Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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Now Arriving, 7th Chakra

Trust. Faith. Courage. Inspiration. Devotion. No need to watch your step as you leave the elevator, you know you will touch solid ground.

Yes, messages arrive when you are ready for them. Looking for these messages is fine, but you can’t rush the connection. This resounded for me when I attended a workshop one Friday offered by a man named Dalien (aka Thirteen Hands: http://www.13hands.com) at Sphericality in Flemington, NJ. This building is an amazing place to study yoga as it reminds me very much of the wonderful old brownstones and pre-war buildings I’ve lived in Baltimore and NYC. Large windows. lovely wood floors, high ceilings. But even if the location were not ideal, the workshop would have made it so. I attended solely because I’ve been to one other workshop of his and loved it. I did not actually know ahead of time what the focus would be. This is my lax attention span, not his or the studio’s lack of info. Either way, I was gently elated when I found out we were going to work very much in faith and trust. My hardest nuts to crack!

Faith and trust. Faith in my ability. Trust in the outcomes. They can’t be man-handled into submission and agreement. They need to be allowed to form and be welcomed no matter their timing. I rely on them every time I begin a semester of teaching. Nope, not a wing and a prayer. I have too much experience to just hope it will all work out. My effort creates the results. The kind of effort is what gets particular results. I plan, revise, and remain flexible as I see the ability and interest level of my students. None of this can make it absolute that the semester be successful. I need to have faith in all of my experience and trust that I will continue to let myself learn from it. I trust that the students have faith in their own abilities and trust that I am pushing them for their sake, not for the sake of creating rules to enforce.

Courage is a tough one. We can believe that faith and trust will keep us focused and hopeful, but it takes a certain fortitude to actually act upon our mantras and intentions. Can you challenge your natural or learned inclinations towards self protection when your abilities and even your integrity are challenged? After all what happens when you have faith in your talents and trust in your learning and training and then bomb at your first attempt to teach, sing in public, even just speak up on behalf of an unpopular idea? This is where courage comes into play. There is no guarantee that your faith and trust are enough for success. Experience is important too. To be able to apply your talents strongly and consistently, you’ll need experience. That means making mistakes or being stumped and having to find solutions on the fly. This is where courage comes in. Face the possibility of failure and even embarrassment while you maintain your faith and trust in your ultimate success.

Inspiration. Perhaps this should be listed first, but as it does for me, it appears at many stages in your practice. My own journey of teaching did not actually start with inspiration. I did not have any intention of pursuing this aspect of my career. I kind of fell into it via a casual conversation at a conference with a colleague. That was 9 years ago. The inspiration came when I was assigned my first composition classes. It was time to create the best syllabus I could based on advice and experience of other colleagues. I had faith in my ability to write and communicate well. I trusted myself to do my best for the students’ sake. I had the courage to try this because I’ve been in front of audiences before when I sang or when I competed at horse shows. The failure had already happened and I was still alive. The successes had been experienced so I knew to look forward to the peaceful feeling of release of effort. But what keeps you going? Inspiration. Even the most satisfying job or hobby becomes stale if you don’t keep reaching to learn more, to discover new layers of ability. Don’t hit a wall and stagnate while others pass you by and continue to be filled with wonder and curiosity.

Inspiration cannot be forced, it can only be found. All you can do is live every day mindfully. Let yourself engage in every experience, good or bad, and find the  lesson in each. Take every chance to explore new places and ideas because you never know what will ignite that fire and send you on your way.

We now come to devotion. If you don’t have a true connection to your practice or profession, no amount of inspiration can become more than momentary. How many people have told you about their great ideas that were actually really great but that stopped at being thoughts only? I’m guilty of this myself. It’s especially frustrating when someone else has has a similar idea and not only believed in it as a reality, but made it one. Some of us are idea people. We are better at the formulation of an idea and knowing the market for the product. Then, when it comes to following through and going through the tedious or slow process of building on the inspiration and actually recruiting like minds, finding funding, promoting the project or product, your sails slacken. We can all sit over a glass of wine and change the world. Early morning hours of stillness are when I am certain I’ve got the solution to a particular problem or think of something I feel must be written about. The next morning of business, phone calls, house keeping, etc. takes a whole new kind of attention from me and sometimes pushes that dawn-inspired elation to the sidelines. It’s up to me to hold onto my intentions and stick to my intentions, my practice, my effort.

So, as you go into the new year, keep in mind what you have just read, and, hopefully, your 7th chakra will feel like a solid floor to step out onto.

Writer’s Block and Missed Yoga Class Marathon

Yes, you read it right. My writer’s block has coincided with my inconsistent yoga practice. No, yoga is not about just going to classes. It’s about regular practice. BUT the rhythm of my week flows with my yoga class schedule and my energy is fed by the looking forward to going, joining, laughing, learning, and finally, the occasional coffee/tea session afterwards. Perhaps I have time to go to the barn and ride afterward.

Rhythm, pattern, balance. It’s all a physical, spiritual, psychological, and emotional ebb and flow. When one catalyst for joy is removed, the others may or may not falter. My mojo faltered when my schedule changed just briefly. No excuses, just observation. The world does change around us. Nothing should really be static anyway, but when joyfulness and lightness have such wonderful roots, I just don’t like pulling them up. I just don’t practice my mindful yoga well at first in the face of change.

The swing of things is becoming familiar again and the roots were really just neglected, not destroyed of course. Everything was waiting for me. There is always space for me in class. The horses are happy to be out in the field longer. I was able to remember why I appreciate the life I live by having to miss its best moments for awhile. I was able to miss blogging! It was never a burden, but the content needs to come from a real message waiting to be shared, not just a schedule so I don’t lose followers.

Stepping away is not removal if you don’t want it to be. It is allowing yourself the changes that feed your senses and emotions. If the change is uncomfortable, work on planting new seeds and growing in another direction. If it is just unfamiliar, embrace the unknown and learn from it. There is always a place for you upon return or a new path to follow when you arrive.

Does Your Vacuum Need to be Vacuumed?

When I reached to remove the canister from my vacuum, so I could empty it, I realized that the machine itself was covered in dust. I mean, really. Do I have to clean the cleaner? Well, I do wash the wash cloths and clean and replace toothbrushes. There are just some things that you figure are exempt from the process. Truthfully, the state of the vacuum is representative of how dedicated I am to my overall cleaning. Now that I’ve realized my negligence, it gets a wipe down too. In fact, when it looks bright and shiny, I want to reach for it more willingly.

This, of course, made me think about what else I was cutting corners on. I’ve been very ill this week and was not able to ride the horse I have come to have access to or go to yoga at all. Often these both make me feel better but I’ve been that sick. My face feels bruised when I lean over. My eyes are swollen to the point that I’m afraid my son will be scared to look at me. These days of missing my practice have made my body feel worse than the illness’ influence, and my psyche is definitely more fragile. I even had a bad people day. Didn’t have the compassion for any of us and gave up even communicating with anyone casually.

Now, taking the time to heal slowly and safely is not the same as intentional corner cutting, but this lack of flow really made me think about how off kilter other things must be. First thing to meet the magnifying glass was my writing practice. I have been procrastinating so much. I have two gigs to work on, a book proposal, and this blog on the burner. My literary vacuum is getting dusty. We must keep our intellectual and imaginative machines shiny. Not like new—writing gets better with age—–but like a well-cared-for necessary tool. Perhaps I should reflect on the state of my yoga mat or my saddle. Both looked so nice freshly purchased, but I slipped around a lot on both of them before they were broken in properly. Regular use changes this. The saddle molds to my body. The mat supports my poses. They become uniquely mine. This should be the same for writing. I may struggle with anything new or difficult but must persist until my own form affects the framework and melds with it.

Are You a Magnolia or a Milkweed?

Last spring, my yoga instructor, Allison Levine, was talking about the glorious blooms on the Magnolia tree outside her window. While the other trees and plants were taking their time waking up, this tree was already in the throws of spring exultation. This observation led to discussions of our own identities and inclinations. After a while we were trying to figure out what plant represented a different rhythm in the cycle of growth.  A mid-to-end-of-season species, Milkweed popped into my head. Now, it is not a fall plant like many crops, but it is a late summer bloom and one that brings fresh sweetness to the thick air of late July and August.

Some writers are Magnolias. They have these intense bursts of energy and crank out work speedily.  Others ruminate for periods of time and gradually produce their blossoms. I am definitely a Milkweed. I like the gradual progression of time to bring me into focus (or bloom). If I burst onto the scene ahead of the rest, I feel exposed and awkward. Perhaps I’m not a trend setter or a mover and shaker so much as a thoughtful observer. I’m my own breed (or species) but not a follower for certain. It’s important to identify which one you are so that no writing guides, blogs (ahem), or courses influence you to put your writing habits on the wrong timeline. However, I do recommend setting some kind of  goal and timeline. Otherwise you become like Camus’ character, Joseph Grand, in The Plague who perpetually rewrites the opening line of his novel, and never progresses beyond. This is not just a lack of deadline pressure for him, but a lack of connection to what he wants to express. Still, procrastination tends to reflect a lack of direction.  But what timeline and what goal you wish to meet needs to be something you know inside feels right. Your goals should fit like a soft pair of slippers that you look forward to settling in to. Some may think they are homely and need changing, while others like their coziness and envy your ability to relax into them.

Returning to the Magnolia/Milkweed analogy, I was just finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Overall I like his work and I do think that his output has a nice rhythm, Not too much too fast, but we are not left waiting interminable months or years before he resurfaces. I think he is a Milkweed. I may be wrong. But even his voice caresses and his reading of his works smoothly flows forward without dynamic intensity. It is subtle and powerful. Just like the blooms and the fragrance of the Milkweed. I recently thought of him  when my friend’s 6 year old very primly informed me of the substantial size of her family’s flat screen TV. She was suffering through watching my standard television that I see no need to replace as long as it still does its job. She helpfully suggested that I give mine to someone so I could have a nice TV like hers. In that moment,  I realized that I am also disturbed by large flat screens in the home. It’s the void they represent. Think about it. You have a large black hole on your wall or on a cabinet. A large black nothing sitting passively but expectantly for you to activate it, much like the “varmints” in Gaiman’s book, tearing bits of the world away so that there is nothing but a kind of old fashioned TV static where life used to be. These large black square holes are much like the emptiness that these creatures, the hunger birds, inflict on the world until someone stops them. Do I want to eradicate a large space in my room? Absorb light instead of welcome it?

Not sure how all of the above connects together and to my theme of mind/body/spirit and the writing life? Teaching and learning? Well, my understanding of the many objects that surround and influence us and our relationship to them has matured as I continue to follow the path of awareness that regular reading and listening opens before me. Lacking the ability to truly observe and understand the inanimate world we create around us prevents our ability to describe and communicate it without images. Without the mindful community of yoga practitioners sharing their observations and inspirations with me, these thoughts would not have been initiated nor would they have taken root. It is not ourselves alone that bring forth our work. It is engagement with the world that fertilizes our imaginations and allows our ideas to germinate and grow into the particular plant, bush, or tree that is our writing selves. We cannot even become a Magnolia or a Milkweed without the entire process, the changing of the seasons and the insect and animal life  shall we say, that enables the entity to grow at all, much less healthily and to fulfill its role in a larger cycle. Random discussion among a discourse community, reading a talented and enigmatic author’s work, listening to a child’s reasoning, sitting with a seemingly irrational or unfounded discomfort with an appliance, writing and experimenting with your work and output—these all create a kind of compost to fertilize your talent and instigate growth patterns.

I am a Milkweed. I would not change this if I were offered the opportunity. I like the pom pom balls of blooms.  A gathering rather than a single bud. The memory of the beautiful spring Lilac’s scent is resurrected in late summer by this plant allowing the admirer to participate in two seasons at once.  I like the Monarch butterflies that rely on me (my students and readers) and enhance the setting with their fluttering contributions. I am ubiquitous. I reside in a world of small clusters of writers and practitioners rather than towering alone. Most importantly, I like to see the seeds of my work spread tangibly out into the world. I rely on the impetus of the wind to assist me (translation: openness to the universe’s rhythms). Be a Magnolia proudly if that is your style. Be the harbinger of beauty and renewed life and be exciting and bold. But don’t ignore the simple Milkweed in your literary horticulture. Look forward to its arrival.

Yes, pain is inevitable

Of course, many of you know the follow up statement: Suffering is optional. I was reminded of this when I was reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. It’s not reaching me as well as How Yoga Works, but it is a valid and meaningful read just the same. In this case, I’m talking about emotional pain, psychological pain. This is mostly because I relate my posts to my career in editing and writing and teaching. Outside of potential carpel tunnel syndrome, I don’t have much in the way of physical pain to relate to my job. Ok, I get a pain in my head when I read some of my students’ work but that is another story. No matter how good I am at my work or even just proficient, I always relate the outcomes to my self worth. Ouch. Can we all really do the job perfectly all the time? Can’t life get in the way? Can’t the perspective of what is good and what is not be subjective to a degree? Yes, right? So why insert pain into the mix?

In my work, tangible results are the measurement of my worth. What I think of it is not relevant to the paycheck or continued success. What I write must not need much editing if it is to be considered good. My editing should enhance the written page. The majority of my college students should be able to meet the basic learning outcomes when they leave my classroom. Sometimes, though, I’m not up to snuff. My writing may not be as dynamic as I’d like. But isn’t that what an editor can take on?

As an editor, I can answer, yes. There is a difference between sloppy or weak work and good stuff that needs some tweaking sometimes. Needing support is not a failing. As an editor, I can be very judgmental, but I do my best not to antagonize the writer. He/she might be having a bad week. It’s my job to find out what makes him/her tick and keep the clock going. Finally, as a professor, I can’t guarantee that the whole class will get what I’m teaching, but I should be able to know I did my best to be clear and  consistent with them.

How do these connect to mindfulness and pain-free living? If Yoga teachers were judged on concrete outcomes, they’d all be in trouble. Which of us can say we never regress in our practice? Who can say why some days we cannot keep our balance or pose as well as others. In some cases, we know what affects us. Just one glass of wine affects my energy in my morning practice. But did I screw up by drinking it? No, I just learn to know my body better by remaining mindful–aware.

I really like feeling comfortable with being human, mistakes and all. Pain should bring insight, not a sense of futility.

Have You Lost Your Chaturanga?

I have, at the moment. Some days I am so focused or mindful that I can lower myself smoothly down and hover for a moment before moving on to cobra. But other days, I can’t do it. I just have to do knees-chest-chin as if I’ve never had the strength or the practice. That happens in life as well. Just when you think you are at least at a certain level of practice or ability, something comes along that lets you know that you still have more to learn or that you are not on the path you thought you were.

I recently had a tantalizing job lead that at once elated me and troubled me. The opening was in the publishing industry and I had about 85% of the requirements down solid.  One area, budgeting, I had no experience with and I have not been actively working in online formatting. I am still print-based in my employment. Well, it’s not that I did not know that online publishing is a major force in the industry, but I’ve been kept busy with print—and teaching, and tutoring, and, and, and. But now, even with all of my experience in this field, I am no longer strong. I’ve lost my publishing chaturanga.

Do I stay at knees-chest-chin and hope the groove comes back or do I allow the good days to flow and show the bad days some compassion? I’m not a stay put kind of person by nature. I am easily frustrated though and that often gets in my way. But I’ll practice mindfulness and compassion and let the publishing world do without me for some time while I take some classes to get myself current in the online medium. That wasn’t the only gig out there. Yoga? I remember how smoothly the poses have come when I did not fight them or worry about them. But I do need to keep up with my practice and learn more so I can give myself the room to grow.

Don’t let yourself lose your chaturanga. You may misplace it for a little while, but know it is there waiting for your mind and body to come back to the mindful path.