Thursday, 26 May 2011

Wearing Kindness

Last week, getting ready to meet my friend for lunch, she texted me to ask what I was wearing.  I went to text back, I am wearing linen..., but my auto-text wrote instead, 'I am wearing kindness'.

I like that.  Today I am wearing kindness.  I'll be wearing it all day and I'll be giving it to you and giving it to me.  It feels good, to be wearing kindness.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Finding time for yoga practice

There's a story about a monk in a monastery who was every day thinking, when I've done my chores I'll go and meditate.  He'd be washing up, say, and think as soon as I'm done I'll go to my cushion and meditate.  But every day, after his chores were done his teacher would send a message asking him to come and see him.  So every day, when his chores were finished, instead of going to sit on his cushion and get comfortable and close his eyes and begin his meditation, he found himself with his teacher doing something else instead.

This went on for a while and the monk got more and more frustrated with his teacher.  He wanted to go to his teacher every time he called for him; he wanted to know whatever it was his teacher wanted to tell him and learn everything his teacher had to teach him, but still... he needed to get to his meditation. 

Eventually he realised something quite important: as good as it is to set aside a special time every day for your practice, it is also important to bring your practice into your life as you live it.  To blur the distinction between the times when you are practising and the times when you're living your life.

So the monk decided to turn everything into his meditation: from then on, if he was doing the washing up, he would meditate while he was doing it.  This meant that he would give all of his attention to what he was doing - he was not physically doing the washing up while his mind flew about thinking about what he was going to have for dinner; a conversation he had earlier that day, or listening to the radio.  He was just standing doing the washing up and giving it all of his focus.  And he turned that into his meditation practice.  And it worked.

I was reminded of this in something I heard Ram Dass say once... Ram Dass is a very clever guy and always has a lot to say, but several years ago now he had a stroke, which affected his ability to speak.  Sometimes he's sitting on stage, looking at the audience and they are waiting for his wisdom and the words are somewhere in his head, but they just don't quite make it to his mouth.  Then there is silence and everyone is waiting for the words to come.  In one of these moments Ram Dass said, "Don't waste time waiting."  What he meant (I think), is don't sit there waiting for my words to come; you could be finding your own words right now; you could be finding your own wisdom.  Don't waste time waiting; get on with your work.

If you have small children; if you commute to work; if you have a hectic work and social life, it is not always easy to find your way every day to a special place where you can shut the door, be in silence and give yourself over 100% to your yoga practice.  Life doesn't always work out that way for us.  And anyway, yoga is intended to be a practice for life - our life is the gift; that's the whole point.  The world is where you get to work all this stuff out.  As Vivekananda put it, the world exists to set you free.

You can turn anything, any part part of your day into your yoga practice, if you commit to doing it with mindfulness.  I am not suggesting that every single moment of every day is dedicated to it, but that one or two tasks or journeys can be transformed into your yoga practice for that day, simply by your commitment to doing it with total focus.

For example, here's Nancy Roth talking about walking mindfully... "During these walks I understand the presence of God in yet another way: as if I were reading a spiritual book written with the alphabet of the seasons and processes of the natural world ... I see a design ... of interconnectedness, beauty, and, always, new life issuing from death."  

On Woman's Hour I heard about a woman who cycled to work mindfully.  The interviewer asked how safe it was to be mindful when you cycle, but she missed the point entirely, because when you are mindful, when you are totally present in each moment, you give yourself to that task and that moment fully and completely. If you are cycling mindfully, you are thinking only about cycling: about the feel of the wind in your face, your feet on the pedals, the road before you, the sounds of the cars passing you by; you are paying attention completely. 

So if you are bathing your child, choose to do it wholeheartedly.  Don't wish it were done already so that you can get on with something else.  Take time to appreciate the simple pleasure of a small body immersed in water; share the time with them.  If you are coming home from work, opt not to fly from one form of transport to another, imagining yourself already at home, relaxing on the sofa; instead, take time to feel your feet on the pavement; your breath in your body; relax your shoulders; look around you; enjoy the journey, rather than fixating on the destination.  If you are eating, put away the newspaper, turn off the television and radio and give all of yourself to your meal, to the taste, feel and enjoyment of it.

With mindfulness you can turn any task, however mundane (and sometimes, the more mudane the better), into something elevated and beautiful.  You can make it into your meditation or your prayer.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Look for the Beauty

It's easy to find the hardness, the selfishness and the lack of understanding in the world.  And we're masters at finding justification for our own selfishness and for the reasons why and how we judge other people.

We're so very good at noticing the shortcomings of other people that we forget that most people are just doing their best.  Sometimes our best doesn't look like much: if you are afraid of heights, then getting on an aeroplane is a big deal for you, taking up a lot of energy and courage - if you're not afraid of heights, then you can't understand why on earth getting on a plane would be a problem for anyone.  But what is it that you are afraid of?  I know people who are afraid of birds, bats, heights, open spaces, small spaces, crowds, the dark, being alone... is there anyone who doesn't have an irrational fear/dislike of something?  My point is that we are quick to judge other people's weaknesses, yet find our own perfectly understandable.

The man who likes the sound of his own voice; the shy person who never contributes much; the person who talks about themselves the whole time; the one who worries about every little thing; the person who always complains of being unwell; the one who's always late; the show-off; the argumentative person...  There are reasons for all of these behaviours and we should make it our job to understand more and condemn less.

We could start from the position that most people have kindness and love in them.  We could start from the position that most people are simply doing their best.  Sometimes our best falls short of the mark; sometimes our best intentions get misconstrued, but for the mostpart, our best is all that we're trying to do too.

Spend this weekend looking for the beauty in everything.  If in doubt, look up: the sky is an endless source of beauty and inspiration.  Look for the kindness in yourself and in others.  Share your kindness and your beauty with the world.

I know that when you open your heart to the world it means that the world can hurt you, but really, what is the alternative?  There are enough people around with walls around their hearts, rationing their love, giving it to only a few people - family and close friends, or those they think are deserving of it.  Our task is to find the beauty in everyone.  Our task is to be kind.  Our work is to understand and where we cannot understand, to forgive.

And of course, I am a work in progress myself...  I was walking with my dog this week and I got really cross.  He disappeared and then turned up with a rabbit's pelt in his mouth (which might have made him ill), having lost (another) ball.  I was grumpy and annoyed and stalking along grumbling to myself when a bird flew overhead.  I looked up and was rewarded by the sight of a young short eared owl sitting in a tree not 6 feet away from me.  It observed me impassively.  I watched it with wonder.  Then it swooped away through the trees leaving me feeling blessed.

Life's like that isn't it?  Things feel bad and we start languishing in bad thoughts (about ourselves, about our family, about other people) and we forget to look for the good stuff; the stuff that inspires us and fills us up and reminds us that life is beautiful. 

So, smile at the checkout girl, no matter how surly she is.  Hold the door open for people and forgive them if they don't say thank you.  Be understanding of other people's weirdnesses and weaknesses, no matter how they manifest themselves.  Take your eyes off the chewing gum on the pavement and fix them on the sky.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

How to Meditate 1

It’s curious how hard we find meditating, given that all we have to do is to sit quietly with ourselves and watch what happens. 

I suppose we all have images of the Buddha in our heads, sitting impassively in bliss beneath his bodhi tree; or of the smiling face of the Dalai Lama, who always seems so cheerful and inexhaustibly kind.  People who are meditating always appear calm and at peace from the outside and we've no way of telling how busy their minds are inside, so it's easy to think that they can do it and we can't, because when we sit our minds just go crazy.

When I sit to meditate I spend a good amount of time watching my mind thinking, chattering and darting about.  It will be projecting into the future, making plans for supper or wondering what to pack for a weekend away; it will wander into the past, remembering something someone said or did and wondering about it; it will fantasise, about someone or something, or some imagined possible future event.  So often, to start with, my mind will be everywhere except right here, in my meditation, being still and quiet and focussing on a mantra, or whatever focus I have chosen for my meditation that day.  

Don't think you're failing if your mind won’t keep still... it is the nature of your mind to think.  That’s what it’s for.  What you are actually looking for in your meditation is to drop behind all of those random thoughts to the quiet space that lies behind everything.  What you are actually trying to do is to draw the diverse strands of your mind together into some sort of focus and to find a space in your mind where you can watch the never-ending movements of consciousness without getting involved in any of it.  You're seeking to foster a sense of detachment, so that your mind can do it's thing while your focus is elsewhere, somewhere deep inside where you can be quiet and find peace and listen to whatever comes to you out of that silence.  All this takes time and practice.
You don’t need to sit in lotus pose on a yoga mat to meditate.  Not many people find lotus pose comfortable and if you’re not comfortable then you'll be preoccupied by your internal commentary on your position ( hips hurt, especially the right one, why does the right one hurt more than the left? My foot’s going numb, maybe I should move, but I’m not supposed to move, I’m sure I’m meant to sit still while I meditate, now my lower back is aching, maybe if I sit up a bit straighter my back will stop hurting, but ouch now I’ve done that my foot has gone completely to sleep...).  The chatter in your mind is enough without adding bodily discomfort to it.  Perhaps one day, a seated cross-legged position will be comfortable for you, but until then find something that works for you now...

  • Sit on the floor on a cushion with your back against the wall
  • Sit on a hard backed chair, feet placed evenly on the floor (put your feet on a telephone book if your feet don’t reach the floor
  • Kneel and sit on a stack of blocks/books
  • Kneel with a bolster, or rolled up quilt between your legs

There are some beautiful places available for meditation – incense-filled rooms lit by candles, chapels, churches and yoga studios... there’s an Indian tradition of retreating to a cave to meditate.  But the truth is that you can meditate anywhere.  When I worked in London I used to meditate on the train (as long as I could get a seat) by listening to a guided meditation on my ipod.  There's something very calming about being in a public space and moving towards your destination, but being lost in a good meditation. 

The amount of time you spend on your meditation will vary according to how much time you have and where you are with your practice.  When I started meditating, 5 minutes seemed like plenty to me.  I couldn't seem to sit for longer without becoming irritated or uncomfortable in my body or my mind.  And 5 minutes felt like enough; even that short amount of time left me feeling calmer and more clear in my mind.  Now I sit for more like an hour and wish I had more time to give to it, but the essence of my meditation is the same now as it was in the beginning... periods of mental chatter, mixed up with images and fascinating daydreams, interspersed with beautiful moments of unclouded contentment and peace.  Sometimes I sit and get lost in that feeling.  Sometimes I sit and get lost in thought.  Mostly it's a mixture of the two.  Still, I keep my appointment with myself; I keep turning up to sit quietly and see what's there.

So meditation is really simple, it's being patient with yourself that's hard; it's being able to gently forgive yourself each time your mind takes you off track and to gently, calmly turn yourself back inwards every time.  And it doesn't matter what you call it, either... quiet sitting, collect, prayer, meditation...  It's just sitting with what is and learning not to judge it or colour it or try to make it different; it's listening and watching and learning how to be emphatically who you already are.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

A letter to my friend

A letter because I might not get to talk to you this week.  A letter because you've been having a little mid-life crisis.  A letter to send you lots of love.  I hope you're feeling fine again.

Life's a funny thing and it doesn't really make sense or add up, even though I always got the feeling when I was growing up that it should make sense.  Did they teach us that, or did we assume it?

Take heart, lovely one.  You are strong and kind and beautiful inside and out and sometimes the most troubling times bring the deepest and most meaningful gifts and revelations.

Get lots of sleep and find time to be quiet and reflective.  Remember that you don't always have to be doing something for there to be something doing.  Often it's when we stop that we realise where we're at and why, and out of the stopping comes the impetus to get moving again.

Most of all, be kind to yourself.  Practice being as kind to yourself as you are to those you love.  Practice being as forgiving to yourself as you are to those you love.  Think of the love you have for those dear ones and feed yourself with a little of that love too.  I know it's hard and it doesn't come easily - no one knows our faults and shortcomings as we do ourselves.  And no one's ever going to be as hard on you either, as you are to yourself.  But it is possible to give yourself some of that love and forgiveness and in doing so, to free yourself from some of the things that bind you.  It takes practice, but you can do it.

There's only love - everything else is just the stuff we fill our days with.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

How Yoga Works

That yoga works is obvious to those who have been practising regularly, even if only for a short time.  We tend to feel more comfortable in our bodies, stronger and more flexible, kinder to ourselves and to others and more quickly able to recover our equilibrium when thrown off balance by strong emotions or difficult life events.

How yoga works is down to a unique combination of physical and psychological effects, discovered by the ancient yogis through continued practice, observation and study, many aspects of which have now been proven scientifically to improve physical and mental health.

Firstly, yoga teaches you how to breathe properly: a full, deep, even breath which inflates your torso from collar bones to belly, in each cycle of which the exhale is at least as long (if not longer) than the inhale.  Breathing deeply and mindfully in this way helps to improve and maintain the elasticity of the muscles between your ribs, giving you increased lung capacity and a more efficient breathing pattern.  In addition, breathing deeply sends signals to your nervous system that your body can relax. 

Through a combination of increased physical fitness and improved breath control, regular yoga practice can lower both blood pressure and heart rate.  In this state your body is more able to be efficiently at rest.  The experience of stress is necessary for humans and has helped us to survive as a species, but it is supposed to be a temporary state – for too many people it has become a permanent way of being.  Practising yoga helps you to switch off the responses of your sympathetic nervous system (which releases catecholamines such as adrenaline) and stimulates the side of your nervous system that lets the body rest and digest efficiently – in this state your muscles relax fully, your mind becomes more calm and your breath deeper, your digestive system works optimally and the quality of your sleep is improved.  There is also some evidence that regularly calming your body, mind and breath in this way improves the function of your immune system. 

As you learn how to maintain deep, even breathing patterns when your body is under stress in your yoga practice (when working hard through vinyasa sequences, for example, or when approaching postures that you find physically and mentally challenging, such as handstands), you learn how to remain calm in all stressful situations.  This has positive benefits for your health and your relationships with others, but it also increases the chances of your remaining calm under pressure and maintaining your mental clarity during difficult situations.  Life is sometimes difficult and uncomfortable - breathing well through stress/ upset/strong emotion can transform your experience of those difficult moments.   In addition, as I have discussed here before, when you are happy and at peace with yourself, you are more likely to be kind to other people, which improves your relationships with others (see here for more on this subject).

Yoga helps us to learn how to feel emotions without repressing them or letting them consume us.  Yoga teaches us to sit with what is, to accept it as part of the process and to be kind to ourselves (and others) while it passes through.  Taking time to reflect on why we behaved a certain way in a certain situation helps us to act more wisely in future and to minimise the pain that we cause ourselves and others.  Krishna Das describes how yoga has helped him to handle strong emotions, so that when he feels anger these days, it surges up over him and ebbs away again, where it used to engulf him entirely.  Taking time to constantly observe our patterns of behaviour in this way helps us to be more wise in the future, turning away from behaviours that cause pain and towards habits that benefit us and those around us.

Yoga gives us the tools we need to observe ourselves and to notice patterns that lead us away from contentment.  The simplest advice I ever heard for living well came from the Dalai Lama in his book The Art of Happiness: find out what makes you happy and make sure you do it.  By becoming more sensitive to ourselves we learn that the temporary pleasure that we get from a gin and tonic or a new car (nice as those things are) is not the deep abiding contentment that we are seeking.  As the Tibetan saying has it: ‘Seeking happiness outside yourself is like seeking the sun in a cave facing north.’

Life is so busy and only getting busier, when we carry our e-mails, computers and telephones everywhere with us; everything is always in motion and the world is so noisy... this busyness can be dynamic and wonderful, but it is important for our well-being that we find time to stop; to be still.  It is in the midst of this quiet that we are able to see more clearly what is, and to confront ourselves honestly.  The answers don't come straight away, but in silence and with patience, resolution, forgiveness and peace come.  Distracting ourselves with chatter, noise, stories and more possessions does not take away or resolve difficult emotions and situations; it does not bring understanding.  Understanding comes from silence.  Yoga helps you to develop the habit of silence.

We think so much, that it is easy to come to the view that your body is just the vehicle for carrying your brain around.  Yoga practice reminds us that our mind does not define us  -  there is something much deeper and more important that is really who and what you are.  In your yoga practice you get to reconnect with it every time you come to your mat in whatever form your yoga practice takes.  Humans have found many different words to describe the feeling of deep contentment and joy that exists within, but words fall short of the experience.  All I know is that regularly turning my attention towards that deep, quiet centre of myself helps me to live better and be kinder - and that's all I'm really trying to do with my life.

So your joints get more flexible, your heart gets stronger (literally and metaphorically), your lung capacity improves, you find the deep seat of peace inside yourself, you reconnect with your body, you discover deep reserves of compassion within yourself and realise that they are unbounded, you get to know yourself, you get to reconnect with others, you emerge calmer, kinder, more resilient... You might as well go and do some practice now.

"Start where you are and with what you have and watch your horizons broaden"
Julie Gudmestad, Summer 2010

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Dealing with Strong Emotions and Yoga

There’s a popular image of a yogi as being someone who is always on an even keel, always calm, kind, balanced and even-tempered.  And while it is true that you can look through history for teachers who seem to embody these attributes (Ramana Maharishi springs to mind), and while yoga does help us to find more peace and equilibrium within, for most of us dealing with strong emotions like anger, fear, sadness and shame is part of being human.

I practice yoga every day and have done for years, but I still get angry and cross, upset and embarrassed.  I'm not accustomed to feeling fear, but when someone I love was very ill last year, I felt like I was walking on a never-ending conveyor belt with no hand-rail.  Life felt precarious, uncertain and slippery.  It was hard not to let it overwhelm me and it some moments, it did.  Am I to see this as a failure?  Or a success... I am a lot less angry, cross and upset a lot less often thanks to the lessons that my yoga practice and my teachers have taught me.  And certainly my yoga practice helped me to get through that very difficult time when my friend was ill and to support them to the best of my ability.  

But here’s the wonderful thing about yoga and what it has to teach us about strong emotions: you are, in and of yourself, a perfect part of a perfect universe.  Life is not always easy, but it’s beautiful and you are part of that beauty.  All the other stuff, the rage, the upset, the disgrace, are a part of your make-up as a human being.  They are part of what it means to be human – but they are not who you are.  You are not an angry person – you are a human being experiencing anger.  You are not a frightened person – you are a person experiencing fear.  And so on. 

The difference between being an emotion and simply feeling it is huge and can have a profound effect on the way in which we learn to experience strong feelings.  If we permit a strong emotion to consume us and allow ourselves to be ruled by it, then it brings unhappiness, discontent and stress, moreover we might inadvertently feed it so that it escalates to new heights.  If, on the other hand, we accept these strong emotions as part of our life, observe them, watch them rise and pass away again over time, then we might notice the lesson in the emotion; which might make us stronger and more compassionate to others who are suffering; and might make the next episode shorter and less disruptive to our lives.   

Patanjali called our over-identification with our emotions and this ignorance of our essential beauty and worth, avidya, or wrong-understanding.  Avidya leads to suffering. 

The cure for avidya is first to acknowledge it’s existence: we accept that something is wrong and that we want to make it better.  Even if we do not truly feel that we are essentially good, then we at least accept intellectually that it could be possible.

Then, through practice (asana and pranayama), we start to develop skills of concentration and focus; come to understand ourselves a little better and gain the ability to view the events of our lives with more clarity.  Through practice, we make ourselves stronger and more patient and develop compassion, both for ourselves and for others. 

Through meditation (and by bringing a meditative aspect to your breathing and asana practice), svadhyaya (self-study) brings clarity and understanding of ourselves and the way we cause ourselves and others harm through our actions.

Strong emotions are a fact of life.  The trick is to see that they pass through us and move away; the trick is not to get stuck thinking that we are an emotion – we might be feeling something pretty strongly (fear, shame, anger), but it does not define us.  Life is choppy and it doesn’t always make sense; yoga helps us to learn to ride the waves rather than drowning in them.  In the end, what we learn from strong emotions (if we are prepared to let them teach us) are some of the most important lessons of our lives.  In the end, when we let go, surrender to the journey and refuse to either reject or embrace strong emotions, we emerge stronger, kinder and more understanding – both of ourselves and others.

"A spiritual warrior's life is an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad.  The basic difference between and ordinary person and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary person takes everything as a blessing or a curse."
Carlos Castenada