Never is a mighty long time

Nora with Cat.

I have a person in my life, one who is very dear to me, and I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out just what she should do to resolve the issues that cause her so much trouble. From the outside, it’s seems kind of obvious. The thing is, every time I’ve made a suggestion or pointed out what she’s doing to cause her own troubles, the advice doesn’t land. She resists doing the very thing that I think would help her to improve her situation. She isn’t ready or willing. The time isn’t right. Or perhaps, the answer needs to come from within her instead of from me.

It’s also possible that she is engaged in her own very personal process that I’m just not privy to, precisely because it’s that… personal. And it is also possible that there is something at work in her life even if it doesn’t look like a spiritual path. Because there are those early days of one’s spiritual journey—times that feel so difficult or painful that something has to change.   Or those days when it seems like we are doing everything ‘right’ but still something is missing. Sometimes something happens, something significant, and touches us in a way that can no longer be explained with any explanation that we’ve used in the past and there’s a spark.  There’s an opening to something outside of ourself.

Why was our tool created to be so messy? Particularly for those who aren’t willing to do the work, will they never find a spiritual path?

This question, posed by KP some weeks ago, left me to consider, if someone isn’t willing to do the work to look at him or herself, then they aren’t willing. I’d say willingness is a requirement to engaging with a spiritual path.  But just because it appears that someone isn’t willing doesn’t mean that it’s so.  All sorts of things are at work in people’s inner lives. I’ve had to learn to trust that people are on their path, and it isn’t my work to be the instrument of someone else’s transformation.  See my loved ones where they are.  Just do that.

Maybe this question is really about the accessibility of spirituality. If the process of connecting to something spiritual inside of us is difficult, is it possible that it is too difficult for some? And if it, say yoga, isn’t available to everyone, then is that a system that I want to engage with? Is this non-egalitarian pursuit something to put my faith in and try hard to practice and learn?

I’ve seen that if someone is willing then there is a way, and yoga, or another spiritual path, is accessible to anyone who’s willing, whatever their starting point. It’s a one-step-at-a-time kind of thing and you take the first step from where you are and in a way that is meaningful to you. Then you head somewhere. You go in a direction and end up in a place that you haven’t been before.

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Too busy for spiritual practice

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Even a van halen concert can be a part of spiritual practice.

I tend toward busy-ness. If I let auto-pilot take over and I’m not paying attention, over-busy is what happens around here. I have a way of generating tasks and activities so that I get the satisfaction of checking something off of a list, even if the list is kind of lame. I guess this stems from an early-childhood belief that if I’m busy, I’m also productive, though this has not proven to be true.

Staying busy is also a way that I avoid stuff I don’t want to feel or I put off things I don’t want to do. “How can I possibly take on a self-improvement project?  I’m already overwhelmed.”  If I’m working under low-grade anxiety about getting everything done or always anticipating what comes next, then I don’t have much space to contemplate a conversation in which I was careless or to address the nagging feeling that I’m steering off my path. I just keep moving.

I received this comment from Sept. 17th’s post, ‘We are all trying to figure out how to suffer less.’ “At least for me, to find and follow a real spiritual path takes a LOT of work and time – sifting through all the stuff that gets in the way – with constant attention and discipline.” When expressed in this way, I think spiritual practice sounds too hard to tackle amidst what’s already a busy and full life. And yet, that hasn’t been my experience.

A balanced, meaningful, and spiritual life doesn’t come from generating busy work or accomplishing 100 tasks every day. More is not better.  I’m most satisfied with my life when I can listen and laugh with my girls or be totally tuned in when my husband comes in for a sweet hug and kiss. I get a really good connected feeling from pulling weeds and taking care of my garden. This stuff requires stillness, presence, and time and an ability to sift through all the stuff that gets in the way, as KP says so beautifully. Yes it does.

KP is right. Following a spiritual path does take effort. Some regular practice is necessary. A yoga practice, time spent in prayer, reflective writing… these are some of the ways we take to connect to something higher. Even though there’s some effort and time involved, there’s something special about time devoted to one’s spiritual life. Meaningful time spent in this way pays back by offering a more mindful, and present me during the rest of the day. Because I take the time to be conscious and intentional in the morning, I’m less likely to feel like I have to hustle. I have less anxiety. On the best days, I’m focused, present, and more aware.

This time spent connecting with a peaceful presence and in self-reflection sets us up to have days in which we are more peaceful and self-aware. We might aim for constant attention in our activities, but a gradual approach is probably a better way to develop a spiritual practice. We progressively develop patterns of attention so the reflexive and habitual responses don’t run on auto. This takes time and practice. But the practice is a part of the day.  How we spend our time and approach our daily tasks becomes a part of our spiritual path.

You are not your body, you are in your body

sage

Reading this post makes me curious: why do you think the tool we have to discover follow our spiritual path, the self, as you argue here, is so flawed? At least for me, to find and follow a real spiritual path takes a LOT of work and time – sifting through all the stuff that gets in the way – with constant attention and discipline. Why was our tool created to be so messy? Particularly for those who aren’t willing to do the work, will they never find a spiritual path?

KP submitted this comment on last week’s blog. I love it because is a perfect entrée into some of the deeper philosophical teachings of yoga. This comment touches on some really big questions about why we are here, why we suffer, and what do we do about it.

The yoga sūtras lay out the philosophical underpinnings to a yogic perspective. This perspective is one that can help us to begin to see ourselves and the world around more clearly so that we suffer less. There’s a lot to the text and I’ve only begun to dip my toe in, but as I study with my teacher and consider the ideas and practices in the yoga sūtras, I’m amazed at how relevant and how useful it all is.

So here’s a little reflection on the first part of KP’s comment. I’m thinking about the other parts of the comment for upcoming posts. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Reading this post makes me curious: why do you think the tool we have to discover follow our spiritual path, the self, as you argue here, is so flawed?

We have a body (mind, spirit, emotions, personality/material aspect) and we have something else. Something that observes. Something that dwells within this material, changing aspect of ourselves. Because we perceive and do everything with and through the body, we can confuse it with the observer. The body is not who we really are.

But here’s the crux… It’s through the body, more specifically the mind, that we can start to perceive the difference between the changing aspects of our self and the thing that doesn’t change. Yoga gives us a way to improve our attention so we can tune in to this should we choose. But why would we choose to look at stuff that’s unpleasant and hard?  When everything is going along swimmingly, we probably aren’t as motivated to look at ourselves, our patterns, unmet needs, and a whole host of other difficult questions.  Most of us just keep swimming along because, Hey,  it’s working fine. It’s when some suffering arises, in the myriad of ways that it tends to do, that we start to look for a solution. That we develop the attention so that we can pay attention. When things really suck, we have a special motivation to observe and change our perspective (or at least how we operate) to a way that is less painful.

The tool (body, mind, etc.) is the way we perceive the suffering, and what motivates us to have less of it.  It’s by working with this tool, refining it, that we can develop a change in perspective so we have more peace.

We are all trying to figure out how to suffer less

Austin TX yellow mushroom

I was talking to a friend of mine after dinner the other day and as the table cleared of plates and people, our conversation turned to the spiritual question of how each of us can have less suffering. He’s spent a lot of his years seeking answers to this question and, of course, I’m very interested in this topic myself. He shared some of his past experiences and where he’s at now. He asked about yoga therapy, wondering how I work with the people I see and how it works in my life.

This is a big topic. There’s so much that the yogic perspective has brought to my life and I still haven’t come up with a good 2-minute elevator speech. So I started talking and came around to this observation that since practicing, my senses are so much more attune. Experiences have a crispness to them, a clarity. I feel like I can see more. There was one particularly remarkable day when I walked to my car after teaching a class.  With every few steps, I noticed these little butterflies, one after another, fluttering around me. I might not have noticed them on another day, but on this day I could feel them. It was really beautiful. Before I even waxed poetic on that butterfly story, my friend dismissed this line of conversation saying that he wasn’t interested in seeing colors more vividly or heightening his senses. That’s not what he’s looking for. He wants to suffer less. So our conversation continued in another vein, which, really, was just as interesting.

But after our conversation, I was a little uneasy.  I wondered, am I missing the point here? Are these enjoyable perks of my yoga practice, the experience of seeing things more vividly or hearing sounds more clearly, a distraction or are they part of spiritual liberation? Of suffering less?

Through yoga, studying with my teacher and ongoing practice, I’m starting to see that my time on the planet has a purpose. There’s work that I’m here to do and there’s a plan for my life, even if I’m not seeing that plan in its fullness just yet. In order to tune in to that plan, I need to connect to the often-quiet communication that comes from within me, I need to be attuned. I need to be able to listen, not only with my ears, but with all my senses. To listen not just what comes to me from the world around me but also from the world within.

The self (body, mind, personality, emotions, senses, and all the other good stuff that goes along with it) is a tool that we’ve been given to help us know spiritual life and to follow our path. Feeling stuff–suffering, joy, all of it, is a way we come to know which way to go and what to listen to.  Refining our system is part of the work, and it doesn’t just happen at a spiritual level.  We refine our tool (mind, body, personality, emotions, senses…) and as we go through this process of removing what’s in the way, we make better decisions.  We understand situations more clearly so we know how to respond appropriately. All of that means we suffer less. We can work with old patterns that no longer serve us.  We can give expression to something that’s been locked up inside and needs to move through.  The self gives our Self something to work through.

As we make efforts and let some stuff go, we’ll get better at discerning the appropriate action to take. When less stuff is in the way, when our discernment improves, our senses just might seem more vivid. What we hear, see, and understand might be more clear. It seems like a nice circular feedback loop. We take cues from what we perceive and what we perceive changes as we improve our clarity.  So what’s the bottom line? This process helps us to suffer less and enjoy the butterflies that fly by a little more.

Yoga is the Imodium for my verbal diarrhea

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 9.54.07 AM

On assembly day, the elementary school kids file into the gym and then find their place on the floor with their classmates. The parents in attendance line up along the back wall. We all say the pledge, listen to the announcements and awards, and talk quietly with our friends. Last week, I walked Nora into assembly and saw her classmate’s mom. She’s great, easy to talk to and really friendly, so I squeezed in next to her to chat. I asked how her daughter was adjusting to second grade and how she liked her teacher. My friend commented that there was a kid in there that was challenging for her daughter and they were trying to develop some skills for handling the situation.

Nora’s got a kid in her class that’s been pushing her buttons, too. Though it’s tough, she’s handling it pretty well and gaining skills along the way. But I didn’t bring that up. Instead, I watched as I started some verbal diarrhea about a kid who is in Nora’s class again this year. Nora gets along with this kid, but his parents are kind of intense. I made some unfriendly remark about having those parents a part of the class again and maybe I even rolled my eyes.

As I walked home I was so surprised and embarrassed by my part in the conversation. Why would I bring up the “problem parents” and complain to this acquaintance of mine when any gripe or problem I might have had is long resolved? What’s still nagging at me?

After a little reflection, I realized that I’m bothered because I get the feeling that this particular mom doesn’t seem to like me or my kid. And it stings a little more because at one point we were courting each other and our families to be friends, so she knows a little about me and still doesn’t like me. In the time I spent thinking about it all, I could feel my hackles raise and a little argument start in my head. “Well, her kid… and that mom is so…” The way I’m protecting myself is by not liking her back and then complaining about some old, dried up toast.

We’ve all got these defense mechanisms in place to keep us from feeling stung or unliked or to protect whatever it is that is sensitive and hard to feel. I can see how much I dislike being disliked, so much that the feeling and memory of last year’s slight is still there with me at just the mention of a “challenging kid in class.” That defensive/unliked feeling brings with it a set of behaviors and conversation that isn’t my usual mode, and it’s not something I’d choose but there it was. The words spilling out of my mouth before I could do anything about it.

I have hope that bringing these things into my awareness will help me to handle this fear of being unliked. That by seeing that I still have this nagging bother will help me to unlearn the old ways of dealing with this and to develop some new healthier patterns. Yoga, particularly meditation, has helped me to see these kinds of changes before. I know it’s possible. The other piece that yoga can help with is a pause or a little space between reacting and responding. Yoga can help me to have enough presence to notice I’m thinking ugly thoughts before they become ugly words.

Even though I’m sorry I said those things in assembly, I’m glad that some good has come of them. I’ve got some practice and some work ahead. Yoga is the imodium to my verbal diarrhea.

Why art is important.

still from Lauren Tietz's film, "Daven Dowse"
still from Lauren Tietz’s film, “Daven Dowse”

Last week, I went to see a screening for a short film that a friend of mine made. I’ve taken several dance and movement classes from her so I know how reflective, thoughtful, and creative she is. Though I didn’t really know what to expect, I knew it would involve dance and movement and I was sure it would be good.

I invited my friend, Katie, and we arrived a few minutes early. The screening was in a really beautiful gallery space in East Austin. It is an old warehouse/industrial complex that has been divided up into art studios, galleries, shops and a tea house. I like going to places like that—where someone (or a group of someones) has shown vision and follow through to create a space, an experience, for those who visit.

After a sound check and some set up, we were invited in along with the other 30 or so who had come. We sat on the cement floor facing one of the perfectly smooth and perfectly white walls that would serve as the screen. Lauren, the director/my friend, briefly introduced the film. Lights went low and we watched a series of 3 solo dance performances, each one in nature, each one with it’s own soundtrack, each one evoking a very different set of responses and emotions in me. Everything about the film was beautifully done. The movement, the sound, the light, the filming, the edits— all of those details came together so skillfully that I wasn’t even aware of these technical aspects of the film. I could be with the essence of the piece and my own experience of it, unencumbered.

When the lights went on, Lauren invited the audience to stay for a Q&A. She talked about the title, gave thanks to those who have helped and been involved in the project, she acknowledged the City of Austin for helping to fund the endeavor. She handled herself with such poise, eloquence and professionalism while still being very much herself. Even though I was one of many in the room, it was like having a quiet personal conversation with her.   I was so moved and so impressed both by her creative vision and her ability to direct dancers, secure funding, manage the technical components, work with a musician for the score, and pull off a screening event that was really wonderful.

Art is so important. It’s a whole other way of using the mind and communicating and experiencing our human selves. It can engage and reach us in ways important and particular ways, ways that might not be found by other means. And there are people out there in the world who are really good at it. Maybe they were even born to do it. It’s their svadharma to share their unique perspective and their voice so that when we experience it, we can have a way of touching into something inside of ourselves. And these artists aren’t only good at making art, but at so many of the other things that it takes to have an artistic career.

Sometimes I mourn for artists in our culture because it is so very difficult to pursue a creative profession. Sure, if you really want it and you had some exposure to the arts, and you are willing to sacrifice and follow the dream, and your have the resources or a day job, and you also have the skills required to access grants and special funding sources, then you can do it. But wouldn’t it be great if my kids could go to school and instead of an emphasis purely on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), there would be equal opportunity and value given to the skills needed to develop as an artist? And just as importantly, when they finished with school, these artists could follow an art-making career path that was just as valued and just as legit as the other ones out there?

I’m inspired and grateful to Lauren and the many other artists, both present day and from the past, in my family and friend circles and beyond, who have touched me in a way that lets me remember and polish these facets of my human experience. Because of artists and the art they create, my life and my world is better.

——–

Interested in following Lauren Teitz’s work?

Daven Dowse is a sponsored project under Women & Their Work, funded in part by the city of Austin. Please look for the second phase of the project to be shown in 2016.
(from press release) Daven Dowse is a new short film: a series of several dance portraits, phase one of Body, Light, Motion, a project funded in part by the city of Austin.
Fascinated by the body as site and archive of personal and cultural lineage, the movement research was influenced  by several modes of inquiry (davening, dissolving, slowing down, accelerating, molting, trembling), in order to come back to the body’s innate intelligence. Through such an excavation process we hope to reveal an idiosyncratic and intuitive language unique to each dancer – one that precedes the verbal. This unearthing, is not superimposed but instead gathered from memories and desires present in each of the dancers. Giving powerful voice to each of the performers, in this way, the process honors the dancers unique approach as well as personal and cultural histories.

Hazel’s first week of middle school

Walking to school
Walking to school

Hazel started sixth grade this week. Dave and I had plans to help her arrive extra-early on the first day of school so she could drop off school supplies into appropriate bins, find her locker, pick up her updated schedule and make it to her first class on time. Despite our hopes and dreams for a stress-free first morning, it didn’t work out like that. I think Hazel handled her side of things fairly well, but the moment I walked through the glass doors of the massive middle school, the most dysfunctional sixth grade version of myself emerged. I felt my anxiety spike and recognized the uniquely pre-teen feeling of equal parts fascination and aversion about all the people and happenings around me. It was so weird. When I think about the first day crazies in Hazel’s middle school, I have this picture in my head that all of us were scurrying, kind of like cockroaches running willy-nilly, trying to move out of the way but not knowing where, exactly, the massive shoe  would come down.

Aaah. Middle school.

As Dave and I drove away from the school, I laughed off some of my old baggage and stress and reminded myself that this is only one of a whole series of days at this school. Gradually, all this stuff won’t feel so new. Hazel will learn her way around, get to know the teachers, the staff, and the kids, and she’ll come up with a rhythm for her week. So will I. Pretty soon, she’ll be carrying on a conversation with friends and she won’t have to think about how to get to her next class. She’ll be able to focus on friendships and learning and getting to know who she is and what she enjoys. All of these experiences will become a part of her.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra I.17  vitarka vicāra ānanda asmitā rūpa anugamāt saṁprajñātaḥ

This process is the same one we all go through when something new begins and slowly becomes part of our lives. It can feel awkward and difficult at the start but after going through it again and again, it becomes second nature. Patañjali talks about this very process in yoga sūtra I.17. At first, we have a gross understanding of something (vitarka). With experience, we refine our understanding and our experience, and we know it in a more subtle way (vicāra). This process brings deep satisfaction or joy (ānanda). And as we continue in this way and follow these movements or processes (anugamāt) , the experience, knowledge, or object becomes a part of you (asmitā) and we know it deeply and take complete ownership* of the object (saṁprajñātaḥ)

We’ll continue to make efforts to help the school days go smoothly– getting up with plenty of time to make the bus, providing nourishing food, appropriate amounts of 11-year-old sleep, and preparing what we can the evening before. Establishing an efficient routine is just one way our family will go through vitarka vicāra ānanca asmitā rūpa anugamāt saṁprajñātaḥ. As we repeat the process again and again and continue to make efforts, it will be refined in subtle ways and our mornings will go more and more smoothly. Of course, these efforts aren’t for the mornings or the routines themselves. A smooth and low-stress start to the day means that Hazel can do the important work of being Hazel. As she develops and goes through middle school, what she experiences becomes a part of her. And I’m sure her special middle school years will become a part of me in significant and important ways, too.

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*From Liberating Isolation, Yogasutra of Patañjali by Franz Moors; Media Garuda 2012