“You cannot perceive beauty but with a serene mind.” — Henry David Thoreau
Six months ago, I began taking yoga classes at a local instructor’s farm. I’d only done one yoga class before in my life, so I was an apprehensive beginner. The instructor and most of the students in this group were of retirement age, however, so the pace was slow and stately. I started going once a week, then twice, as many times as classes were offered there. I began to realize my intention for serenity, a less fearful and anxious state of mind about my body and my future.
During the six months of class, I was also transitioning out of a relationship that I’d been in for the past 10 years. That relationship had begun eight months after I was widowed. My “Monkey Mind” thoughts were often on my insecurities: my aging, appearance, losses, desires, loneliness.
In times of uncertainty, I find myself reverting to the role of the achiever. I begin to compare myself to others and try for perfection, just like I did as a student. I look for the A+ that will define and validate me. This is not a place to take refuge, however. It is a place of internal stress. Letting go of that role and allowing myself to see myself with acceptance and love brings me closer to serenity. I believe that serenity will manifest as good health and inner beauty. Yoga integrates the awareness of breath, movement, mind. Practicing with intention is transformative. Accepting change with serenity is a very beneficial skill for life, as life is always changing.
My instructor put his farm up for sale last week. He and his wife have been there 40 years. I’m not sure how many more classes he will teach, but this morning, I purchased another ten. I intend to keep practicing. And I intend to make big changes in my life soon, too. Still, I believe I can find Serenity, when I am open to it, in every circumstance. That is the position of tadasana, mountain pose. Thank you, Tina, for inviting us to find Serenity.
This article is featured in this month’s issue of The Be Zine. The theme is Overcoming Hate. You can read the entire issue HERE.
I grew up with three older sisters. At times when I felt picked on, I would shout out my hurt feelings, “I hate you!” My mother was often right there contradicting me. “You don’t hate her. Come now, settle down…” Consequently, I have long convinced myself that I do not hate anyone, and I’m never angry. I am completely reasonable and can explain exactly why I am disappointed or frustrated. I will cry, but I am never angry. Except that…when I grew up, I yelled at my kids. I punished them. I rejected their behavior. I sometimes got physical, restraining them and even spanking them. But I do not get angry. And I do not hate anyone.
“That’s not fair!”…“How dare they!” I yelled at the television set, which was uncharacteristically out of its closet and in operation in the living room. “Hush now. We’re trying to listen,” whispered my mother. The story of Kunta Kinte set my 14-year old indignation afire. Injustice is wrong – even I knew that! How could grown-ups in leadership be so obviously abusive? How could I undo the damage that was done before I was even born? How in the world could the balance of power be corrected? “I hate authorities!”
My 31-year old husband was having chest pains. The doctor figured it was probably heart burn, but he finally did some blood tests and cardiac diagnostics. It turns out the father of my four young children had diabetes and arterial blockages and needed bypass surgery. I couldn’t understand why this evil, incurable disease had afflicted my family. “I hate diabetes!” I raged. But a metabolic disorder doesn’t choose a target out of malice. What I couldn’t admit was that I was mortally terrified.
These three snapshots into my awareness of hatefulness show me that I can’t overcome the underlying feelings of anger, injustice, or fear by rejecting or opposing them. Neither can I grow in compassion by being intolerant. I can only transcend hatefulness and grow in compassion by practicing understanding. That includes understanding myself – not passing judgment on my emotions, not avoiding uncomfortable feelings, but engaging with them head on. How can I practice this? I slow down and ask myself: What is it I feel? What triggered those feelings? Where am I hurting? What is it that I want that I’m not getting? I want to be kind to the little girl inside me giving voice to her felt needs. I sit with this idea for a while. I thank those feelings for bringing me awareness. I will use that in my decision-making. Then I look at my desires more critically. Is being attached to that thing, that outcome, causing me pain? What if I let go of it?
The more I work with my own feelings and come to understand myself, the more I can begin to understand others. When I see someone who is angry and hateful, I understand that he is suffering. Can I be present with him in this place of frustration? Can I be kind to that little child in his temper? Can I engage him in a discussion about the real causes of his anger, his feelings of powerlessness, his fear? Can my presence and interaction help him realize that attachment to uncontrollable outcomes may be causing some of his suffering? And finally, can I invite him to let it go?
The Thich Nhat Hahn Foundation blog motto is “planting seeds of compassion”. For the Lunar New Year of the Rooster, 2017, they suggested a practice phrase in the form of two parallel verses: “Awakening the Source of Understanding” and “Opening the Path of Love”. The Plum Village practice is to contemplate the first verse as you breathe in and the second as you exhale, “not (as) a declaration, but a living aspiration we wish to nurture”. Overcoming hate with a practice of understanding and love is a beautiful way to transform the world, I believe. I invite everyone to try it with me.
I have been struggling, like so many others, with the changes in the Administration of this country. I have listened and read and watched and felt and thought until the tears stream down my face. Finally, yesterday, I decided to write a response. Here’s what came out:
Angry rich man impoverishing my country,
Diminishing the things I value,
Raping the planet, denying the change,
Stripping the endowed,
Demeaning the love you cannot attract,
Twisted in hate and fear and rage,
Puckered and discolored,
Bitter and sour as a kumquat,
Greedy as a black hole,
Cursing and worsening –
Can compassion arise in my soul
Or will I begin to identify with my own anger, my own fear,
seek my own protection,
build a wall around my heart
and regress to reptilian reflexes?
You are a bell of mindfulness.
I might thank you one day.
My partner, Steve, suggested that I take this exercise in identifying the emotions I feel when I read the news and form a gatha. I had to look that up; I discovered that it is a kind of prayer or vow that can bring a simple task, like brushing your teeth, into mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hahn provides this example: “Brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth, I vow to speak purely and lovingly. When my mouth is fragrant with right speech, a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.” Steve then remembered reading The Fifth Precept which talks about consumption in the context of the Eightfold Path of right views, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. I found this statement of it:
“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.”
The gatha I developed for myself to say when I turn on my computer goes like this: “I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing mindful consumption of media and news.” I don’t have a television, but if I did, I’d turn to this reminder before I used it.
The point is that the news and social media can play a major role in our cultural awareness. I want to keep that role in a reasonable perspective as much as I can, and I want to keep this Administration in a reasonable perspective. I’m not sure exactly what that is. It’s too early to tell how much it will affect my decisions and actions in a concrete way. What it has done is connect me with the emotions and choices of people I care about; whether or not I share those feelings and decisions, I am hearing a lot about them. This Administration does give us the opportunity to examine our values and explore how to take action in response. I want to engage in mature and positive activities as much as possible such as dialogue, education, and community-building. I see blogging as one way to do this, although it is “virtual” and not “actual”. One thing I am doing in the “actual” world is starting rehearsal with a “communiversity” chorus in my new home town. I start tomorrow night, after a meeting at the Town Hall.
Thank you for being my online community. I appreciate your visits!
Namaste, and Peace!
Some Thoughts on Poverty – Spiritual Lessons from Nature Series
This article appears in this month’s issue of The BeZine. To read the entire issue, click HERE.
Raising a child is not rocket science. It is more complex than that. Rocket science is merely complicated. What’s the difference? The Latin root for complicated means “folded,” like pleats. There are hidden surfaces, but you can unfold them and draw an iron straight across it. Rocket science requires a long series of problems to solve, but with enough time and effort, you can get through them all and even repeat the entire process with very similar and predictable results. (Any one with more than one kid knows this is not the case in parenting!) In the same way, you can determine which peak is the tallest one in the Appalachian Mountains. You probably can’t guess correctly just by looking out over the landscape from a single overview, but get enough people with GPS tools to climb the hundreds of peaks on the horizon and take measurements, and eventually, you can figure out which one is the tallest. Complicated, but do-able.
Complex is a whole different story. The root of that word means “inter-woven,” like a spider’s web, where each fine thread is connected to another. And they’re all sticky except for the ones the spider uses to climb directly over to her stuck prey. But can you tell which is which? Can you tell that the one you just stepped into is sending a ripple right over to where the spider is sitting? She now knows exactly where you’re stuck, but she doesn’t know that you harbor a parasite that will kill her and make its way to yet another host when yonder sparrow snaps up her dead carcass. That’s complex.
Raising a child is complex. Trying to tell which peak in the Appalachian range is the tallest is complex, too, if the landscape is dancing: changing in an unpredictable pattern , moving to the rhythm of an imperceptible music. Which peak is tallest now? And NOW? And why are we even trying to find the answer to that question while watching this mysterious dance?
Poverty is complex. It is not something that is solved by simply devoting more time and effort to the problem. If it were, we would not be looking at thousands of years of history on the subject. We give in to the temptation to simplify poverty into a matter of dollars over time, reducing it to something measurable, predictable, and controlled, a mere graphic—the poverty line. But poverty is an inter-woven network of relationships and concepts—self worth, social justice, resources and their extraction, economic policies and global politics. It is as complex as our planet’s environment.
So how do you engage with a complex issue like poverty?
Aldo Leopold arrived at a Land Ethic after years of developing and recording a relationship to a particular place in Wisconsin. In the book A Sand County Almanac, he writes: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Making personal decisions about right and wrong based on your relationship to the community is the responsibility of every individual. Applying that ethic rigorously and non-dogmatically is the work of love. How do you love your neighbor? How do you preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community on this planet of inestimable and finite resources? How do you alleviate the suffering caused by poverty? These are complex questions.
“We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.” —Aldo Leopold
Maybe a more accessible question is this: How shall we strive to end poverty? To that question, I can imagine simple answers. Start early in your learning. Teach children about sharing and portion, not dogmatically, but in relationship. Strive toward understanding basic needs and toward a sense of what is enough. Build trust and hope and compassion. Be flexible, changing with the land and its resources. Be present with the multiple factors involved; do not look away, diminish or dismiss what is real. Be authentic and honest and diligent, and finally, believe that even on a dancing landscape, food is growing underfoot.
Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hahn
Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will enjoy our walk
without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.
Then we learn
that there is no peace walk;
that peace is the walk;
that there is no happiness walk;
that happiness is the walk.
We walk for ourselves.
We walk for everyone
always hand in hand.
Walk and touch peace every moment.
Walk and touch happiness every moment.
Each step brings a fresh breeze.
Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet.
Kiss the Earth with your feet.
Print on Earth your love and happiness.
Earth will be safe
when we feel in us enough safety.
Print on Earth your love and happiness. On the land, on the water, for yourselves, for your children. Peace is the walk.
Serenity. A marvelous theme. Placid water, still mind. Peacefulness, harmony. Keeping your surroundings still, small and simple. My partner, Steve, is working on a New Year’s resolution. So far, what I know he’s aiming at is maintaining more quiet in his life, perhaps returning to a practice of meditation and yoga.
How do you cultivate quiet in your life?
This is the end — the last day of the year, the last installment of my mother’s birthday project, and the last entry on this blog for 2014. My mother is 80 years old today. Here is a list of 10 Inspirational Instructions that she has embodied throughout her life. They are also serving as my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015. My mom is indeed an inspiration, and I hope she’ll keep breathing life in for many more years.
1) “Trust God, but do your homework.” This quote she always attributed to her own mother. I think it’s a great motto to pass on from generation to generation. In essence, it acknowledges our humility but does not absolve us from responsibility. We are not in control of all things, but we are in control of some. When you’re able to dance on that line with grace, you’re living wisely.
2) Regularly make the effort to right-size and divest. This comes from her organizational practice, and it’s a great reminder at the end of every year. I’ve watched mom go through “weeding out” stages my whole life. She systematically keeps her possessions under control: clothes, books, papers, housewares, pantry stock, music, everything. Steve & I are furiously reducing inventory at the book business now. Part of the fun is putting those things you divest into the hands of someone who will use and appreciate them. Recycle generously!
3) Gather experiences, not things. I remember my mother answering all inquiries about what she wanted for a gift with some version of this philosophy. She wanted something to live, not something to dust. I hope she gets lots of what she wants for a long time.
4) “Look wider still.” This is a Girl Scout challenge from International Thinking Day… “and when you think you’re looking wide, look wider still.” My mother loves this slogan. It applies so well to being broad-minded, tolerant, open and forever learning. It’s a big world. Even after 80 years, there’s a wider view to see.
5) “Only connect.” This phrase became the name of a BBC quiz show in 2008. It is derived from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, where a character says, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” The phrase has also been used to describe the liberal education, which celebrates and nurtures human freedom. I just learned these references from Google. From mom, I learned that rush of joy, that flush of understanding and the pure delight of living that shows in her face when she utters this phrase at the end of a stimulating discussion. That I learned years ago.
6) Don’t disown your own. “Only connect” applies to people, too, even and especially those near and dear who have a greater capacity to disappoint us. Looking wider than our expectations and our attachments allows us to see that we do not exist in isolation except by our own dogmatic choosing. Long after I learned this from watching mom, I heard it echoed in the writing of Thich Nhat Hahn. “We inter-are,” he says. The cosmos is held together in inter-being. Acting as though we’re separate and separating in judgment is an act of violence against the Universe. Peace is understanding there is no duality.
7) Let go; let God. My mother has always had the capacity for anxiety. She likes to do things “the right way”, she pays attention to details, and she fears the usual things from failure to death. So do I. Face it, we live in a pretty neurotic culture. Mom showed me by her example how to recognize this in yourself and then to strive to be a “non-anxious presence”. That doesn’t mean she was good at it. It means she practiced. That’s inspiring.
8) “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This one comes straight out of the Bible (Ephesians), and it was a practice that she and my father adopted religiously. Every night, I’d hear them from behind their bedroom door, talking in low voices and then praying in unison. Taking responsibility for your emotions and communicating them is another inspiring example. Own your anger; it is about you. Talk about your anger to someone else. Then you are re-connected and at peace. It’s not magic; it’s useful.
9) “Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.” This also comes straight out of the Bible (Deuteronomy), but in the very next line, those arms are thrusting out against enemies and doing violence. The everlasting arms that my mother referred to were supportive. They were secure and safe. If I am to grow out of my neuroses at all, I think I need to begin to trust that the World is a good place. I belong here. Even though I myself and everyone I know will die, we end up right here. That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong.
10) “Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee. All things are passing; God never changeth. Patient endurance attaineth to all things. Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting. Alone God sufficeth. ” Teresa of Avila, translated by Longfellow. Mom had these words written up in her small hand and pasted on the inside of her desk cubbyhole door. It was like a secret she showed me when we were worried about something. All things are passing. This fear, this problem, this moment. Patience. Change and movement is how Life is, and it is well. I really believe that and strive to remember it. I think that all of Life is embraced in that dynamic, including God.
All things are passing, year into year, life into life, microscopically and macroscopically. We are so fortunate to be aware of our experience of it! I am ever grateful to my mother for sharing her life and her awareness and so many of her experiences with me. I look forward to more!