The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

It’s A Family Affair May 29, 2014

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”  ~ ConfuciusNashvilleGrate(Fall13)

I have written and re-written this blog 1,000 times. In those drafts, I: shared the sad and messy facts about families dealing with aging parents; reprinted my raw and emotional Facebook mini-blogs from February and March, when family matters blew up in Nashville; proved myself right and damned myself for screwing up; expressed devotion, concern and love for my father. Trying to get to the bottom of my unrest about my time in Nashville and my decision to move back to DC, I have examined every confusing corner of the situation.u

As of today, I’ve been back in DC for exactly two months. A few intense Full and New Moons have passed. The spiritual books I’m reading, the yoga classes I’m taking, the life experiences I’m having – they all point in one direction. The mirror is being held up, and I am being invited to look myself in the eye. The universe has been scraping away and wearing me down – in the best way possible. It’s time for change, for good.

At 2:40pm EST yesterday, while I meditated for the New Moon peak, this statement consumed my thoughts, shook me to my core and erased my confusion:

I really must clear my heart of anything but LOVE.

Because in the end, the pain of harboring resentment in my heart is bigger than any original harm. So here, dear friends, is the final draft of this blog.

*  *  *

FORGIVE ME FACEBOOK; IT’S BEEN MORE THAN THREE MONTHS SINCE MY LAST BLOG POST…

One hour after posting my last piece, “Be My Valentine,” my life turned upside down. That afternoon, after a heart-liberating massage, I was glowing with positive energy toward life. Then…unexpected family matters began to abound. And I learned something very important: whereas I’d believed that I moved to Nashville to take care of my aging father until the day he died…I suddenly understood that I was actually visiting Nashville on an important fact-finding mission.

Relatively soon after posting that February blog, I left Nashville to move back to my hometown of Washington, DC. There was no other course but to throw up the white flag, trust that my father would be helped by others and return to the place that historically nourishes and restores me: my true HOME.

During and since my time in Nashville, I have felt angry, harmed, righteous and vengeful. I processed these feelings through my practice, and, with my dear friends and others close to me. I wrote about the situation on Facebook. Now, it’s time to let those feelings go, and, leave that situation in the past. And if the resentments surface again (because they could), I must vow to revisit and re-process them in privacy and with respect, and, in appropriate venues and constructive ways.

I exposed my family’s pain – and by doing so, I caused harm. My Urban Yoga Den page on Facebook is now free of all mentions of my family during those times.

This was a tough pill to swallow…a humbling reality to accept.

As I said, since returning HOME, my reading, my classes and my experiences have been softening my wall of self-justification for processing the family situation so publicly (i.e. family is a part of life, and the Urban Yoga Den talks about life; it’s my personal mission to not hide anything; the blog’s rigorous honesty is in service to others; and – ahem – it’s my retribution for being harmed). With that thin veil of “valid reasons” lifted, I finally saw what was beneath it: I’d been acting on an emotionally twisted mix of desires to be seen as right, to be seen as special, to be seen as healthy, to be seen as good…and also to be seen as pitiful. I wanted to be loved…and also to be outcast. Beyond that? I discovered my desire to “own” my father and to be the “best” daughter. Ugh, why? Because of the undying shame I feel about the debt I owe him, after decades of an unhealthy financial dependence.

And at the heart of all of these discoveries? The most important truth of all: I am terrified of losing my father. I love him more than anyone in the world. I always have.

*  *  *

“Unless we come to understand the self-defeating nature of our own possessiveness, we cannot stop making war.” ~ Pandit Rajmani Tigunait

When I read this sentence from “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace,” I immediately wrote “MY dad” in the margin. I realized that I’d wanted Dad to be “mine.” Forever. Much of the motivation behind my move to Nashville to help my father had come from an intense fear of losing him. Of course, there were so-called “noble” motivations, as well. For instance, my father had helped me emotionally and financially for much of my life. So, I wanted to give back more substantially than before – visiting a few times a year to clean, cook and hang out. Attached to that noble motivation, however, was an underlying feeling of shame, guilt and accountability to a great debt…which also led to the feeling that I had to be there for him, had to do the most for him and had to be the best for him.

It’s complex, I know. It’s family.

What rings true right now, however, are the negative results of my possessiveness. It drove my division with my sisters, it drove my defensiveness with Dad’s community and it even drove my own inner battles when feeling insufficient in serving him.

In his book, Tigunait reminded me, “Yoga simply says, ‘Remember, this whole world with all its objects has evolved from God and still exists in God. Every single object, every single aspect of this world is pervaded by God. Things of the world are given to you as gifts. Learn to enjoy them without becoming attached to them.’ (Isha Upanishad, verse 1)”

“Even people,” I wrote in the margin. My father is God’s gift. He’s not mine at all. Or anyone’s.

“The knowledge that we have these worldly resources at our disposal and yet we are not their owners will protect us from disputes and disagreements,” Tigunait assures. I believe him. I don’t want continued conflict with my family. So, through specific practices and resources, I’m learning to love my father without needing to possess or prove anything to anyone. And that includes transmuting my possessiveness into appreciation for the beauty we’ve shared, feeling gratitude for each current/present moment with him (even if on the phone or through the mail), and, believing that I always do my best in service to him.

It also means releasing my dread of saying goodbye.

*  *  *

“Love and tolerance of others is our code. And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone.” ~ from addiction recovery literature

I admit there is still a part of me that wants to prove – to readers, to friends, to community, to family, to everyone – that I am the good one, that I am right, that I am this or I am that. The fact is: this “I-am-ness” is what separates me from others, creates friction and ends up causing harm. Even saying that I’m bad, that I’m horrible, that I’m unforgiveable (because at times the mood can shift from self-righteousness to self-pity) results in the same separation.

Enough! I am what I am at any given moment, and what others think about me is truly beyond my control and none of my business. Only I must sit with myself and know myself. And in the end, if I truly want to cultivate inner peace and therefore spread peace around me (Ahimsa – non-harming – the essence of all my yogic practices and life intentions), then right/wrong and good/bad cannot matter at all.

Tigunait’s book speaks of world wars. For me, it relates to my own internal, interpersonal and family battles. It’s all the same. Societal wars evolve from individual toxicity. “These subtle problems,” he says, “can be solved neither through political negotiations nor with sermons. They are the subtle causes of our external catastrophes, and the only way to overcome them lies in applying spiritual tools and committing ourselves to the disciplines that lead us to self-transformation. … Such a thing can be done. It requires courage, tolerance, forbearance, endurance, and a total commitment to practice the philosophy one professes… The great scripture, The Bhagavad Gita, says, ‘Peace is priceless. Attain peace at any cost.’”

*  *  *

I crave LOVE. And so I must choose LOVE whole-heartedly.

For decades I failed to live with any principles at all. Presently, thanks to the 12 steps of addiction recovery, the 8 limbs of yoga and additional positive influences, I’ve not only established values; I do my best to live them. I still fail at times. I own, examine and aim to mend my past and current errors. I am human. That’s all I can do.

In one of my March Facebook mini-blogs, I said that I was “burying my wars,” and I meant it. No more family battle tales – they would only feed the cycle of pain. With some space and time between what happened during my seven months in Nashville and this present moment, I can now focus on the silver linings, the lessons learned and the immense personal growth.

It’s time to take the lessons learned in Nashville and apply them to my renewed life, back in my beloved hometown of DC. I have plenty of opportunities to practice healthy “family dynamics” with my friends, new co-workers and community members! Our goal may be to build love and trust, to serve a business mission, and/or to create safer neighborhoods.

Whatever the task, there is a lot at stake in these relationships.

*  *  *

OMMM…
SAHANA VAVATU
SAHANAU BHUNAKTU
SAHA VIRIYAM KARAVAVAHAI
TEJAS VINAVADHITA MASTU MAVID
VISHA VAHAI HI
OM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTI.

DCYogaNook(Mar14)OMMM…
May we be protected together.
May we be nourished together.
May we work together with great energy.
May our study together be enlightening.
May there be no hatred between us.
OM peace peace peace.

The rich stories, ideology and practices of yoga can provide a framework for positive interactions and outcomes. This yogic prayer has been a fixture in my daily practice for months now. Sometimes I would leave a recording of it on ‘repeat’ and listen to it softly all day and night. It helped decrease my upset about family matters in Nashville, it helped through my transition back to DC, and it helps in my renewed life with its very normal interpersonal challenges. Coming from this past year’s bumps and bruises, my fears of being harmed and/or of losing something valuable can make me hyper-sensitive at times. Hah, go figure – this work is still at the roots of my greatest growth. Thankfully, I’m HOME, where my “family-of-choice” is cheering me onward and upward. After rising from the fire of my Nashville experience, I feel stronger than ever, and ready to keep growing.

In my ideal “family,” there is honesty, openness, acceptance and support. There is hardship, challenge and pain. Discomfort and willingness coexist – as do care and anger. Together, we protect, we nourish, we work, we study, and above all, we LOVE.

Thanks for reading – and, thanks for being part of my family. OM Shanti.

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Spring Break (Through) March 21, 2013

JoyKid(Dec09)I think I am finally back to my old self.  The one that smiles lovingly, that adores humanity, that feels her body, heart and soul energized by everything in this crazy, amazing, beautiful life.

Welcome back, Holly.  Welcome back.  Stick around.

Phew, what a winter!  I feel like I am waking up from a bad dream.  So to speak.  “Bad dream” is a funny statement for me.  I believe that all dreams – no matter how scary, disturbing or strange – are good dreams.  “Bad” dreams arise to liberate the subconscious, to release darkness from that deeply buried storage space, to shed light on what needs to be seen, and therefore, to relieve us of unreasonable fears or destructive patterns.

Just like the dark phases of waking life.

So, I am looking back at December 2012 through February 2013 as a period of awakening.  As rough as that process felt, with its intense swings, shifts and losses, I am embracing the experience the same way I would embrace my most adored teacher.  Some lessons are harder than others.

This peaceful contentment did not arrive overnight.  The shift started to happen once I honestly admitted (to myself and others) the pain of harboring resentments so fierce, I felt victimized.  It was humbling but freeing to finally see how far into negative emotion my skipping and/or stepping back from healthy practices had taken me.  Emotionally, I was not myself.  No.  Wait.  I don’t want to deny any part of my Self.  I was feeling victimized (a normal part of humanness); and, because I was not taking good care of myself, those feelings hijacked my inward state and outward actions.

I’m neither negating nor celebrating the pattern of feeling like crap and acting accordingly!  I am, rather, honoring the value of being present for and going through difficult phases – as messy as that process can be – rather than hiding, ignoring, stuffing or denying the causes of those dark times.  These past winter months were a nightmare.  At the same time – I was wide awake.  I looked squarely at the situation and took action.  Using yoga, recovery and related practices and resources (see “Love: Anger’s Remedy” for an exhaustive list of pro-active solutions), I reverse-hijacked my Self and gradually trudged back to where I want to be!

To trudge is “to walk with purpose.”  Sometimes, a purposeful gait is the only way through challenge.  Ass dragging or legs sprinting, the trip is always one step at a time.  And of course – it helps to have strong hiking partners.  Grateful to all whom “enjoyed” the journey with me.

Today, I feel lighter.  I tenderly cradle the parts of me that wrestled and wrangled through December, January and February.  I offer myself forgiveness, compassion and love.  And as I meander through my neighborhood, through this city, through the world…I offer the same to all around me.

It feels great to be walking in my favorite shoes again.

Happy Spring, y’all!  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

 

Compassion for Killers, Revisited December 14, 2012

“For as long as space endures and the world exists, may my own existence bring about the end of suffering in the world.”

– Shantideva (8th Century Indian Buddhist Scholar)

ResponsibilityEnergy(June12)*  *  *

I cannot dwell in resentment.  Because if I do, I am only adding to the pain of the world.

In light of today’s tragedy in Connecticut, I have compiled some segments from a few of my past pieces about Ahimsa (avoidance of violence) and about aphorism 1.33 from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Wishing you a mind, heart and soul free of resentment.  Ahimsa Now.  OM Shanti.

*  *  *

From “Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention – The Final Word,” July 10, 2012

Ahimsa Now.  I just spent 100 days exploring violence, its patterns, its causes and the tools for avoiding it.  (For background, see “The Roots of ‘Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention’” at the bottom of this post.)

What rings true in all of my observations and experiences – when someone is in pain, that person is likely to inflict pain on others.  This is on my mind today, as I consider the news from Aurora, Colorado.  What pains a man so deeply that he must kill?  I am always saddened not only for the victims of violence, but also for those who commit such harm.

I grieve over the profound presence of pain and the cycle of hurting others in our world.

How can I – one breath, one thought, one action, one day at a time – observe, address, process and decrease my own pain in order to decrease the cycle of violence?  How can I modify my actions and interactions to aim high, and to cultivate kindness, acceptance, tolerance, understanding, compassion, love?  This is tough, deep and challenging work.  Ask any of my very kind, accepting, tolerant, understanding, compassionate, loving friends who have been the recipients of my overreactions when I am triggered into great fear or pain.

MorningSadhanaList(July12)I am not trying to be “perfect,” but I do feel responsible for my behavior.  And although often weary from the work, I am committed to discovering and using the tools and practices to cultivate a less reactive, more peaceful Holly.

Once I have those tools and practices in place – and try to use them with the humanness of fallibility, honesty, humility and forgiveness – how can I help decrease, process and decrease the pain of those around me?  Can I influence family, friends, neighbors or strangers?

I can only start by using yoga and other tools that nourish my own inner peace.  By committing to these practices.  Never skipping them.  It’s just too essential.  When I feel peaceful, I share that peace with those around me.  As I maintain accountability for feeding a cycle of peace, that energy inevitably vibrates outward.

I believe that one breath, one thought, one action, one day and one person at a time, this violent world will be touched.  Pain will diminish.  And acts of violence will no longer occupy our hearts, minds, lives.

Ahimsa Now.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

The Roots of “Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention”

“Ahimsa” is a Sanskrit word meaning, “Avoidance of Violence.”  It is mentioned in many ancient texts, including the Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms handed down by yogic sage Patanjali approximately 5- to 7-thousand years ago.  In the Sutras, Ahimsa is one of the “Yama” – five recommended abstentions, or rules of conduct rooted in abstinence.  The five Yama comprise the first limb of Patanjali’s prescribed Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Avoidance of something takes great effort.  And if violence were not naturally inherent in human beings, we wouldn’t have to try to avoid it.  So, dreaming of launching “Ahimsa Now” – a nonprofit whose mission is rooted in Ahimsa – my responsibility is to come to understand the human impulse toward violence, and, to explore every available practice that impedes that impulse.

So from April 5 through July 13, 2012, I committed to a 100-day exploration of Ahimsa.  And after July 13th, I will continue to share my series of “Peace Tools” – practices for cultivating dependable inner peace and living with accountability.  Thanks for coming along.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

*  *  *

From “Infinite Compassion,” June 28, 2012

THWL1(18June2011,HandsCrop)The world is full of violence.  And in my experience and observations, people commit violence when they themselves are hurting.

One of my friends says, “Violence is not natural for the atma, the spiritual being who is having a human experience.”  But I believe that we are spiritual and human at once – there is no separation.  To me, it seems that if the ancients created a word for “avoidance of violence” (“Ahimsa”), then they knew and accepted that violence was a natural part of being alive.  And therefore yoga – whose goal is to remove disturbances of the mind and whose result is inner peace – presented a system of practices for avoiding causing harm.

One of those practices is compassion.

*  *  *

From “Boy, 9, Dies from Gunshot Wound,” November 16, 2009

A grim headline for a yoga blog.

I was preparing to write a piece about cultivating compassion toward the cat callers who hassle me as I walk to the studio.  Instead I’m writing a piece about cultivating compassion toward killers.

Last night, as I returned home after dinner, I heard sirens, saw a SWAT helicopter circling and sensed that something beyond the typical robbery had happened in our ‘hood.  The DC police officer who guards our lobby told me that just minutes before, a child had been shot in his own home.  I went to sleep wondering whether he was alive.

Then, today’s news confirmed: 9-year-old Oscar Fuentes died after being struck by a stray bullet (* see Correction, below) from the hallway outside of his family’s apartment.

Thankfully, I … remembered to use my yogic tools in order to cultivate compassion.

Here’s my POV.  When I dwell in anger or hatred, resentment consumes me.  I lose my ability to smile through the day, to relate to my loved ones, to be of service where needed.  In this self-centered, negative state, I perpetuate pain.  And when I dwell in pain, I inevitably hurt others.  I believe it is this pattern of being in pain and hurting others that sparks any cycle of violence – from domestic violence to neighborhood killings to world war.

GentleShakeTheWorldGhandi(Dec12)So, when facing the horrific trauma of violence, how can we be true to our emotions, but not live in resentment?  In his commentary on Patanjali’s ancient yogic scriptures, Swami Satchidananda says, “Remember, our goal is to keep the serenity of our minds.”  Whether interested in yoga or not, he says, one tool will help anyone maintain peacefulness through anything.

Sutra 1:33: “By cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight toward the virtuous and indifference toward the non-virtuous, the mind retains undisturbed calmness.”  This tool is known as the four locks and keys.

To use this approach regarding Oscar Fuentes’ death, consider “compassion for the unhappy.”  I would guess that something created a pain-driven unhappiness in the killer long before this crime.  And I certainly have compassion for people who are in pain.  So, I categorize all gun-wielding criminals as painfully unhappy and therefore try to cultivate compassion for them.

And what about the fourth lock and key?  “Indifference toward the non-virtuous.”  Killing is certainly not a virtuous act.  To address this, I’ll adapt from a book called “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by scholar and philosopher Pandit Tigunait.

To label a person as “bad” or non-virtuous, the judgmental part of our personality comes forward.  In judgment, we distance or withdraw from that person.  Alienation sets the stage for violence.  To change this pattern is to change our own attitude – and cultivate indifference toward the deed, not the doer.  Cultivating indifference toward a human being damages our sensitivity and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness and love.

I choose to say, “That person’s actions are harmful, but I will regard the human behind them as unhappy and therefore have compassion.”

Practicing yogic tools does not spare me of my own humanness.  I’m still crying and will probably cry for a while.  A larger grief includes tears for people who have experienced so much pain in life, their only tool is to harm others.  I think I cry the hardest for them.

May all beings be filled with peace, joy, love and light.  AHIMSA NOW.

(* Correction: Monday, 16 November.  Oscar Fuentes was killed by a bullet that was intentionally fired through his family’s front door from the hallway.)

*  *  *

From “Compassion for Killers,” November 17, 2009

“Compassion for the unhappy.”  “Indifference toward non-virtous acts.” – Sutra 1:33

So here I am, again practicing the locks and keys of Sutra 1:33 (see “Boy, 9, Dies…” post for details).  This morning, 26-year-old Josue Peña was arrested for killing 9-year-old Oscar Fuentes a few nights ago.  (* see Update below)  Immediately, I thought, “Josue Peña must be in some kind of pain in order to shoot-to-kill.”  That’s simply where my heart and mind go when I hear about violent crimes.  I know too much about pain’s ability to turn intentions horribly sour.

But I wasn’t always able to access compassion regarding violence.  It’s taken years for my anger about such crimes to soften – and partially from necessity.  As I’ve mentioned before, resentment is a killer for me.  It sucks away my joy and can turn me dangerously destructive – self and otherwise.  So I had to find tools to express my anger, and then promptly transition to more empathic and forgiving feelings toward criminals.

If Sutra 1:33 just isn’t cutting it for you when it comes to killers, check out the “Charter for Compassion” (re-printed below).

When Inter-Faith leader Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize in February, 2008, she made a wish: for help creating, launching and propagating a Charter for Compassion. Since that day, thousands of people contributed to the process so that last week the Charter could be unveiled to the world.

My favorite line in the Charter, regarding responding to violence with compassion, is: “To cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.”  Visit the awe-inspiring and interactive website at http://charterforcompassion.org/ Or, check out the Charter’s text, below.

If you still feel negative feelings toward Josue Peña and other killers…know that you are human.  And that’s A-OK with me.  Still, I urge you to consider finding room in your heart for empathy, understanding and compassion.

Wishing you truth-to-self…and liberation from resentment.  OM Shanti.

(* Update: A few days after being incarcerated, Josue Peña hung himself in his prison cell.  No further comment.)

CHARTER FOR COMPASSION

A call to bring the world together…

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

Me June09We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

(reprinted from charterforcompassion.org)

 

The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days! December 8, 2011

“Whoever is happy will make others happy too.  He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery.”  – Anne Frank

My whole body is vibrating.

Just now, I lit my 100th stick of “Happy Heart” incense and repeated the words I’ve said each morning since August 28th – “My intention today is to grow toward joy.”  Today the intention felt larger, more expansive than a practiced Sankalpa or resolution.  Today, that statement felt like a responsibility.
Instead of re-hashing my entire journey from August forward, I invite you to check out my “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” and other blogs I wrote along the way.  It’s been quite a trip, and at times a stumble.  Over time, The Project became more than a simple morning ritual.  It motivated more effort than I’ve ever made in my decades of spiritual practice.

I don’t do any of this for myself.  By “any of this” I mean the 100-day rituals, the blogging, the yoga, the recovery work, the healing practices.  Well, OK, yes.  First I do it for myself – so I can transform, strengthen.  But only so I can share experiences with, pass-on resources to, show up for and be of service to others.

*  *  *

“It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.  For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.”  – Anonymous

Resentment is ongoing anger or bitterness due to insult or injury.  The etymological root of the word simplifies the meaning even more: a repeated feeling.  Any feeling.  So a resentment could be full of anger or fear, pride or longing.  The fact is, if we are re-feeling something related to a past experience, clearly, we are unable to live in the present.  Our past pains or even successes haunt us.  We are shut off.

I consider myself a happy person.  Someone who leans toward the light.  Generally, I am able to accept life’s ups and downs while maintaining a hopeful and positive attitude.

This summer, after a mugging in June I had a series of PTSD responses that magnified negative stories, limited beliefs and destructive patterns cultivated from what seemed like a lifetime of unresolved trauma.  I was harboring major resentments – against past aggressors, against myself, against the world.  By August, I’d become hopeless.  It was a dark, dark time.

*  *  *

“It is through practicing and living through a series of agreeable and disagreeable situations that we attain full awakening.”  – Suzuki Roshi, author and Zen Master

Over the past 100 days, one of my foundational beliefs was constantly validated: Moving toward joy does not mean escaping pain, avoiding discomfort nor skirting around darkness.  It means greeting that pain, discomfort and darkness with an informed reality instead of habitual despair.  It means digging deep to reach that informed reality, to trudge toward the answers, to sit in the messiness, to look straight at the fears and patterns.  It means surrendering to help and change instead of resigning to the same old despair, depression and rage.

In life there is ease, there is tranquility and there is light…and at times, there is not.  In that very acceptance, I can cultivate happiness.  I can experience joy.  And with strong, committed and consistent effort, the habitual despair can be completely undone.

As Roshi says, it takes “practicing” and “living.”

Burning a stick of incense each morning was a tiny and symbolic gesture.  Although the repeated intention that accompanied that act truly set the wheel in motion, reinforcing a Sankalpa involves much more than words.

Over the past 100 days, there were layers and layers of practices and life.  There was the changing of seasons; there was an Ayurvedic diet for Pitta Pacification; there were increased actions in my recovery program and the huge exhale when reaching nine years clean and sober; there was daily 5:30am Sadhana of prayer, Pranayama and meditation; there were willing visits to medical professionals who specialize in PTSD and related conditions; there was the swallowing of unusual vitamins and supplements; there were specific songs that I listened to and sang until sobbing from liberation; there was soulful abandon during concerts by spiritual songwriters and chanters; there were awkward moments with trusted friends, reunions with old pals and exciting connections with new soul mates; there was immersion in the Occupy movement’s writings and videos in order to challenge my own fears of conflict and solidly reinforce my purpose of peace; there were the Jewish High Holy Days, with their sorrow, atonement, forgiveness and love; there were transformational workshops, retreats and classes with Seane Corn, Max Strom, Amy Barnes, Corrine Champigny and many others; there was the glowing Hindu holiday of Diwali, with its stories of the triumph of light over darkness.

What a trip.  And it was 100% worth it.  Because now, not only have I ceased fighting everything and everyone, I have also come to profoundly accept, appreciate and stop apologizing for my humanness.

“May we live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.”  – Rachel Meyer, yoga teacher

*  *  *

“May all the sky be pervaded by great bliss.

“If suffering, I bear the suffering of all beings.

“May the ocean of samsara’s suffering dry up.”

My soundtrack for this 100th moment is the traditional Buddhist Offering Chant, quoted above, and sung tenderly by Lama Gyurme in the video below.  As I write, the Happy Heart sends its wafts of rose, rosewood, geranium, cubeb, oakmoss, lavender and patchouli smoke throughout my space.

To me – no matter how much I live and practice through all conditions – it would seem miraculous to reach a bliss like Nirvana or Samadhi or Enlightenment, where I would completely transcend my own suffering, cease carrying and contributing to the suffering of all, and ultimately, experience the end of Samsara – the earthly cycle of birth, decay, death.

What I can grasp, however, is Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s simple take on attaining a “higher” state: “Enlightenment is a very grand word for fundamental happiness.  Your life becomes a path of awakening or a path of becoming enlightened.”

*  *  *

“What is important is not to have a goal but to see if our daily existence has a meaning in itself.”  – J. Krishnamurti, philosopher and author

Note that my daily statement was, “My intention today is to grow toward joy,”  not, “I want to be happy forever.”  The Project reinforced that life is truly One Day At A Time.  Gradual.  Forgiving and honest.  If today I don’t feel joy, I can try again tomorrow.

There is no goal, only intention, reinforced frequently, through a process of openness, willingness, action and growth.

*  *  *

“The spiritual life is not a theory.  We have to live it.”  – Anonymous

Simply said.  The Happy Heart Project does not end here, at the 100-day mark.

Great gratitude to the numerous teachers who appeared along the way, in so many shapes and forms.  Yoga students, yoga teachers, friends, family, strangers, co-workers, ankle-biters, outright attackers.  Road trips, songs, trees, Asana, injuries, deities.

All mirrors, all messengers.

*  *  *

May all beings find the courage and faith to grow through misery and toward joy.  Thank you for sharing the journey.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

*  *  *

*  *  *

THE HAPPY HEART PROJECT.  Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28, 2011 I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” – an effort to document my daily journey away from an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness and toward the hopeful light of happiness.  For 100 days from 8/28 through 12/5, I woke up, burned a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Nearly each day I posted a “Happy Heart Project” status (and sometimes an accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then saw what happened during the day.  Even though the 100 DAYS are over, it’s not too late to choose one simple heartfelt ritual for your morning, intend to practice it daily, “Like” Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing from time to time!

 

My Mother is My Guru November 2, 2011

Mom’s been on my mind a lot lately.

And y’know, it makes sense.  I’ve been singing a lot (my mother taught me to sing).  It’s Autumn (October 2nd would have been her 81st birthday).  Thanksgiving is approaching (my family celebrated our last holiday season with Mom 10 years ago).  And I recently celebrated my 9th year clean and sober (my mom died as a result of long-term alcoholism).

I miss her.  I miss her right now.

Nearly a decade after her death, she still taps me on the shoulder at times.  She taps me when I’m playing percussion with bands, chanting devotional prayers at Kirtans, singing Gospel standards at open mics and lighting the Chanukah candles.  She taps me when my yoga instructor asks me to think of my most important life teacher.  She tapped me this morning while I was meditating.  She taps me when I’m pruning plants or arranging flowers.  She taps me when I’m decorating my home.  She taps me when I’m cooking a soup.

There are times when I reach out to tap her, too.  To hear her opinion.  To ask for her embrace.  To thank her for my life.  To apologize for any harm I did to her.  To grieve the pain of her life.  To send her the love she deserves.

I didn’t always love my mom the way I came to love her later in my life…later in her life…and then after she died.

*  *  *

I’m about to tell you some very personal and difficult stories.  Some are smiling and shiny; some are gritty and rough.  All are bittersweet.  I’ve selected these stories because they specifically prove that, indeed, my mother is the greatest Guru ever.  For me.

When I was young I hated my mother for being an alcoholic.  As an adult, I would learn more about the disease of alcoholism and honor the tragedy of her life.  But while growing up, I simply resented how drunk she got.   I was constantly afraid that my friends and the community would see her drunk; and because they frequently saw her, I was frequently embarrassed.  One time I spilled out the drink that she intended to take in the car on our way to Shabbat services – and she slapped me.  It was a gin martini.  To this day, I cannot stomach the smell of gin.

There were times when she came through as a great mother.  She was a hard worker, had full-time jobs, and did not drink during the day.  She truly wanted to show up, and when she could, she did.   But what I understand now is that her efforts to parent were overshadowed by the neglect.  In the end, alcohol always won her attention and became her priority.  Spill it out, and you became a threat.  So I learned to keep a distance.

*  *  *

During my college years, I grew to appreciate my mother.  My attitude shifted after I took my family to see a friend’s concert.  The next day at lunch, my friend said, “It was great to meet your mom.  For the longest time, I thought she’d died before we met.  You always talked about your dad – you never mentioned your mom.”  Whoa.  I had no idea I’d erased her so completely.  And then my friend said, “Y’know, you get a lot from her.”  I was so pissed off!  I argued, “No way, I have nothing in common with her!”  So he stated the obvious, judging by what I had told him in the rare instances of speaking about my mom, and his impression the night before.  She grew up singing; music is her passion; she gravitates toward soul music; she loves talking with other musicians; and, she was so comfortable backstage – it was the most natural place she could be.

That day, I surrendered my resentment and admitted that my mother had been an ally and soul-mate all along.  Clearly, I got a lot from her!  The passion for music, for soulful cultures, for gardening, for cooking, for interior design, for spirituality.  My mother taught me to sing, primarily through chanting the Sh’ma, a Jewish prayer, in harmony.

My mother did so much to inspire and encourage creativity.  Every morning, she’d have her coffee and cigarette while listening to WMAL-AM, when it was a jazz station.  Over breakfast I was exposed to the music that my mom had sung in talent shows and concerts – great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and more.  Although a blue eyed farm girl from the capitol of country music, my mom gravitated toward jazz and gospel.  In fact, I have her 1948 song book of Negro Spirituals.  This immersion in soulful music influenced me to write my own songs and perform them at my parents’ frequent parties.  Mom enrolled me in voice lessons.  On beach trips, she’d blast the radio and we’d all sing along.  She invited my high school New Wave band to hold a house concert.  When I was a little older, my drummer boyfriend invited me to tour California with his band – Dad said a firm “no” but Mom fought for me.  (I went to Cali.)  And so on.

At the same time, many opportunities were missed.  For example, there was a lot of self-taught musicianship and talent that was never deepened with consistent instruction or plans for ongoing development.  I do regret this and often feel that music education might have been my best choice for college.  Looking back, I don’t blame my mom for any of this, because I am certain she would have guided me in that direction if she could have.  I blame the disease of alcoholism.

*  *  *

As my mom became progressively ill, my love for her grew immensely.  Alcoholism and related troubles continued to take its toll in more serious ways.  In her 60s, Mom had cancer three times.  On the outside, she remained the strong-willed woman who could get through anything.  She continued planting gardens, harvesting herbs, cooking from scratch, building an art studio in her bedroom, doing crafts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin.

But there were points where I witnessed her heartbreaking vulnerability.  With each cancer, my mother never completely healed – more and more complications arose.  She became scared.  I once heard her crying in bed the night before one of her many surgeries.  When she was diagnosed with emphysema, she quit smoking and remarked with self-disgust, “I could have done that a long time ago.”  She would willingly try my yoga and diet suggestions, but was so sick that she’d end up feeling worse.  Toward the end, I remember laying next to her tired body on yet another day that she woke up with a “bug” that left her vomiting and weakened.  I will never forget the terror in her eyes when I urged her to go to the hospital.  Perhaps she knew she was dying and wanted to stay at home as long as possible.

That was Thanksgiving, 10 years ago.  I think the family dinner included Mom, Dad, two of my sisters, three of their kids and me.  That night, in my mom’s art studio, I drew an abstract of the scene.  My mother and father were angels at the heads of the table – Mom’s garden spade and a green vine enveloped us on one side; Dad’s cigar and its smoke on the other.  To me, both the vine and the smoke represented protection.  I sensed it was Mom’s last Thanksgiving.  I was right.

*  *  *

After my mom died, I developed a deep, knowing compassion for her.  Interestingly enough, I got sober six months after her death.  I’d started drinking at age 11, to calm the childhood chaos and hush the deep resentments.  Twenty five years later, as I came to understand the cunning, baffling and powerful disease that nearly killed me, I also came to understand the disease that succeeded in killing my mom.  Listening to other recovering alcoholics’ speak, I heard my mom’s story.  I saw how the disease had destroyed her life and consequently affected mine.  And I loved her even more.

My greatest awakening about my mom’s life came about four years ago.  By complete surprise, I found out that she had a child before meeting my father.  Stories said that she’d been hanging out with musicians in her native Nashville, might have been drinking, might have been raped…and ended up pregnant.  Her parents sent her away, to a “home for women” in DC.  The home arranged the birth and subsequent adoption.  They say that Mom was so angry, she never forgave her parents.  And so I found yet another thing that my mother and I had in common – we both drank to kill life’s pain and drown our resentments.

The biggest difference is: I got lucky and got sober; she did not.  I take that very, very seriously.

*  *  *

So yes, my mother is my Guru.  Throughout all the phases of my relationship with her – dead and alive – she has been my most influential teacher.  She teaches me with the light, and she teaches me from the darkness.  She teaches me through what she did, and what she would/could/did not do.  Her influence drives my passions and my purpose.

I love everything about her.  The singing lessons, the slaps, the strong will, the vulnerability.  She is the ultimate model of the perfectly imperfect human that I strive to be.

It’s taken me a day to write this.  I started when I finished meditating this morning.  I stopped and started and stopped and started again.  I cried my heart out.  There’s so much more than what you’ve read above, so many more experiences and stories, so much more grief and love.

*  *  *

Back in 2009, I went on tour with a folk-pop band and I took along a photo of my mom.  I’ve heard that the picture was taken in DC, at the women’s home, some time after she had the baby. She is beautiful and glamorous; she is too thin and her eyes look cold; she stands tall and her hands fumble with each other self-consciously. So I wanted to take this version of her on this exciting musical journey. Every night before I went to sleep, I lit a candle and thanked my mom.  I now play percussion and sing sacred chants in an all-female Kirtan group.  I’ve noticed that Kirtan leaders and spiritual teachers typically create an altar with a picture of their Guru.  Coming full circle, I can think of no one more perfect to place on my altar than the woman who sang Hebrew prayers with me, every night at bedtime.

Good night, Mom.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

“Boy, 9, Dies from Gunshot Wound” November 16, 2009

Filed under: Compassion,Integral Yoga,Yoga,Yoga Sutras — Holly Meyers @ 3:56 am
Tags: , , , ,

A grim headline for a yoga blog.

I was preparing to write a piece about cultivating compassion toward the cat callers who hassle me as I walk to the studio.  Instead I’m writing a piece about cultivating compassion toward killers.

Last night, as I returned home after dinner, I heard sirens, saw a SWAT helicopter circling and sensed that something beyond the typical robbery had happened in our ‘hood.  The DC police officer who guards our lobby told me that just minutes before, a child had been shot in his own home.  I went to sleep wondering whether he was alive.

Then, today’s news confirmed: 9-year-old Oscar Fuentes died after being struck by a stray bullet (*) from the hallway outside of his family’s apartment.

This past spring, I taught yoga to grades K-7 at a school for children with learning and other disabilities.  Most came from seriously challenged family lives.  During Spring Break, one of our students, 11-year-old Erik Harper, was murdered in his home.  The Friday before the holiday, I promised Erik that he could co-teach the next yoga class for his group.  On Saturday, he was dead.

Last night’s killing stirred up memories of Erik’s death – and a grief for all involved in the loss of Oscar Fuentes.  I started to feel really angry about the violence in the world today.  Thankfully, I also remembered to use my yogic tools in order to cultivate compassion.

Here’s my POV.  When I dwell in anger or hatred, resentment consumes me.  I lose my ability to smile through the day, to relate to my loved ones, to be of service where needed.  In this self-centered, negative state, I perpetuate pain.  And when I dwell in pain, I inevitably hurt others.  I believe it is this pattern of being in pain and hurting others that sparks any cycle of violence – from domestic violence to neighborhood killings to world war.

So, when facing the horrific trauma of violence, how can we be true to our emotions, but not live in resentment?  In his commentary on Patanjali’s ancient yogic scriptures, Swami Satchidananda says, “Remember, our goal is to keep the serenity of our minds.”  Whether interested in yoga or not, he says, one tool will help anyone maintain peacefulness through anything.

Sutra 1:33: “By cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight toward the virtuous and indifference toward the non-virtuous, the mind retains undisturbed calmness.”  This tool is known as the four locks and keys.

To use this approach regarding Oscar Fuentes’ death, consider “compassion for the unhappy.”  I would guess that something created a pain-driven unhappiness in the killer long before this crime.  And I certainly have compassion for people who are in pain.  So, I categorize all gun-wielding criminals as painfully unhappy and therefore try to cultivate compassion for them.

And what about the fourth lock and key?  “Indifference toward the non-virtuous.”  Killing is certainly not a virtuous act.  To address this, I’ll adapt from a book called “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by scholar and philosopher Pandit Tigunait.

To label a person as “bad” or non-virtuous, the judgmental part of our personality comes forward.  In judgment, we distance or withdraw from that person.  Alienation sets the stage for violence.  To change this pattern is to change our own attitude – and cultivate indifference toward the deed, not the doer.  Cultivating indifference toward a human being damages our sensitivity and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness and love.

I choose to say, “That person’s actions are harmful, but I will regard the human behind them as unhappy and therefore have compassion.”

Practicing yogic tools does not spare me of my own humanness.  I’m still crying and will probably cry for a while.  A larger grief includes tears for people who have experienced so much pain in life, their only tool is to harm others.  I think I cry the hardest for them.

May all beings be filled with peace, joy, love and light.  AHIMSA NOW.

(*) – Correction: Monday, 16 November.  Oscar Fuentes was killed by a bullet that was intentionally fired through his family’s front door from the hallway.

JusticePark(Nov09)

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