Be still, my monkey…

My son moves at a pace faster than the speed of sound. That is the ONLY explanation for why he only hears me the third time I say something.

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Kip.

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Kip!

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KIP!!

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(sigh)

Kip happens.

My son moves at a pace faster than the speed of sound. That is the ONLY explanation for why he only hears me the third time I say something.

Zippy Kippy.

Skippy Kippy.

Kip-to-my-lou.

Oh, my darlin’.

It is hard to be angry with such an exuberant, gregarious, hilarious primate. Somehow we still manage it.

Just.

Be.

Still!

Stillness is not easy for the five year old.

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Stillness is not easy for his mother, either. Neither in body nor in mind.

Last Lent, I wrote about my monkey mind

It jumps from one idea to the next. Knocks things over. This is true if I’m reading. Writing. Teaching. Walking. Eating… You get the picture…the fragmented, sparkly, frenetic picture.

Yoga, I wrote, was one of the only things that could calm my rushing psyche. The faster the flow of my body, the slower my mind becomes. When I began my practice, I gravitated to the hardest teachers. Barely keeping pace with my breath, dripping in sweat, my feet squeaking and slipping, this was the soggy path to my Zen moments. I would catch glimpses of silence and stillness in my mind before they slipped away around a corner of my frontal cortex.

Lately, though, I find I don’t have to chase down stillness. It has begun to come to me.

This week my friend Libbie invited me down to Annapolis to meet and practice with her favorite Yoga instructor. Tina.

Her class was without heat. Without sweat. Without mirrors. Without haste.

We began with seated meditation. We ended with seated meditation.

There was movement between, but all I remember, all I craved was the stillness.

Afterwards, I sat with her for a moment and marveled aloud how much I had reveled in the methodic, meditative slowness of the class. How did this happen? When did I change? How did I slip into someone at ease with silence and stillness?

“You’ve trained your mind,” she said.

When did that happen?!

 

Be still my heart.

Be still and know.

Peace. Be still.

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In stillness we hear.

In stillness we’re here.

Sleep tight, little monkey.

Open Handed Writing

I’m beginning to wonder if the tightness in my writing is actually in my grip.

My writing felt tight this week.

So did my living, come to think of it. I didn’t love as loosely as I like.

In yoga, there is a constant ebb and flow between opposing forces. Effort and surrender. Death to re-birth. Breath in. Breath out.

Using the breath, we breathe into the spaces we are tight. Resistant. This may be a joint or a muscle. It may be an emotion or thought. In yoga we practice releasing these attachments. Physical, mental, and spiritual.

When I was in a college, I landed on a metaphor that I have kept with me.

Picture a hand holding an object.

When we hold things the pain we may feel when they are taken from us has more to do with our grasp than the object itself. If I clasp something to my heart, grip it with all my strength, wrap myself around it, then if it is taken, it must be wrestled from me, wrenched from my grasp. I cannot help but be injured in this struggle.

My pain is in my posture.

If, on the other hand, I hold an object in my cupped hand outstretched, though the object is secure it is not possessed in the same way. I am not possessed by it. It may be lifted from my grasp without violence or struggle.

At the time I came to consciousness of this metaphor, it was God who I imagined giving or taking away. This idea of open-handedness a practice in trust with the divine Father.

Anyone who has practiced or learned from Buddhism will recognize this metaphor as a classic illustration of the suffering that comes from attachment. That the end of suffering is the releasing of our attachment to temporal things destined to change, evolve, die.

Today, my yoga instructor said:

The world isn’t coming at you.

You are coming at the world.

I’m beginning to wonder if the tightness in my writing is actually in my grip.

Writing can seem so final. It ceases to evolve as soon as you hit “Publish.” A snapshot of your thoughts in a moment. And then your thoughts change. Grow. Your words, however, are static.

I have yet to figure out how to make my writing mimic the expansion of my life and spirit. How to hold it in the open-hand of offering rather than the grasping hand of ambition.

 

One of the things I love about the Catholic tradition is the ever expanding family of Saints. This acknowledgment that human holiness is not just a thing locked in the past, but possible today. Right now. In this moment.

Saint
Our Lady of Aparecida – Patron Saint of Brazil. She stowed away with me four years ago and has been my quiet companion ever since.

Once in explaining to someone why I had (seemingly) left Christianity behind I insisted, “It’s not that I’ve rejected the Christian Canon. I’ve just expanded my canon to include others in it.”

For many, this will seem like heresy or hubris. Ironically, it is the closest I come to humility, this acknowledgement of the vast wisdom that can be found from a multiplicity of human experiences across time and culture. Not just in the past, but in the present.

I was no saint this week. I do not aspire to be one next week either.

But in my practice to come, I hope to come at the world and my words with open hands and a looser a grip.

Love in the time of Casseroles

Love in my life is not chocolate flavored and it doesn’t smell like roses. More often, it tastes like coffee I didn’t have to brew. It looks like laundry I didn’t have to fold. It feels like a thrift store sweater I had to re-sew the buttons on to. It’s a heart shaped casserole dish covered in cheez-whiz, waiting for me when I get home from yoga. 
  
The love of my life is a potluck of leftovers. 

What love ought to taste and feel like is a complicated thing. We are fed stories about love as we grow. Who to love. How to love. Whether we are deserving of loves nourishment or left to scrounge for its scraps. Too often those stories we read and watch over and over rarely last beyond the sugar high. They do not keep us warm when the windchill kicks up. 

My deepest loves are cobbled together from scraps and thrift store finds. They do not go together in the traditional sense. But they are all rooted in the environments I have occupied: familial, religious, academic, regional, and professional. All of these spaces have shaped both my definition and capacity for love. My love is a bouquet of the herbaceous elements found there. 

Found art. Found love. 

Love in all flavors and fibers. Ginger and mustard. Silk and denim. Quirky pairings that wouldn’t seem complimentary create a bricolage of patchwork love. 

  
Ivy asked me (again) this morning why she was going to church with daddy and grandma while I went to yoga with myself. I said:

“People go to church to be closer to God and think about how they can be better to the people around them. Thats what yoga does for me.”

As I moved my way through the Asanas, love lines I grew up reading emerged in my mind:

(Warrior pose). 

The greatest of these is love.

(Cactus arms)

Perfect love casts out fear. 

(Cosmic Dancer)

Love your enemy. 

(Goddess pose)

God is love.

These tenants and asanas complicate life and love. Make it harder to digest if we’re used to love that melts in our mouth. This is high fiber love. It doesn’t always taste good, but it’s great for our colon. 

Love is always on hand. We may need to pair it with a can of kidney beans or patch it with fabric scraps, but if we let ourselves recognize love in all flavors and fibers, we’ll find it in every cupboard and closet.  

Soft and worn in, I choose consignment love. 

Humble Warrior (and the Holy Harrumph)

Finding balance between strength and humility…

Humility has never been my strong suit.

Consequently, sometimes the universe harrumphs at me.

Quietly, but definitively, I often feel the affectionate exasperation of the cosmos aimed in my direction.

This year during Ramadan and my sporadic attempts at fasting, the closest I came to prostrating towards Mecca was on my yoga mat. When you’re hungry, every sensation becomes nourishment. And if the mundane is made profound by your burning thirst, the profound is even more so.

Yoga has been the one space that has remained constant through my spiritual transformations. It began in 2002 with Fred Hagstrom, an art professor at Carleton College who would move his students through the Ashtanga Yoga series with no variation. It was the same. Every. Time.

For some, routine is comforting. For me, routine is tedium. Usually.

But something about the fluidity of…

Sun Salutation.

Forward fold.

Flat back.

High Plank.

Low plank.

Upward Dog.

Downward dog.

Rhythm. Tides. Seasons. Breath.

Yoga managed to do the one thing no other spiritual practice ever could…

Quiet my Monkey Mind.

Yoga Toes

Yoga during Ramadan nourished me in a new way. When I visited former students at the local Mosque in Gambrills, Maryland, I witnessed their prayer cycles in person for the first time. Sitting in the back of the prayer room, I watched women in beautiful robes and scarves in a choreographed dance towards the divine…

Stand

Bow

Kneel

Forehead to ground.

Stand.

Rhythm. Tides. Seasons. Breath.

Soon afterward when I came to my mat…the parallels were pronounced.

The central tenet of Islam is Submission to the will of Allah. Humility is likewise a tenet of my root faith, Christianity.  I never really got it. Never really wanted to.

It may have been in part because being raised in a conservative faith in the Midwest, it seemed that those most expected to be humble were…women. I was strong like a boy. Brave like a boy. Smart like…myself. Why should I pretend otherwise?

I remember the distinct moment in middle school when I first had the “B” word lobbed in my direction.

“Barbara’s hot, but she’s a bitch.”

Huh.

I didn’t see myself as either of these. Could I accept one but not the other, my teenage self wondered?

Intimidating. Bitchy. Cocky. Crazy.

Bitches get stuff done

I moved through various whispers or second hand labels like these, mostly from males I only vaguely knew. At some point I learned that being “cute” could offset my power. Obscure it enough to make it palatable. I’ve been figuring out how to contain, explain, and tame “my inner mean girl” ever since.

My mat has become a space to face this part of myself. I’ve always found it difficult to practice on my own. I can only do it for about 20 minutes and only about once every two months. But give me a roomful of sweaty yogis, I can go for an hour and a half (and give me a trust fund and I could go every day).

Yoga is funny. It’s a practice, not a performance, so you are not supposed to be comparing yourself to other people in the room.

Tell that to Lulu Lemon.

In truth, We (read I)  watch out of the corner of our (third) eye as someone falls out of tree pose. Bummer. And then we wonder who’s watching us (and gloating) when we do the same.

I’ve been practicing now for 15 years…so I can do a Cosmic Dance or two. Balance on one foot. My head. My forearms. I can fold and bend in old poses and stretch and strain into new ones.

Like I said. Humility has never been my strong suit.

Still…

Something internal shifted in my 30’s. I think it was Kip and Ivy that maybe did it. Parenting is humbling. My leftover baby-belly is humbling. For the first three years of their lives, I was lucky if I could get to yoga every couple of months. When I did…the heat of the room was nothing compared to the warmth of my gratitude. To be in this space. To polish my heart with my breath. To be strong sometimes and wobbly others. Kind of like the two most important little people in my life.

I would begin my practice in child’s pose and end in corpse pose, the final resting posture, tears slowly seeping from the corners of my eyes, having moved through the cycle of life and death.

Rhythm. Tides. Seasons. Breath.

Humility came with the realization that the best work of yoga is invisible to anyone but myself. No one can see my heart grow bigger. My spirit expand. My affection, compassion, and admiration for my fellow yogis moving in unison around me. And no matter my triumphs or tribulations on the mat, they mattered not at all unless I could bring their lessons with me out into the world.

During my Ramadan Yoga practice I thought a lot about submission…what it meant that I sucked at it. How I should feel about that. And then, all of a sudden I found myself in Humble Warrior.

For those of you unfamiliar with yoga, every posture has multiple variations. Dogs can be upward, downward, walked, or flipped.

Warriors can be reversed, flying, or…humbled.

Humble Warrior

How do we accept our inherent human power without lording it over others?

That’s it! I thought. I am a humble warrior!!

(Cue Holy Harrumph)

Cue self-aware chuckle.

Okay, okay. Not just yet.

But humble warrior, I realized in that moment, ought to become my life’s aspiration.

To be strong.

To be balanced.

To be humble…because I may topple over at any moment.

Humility and humiliation are not the same. My humility comes not from thinking myself less…but from thinking all of us MORE. Being able to look at a stranger and marvel at all the realities and possibilities they embody. To see people’s failings (and my own) as both inevitable and evolve-able.

I am powerful because…aren’t we all?

I feel myself called to action on issues rife with peril. Feel a future trajectory that will require courage.  I will fail unless I am first, humble. Second, powerful.

May the Cosmos, in Her mercy, help me balance both.

Monkeys in the Monastery

The mind as an open vessel floating on a still lake stretched out to the horizon.

This image came to me several months ago in the midst of my yoga practice. A metaphor for the mindfulness one hopes to achieve when deep in meditative practice.

Balance.

Calm.

Oneness.

Yeah, this is not an apt metaphor for my mind.

A better one might by a monkey in a sequined leotard. Distracted by shiny things, including its own outfit…and its tail.

Monkey
Ask me to monkey dance sometime…

Yep. That sounds about right.

I have what they call in meditation circles… “a monkey mind.” It jumps from one idea to the next. Knocks things over. This is true if I’m reading. Writing. Teaching. Walking. Eating… You get the picture…the fragmented, sparkly, frenetic picture.

The only time it ever really stills, the only thing that can routinely calm it in to brief pause, is yoga.

I come from a faith tradition that is very noisy. Drum sets and Hallelujahs. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t a place for quiet prayer.

“Be still and know…”

But even that quiet time for me was filled with constant questioning, connecting, and emoting.

Being still can be exhausting.

When I began to study religion at college, I was introduced to various methods of meditation, which exist in some form in all faith traditions. I gave it a go.

I would go to the balcony of the chapel on campus. The building would be empty, light streaming in from the stained class. I would sit at the highest point in the building and try to be still. Try to quiet my mind.

I would bribe myself.

Just one minute.

Think of nothing for just one minute.

Just.

One.

Minute.

Has it been a minute?

I would often give up and journal instead. I re-read one journal entry recently where I was distracted by a pencil on the pew where I was trying to meditate.

A pencil.

I wrote a whole journal entry about it. The person that held it before me. Who they might have been. In fact just now I stopped writing to look for the entry again. I didn’t find it, but that damn pencil from fifteen years ago is clearly STILL too much of a distraction for this sequined monkey.

Moving is the only thing that seems to make my mind go still.

When I studied in England I would disappear for hours. I would walk through gardens. Walk through the tangle of London streets. Walk through sheep fields. Walk through castle ruins. These walks, the colors, the perpetual damp of the English spring, the richness of the tea and scones afterwards, they are so vivid even now.

And, oh, the Mystic wonder of the wanderer.

I have never felt as close to the divine as I do when I walk alone in solitary country or bustling urban landscapes such as these.

I feel the chill of connection even now.

What a relief it was when I met the Jesuits and Ignatian Spirituality. “Contemplatives in Action” they are called.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was the catalyst for a huge paradigm shift in what it looked like to live a religious life. Traditionally, if you were a priest or a nun it meant that you were monastics, living in community with your spiritual brothers or sisters. There were regimens of prayer that occurred perhaps five times or more a day.

This meant if you were working in the garden, tending the poor, transcribing a text, you had to stop every few hours to pray. You can’t go too far with a two hour turn-around time.

The Jesuits, on the other hand (and the Franciscans as well) are called “mendicants.” Travelers. Theirs is a spirituality on the move.

Indeed, one of the few requirements Ignatius had for Jesuits in the “Spiritual Exercises” was called the Examen and was to be done twice a day. Once at noon. Once at the end of the day.

  1. Become aware of the divines presence.
  2. Review the day with gratitude.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.

Even a distractable monkey might be able to handle that.

I am not meant for the monastery. I would drive my fellow monks mad. But perhaps I am meant for the traveling circus, where twice a day me and the other monkeys can try reflect on the profundity of sparkly things…for just under a minute.

Contemplative (monkey) in action (with sequins).

Mind
Sleeping Buddha…meet smirking Barbara.

Fallward Into Practice

We do not just change through action, but through observation. What is more, our observation is not in itself a neutral thing. To observe and be observed is to change the story.

Some of my favorite people in the world seem remarkably unaffected by the number of eyes turned on them. They are just as likely to leap into the Chesapeake Bay if they are by themselves or with a crowd. Just as likely to share intimate details about their colonoscopy with their girlfriends as with their boss. There is something refreshing…and terrifying about this ability. I call these friends my “truth-tellers” and I collect and guard them religiously.

Fallward

Then there’s me. I have some subconscious algorithm that calculates number of eyes multiplied by allotted authority equals a version of me too loud or too (seemingly) indifferent. I don’t like what I become. I wonder sometimes, where is the fine line between diplomacy and duplicity? Is there one? Or is that just my cognitive dissonance resolving itself?

But then, there are some places where I am completely un-shuttered.

I’ve been practicing yoga since Winter Term at Carleton, 2000. 15 years later I remain more devoted to it than any other religious or recreational tradition. One of the profound discoveries that came from this practice was from an instructor who (while we were balanced in tree pose) said, “If you never fall, you must not be trying hard enough.” I faced my fallings-over very differently from that moment forward…fallward?

When I started practicing yoga, I stopped practicing piano. I wasn’t trading up. I just began to realize that there was something inherently formal in playing the piano that never resonated with me. I sat, almost always, with my back to an audience. I never progressed to the point where I was free to look up, respond to those around me. Improvise with others who brought other songs with them.

But then one day, I wrapped myself around a guitar and found an intimacy that never rose to the status of performance. Lived instead comfortably in a space of celebration and exchange.

That’s what I hope this can become…this 30 minutes of writing. A jam session rather than recital. A practice rather than a performance.