Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Samatha meditation is the foundation for all other meditations.  If you’re a meditator but not familiar with the term samatha, I assure you that you are at least familiar with the technique.  Samatha is Sanskrit for “calm abiding”, and the technique asks essentially that you focus easily but steadily on a single thing.  Breath, anyone?

photo courtesy of me.
Cultivating samatha is like equipping a car with fantastic shock absorbers.   In life, we drive along, la-di-da…aware of, but not aware of surrounding traffic, Katy Perry on the radio, kids squawking in the backseat.  We’re musing about, say, what’s for dinner and then BLAMMO!  Gigantic pothole.  The car lurches and bounces, everybody SCREAMS.  Your heart races, you hold your breath, everything happens in slow motion and you are, to use a phrase that I cannot claim credit for, nailed to the present moment.*

Then you’re back on course, the kids are fine, nobody’s hurt, the car’s okay.   “So, right-o, I’m thinking maybe meatloaf…”

It’s like that, life is, right?  You’re just driving along and then the potholes appear, you didn’t even see them coming.    The toilet backs up.  Scream!  Your kid gets mono.  Freak out!  You get laid off.  Holla, and I don’t mean in a good way!  Your spouse cheats on you.  Holy shit!  Your best friend is the other woman.  FUCK!

Or, it could just be:  The house is dirty.  Your mom is nagging.  No milk in the fridge.   Your girlfriends went to lunch without you.  Those are potholes, too.  We lurch, and in that split second of clarity, before we make a decision about how we’re going to lose it (because oh, yes; by God, I’m going to lose it), we see exactly what’s going on.  It is what it is and NOTHING MORE, and certainly not about you (sorry).  Then that microsecond passes, our adrenaline spikes, our synapses fire, and we must somehow announce that we are:

A)     ANGRY!
B)     AFRAID!


We live according to rules, customs, norms and expectations because it makes life more convenient to navigate.  That’s not a bad thing. Because we operate within this framework, though, we are subject to having the rug pulled out from underneath us swiftly and ruthlessly. 

Samatha trains us to navigate these situations with less of an “AAAAAAAAAGHHHHHH!!!” and more of a “Whoa.”   

What samatha is not is numbness.  We aren’t steeling ourselves against hurt or surprise or disappointment.  We are in fact moving forward, moving closer, despite the jagged edges of it.  We find that, if we can soften, we can begin too move right through those things and be completely wide-eyed and present with them.  Because those edges are sharp, it stings a little at first (okay, sometimes a lot, and sometimes not just at first - but stay with me here), that softening and opening.  Right inside that, that shell broken open, is the soft guts of bodhichitta, your true nature: compassion, openness, empathy for the suffering of all living things bar none (including yourself; you don’t get to skip yourself – but that is fodder for another post).

Yeah, it’s lofty.  I practice samatha.  Do I feel open, compassionate, empathetic?  Sometimes.  Maybe more and more, slowly.   Sometimes, not so much.   I’m still learning the value of disciplined practice and sangha.  Oh, and that you get to keep coming back without penalty.   That may be the loveliest part, as my friend Liz says: Keep coming back, keep coming back.  With practice, your true nature becomes second nature.  Ironic.

To my friends at Shambhala Dallas, gassho, and thank you.

* anyone care to guess?  if you know me personally, it's not really so hard.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Life has re-assumed some sort of linearity.  Or, rather, linearity re-imposed itself upon my life the moment I walked into Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on the afternoon of Saturday, May 14. 

Nepal was my home for the past four weeks.   Three planes, four stops and thirty hours later: I’m sitting, cleanly and too comfortably, at the kitchen table in my tidy suburban Dallas home.  My circadian rhythms will simply have to work it out on their own.

This entry is an inadequate attempt to preface what I hope will be several more devoted my life in the center of the universe with Nepal as my backdrop.  Based on past patterns, I could very well just drop the whole project.  All I have to go on are scribbled notes inside the covers of books, ticket stubs, addresses written on napkins and my own feeble, fickle memory.  I don’t pretend to assume you have any vested interest, dear reader.  My hypothesis is that, with any luck, I will have a record for myself of how, for (too) brief but brilliant moments, I found myself able to release my iron grip on fear, breathe and be completely clear about just. this. moment. I was there when it happened.  I fought it.  I know it’s possible; what a fucking relief! 

I want more of that kind of stillness and gentleness and openness, but oh look, there I go grasping again.   So silly, so predictable!  If I can manage to steal time outside of linearity, expectations, obligations and structure - these things that just have their way with me because I invite them in and hold on to them – well, I have a chance. 

So what follows (if it does, because you know, a girl has to reintegrate.  Make appointments.  Meet expectations.  Answer calls and respond to emails.  Construct schedules and lists and make sure everybody takes their meds and eats a balanced meal) is my selective accounting of “what I did in Nepal!” (because many of you asked and because, frankly, I find it interesting).   I’ll just be right up front about my selectivity.  Dear readers, you get the polished (?), mostly palatable version.  If you want to know more, want to dig a little deeper; ask me in person: I may or may not oblige.

With compassion, and humor, and lightness; because we really are all on the same ridiculous boat.

Om tare

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Never Gets Old

April 17, 2011
New Delhi, 8:30p

“Cosmopolitan” implies a certain nonchalance and see-it-allness; a sort of cool adultness about things.  I am, therefore, decidedly not cosmopolitan.  India is a complete amazing freakshow and, after having spent decent chunks of time here, I say with confidence that the freaky just doesn’t let up.  I am just as completely awestruck, silly, apologetic and sometimes timid as I was just making my way through Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport 11 years ago.  Specifically, being pursued by the elderly bathroom attendant as I exited the restroom doors and down the hall, muttering something that didn’t really sound like good energy. Me: completely terrified, utterly fascinated and, well, laughing quite honestly; then my husband concludes:  you asked for toilet paper, didn’t you?  I was apparently remiss in not tipping Auntie-ji for the favor.  

So, define spurious...?

The newness is unrelenting even when I’ve seen it before, and it still throws me off balance sometimes.  The busy roads of monsoon Delhi are a mean place for a kid who looks upsettingly like Arjun, and I still do a double take although I’ve cultivated that look that says “I am unaffected.”  But I guess somehow I am,  and more and more I can’t call it judgment or dismay, just observation.  I like it; it’s like life, how life really should be.  You know?  Every moment is new, pregnant with possibilities limited only by our feeble little minds.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

You know how sometimes, life lets you in on a little joke and everything at that moment seems light and right?  Something inside you chuckles and the yumminess of that moment stays for a little bit?  

I had such a lovely little moment in a yoga class this past week.  We were a small, strong and familiar group; so we had some room to play.  The challenge was put to us: think for a moment of the balancing asana (pose) you dislike most, then take your time in practicing it.

As a rule, I don't dislike any pose or technique.  Isn't it true, once we think about it, that "dislike" is often what we label our feelings about something that takes us out of our comfy little headspace?  And so it was decided that I would practice ardha chandrasana (balancing half-moon); not because I dislike it, but because the thought of it makes me squirm.

Ardha chandrasana, if you are unfamiliar with the pose, involves the willingness to open up the front body W-I-D-E while standing in a position that is, at best, unfamiliar and at worse, completely unstable.  My pose falls somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum.

It is an act (yes, an act: because the beauty of it, for me, lies in the process of getting there, not in the final destination) of movement within stillness, a grounding through the feet tempered by a certain vulnerability at the open heart.  Well, that sounds beautiful, but to watch me do it is often to witness a comedy of tragic clumsiness.

Left leg lunges forward.  Liftoff from the back leg.  Unwind sloooowly... reach.... expand... open... open....and cue dying Pac-man music.  My standing foot turns in and, in trying to correct it, I set off a physiological chain of events very similar to an earthquake rising up from my one foot balanced (barely) on the floor.  The opening up is too much, too vulnerable.  My upper hand swoops down to catch me.  One more go and...well, it's passable.  Blah.  Fine.  Right side.

And here we go.  Lunge.  Liftoff.  Unwind.... reach.... and there, locating a focal point right through the front windows of the studio, my eyes rest on a sign in the storefront window across the street:

The universe whispered in my ear, and as neon came to life letter-by-letter, I replied with my strongest, lightest, most joyous half-moon.

Such a lovely moment. *chuckle*

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Yoga of Irony

Yoga teachers are interesting paradoxes.  While we're busy reassuring others of the perfect, eternal, undefinable Spirit within (and really, truly believing it); our own lives are often wrought with self-denial, self-hate, putting others before ourselves, posturing and a yen for outside validation.  If you're looking for a yoga teacher who is a living, breathing incarnation of unconditional self-love and acceptance; you will most likely find eventual disappointment.  If you are seeking a partner on your path, someone who every now and then speaks to your own Divine inner teacher, and someone who can use their human-ness to create a framework for self-reflection, you'll find those in abundance.

Okay, let's cut through the pontificating (awesome word, BTW).  It comes as no surprise to anyone that I (if we must put a formal name to it) deal with depression.  What is surprising is that I'm calling it by name and just putting it out there.  After I'm done advocating self-love (not that kind of self-love, people) and reverence toward your divine self for roughly 75-minute windows, I'm whipping myself.  This is what goes on in my head:

"You should be a better mother."
"You don't deserve S. (my husband)"
"The front lawn looks crazy.  Why aren't you working on that?"
"You should be making more money."
"You should be thinner."
"You shouldn't be eating meat."
"You should be yogi-er."

That kind of bullshit.

It's this kind of self-talk, borne of all the usual childhood abuses and genetic predispositions, that lies at the heart of episodes of epic self-hate and the potential dissolution of my marriage.  My discontent with self has the unfortunate side-effect of resentment and condescension toward others; what I've tried to position as a sort of tough love or above-it-all-ness.  I've set my own personal standards so impossibly high, it's unlikely anyone could meet them.   

Patanjali wrote that this world, this life, exists solely to recognize and manifest our Divinity.  Without this frame of reference, we cannot separate the real from the unreal, the fleeting and the eternal.  I have my work cut out for me.

I'll be back to read this in another year, I'm sure, with equal parts sympathy and not a little embarrassment.  What I'm really trying to do here is quit denying myself.  I don't deserve a prize for it, but neither should I constantly second-guess myself.  

My husband and I have decided to see a therapist.  I write this with a mixture of relief and a bit of a chuckle.  We're gonna do it.  We're going to hop on that wagon and be that suburban couple in therapy.  I can begin sentences with, "My therapist said...," or "I learned in therapy...".  For God's sake, I hope it helps.  I don't really think it could make things worse.  I can see the light!  In fact, I see it quite often.  I would just like to park my ever-lovin' soul there for good.  Or at least long-term.

When S. made the appointment, he was asked, "Is there any physical abuse in the relationship?"  He said  no.  

"That's a good start, then," the good doctor replied.  "We can put you both in the same room.  We have couples who come in here and, at some point, the wife gets up and whacks her husband upside his head.  So at least we don't have that to deal with."

This is true.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Chewed the bone down too low
Got fed on tea and sympathy
Blew the sail like the wind
I wish you were my enemy

I was humble for you
What a fool I've been to have
Laid so low

for so long

Into that void of silence
Where we cry without sound
Where tears roll down
Where tears roll down

Where my father's violence
Sent my soul underground
Where tears roll down
Where tears roll down

Drew the blade way too slow
Was shackled by your honesty
Made a mess, I 

guess I 
should have known
That life was lust and liberty

Not a chance mutation

or the last temptation
Laid so low

for so long 
so low

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Color Me Kapha

Coming across a photograph of myself with my very good friend D., it occurred to me that everytime I see it, I chuckle and note, "kapha and vata" (referring to the two of us, respectively) in some layer of my mind.

While training for my yoga teacher's 200-hour certification, we studied a bit about Ayurveda ("knowledge of life"), the traditional form of medicine prominent in India and slowly gaining a foothold as an alternative form of medicine in the West. Yoga and Ayurveda are complementary and interwoven disciplines, and every serious yogi should have at least a very basic knowledge. So it was that, early on in the program, we were assigned to read texts by two leading practitioners, Vasant Lad and David Frawley.

There is a very simple assessment - every certified yoga teacher is familiar with it - that helps you determine your dosha, or constitution. Every body comprises the three doshas - vata (air), kapha (earth) and pitta (fire), and most people manifest one or two primarily. We were assigned to take the assessment and discuss at our next session. I'm not going to bore you with an introductory lesson in ayurveda, but it became clear to just about everyone that you didn't want to be a kapha. While pitta people were fiery and vata's were lean, it seemed we all interpreted kapha attributes to point to an underlying truth: You're fat, you're slow, you're lazy. Trust me, nobody wanted to be kapha. I completed the assessment (several times), finagled my way to pitta-vata at some point and stuck with it. When the assignments were returned, a message in red ink read, "Oh, I would have thought pitta-kapha!" Hrrumph!

In the nearly two years since that assignment, the truth has made itself abundantly clear. I am the very epitome of kapha, tempered by pitta. Slow to act, slow to react and slow to anger; yet balanced by a certain focus, passion and yen for control.

So I came across the picture again today. It's a wonderful picture, with an abundance of all the best attributes of kapha and vata. What a beautiful balance.

As a kapha, my traits are more or less:

Easygoing, relaxed, slow-paced. Agreed!
Affectionate and loving. Not always outwardly so, but...yeah.
Forgiving, compassionate, nonjudgmental nature Stable and reliable; faithful. Yup.
Physically strong and with a sturdy, heavier build. Mmmm....yeah....
Have the most energy of all constitutions, but it is steady and enduring, not explosive. Steady, that's me.
Slow moving and graceful. I'll need an outside opinion on this one, but it seems right...
Slow speech, reflecting a deliberate thought process. Yup.
Slower to learn, but never forgets; outstanding long-term memory. So true!
Soft hair and skin; tendency to have large "soft" eyes and a low, soft voice. Maybe one trait I don't manifest...
Tend toward being overweight; may also suffer from sluggish digestion. Well, I sure don't run because I like it.
Prone to heavy, oppressive depressions. Unfortunately so, but much more balanced since practicing yoga.
More self-sufficient, need less outward stimulation than do the other types A mild, gentle, and essentially undemanding approach to life. True that.
Sexually Kaphas are the slowest to be aroused, but they also have the most endurance. Um, wait...what? (*blush*)
Excellent health, strong resistance to disease. Pretty much.
Slow to anger; strive to maintain harmony and peace in their surroundings. Yessiree.
Not easily upset and can be a point of stability for others. So I've been told.
Tend to be possessive and hold on to things, people, money; good savers. Don't like cold, damp weather. Make that another trait I don't exhibit - I'm not possessive, not a great saver, and love, love, love rainy weather.
Physical problems include colds and congestion, sinus headaches, respiratory problems including asthma and wheezing, hay fever, allergies, and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Uh, I swear this is the last donut. :)