“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 is the challenge of a lifetime. Grace is my middle name – for reals! I have been striving to live gracefully ever since my parents explained to me what that name means, hence the blog motto above. I find subtle differences in the nuance of the definition now that I’m learning Buddhism and leaving the Christian world view that I was raised with in my background.
There is something of elegance, but not a worldly elegance.
There is an element of casual generosity, an unearned favor and abundance.
The Buddhist perspective lends the flavor of ego-less-ness to it; it is beauty without attachment, as ephemeral as frost.
To live a life of grace is to open yourself mindfully each moment to being in the flow of the kindness of the Universe, in a way. To walk in harmony with my surroundings – people, places, things – and to be a living benediction is my aspiration. It sounds pretty lofty and ethereal, like a cloud, and I don’t claim to be doing the metaphor justice. But I might as well aim high in my practice.
“Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” – Nietzsche
Civilization kills. We are living in apocalyptic times. The Anthropocene is here; humans are dominating and destroying the Earth. Like all civilizations in history, though, ours will fall back into the dust, and Earth will absorb it in some fashion. I get angry with humans because of this. Our arrogance and hubris and stupidity is truly abhorrent. I would wash my hands from all association with my species if I could, but for two things: music and food. I am willing to forgive everything for Puccini and Marcona almonds sauteed in butter and thyme.
Perhaps it is nothing but hedonism to feel that my pleasure in a fine meal at La Reve on Tuesday might bring me back from the brink of utter despair. The “Holiday Train” event in the village late that afternoon had created horrific traffic congestion with black-clad pedestrians pushing strollers into the dark streets while some pop Christmas frenzy blared over a loudspeaker. I felt truly Scroogeish; humans are complete humbug. But then the ambiance of a Parisian bistro — chattering guests and tremulous accordion melodies — and the buttery oak in the Chardonnay spread its warmth over that cold, post-Truth fear surrounding my heart. I asked Irene, our Asian-American server, about how the chef prepared the pumpkin soup. We talked about how roasting brings out the deeper flavors of vegetables and stock bones and what items on the menu were gluten-free. By the time I had savored my way through triple-cream brie, salmon, lamb and chocolate caramel, I was ready to admit atonement of the human race was possible.
The next day, however, my thoughts turned dark again. How could I justify the expense of that meal, even though almost half of the cost to me was covered by a gift certificate? How had the animals invested in that meal been treated? How far had the ingredients traveled on fossil fuels to get to my plate? My awareness of suffering may have been dulled for a time, but it was not erased. I may have been treated quite well, but was I healed?
Healing. In Western culture, it’s about fixing pathology. In Eastern culture, it’s about making whole. Awareness is about opening up to understand the whole, the complete Oneness of the Universe. “Life is suffering” is the first noble Truth in Buddhism. Suffering is in the Oneness. Arising from the awareness of suffering are two responses (at least): Fear and Compassion.
I experience my fear for the human race and my compassion for it as well, blended contrapuntally. To recognize that only as thoughts criss-crossing my brain might drive me mad. To see that reflected in a complex pairing of wine and cheese or in the first act duet of Mimi and Rudolfo in La Boheme saves me from perishing from the ugly truth. I will never comprehend the Truth, although I live it every day. Making, enjoying, or experiencing Art is as close as I may ever come to holding the Whole in my heart. I believe that those who practice Meditation seek to do the same, while sparing the harm caused in producing Art.
May we all find a way to happiness, a way not to perish from the Truth, a way to be at peace with the Whole.
Have you ever had an experience of ego awakening? I have. The first one I remember happened as I was sitting in church on a Sunday morning, listening to a sermon. I was a child of about 7, I think, squirming about in the pew beside my family members. None of them were paying attention to me. They were simply silent. I suddenly became aware that I was there and that it was possible that I could ‘not be there’. I could not be born, for example, or I could be something else. I wondered why I wasn’t a rabbit, but a girl, Priscilla. I wondered why I was aware of being present for this sermon when I had sat through so many others and not been aware at all. I paid attention to the words of the Rector for a time, staring straight at him, but his talk was not as exciting as this simple new awareness. I figured he wasn’t really addressing me. I think it was Spring, the stained glass windows were open a bit, and the sun was shining. I sat facing the windows, away from the pulpit, and in rapt and embryonic ego transcendence.
My ego returned to center stage, though, shortly after that. I was the fourth daughter in this church-going family. I grew up with questions about whether or not I was special, with feelings of redundancy. My sisters were always more intelligent and talented and capable, having the edge of years of experience beyond mine. What did I have to offer that they couldn’t deliver more readily? And what would be my share of the resources available? Could my parents really give their attention and their love to all of us equally? Somehow, these questions kept arising for me, causing anxiety and an eagerness to convince myself that I was unique and uniquely loved. I spent 47 years in the church-going habit, seeking to resolve these questions in community with others looking for a similar comfort.
Let me insert a different image now. David Attenborough on Christmas Island, surrounded by a moving mass of red crabs. It’s nighttime and quite dark. Thousands of females, heavy-laden with eggs, are approaching the tide in order to release their burdens into the surf. The water turns reddish brown as a surge of life heads out to sea. Millions, billions of little babies set adrift. Redundancy and abundance. Life in a beautifully mysterious burst of activity, at a specific time and place, choreographed by some ancient awareness and acceptance. It is awesome – possibly divine. Are those babies unique and uniquely loved? The question seems moot. They ARE. No less. No more. (http://www.arkive.org/christmas-island-red-crab/gecarcoidea-natalis/video-00c.html – this is not David Attenborough, but at least it doesn’t have advertisements.)
We were driving out to the University last week to attend an enrichment class entitled “Understanding the Mysteries of Hibernation” when Steve popped in an audio book CD, The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle began to describe his pivotal ego experience: For years my life alternated between depression and acute anxiety. One night I woke up in a state of dread and intense fear, more intense than I had ever experienced before. Life seemed meaningless, barren, hostile. It became so unbearable that suddenly the thought came into my mind, “I cannot live with myself any longer.” The thought kept repeating itself several times. Suddenly, I stepped back from the thought, and looked at it, as it were, and I became aware of the strangeness of that thought: “If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me – the I and the self that I cannot live with.” And the question arose, “Who is the ‘I’ and who is the self that I cannot live with?”
He went on to talk about the False Self that is edified, criticized, and mortified in our Western culture. I nodded in complete recognition. Don’t we call that the Ego? And then…I began to think of that ‘I’, that divinely authentic, fully alive, completely unique and inter-dependent being that each of us is. It was like a flash. My face lit up in excitement as I turned to Steve, “YES! I get it!” The things I had been hearing about enlightenment and no-self in Buddhism finally made sense. It’s not about the abasement of your being, it’s about the shift from False Self to ‘I’.
An hour later, I was listening to a lecture about mammals who suppress their metabolic systems, who turn down the fire of life in order to more effectively harmonize their energy with their changing environment. They go through cycles of torpor and arousal, staying alive (and in some cases, giving birth) without adding any food energy into their system – for 5 to 6 months! This is fascinating! Heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature, digestion – all of these vital systems depressed by as much as 75%, and still, there is Life. The speaker discussed implications for biomedical research, but I am not as impressed by what humans might do with this knowledge as I am by the beings who live it. They are the authentic ‘I’; they are themselves, in a web of inter-dependence and autonomy, using and conserving their energy in response to what IS, what is available in the environment and what is intrinsic to their survival. Descriptions, terms, charts and statistics become gibberish. Even Science is a False Self. These are “stepping-stones”, as are all words, in Tolle’s estimation, serving to propel us to the next place in the movement of existence.
photo from sciencenews.org
The flow of Life, the flow of energy – what is that about? It’s not about clinging to stepping-stones: food, love, identity, thoughts, dogmas or practices. It’s about finding “the joy in change and movement” (as Steve would say), the dynamic of relating to an abundant, redundant, mysterious and unexpected Universe. It’s about waking up and being conscious of where we are right NOW…..and how beautiful and wonder-filled that place is. That consciousness is the beginning of Peace, an intuitive harmony with life that is unfortunately made dissonant by the noise of Falseness in this culture. What would it be like to give up that False Self more and more? Instead of giving up chocolate or the Internet for 40 days, I’m going to challenge myself to move more into ‘I’ existence. I don’t want to live with my self any longer. And that’s a good thing. 🙂 Namaste, Priscilla
My mother revealed to me a nickname that she had secretly assigned me when I was a young teen. She thought of me as “The Waterstrider”. Ever seen those long-legged bugs in a still puddle who are able to stroll the surface without ever breaking the tension that keeps them above water? Here are a few:
My “Waterstrider” tendencies changed, my mother noted, after my sister and I were in a car accident and she was killed. I turned 17 only three days later, and began to ask the Really Big, Serious Questions about life. I began to search for Depth and Meaning, but mostly from only one perspective – Christianity. When I was 45, my husband died in bed beside me early one Saturday morning. My journey toward Depth was not over. I decided to look from a different angle. I needed a bigger perspective.
I discovered that there is so much more than I had ever noticed before. Depth goes in different directions: up and down, inward and outward…indefinitely. Maybe it was less overwhelming to be a Waterstrider, but it was also less genuine. In the depths of the sea, there is reflected the vastness of the heavens. In the solitude of a silent moment, there is the ageless Now. In the recognition of something we “know”, there is the awareness of Mystery that we will never comprehend. This might be what some people call “Wisdom” or “Maturity”. I tend to think of it as simple Truth. If you’re not afraid to go below the surface, you may discover the wonders of Depth. It feels different. It surrounds you, puts pressure on places that may not be used to bearing it. But you may discover a strength and resiliency you didn’t know you had…at least I did. Then that depth makes you feel buoyant and free…as if you were flying!
Take up the challenge, friends. Take a journey into Depth.
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) “TrustGod, 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.
photo by Josh
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.
photo by Josh
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!
photo by Josh
May each of you be happy and at peace in this year’s ending and in the continuation of Life in the New Year!