It can be done

 

“In the depth of winter, I finally learnt that within me lay an invincible summer”.

Albert Camus

It’s October and the shadows have been stretching right the way over my head like a pair of opaque 60 denier tights with no holes for eyes. It’s the mask of a joy thief and this obtuse hosiery has addled my brain leaving me stranded in a place where I am fully myself. That is, I am fully inside my shadow and I’m not denying any of it. This curious period of intimate self-knowledge lasted for around four weeks and was a source of great wonder/amusement/terror for both Pete and myself.

As I emerged from the shadows and lifted the tights for a gasp of air, I found that inside the fibres lay a lurking fear. A loathsome creature with mean teeth, eating away at my hopes and dreams. Opposing my will and almost stopping me from doing almost anything even vaguely dynamic.

We wanted to host a retreat in Bali. I wanted to teach in Ubud. I want to teach. Full stop. It’s time and I miss it and I yearn to be back in community after my long reach inside. And the days and months of self-practice and self-inquiry have served their purpose. It’s time to manifest and create and bring things to life but doubt and hesitation were cultivating a foisty environment that was leaving me to fester.

Maybe we should just go home. Maybe we shouldn’t extend our trip. What are we doing with our lives? What if we fail? What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m supposed to have a semi-detached house and a car and some children and I’m forty soon and how did that happen and and and …

And then I meditated

[…]

I meditate everywhere. In the concrete garden of a Malaysian guesthouse, on the boat surrounded by Indonesian fishermen, overlooking the main road, on the plane, in the bed while Pete is sleeping, on the floor while Pete is typing, in the garden while the kids are playing, on the rocks, on the sand, in the toilet cubicle, in a quiet corner of someone’s roof garden, in the prayer rooms at the airports. I don’t give a shit. When I wait for a yoga class to start, I’m dropping right on in there. I’m tuning in, finding the still frequency beneath all the noise and nothing is going to pull me out. I don’t care if I look like a weirdo – and that, in itself, is huge progress. It’s my secret laboratory where I activate my magic powers and I get present. It’s how I listen and get clear. It’s how I move past the blah blah blah to get real on what is actually happening, why it’s happening and how to move in, through and out of it.

So, as I sat in the shade, safe from the scorch of the Perth sun, peaceful in the garden of my dear old friend. I drank it all in. The unfamiliar sounds of the Australian wildlife. The new language of the Southern birds. The blessing of the cool winds, whipped up from the nearby ocean. The concrete beneath me and the sweetest sounds of the kids squealing with joy in the house behind me. All these anchors calling me in to the sacredness of the moment and each singular element inside of it.

I’m still now and the stillness is running in and through and all around me. I’ve slipped under the sounds and I rest here a while. After maybe twenty minutes I start to ask for guidance. What is the truth? What direction should I take? What do I need to know to move forward? And after a few minutes of stillness these simple words come through, ‘It can be done’.

Now they might seem like pretty obvious words to you. Yes, it can be. Anything can be. But when you’re in a state of doubt and fear and hesitation, those words are far away. And those words didn’t come from my rational brain. It wasn’t an analytical, reasoning, interrogative process that led me to this clear and simple conclusion. It was the deepest part of me telling the voices in my head what the reality was. It can be done. It can all be done. Trust and keep moving in the direction of truth. Move past the critical voices, the doubts and the fears and reach into the highest level of consciousness that you can possibly drop down into. And there you’ll find the guidance you need.

I smiled when the answer came because I knew where it had come from. And when I came out of meditation, I went to see Pete and was all ‘let’s do this’. I was all, yeah man, we rock. I was all clear and confident and grounded in what was true.

So that’s why I meditate. Besides the ripple of bliss that runs through my body when I tune into the stillness. And besides the sanctuary it offers me, wherever I am and whatever is happening. Besides the luxury it affords me as I learn to witness my reactions and see my shadows more clearly. And besides the physical benefits of calming my nervous system and listening to my body-mind. Besides all that, and a whole lot more, it helps me to discern my reality. To move beyond the stories and the limiting beliefs to reach a place of clarity and truth. Where the deepest voice inside of me becomes more familiar and I can learn to recognize my intuition and let it lead the way.

It shows me that it can be done. Whatever it is. And, beyond it all, there is an invincible, endless summer inside that can shed light, warm me up and give me a bit of extra colour when I need it most.

What is self care?

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I’m quick to the keyboard this morning as I drink in the words of Bridget. I’ve been gratefully turning to her Wild Well Project as we’ve moved through india and ourselves. Each new moon and full moon, she freshly presses some head and heart juice and shares it with the community. She invites us to task, contemplate, read and journal. She shares inspirational material, yoga practices, meditations and interviews with some of her wildly well and wise women. And this new moon, the subject is ‘Make your own Medicine’.

“’Self-care’ is a bit of a buzz word at the moment and I have been wondering what does self-care really mean? I often think of self-care more as radical self-love. Self-care is a deep medicine for our mind, body and psyche. And I believe it is different for different people.” Bridget Luff

So what does self-care mean? Sounds obvious doesn’t it. Self. Care. But how do you really nourish yourself? Where do you draw your boundaries so that you get the rest you need? And what do you need to do every day, week, month and year to feel well? These questions have been swimming around me since we decided to take ourselves on a month-long retreat to the cool and calm of the Himalayas and this is what I’ve learnt.

I’ve learnt that my Dad was right and early nights really are radical. I’ve learnt that all the studies are right and eight hours sleep is indeed optimum.  I’ve learnt that my body loves warm food and that my digestion needs grounding bean stews, hearty grains, warming spices and lentil soups – all made to be mouthwateringly tasty by two meter Peter.

And that’s another thing I’ve learnt. Part of my self-care practice is letting someone care for me. I’m an independent human, so not feeling like I have to do everything all the time to be a good person is actually, ironically, conversely, an act of self-care. I’ve also learnt, over the years, that feeling like I have to do all the things is part of my shadow. It’s been driven by a sense of low self-worth where I didn’t feel like I deserved other people’s time and care. I now know better but I’m still afraid to ask for help. All of which leads me to prefer Bridget’s rearticulation of the phrase ‘self-care’ to ‘radical self-love’. How can we come to love ourselves? How can we activate our sense of self worth? Where can we be more generous to our bodies? Who can we invite into our lives for real support? How can we yield more and do less? And what would it feel like to do less?

Through seclusion and inquiry, I’ve learnt to embrace my shy, quiet self. I’ve recognized that I need peace and solitude, as much as relationship and excitement. That’s it’s ok to do less and that I don’t need to achieve all the time.

So. Right now. Without rubbing it in too much. My day pretty much looks like this:

5.30/6am – waking up naturally followed by hot lemon water and Pete

7-7.30am – Pranayama

7.30-9am – Asana

9-9.30am – Meditation

10am – big bowl of porridge

10.30 – back to bed to rest and read

1pm – A bowl of something spicy and hearty followed by one or two of the following, depending on my mood: writing, reading, cleaning, cooking, social media, emailing, typing up my training notes, doing bits of work, planning classes, a walk through the hills to buy some biscuits

4.30 – tea and biscuits then more of the above

6pm – a different bowl of some warming, hearty nourishment then more of the above

8pm – reading in bed

9pm – Nidra and sleep

Yes, I am a smug little yogi. I’m on retreat and it’s something I choose to do to learn what’s good for me. My self-care means slowing down, getting quiet, giving myself some time and really noticing how my mind and body respond. Going into seclusion for a couple of weeks gives us the opportunity to experiment, to settle, to reduce the stimulation and calm our nervous systems. And this is a non-negotiable, annual self-care practice for me. At least two weeks of the year in total seclusion. Ideally in a mountain cabin. With Pete. And bean stew.

When I get back home, I’ll bring a couple of these new offerings in. Like eating warm foods at regular times or getting to bed early but we’ll see how it goes. Over the years, I’ve gradually integrated daily practices but it takes time and if we start beating ourselves with the self-care stick then where’s the love in that?

Do what you can. Find out what self-love, or self-care, means to you. Bring awareness to your patterns. Notice. Experiment. Set some boundaries. And take it from there.

In a couple of weeks we’ll head off to Bangkok to meet our wonderful buddy, Hazel, and I can’t wait for a cold beer. The last one was on Tuesday 18th April. (I promise I’m not counting. I’m just a mega geek and have a daily budget app, which is, btw, an amazing way to stay on track when you’re traveling).

Thanks to Bridget for all the inspiration. These links are pretty much all from her latest post on the WWP.

I died a thousand times

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“Every yoga practice is an experience of death.”

Nameless Yogi

What is certain? Certainly not the future. So what is happening right now for you?

Listen. Let the sounds reach you. Become aware of the temperature of the air on your skin. The breath that breathes you. The quality of light that surrounds you. What is happening right now in your body? Become aware of your posture. Your shoulders. The slight tension in your jaw or your brow. What can you hear. And smell. And taste. And what is the texture of your emotions as you read these words? How do they find you today?

Take a moment.

Close your eyes.

And listen.

“We practice yoga, not for life but for death. If any of you are practicing for the life you are mistaken.”

I don’t know his name but it’s not important. I’m more interested in the life force that is joyfully animating his slight Indian form. There is a lift and dance in his movements that reflects the impish arc of his smile, widening with his eyes as he teaches from the front. Witty and provocative, he amuses himself as he watches our addled brains lumpishly wrap around the esoteric enquiries of the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.

“The only thing that is certain is death. In pranayama we are controlling the life force, no? We hold our breath. We stop the life that is breathing us.”

In every moment there is a death. Each moment that has just past is gone. To sit inside that moment and this moment and that moment is to live more fully. To experience the moment as it passes away is to live and die in a heartbeat. Or at least, that’s what I thought he was talking about.

What I also thought he was talking about was the power of yoga to transform. That gradual metamorphosis of who we are, how we see ourselves and begin to experience the world. We peel back the layers of conditioning, shedding the old skin that doesn’t fit any more. We begin to notice our recurring patterns, start to see through the traffic of our thoughts, catch ourselves in our shadows and, as we practice, something luminous begins to sing in our words and ways. In how we treat our bodies, listen to our loved ones and get closer to ourselves. As the dead cells fall, we rise up to live.

Asana, meditation, and the ancillary practices, burn and burn and burn till we reach the stillpoint. We move our bodies to still our minds and come home to this expansive state of being that anchors us so fully into the now that everything else diffuses. Through the practices we die a thousand times. And, conversely, the parts of ourselves that we have cast away and denied get to live again. The judgements, the expectations, the chaos and the ideas about who we ‘should’ be are replaced with something far greater. A truer sense of what lies beneath. One that pierces through those tired concepts of ‘self’, allowing them to perish so we can become fuller.

In a previous lecture, our artful guide challenged us to consider that yoga is not union. Yoga is separation. This was dangerous ground, I thought. Yes, we are separating ourselves from our thoughts and our concepts but we can all too easily separate ourselves from our feelings in a bid to ‘transcend’ our ‘suffering’. In my understanding, it is only through uniting with our suffering that it can pass away. We must experience that which is painful to allow it move through. As with death, we can’t avoid it. If we push it away, deny it, separate from it, bypass it, our spirit will die from the toxicity of what remains buried. In contrast, if we recognize what is truly living in us, if we see the certainty of our pain and the root of our suffering then it can dissolve. When we shift from the consumption of thought to the consciousness of feeling, we learn to honour the whole spectrum of human experience and facilitate flow. By not getting caught up in the story that surrounds what is happening, by ‘separating’ our thoughts and ‘uniting’ with our feelings, we become more alive as those concepts die a death.

 

 

what is real?

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Waking from a dream. What is real? I crawl under the crook of Pete’s arm. Nestle in, lay my head on his heart. This is real. I focus in on the details of the room. The morning sun hiding behind the stirring curtain. The warm wind. The whirr of the air-con. The horns on the street below. My breath. My skin. The ache in my neck. The morning. The day. The small smile that softens my face as I remember. This is real.

I hate waking from a bad dream. Or not even a bad dream. Just one with an old friend, someone you once wronged, an unwound knot, a knotty wound, a haunting. Tight around your throat, you wake up agitated and upset. What is real?

This has been my mantra for the last couple of weeks. It came through in a meditation. Perhaps I’d been caught up in some story. I can’t remember but it’s stayed with me. When walking down a hectic Indian street, the only foreigner in town, all eyes on you, it’s easy to feel awkward, different, afraid. Am I too white, too tall, are my bare arms offensive, is it ok to smile, is it appropriate, do I disgust you, am I provoking you, do you hate me. It’s all too easy to project my insecurities onto the blank faces and staring eyes.

What is real? My footsteps. My breath. The layers of noise closing in and pulsing out. The heat. My sweat. The eyes. The people. The people looking at me. This is real. But that is all.

“Watch your thoughts. Feel your feelings”. Wise words from my teacher, Leila. Pulling the two apart helps to keep us present to what is actually happening. It keeps us connected to ourselves. Helps us to steer clear of the storyline and stay on the feeling path. What is true right now? What is real? What are the facts? What is happening in your body? What voice are you listening to? The one in your head or the one that runs deeper. Your intuition or your conditioning? The one that’s coming from the root of your heart or the one that came from someone-somewhere-sometime.

In many yogic traditions, this dance with reality is understood through the concept of Maya. Often translated as appearance, illusion or ignorance, Maya is the veil that covers our real nature. The veils that lead us into storyland and away from centre. Away from our felt state. Away from what is actually happening. For me, meditation is the practice of witnessing the veil lift and fall, lift and fall, as I pulse in and out of centre, as I watch my thoughts and get to know my patterns. This new mantra is part of breaking those patterns, noticing where I get scared, being ok with being scared but staying curious as to who is scaring who. I’m pretty sure, most of the time, I am the one scaring me.

What is real?

It’s deeply grounding and soothing to respond to that question and I can do it anywhere, anytime. When I get stuck in my head or feel anxious about what happened or what might happen, I ask, what is real? I anchor into the sounds, smells, sensations and stimulus. I let them carry me into Presence. I feel my feet, connect to my breath, move into the moment, and ask again, what is real?

 

 

 

Compassion in action

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“Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Buddhist saying

The Indian Ocean beats down on the beach, relentlessly dragging the shoreline back and grinding the sand with its frothing mouth. Ravens squawk and shit in the eaves of the thatch and wild dogs howl indiscriminately at passing scavengers. The sun is seething, flattening the sea breeze, while Pete and I sit on the rough hewn cement of our two-storey hut, taking shade and eating a breakfast of idli pancakes.

We’re discussing the book I’m reading, Non-Violent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, and Pete asks if I think there is sometimes a need for violent communication. My sense is that our communication baseline is already violent. We’re brutal to ourselves, criticising, blaming, putting ourselves down and insisting that we should be better than who we already are. The gift of consciousness veiled by the illusion of unworthiness. We place unreasonable demands on ourselves and others. We’re violent in our judgement. We cast aspersions, make comparisons, measure people by our own perceptions and ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. And we can be unaware of the violence we bring into our relationships. Wanting to get our own way, wondering why our lovers, friends and family don’t understand us, won’t listen to us, won’t do as we say.

The premise of Non-Violent Communication is based on Ahimsa, one of the five yamas in classical yoga. It translates as ‘do no harm’, which is not to say don’t be boundaried or stand up for yourself, but be alert to your thoughts and actions. The invitation is to listen to what’s really present. To put our own story to one side, whilst becoming more skillful at understanding our own feelings and needs and then those of the Other. Tools and skills that help us to move beyond the communication baseline. To articulate ourselves more clearly, to speak our truth more compassionately, to know the difference between requests and demands and to learn how to deeply listen.

As we sit and talk, a low table lies between us, with a murti of the Goddess, Tara, taking centrestage. Tara represents compassion. Her name means ‘star’, ‘guide’ or ‘the one who traverses’ and as I send my whole self across my makeshift altar, I attempt to traverse the space between us, to be more fully on Pete’s side. To be more compassionate to his feelings and needs by offering up my presence.

“The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”

Chuang-Tzu, Chinese Philosopher

When we arrived in Chennai, four weeks ago, the air was thick with diesel and uncertainty. There was no money in the ATMs, my laptop had packed up, I was missing the studio and my feet were yet to feel the hot, dry earth. Inside the first few days, we found ourselves in an arts and crafts shop and this heavy, bronze murti of Tara called to me. Resting in easy pose, holding mudras of fearlessness and openness, she insisted on joining us as we travelled. And, in honor of that, I began a Tara saddhana, chanting her mantra, meditating and journalling each morning, inviting compassion, non-violence and empathy to take root in my heart. Calling my awareness back to that intention as I move through the increasingly hot days. Having compassion with myself, with Pete and with our new friends and experiences.

Non-violent communication is the practice of compassion in action and the refinement of holding space. It’s the skill of ‘emptying our mind and listening with our whole being’. I can sense the shift when I do this and I can hear my harsh language when I don’t. Telling Pete that he ‘should’ do this or offering misplaced advice that is neither needed nor invited. Interfering but believing I’m ‘just trying to help’ and seeing my tendency to control a situation rear its shadowy head… before remembering to be compassionate with myself again.

Rosenberg presents the following examples of how we don’t listen empathically or truly hold space. How we try to fix things when someone just wants to be heard and held.

Advising:                      “I think you should…” “How come you didn’t…”

One-upping:               “That’s nothing, wait till you hear what happened to me.”

Educating:                   “If you just did this…”

Consoling:                   “It wasn’t your fault. You did the best you could”

Storytelling:                “That reminds me of the time…”

Shutting down:           ”Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad…”

Sympathising:             “Oh, you poor thing…”

Interrogating:              “When did this begin…”

Explaining:                  “I would have called but…”

Correcting:                  “That’s not how it happened…”

“Believing we have to fix situations and make others feel better prevents us from being present”. We go up in our heads. Start strategizing. Finding ways to solve things. And it’s not that this is wrong or bad or that we now have to start judging and criticizing ourselves but we can pull back, offer our presence and perhaps notice a shift. What we might find is that our need to solve and fix and advise is more about us than the person we’re trying to help.

“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have the capacity do not possess it.”

Simone Weil, French philosopher

When the wifi is strong enough, I’ll share my saddhana and post an online class around the theme of Compassion in Action and we can practice together, across the Indian Ocean. If you want the saddhana, in the meantime, then email me at hello@colyoga.com and I’ll give you the details.