Un-poisoned

At the time of my writing this, my Bad Neighbor, the smoker, squatter, and apparent drug dealer (based on traffic in and out of the apartment he’s occupying) hasn’t left yet, despite the two eviction notices. It’s going take a court case. And since he won’t move out, I have—temporarily. There’s no safe level of second-hand smoke, and ventilation isn’t enough to get rid of it. The physical impact of the toxicity—headaches, sinus pain and congestion, light-headedness, and difficulty concentrating—was obvious. I didn’t fully realize the mental effect until I escaped. When your body is being poisoned, it’s hard to clear your head.

My landlord found me a place to stay until the problem is resolved. I am so grateful for this escape, and am amazed at how different I feel. I’m in, of all places, The Red Pelican. If you read Death Omen, I expect you remember it well—it’s so eccentrically beautiful. I’m in the room I gave to Kate and Bernadette in that book, and I don’t think I described it quite right, though I got the general ambience of Red Pelican rooms with their Asian art and bright colors.  Some of them have purple walls and red trim, but my room has red floors and white walls and a wonderful collection of Japanese prints. Three festive porcelain Buddhas fling their arms up in delight on the shelf of the transom over the bedroom door. A huge sequined dragon festoons the bedroom wall.

And then there’s the courtyard, with the enormous rock framed by four benches and sheltered by a three-tiered pagoda roof, with gaps open to the sky between each tier. On the rock is perched a Buddha, a radiantly wise, alive-in-the-moment being, a happy traveler with a small sack slung over one shoulder and a fan resting against his round belly. Though I always felt drawn to him, I never knew what his props meant, so I looked them up. The fan is a wish-giving fan, while the sack is said to contain various things, depending on the legend. Treasure. Candy for children. The troubles of the world. The Hotei—or Laughing Buddha—with the fan and the sack is a wandering monk who takes away unhappiness.

On my first night free of being poisoned, a magnificent, long-overdue downpour arrived and stayed for hours. When it lightened to drizzle late at night, I went out into the courtyard, my steps on the gravel the only sound in the world. I visited all the deities and Fu dogs around the perimeter, circled my favorite Hotei on his rock, and then gazed up at him and at the moon through the shredded remains of the storm.

Cleansing. Wholeness. Fresh air. Stillness. Safety. We have no idea how toxic our world, our lives, our minds, our interactions—anything—has become, until we step away from it and breathe.

*****

Thanks again to Donna Catterick for the picture of the traveling Buddha in the Red Pelican courtyard.

Uninterrupted

I’m reading a pre-publication review copy of a book on fascial anatomy and updated, science-based stretching techniques for athletes. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to review it here, but I am glad this publisher still wants a former professor as a reviewer.) Part of the pleasure in reading it today is that I could keep going for two and half hours, fascinated and intellectually refreshed. While I was working, that much unbroken time to read a book in my field was rare. Days were chopped up by e-mails and appointments and of course classes. Time was always tailgating me with papers to grade and endless pop-up tasks to organize.

 After reading for as long as I felt like reading today, I applied concepts from the book to my yoga practice, intrigued by the way the authors’ research lines up with things I’ve heard some of my teachers say and that I have discovered through exploration. The undulating wave of the breath moves through each stretch. You should experience no pain in stretching. Don’t exit a stretch by tightening the region of the body you just lengthened. Effective stretching releases connective tissue, fascia, not just muscles.

 I have all the time I need to study the charts and try out the techniques before integrating new skills into my yoga teaching—when I get around to setting up a teaching schedule. I’ll finish the review before it’s due. This spaciousness plus engagement is something I hadn’t experienced at work for years, probably not since the advent of email. In my windowless office, I used to read books like this in ten- and fifteen-minute spurts when I could grab the time, or read a page while the computer woke up. Today I read in sunlight with a view of flowering trees. Uninterrupted.

 

Ahimsa and Santosha

Though a few of my fictional characters do practice yoga, this week it’s Amber the yoga teacher and college professor more than the novelist who’s talking.

The Sanskrit word ahimsa is usually translated as “non-harming.” It’s one of the principles of yoga philosophy, one of the yamas, which means abstentions or restraints. Ideally, we’re aware of it in our asana practice and also as we take our yoga with us into our lives. Ahimsa applies to self and others, to all life forms, not only to humans. Thinking unkind and hostile thoughts, saying destructive things, or doing harmful actions are all contrary to the principle of ahimsa.

When I teach, I remind students to stay in a pain-free range of motion and to come out of a pose completely when fatigued rather hang in their joints and possibly injure themselves. But then I’ll look around and see students succumbing to the competitive urge to do what a stronger or more flexible classmate can do. Santosha needed! This is one of the niyamas, the observances to be practiced without restraint. It means contentment. One does not fight reality but takes an attitude of receptive awareness. Objecting to reality with complaints and harsh judgment doesn’t change it. Change can occur, however, from this basis in contentment. Approaching one’s own body and one’s own character from santosha seems to go with having a sense of humor that is kind and open.

I do my best to integrate yoga philosophy into my teaching without giving a formal lecture. However, it’s incredibly hard to teach Americans not to hurt themselves, and when I instruct other kinds of physical activity it’s even harder. There’s no expectation of spirituality or stress reduction in a strength-training class, but of self-improvement, and for some reason, we seem to think we’re better people if we push ourselves beyond healthy limits. I’ve met young men who take pre-workout pills with so much caffeine they could cause a heart attack in order to force their exhausted bodies to work harder, when what they really need is eight hours of sleep a night. I think Americans subscribe to a pervasive cultural delusion that it’s virtuous to go without sleep or heroic to work sixty hours or more a week, and that a great athlete will sacrifice the long-term well-being of his or her body for the sport and for the team. I wish no one had ever come up with the phrase, “no pain, no gain.”

Well-rested, relaxed people get more done in less time. They fight less. Comprehend more. Pay attention and remember better. Procrastinate less. Have more energy. If we all slowed down and allowed our nervous systems to stop buzzing, what would happen? If we valued our health as a nation and as a culture, rather than seeing it as expendable in the pursuit of other goals, what would happen? How would employers treat workers? How would we treat ourselves?

Dialogue and Discomfort

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This isn’t about writing dialogue in fiction, although it’s related in a way. In fiction, an author has to sustain conflict. In real life, we have to resolve it. Keeping the drama up can be engaging for readers, but it can be destructive when people actually need to hear each other. Contrived and exaggerated conflict is the meat of reality TV, but that’s not reality. And we’re not on TV.

My college, like many across the country, has a Dialogue Club. Students are trained to facilitate conversations on difficult topics. These conversations give students a method for expressing their experiences, opinions and feelings without attacking, blaming or accusing. The participants learn to listen without arguing back. The purpose is not to persuade anyone, but simply to understand each other.

I had already planned a Dialogue Club activity in my freshman seminar this week, and the timing was right. We talked about the topics my students had chosen in advance: Black Lives Matter, and athletes who kneel during the national anthem. And then, once we had practiced our skills in civil discourse, I asked if they would be willing to share their thoughts on the election in the same way. They did. It was amazing. My class found this dialogue process valuable enough that they want to do it every week. This is so promising, I’ve volunteered to part of an upcoming campus-wide dialogue about the election results.

The origin of dialogue clubs, to my knowledge, is with a group of women in Massachusetts who had pro-life and pro-choice views and were tired of the anger and even violence that had arisen in disagreements about abortion rights. Their purpose was to hear each other, and they found that there were not just two sides. If there were ten people in the room, there might be ten sides to the issue. Venting to our like-minded friends is a relief, of course, and we all need to do that. But then, we need to move out of our comfort zones, our echo chambers. Reducing our stress often begins with raising it—by doing what makes us uncomfortable. Getting involved in anything controversial (in a role other than audience) can make most people uncomfortable, unless they are the type that thrives on conflict. The rest of us need to be as engaged, or even more so, than the people who enjoy being angry.

Dialogue clubs have been used not only on college campuses. They have been effective working through national conflicts, in places like Rwanda. Talk doesn’t replace action, of course. What it does is do is give people the courage to become part of the public conversation, the first step toward peaceful, constructive action.

What is Pleasant to Live Through …

… seldom makes a good story. I was reminded of this as I searched for something interesting to say in an e-mail to a friend. I wanted to stay in touch and to hear from him, but my sane, steady, enjoyable life provided little material. Hello. I’m happy. My students are great this semester. My yoga classes are going well. I’m reading good books and I’m writing. In conversation, a lot could flow from any of this, but in writing, not much.

A few years ago, I was talking with a new acquaintance at a faculty holiday party, and he mentioned that he was reading The Lord of The Rings for the first time. I had read it my freshman year in high school. Yet, when he mentioned the passage that stood out most strongly for him, it was one that I’d often thought of in the decades since reading it. Tolkien sums up the passage a long and pleasant time for the travelers in his story in one or two lines, then adds that things that are agreeable to live through are often dull to tell about, but things that are hard or even terrible to live through make marvelous tales. Authors tend to feel affection for their characters, and yet to make good stories, we have to put them through challenges. No life would remain pleasant if it didn’t require us to do something difficult. And that’s where the story is—growth through pain or danger.

At the last meeting of my book club, each us got the others caught up on her summer. One person was getting divorced, another had seen a friend through a major crisis, and another had taken her peace studies students to Hiroshima, a place that literally went through hell to become what it now is, a city dedicated to peace. And I … had been on vacation. Needless to say, the most compelling narrative wasn’t mine.

I had tons of fun, but my friends had more questions about a medical weirdness that took place shortly before I left for New Mexico. Because what makes a better story? “I went on vacation and it was great,” or “I had a posterior vitreal detachment?” They were fascinated by the phenomenon of having the gel in my eyeball partially detach and getting flashes of light and a giant floater in one eye. “How big is it? Like, the size of blueberry? Is it always there? Do you have to have surgery?” (Smaller than a blueberry, in case you care, and no, and no.) Ah, we humans. We love icky, scary stuff, and you can’t get much ickier than eyeballs.

I thought the divorce story was amazing, a much better story. Not for the conflict but for the grace. The couple who are parting ways took a long-planned backpacking trip together even though they had decided they would end their marriage. I’ve talked to each of them about it and they’re glad they had this final adventure together. backpacking_bechler_canyon_18430518468It’s their story, so I won’t tell any more of it here, but I can see in it the qualities that make the best stories. In a way, it ties in with the peace studies story and the helping-a-friend-in-crisis story. It had value and purpose, and took strength and courage. It made them grow and change. And in its difficulty shines its beauty.

The Epidemiology of Peace

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In 1993, a group of approximately 4,000 people practiced meditation in a focused and consistent way for a measured time period as part of an experiment in reducing crime in Washington DC through creating a more peaceful collective consciousness. The crime rate was significantly reduced. This was a successful, well-designed scientific experiment, and from the 1970s through the 1990s several others were done with similar results. This type of intervention hasn’t become a mainstay of public policy, though a study done in Merseyside, England found that it saved the local government money. Do we need more meditators? More people in in government who pay attention to these ideas?

Though I write fiction that involves psychic phenomena, it’s not the only reason I find the science behind it important. I’m reading Dr. Larry Dossey’s book One Mind, and I’ve been thinking about the effects our multiple minds have on the One Mind we all share—the interaction of our individual psychology with transpersonal psychology. It can be positive, like the meditation experiments. It can be negative, like the rising level of what I’ll call recreational anger in the United States. I get the impression there is an audience for anger—angry radio, angry TV, angry politics—and that the audience is getting pleasure out of this state of hostile arousal. I’m not one to enjoy outrage for the fun of it, so I can’t claim any insider insights into it. As an observer, I wonder, does it create a wave of disturbance leading to additional anger? Do negativity and meanness have a kind of viral quality that can spread through the shared psychic space of a culture? Is there any connection between our level of anger-for-fun and anger that kills? I don’t know the answers.

Still, I’d suggest that each individual contribute his or her drop of peace to the ocean of the collective consciousness through actions, thoughts and words as well as meditation. It’s an experiment worth trying. Imagine what would happen if we all practiced self-forgiveness and self-study. If we humans all sought moments of stillness and awareness of beauty. Paused to reflect before speaking and acting. Made a daily practice of seeing what Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield calls the “inner nobility” of others, whether they are family members, friends, opponents, or strangers. Perhaps we can change the world-mind, one careful, loving person at time. Our peace-minds would be the psycho-spiritual equivalent of the sterile male mosquitoes that scientists release into disease-ridden areas. No one gets killed. The problem stops reproducing. To continue my epidemiological analogy, when the effort is dropped, the mosquitoes find fertile partners again and the diseases they spread come back. We can’t take peace and wisdom for granted. Meditation is a called a practice for a reason.

Do you notice changes in your life if you keep up the practice?

The Back Yard Buddha

My landlord put a Buddha on the back deck of the house I’m renting. This statue is about two feet tall at most, a slender Indian Buddha, not the jolly fat Chinese kind, and he has a seam on his right shoulder that shows where he was broken out of a mold. He’s a mass-produced Buddha.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting for meditation after my yoga practice and noticed that his hands were in dhyana mudra, which I was about to use to center my mind. (Imagine the classic thumb-to-first-finger jnana mudra joined by sliding the hands together so the tips of the thumbs and the nails of the first fingers touch.) Dhyana means concentration, the most difficult stage in yoga for many people, myself included.

His eyes are closed and he has an infinitely subtle Buddha smile, an expression that somehow conveys deep and effortless focus, immersion in what Buddhists call “lovingkindness.” As I sat with my eyes open, held the mudra and gazed at him, I felt the peace and stillness of that smile. I’ve never used any kind of spiritual or religious imagery for meditation, so I found this effect intriguing. I’m an extravert by nature, and I wondered if this mirror of true inwardness was what I needed, or if I was just borrowing serenity.

Over time I’ve started to feel my mind fall into quietude from a mere glance at the Buddha, whether he’s glowing in the moonlight or showering in a thunderstorm. I like to think that the artist who made the original put something special in that face, and understood that mudra. It makes me glad this Buddha is mass-produced. Somewhere, someone else is smiling back at him. Hundreds of people, hundreds of smiles, petals of peace in a single flower.