Seventh Meditation: Sahasrara

Oh it is wonderful to have a sweet baby to snuggle when the weather is cold and bright. Between this January and last, I had hardly noticed that it has been colder than average in Minnesota, and I truly have only my little one to thank for that. I am clear that it is not my state of mind that helped me roaming about glowing and smiling one bit. Because now, as little bundle is transitioning into little pistol, he is spending less time in my arms and more, well, running around and carrying every object in his sightline. (I can cite a footstool among the most recent items sailing through my living room.)

And now that little pistol is spending less time in my arms and more on his own two feet, I have found myself with a case of cabin fever. I’ve tried all my usual go-to spots: the conservatory, the pool and the mall (for the winter steals as much as for the walking). I’ve bundled us both up to briskly explore the neighborhood, feed the birds and deer who frequent our feeders, and crunch around following their tracks. I have stayed in and read as many books as I can stomach. (Six in the last month. And I’m in full grading season now too.) For as many ways as I have tried to beat the winter blues, I must admit it: I’ve given up.

I used to have a system of coats, scarves and mittens. I’d break out different sets at variously scheduled moments of winter just to give myself a gage for when I could reasonably expect springtime. I used to say things like, “Only four more months of winter” when January hit, a little to keep a joke on my lips and a little to remind myself not to get too hopeful when the mercury rose to a balmy 33 degrees.

Then, when little bundle came along, I thought of how wondrous winter would be through his eyes. And it has been. There are so many beautiful moments where he has marveled at the crystalline air, tasted an icy glove and reached for the lacy frost at the window. But wonder can only last for so long.

Now with piles of toys and winter-sweat laundry surrounding us, the minus 30 wind chill blocking our every exit, the only plausible step is surrender.

I’m lucky I’ve learned a little about surrender while meditating on the seventh chakra: sahasrara.

I’ve learned that surrendering doesn’t have to mean relinquishing my power. It can mean mindfully putting the power to a better use. I’ve visited the places I can afford to visit (given that this time of year is not a slow one for work, and it’s not exactly feasible to take off for San Diego right now). While I could make a choice to go anyway, I have powerful said “no, I am here in the winter.” While most of the time it feels good to have made that choice, some moments I question it.

In those moments I remind myself not to back down, not to second guess my good logic. Year after year I have chosen to live in this frozen tundra of state (and I have excellent reasons for doing so). Eight months out of the year, I live in the most breath-taking landscape I ever have. And truthfully, if I could get my mind in the right direction, I might say that really eleven months out of the year are perfectly beautiful. The bitter cold of January really does pull the breath out of a person, and that orange-blue sky is like none other. In March, even though it can be frustrating, the abundance of warm, wet snow just calls for early spring hiking. And the cold March rains are my favorite, washing away the salt from the road and steaming up warm windows. It’s February that I just can’t quite get on board with.

Fortunately, I don’t have to. Surrender can mean trusting in something much larger than myself—like the world which is, you know, huge and pulled by such tremendous gravity to the sun (also quite enormous when compared to, say, my footstool) that if I weren’t so busy pouting about the weather, I might have enough perspective to consider that strong pull that also keeps me grounded.

I’m not a person who spends a lot of time questioning how I’m gravitationally pulled to the earth, nor how the earth is pulled to the sun. I am in such a great state of trust that these things continue to be that I can think about other things, like whether to make pumpkin-spice or banana-walnut steel-cut oats in my crockpot for breakfast tomorrow. And while, occasionally, I like thinking about gravity, I am never worried by it. I never fret over whether or not it will stop working.

So why, then, do I become anxious over the change in seasons when I know that spring will be here in a matter of weeks? Is it because winter is unbearable? No. Winter is exquisite. If it were this cold in November, I’d be happily triple-wrapping my scarf around the collar of my coat.

It is me who is restless because in winter, I am faced with myself. And at this point in the winter, I’ve been faced with them for three months. While I am ready to move on and think outside of myself, the weather is challenging me to take one more good long look at who I am. My faults and failed hopes cannot be washed away in a fragrant breeze or cleansing rain. They live like a metaphor with the chill in my bones. And yet, in order to move past those faults and failings, I must become intimate with them. I must surrender to them, in essence, love them as a part of myself.

Who wants to do that?

Not I. And yet, when I stop to really think about how dark the darkest regions of my soul are, I have to laugh a little. Because when faced with real examination, I can see that it doesn’t take much to love those faults and failings. In fact, if a friend exhibited these traits, I would find them endearing in her. I would challenge any reader to find a different answer when truly exploring his or her own faults and failings.

The same can be said for winter. There was a time when I lived in more southern climate, and I remember feeling the same uneasiness when summer reached its most intense point.

It might be human nature to resist the extremes—of weather, of personality, of self—but it is also human to know when we’ve resisted too long.

So here I am winter, opening my arms to you and hoping you will ever return to my life, ever to remind me how wonderfully small and changeable I can be. And even in this stillness holed up in my little home, I feel the remarkable nature of your presence working on me, so that by the time your crystals melt back into the earth, I can emerge a slightly softer person than I was when the season began.


Second Meditation: Pranayama

The other night I was awakened by the sound of the wind lifting the branches outside my bedroom window. The leaves shivered against one another as the wind pushed them away from the diaphragm of the ground and they settled, only to hit another wave of air. The branches were being lifted all at once. It sounded like the wind might seize all the trees in the neighborhood, carrying them north on its current. And yet, there was no blast, no gale, just a soft, powerful, constant movement in the night.

I’m an unusually heavy sleeper. Ask my parents; they’ve got stories. (I slept through a fire alarm once in the college dorms.) So for something to wake me at 4:27 AM, it has to be pretty significant.

The trees outside my home rustle all the time. There are three larger than my building that line my apartment. Often I don’t even see them anymore except when their leaves change with the seasons. Something had caught me, though, deep in my sleep. It interrupted the fluid motion of my breath and alerted me to the trees. I can only presume that this something was the awareness that I had actually heard the warm front moving in.

It had been on the news all week that temperatures would begin to rise Wednesday morning around 1 AM. Meteorologists were warning the people of the Twin Cities to prepare for the five-day stretch. Temperatures, they said, would shift from 50-some degrees Tuesday night to the mid 90’s Wednesday afternoon and stay there through the weekend. The people in my state are used to large fluctuations in temperature, but we’re not used to the high heat.  This is an event we see only once or twice a year, and I love it. I want to celebrate it in the foods I cook and the walks I take. I want to enjoy every last second of it. And this year, I heard it coming.

I am finally going through my yoga teacher training and part of this is helping me to enhance my meditation habit. For much of my practice, I had been happy considering only how yoga was working on my body. I reveled in my asanas, I enjoyed the feeling of my lungs expanding and releasing to their full capacity and I was thankful for the calm that movement created on particularly stressful days. However, I had no intention of working through mantras, and I shied away from any chakra talk. I had felt pretty clear that yoga was just an extension of dance.

Now that I am cultivating a more traditional meditation practice, I have noticed a shift in my brain. It’s much more difficult for me to read (and respond) to emails and Facebook posts. I look at them, letting the information flow in, but I am paralyzed to send anything out. I feel increasingly like the people who contact me just want to be heard, but because they are all talking at once, I can’t hear a single one of their voices. Their voices seem alike, like the same white-hot screen. (Yes, you are hearing this from a writing instructor, from one who makes a living on detecting and encouraging the individual syntaxes of young writers.) The voices in the emails are quick blasts. There is no way to tell if the senders’ voices are agitated or depressed. The sonic experiences of their expressions are lost in the period which means the same thing when it is pressed in anger or hope. They make the same mild jokes so they can’t be accused of crassness or confused with seriousness. They make concise requests instead of asking thoughtful questions. They are completely devoid of any personal content or connective tissue that might remind me of how I am allied to the senders in the first place.

And they don’t come in one at a time. They are waiting in line for me to pull up their numbers. How does a person manage five conversations in just a few minutes? I used to be able to do this with ease. I’d read the email, I’d click “reply,” I’d type my response, I’d click “send.” But now I feel like I am holding my breath. I really want to think about what everyone is saying to me. I want to remember the conversations when I see the senders in person, and I want to show respect to the people whom I love and work with.

As I meditate more and more, each email becomes more like the one sent just a minute before. The voices on my computer screen become one voice. It is urgent, almost fretful. And as soon as I respond to it, it boomerangs back at me. It asks for more of me without a thought to the ‘us’ created in what was formerly known as a conversation.

I know I am guilty of this as well. Shouting my requests out there into cyber-space, I become anxious when I don’t hear a response right away. I find little tasks (like playing my next Scrabble move) to keep me online until my request is granted. These tasks can’t take too long, though, because I want to check my email every five minutes in case that ‘urgent’ information has traveled through the wind and into my Inbox. I’ve foolishly turned off my ‘email alerts’ chime in case I end up working on a piece of writing (which has never happened). I waste my own time waiting for replies that don’t change much for me in the grand scheme of things. What could’ve been a five minute phone call—one that allows for pleasantries, a little news and the sighs that quietly reveal the joy and suffering we can’t put language to—has turned into a two hour vacuum of crossword puzzles and Bejeweled. When I finally emerge from my computer, my eyes feel dry and tired, and my brain feels a bit dizzy. As I try to stand up, I become acutely aware of just how disembodied I had become. Often times, I still have not received the reply I’d been so desperately awaiting.

I don’t want to be on the give and take of this line of communication anymore. I’ve been trying little tricks to stop myself from engaging in this way for the last year or so. But the post-it reminders have fallen off the wall. The timer telling me computer hour was up stopped ringing on its own. The New Year’s resolution was dead by the end of February. I’m not sure if meditation can help me solve this one, but I’m also not sure how much that matters.

Because three nights ago, I heard the most beautiful sound. I heard an exhale, and I recognized it as the earth’s ujjayi pranayama—it’s “victorious breath”—as it flowed over my city, building heat, providing an opportunity for transformation. It is the same ujjayi pranayama I have been developing in my own meditation practice. The very same one Patanjali wrote about two thousand years ago when he explained the eight limbs of yoga by encouraging his students to “…engage earnestly in the various practices of making yourself whole.” In this yoga sutra, he is not focusing his students on the give or take we engage in with others. He is reminding us that it is a human wonder to be able to
look inward.

He makes us the promise that through our willingness to focus our attention on recalibrating our internal voice “…all [our] impurities will be destroyed; and then [we] will gain the light of wisdom…” (II.28). That cleansing and wisdom is possible for each of us every day and every minute.

By tuning into the messages our breaths deliver us through the various obstacles in our days, we have a chance to hear our bodies’ interpretations of the new directions our lives are about to take. We begin to hear the possibilities for the people standing next to us or on the other end of the phone. And if we listen close enough, we can hear the earth’s possibilities on the breath of the wind.

I was finally awakened to the earth voice. It is breathing the same message it breathed before Patanjali and as it will continue to breathe long after I am gone. I’m sure I’ve been hearing it my whole life. And while in the past, I may have stopped to think, “Wow, that’s really lovely,” I guarantee that I have never asked WHAT the voice was saying.

Three nights ago, I heard the message so clearly that it roused me from sleep. It wasn’t cracking a bland joke. It wasn’t avoiding sentiment or requesting anything from me except to listen if I could. The message wasn’t terribly dramatic, but it felt like a gift nonetheless. I didn’t hear the earth’s voice with the aid of any technology. I heard it speaking through its own mouth. The earth exhaled, “Summer is here.” And I received that message with the same excitement as I would feel hearing a newborn baby’s sleeping breath. This event, that I looked forward to all winter, had arrived. But this time, my mind was finally quiet enough to hear it.