BodyMindSpiritEarth

I had a realization at the close of yoga class, while resting in savasana (corpse pose), eyes falling back into their sockets, head heavy on the mat. It’s just this: I have a skull.

Oh I knew that of course. In theory. But it’s weird to think of this thing—used as symbol for poison, or to provoke ghoulish fright, the bony remains of a human—being embedded under my skin RIGHT NOW.

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Photo by Kate Bunker, via Flicker Creative Commons

Maybe this is not so revelatory for you. Well, I’m the girl who recently discovered, to my amazement, that the bones of my pelvis start way higher at my sides than I had previously pictured. When I thought “pelvis,” I thought “sex organs.” I thought “hips.” I didn’t think “bony parts at my waist just a few inches below my ribcage.”

In this level of bodily cluelessness, I may be unusual, but I think not. Do we really know what goes on under our skin? Do we key into the intelligence of our organs all working together, our blood flowing, our skeletons? Do we connect to the slime and gore of our insides, cached away under the outer layer that meets the world?

It’s easy to forget all that stuff, in an age where we think a whole lot. We can end up experiencing ourselves as brains on a stick, using the body to move the big brain from here to there. This brain that will save the day! (That’s working great for humanity so far, as our “progress” continues to wipe out species and their habitat at unprecedented rates.)

On the other hand, in spiritual development circles, we experience ourselves as bigger-than-brain, as soul or Higher Self, and we know that we go on beyond the body and the body is just dust and ashes.

I submit that this laudable idea can be just as alienating, even dangerous, as the big brain idea.

Of course we are our intellectual capacity; humanity makes incredible use (and misuse) of our curiosity, our capacity for logic, and our problem-solving prowess.

Of course we are our souls; that bigger perspective feeds many a spiritual seeker, including myself.

But the bones, the blood, the viscera—they have their own story to tell, and they don’t just exist to tote us from problem-solving puzzle to enlightened insight. Divorced from the body, the mind is imbalanced, the soul unmoored.

The energy within the body IS us. The blood moves, heart beats, bones/muscles/organs support each other in an integrated system that boggles the mind AND spirit.

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Photo by Marco De Stabile, via Flickr Creative Commons

I am not a mind. I am not a spirit. Not only these. I am a bodymindspirit. I come to practices like yoga and qi gong because I want to experience myself as all three, integrated and invincible.

Like most of us I’m good at neglecting this body. I push it past fatigue, I feed it poor fuel, I ask it to digest too much too fast, I wish it would just sit down and shut up so I can do my real work, but what if my real work is…a dance? A prayer-in-motion?

What if my real work is to sink back into this body that is part of the earth, that needs me to care for it in a deep and loving way?

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What if, by disowning the body’s “ugly” innards, and ignoring its whispers and clues and shouts and cries, I’m only contributing to the disregard of our precious earth’s wisdom?

That’s the bigger picture: bodymindspiritearth. Could I experience myself as all four integrated, and what would that look like?

What dance would I offer then?

Three Hours North

I was born the same year as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

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Oh of course, we both were in existence long before this birth, but 1966 was when our current recognized incarnation began: When my soul consolidated into this body, and the Dunes were designated as National Lakeshore.

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I’m only three hours south of this incredible place, something I allowed myself to forget for way too long. Recently we became reacquainted. Exploring the trails and shores for a couple days, I felt restored.

Walking the beach you might see trees pressing down across the sand and into the water. The brushy ones make it look like you can’t get past, till you arrive and find: Here you can walk under the tree, or here you can go up higher on the sand, or here just hoist yourself over. Or go a little deeper than you mean to, out in the water.

Or here maybe you just want to savor standing on a downed tree and feeling its smooth skin with your feet. The water doing its dauntless polishing, tempting a toe.

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To the east or west from the beaches lie the trappings of industry. Lakeshore and I were both born under the shadow of human folly, which continues still to this day.

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But there is peace even in the smokestacked encroached-upon existence. (Not-so-fun fact: Lead pollution, like that of the steel mill described here, fed into my health problems a dozen years ago, when high levels of both lead and mercury were found in my body.)

Still: These waves. Their power feels truer than anything. Sitting here you can’t hear industry, you can’t hear vehicular hum, or any of the ubiquitous noises of civilization that just.never.stop.

The waves are like breaths—sometimes slowing, sometimes racing each other but constant, the sound of moist, fluid, rhythmic life. Every single wave and breath its own experience.

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The answers are within, say the sages. Sit still long enough and you will find your answer. Or at least find a newer more pregnant more potent version of the question.

Sit still long enough and you contact something like eternity, the thing that goes on long before and long after this small understanding of a life.

Lies I’ve Loved

Last time I wrote about radical ephemerality, shamelessly stealing from my yoga teacher. Since then we’ve had another gentle snow to delight my eye.

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You can’t see it, but there was a kingfisher in this old craggy cottonwood by the creek.

Then we had about a gazillion inches of hard rain, and wind strong enough to knock the birdfeeder off its platform. A sinkhole opened up down the street, the same one the city filled in with gravel sometime back. Water flowed into basements all over the neighborhood and the creek ran high and muddy.

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Blossoms in a sand trap show the high water mark.

And a friend marked herself as “safe” on Facebook, after a shooting in a California town I used to visit on business in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile I read a little book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved, by Kate Bowler. It’s the true story of a woman living with inoperable stage 4 cancer, a memoir like none I’ve read before. Kate writes with great honesty and humor of the tyranny of prescriptive joy, the collective addiction to control, and the dumb things people say.

She writes of her habitual need to plan. For example: walking with her husband, the whole time talking about what to do next. (I can relate.)

But she’s smack in the middle of a present moment tinged with pain because of the possibility of losing everything dear to her. “I just need to live to be fifty,” she tells a friend. “I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

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Daffodil head blown far from its stalk.

 

“Don’t skip to the end,” the friend tells her.

It’s one of the wisest things anyone can say. In fact, at the end of the book she has a list of things not to say to people facing terrible times. Things like “Well, at least…” and “When my aunt had cancer” and “God needed an angel.” (She suggests instead: Silence. Offers of hugs and food. Or: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.”)

The book made me think of the biggest loss of my life to date, the death of my father. I remember his response when people would say, “Just keep fighting!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said, as mesothelioma closed his lung tissue, and chemo and radiation made him only sicker. Grieving his foreshortened lifespan, he shook his head: “What does that mean, to fight?”

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I can never remember what these are called. I used to ask Dad year after year.

 

We put such pressure on our sick people, to be brave, to be fighters, to be positive. A well-meaning extended family member asked him, “Do you want to get better?” As if he somehow wasn’t clinging to life passionately enough.

Talk about dumb things people say. A few days after he died, a twentysomething fitness guru said to me consolingly, “At least you know he’s not suffering anymore.” I remember wanting to throttle her. Thank you for that insight, perky little cheerleader-gym owner. That just makes it all OK now. Or at least YOU feel better.

The funny thing is, I do tend toward the belief (beloved lie?) that things happen for a reason. I want to believe that the hard things I go through have a purpose, that my soul draws experiences to me so that it can grow. Perhaps it is a lie, but it feels like a more empowered frame of mind than blaming random chance.

I do know that some of the difficult times in my life have softened me to others’ pain, and brought me resources that later served a larger healing.

But I would never suggest that “everything happens for a reason” to a young mother dealing with a death sentence. Sitting squarely in her ephemerality. Life is more beautiful, and painful, Kate writes, than she could have imagined.

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.”

—Kate Bowler

 

Ephemeral Nature

The “radical ephemerality of the mind.” That’s a phrase from yesterday morning’s yoga class, which kicked off a spring day when the snow just fell and fell.

I happen to love snow, no matter when it falls on the calendar, no matter if it’s wet and sloppy or airy and feathery. Snow brings out the little kid in me. Not for me the grousing of most folks confronted with a late-season blizzard.

In fact, I notice that I want a storm to last longer, snow harder, more more more. Never mind if it means I need to shovel longer/harder/more. There’s still this internal clinging. I believe the Buddhists would call that attachment.

It’s just: I like the draping of snow over every twig and berry. I want that to stay. I want to fill my eyes with that clean beauty. It’s even more precious for being so fleeting. (A few years ago when we were in the deep freeze with that Arctic Vortex, I hated the extreme cold but loved the way it preserved the softness of snow.)

Today I woke up to a different kind of loveliness, with wind and sun conspiring to wipe the snow off every limb. I got out for my walk as soon as I could.

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Watching the ephemerality of  nature (and my mind), I noticed my tendency to focus on past and future moments instead of NOW. Like: This creek view reminded me how I walked on it when it was frozen solid a few months ago. That was another moment I wanted to last forever.

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I decided I would continually draw my attention to the here and now, instead of mentally wishing for something to last beyond its particular moment. “Be where your feet are,” is something I remember Anne Lamott saying, and in my Yak-traxed boots, I did my best.

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The same wind that chilled my face and kicked up snow like desert sand had carved gargoyle shapes on top of this bridge railing.

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Is this the last Yak-trak of the season? Would I step less reverently if I expected more?

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What I’d like to do is pay close attention in every moment regardless of its assigned significance. Barring that, I’d like to remember to remember to remember to come back to the present moment… as soon as I remember to!

Tips for the Anxiety-Prone

A recent medical procedure that emptied my colon brought back vestiges of a mood disorder I thought was long gone. I realized again the close link between mood and gut flora. I’m happy to say that with time and scrupulous self-care (below) anxiety has mostly left me. But it made me remember how painful it is to live with anxiety, and I thought a blog post might be useful to others dealing with similar.

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I visit this tree every day. It keeps me grounded.

So, below are a few tips drawn from personal experience. This is not an exhaustive list, and not meant to replace professional medical/mental health advice.

  • Take deep breaths. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s physiologically calming. It’s something you can control. Just watch the air come in and go out.
  • Feel whatever you feel. Don’t judge it or push it away. You can touch the emotion as if it is a beloved child, be there for it, love on it, and watch it shift. (Note: If this gets overwhelming, stop and reach out for help from a trusted friend/spouse/professional. Consider, too, that you can access help from the unseen: Source/God/spirit guides/higher self.)
  • Nourish your gut bacteria. This will help to rebalance neurotransmitters like serotonin, 90 percent of which originates in the gut, not the brain. According to my holistic physician Kevin Logan, a diet rich in vegetable fiber provides an ideal environment for diverse gut flora. Reduce or eliminate processed food and sugar, and introduce lactofermented veggies like sauerkraut and kim chee.
  • Take nature as your tonic. If you can’t get to the woods or the beach, just take a walk and look at the sky and the trees. Time outside (or even in the company of loved animals indoors) will increase your resilience to stress.
  • Limit social media and the online universe in general. Speaking for myself, social media can be a huge energy drain, and the overstimulation it creates is subtle but detrimental. I make it a rule that after 8pm I don’t check email or Facebook. My health coach buddy Bill Heitman recommends unfollowing anything (and anyone) giving you anything other than 100 percent warm feelings. (You can always seek out news when you want to get informed.) Or, you can install an app like Social Fixer to customize what you see on Facebook.
  • Get some movement every day. Even five minutes of freeform stretching is a start. Focus on the pleasurable aspect of feeling into your body as it moves.
  • Make positive habits the rule. If exercise is hard to work into your routine, consider what a recent TED Radio Hour guest suggested. Turn it into a rule, so there’s no question about whether to do it or not. He compared his gym habit to brushing his teeth at night: He doesn’t have to decide whether to do it or not (and if he had to make a decision, he probably wouldn’t go!). He just does it, regardless of how he feels about it in the moment. This is how I am with walking my dog every day: I just do it. And it’s self-reinforcing, because I’m also getting my nature fix.
  • Put deposits in your health bank. That’s what Christiane Northrup, MD, calls restful, restorative activities that engage the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for causing vital organs to rest). (Examples: meditation, napping, cuddling, sitting and staring into space.) By contrast, anything that activates the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for revving up your metabolism, protecting you through fight/flight, etc.) will withdraw from your health bank account. We forget how important it is to STOP, get quiet, and allow our nervous systems to rebalance, in this overstimulating age.
  • Lean on your tribe. If you have a trusted friend or two who will hear you in your most vulnerable hour, kudos. Even if you don’t, getting out and connecting with people in real-time will probably bolster you.
  • Let your creativity out. In coloring books, even! Creativity heals.
  • Consider taking action. Sometimes our minds spin and spin about whatever worrisome thing has hold of us. Taking even a small action might make a dent in the worry. If some of your anxiety centers around the state of the world, ask yourself if there’s something you can contribute to the good. It doesn’t have to be grandiose to have meaning. Maybe it’s a creative project, or a small generative act that you dedicate to the uplift of all, like a kind gesture to a stranger. (Note: Make sure that what you decide to do aligns with who you are! Vs. a “should”!)

For me, all of these are cross-reinforcing. I feed my body well (most days) so it supports my mood and movement. Several times a week I practice yoga, which slows my breathing and moves me into the parasympathetic nervous system, while also strengthening my body. I get outside every day with my dog, which helps tire my body out so it rests easier. I try to avoid media after about 9pm so I don’t go to bed with my brain on overdrive. When I’m rested, it’s easier to write about what troubles me, and sometimes the writing turns into a creative piece that boosts others. And so on.

Please add your own tips in the comments! We’re all in this together.

The Alchemy of Yoga

Sometimes, looking at the horrors of our present age, my thoughts run to “what is the ever-loving point of any of this?”

It’s a heaviness that gives despair the reins. In the wee hours, my brain chatter runs to the bleakest possible things. Teachers I admire and love, young people I care about are attempting to teach and learn… while fearing they might be the next victims of a school shooter? Devastating, terrifying. Unthinkable.

And what of the shooter, of shooters-in-the-making? How deep does our alienation go, that we continue to look away while people tumble into darkness? Would a life-affirming culture continue to produce people with little respect for life?

Yoga is where I get a visceral sense of alienation’s opposite. Yoga means union. In yoga practice, I alchemize my despair, and hold space for the collective to heal. The dysfunctional culture plants its stunted seeds into me, waiting for me to curl inward, grow cynical, turn my back. Yoga grows a new plant entirely.

I go to yoga class to be with my people. My yoga studio welcomes people of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and orientations. (My teacher is one of a new vanguard of instructors extending yoga to populations that might not gravitate to it: veterans, people with addictions, older folks, people with disabilities.)

We roll out our mats, sometimes josh and tease, sometimes get serious right away. Our teacher guides us into quietness through simple breath awareness.

We don’t have to stop the mind from its prattling. Just notice where it’s gone and take another conscious breath.

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The movements may be slow and easy, slow and challenging, or flowy and strenuous, depending on the class. But always there’s the pairing of breath with motion, the sensation of really inhabiting the body that so often goes ignored. Union.

If tears threaten, we let them come. It’s all OK.

We are here to challenge our habitual patterns of mind. We are here for community and communion. We are here to find some silence in the fray. We are here to refill our wells. We are here to stretch bodies that sit too much, or ease bodies that work too hard. We are here to touch into timelessness.

By the end of class we’ve been rearranged a little bit. We might leave class kinder than we went in. We will go back to the fractious world, the intractable problems, contributing in whatever way we do, letting go of “what’s the point,” at least temporarily.

The closing invocation might fall into the much-maligned “thoughts and prayers” category, but for me it is a powerful statement of connection that does not preclude action. It invokes what can be, what must be if we want to survive and thrive as a collective.

“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings know peace, be free from all delusion, and walk through their lives with ease.”

And the light within each of us grows brighter, so we can continue to hold others in Light.

Flowers in 2018

A friend posted a simple graphic soon after the start of 2018. If I remember right (I can’t find it just now) it showed two characters, one worried-faced and wringing hands, one kneeling in the dirt. The first gives a litany of worries about the new year familiar to anyone paying attention. So much going wrong.

The second says, still kneeling, hands in dirt: “I think the new year is going to bring flowers.”

First: “Why would you say that?”

Second: “Because I’m planting flowers.”

CIMG3806 (1024x768)Such a simple reminder of two basic facts:

a) Doing something helpful with your hands feels better than wringing them.

b) We all make the future with everyday small acts.

Every choice we make adds up to our personal consequences and our collective reality. It’s easy to slip into believing, in this aggrandizing age, that only the big mouthpiece and the viral video—the people who gain widespread attention—can possibly make a difference. But every single small thing adds up, and in fact there are no small things at all.

The energy of a kiss blown in love is no different from a kind word offered to another or a generous gift affecting hundreds of thousands. There’s no need for “scalable,” for “platform,” for “visibility,” not on the level of karmic consequence.

And for added perspective, remember, in the words of Paramahansa Yogananda:

Infinity is our Home. We are just sojourning awhile in the caravanserai* of the body. Those who are drunk with delusion have forgotten how to follow the trail that leads to God. But when in meditation the Divine gets hold of the prodigal child, there is no dallying anymore. Enter the portals of the New Year with new hope. Remember you are a child of God. It lies with you as to what you are going to be.

*I had to look this up. It refers to a roadside inn, especially along the Silk Road. Body as inn: I like it! (Similarly Rumi writes, “This being human is a guest house” and exhorts us to greet every joy and sorrow as a visitor.)

What shall we plant in 2018? The seeds of flowers, of justice, of awareness, of transformation?

Permit me another quote, from venerable author Ursula K. Le Guin, who died Monday:

“The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!’ ‘Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical…There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.”

Let’s plant the seeds of Le Guin’s brand of strength.