Friday, 18 May 2012

Perhaps the World

Perhaps the world,
That you love with all your heart,
Does not need so much from you?

What if it simply
Longs for you to lie back
And rest into that which you really are.
No more than that,
And no less.

Your sadness let's you know
That you are doing too little
Or too much of something
That is not you.
It is your clue.

Let go.
Give yourself
Permission to be who you are,
To take what you need,
To love and be loved.
By yourself.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

You Are Dying

Here is something that you might not like to think about; something that we don’t tend to talk about in general, something that we avoid as much as possible: you are dying, right now, and there is nothing you can do about it.  You might be very healthy, eat well, exercise regularly, not smoke or drink alcohol, but you are still dying.  You don’t know when it is going to happen to you (tomorrow? In twenty years?), but you can be sure that it is going to happen.

There is a meditation technique where you imagine your own death.  You imagine your body breathless and lifeless and completely dead.  Most people think it sounds morbid, some people find the very idea of doing this frightening.

I have practised a Tantric technique of meditation where you imagine your body (from your right big toe) being burnt away, dissolving and disappearing, then you imagine the same thing happening to the room around you, to the town in which you live, to the people you know and love, to the world, to the universe.  What does it make you feel to disintegrate like this?  How is it to watch those you love burn into the ether in your imagination?

You need to be a little brave to practise these meditations on death, but they will show you some very interesting things… they will show you what you most identify with (the man who said he could easily imagine dissolving everything away except for his genitals, for example!).  In my own experience, I have no problem with the idea of dissolving away, I feel that I am after all just a bundle of energy and full of life spirit, so my sense of boundaries between the universe and this little bit of it called Sarah are non-existent, but I did realise how attached I am to my voice, more specifically to my words and this made me think about my need to communicate and to be understood and to meditate on that and what it really means to me.

I wonder, in these days where we can buy younger faces, have parts of our bodies that are showing signs of age injected and sanded and smoothed by knives and needles and chemicals, and where people talk of the medical possibility of living forever, if we are missing the point completely.  Surely it is not about the quantity of years, but the quality of life that we put into those years.  Clearly our fear of death is all pervasive, we ignore it, we deny it and we try to beat it.  In addition, we have lost most of our rituals around death, the ways in which previous generations shared the journey of someone from life to death and the ways in which that journey was revered and respected, the way a dead body might be treated in death, might be bathed or sat with overnight.  The way death used to be placed firmly where it should be, as a part of life.

I am no expert on funeral rites, but it seems to me that there is a striking difference between a modern British crematorium where an unseen, coffined body, disappears behind a curtain to be industrially incinerated and the way an Indian body is dressed and perfumed and surrounded by friends and family as it is burnt on a perfumed ghat bedecked with flowers.  The former speaks to me of things hidden and denied, why does it make me feel that we are slightly ashamed of death?  The latter seems to me more about celebration and life and light and releasing a loved one back into the atmosphere, watching their bodies follow their souls into the universe.

Recently I heard Mark Gatiss talk about the death of his mother.  How terribly sad, yet how wonderful it was and how close the family became during the last days of her life.  He described how he and his family sat around her bed, drinking tea and talking and laughing at old family stories.  Sometimes someone would leave to make a plate of sandwiches or another pot of tea, but there they all were, revolving around this woman that they loved, sharing love and laughter with her.  She was unconscious, they did not know if she could hear them, but they hoped that at some level she was aware of their presence and their love.  It sounded very beautiful to me.  It sounded like a wonderful way to die.

I think it is a very interesting practise to imagine that you are about to die.  What might you do differently?  What would you want?  What would you want to say and to whom?  Once you have taken some time to consider this, you could ask yourself what it is that is stopping you doing all of those things right now?

Here is the last poem that Raymond Carver wrote before he died:

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

It’s very simple isn’t it and what most of us want.  Funny how we go about making it all so complicated and difficult and finding ways of proving ourselves to those that we love or that we want to love us, rather than being brave enough to tell them, or to ask them.

I suppose that if I were dying and would not be here next week I would want to say thank you to my mum and dad; I would want my sister to know that I love her and think she is amazing; I would want to tell my children that they are to me the most precious jewels and wonderful in every way; I would want the people that I love to know about my love and admiration of them, to be sure of it and to know that it does not falter.  I would hope to hear from them that they love me too and to be brave enough to ask those who find it hard to reveal such things, ‘Have you loved me?’  Love, not for what I do, or what I have, or the things I have achieved, but just because I am me and always have been.  I would want to not be so shy, I would want to be braver, write more, talk more, open my heart wider and wider. 

I suppose that if I were dying and would not be here next week, I wouldn’t waste so much time on things that my heart knows don't matter, I wouldn’t procrastinate so often and I wouldn’t do so very much... I would sit in the garden with the sun on my face and lie in the long grass in a field in the rain and I would go to be near the sea; I might consider reading poems instead of novels and spend my time allowing my mind and body absorb all the things I have learnt and read already, without feeling the need to cram more in.

I suppose that if I were dying and would not be here next week, I would hope for peace and acceptance and to be both surrounded by and radiate love.

But when I come to think of it like this, why wait?  These are all the things that I want and am hoping for in my life as well as for my death.  As Ram Dass says, ‘Don’t waste time waiting’, the time is now and we know what is important to us, it only behoves us to put those things at the top of our list and to deal with the real issues of life – love, loving and using our talents to be who we are truly – today, in this moment, which is the only thing we really ever have.

This Is What I Wanted To Sign Off With

You know what I’m
like when I’m sick: I’d sooner
curse than cry.  And people don’t often
know what they’re saying in the end.
Or I could die in my sleep.
So I’ll say it now.  Here it is.
Don’t pay any attention
If I don’t get it right
When it’s for real.  Blame that
On terror and pain
Or the stuff they’re shooting
Into my veins. This is what I wanted to
sign off with.  Bend
closer, listen, I love you.
Alden Nowlan

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Suffering League Table

A lot of how you choose to live depends upon where you put yourself on the Suffering League Table.  The Suffering League Table is that place where we compare and contrast our woes with other people's.

Simply put: there is no life without suffering.  The older you get, the more you come to understand that we have all experienced (and will continue to experience) sorrow and pain and difficulty.  When we are young we tend to think that everybody else is so sorted, so together, so confident and shiny; we think, 'It is only me who is doubtful, insecure and unconfident.'  But as we grow older and wiser we observe that not only does everyone carry around their own particular brand of insecurity, but that everybody has their own trials and tribulations to go through too.

Sure, we don't all suffer in the same way, because our pain, like our joys are unique to us.  Neither do we all deal with our troubles in the same way (but don't be fooled, sometimes it is those who seem to coping the best, that are struggling the most).  But we all have our stuff to deal with.  Nobody escapes that fact and nor should they, for it is the midst of strife that we find out who we really are and what we are capable of. 

The Suffering League Table doesn't help.  It's the process whereby we assign a value to levels of suffering and then use it to determine whether or not we should be allowed to suffer ourselves, or whether anyone else should be allowed to suffer.

The first scenario is where we say to ourselves that we don't deserve to feel bad, sad, or mad because our troubles are nothing compared to those of our friend or acquaintance who has had to deal with so much terrible sorrow.  There are lots of shoulds and shouldn'ts involved on this side of the coin: 'I should be able to cope with my new baby: everyone else can' ... 'I shouldn't find life so difficult: everybody else can cope' ... 'I should be able to handle my relationship with my brother better, why do I let him make me so angry all of the time?'  But in truth, when life is difficult, wasting your energy on being cross with yourself for being human and being who you are is the last thing you need to do.  You need all of your resources for getting through a tough time.  Besides which, your difficulties are yours, true, but we are all different and other people will struggle with things that you do with ease.

The other side of the coin is when we believe that we have had more than our fair share of terrible sorrow and that if the world knew this everyone would understand why we are so insecure, worried and unhappy.  So we wear our troubles like a t-shirt with the statements of our life's worst moments writ large upon the front: My Husband Left Me!  My Sister has Cancer!  My Mother Didn't Care For Me!  But our troubles are things to be experienced, learnt from and moved through, not clung onto and used to excuse every short-tempered moment, every mean thought or act, every one of our weaknesses. 

Neither option really serves us.  The first puts us at the bottom of the Suffering League Table, from where we cannot do the vital work we need to do to transform ourselves into the wholehearted, compassionate people we know we can be.  Without caring for our own needs we cannot best care for those of others.  The second puts us at the top of the league table, from where we cannot reach out to others with humility and acceptance and touch them with our love, for we separate ourselves off from other's struggles by positing ourselves in a special place called 'only I have suffered'.  It is useful to learn that understanding someone else's difficulty does not detract from the empathy you will receive from others for your own.

We all hurt sometimes and yet we move forward.  Our commitment to yoga practice and meditation, and to observing ourselves and the world around us clearly, helps us to move forward with courage and with our hearts wide open.  We learn how to accept our sorrows in order that we might heal, not because we want to suffer, but because we understand that everything in our life is there to teach us and sometimes the most beautiful gifts come from the saddest places and that positive transformations can come from profound sorrows.

In his book, What Doesn't Kill Us, Professor Stephen Joseph writes of people who have suffered the most appalling trauma, things that we hope we will never have to face: assault, natural disasters, terrorist attacks.  In his studies Professor Joseph has discovered a phenomenon, which he calls post-traumatic growth, whereby people affected by these terrible life-events learn from them how to reset their priorities in order to live more fulfilling lives, become acquainted with their own inner strength, and deepen their relationships with others.  One man cited in the book explains that after the heart-attack that nearly killed him, 'I don't waste time worrying about the little things any more.  You get a new perspective.  You don't need to have a lot of things that you thought you needed.'  He goes on to say that before his heart-attack this was 'true in my head, but I didn't live it in my heart.'

Not everyone transforms positively through trauma or pain, but the keys to that growth are strikingly familiar for yogis: reach out to others and appreciate our connections with them; notice your emotions; practise compassion; learn to relax; observe your reactions without judging; practise hope; look to the future; practise gratitude; accept change; learn how to let go.

So, we are blessed to have found this practice that can help us to turn everything that we do and experience in our lives into lessons that will make us more humane, more open, more loving, more understanding, stronger, kinder, more appreciative and content.  Viewed in this way our suffering becomes a kind of gift - a painful and troublesome gift for sure, but a gift nonetheless.
'The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.'
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Way Ahead

One of my students came up with a brilliant analogy yesterday for how life presents us with choices, options out of left field, changes that we want/don’t want/don’t know if we want.

She said that those moments in life are like coming to a fork in the road, you know that the road you have been travelling is not working for you on some level and in some often undefinable way and so you know you need to choose something new; the new path.  This might be a new job, or a new hobby, or retraining for something new or choosing to find time for charity work, it might be to do with rearranging your domestic arrangements, or the way you have been living, or routines of personal behaviour that no longer serve your well-being or the well-being of those around you… whatever, there are lots of paths and lots of choices and the one thing we can be certain of in life is that nothing ever stays the same.

She went on to muse that some people stop at that fork in the road and put up a tent there.  This might be a valid move, poised on the brink of something new, nervous of letting go of the old, we wait in the hiatus for something within us to shift, for something that seems obfuscated to become clear, or for some courage to arise within us to help us make a necessary move.

Or it might be a tactic: 'I’ll build my little tent here and then I won’t have to move at all.  If I decorate it with enough beautiful things then I can make it into a lovely place to hide away while I am not making my decision to change and when it’s beautiful I might be able to use that beauty and comfort to pretend to myself that nothing actually needs to change at all.  I might be happy enough in my comfortable little tent for a very long time and I won’t then have to make any new moves or change anything or find the courage to choose either of those new paths.'

She went on… Some people stand by their lovely tent with all of its home comforts and the outside appearance of everything being ok and they might look the other way.  That fork in the road, that choice to be made lies behind them while they steadfastly face the other direction, telling themselves that the other path isn’t even there.  There is nothing wrong here, there is no other road.

Still others might wait in that little tent for someone else to arrive in their car: the car pulls up and the friend calls, ‘Hop in, I’ll take you’ and so you get into the car and they drive you somewhere of their choosing and they drop you off on a new road; you build a new tent; perhaps another person comes along and gives you another ride to another new spot and drops you off again.  You end up on someone else’s road, in someone else’s town and you might stand in the street and wonder, ‘How did I get here and where am I?  How did I get so far away from myself and who am I anyway?  Where am I supposed to be?’

Or perhaps you have a party in your tent and you surround yourself with things and people and fun and all of that, you hope, will distract you from the road that remains there, just waiting for you to set foot upon it.  Perhaps you spend too much, or drink too much, or eat too much (or too little) in your efforts to hide away from the choice that awaits you.

Here’s where your yoga practice feeds into this: when you practise yoga, you sit cross-legged at every fork in the road and you get very quiet.  You don’t go filling your life with distractions, you don’t go asking other people to bring you a solution.  If you have built a tent, you acknowledge it, forgive yourself for it and give yourself the time and shelter that you need for as long as you need it.  But you know that you can’t hide in there forever and that you will at some point have to move forward, because without the distraction of other people telling you what to do, or the party of life, or the home-comforts of a five star tent to stay in, there is just you and your soul-heart and it wants what it wants and all you have to do is learn how to listen.

The only way to travel is to find your own way.  Moreover, the reason why you are here, in this manifestation, is to do just that: to find your path and to follow it with courage and faith. 

Perhaps that strikes you as a little lonely?  But we are lucky aren’t we, for we are loved, we are cared for and we are supported by the people around us.  And the flipside of this coin is that everything is connected, we are all the same in spirit, so we are never alone.

With apologies to male readers (I am sure she would include you in the sentiment), Maya Angelou wrote: “Stepping onto a new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation which is not nurturing to the whole woman.” 

If we seek to be happy so that we can share that happiness with others; if we work to be settled and content, so that we can give that security and steadiness to those who need it; and if we look to find love and compassion for everyone, including ourselves, then truly we become everything we can be and we cease to hold ourselves back from living boldly and moving confidently through life.  Mistakes are how we learn and wrong-steps are how we come to understand our own humanity; say to yourself that you will not stay put for fear of those things.  It is from a position of wholeness that you have the most to give, so search for your own wholeness.  The world needs you to be complete, not to spend your time solving other people’s problems, but to find and establish yourself in your own brave and open-hearted self.  That’s how you help.  That’s what you can give.

"We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes
it has gone through to achieve that beauty."
Maya Angelou