Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Letting Go

I think I'm going to be wondering about and working on letting go for the rest of my life.  It seems to me a process of relinquishing the mistaken idea that we have control of anything at all. 

There are some people who give up everything in an instant: to join an ashram, for example, is to give up your sense of self, to dedicate yourself instead to serving others and to meditation/prayer, to let go of any individual ideas about getting anything or going anywhere.  But I am quite a slow, considering person and it takes me a long time to quietly mull over things; grand gestures of letting go are not my thing, it would seem.  I regularly ask myself if I could give up my home, my clothes, my writing, my life here, my self-determining freedom in the service of something much bigger and more important than I am.  I think that the answer to most of those questions is yes, but give me time.

The Buddhist nun I met on Holy Isle embodied an extreme version of letting go when she told me that after her three month retreat, her teacher (Lama Yeshe Rinpoche) had asked her to come back to the monastery at Eskdalemuir and that he had plans for her, but she had no idea at all what those plans were.  Can you imagine trusting your teacher so much, having given yourself to something so much, that you would do that without question (where? how? when? for how long? what about me and what I want?). She was a feisty, opinionated woman, this is not some passive giving up on life we are discussing here, but she had dedicated her life to something which she considered to be more important than any concerns she might have about her individual self.

One of my students refers to this as the call.  The call is the thing that is pulling you in a certain direction - sometimes you are aware of it, sometimes not.  I love being a yoga teacher, it is no effort for me to want to do my best at it, because it is what I love to do, it feels like what I am here for; every time I teach, whoever I teach, I have a deep sense of rightness, of being in my element, of being in the flow of life exactly as it was intended.  But I only started yoga because my friend told me it was great, and when I began I only wanted to do super-bendy Astanga yoga and push myself to the limit in every practice, whilst working in my office-based creative and (as I saw it then) glamorous day-job.  I was moving in the right direction, but I certainly didn't know it.  If you had told my 20 year old self that I was going to be a yoga teacher one day I would have snorted in your face; it would have sounded ridiculous to me.

What have I let go of in the process so far?  The idea of impressing my parents/grandparents/extended family with my high-flying career and how much money I can earn; reliance on my intellect to prove that I am worthy and important, I didn't lose my intelligence by becoming a yoga teacher, but I did have to face people who thought I had wasted my talents or who assume that the path I have chosen is for not very clever people (cf my nan: 'I don't know, our Sarah, all that education and you've ended up a yoga teacher); wealth; I've let go of living in someone else's daily routine - commuting to work, staying there from 9-5, coming home again, weekends off - that might sound like nothing, but ask yourself how much those routines underpin your life; or look at what people who lose their jobs say about how fearful they are of the days that stretch out before them. 

There are more things I could tell you about, but you understand the point I hope.  A lot of life is letting go of one thing, so that we can have something else that serves us and those around us better; and a lot of holding on is actually based in fear - fear of change, fear of the new, fear of doing something different that will challenge us in new ways, fear of making oursleves vulnerable. 

The truth, as we all know, is that life is anarchic and chaotic and we can never protect ourselves against the changes that we can't predict, but which are definitely coming.  Life is nothing but change.  We can hide away as much as we like, we can fill our days with whatever we want and we can persuade ourselves to stay in one spot because it is sensible, or safe, or because we don't have a choice.

Or we can work at not holding on so tightly, so that we become willing to uncurl our bodies and our hearts and to allow our lives to evolve naturally as those inevitable changes come upon us.  If you look back on your life, you will be able to discern the unexpected turns it took which led you to places of value and deeper understanding; the hard work is to look forward and to trust to that same unfolding, to let go so that you can continue to grow and to move forward, and hopefully to give more to the world than you have previously been able to.  A bud doesn't stay determinedly shut in fear of what being a flower might feel like, and nor should you.


Friday, 5 October 2012

Inconvenient Truths

Some of what we hear when we practise yoga, meditate and generally quieten down our lives is very inconvenient indeed.  That is probably why we spend so much time creating the hullabaloo in our lives: so that we don't need to listen to the inconvenient truths that we know inside.

It's hard to discern between the things you can have in your life and the things you need, or think you do, but can't have.  For instance, sometimes I long to go to an ashram I know in India, so that I can spend my days in service and meditation and devote myself to my practice.  The call is sometimes very strong.  But I am a mother and my children need me and are a blessing to me, so that is one call that will have to wait... when they are both settled at university/in their adult lives I'll be there, but right now, my responsibilities lie here at home and I am thankful for that and for them and for everything they are teaching me.  I think of that call therefore as one that is from far away in my life, one that I hope my life's path will lead me to.  I am patient.  It's not meant for me right now.

Other things are plain inconvenient.  We might realise that what we do for a living is diminishing our capacity for joy, for example.  Our rational mind tells us that we need to pay the bills/we should be glad to have a job in these uncertain times/we are not qualified for anything else.  In this sense, our rational minds are like a sensible older sibling telling us to be careful and wanting to keep us safe.  But in your quiet moments it doesn't matter what your rational mind tells you: if you hate your job, you hate your job.  If it doesn't feed your soul, then it just doesn't.

Or you might be behaving in ways that don't serve you.  Drinking too much for example, or eating too much; spending too much time with people that you don't really want to be with out of politeness or a sense of duty; procrastinating and never achieving the goals that you have set yourself.  It is hard to break out of ingrained habits, particularly if the people around you indulge in them too, or are used to you being a certain way and conducting yourself in a certain manner... you might be the family's sensible one for example, the one on whom everyone else relies to get everything done - great, but what you are seeking just now is to break free/do something different/take a risk; or perhaps people see you as the quiet, safe one, when you have been working to build your skills and confidence and are ambitious to prove yourself in new ways.  It is even harder to change when those around you resist that change - you can prove yourself by living the life you wish to live, but this will inevitably force others to question their lives and some of them might wish that you would get back to where you have always been and stop making everything so awkward!

When you get quiet, there might be pain: the pain of ongoing or historical hurts that are demanding to be looked at and heard, accepted and understood.  It can be very uncomfortable sitting quietly with painful feelings that you have managed so far in your life to ignore, bury and tuck secretly away for another day.

I am grateful to the psychoanalyst Shawn Smith for suggesting the concept of values.  Our values are the ideals we hope to live up to; they are ideas about ourselves and the way we live.  They are not specific to the facts of our life (what we do for a living, how many children we have, whether we are single or married, etc.), rather they transcend those specifics to form a sense of identity over and beyond the relative trivialities.  So for example, one of my values might be to help others.  Knowing this, I might look at my life afresh and consider how well I am living up to this value.  I might see how I help my family every day, that I am positive and helpful at work and this might be enough.  Or it might not.  On consideration I might see that the job that I am doing helps nobody in any way that I find constructive.  I might decide therefore that I can no longer spend my time doing that job, regardless of what my sensible, rational brain tells me.  Or I might seek to find ways to fulfil my value of being of service in my spare time, or by setting up and being involved with charity through work.

I hope you see my point.  If you take a pen and some paper now you can write down your four core values: what are they telling you about the way you want to live your life versus the way you are living your life?  What changes might you make to accommodate those values?  Not all of us have the opportunity of throwing everything to the wind and moving on in drastic ways, so how might we begin to bring more fulfilment of our core values into our lives than we have been experiencing to date?

Facing up to how much your life is being lived in accordance to your core values is part of what you will come up against in your practice.  You cannot ignore discrepancies between the life you are living and the life you want to live when you are engaged in a consistent yoga practice. 

I once taught a man who came to yoga relatively late in life, but who fell for it immediately.  He had no children and a job that he did not enjoy; he had loved it once, but more recently it had become soulless to him.  He came to me one night and told me that he was going to India to learn how to teach yoga, he'd bought his flight, handed in his notice and was leaving in three weeks.  He promised to keep in touch, but he didn't and I have no idea what became of him, although I hope it was all good.

This is not how it looks for most of us though, and nor should it.  But you can ask yourself what changes you need to make to live in accordance with your values, so that your soul can be at peace, so that you can experience more joy in your life and serve the world more.  You can start small.  Cutting out that glass of wine and seeing the effect it has on you and whether it is for the good; getting up early and walking to the train slowly instead of dashing out every day in a panic, driving or taking a taxi.  When you start doing this, you will find the resistances in yourself (never mind anyone else's) and that can be informative too: how have you been holding yourself back? what fears will you have to confront in becoming more of the person you would like to be?

Yoga transforms you, or you stop practising yoga.  It is only when we consider the inconvenient truths that come up in our practice that we can begin to make changes for the good.  It doesn't need to look radically different from the outside: some of the most fundamental changes go on quietly inside and are more profound than anything that would be discernable to our friends and neighbours.  The longest journeys begin with one step.

Thanks to Sam for asking the question xx


Monday, 1 October 2012

Dancing in the Woods

I was at a festival this summer and went to a talk by Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler magazine.  He was describing how it was traditional in Britain right up until the 17th Century to have parties in the woods... drinking, dancing, singing, telling stories... essentially going a little bit wild.  Cromwell put an end to this, as it was all too pagan (and too much fun) for his liking and although we reinstated Christmas (which he also banned) after his demise, we never reinstated our regular withdrawal to the woods to party and laugh and dance and let off steam.

That is a shame, because I think that we all need a time to withdraw from our usual lives and to throw away our boundaries sometimes.  It helps us to see what's left when all of the roles we play are removed; it helps to remind us what is really important to us, perhaps to redouble our efforts in certain directions, or to draw back from others.  I think it is a shame when humans have no outlet for their exuberance, when their lust for life is dimmed by daily rigmarole and responsibility and a sense of behaving appropriately.  The party in the woods was permission to behave innappropriately.  It was also a chance to meet new people, and to learn from them; it is too easy for our lives to get smaller, safer and more confined, to party in the woods is to throw open the gates and invite in new experience and a different perspective.

One of my students told me that when she was at a festival this summer, she was in absolute heaven; she found that dancing in a field brought out something wonderful in herself that she had forgotten all about, she said she thought floating around in fields was her natural habitat.  I could just picture her, a flame-haired wood nymph with the biggest smile you've ever seen, dancing in a field, free to express herself in the moment as she wished.

Yoga teaches us how to be quiet and how to focus and how to listen to our innner voices and follow their lead.  But part of our practice should be about getting wild, getting noisy and losing our inhibitions, what Zola called living out loud.  If we spend too much time being 'good', the chances are that we forget who we are underneath; and if we spend too much time being safe and quiet, we might lose the skill of evolving and remaining open to new opportunities.