thoughts: on nothing
I took this photo nearly a year ago. Right before some chosen isolation time for meditation. In this one spot, in silence for 3 months. The world seemed quieter then, but (like now) my mind was loud. It has always been loud, but the noise was more obvious with less distractions and nowhere to be but here.
Back then I crossed days off a handmade calendar because I knew the end date. On the good days I looked at those numbers wistfully, and on the bad days I dug my fingernails into that countdown. And on all days I met my own bullshit stories, my fears, my attachments, my limits, the edges of reality, and the infinite capacity of any mind to change. Every day I was wildly aware of the privilege of this struggle, of the good fortune of having so much time to be stuck with only the mind and no escape.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that time this week. Of course, forced isolation is far different than chosen, but working with the mind is not dependent on time or location. Now the privilege is shelter, food, health - all present against the background noise in my mind that’s often tuned to chaos.
In the months leading up to retreat, someone asked me what I was hoping to get out of it. The word “nothing” spilled out of my mouth before anything more intelligent could come to mind. I later came across this quote from Mingyur Rinpoche, who puts it far more eloquently than my one word answer could:
“We practice in order to know what we already are, therefore attaining nothing, getting nothing, going nowhere. We seek to uncover what has always been there.”
What’s always been there is often accompanied by an ever-changing landscape that ranges from fear to gratitude, doubt to relief, overwhelm to presence. But the practice isn’t a matter of mastering the mind. It’s a matter of simply being with the mind, of watching the landscape change. A matter of returning to nothing. This is the forever work that takes on a life of its own, lending the name “meditation” to any moment of the day - mundane or extraordinary. So it’s tempting to say that I finished something in this spot and it’s always tempting to grasp for the illusion of certainty, but instead the practice simply continues.
Attempting to document right now.
Backpack way too full.
Face a little scared, but free of doubt.
Mind ready and not ready.
I'm going off the grid for the next few months for a silent meditation retreat, and fittingly today I’ve been short on words. The one I keep repeating is fortunate. Fortunate for the conditions that have come together for this to be possible, and fortunate for all the closed doors of the past that seemed unfortunate but were actually a nudge of redirection to this place.
As the saying goes: if it doesn’t open, it’s not your door.
Grateful for the closed doors, for the unknown, for the silence, for the many FaceTimes this week with faces I’m going to miss, for the teachers that pushed me to now, and for the space to be here. See you on the flip side.
quoted: as it should
and whether or not it is clear to you
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should
-from desiderata by max ehrmann
thoughts: messy mind
All morning my shoulders have been in my ears. Lifted in that way that protects us evolutionarily by making more space for the kind of shallow breaths required in fight or flight. The problem, though, was that there was no real threat, and I had nothing to run from other than some thoughts.
Years ago as a new yoga teacher I regularly themed my classes around reactions. This, to me, has always been one the most obvious and effective benefits of yoga. We make ourselves uncomfortable, and we breathe. And over time it gets a little easier to do the same in the positions we hold in life. To slow down, to soften our shoulders, to breathe into our bellies rather than our collarbones. Paradoxically it also makes it rather noticeable when we fail to find this practice off the mat. Like this morning.
All logical thinking told me it was temporary, a momentary stress that is quite simply material and largely unimportant. But that reptilian part of my brain that's hardwired for comfort and safety just kept firing: fear.
"Grasp. Hold on. Be afraid."
These instincts are protective. They've kept us alive for thousands of years. But they fire at what's available, and without the presence of actual predators and natural disasters, they act on non-life-threatening daily discomforts. A rude coworker, someone driving too slowly, a poorly worded email, the list goes on.
I used to have this idea in my mind that over time enough yoga would make us no longer react, floating from situation to situation with a sense of contentment. And perhaps it does eventually. But lately I think the more attainable thing is to free ourselves from our attachment to the reaction itself. It's so easy to either mentally pat ourselves on the back for the "good" calm response or scold ourselves for the "bad" emotional response.
However, if we create just a little extra space to pause and observe the response rather than judge it as good or bad, we might find that the response itself both slows down and passes much more quickly. And perhaps over time it does move toward a baseline of contentment or santosha in Sanskrit.
A while ago I wrote a little about the koshas or layers of the body. The word kosha can be interpreted as "made of" or "illusion." It's this second word that I found myself discussing at length with yoga retreaters in India. Yoga doesn't teach that this physical world or our bodies or our reactions aren't real. It only calls these things illusions because when our mind becomes fixed on them it isn't free to recognize our true nature. In other words, the more wrapped up you are in your stuff or your regular patterns of thought, the less time you have to reflect on your true self. It's essentially the same as our modern way of reminding one another "in the scheme of things this doesn't really matter" when life's disturbances become stressful or overwhelming.
These kinds of teachings often came up as students were getting ready to leave India and go back home. Almost every day the question came up, "how do I bring this practice back to my daily life?" My answer was not unlike what I've already written, and it usually came with many reminders that it's a practice whether you're in India or at home or anywhere, and the best you can do is let go of expectations and be really kind to yourself in the process.
Having been through this transition before and now having coached so many other people through it, I didn't think twice about my own departure from India. I arrived at the airport in Goa ready to let go and move on to the next place. It didn't hurt that the next place was Greece and that I was still riding the high of three months of spiritual practice in India. When the gate agent said I'd have to pick up my checked luggage in Turkey before my connecting flight it didn't phase me. She made it sound so simple.
Two flights, 20 hours, and no sleep later I arrived in Istanbul having already lost some of my India high. When I found out that I'd have to pay for a visa to enter the country to get my bag it robbed me of my perceived endless bliss, and I broke down in tears. I pleaded my case to at least half a dozen airport employees, certain that there must be another solution, but it turns out that crying does not get your bag transferred to your next flight in Turkey.
One visa line and $30 later I found myself in a mass of people wedged between ropes that made switchback lines to only 8 immigration officers. As far as I could tell, I was the only one crying. And not just crying, but sobbing those kind of uncontrollable tears that ramp up the moment you even think of stopping them. A man behind me pushed me any time there was more than 3 inches between me and the next person in line. Eventually he pressed his way alongside me and passed me, and I was too consumed in my own misery to even care. Three young children in front of me weaved their way through legs like a maze. At one point they started fighting, and when the youngest burst into tears I was selfishly grateful to have like-minded company, and I thought, "I get it."
All the while I kept thinking about my students in India and about how much time we'd spent talking about emotion, reactions, suffering, non-attachment, and ego. Now here I was less than one day out of India with all of these things in my face. I'd designed entire lectures and discussions around how we bring the lessons of practice and retreat back to our everyday lives, and here I was failing. This, of course, made me cry more.
This is also something unique to human emotion. Not only can we experience something like sadness or anger, but we can also then have an emotion about experiencing that emotion. It's that same layer of mental judgment that seeks to label a reaction as good or bad and commends or admonishes ourselves for responding a certain way. We get mad at ourselves for being angry, we feel proud of being happy, we reject our sadness, etc. It's this level of emotion projected onto emotion that is ego and attachment, much more so than the emotion or reaction itself.
In any discussion of attachment it's inevitable that the idea comes up of some kind of cold, removed experience of life as the only alternative. But the concept of non-attachment is not that we don't experience emotion; it's that we don't cling to or have an aversion to our emotions. Instead we recognize that they are the human experience, and we simply let them happen.
It sounds so simple. When you're happy, be happy. When you're sad, be sad. But how often do we either seek to hold onto an emotion or rid ourselves of one? That seeking, in which we grasp or reject what is, is attachment.
As the mass of people continued to shuffle forward toward the passport officers, I continued to cry. But I realized that I didn't need to be more upset about the crying itself. I didn't need to protect my ego from the odd looks, and I didn't need to do anything other than just be sad. Because it's temporary. And because sometimes when you haven't slept, and you just spent the equivalent of three day's budget in India on a visa to enter Turkey for an hour, and you're alone... there's nothing to do but cry. But to cry knowing it's neither good nor bad and that it will pass.
It, of course, did. If you ever go to Turkey, know that the light at the end of the immigration control tunnel requires liberal use of your elbows and a whole lot of pushing. At baggage claim it took the help of three more airport employees to find my bag, and thankfully the passport security to leave Turkey thirty minutes later was free of any lines. I even managed to get a tear-free coffee on my way to my last flight.
Today with my shoulders still in my ears I took a walk, hoping that if I kept moving my body eventually my mind would follow. That if I neither grasped the stress-filled thoughts nor tried to get rid of them, they would eventually pass. It would make for a really tidy ending to say that my mind is completely clear now, but it would also be a lie. My shoulders are a little lower, and my thoughts? They have a bit more space and a bit less attachment. Practice today, and perhaps a bit more contentment tomorrow.
some new words from May 2016
"Hello ma'am. Where are you from?"
Her kindness makes me pause. I have kept a quick pace on this street where everyone wants to sell something, breezing past dozens of other questions with a smile, a shake of my head no, and quick, "no thank you."
Even a short walk is filled with a chorus of:
"Pants? Best price."
"Come in. Just looking!"
These constant questions that used to annoy me have become humorous in their relentlessness. This place has a way of wearing down your reactions.
Her approach is different. I don't know why I stop, but I do.
For years my Monday mornings were kicked off by teaching two yoga classes at 8:30 and 10am. I'm not much of a morning person. However, these Monday morning students managed to get me talking earlier than I'd normally prefer. I looked forward to seeing them walk in with sleepy eyes, many of them also not morning people, and hearing about their weekends and fielding questions about what strange drink or breakfast I was hurrying to consume before class started.
In class they were so focused and intent on starting their week off on the best foot. I was lucky that a little of that energy rubbed off on me and always inspired my week to start in a similar fashion.
In an effort to keep that Monday magic around, here are some things that are inspiring me this week.