularly like the sense of movement I get from that image.) You can sit and watch those thoughts arise, drift across your mind, and float away without attaching to them. Sit and watch the fear of incredible loss with identifying with it.

All phenomena proceed from the mind, which is emptiness.
Happiness is our birthright.
We all have monkey mind. Watch it chatter. Let it go on and on.
Let the big sky of the Self be still.