Have deep compassion for the ever-moving mind. The mind, after all, will never get to be the heart.
The other day, I was driving to campus for the beginning of the semester. My first days back are all faculty meetings and syllabus writing. These are not the days of exciting energy when students are refreshed and opened to learning new concepts and creating new ideas. These are the days when my colleagues and I secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) wish we could be home reading books that deepen our own knowledge. We wish we could slowly contemplate the perfect class, plucking ideas down as we were inspired by them. The first days back for faculty have often, in the past, given me the worst Monday blues of my life. I would even say they made me incredibly cranky.
However, as I was driving in for this semester’s beginning, I was listening to David Newman’s 2010 album Love, Peace, Chant. On it, he sings some of my favorite Kirtan tunes, and as the wheels were turning, I couldn’t help but chant along with him. I began to notice the sensation of joy rising in my chest, and instead of thinking about all of the enrollment statistics and new policy debates that might take place on this day, I thought instead about all of the wonderful people I work with.
I became in awe of all of the smart and generous people whom I get to call my colleagues. I was excited to hear their ideas and share my own even if we hadn’t had time to methodically sculpt those ideas into the perfect classes just yet. I felt so confident in that sensation of joy, that I began to feel trust in the process. As I sit at my desk, I can do little more than theorize. I can work through an idea and find its most perfect language, but that doesn’t mean I’ve found its most perfect expression, I need my colleagues and especially my students to verify the class is a good one.
My teacher Michelle Pietrzak-Wegner has been known to say, “If I waited to be a guru before I began to teach, I still would not be teaching.” I agree with her whole-heartedly, and I’ll add that if we waited, there may be something lacking in what we bring to our students. As we wade through the minutia of the ideas, we sometime miss the process that helps us arrive at our final understanding of a lesson.
Today, I am thankful that there is no such thing as absolute knowledge. We are in the inquiry of our thoughts. We can be confident and present enough to claim how exciting it is to be always on the precipice of finding, and we can take this journey with one another.
Today, I am thankful for the spiritual education that has taught me to observe the thoughts that enter into my mind. I caught myself feeling utterly afraid of having booked only eleven credits of class for the spring semester. (Normally, I teach fourteen or fifteen.) I became afraid of what that might mean for me financially. I became afraid that it might mean I’m not as secure in my job as I have been in the past or that I’ll have to find a new field of work. Every discrepancy I’ve had with a student in this last semester (though they’ve been few) came rushing into my brain, and I began to question my education, my abilities and even the path I’ve taken in this life.
I immediately sprang to my computer to come up with a plan B. I searched as many Web sites as I could, looking for editorial and writing jobs. I wasn’t being picky in my search: free-lance, part-time, even full-time job placements. I love teaching writing. I feel called to do this work, but my fear of not being able to pay my cell phone bill became so great in that moment, it overtook my love for my work. This, I think, is one of the most profound moments anyone can experience. The moment where fear interrupts and overtakes the ways we ground ourselves in the benefits of love.
Though I love my job so much, I was ready to give it up after just fifteen minutes of anxiety…until it occurred to me that I have just spent the last eight months of my life getting my certification to teach yoga. My plan B has already been put into place. It’s a plan B that still includes working with adult students and incorporates my second deep passion: synthesis of movements in the body. I had even forgotten that I created this plan B so that I could sustain my energy to teach writing more effectively. I have meant for the duality of these teaching modes to complement each other. However, since I’ve been so stuck in my head grading finals, I haven’t actually had a lot of time to practice yoga in the last couple of weeks, let alone look for yoga teaching jobs.
And here is where I am thankful: that the whole time I was spinning out of control, I was watching it happen. My hands were typing keywords into the various search engines, but my mind was listening without moving (or judging). My mind waited for the hiccup in the loop to stop and say “hello, are you paying attention to what you are doing?” And as soon as it did, those fifteen minutes got to be a great scene in my life’s comic theater. Because my spiritual education has led me to meditate, it has provided me with a tool to prevent my brain from utterly imploding (which it is wont to do from time to time).
Instead of finishing up my day by dusting off my editor’s resume, I had the opportunity to write a new resume, one for the yoga teacher I am becoming. Instead of fear and anxiety moving me backward, love and excitement (and the ability to see the punch-line) allowed me to step forward.
So “yay” for all the lessons. “Yay” for committing some of them to memory. “Yay” for the teachers of my past and the teachers of my future (including my students) who have and who will lead me deeper on this path. How lucky to be able to self-observe.
In the last few weeks, I’ve had a hankering for a condo. I love the area in which I live, but I’m desperate for my own parking space. A friend offered that this hankering might have something to do with all of the changes in my life. She thinks it might be the product of my need for stability in such an unstable time. I think she might be right.
So today, on my way home from yet another stressful and uncertain day, I stopped by the plant nursery. I bought three new plants with an eye toward tending a few new roots. As I sit here typing, I feel high in my own living room, the oxygen is so thick.
As the scent of rosemary and everblooming hoya mingles with my psyche, I realize that I am Spanish moss. I grow where I am and carry my reserves in the pit of my stomach. My stability comes from within.
In this apartment, I can have whatever permanence I want. I love this apartment. I love the glass doors on my kitchen cabinets and the tree full of animal life outside my bedroom window. I love the street I live on, its mix of energy and quiet. I love how I feel when I enter the front door, like I can let go of the tail-end of the breath I had been hanging onto.
Lately, in my search for a permanent home, I haven’t spent a lot of time appreciating the life I’ve created for myself. I’ve only been thinking about the life I wish I was living. I have been searching for the fork in the road where I went wrong. And I think I’ve finally found it. It was two weeks ago when I started making place=stability. I have done so many adventurous things, and I have always lived according to my own heart. Being THAT person is what grounds me in my life more than any mortaged cement foundation ever could.
I am so thankful to have a beautiful shelter to hold me warmly as the first lasting snowflakes of season settle in their places for the winter. I am thankful I still have the option to dance on the wind.
Today, I am thankful for that dark night in my childhood when my own writing became both a mystery and an answer. I am thankful that at a young age, I found such an enigmatic lens with which to view this world. Thirty years later, I am still returning to words to seek the truth of myself and the truth of the world. I am thankful that the word “truth” is just a word to be lived in the moment, and that reality is its own thing that I come nearer to each time I sit down to write.
I am so thankful for the surprises of poetry in email. I love the stream of consciousness blurt of expression that comes between directions and requests. There are so many moments, in personal emails, when the writer slips out of her communication to me and begins to tap into her true nature. It is the intimacy of letter writing. The writer can hardly stop from being so inside of herself. The words she uses are drenched in her pronunciation. The pure joy of language catches me off guard between advertisements (and there were many this cyber Monday) and meeting minutes.
I am thankful for another kind of email poetics as well: the well-crafted line that’s been revised, revised and edited only to contain some happy accident of word play (which seems no accident). These messages move me off point and into the approaching storm of my imagination. For a minute, I get to wonder what world these words live in when they come from without me. Eventually, I know I need to respond to my senders’ requests, so I do, putting the poetics aside for a minute until I can formulate a clear, concise response and click “send.”
I always go back, though, and save these quick notes to some special folders, only to lose them as more come in. I can’t keep every lovely bit of language that comes to me through the ether, but that has never stopped me from trying.
And it didn’t stop me today when a perfect stranger sent me a real-life, honest to God poem…in tercets, nonetheless. How beautiful is that? A person took the time, not to write for any gain or functionality, but because the words were so inside of him, he had nothing left to do but let the letters rain onto the page in perfect sans-serif puddles.
And I was lucky enough to witness it.
Tonight, as I was driving home from work, I navigated around a truck stopped dead in the Lowry Hill tunnel. I thought about how reliable my car has been and for how long it has been that reliable. It’s twelve years old. I know it won’t run much longer. But I have so many memories of sitting behind that wheel that when it’s time for me to give it up, I will be ending a chapter in my life. It is not just a hunk of metal; it has quite literally been my vehicle for transformation. That car has moved me into all of my adult, single girl apartments. It’s taken me to weddings and funerals, job interviews and performances. It has saved me on winter streets, and it has sheltered me when I have needed to gather my thoughts and had nowhere else to turn. It’s taken me north, south and east across this country. Since the first time I slid in behind the wheel, it’s been my ticket to freedom.
I have often taken it for granted, like this morning, when I stumbled out of my apartment, half asleep. I rested my coffee mug on its hood as I juggled my bags into the passenger’s seat. I turned the ignition and was on my way. I was so certain that it would start that it didn’t even occur to me to be grateful. However, tonight I am, and for the next couple of months, I will be even more grateful still. Each day saying a moment of thanks as I pull into my parking spot, remove my key and amble safely into my home.
Today, I feel grateful to live in a culture where the citizens have not only the right to vote, but the right to say whatever we’d like about the candidates, the ballot issues and the process of voting itself. We have the opportunity to meet, talk to and befriend the people who run our local governments. We eat in the same restaurants and shop in the same grocery stores. We cheer at the same hockey games and attend the same concerts. At any time, we could throw our hats in the ring and work to become one of those lawmakers.
During this election season, I find that it is easy to get bogged down in the negative messages from “the other side.” However, when I can stay focused in the hope I have for my culture and the role I can play in making that hope into a reality, I feel the nervous excitement tingling inside of me. I see a glimpse of the prospects for a future that I look forward to. I let go of my attachment to the results as I’ve imagined them to be, and I allow myself to experience the electric buzz lifting off the ground in my community which, for better or worse, is founded on self-expression.
Today, I am grateful for an autumn walk just after dusk. I am thankful for one last activity to ground me in the present moment, to ground me in my life right now. This is the place where I live. This is the body I am living in. Tomorrow these two things will be a little different. It is a gift to be able to spend time in the place where I am today.
My neighborhood is particularly beautiful with many old street lights that glow pink in the sunset and many old houses. As the sky turns from pink to gray, the lights in my neighbors’ homes come on slowly. One light bulb flicker at a time, illuminating the spaces they will use next.
A few of their children—those who do not tire so easily—are still in their front yards inventing games and laughing with each other breathlessly. They don’t wear coats, though I have my hat pulled down around my ears. They are not thinking about that encroaching evening when white puffs of breath restrict their lungs. They are creating the world where they like to live best. They are spinning out of control, living full-out. They will sleep so well tonight after eating the hot meals being prepared for them.
Their dogs bark more frequently. Since softer light prevents them from relying so much on their eyesight, they are quicker to claim their posts. “I am here,” they reassure. Reminding me that even when I cannot fully see my situation, I am just as safe. The sound of my own voice is a comfort to my uncertain self. I may not know all of what happens in the world, but I know where I’m standing. I know I’m not alone.
While the squirrels and birds have found quiet spots for the evening, the rabbits feel safer in the openings in darkness. They rush flower gardens in search of remaining leaves and petals, quickly tasting the last sweetness before winter.
I luxuriate in the smell of drying maple leaves just before the cold of night erases them. They are not as bright as they used to be. Instead of oranges and reds, they have curled into clay. And more of them crunch beneath my feet than quiver in the wind. The emptiness of branches yields beauty still. The long lines of limbs and branches create an opening for what the weather brings next.
As the mild light retreats further, so does my ambition. I am moving forward, one languid step at a time, closer and closer to the warmth of home.
I’ve really been beating myself up the last couple of weeks. I’ve been frustrated with myself for not writing as much as I’d like to. I’ve been eating out instead of cooking, and I’ve been avoiding more scholarly readings for fashion magazines and gossip rags. There’s also been a bit of shopping for things I “need” (because my black boots are so last year). In general, I’ve resisted all of the principles that I thought I connected to on my yoga path.
I know my weaknesses are not entirely to blame for this lack of willpower. Environmental factors have in no way helped these impulses. The start of the fall semester mingles with the end of summer. As the work load increases, the sun quickens its pace, and I lose those precious daylight hours that were spent out in nature and with simple pleasures in my heart. I am hurrying up to drink in the last lick of sun while simultaneously gathering the supplies I need for a dark winter of grading.
And yet, somehow, with all of this frenetic energy, I feel as though the world around me has found a way to construct walls to hold me in place. It’s creating a sanctuary to shield me from that which moves too fast and from that which moves me in the wrong direction. In fact, when I try to move forward in any direction, I receive the gentle message to stay put and gather my strength.
I have come up against an old limitation, and as far as my yoga practice is concerned, my asanas are at a literal stand-still. When I was 12, my school nurse found scoliosis curvatures in all three areas of my spine. When I was fourteen, my orthopedist wanted to fit me for a brace, but through chiropractics, that quickly changed. Through the years, I have discovered a blend of therapies that keeps my scoliosis in check and relatively pain free. Some weeks and months, I forget that it’s inside my body. Other times, the obstructions in the nerve and energy pathways are so great that my body feels as though its structure is being demolished from the inside out.
When my scoliosis is at its worst, I get headaches that last for weeks and leave me in dark and silent places. I feel numbness in my shoulders and hands. I tend to drop the things I’m carrying and fumble with door knobs and keys. My natural gait includes a funny side step that lands me on my rear, and I trip up the stairs. It becomes painful to turn my head too far to the left, and my back muscles spasm if I sit for longer than five minutes.
I have a massage therapist, a Rolfer and an acupuncturist, all of whom I go to at various intervals to clear up the discrepancy in my body that tells my spine to carry my rib cage over my left hip as my shoulders and head constantly fight for forward. But as I try to be patient, as I wait for the body work to catch up to muscle memory, I don’t want to give up on my yoga practice. In fact, every body-worker I’ve seen since my diagnosis has commented on the benefits that yoga has on scoliosis. But while the benefits help to hold the treatments, they don’t completely prevent the flair ups. And I worry that the sensations of my curvatures will mar my ability to feel new injuries. So I cut the number of classes I attend. I modify the poses so that I don’t move as deeply, and I end my stretches before I feel the twinge of work in my taxed back muscles.
I wish I could say that I meditate more when my scoliosis announces itself, but my motivation to get into that easy seated pose is about as strong as a whisper. Once I’m there, I’m fine, but the thought of sitting still for an hour, a half hour or even ten minutes, leads me to other distractions. When I finally sit down to retreat into the home space of my mind, the looming memory of past pains threatens to breach my bliss. When it comes to meditation, my fear of what I will find is the obstacle to deepening my practice.
In the decades since that first diagnosis, a pattern has emerged for me. I’ve begun to see that my scoliosis is at its most powerful when a piece of my emotional identity emerges in a more profound and public way. After my semester abroad in Europe, the pain was so intense that a neurologist tested me for MS. When I was applying to graduate schools, I lay in bed as I typed and edited my manuscripts. The curvatures were pushed so far out of whack that it took months for me to move the endeavor back to my desk.
So now that I am halfway through my yoga teacher training, now that I am beginning to conceive of the kind of yoga teacher I will be (not just the one I dream to be), my spine points out in all directions. Each of my three curvatures seems to be leading me toward a different path. Regardless of whether I choose to work more heavily with the alignment of the poses, the breath’s junction with movement or the meditation within the body’s stillness, my scoliosis is just waiting to hold me back. And in the last month, the curvatures have struck the familiar nerves of fear and self-doubt.
I try to remind myself that this is just a pattern, like the pattern of heading to Smash Burger instead of heating the stove for a ginger-kale stir fry. I am, of course, more drawn to the comfort of fried potatoes. (Kale is not a comfort food.) But the excuse I repeat in my head is not one of comfort. It’s that I don’t have the time to cook. My deeper self knows that somewhere between driving, standing in line and waiting for my order, the length of time from start to table is a wash. The deeper truth is that I would rather avoid doing the work. I choose what I know will cause me pain rather than do what I know is right for me.
I know if I cook the meal myself, the long-term hopes for my future are real possibilities. I hope to have resilient skin and strong muscles into my 80’s and 90’s. I hope not to add anymore cellulite to my thighs. Cellulite is the promise my beloved Smash Burger is ready to deliver on. It is the enemy of my hopes. But when I look at the cellulite, it looks like me. And when my back starts to ache, it feels like my back. I am a person with scoliosis. It justifies why I’ve ended up exactly where I am in life…no further. If I’m not careful, this condition can become more than a condition. It can take over; it can become an excuse.
It says to me, “You see, THIS is why it’s taken you so long to become a yoga teacher. By trying to claim that authority, you risk everything.” And it could be right. I could risk my health, my financial independence and my lovely relationship to this practice I’ve languished in for almost two decades.
So I stay safe. I pull back. I make one thing mean another. I retreat inside of myself. I am too afraid to look at the landscape of the place I’ve ended up. I am leery of the the changes I might see. I wait it out instead of taking a minute to acknowledge the very real possibility that I can trust myself.
Of all of the people in my life, I wonder why, when it comes to my future, I trust myself the least. Especially since for the duration of my life, I have never had a problem deciphering the messages my body has sent me. I am confident that my body knows the difference between damage and growth. Damage has never followed my inspiration without an important moment of growth. I can trust that. I am on the right path, and my body’s signals only confirm that this change is a monumental one.
In a training session two months ago, my teacher asked if anyone in class was afflicted by scoliosis. She wanted to show the class a live example. When I raised my hand, she looked surprised. And while after looking, she could locate the curvatures, she also commented on how subtle they were. As she did so, I felt a bit relieved that my journey into teaching yoga might not be as dangerous as I had once thought. I was also shocked by my possible strength. My teacher saw me as strong when she looked at me. It took my own story of my past to correct her.
Our conversation was small, but it touched on something very powerful which is always in the back of my mind. I don’t think it’s an accident that three weeks later, my first curvature was re-engaged.
I’m glad to have a reminder of the past. There are many important lessons here. But if I want to move any further with my practice, if I want to step into this calling, I need to test the lesson of trusting myself. And I’ve decided to look toward the change of the seasons to help me do this.
For the next couple of months, I will be listening to the signals the earth gives me as momentary reminders to slow down and step inside. Each time I see a tree letting go of one of its leaves, I will be letting go of a piece of my own self-doubt. Each time I see a squirrel rushing over the dried grasses, I will gather a seed of conviction. Each time I feel a moment of fear, I will send it out for the wind to dismantle it, to break apart the limbs which are not working together and send its pieces back to me when the time is right. When my conscious identity is ready to be reborn.