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.

 

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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.

The Risk of Enjoying Something New

Humans are attracted to familiarity and recognizable patterns. We like music with tunes: melodies have patterns. Routines and habits are patterns we don’t have to think about, and having them spares us from making millions of minute choices in a day. Rituals are patterns to which we pay deep, contemplative attention. Habit: tea at my desk while I grade papers. Ritual: a Japanese tea ceremony.

Novelty is nether habit nor ritual, and it can feel incredibly uncomfortable even when it’s trivial. I read an interview in a medical journal with a physician who included nutrition in his treatments. He said—using hyperbole, I hope—that people would rather change their religion than what they eat for breakfast.

I like to ask my college health classes, “How many of you think tofu tastes bad?”

Ten or twelve hands out of twenty-five usually go up.

“How many of you have tasted tofu?”

About half the hands go down. A few others go up. In other words, some have tried it and know they don’t like it. Some people have tried it and found it enjoyable. Others have decided in advance that it’s going to taste bad without ever trying it. On a zero-to-ten scale of risky behaviors, trying a new food is a one or a two. Nothing terrible happens if you don’t like it, and you might find that it’s delicious.

In my freshman seminar, I encounter a few students who resist unfamiliar books. “It’s too long—I don’t like long books.” “I never heard of the author.” “I don’t read non-fiction.” “I’ve never read any kind of philosophy.” Behind this resistance is often the dread of being bored. Some take the risk and read deeply and engage with the book whether or not they entirely like it. Others guarantee boredom by skimming, getting the result they dreaded in the first place.

My book club makes me venture beyond books I would choose for myself, and through them I’ve expanded my reading horizons. How big a risk is it, after all, to read a book I might not like, or to read outside my habitual patterns? If I truly dislike a book, I give myself permission to stop reading after forty or fifty pages, but that’s a decision I’ve only made once with a book club selection.

Over the years the club has chosen books some books we all loved, many we disagreed on, and a few we unanimously didn’t like. The nonfiction book Winged Obsession, about a collector and seller of illegal and endangered butterflies, sounded great in reviews and in blurbs from established authors, but every single one of us thought it was poorly written in spite of the solid research. (It was still worth reading. I learned a great deal about butterflies and about law enforcement in Fish and Wildlife.) The humorous indie novel The Scottish Movie delighted us all with its quirky insider’s look at the movie industry. The book isn’t famous nor is it blurbed by the famous, but it was fun.  It’s the only indie book we’ve read as a club and I remember how amazed the other members were when they saw the price. An e-book for $2.99? I read a lot of indie books, but they’re used to paying $7.99 or more. At that price, an unfamiliar author wasn’t much of a risk for them.

Expensive risks are the hardest. The decision to move. The decision to open a business. To travel to a new place. Some of my yoga teacher friends have been to India. One of them had a blissful experience, staying in an ashram where tiny tame deer came to the patio. The other got some kind of fungal infection and spent the whole trip sick—and yet, she didn’t regret the journey. Its lessons were profound.

Some of the risks people take on a daily basis are so comfortable they feel safe. The phone is familiar, and so is the car. I remember riding with a friend who took both hands off the wheel while driving on a curving road—one hand to shift gears and one hand on his phone. When I pointed out what he’d done, he acknowledged that he hadn’t even noticed. That’s what’s risky: not noticing. While we need some routines and habits, going through life without paying attention is dangerous. We risk our lives with distracted driving, risk boredom by skimming the surface of books or experiences, or risk missing a new experience altogether by not even realizing we could have it.

My last book club gathering included an off-topic discussion of the various unexpected new things members’ aging parents were doing. Making maple syrup. Taking water aerobics. Learning to paint. I have a seventy-nine-year-old man in my Gentle Yoga class who is learning this skill for the first time. Everyday novelties can open doors and break old patterns.

A few years ago I read a study done by a professor at Northern Arizona University on inducing happiness. His experiment involved having people do random acts of kindness, take on small achievable new goals and reach them, and make minor variations in their routines. Compared to a control group, the people who made these little changes became measurably happier.

Taking minor risks like trying new books, activities or foods can add up. When I try something new and different, not only do I feel the satisfaction of achievement but the quality of my attention changes. With awareness, even the familiar can become new and different.

 *****

The Scottish Movie

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15841493-the-scottish-movie