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.

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.

The Energies of Autumn

2016-0909 blog image

It may be 90 degrees, but hints of fall are everywhere. In my backyard the rose of sharon’s flowers have all browned and curled while her leaves are yellowing. Some bright pink blossoms still grace the crepe myrtle, but they are more like highlights among the fading, drying flowers. And, this morning as I looked out the window, I noticed leaves, newly surrendered to the breeze, riding air currents to the ground.

While the calendar tells us the fall equinox is still two weeks away, autumn has already announced herself.

In our Wise Women class we talk about the shifts we notice in how our bodies feel, our minds function, and even how our emotions fluctuate. It is part of cultivating awareness so we notice changes within us that may require attention to avoid discomfort or illness in the future. We know choices we make in our lives or lifestyle may cause us problems. If we eat or drink too much too often, we may feel dull or depleted and gain excess weight. If we have several nights with only four or five hours sleep, we may feel tired and out of sorts. In addition to noticing the effects of our nutritional and lifestyle choices, we must also be attentive to the weather and the seasons and the roles they may play in how we feel.

Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of life, tells us that each person has a “birth constitution,” which consists of a unique arrangement of three different doshas or energies. The vata dosha controls body movement and is concerned with the nervous system. The kapha dosha controls body stability and lubrication and is concerned with the tissues and wastes of the body. Pitta dosha involves digestion and concerns the body’s endocrine and enzymatic systems. Our particular arrangement of these energies affects how we respond to life and seasonal changes.

Each season also has a dominant dosha, with its own characteristics. Autumn’s dosha is vata. As vata is about the energy of movement, fall is characterized by the movement of air, wind, which has the effect of drying things. Wind, too, stirs things up. Think about the reds, yellows, oranges of autumn leaves, that eventually dry and brown and roil and rustle in an October wind.

We are affected by autumn’s energies and may even experience imbalances in our own systems. When vata is out of balance within us, we may experience creaky joints, constipation, dry eyes, hair, and nails, difficulty sleeping, nervousness, forgetfulness, and mental distractedness. If we are in a vata stage of life, mid-50s and up, we are even more vulnerable to such an imbalance, particularly in autumn.

If you find yourself feeling out of sorts with some of the symptoms of autumn’s vata dosha, you can explore some of suggestions that follow.

  • Allow your approach to yoga practice to be attentive and meditative. Keep your focus on cultivating a feeling of groundedness, staying one or two breaths in your postures.
  • Choose activities that support a calm mind and heart.
  • Include soups and stews in your diet, using vegetables and fruits from our local bountiful harvests.
  • Hydrate your body by drinking water throughout the day.
  • Add good oils to your diet, olive and sunflower, as the weather cools, and in winter some sesame or fish oil.
  • Oil your skin before you take a warm shower, using sunflower oil or sunflower mixed with sesame.

Much information exists on the subject of the ayurvedic constitution, and you also can work with an ayurvedic practitioner to learn about your birth constitution. But we all can begin by paying attention to how we are affected by the seasons and our lifestyle choices and adopt strategies to maintain a sense of comfort, stability, and balance.

First Quarter Moon, Growth

First Quarter Moon, Growth

First Quarter Moon

This week the moon arrives at the first quarter phase of her journey to fullness. I love the irony of this phase of the moon – called “first quarter” but appearing to us on earth as a “half-moon.” Since the moon is a sphere, not flat like a disc, we are privileged to see only one-quarter of its daytime side which appears to earthly inhabitants as half of the moon.

About a week ago the moon entered her “new moon” phase, which I spoke of in my last blog as symbolically a time of new beginnings. When I think of the new moon in terms of the planting cycle, I image a shoot beginning to emerge from a seed, making its way toward the light. So, too, in a time of new beginnings our own thoughts and intuitions begin to roil, gradually starting to cohere and emerging as new goals or directions or decisions.

With the first quarter moon the shoot that emerged from a seed just a week earlier, pushing through the soil toward the light, gradually unfurls a few leaves. They may be tentative at first, but grow stronger and larger as they are nourished by light, water and the nutrients of the earth. So too, we may find our own goals and decisions becoming clearer, our steps becoming firmer as they are nourished by our own faith in our direction and the support we may receive from friends, family, a counselor, or mentors.

One of the reasons I love Vedic chant is that so many involve nature. And in these chants, various elements of nature relate to aspects of the human system. For example, fire is identified as supporting speech, air supports breath, the sun support sight, water is connected to creativity, and the moon to the mind.

The Vedic chant laghunyasah is an example of a chant in which elements of nature and their positive relationship to the well-being of the human system is expressed, with a beautiful refrain threaded throughout. The effect is spiritual, almost the feeling of a prayer. A rough translation from Sanskrit of the lines in this chant that speak of the moon and the refrain follow.

May the moon support my mind.
May my mind be linked to my heart.
May my heart be linked to me.
May I be linked to that which is eternal within me.
May what is eternal within me be linked to the universal source.

If you are drawn to these images, you might use this as a mantra (mantra meaning “that which protects”). You might even recite it to yourself aloud several times, then softly, then silently. Just sit, and perhaps hold the image of the moon in your mind for a few minutes. You might even have a picture of the moon there with you.

In your own life, as you find your direction, decisions, and goals beginning to unfurl, perhaps you will find this practice focusing on the moon to be of support.

Below you can listen to these lines chanted in Sanskrit and recited in English:

~

New Moon, New Beginnings

New Moon, New Beginnings

the Moon

“You can’t really criticize the moon,” one of my Wise Women yoga students observed on the heels of our yoga practice. It was the day before the new moon at its darkest stage, a time in the moon’s cycle connected with the idea of “new beginnings.”

In the days leading up to our class, the idea of “new beginnings” had taken roost in my mind as a dear and close family member struggled to find the best path for herself and her family. When I noticed the small darkened circle in the corner of June 4 on my calendar, I made the connection – new moon, new beginnings. I did a little research on the symbolism attached to the new moon only to find the idea of “new beginnings” coming up again and again.

The new moon is a time of both darkness and a sliver of light, which, like the gentle light of winter, supports a more internal focus, encouraging reflection. We can look at old goals, some of which may have been laid aside or forgotten as other aspects of our lives required more attention.

As I started reflecting on my old goals, I became aware of a new beginning I made in my practice of vedic chant. Although I had been studying and practicing chanting since 2003, my progress had been slow and disappointing. About a year ago, that changed when I decided to work via Skype every two or three weeks with a chant teacher. My chanting practice became more regular. I felt a renewed commitment to continue, and not only saw progress, but came to enjoy the work, as well. Sometimes the new beginning simply requires a new direction to move us closer to our objective.

As we reflect, we might decide to resurrect and recommit to some old goals. Some may have already been attained. With others we may find new directions reveal themselves. Some goals might have beginning after beginning in an ebb and flow, each one leading down a path we hadn’t expected when we first began. But not all old goals may seem as desirable as we had initially thought, and those we may decide to release. .

With the darkness and sliver of light of the new moon encouraging reflection, we each might ask ourselves what it is we might want to cultivate in our lives. Courage? Compassion? Joy? Patience? Balance? Or perhaps there is something more concrete we would like to attain. A daily yoga practice? Traveling? Playing the piano? Volunteering to read to children? Finding a different job?

We need only be open and patient to what may come up in our reflections, be not afraid to plot a path toward what we hope to cultivate, and move with patience and a willingness to continue to listen to ourselves and be open to modifying our direction.

The new moon days invite us to make new beginnings.

~

Below is a poem by a favorite poet of mine, inspired by the new moon.

NEW MOON

How much it must bear on its back,
a great ball of blue shadow,
yet somehow it shines, keeps up
an appearance. For hours tonight,
I walked beneath it, learning.
I want to be better at carrying sorrow.
If my face is a mask, formed over
the shadows that fill me
may I smile on the world like the moon.

     …Ted Kooser

 

Choosing Peace, 2016

statue imageWith the bluster of loud voices swirling in the public space and spewing divisiveness, bigotry, and violence, it is no wonder anyone of us might be feeling anxiety, or even a sense of powerlessness. The news has a certain seductive quality, and our minds react with a desire to know “what is happening,” “who is saying what,” and “how ordinary people are responding.” The irony is that as we are drawn into feeding this desire to know, we are feeding our anxiety and our sense that things are out of control. I know. I have been there.

Most of us do not want to live with the whirling thoughts and energy that this type of activity generates in our systems. So how do we live in the world and still have peaceful minds
and hearts?

Patanjali, in Yoga Sutra II.33 speaks to the state of mental and emotional distress, doubt, confusion, and agitation that emerges when our bodies and minds are overloaded with troubling news and images. He tells us very simply: When harassed by doubt, cultivate the opposite mental attitude. In other words, give up immersing ourselves in what is causing our confusion, distress, and anxiety. Instead, take steps to cultivate what helps us to have a peaceful mind and heart.

To quiet the mind and body we have the 8 – limbs of yoga, which include the practices of yoga postures and breathing techniques. For me, most recently, as an antidote to the disturbing public discourse, I have focused on the ethical principle called ahimsa. Ahimsa is one of five ethical principles, called yama. The yama is the first limb of the eight-limbed path of yoga and its principles are to guide us in our all our relationships and with the world around us: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), moderation (brahmacarya), and non-covetousness (aparigraha).

Ahimsa is considered the most important of the yama and can also be translated as “respect for life” or “abstaining from harm” and implies cultivating an attitude of benevolence and care. So what does the practice of ahimsa look like in our lives?

To start, ahimsa requires us to examine our attitudes and behaviors toward ourselves. Do we treat our bodies, minds, and emotions with an attitude of respect? We can ask ourselves if we are making compassionate choices about our exercise, our yoga practice, our diet, our rest, the TV, media, or films we expose ourselves to, even the relationships we choose to have in our lives. Do we bring harm to our bodies by running in spite of an injured knee or regularly eat fast foods? Do we practice yoga in a way that leaves us breathless or fatigued? Do we watch TV shows or movies where we are exposed to hateful messages or violence? Are we in relationships where we are not respected?

This can be our first step toward practicing an attitude of ahimsa – becoming aware of our attitudes and behaviors toward ourselves and moving away from those which are harmful and toward those which are kind, respectful, and caring. Our self-study can then focus on how we speak and behave toward others, looking at our thoughts, our speech, and our behavior in our relationships with the same kind of questions that we asked about our attitudes toward ourselves.

In the current atmosphere of dissension, intolerance and tension in our country, the practice of ahimsa gives me hope, not just for our own behavior, but also for that of others. Patanjali tells us that when a person is firmly established in living ahimsa with respect for all beings, those who have aggressive impulses or behavior are calmed in his presence.

As more of us come to consciously cultivate ahimsa, perhaps we can act as instruments of peace in the troubled times in which we live, rather than as victims of public animosity.