Sunday, 28 July 2013

Making like Dory

Dory is Marlin's friend on his journey across the oceans to find his missing son in the movie, Finding Nemo.  She has short-term memory loss; she is hopelessly optimistic, open, kind; when things go wrong, she sings, 'Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.'

Making like Dory is keeping on swimming through life even when it feels complicated or tiring or tough; making like Dory means letting go of old stuff that's weighing you down so that you can swim more lightly through life; making like Dory means staying open-hearted, no matter how many times that proves painful.  We swim on through it all.  Even when we are ill, or held up, or worried about those we love.  As Isabel Allende said of learning to live after her daughter died, "one day you get up and you want some chocolate, you meet a friend for a coffee; life goes on"  We just keep swimming.

It is important, though, that we learn how to swim with life and not against it.  Life has a flow to it and if we learn to accept that flow, then we find we can more easily swim.  All the great teachings tell us this is so: ideas of acceptance, surrender, love for what we have, appreciation of our small but important place in the universe permeate writing from many (if not all) of the great gurus and poets of the world, past and present, from Rumi to Eckhart Tolle, Julian of Norwich to William Blake.  They tell us that if we would only give up the struggle and see how the river flows (not always the way we want, but always with the opportunity for growth and deeper understanding), then life will be easier.  It is easier when you let go.

The theory is most beautifully elucidated in the teachings of The Dao, the ancient Chinese philosophy of Lao Tze; in The Dao de Jing Lao Tze tells us that there is a universal rightness, the way of nature.  Rather like the existence of gravity, this is simply the way the universe operates and if you go with that flow, then you can achieve almost anything, if however you resist it, or go against it, then you will surely hit a brick wall.  As Martin Palmer puts it: there's a boulder in the way - you can strive to remove it, but the Daoist approach would be to go round it, to go underneath it, to accept its presence and flow around it, adapt and over time water and weather will wear it away until it is a pebble and gets washed away.

Eckhart Tolle says: "What could be more futile, more insane, than to fight something that already is?  It means that you're opposing life itself, which is now and  always now.  Say yes to life and see how things start working for you rather than against you."

If you feel exhausted, low, conflicted, unsettled, unhappy, then the chances are that you are swimming against the flow; yet we have all experienced those moments when everything seems to come together at the right time and all doors seem to open for us without effort.  Flow is available to us all.

I think a good place to start learning how to flow with life, how to become a surfer on its seas rather than a discarded bottle subject to every roll and crash of each wave until we get smashed somewhere against some rock or other, is to begin with hope.  What do you hope for?  Don't be afraid of what you hope for.  Write it down.  Let it live somewhere in black and white on a piece of paper or in a notebook.  Look at it often.  Allow that hope to become something real, but not by striving, pushing, arguing, feeling annoyed or disenchanted, but by staying open to its possibility and true to yourself.

Marlin: How do you know that nothing bad won't happen?
Dory: I don't ... Just keep swimming, just keep swimming


Tuesday, 16 July 2013


When you learn how to say no, you learn how to say yes.  And when you have your sights set on a great big yes within, saying no to things that get in the way of that becomes easier.

Then you say no with kindness, in friendship, with confidence and you find that other people do not mind.  Sometimes that is a surprise.

So if you have a big week coming up and you know you need a quiet weekend with your family, your yoga mat and your book, then you might have to say no to drinks after work on Friday, or coffee with friends on Saturday morning.  Only you know how that quiet time will set you up for a generous-hearted, vivid, energetic week ahead.  A week in which it is more possible to say yes to life.

Of course, the flip-side of this is respecting when other people say no.  I have always admired other people's ability to say no, for example, "You go ahead, have a wonderful time, but I am going home now."  I was always so busy worrying about not upsetting anyone that I forgot to wonder what it was that I actually wanted/needed to do.

A friend said, "But what about when people need to be persuaded into doing something, or when you yourself need a nudge to do something positive?"  Use your discernment; you know when you are doing something that is constructive, empowering, fulfilling and when you are doing something because you were afraid to say no.  Learn from this time and apply it to next time.

It's not about being selfish; it's about choosing wisely so that you become more selfless.  It's not about using no to hide from the world and the things in it that make you nervous, it's about setting free a gigantic yes! to every opportunity that grabs you.

So, if you have a great project in mind: you want to climb Everest, say, or to write a novel, or to commit to a daily, hour-long meditation practice, and even if what you want is something smaller and quieter: to read to your children every night, or to spend more quiet time with the one you love, then you are going to have to clear a space in your life for that and you are going to have to say no to something in order that you can say yes to something else.

Some people say yes to so many things that all they have left after all of that is a big, fat no.  No fun, no conversation, nothing new, no patience, no intimacy.  When we say yes to all the wrong things, when we fail to find our friendly no, we lose out.  Sometimes this has disastrous consequences for our health, for our future, for our relationships.

I am not advocating saying no to your nephew's christening because you don't fancy it, or letting people down because you can't be bothered to turn up, but I am saying that half the things you think you have to do, you don't.  Nobody is harmed by you protecting your own energy and you will have a lot more time and enthusiasm for the things that you do choose to do.

It's a lot easier when you know what it is that you want to say yes to.  And of course, like everything else worth having, you have to have courage sometimes to say no, the courage to live your life without trying all the time to be everything for everyone and to make sure everyone likes you.

When you learn how to say no to the things that don't matter, you find you have the time and the energy to say yes to the things that do.  Simple.

"My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style"
Maya Angelou

Monday, 15 July 2013

Growing Old and Growing Up

Barely a week goes by without the thorny issue of age cropping up in the media.  A movie star or singer turns up at an awards ceremony with strangely puffy cheeks or lips; someone is said to be having a relationship with someone older or younger; an article on the radio or in the newspaper bemoans the fact that women of a certain age are invisible in the media.  Somebody dies young.  Someone else lives to a magnificent age.  We can't go long before confronting the aging process and how we, as humans, handle it.  To listen to the dominant culture in the West (and perhaps elsewhere, I have only ever lived here), age is a slow decline into less: less physical capacity, less value in the workplace, less mental dexterity.

That's another reason that I love yoga.  I can do things now with my mind and my body that would have been impossible for me at 17, or 30, or even 35.  I can sit to meditate for an hour or more, with patience, curiosity, perseverance and commitment and quite without impatience; I hold my handstand for longer every time I practice it; I couldn't do ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) until a few years ago; I am more aware of the strengths and weaknesses in my body and have the quiet diligence to notice that and to work on those places to make them strong; I am more attuned to the way I feel and what I need to do to keep myself well and whole and more prepared to make sure that I give my body and mind what it needs.

Recently I watched my sister do her first solo headstand, in the middle of the room on her mat - on her 40th birthday.

In yoga we just keep on learning, no matter what our age: we learn how to succeed and to grow in physical and mental strength and flexibility by virtue of simply doing the work; we learn how to flow more with the ups and downs of life and how to accept the things we cannot change by learning fortitude through meditation; we learn how to deal with adversity with grace when we are injured and have to alter the way we work, or when we bring the lessons of mindfulness to times of great life-change.  We get wiser and steadier and calmer (or else we ask ourselves why we are not getting wiser, steadier and calmer and seek practical solutions to achieve those states).

And we have such wonderful role models: Vanda Scaravelli, Indra Devi, BKS Iyengar, Patthabi Jois, Mr Desikachar all vital and emphatic, teaching and learning until their 70s, 80s, even 90s.  These are positive, cheerful, strong people, who inspire with their wisdom, their vigour and their contentment; they call to us from our own futures, telling us: this is the way it can be through yoga.

There is no age limitation in yoga, there is no physical constraint that can keep one from this philosophy, because there is a practice for everyone and each of us has a unique and individual path: we all have our own road map, yet every one of us is travelling together towards the same destination.  In yoga, we positively seek out those who have been on this path for a long time, because they are the ones with wisdom and knowledge to share, they are the ones with advanced levels of compassion, gained over years of practice, with which to guide us.  My own three teachers are 66, 65 and 62.

In yoga we don't fear growing old, because we know that it is only through growing old that we get to grow up; it is only with age that we attain the insight, kindness and empathy that we see in our own teachers; and only after a good deal of practice do we learn to share those blessings with everyone we come across.  Yoga is slow.  We're not meant to do this quickly.  That's what our whole lifetime is for.
'We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.'
TS Eliot

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Climbing Mountains

I climbed a mountain last weekend.  I climbed it with my dog.  There are lots of references to mountains in yoga practice: you can meditate like a mountain, solid and still, rooted in the earth, yet rising to the heavens, or visualise a mountain when you sit; some of our greatest teachers spent time living in caves in mountains, as did Ramana Maharishi on Arunachala; there are sacred mountains all over India, and even here in the UK there are mountains where saints and mystics went to pray or to spend time alone.  There is a cave in the hillside on Holy Isle where the 6th Century mystic Saint Molaise lived and I recently climbed Carningli (Mountain of the Angels) in Wales, which Saint Brynach (5th Century) climbed when he wanted to commune with the angels.

The thing that strikes you when you reach the top of a mountain is how peaceful it is up there.  As I remarked to my mountain-guide friend last weekend, when you are at the top of a mountain, you can completely understand why some people climb them to talk with the angels.  It is quiet on top of a mountain, no matter how many other climbers you are sharing the space with, the wind howls in your ears even on the finest of days and you really can't hear anything but the roar of it in your head.  It is a place to clear your head, to blow away the cobwebs of your mind, to seek answers to the questions that have been travelling with you.  Up there, you feel so close to something elemental, it seems that an answer might manifest itself from the sky which seems so near.

The view wraps around you and instills you with awe whichever way you turn to look; in this case, on the summit of Helvellyn on a sunny day in July, the green carpets of the Lake District rolled out in all their glory in all directions.  It is exciting to stand so high and to see so much, to feel so small and simultaneously so far above the workaday world, it is easy to believe as you stand there, that one of the siddhis (mystical powers) of the yogis that Patanjali spoke of might be true: that you can make yourself both as small as an atom and as huge as a universe.  You feel both as you stand there, a tiny element on a great big hill, but somehow elevated, encompassing everything you see, one with all that surrounds you.

When you walk down into the valley on a sunny day, you are struck by the silence, more arresting for having been up at the summit for a while with that roaring wind in your face.  There are no words here, no sign-boards, no pictures, no advertisements, no roads, no concrete paths, no houses, no cars, not even any aeroplanes to mar the sky.  And you realise how noisy this life is and how easy it is to become so filled with all of that noise, those words, with the images and the stories, that you can't very easily hear the sound of your own heart, of the little voice inside you that knows what it wants and needs, and which is so easily squashed by the more brazen sounds of the world.  And it's already hard enough hearing it through the noise of other people's opinions.

In yoga we are blessed to have a method for seeking and finding that small voice, no matter where we live and what we do with our days; withdrawing into unstimulated silence is what we make time to do.  But I urge you to find some bigger space for your silence this summer (or winter/spring/autumn whenever you are reading this), because what you find there will inspire you.  And when you get there, see if you can just be quiet for a time and let what is wash over you without the need for comment, or reaching out for others to share your experience, or pointing out to them what it is that you are finding so very moving about where you find yourself.

Indeed, the bigger space for your silence could be right there in your every day life: can you spend an evening without turning on the television or the radio?  Can you commute to work without reading any of those adverts that line the walls?  Can you spend a minute or two just in the outside air, on your own, in silence - like a cigarette-break for the soul?

Ramana Maharishi, who made his lifelong home alongside the sacred mountain of Arnuachala, told the thousands of devotees who came to him that silence was the purest teaching.  For him, it was that simple.

Here is what I wrote in my journal when I got home from climbing that mountain, tired and famished, sitting in my garden:

I climbed another mountain
Striding Edge
18km hike
1km ascent
7-8 hours
Found a waterfall in Grisedale
Found a cave
Found peace there
And beauty
And I can do it!
And the dog came and he was amazing and now he is tired.

And what is there in life, but seeking that beauty everywhere and knowing it for what it is.

And everything must lead to this.

And now I am in my garden, crying for the beauty of it all
And this is the quote from a poem by Stanley Kunitz that I found as I sat there and thumbed through a book that I am travelling with just now:

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.