Peace in the lotus

One of the well-known symbols of yoga is the lotus flower. The lotus plant grows from the mud. It rises through the water to the surface to find sunlight. It struggles and pushes and survives until it blossoms in all its layers, intricacies, and beauty. The lotus flower emerges clean and pure from the murky water.

It symbolizes liberation from attachments – unchanged by the struggle, unaffected by the dirt – it remains itself, its true essence untouched by the elements around it. It floats above it all.

Born in mud, searching for the light, rising above, and remaining pure.

Why are symbols important? Why is every culture, religion, spiritual path filled with symbols? What do they mean to me?

Symbols make us feel an idea rather than just think about it. A symbolic object itself can be imbued with energies that affect us in ways we may not even be aware of. It adds another layer of understanding and experience on our path. It’s a reminder of a teaching we aspire to follow.

Symbols can be self created and suffused with personal meaning. A rock collected on a beach, a candle burning, a piece of jewelry, a power suit, an image of a saint or guru, watching the sunrise. A small object you hold to slow your breath and remove a small part of yourself from attaching to a current difficult situation.

In any case, symbols are a powerful tool on our journey.

They give us hope. They are a timeless reminder of a goal, a belief, an aspiration. They inspire us to choose a direction. They bolster us in times of hardship and provide a kind of solace. Symbols are a reminder of who we are despite anything that comes along to distract us or confuse us or blind us. We are unchanging.

Everyday we are bombarded with reminders of some kind but we often forget to include the reminders that nourish our selves and keep us in a place of peace.

A symbol is that reminder:

To be true to yourself

To follow your path

To detach

To laugh

To breath

To take a moment in silence

To soften, to smile

To focus on one positive thing

To be grateful

To know you will survive it all.

Not giving up

Overheard coffee shop conversation: “You’re not transformed by this,” she pointed to her head, “you’re transformed by this,” she pointed to her heart.

I’ve been grasping at tools, trying to think my way out of my problems, trying to convince myself I can “solve” them. I was compartmentalizing, which was helpful. I was dealing with one thing at a time, which was helpful. I was not engaging mentally with the thing that would instantly seize up my heart and clench my teeth, which was helpful. But as soon as I vocalized all the hurdles lined up in front of me I felt like my head was going to explode.

So I imploded. I couldn’t pretend they didn’t exist.

I can’t control them. I can’t solve them. I can only get through them. Depression makes everything seem impossible. Then I had an unexpected conversation with a friend that reminded me that I’m not alone and that I know how to help myself, I just haven’t been doing it. I had given up. I had given up on myself, my Self, because I was powerless to do anything about the difficult situations in my current life. I had lost connection, forgotten my most powerful ally, stopped caring about surviving.

I woke up the next morning, took my son to school, went home and decided to take care of myself. I danced around on my yoga mat and then sat for meditation, not because it is about stilling the mind or focusing the mind or finding peace with my thoughts, but because it is about taking a moment to sit in the experience of God.

I remembered who I am. I know that everything that is happening affects me but it does not define me, it should not change me. I shouldn’t attach to the outcomes or obstacles or ramifications of each uncontrollable situation, as hard as that is to do.

Not giving up on myself, my heart, allowed me to give up on trying to control my situation. I could let go (or try to, I’m working on it) of the stress and fear and anxiety.

I taught a yoga class yesterday after a few months’ hiatus from teaching, and it was so beautiful to have the opportunity to give again, to feel a shift into steadiness, to connect with sweet beings.

Yoga is about service. Teaching is sharing a practice. I wasn’t paid. I used to teach as my karma yoga for years. I decided at some point that I couldn’t afford to give away my time when I needed every minute to try to keep a roof over my head. But the potential income I may have lost in that time was worthless compared to the big deposit I made to my well being.

Thoughts on Love

CAM00414We make the basic assumptions that the heart is associated with love and love is associated with happiness and happiness is the goal of life.

Does love come from our heart or from our soul? Does happiness derive from love or peace? Does the word love only mean one thing? Is true love an emotion or a state of being?

The heart is like a box, which already contains endless, bottomless love, we just shut it. Simply. We don’t need to open it to allow love in; we need to open it to live in the love that is already there. Like a tuning fork resonating with the existing tone and vibrating along with it amplifying the sound. The sound is always there; our ability to vibrate at the same frequency is not.

I think many of us fear we have too much love to give and it can be misinterpreted, misused, or taken advantage of. Letting the love out leaves us unprotected, vulnerable, imperiled. These are all constructs of what love is, related to emotions and expectations and the idea that we are giving part of ourselves away when we love. We are becoming “less than” in the hopes that another person will fill the void and make us “more than” when we are a twosome.

Is this love?

If love is an all-encompassing thing, an energy, it cannot be given or taken away or lessened or increased. It just is. Romantic love is one way to channel it. Like a tributary of a massive river filled with the same water flowing in a certain direction. True love is unconditional but romantic love is rarely without conditions, said or unsaid. Are all “loves” the same thing? Do we just misunderstand its true nature? Is love in our heads?

Why does my heart well up, grow, and expand thinking about my child? How does he perceive love?

Unpacking Trust

Trust

Well, that’s a big word.

“Trust in the universe” has been floated my way often lately as I’ve been having a bit of a crisis of faith as I seem to encounter obstacle after obstacle. Every time I think the cycle is on an upswing, things are getting better, finally sorting themselves out – another mountain appears to climb. I keep wondering how long this can go on for. It’s been years. And I’m starting to lose faith.

“I’m so proud of how you are dealing with all this, coming through with flying colors,” someone told me. I’m not through anything and I certainly am not flying. Dealing is a necessity.

I’ve lived long enough to go through the ups and downs. To struggle and rise above, to see the light after living in the dark, to be content and balanced and live in equanimity. I keep waiting for the tide to turn and it just doesn’t.

So – here I go no longer trusting myself or “the universe” or “the divine plan” or in the goodness of the world. (That’s partly New York’s fault as it is a place that so easily can push you down and hide the beauty of the world and people from you.) And I know the further I float from this trust and faith the harder it will be to find solid ground. That’s all we have at the end of the day.

I look back and see so many of the difficult realities and experiences with new eyes and understand how in someway or for someone each experience was the right thing to happen. It doesn’t make it easier. Many were sacrifices I made for my child – I wouldn’t do those things differently even knowing now how much I lost of myself in the process.

I just keep going.

I took a yoga workshop a few weeks ago at a friend’s suggestion, not knowing anything about the teacher or even what the workshop would be; I just needed something. It was a challenging class. I modified a lot. And then the teacher demonstrated coming in and out of scorpion. I had never accomplished scorpion pose, it’s never been on my must do list or been a goal of mine, it’s not a necessary part of my practice. She didn’t offer an alternative so I just trusted that somehow I could do it. And then I did. I didn’t bother with the fear or doubt and didn’t expect anything. I wasn’t attached to whether the pose happened or not.

I trust I will survive. I trust life goes on and I will do my best. And I trust one day I will find my way back to my yoga practice and find detachment and balance and truly know again what is real and what is the truth and be able to drop all of the “me” that is getting in the way of “Me”.

Trust is really just letting go and accepting things as they are.

Land ho!

Sometimes things need to completely fall apart to have space to rebuild anew. Adrift with no land in sight allowed for possibilities I couldn’t have predicted or imagined to appear. It also allowed for the space needed to let go of all expectations and desires and to be in a place of acceptance for what appeared.

Acceptance finally came when I could actually see the positive side to all the adversity over the past few years (see more about that here). Tapas, my nemesis, has been my unwanted roommate. Tapas is suffering, burning, austerities, self-discipline. In yoga we are meant to want this, to accept this, and feel blessed at the opportunities to rid ourselves of karma and attachments. It helps us attain freedom from our minds and our senses.

I’d rather not focus on the acceptance of suffering as something positive but rather look at the experiences themselves from a positive light.

Sure, it has been ridiculously hard to raise my son nearly single handedly – but I can take pride in how he has turned out and know that I am a positive influence on him, a good example, and I focus my parenting on him being a good person, being compassionate toward and thoughtful of others’ needs, kind, and polite. I sacrificed so he can feel secure, confident, and have a strong sense of self-worth. That was all worth the price I paid.

Losing my apartment was a blessing to finally cut the last constant reminder of my previous life away from my new life. I tried ridding my home of the weight of bad memories but the only solution was to get rid of the space.

Quitting my job for the wrong reasons became my opportunity to publish my book and get out of the professional rut I had fallen in years before. And it gave me the opportunity to build skills in new areas that have led to a new job opportunity. Losing all my money supporting myself and my son, well that decision allowed me to be with my son and I suppose it has lessened my attachments to having material things by default of not having much to hold onto anymore. So I feel more free. (Still working on that one.)

I have a new home that I love and is everything I could have wished for, a new neighborhood that I am loving discovering, a new job I am excited to start, and my son started at the school I felt was a great fit for him and he has already bonded with his teacher.

Could I have foreseen any of this? As of a month ago, no. I looked out at a vast empty ocean wondering how we would make land.

Thank you to all of you who prayed for us. I think it worked.

Rewriting our own story

canyon_zion_canyon_zion_national_park

It’s so easy to fall into a hollow canyon, surrounded by cliff walls, barely seeing sunlight in the depths and narrowness. A story exists. An experience happened. Our reactions are real, the scars smart if pressed. It’s easy to bind ourselves into one particular way of telling that story. I have a yearning for justice. I have always had a strong need for truth.

But, reality is that there rarely is justice, the past can’t be changed, and everyone has a different concept of truth. We create the world we want to see and so does everyone else. So what do we do? How do we live with hurt? How do we live with injustice?

Yogic philosophy would say all of that is just attachment to the unreal. Maya – illusion, ignorance, entangled, temporary. Justice is sorted out through karma. To remain in peace we must detach from our reactions to experiences and focus on the steady truth of the Self. Letting go of the expectation of another person being held responsible for, or even just owning their actions, is what can liberate us.

That letting go is extremely difficult, but must occur. There is no changing other people, only ourselves, only our own reactions and attachment to our reactions.

It’s hard to let go of the feeling that I am constantly the loser, the one controlled, the one who has to sacrifice while having to watch someone else be the winner, the controller, the one who does not have to sacrifice. It feels unjust, and finding the faith to believe so deeply in karma that I can let go of all my feelings is a challenge.

My mind understands what I need to do. I understand where my yoga practice needs to go. I know what will bring me peace. I know what reality is and isn’t. But getting my heart to release from the desire for truth and justice, responsibility, accountability, reckoning and freedom feels insurmountable. Yet, if I can’t do it, I will be buried. I cannot make any of that a reality in what isn’t really reality anyway.

So I need to rewrite my own story. Disconnect my story from anyone else’s, just live my own truth, live a just life accountable for my own actions, view myself alone, unaffected by the world around me.

I wouldn’t be the me I am right now without having gone through what I have gone through. I wouldn’t have encountered a greater understanding of people and how they react in sadness and rage. I wouldn’t have been given the gift of compassion through empathy. I wouldn’t have experienced a fuller aspect of life. I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to scale a mountain, to sink so low I couldn’t see even one ray of the sun, to be stepped on and pushed down against my will, to lift myself up, and to be responsible for my own decisions. I own my choices and the consequences of those choices. One day I will be able to let go of it all – let go of the story – and exist only in truth and peace.

I won’t try to pull myself out of the canyon, I will try to disintegrate the walls.

Lifeline to Sanity

Indian lock & key

People need people.

We are social animals. We surround ourselves with every type of human interaction. But along with this need and joy in communion also comes friction, disharmony, and hurt. Navigating those interactions with peace is where the practice comes in.

For me that practice is yoga and within that philosophy that practice is the four locks and four keys.

  • The four locks are people who are: happy, unhappy, virtuous, and wicked. There are four keys to open those locks and retain a peaceful interaction.
  • The four keys are: being friendly toward the happy (happy for their happiness), having compassion for the unhappy, joy for the virtuous (celebrating someone’s achievement), and equanimity toward the wicked (disregard, disengagement from those being hurtful).

Being a parent means those keys can get rusty. Having the energy and patience to be our best self is sometimes impossible. But remembering the practice is there and trying to follow it when possible is a step on the long path back to a more peaceful life.

I have wonderful spontaneous conversations with total strangers all the time in NYC. Recently while trying to get my 3-year-old to a class, after a grumpy morning from waking up at 5:45am, he fell asleep in the stroller on the way and would not be woken. This meant I had to carry him down and up 6 flights of subway stairs. Luckily a woman offered to help and we commiserated over the “tyrannical threes” or our “threenagers” (I just heard that term for the first time). And I didn’t feel so alone all of a sudden. We could laugh at the frustrations and smile in understanding. A helping hand and kind word went a long way.

And letting my son sleep was not only needed for him, but for myself as well – a quiet moment absent of whining, screaming, “its not fair”, and incessant demands and questions coupled with tackling me, jumping on me, pushing me, sitting on my head (his favorite), climbing on me, and stepping on me.

He’s loving the word “why” right now:

“You can’t go outside without shoes.”

“Why?”

“Because your feet will get dirty.”

“Why?”

“Because the ground is made of earth.”

“Why?”

“Because we live on Earth.”

“Why?”

“Because it is the perfect distance from the sun to be inhabitable by humans.”

“Oh.”

Patience is the lifeline to sanity.

What is patience? Detaching from the outcome of something. Removing expectations. Allowing what is, to be what is. Letting life unfold without attempting to control the timing or timeline. Listening. Waiting. Breathing.

Patience is having faith things will eventually be better.

Resolute Excuses Dismantled

© gdbrekke - Fotolia.com

© gdbrekke – Fotolia.com

Why do we hinder our own progress? Why don’t we do what we know will help us? Why don’t I meditate every day? Sure, I’m overworked, exhausted, frustrated daily, and generally overwhelmed – those are my excuses for not only no time but more importantly no energy. While they are real, they are still excuses. I could find 10 minutes a day to breathe and meditate. What blocks my path to a minutely healthier me? Maybe the minute part and maybe the thought that this frenetic energy is what sustains me – otherwise I may fall apart.

Let’s take the first – small gain – in a life where nearly every minute is taken (even using the bathroom requires the accompaniment and entertainment of my 3 year old), every moment is weighted with a heavy importance. I need to get something major done in any spare moment I have. I need a big return on my small time investment.

This is my thought process and it is completely wrong. This is how I end up overwhelmed. Ten minutes a day may be small progress and the transformative effects of meditation may disappear with the first tantrum, but it is progress. It does have an effect and it is cumulative. The ability to sink quickly and effortlessly back into that peaceful state becomes easier and easier the longer we practice.

The second – sustaining frenetic energy – this energy stops me from thinking about my life as it is, a life that has been challenging especially in this past year. Climbing so many mountains last year on every front of my life would have been far scarier if I stopped to look down at the precarious precipice I could fall from at any moment. Keep going, keep moving, don’t stop, don’t think, grasp, strive, clench.

I’m wrong here as well, I am left overworked and exhausted. Sure a lot happened, a lot got done, but the toll has been great and lasting and not fulfilling. I have created taller mountains to scale to find contentment again, to find balance again, to find peace. How easy it is to find all of that in a moment of meditation. That practice I know will rebuild those parts of myself and open myself back up to the land of the living where I can connect and be acutely present in those connections with the world and the real me who seems to abscond at every steep climb.

So what’s stopping me? Only myself.

My resolution this year is to take those 10 minutes a day that I know I can find, however tired or distracted I am, and give those minutes back to myself – my True Self. With that gift, I hope to lessen the frustration, be ok with exhaustion, balance my work through the perception of that work, and discard feeling overwhelmed, replacing it with a space, lightness, and greater detachment from the perpetual trials of life.

Cloudy with a chance of Anger

cloud_mood_rain_clouds_gloomy_238735

Flipping through the copious beautiful quotes in Yoga Gems for inspiration, I found the perfect reminder for myself of one of the goals of the yogic path.

This is the ironic nature of spiritual realization. As we progress spiritually, we begin to see how we, ourselves, are the primary and ultimate cause of our own sorrows. Paradoxically, this is good news! It means that we can also be the cause of our relief, our release, and our happiness. –

Ron Leifer*

I know this. I believe this. I have experienced this in the past. It sounds so simple but is extremely difficult to implement. Anger is such a powerful force, it clouds everything.

There is injustice in the world. There are hurtful people. Bad things happen. Our power is in our reaction – not allowing that action to break us down into less than who we are. No one causes us to feel anger, we choose to be angry and we can choose not to be angry. This is no easy feat. Anger can feel so good. It’s a drug with a quick high but a long, slow, destructive low. Who it affects the most, who is hurts the most, is ourselves.

Releasing from anger is a deep liberation. Then we can focus. And that focus can lead to great things as well as our own peace. The goal of yoga is peace.

Discerning our reactions to the outside world and how they affect us is the beginning of the path to diffusing those effects. Looking deeper at the root causes of anger takes us into further understanding. Compassion is the key to unlocking the heart and letting go of the chains we have imprisoned ourselves in.

Allowing ourself to let go of the anger doesn’t mean an injustice wasn’t done and it doesn’t mean we disengage from the world – it simply means we are better able to interact with the world – in peace. We can see clearly where disconnects lie, miscommunication, misunderstandings. We can remain objective, be helpful, and remain at peace within ourselves. We can save ourselves and in doing so bring more peace into the world.

*Feuerstein, Georg, Ed. Yoga Gems: A Treasury of Practical and Spiritual Wisdom from Ancient and Modern Masters, Bantam, New York, 2002. p.108

Conversations with a 3-year-old

Highline crop

  • Son: Mommy, why does the rug look exactly like the rug?
  • Me: Because it is the rug.
  • Son: Hm.
  • Son: A very long time ago I used to be from Mars.
  • Me: Really?
  • Son: But I’m also from Earth.
  • Son: If I take my eyelashes off my eyes won’t have clothes on!
  • Me: Can I cut your hair?
  • Son: No, I like me the way I am.
  • Me: But it’s in your face.
  • Son: I’m making a helmet out of hair.
  • Me: Why are you peeling the paper off your crayons?
  • Son: So they can take a bath.
  • Me: The paper is their clothes?
  • Son: Yeah, then they’ll be bare. Bare means naked.
  • Me: **singing**
  • Son: Shhhh! Let the song sing it.

I constantly learn from my child but I also pick up what he is learning and how he sees and understand what he is learning. I am always concerned with how he encounters the world and what my role is in guiding him to understanding it all. It’s easy to be inundated with advice, do’s and don’ts, psychology, training strategies, methods, behavioral modifications, punishing without punishment, nurturing without coddling, cognitive development, over-achieving, under-achieving – it’s overwhelming.

There is so much babble it drowns out an equally important aspect of guiding our children – to be good human beings. Maybe we leave that for our religious or spiritual guides to cover or think that teaching our kids to not hit or kick, to not scream inside, to share and sit properly will be enough. How do we create good people?

Swami Bhoomananda gives this advice on what to teach our children:

“A parent should pray and say, ‘Be a lover of values and virtues, dear child. May your heart expand and encompass the whole universe. Human life is fulfilled in such expansion. Do not allow any narrowness. Always wish the best for others. Do not be poor in heart and mind. Whenever possible, replace vice with virtue in your heart. Look for such friends in whose company you can travel the path of goodness.’”*

Highline crop2

*Excerpt from the book “To the Householder” by Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha in email newsletter: Role of Parents by Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha, Volume 10  Number 42, 13 Oct 2014