Brain Wash

Wednesday was an insanely busy day. I moved back into my place over the Labor Day weekend. The bad neighbor is gone! But I’ve had a lot of catching up on my life to do. The last thing I felt like doing was laundry. It’s the one aspect of retiring and downsizing that’s been unsatisfactory, because I have no room in my otherwise perfect apartment for laundry machines. I’ve adapted to the laundromat as well as I can. I bring books and magazines and read outside, I take walks, or sometimes I bring my exercise tubing and work out, but I still don’t like it. On this super-busy day, the laundromat was also busy, full of people doing noisy things on their phones, and there were noisy activities outside too. I read, but it wasn’t peaceful. I ran an errand while my clothes were in the dryer. More busyness. When I got back, one of the dryers hadn’t started when I thought it had, so I had to restart it and wait longer.

Normally, I do a meditation practice with mudras late at night, to clear the day away and cleanse my energy. I did it there, in the laundromat. The only other remaining customer had gone outdoors. I didn’t care if she came back in and saw the mudras, though. This is T or C, after all. People here talk with strangers freely, and she’d already shared something pretty personal in our short conversation. I was free to be myself.

All the churning and spinning of machines echoed my state of mind. Then, five minutes of mudras in mountain pose in front of that misbehaving dryer changed everything. The washing was done. Inside me.

 

 

*****

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

Sit Still

Permission given. You can sit perfectly still. You don’t have to do anything right now.

Ahh. A breath of relief.

This is what’s real. Being. Breathing. Seeing the patterns of light and colors, hearing the wind outside my windows, feeling my body release tension, letting the inner chatter fall away.

Yes, I have a to-do list. Appointments, commitments. Some are fun, some are just part of being a modern human in a somewhat inefficient society. But my first obligation is to my being. My stillness. My awareness.

The other day, I ran in this mind-state, attending to the sound of my steps and to the sights around me. Though I kept coming back to solving plot problems in my work in progress, I did spend more of my run noticing. As a jackrabbit ducked under a shrub, I saw the exact second that its big ears folded back to avoid the branches as it scampered. Life is full of those perfect moments, these ordinary wonders.

Without them, how can I write? Or enter all my busyness and commitments with an open heart?

 

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.

White Tile Floor

 It makes the rooms seem larger and brighter.

It shows every grain of desert sand, every drop of spilled tea.

I was doing my housework and noticed how cluttered my mind was, how full of random inner chatter of no importance, and how un-restful that was, like listening to a radio station that fades in and out mingled with another equally unclear one. While I was on my hands and knees washing the white tile floor, I turned off the noise and focused on the moment. The swish of the rag. The movement of my arm. The small crawl to the next stretch of floor. It won’t stay spotless, floor or mind. But imagine my state of home or head without the effort!

 

Sitting

There’s good sitting and bad sitting. I’ve been working on a post for Ladies of Mystery about the bad-for-you sitting that writers have to do and how to counteract it, but here, I’m talking about the good sitting. Meditators often use the word “sit” to mean meditate.

Sitting slows down the activity of the mind—a problem when you’re trying to be creative, a benefit when you’re practicing awareness. After I cool down and stretch at the end of a run, I sit in vajrasana, lightning bolt pose. I initially started doing it to stretch the muscles on the front of my shins and ankles, and realized that it had an effect on my state of mind. After all that movement, after the ever-changing visual input and the flow of creative thought, after the more active stretches, I sit on the ground in stillness. If I’m alone at the end of the trail, it becomes a moment of pure presence. Breeze on skin. Leaves scuttling on dirt. Blue sky. Buttes and mountains across the lake. The sharp shadows of every pebble and rock in the afternoon’s brilliant light as the sun rides low in the sky for the solstice. Sitting. The drop into inner silence.

If I were to get out of my chair now and sit in that same pose, I would have to work to empty my mind. The inner quiet comes naturally after asana practice as well.  Moving my body is the prelude to quieting my mind.

*****

Note: The image is an abstract overhead view of a person sitting in meditation. I didn’t see it right away, so I thought I should point it out for anyone else who saw only a blue design.

Reflection and Self-Study: Down Time Needed

On a recent trip that took me through three guest rooms in three nights, I forgot my evening meditation and journaling practice. I barely kept a journal, and what little I wrote in it was about other people. The interesting people I met at my reading and book signing. What great hosts and wonderful people I was with. Thoughts on how the friends I visited were doing. No inner work. I took time daily for asana practice in the morning and I also found time to write fiction, though only a paragraph or two, but I ended my day turned outward still. How strange. I made the commitment years ago for an evening practice and yet I simply forgot. By the time I was on my way home I realized how important that commitment was.

I stopped at a rest stop to eat a picnic supper. As I opened my car door, it lightly tapped the vehicle next to it. I saw that there was no scratch, not even a bit of paint left on the other vehicle, and proceeded to reach for my cooler. Then a male voice said, “Are you going try to pretend nothing happened?”

A young man of about nineteen stood between the two cars, blocking my exit and glaring at me. I said that nothing had happened, and showed him. My door had touched the hard plastic rim over the wheel well of his Jeep, a protective surface I suspect is there for off-road driving, though this Jeep looked new and shiny, as if it had never done what it was designed for. He demanded an apology. Something about a kid the age of my freshman students acting like an angry parent with a misbehaving child over a non-event rubbed me the wrong way and I got sarcastic with him. “Sir, I most humbly apologize that my door ever so lightly tapped your Jeep, doing no damage whatsoever.” He told me I didn’t have to be like that. I told him he hadn’t had to be a jerk. (The only common sense I had left kept me from calling him something more offensive than jerk. I noticed my inner editor canceling out the A-word.) He denied being a jerk and told me to be more careful in the future. I told him not to be so angry in the future and walked off to the picnic table. Thus the interaction ended with both people still wanting to be right. No communication.

As I set up my dinner, I could see him standing between our cars, studying mine intently. What was he looking for? Evidence of a chronic, habitual parking lot door-hitter? My car was a mess inside, full of the detritus of traveling, and I have a New Mexico habit of not wasting water washing it, so it’s got a nice coat of dirt, but it’s not full of dings or other people’s paint. Perhaps he was peering at the empty Perrier and iced tea bottles, hoping they would turn out to have contained something stronger. I didn’t ask, just watched him, and he finally drove off.

It’s possible he was driving his parents’ car and was paranoid about damaging it, and acted toward me the way they would act toward him if it got a tiny scratch. Or maybe he’d saved up for a fancy car and is anxious about it. I don’t know. What I do know is that my pause-to-check mechanism was rusty. My capacity to step back and reflect instantaneously, to recognize that his hostility was his and that I didn’t need to be reactive, was weakened by only a few days without real reflection. I could have simply acknowledged him. He seemed menacing at first, blocking my way and starting with an accusation, but that’s all the more reason I could have and should have handled the situation better. After all, he was a kid. It was my job to be the adult.

Before I drove on, I wrote a journal entry on some scratch paper, processing all my thoughts and feelings. When I got home, I appreciated the depth and value of my night’s meditation and journaling practice. I need to do all these things to keep myself on track. Yoga asanas, writing fiction, writing a journal, and meditation. I don’t function at my best without deep down time. Not distraction or entertainment time, but inner time. It doesn’t have to take long to go deep. I don’t think I’ll forget again.

Image credits: Occupy the Present, Bryan Helfrich; heart puzzle, Katarina Caspersen

Everyone is my Teacher

640px-very_large_array_cloudsIt’s surprising what you can have in common with someone when at first it seems there might be nothing. At a friend’s birthday dinner party, I was seated next to a graduate student in astrophysics who specializes in radio astronomy, a young man whose hobbies include ice climbing. All these things are fascinating, but far out of my realm of experience and expertise. We  managed to make conversation, though, and somehow discovered a mutual interest in meditation. I’m not sure how we got there. Perhaps from talking about his childhood in Vietnam and how he’s not a practicing Buddhist but follows the philosophy without the religion, or perhaps from talking about my work teaching yoga. “I can learn from you,” he said. “Everyone is my teacher.”

I didn’t feel as though I taught him anything. However, he did, through example, teach me. He was so enthusiastic about adopting daily meditation, so aware of its benefits in the stressful life of a Ph.D. student. I’m older and have been practicing longer, but his deep gratitude for the effects of this simple commitment reached me. Yes, I also practice daily, but how mindful has my mindfulness been? Could I take a little longer, become a little quieter?

His work in radio astronomy is listening—finding ways to hear the universe. It works for me as a metaphor for meditation and for everyone being my teacher. What subtle signals have I not yet heard?

 

Turn it off. Turn it all off.

One of my yoga teachers in New Mexico often mentions the importance of quieting the nervous system. He doesn’t use music in his classes. I teach in places where music is expected, so I use unobtrusive, meditative music, but it’s still background sound, another level of stimulus.

Readers of this blog may have noticed I like to contemplate the effects of power outages. Today there was a brief one at the fitness center at my college. Normally, there are a few fluorescent lights in the group exercise studio that never go off, though I turn off the ones I can. These perma-lights were finally gone. So was the steady blowing of the air conditioning. Its presence has been ceaseless, so I never knew how harsh and persistent it was until it stopped. With plenty of natural light through the windows of a room that had been chilled a little too cool for yoga, the outage was wonderful. The quality of my voice softened. The clarity of my thoughts sharpened. My teaching became more precise, more aware, and I felt a matching shift in the students’ energy. When I stopped talking, there was nothing to be heard at all. Except, perhaps, each student heard his or her own breath.

Overstimulation has a subtle yet pervasive effect. Sometimes I wonder if it’s addictive. There are people who say they have to sleep with a TV on or have one running at all times when they’re home—“for the noise.” That would drive me crazy. I write in as much silence as possible and do my personal yoga practice in silence, too, either outdoors with only the sounds of birds and insects and occasional neighbors’ voices, or indoors in a quiet room. I’ve praised perfect silence in nature before, but today was the first time I’ve experienced the benefits of deep silence in my teaching.

Yoga doesn’t require stimuli that keep our minds bouncing and nerves buzzing. Yes, we can learn to do it in the midst of a barrage of sounds, but when we can choose to be free of them, it’s even better. The yoga sutras begin with a definition of yoga that can be translated as “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”

 

Music, Beauty, Wisdom, Bugs

Cricket_Drawing

On my last night in New Mexico for the summer, I listened to crickets as I left a Bandstand concert in Santa Fe. All of them kept the exact same beat throughout my fifteen minute walk to where I had parked my car, not single cricket out of sync with the rest. The bug music of the South is different. In Virginia at this time of year, cicadas ratchet away all day, and at night a polyphonic, polyrhythmic chorus begins. I meditate by going out on my deck, closing my eyes and deciding not to miss a note. It’s amazing how they produce this symphony by rubbing legs, or vibrating wings, or with specialized parts of their exoskeletons. Their bodies are musical instruments. (Did you know that Kokopelli, the flute player, was a bug? He’s identified with the musical cicadas but also with the stinging Robber Assassin Fly.)

The crickets here who are making all the noise are tiny, like miniaturized versions. The dragonflies are delicate creatures, too, needle thin, brilliant green, orange-red, and sky blue, sometimes flying united, two fragile bodies connected in a mating dance. When I was in Maine, on a run through the green hilly countryside, I came across a farm with a clay pit where enormous colorful dragonflies hovered over the standing water, ten times larger than their southwestern Virginia cousins, like trucks compared to motorcycles. Flame_skimmer_insect_dragonflyBlue Dragonfliy

I’m not sure why insects are so large in less hospitable climates. New Mexico bugs will surprise people who think nothing can live in the desert. Think again. There are beetles and cockroaches out there that could carry a couple of fifty-cent pieces on their backs and not break a sweat (figuratively speaking).

If you’ve read The Outlaw Women, the short story prequel to the Mae Martin series, you know that Mae is not least bit squeamish about crawly critters. When it comes to this topic, more readers may identify with her friend Jamie, who enters the series in Shaman’s Blues. He’s appalled by spiders in particular and by things with too many legs in general. Personally, I like the many-leggeds, but with a few exceptions: roaches, flies, mosquitoes, biting ants and skunk beetles. I think I’ve mentioned before that bees and wasps sometimes walk on me when I do yoga outdoors, their delicate almost weightless feet on my skin. On close inspection, they’re quite beautiful. Some of them have bright yellow legs, a classy touch like the hubcaps that match the paint job on 1950s cars.

At a yoga and meditation retreat a number of years ago, Goswami Kriyananda came in a minute or two late to give his talk. He had stopped to help a fly that was trapped between a window and the screen. He opened the window, and then the screen, and closed the glass so the fly could go outdoors. He said it kept walking around and around on the screen in the same pattern it had before he offered it its freedom. With his warm and gentle humor, he said it reminded him of humans.

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.