Accepting Help

2018-0920 blog image
 

On August 5, my husband, Jim, drove me to the Frederickson Surgery Center to have a hole in the macula of my right eye repaired. Needless to say, if I could have found another way to fix the distorted vision in that eye, I would have chosen that. The success of this surgery required that I keep my head down, as if I were looking for ants on the floor, for 45 minutes of every hour for 5 days. That meant sleeping on my stomach with my head in a device similar to what you rest your head in when you have a massage, while resting my torso on a cushion that elevated my hips slightly and aligned my body so my head could rest in the elevated head rest.

For daytime use, we had rented a chair similar to those you see used for massage at the airport. The chair, with an attached tray, was quite clever, really, and it came with a separate mirrored device you placed on the tray so you could see the TV or someone sitting in front of you. I also listened to the book Rocketman, which I had downloaded to my phone.

Jim is a good cook, so I was fed well. He was also determined that I mind the 45 minute rule of head down, so meals were not leisurely, although never rushed.

You would think that the most difficult part of this experience would be the five long days of inactivity and disrupted sleep. However, my daughter keyed in on the biggest obstacle for me: having to allow others to take care of me. As I reflected on my daughter’s insight, I began to understand how the vulnerability that accepting help implies clashed with how I saw myself.

I have held a strong belief that I needed to be strong, in control, self-sufficient. Especially as I have aged this has become more important to me. In our culture aging does not have a positive connotation. To age is to raise the possibility and probability that if we live long enough, we will become more vulnerable and need more help to manage our lives. That is an image that I, and perhaps many others, want to deny might apply to us. “Having to be taken care of” raised that image for me. I have to admit that I placed a high value on my ability to be strong and self-sufficient, even as I noticed the changes in energy my age is already bringing.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patangali talks about five klesas or afflictions that are the source of all human suffering. Avidya is the affliction of misperceiving what is temporary and changing for what is real and enduring. Avidya underlies all the other klesas. For example: To be vulnerable, if only for five days, was a wake up call to face the reality of the vulnerability implied in aging. Not thinking that could happen to me is the avidya. Observing and reflecting on this allowed me to remember that there is a deep, unchanging spirit within me and everyone that is what is truly of value and real (vidya). The YOGA is to identify when avidya is taking hold and then return to knowing our true nature or spirit, which is unchanging and eternal.

Closely related to avidya is asmita, which is a confusion of who we are: we ‘identify our true value with things inside or outside of ourselves, all of which are subject to change.” For example: being at peace when you are healthy and strong and being totally depressed when you identify with weakness and vulnerability. My resistance (and a bit of suffering) was based on seeing myself as vulnerable and needing to be taken care of as I recovered from surgery. This identification of being less than, allowed for feelings of inadequacies, even while knowing intellectually that this body, its strength and ability to care for itself, is not eternal.

In the midst of discomfort, I was able to find some joy in gratitude. I accepted help. Jim made me meals, monitored my adherence to recovery rules, drove me wherever I needed or wanted to go, and generally looked after me. My dear friends came and read to me, talked to me, brought me goodies, made me tea, and just lightened my five days. While the idea of being cared for was an obstacle to agreeing to the surgery, I was very grateful and even relished the kind attention I received, the inquiries as to my recovery, the thoughtfulness, and the prayers. In the end, I accepted help and realized my recovery was an opportunity to be real and allow others to identify with their own generous and kind natures.

Heating with Wood

wood pile
 

About a month ago the woodman arrived a little before 8 am on Saturday and dumped two cord of wood in our driveway – the first load of two or three more cord to come. If you have no idea the size of a pile of two cord of wood, let me tell you, it is really a lot.

I was stunned when I first saw it. I knew when I saw it that I would be working with my husband to schlep wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of wood across our backyard and down beside our house, unloading and stacking it carefully in preparation for the cold to come months later.

My husband could not do this alone. It would be too much. Besides, we both enjoy the warmth the wood provides, as do our cats. I knew, unfortunately, what I would be doing in the July heat!

Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra describes the yoga of action, called kriya yoga. Kriya yoga has three components: tapas, a new behavior, often challenging, creating heat not just in the body but also in the mind as the change in behavior must be conscious and deliberate; svadhyaya, self-reflection, noticing the effects of our new behavior and making changes as required; isvara pranidhana, focusing on the quality of our actions rather than on the imagined result.

In all honesty, I never liked loading, schlepping, and stacking wood. In the past my mind resisted this work, usually resenting every minute of it. But here it was again requiring behavior beyond my usual activities, beyond the demands I usually place upon my body. But this year was different. I surrendered to it.

First of all, we made some agreements that acknowledged our physical limitations. We didn’t work on the woodpile every day, but we did work on it consistently over three weeks. We decided to spend 30 minutes each time doing the loading, schlepping, and stacking, and then clean up the detritus left in the driveway. We tried to avoid the hottest days, but there were a few. In the process of this work, I began to see that this was a kind of yoga practice for me, a kind of kriya yoga.

While the work required a change in my usual physical behavior, the change in my attitude toward the project also constituted my tapas. Some days I did not really want to “do wood,” but I would start, focusing on what we needed to do, and doing it. It was ok. I practiced svadhyaya in observing not only my mind but my body. I reminded my self to keep my back upright without leaning forward and to bend my knees while carting the wood in the wheelbarrow. I limited the weight of the loads. I made sure to do yoga postures to care for my back. And, I realized that I was focusing on my actions, my work, doing it to the best of my ability, and taking pleasure what each day accomplished. The bigger picture for me was being able to see how changing my attitude, recognizing and adapting to my limitations, and just focusing on the quality of my action could change my entire experience.

Some of the most profound changes for the better that we make are yoga that does not take place on the yoga mat. It is about seeing clearly enough to move away from behaviors and attitudes creating suffering and limiting our lives. It is moving what is positive. Yoga teachings and yoga, itself, are about life, and available to anyone interested in practicing and changing.

A Wonderful Gift

Cat
 

No matter what happens in the world “…faith is embedded in our heart and nobody can take it from us.”

– TKV Desikachar, “What Are We Seeking?” (165)

On May 24 my husband, Jim, and I held our dear kitty Bagheera in our arms as the veterinarian injected a drug into his vein, and he drew his last breath. I know we are not alone in having to make hard decisions that determine how the last days of a beloved animal companion will pass. But when you are actually in that position, indecision, uncertainty, fear, and grief may all surface making clear thinking impossible.

Bagheera was 18 years old. He had a mass on his bladder, diagnosed only a week or so before it led to his failing. That was among the many health issues he faced all his life. The numerous bottles of pills that sat on our kitchen counter over the years testified to that. And, in spite of the fact that I was the daily dispenser of pills, occasional liquid medications and shots – all of which he hated – he still treated me like a buddy.

He came into our lives when he was about nine months old from a PAWS rescue site. He was skinny, had a thin coat, and a nervous demeanor. But it didn’t take long until his little belly grew round and his black fur grew thick and shiny. Bagheeera loved to be petted and brushed, which of course we indulged. But he indulged me, as well, as he folded himself into a meatloaf and lay on my belly purring while I lay in bed at night. In the winter he slept on the back of the chair where I sat in front of the wood stove, his tail draped over my shoulder. I know many of you will know exactly what I mean when I say we had a very close relationship, and I loved this cat just as much as if he were human. I was not alone, as people who knew him loved his sweetness too.

When it became clear that Bagheera was not going to survive the tumor, I grieved. Mornings I didn’t want to get out of bed. My first thought was that I couldn’t deal with watching him die, with losing him. Jim and I struggled to figure out what the best choice was for him – to let him pass peacefully at home or to intervene and have him put to sleep – a euphemism that hardly speaks to what it really is. To pass peacefully at home was a wonderful thought, but what about pain?, What if his death was the furthest thing from peaceful? What path was the kindest? What was most respectful of his life? The conversation in my head flipped anxiously from my suffering and loss to Bagheera’s. I felt immobilized.

And, then I prayed. I asked for help, for guidance, for strength, to just be relieved of my self-centered concerns and to be able to be a source of comfort to this kitty who needed comfort now.

What I received was “faith.” I don’t mean faith, like religious faith, I mean what the Yoga Sutra calls sraddha. Sraddha is translated as conviction, courage, confidence. It has been described as “a deep, positive, unshakeable conviction that reveals and nourishes strength.” And, the teaching is that sraddha is present within each one of us. We just have to tap into it. For me, sraddha was the certainty that I would be able to care lovingly for Bagheera as he needed, and that Jim and I would know the kindest choice for Bagheera’s end of life.

This sraddha allowed me to hear the feedback of others. A friend who was a nurse told me that now we were dealing with “kitty hospice,” helping me to see this time was really about Bagheera and making him as comfortable as possible. The veterinarian who had been caring for Bagheera said there was nothing more that could be done, and with the mass he had, he would most likely suffer greatly.

Faith is sometimes knowing what the next right thing is to do and having the courage to do it. But it doesn’t mean there is no loss or sadness. Some days the heaviness of the air and quietness of our house can feel great.

But I ask myself, how do I want to remember Bagheera and our life together? Do I want it to be the images of his last days when he could no longer even walk, or eat, or drink? Those images grow less vivid as I work instead to see him as he was when he was well. When I do, I can almost smell the sweet smell of his fur, feel its softness, hear his loud “meow” as he carried his stuffed bear, and the exquisite joy of looking into his big green eyes. When my mind goes there, so goes my heart. He was ever faithful. Ever a blessing in my life.

Choosing Wisely

Choosing Wisely

Blog image, 5/16/18
 

Exercising clear judgment, taking into account what is helpful versus harmful…
can help us avoid future suffering.

– Nicolai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras

When I opened the email and read its first few paragraphs, I was hooked – heart and mind. The email described a program called the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership.

This training – which combines forest bathing, yoga, Ayurveda, outdoor skills, and an overview of relevant research on nature’s health benefits…”

And it goes on to explain that the program is designed for those who are called to share nature’s gifts by integrating their love of the outdoors with mindfulness.

How perfect this would be for me, I thought. Isn’t this what I do in my yoga classes and meditations – use images from nature to help students connect to qualities that support them, or give them a sense of calm, or energy, or joy, or peace? The coolness of the full moon to calm them, or the movement of a stream to bring energy, or the light of the sun to encourage clarity, or the mountain for stability? Just the idea of sharing “nature’s gifts” excites me and brings joy.

I tried to convince my dear friend that the program would be perfect for us. We could become nature and mindfulness guides. I tried to convince my husband that he and I could do this program together, sharing the adventure of nine days of training in the Berkshires in late October, early November. After all, we have loved adventures in the past, like the month we spent in India studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, and our time in Japan on a yoga retreat, as well as driving Route 50 wherever it went across the U.S.

He was cautiously interested. More cautious as he thought about spending 10 hours a day for nine days outside, which the program required. He was even more cautious as he looked up the temperature highs of 52 and lows of 32 at the time of the year the program is offered.

After my conversation with my husband, I sat quietly in contemplation. My intent was not to reflect on the program or anything in particular, but to be open to the wisdom of a source beyond myself. This kind of self-reflection or svadhyaya, one of the three components of kriya yoga, has kept me more than once from going down a road that wasn’t right for me.

So, as I sat, I came to realize that my enthusiasm for this program was not really training to be a nature guide. What I wanted was to spend time walking in a forest or on a hiking trail. To have more time to be outside. I wanted the peace I feel in nature.

I also reflected upon who I am and where I am in my life. As a yoga teacher and vedic chanter committed to sharing the teachings so generously given to me, why would I disrespect this wisdom, my years of study and experience to take up a different path. As a woman of sixty-nine, with a husband, children, grandchildren, relatives and friends I love, do I really want to commit my energy to this program? Would it bring me joy?

My mind can trick me into responding as if I am thirty-nine instead of my real age. In yoga, this is called asmita. Asmita is a misidentification with who we really are and is one of what Patangali, in the Yoga Sutra, calls the klesas. We are all subject to the klesas, and things generally do not go well for us when they are dictating our actions.

Rather than allowing this misidentification to lead me astray, I found checking in with my friend and my husband helped me to recognize that more reflection might be needed before signing up for this training. My reflection allowed me to have the discernment to see more clearly and choose more wisely what I was going to do. Lastly, after sharing my initial writing on this experience with my teacher, I realized how yoga’s teachings have guided this process of discernment and reassured me that what I am doing, and who I am, is truly enough.

Japan Reflections: Respect

6/03/17 blog image

On our recent yoga retreat to Kyoto and the village of Kurama, our group of seventeen visited many shrines and temples. With each one, our wonderful guide, Chiharu, explained not only the history and significance of each sacred place, but she also unfolded the beliefs and concepts underlying the two religions of Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism.

At one point in our travels, as we stood before a Shinto shrine on the path up the mountain to the Kurama-dera mountain temple, Chiharu said, “Religion in the West is more about believing, religion in Japan is about respecting.” She, of course, was talking about “respect” in its deepest sense, something like “reverence,” “veneration,” even “love.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what it means to live one’s life with such an attitude of deep respect.

In Japan, we observed “respect” practiced in many forms: in how people always bowed to one another and to us; in how the meals were served with great care; in how the city streets were clean and without litter; how even the trash trucks were freshly painted and their fenders shiny; in how ancestors are honored and remembered. Respect was also apparent in attitudes toward nature: a reverence toward trees, some of which exceeded a thousand years in age, toward mountains, which are worship by some as links between earthly life and deities. In the deer park in Nara, I even witnessed a young man, probably of high school age, bowing reverently to the deer who approached him, deer who are considered sacred in this city.

It appeared to me that a deeper connection to and reverence toward nature and the seasons exists in Japanese culture than here in the West. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if we held as a cultural value an attitude of reverence and caring toward the forests and waters, the mountains, the air, and wildlife. Would we not take care of, rather than polluting, the waters so they would be clean and pure; revere, rather than remove, our mountain tops, preserve, rather than destroy, forests and habitats for wildlife. I love the lines from Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem,” which, though she is Native American, seem to express the kind of reverence that I sensed in Kyoto.

We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the upmost care
And kindness in all things.

The concepts of “respect” and “reverence” are very much the underpinning of the teachings of yoga. What are referred to as the first two “limbs” of yoga recommend five ethical practices (yama) and five personal practices (niyama).

The five ethical practices are: non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, moderation, non-covetousness. The five personal practices are: cleanliness, contentment, a disciplined life aiming for mental and physical balance, self-study, devotion to a Higher Principle.

Each of the ethical practices implies living with respect toward all sentient beings and taking care not to cause harm, which are necessary in order to have a peaceful mind. Nicolai Bachman in his book the Path of the Yoga Sutras states: “Each yama is a guideline for behaving in a benevolent manner toward others so as to support the process of quietly turning inward and discovering our true nature (140). The respect we show through the practices of the yamas implies a respect and reverence toward ourselves since we each share the same inner light as all other beings.

Sometimes obstacles can limit our ability to live with the attitude of respect and care for ourselves that the niyamas imply. Many of us received teachings growing up that taught we should always put ourselves last to be a “good” person and that our most important goal should be serving others. I know for myself and many others with whom I have spoken that focusing on self-care or personal practices can raise feelings of guilt. Yet, if we do not take care of ourselves, how can we care for others? If we truly believe all beings, including ourselves, share a divine light, how can we ignore working to remove obstacles to our health, well-being, contentment, and peace of mind. How can we ignore caring for what is a temple for that light?

I am grateful for the guidelines for behaving and living that yoga’s yamas and niyamas provide. And, I am very grateful for the awareness raised by my time in Japan. Cultivating an attitude of respect and reverence “in all things” supports my commitment to practice the ethical and personal practices of yoga and deepens the peace and joy of living each day.

For your consideration: What might your life look like if you consciously lived with an attitude of respect and reverence in all you did each day?

One Day at a Time

One Day at a Time

Swan in lake

This week I had an awakening. As a friend reflected upon the slogan “one day at a time” and how important it was in her life, I realized how much stress and anxiety – what yoga calls duhkha or “suffering” – my calendar was causing me. Of course, it was not the calendar causing this, but rather my attachment to it.

I admit to loving my monthly planner, how it lays out each day in tidy 1.5 x 1.5 inch white boxes. And this habit of keeping a calendar to look ahead over a month has served me well in the past. It allowed me to plan, to reduce uncertainties, to be prepared, to control and order events and responsibilities in my life.

But my use of the calendar to assure my life in the future would be manageable has been making it unmanageable in the present, along with my propensity to add too much to too little time. My mind constantly visited the weeks ahead, reviewing what I needed to do and how I would manage to do it.

Yoga teaches that when we are unsettled, unhappy, or disgruntled, mental or emotional afflictions called klesas usually are at fault. Lack of awareness or knowledge, avidya, is the primary klesa. When avidya keeps us from seeing clearly, then we make choices that cause us pain or unhappiness. One of avidya‘s step-children is fear. My attachment to my calendar is a way to manage my fear of being unprepared or taken off guard, as a way of providing some certainty even while knowing intellectually there is no certainty.

Yoga gives us tools to help us see ourselves clearly and to keep klesas small by helping us move away from those things causing us suffering so we can reach a place of balance and peace of mind. The Yoga Sutra suggests that when we are caught up with a mental/emotional affliction, we should look at how we can move in the opposite direction, what is called pratipaksa bhavana. For example, we may be working on a project that challenges us and makes us fear whether we can succeed. A pratipaksa bhavana might be “courage.”

If my attachment to ruminating over the events on my monthly calendar causes me anxiety, I can cultivate the opposite by focusing on “one day at a time.” I can put the monthly calendar in my desk drawer, look at it periodically, and place a calendar showing only one day on my desk. I can focus on “one day at a time” in my yoga practice.

After all, this one day is really all that any of us have. Living each day in the here and now, paying attention to each dish I wash, each person I meet, each bird I listen to, each word I speak or write means I am present in my life – the only life I have. “One day at a time,” that is the way we find joy and peace of mind.

New Year’s Reflections

Last week I received a blog in my email from Ellen Fein entitled “Re-imagining What is Possible.” First, let me say, I always read what Ellen sends out. She is a very wise, professional, and compassionate yoga teacher and healer. (You can learn more about her and her work and read her blogs at Breathe2Change.com.)

In her blog, she acknowledges the uncertainties and hostilities permeating our times and world. Given this climate, she asks herself a question that I and, I know many others, are asking themselves: “What can I do with my own energy that supports the people I care for and the world I want going forward?”

In her wisdom, Ellen reminds us that none of us can be of support and help in the lives of others when our own energy is depleted. Moreover, if we are physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually drained, we have harmed ourselves.

If we are to have a peaceful heart and quiet mind, the practice of ahimsa is crucial. Ahimsa is translated as non-violence toward and non-harming of others or ourselves in all aspects of our lives. It requires a depth beyond just actions, to our words and thoughts, as well. Nicholas Bachman in his book The Path of the Yoga Sutras explains that “A nonjudgmental and forgiving attitude is essential to practicing ahimsa…” I bring up ahimsa, not just because it is considered the most important ethical principle in the Yoga Sutra, but also because it relates to the suggestions that Ellen Fein offers for herself and interested others in this new year.

Her first suggestion is self-care, which has to be the foundation for living our lives. I, like so many women, struggle with this concept. In my head, at times, I still hear “self-indulgent” when what is needed is self-care. As I grow older, I have had to face my own vulnerabilities and what living compassionately toward myself requires. At times, I can even see this as a gift of aging, as living with balance and care in life becomes more a necessity than a choice.

Ellen’s second suggestion, what she has called “inner disarmament,” is also a practice of ahimsa. “Inner disarmament” requires first that we acknowledge we all can fall victim to anger, intolerance, or hostility. We ask ourselves how often we fail to carefully listen because we are immersed in our own feelings of anger, indignation, or outrage? Inner disarmament” starts as we become aware of our responses to situations and individuals. Rather than becoming consumed by our thoughts and feelings, we observe and listen to what is really in front of us.

Her third suggestion is to “commit to action that builds community, diminishes division, and honors our interdependence with each other and the planet.” My good friend Margee Kooistra likes to remind us of a quote from Dan Berrigan: “If you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things.” Any action that supports our positive connections with one another
and encourages a healthy planet cannot help but be hopeful, and also non-harming.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these suggestions, and what you are doing as we start this new year.