Reversals

The obstacle isn’t necessarily in your path; perhaps it is your path. I took a New Year’s yoga class in which the teacher used this theme. We can’t always remove our obstacles. Sometimes we learn to work with them and learn from them.

During my run a few days back, I heard coyotes singing.  Then they started yipping and growling, as if there was some kind of scuffle going on. They weren’t far ahead of me, and I remembered that a friend had once been followed by a pack of coyotes when she was hiking alone. Though coyotes almost never attack humans, running past this pack, whatever they were doing, seemed like a bad idea. Maybe there were just two—it’s coyote mating season—but maybe it was a fight with an outsider to their territory.  The noise stopped, and through the gaps between shrubs, I spied them trotting silently toward the section of the trail I was headed for. When in the presence of predators, I told myself, don’t act like prey. I turned around.

Danger is exciting on the page, but even the smallest danger doesn’t appeal to me in real life. Reversals, however, are interesting in both cases. I saw the landscape from a different perspective, since I usually go up the long hill rather than down. The same place can look quite new from the other side. And I ran further, since I had to retrace my steps.

That evening, my work in progress was so stuck it was putting me to sleep. Not a good sign.  I wasn’t sure how to fix it, but I told myself I was going to push through and not go out dancing that night, though there was a musician I would have enjoyed hearing at the Brewery, and I can walk there in five minutes or less. Still stuck, I gave in and went. My favorite dancing partner was there, and an acquaintance who is a mystery fan. I danced a few songs with one, talked story structure with the other, and then headed home, ready to write.

The problem lay in being too linear, telling the story step by step. I need reversals, a surprise, and something as energizing for the reader as a wild dance with a strong partner.

Shorter Days

The sunset was pink, blue, and purple over my neighbors’ blue-and-purple houses as I walked to the yoga studio to teach tonight.  One of those odd T or C sunsets where the color was not in the west, but somewhere else. Tonight, the northeast. It was beautiful, but daylight was ending already at five-fifteen.

 Waiting until I’ve done all my chores and errands before I do what’s most rewarding is no longer an option. It could be dark by then. I’ve always been the work-first play-later type, the anti-procrastinator, but if I want to walk, run, or do outdoor yoga, I have to take advantage of the sunny hours, the warmest part of the day.

Sometimes I make myself do every tedious task before I free myself to write. Life is short. My days are shorter. I feel young, but I’m not. What am I waiting for? Along with teaching yoga, this is my work and my art. I give myself permission, right this minute, to drop everything else and do it.

Knowledge and Perception

During the month of August, there were so many events scrolling through the electronic sign over the entrance to Elephant Butte Lake State Park that someone decided to remove the time-temperature-and-welcome from the cycle of reminders and announcements. Once I got used to not seeing those numbers when I rounded a high point on the trail with a view of the sign, I realized how absurdly attached I’d gotten to noting exactly how many minutes it had taken  me to reach that spot and whether the temperature had gone up a degree. I enjoyed my runs more without this information snagging my mind.  Now that there’s less going in in September, “Welcome to Elephant Butte Lake State Park 1:36 p.m. 87 degrees” is back. It still takes me exactly twenty-four minutes to reach the point where I can see it, and I can tell how warm it is without looking. What is it about numbers and measurement? Or even the desire to know something just because it’s there to be known?

I don’t have anything against knowledge. Practical knowledge enhances life, and useless learning is fun.  I spied a large, almost squirrel-sized, New Mexico whiptail today. She did one pushup and disappeared under a bush. My useless knowledge informs me that she was a she because they all are—our state reptile is an all-female species.  Trying to identify a delicate purple flower I admired, I searched online in vain, but I learned that among New Mexico wildflowers there are plants called Water Wally, Hairy Five Eyes, Bastard Toadflax, Blue Dicks, Redwhisker Clammyweed, and Bonker Hedgehog. (The last one is a small cactus.) I still don’t know the name of the purple flower. I think its bright yellow companion is snakeweed, but it may be chamisa. Chamisa’s botanical name is Ericameria nauseosa, which makes me want to create an unpleasant character named Erica Maria in some future book. This plant, or its purple friend, smells wonderful, not nauseosa, and that perception is a greater joy than the satisfaction of acquiring a fact such as its name. Globes of yellow blossoms on green stems and taller stalks with tiny purple blooms glow against the pale brown sand, and a rare whiff of floral sweetness surprises me as I run past. At exactly the same speed whether or not I measure myself.

*****

Enjoyed this post? You may also like Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

Small Awakenings

Although I’ve made numerous changes in my life over decades of yoga and meditation practice, I’ve never felt astounded, enlightened, amazed, or shaken. I’ve processed some deep emotions and I’ve had moments of quiet clarity, but I’ve never had a dramatic spiritual experience. Instead, I’ve had aftereffects from my practice. Not flashes of divine light but little soft lights that I might miss if I weren’t paying attention.

  • Natural beauty turns off the static in my mind.
  • My pause-to-check reflex is better. I catch myself when I’m about to act or react, and I and stop, realizing I don’t have to say that, do that, or feel that.
  • My awareness of little nagging thoughts that need attention is better.
  • My awareness psychological discomfort and how it can be based on false perceptions as well as accurate perceptions is more sensitive, motivating me to think differently or let go. It’s like being aware of my body in yoga. If there’s discomfort, how can I address it to create a healthier version of the pose? Or of the thinking?

Each of these changes is barely a ripple on the surface—or under the surface—of a day, and I can credit aging with much of it. Statistically, older people are happier than young people, and though there are exceptions, we often age out of certain anxieties and into better impulse control. Life itself is a series of small awakenings.

Water’s Colors

Shortly after I posted about the early spring and the warm dry winds, it finally rained. Cool as well as wet, it was practically our first winter day all winter. The rain smell was so welcome, so magical, I had to go out in it. With a large umbrella, of course. The sound of raindrops on it was the best music I’d heard in months.

There’s a beautiful walking route in Elephant Butte known as “the dirt dam.” It’s a road that’s been closed to traffic and takes you over the dirt dam to the big dam, the one that really makes the lake. It’s not the dams that make it scenic, though—to me, anyway. It’s the subtle colors and dramatic shapes of the desert. On a sunny blue-skied day, I’m drawn to notice the grand-scale sculptures of rocks and mountains. I seldom see this place soaking wet. It was a different world, where fat, silvery raindrops hovered on the tips of pale brown thorns. Many years ago, a friend told me he liked cloudy days because the colors of nature were revealed better, the way they were in classic Japanese watercolors. He was right. The rocks and soil were darker, and the bare thorny bushes looked black. Against this backdrop, dried-out straw-colored flower-stalks surrounded suddenly bright green stems. A red hue streaked up clumps of pale yellow grass, the same coral red as some crystals I’ve collected in the area. The flat, spiky pads of the purple cacti seemed more intensely purple and the green ones more vividly green. One full day of water and winter. I’m grateful.

Quack Gong

In an earlier post, I mentioned how much I love my “outdoor gym,’ the Rotary Park on the Rio Grande in T or C. Though the exercises I do there aren’t yoga but strength training with resistance bands, I still aim to bring a yogic sort of mindset to the movement, paying attention to my body and breath, and also to the world around me.

It’s amazing how busy my mind can get within a few reps of a single exercise. As a writer, I carry plots and characters in my head, and they show up and want attention. This is something I choose to invite while I run, setting a plot problem to solve in a free-flowing way, letting ideas bubble up while I turn my mind loose on the trail. With the trance-like drumbeat of running, I can get into a creative groove and stay aware of the beauty around me. There’s no steady flow during this strength workout, though, as I keep changing from one move to the next. I’m better off focusing on the scenery and on correct form in what I’m doing.

That’s where the cormorants come in. They winter here, fishing the river. Some gather on an island of matted reeds and twigs while others float. Their vocabulary is fascinating and full of surprises, from duck-like quacks to grunts, peeps, and croaks. The sounds were wild today when they announced that a blue heron had landed on their island, calling my attention to it along with each other’s. I’d been so busy inside my head that I had missed the arrival of this enormous bird.

As well as talking with each other, the cormorants dance noisily in brief arcs of foot-dragging, water-slapping flight, serving some purpose known to them but mysterious to me. I think of them as the gong in a Zen temple, interrupting my distracted mind and bringing it back to the present. The river. The mountains. A warm, sunny day and a swim of cormorants with sleek black feathers and bright yellow beaks. No need for my mind to be anywhere else.

 

My Neighbor’s Peaches

Out my back window, across the alley, I have a view of a white trailer with chain-link fence around a typical T or C back yard of dirt and gravel. In it is a peach tree, full of fruit that I have watched ripen over the summer, and no one is picking any of it. If you don’t know the desert of New Mexico well, you might be surprised at the way fruit trees thrive here, soaking up sun in the heat of June and water in the downpours of July. Three pomegranate trees, heavy with fruit, bow toward the street on my route to the pool. In front of my apartment, a shrub-like fig tree is producing a massive crop, some newly ripened, many green and still growing. When I lived in Santa Fe, I knew where to find apricots falling to the sidewalks and parking lots, so abundant no owner could possibly pick and eat them all. I have a crisper drawer full of gift peaches from a friend’s neighbor’s tree. As small and velvet-skinned as apricots and just as dense, they are super-sweet, as if growing in a desert made them work harder to become peaches. Still, I look at the ones across the alley behind the fence and see one lying in the gravel, a perfect yellow-and-pink sphere, and it bothers me. A moment someone missed and can never have now, knocked down by yesterday’s storm. It’s not that I want their peaches. I want them to have their peaches.

What aspect of my life is that fallen peach? What is ripe that I am not picking?

 

Overfill Alarm

overfill

Taking my freshman seminar students for a mindful walking meditation excursion, I noticed things I’d never seen before. Most striking was a college van parked near the softball field, overgrown with vines. How fast did they take it over? Had the van been forgotten?

As always on such walks, I noticed the sounds: wind in leaves, the nearby river rolling softly over rocks, birds and crickets singing, and our footsteps. When we reached the park I was aiming for, one of my students found a friendly black cat and held him up. Part of the mindful condition is that we don’t talk or use phones for forty minutes. Her smile communicated all that was needed, and several of us gathered around her to pet the cat. Mindfully. Feeling the catness of the cat.felix

I watched carp in a lily pond, ducks on the river, and then crossed under a bridge to another part of the park. There, I saw a flock of birds reflected in gray water that was busy with a swarm of water-walking bugs, a moment of earth-sky-water symmetry that put my mind on pause. Pure perception uncluttered by the noise of thought.babyducks

A thin old tuxedo cat with a red collar trailed several students into a gazebo. He seemed to want human company, but unlike the black cat, he found no one to pay attention to him. When I went to pet him, the girls sitting in the gazebo were on their phones. Surrounded by nature’s beauty, free to enjoy silence, with a cat who wanted affection sitting at their feet, they were sucked into tiny screens.

On our return to campus, I stopped in front of another thing I’d never noticed before: a big yellow sign on the maintenance building that says OVERFILL ALARM. The class gathered in silence and looked at it. It was finally time to talk.

Does your brain have an overfill alarm? Do you override it and keep putting more in? What are the signs that it’s about to go off?

*****

Picture of black cat, Felix, courtesy of his owner, mystery author Sally Carpenter.

Falling Awake: Review of Full Catastrophe Living

The net impact of this book, no matter how many encounters I have with it, is awakening. I’m not claiming it makes me “enlightened,” only that it accomplishes its purpose of teaching—or reminding—the reader how to be more fully alive and aware, moment by moment.

Kabat-Zinn is a gentle teacher, a master of the non-judgmental suggestion and the empathic anecdote. His writing style is accessible to his entire target audience—everyone who experiences stress. It’s a friendly, natural style, with some idiosyncrasies. He’s fond of exclamation points and often says things like “our body” and “our mind,” addressing his readers as a group and as individuals at the same time, while including himself in that group. Grammatically, this plural-singular is strange, but that’s his voice, his way of bringing readers into a conversation with him. Though the book is long, it’s low-stress. The themes are expanded gradually, each chapter building on the next, with steady reminders about the practices he’s teaching. I recommend reading it slowly, a little at a time, and letting it soak in. This turns the process of reading into a kind of meditation.

This was my first exploration of the revised edition. It grew by around 200 pages from the original. The updates were needed for two reasons. One is that the author and many other scholars in health psychology and the study of emotions and stress have accumulated decades of well-designed research on the effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is no longer an innovation at one Massachusetts hospital but an established, thoroughly studied program taught all over the world. The results of studies are integrated into the rest of the text. At first I wondered why he didn’t make those a separate chapter, a massive appendix, but a lot of readers might skip or skim this information if it was presented that way. When it flows as part of the story of coping with various stressors, it gets read, and adds substance and science where it’s needed. The other reason the book needed an update was the change in the nature of stress and distraction since its first publication. When it first came out, there was no such thing as texting while driving or feeling the need to sleep with a cell phone turned on and lurking under one’s pillow, no such thing as constantly sharing on social media. The stress-creating tendency he described in the first edition—to be in touch with everything except ourselves—has only grown over the past thirty years.

The chapters on coping with physical pain and emotional pain are especially profound. At one point in my progress through this book, I ended up reading it in the emergency room in the middle of the night. It helped me cope mindfully with a bizarre, ambiguous symptom and the decision to get it checked out, to sit with the not-knowing while I waited to be seen, to accept that I might have something serious that could require eye surgery, and to accept that if I didn’t need it, this was how I’d chosen to respond. I was even able to get a couple of hours’ sleep before seeing a specialist in the morning. (In case you wonder, no surgery was needed. I can now cope mindfully with a mere risk factor—and my insurance company.)

This recent experience with sleep deprivation made me relate strongly to the chapter on sleep stress. This chapter doesn’t seem to have been updated with research the way the others have. I agree with Kabat-Zinn that getting upset about being unable to sleep only compounds the problem. Making peace with the necessity of being awake reduces the suffering. It does not, however, reduce the need for sleep. Adapting to the stress of being tired is not the same thing as being able to maintain normal reflexes, attention or memory. I’ve found shortcomings with this chapter, but that doesn’t invalidate the whole book. In fact, the chapter stands out because the rest of it is so soundly supported.

I have one more critique: The material on the benefits of yoga is valuable but the drawings don’t provide good instruction. The little man in the pictures uses his back incorrectly in several forward bending poses, and uses no props. Using a strap to reach one’s foot in many poses makes a big difference in both benefit and safety. The selection of poses isn’t as balanced as it could be and there is one that I think should have been eliminated, a curled-up inversion that could stress the back and neck. Kabat-Zinn does mention approaching it with caution, but there are safer ways to relax and put your feet up in yoga, such as lying on the floor and putting your legs up the wall. My suggestion would be to read the chapter but to study yoga with a qualified teacher who pays attention to each student and who understands anatomy and injury prevention. Don’t use the pictures as instruction.

There’s an option with this book to buy CDs or download guided meditations. I’ve never done that, having studied yoga and meditation with live teachers and developed a daily practice, but as one of my yoga students was saying after class the other evening, it reduces her stress to have someone else guide her. There are beautifully written instructions for meditation in this book, and some wonderful short experiments a reader can do to begin exploring the practice. I think other readers could do as I’ve done and not buy the CDs. It should work well either way. With or without guidance, it’s challenging to commit to daily practice at first. The book suggests forty minutes. (I prefer not timing it, just doing it.) Daily practice is one of the foundations of the stress reduction program in this book, whether one does the body scan (similar to Yoga Nidra), sitting meditation, walking mediation, or yoga, or alternates among these. Daily, one commits to taking time to be present in oneself. It is, as the author once said, both the simplest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And it can, through awakening, change your life.

 

 

Leaves in Mud, Leaves in Sky

trees

Standing on a riverbank, I found myself absorbed in watching the motion of a low-growing tree branch that had been snagged by the current. Dead leaves in water, moving yet going nowhere drifting back and forth in the mud. The swaying was hypnotic. I broke the trance and looked up at the rest of the tree, vital and full of color in a bright blue sky. There was so much more.

It made me think of how much may lie beyond our ordinary perception, how much of reality we may miss. Not only the beauties we fail to notice, or the colors that bees can see and the sounds that dogs can hear, but the worlds that dreams walk through, the shamanic realms.