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.

 

take your seat

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In out-of-the-way places of the heart,

Where your thoughts never think to wander,

This beginning has been quietly forming,

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

John O’Donohue

Do not take lightly your tentative toe steps or the whispery calls of a long hushed voice. Do not take lightly a sudden awareness of being or the experience of your whole breath. Do not take lightly the awkward sensation of not knowing and the fear of getting it wrong. And do not, for one minute, think that you are not supposed to feel this way, as you begin to gradually unfold.

Those first steps onto the yoga mat might seem inconsequential. They might seem small. They might just seem like a bit of physical juju as you foofoo around from one ‘pose’ to another. But when you step onto a yoga mat, you take your seat. The word ‘asana’ means ‘seat’ and though you might not feel like you’re doing a whole lot of sitting that is exactly what you are doing. Taking a seat inside yourself. Seat by seat, pose by pose, you come into view. You make contact with the ground of your being, landing softly and remembering that it was always already there but you somehow forgot. That this fluorescent, vital, life-force managed to somehow become dim. That the very essence of you became wispy, imperceptible … hard to reach.

Every organism on this planet is here to grow and each time we take our seat, we reaffirm our commitment to that process. Yoga is one way to take that vow and, more often than not, it takes us by surprise. It begins with the sweet remembrance of embodiment. Of what it feels like to become alive from the neck down, and not because our head is telling us that our body should exercise but because we have actually started to feel again. Droplets of awareness sink into our cells, and, before long, we can hear our bodies speak. Breathe into their message. Receive their wisdom.

I deeply wish to grow. I deeply wish to grow. I deeply wish to grow.

Our breath seems fuller, sensation more acute, our capacity to feel becomes more present and our understanding of embodiment transforms, as we wake up to ourselves. Those first steps onto the yoga mat can lead to the deepest seat you might ever take inside your own being. They can take you to unexpected realms of perception as your intuition sharpens, your awareness expands and your reality takes on a whole new level of detail. As your relationship to the world around you shifts, your relationship to yourself can truly evolve. And that is the stuff of miracles.

There is a voice that doesn’t use words.

Listen.

Rumi

 

look within

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“In our day-to-day lives, we continually fail to recognize the invisible light that renders the whole visible world luminous.”

John O’Donohue

There is a perennial branch that takes root in the centre of your chest. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, but you can know it. As the world gets louder and the violence rumbles nearer, a revolution is waiting to happen inside of you. Its revolt is patient, its power potent and its voice hushed beneath the anarchy and unrest that already exists inside your own head. Like any uprising, its beginnings are subterranean. Hidden. Only seen and heard if you choose to listen and look. You won’t find it ‘out there’. It is not a quest for stuff and things or for status and admiration. Its nature is less gross, less obvious, less clear. Its subtlety takes you into invisible realms, beyond articulation, explanation and name, but once you dig deep enough, there is no going back. Once you locate the source of this uprising, its deeper wisdom will surge through you and you will know. Unequivocally.

When times are troubling and people are being shot on your doorstep, it can be easy to despair. But as the wise and wonderful Christopher Wallis recently noted, the world is more full than it has ever been. There is more hate, more division, more unrest, more war, more suffering but there is also more love, more unification, more rest, more peace and more healing than there has ever been. There is more of everything, everywhere, all of the time.

Last night, I was deeply moved by the dignity and courage of Kim Leadbetter as she remembered her sister, Jo Cox. Kim spoke of how she had always had a healthy dose of Yorkshire cynicism and instead of speaking about her feelings, she would shout at the telly and get upset behind closed doors. Her sister believed in speaking out. She believed in seeing the good in people. Even when she was receiving abuse from the public, she would remind Kim that we must continue to focus on what unites us, not divides us. We must choose what we amplify. We can focus on the greater good of humanity or the dark inclinations that exist within each and every one of us. We each have both and we can’t have one without the other. In the words of Maya Angelou, there are rainbows in the clouds and sometimes our hearts have to be broken for us to realize how deeply we can feel. And feel, we must. We can talk about darkness, prejudice and suffering. We can point the finger and see these things as external but unless we feel all of it inside of ourselves, we can never truly grow.

If we learn to walk with our own shadows, take responsibility for the part we play in every encounter and relationship, we can begin to rise. We can become more aware of the impact we have on those closest to us. On those we come across in our daily lives. And in the difference we can each make if we each do our own work. If we listen more carefully to what we say, why we say it and where it’s coming from. If we listen to our intuition and that part of us that knows more than we ever give it credit for. Don’t listen to what’s going on out there. Of what he says and she says and Rupert Murdoch wants you to say. Get quiet, listen within and be honest with yourself. The pain is inside. It’s all inside. And when we realize that, we can begin to bring peace to the raging riot we wage upon ourselves. We can move into ourselves, into our fear and return to what was once love. The quest for the answer, for knowledge, for peace, is hidden deep inside of you. The visible world is only half of what we can know. It is in the invisible realms where transformation can take place.

 “In our confusion, fear and uncertainty we call upon the invisible structures to come to our assistance and open pathways of possibility by refreshing and activating in us our invisible potential.”

John O’Donohue

The practice of re-membering

 

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Did you forget? Did you lose sight of yourself and become blinded in all directions, deafened by the noise and dampened by the clutter? Did you forget what it feels like to come home? To gently usher in the ocean of bliss that rises from communion with your soul? Did you forget about your healing? Your traumas? Your sore places and feeling parts? Did you forget how you love to laugh and swim inside the roaring waves of experience?

One of my dear students forgot about yoga recently. He didn’t show up to class for a few weeks and when he walked back through the studio doors, it took about five minutes before he said, ‘I forgot’. I forgot how good it feels to be here, to be on the mat, to be part of a community, to move, to remember where I get stuck, where I need to work, how far I’ve come, where I need to go next. We forget the joy of being, breathing and moving. The purification of feeling. The dynamic stillness when we sit in meditation and step into silent conversation. We all forget and that’s the way it’s set up. We forget so we can remember. So we can dance inside the pulsating structures of perfect paradox. We contract we so can expand, we sleep so we can awaken, we burn so we can rise. We live and die inside each breath and in every moment lies the invitation to remember the evergreen field within each of us. That place that is endlessly patient and infinitely present. That place of pure awareness-consciousness, also known as Chit-Ananda. The Shiva space. The ground of being.

I love that sweet homecoming but I also work to remember the parts of me that aren’t so delicious. Those parts that someone once told me were far from beautiful. Parts of me I have exiled and openly spat out in front of myself. Parts of me I have kept quiet and dimmed down for fear of upsetting someone or shining too brightly. Parts of me I haven’t understood or trusted or been able to nurture, parent and breathe back to life. The becoming of this yogini is a wild song of connection and disconnection. I’ve been carefully dismembering myself over the last couple of years, burning through veils of clothing and layers of connective tissue to get to the marrow and vasculature of my bones. Hands dripping with blood and my knees torn from falls of surrender that carry the promise of transformation. Deliberately and consciously flinging myself onto the fire, with as much dignity and integrity as I can gather, before approaching the dark corners to collect the body parts and begin the re-membering.

Re-membering myself has become an innocent and unwitting experience of reclamation and recognition as I come into view.  With compassionate acceptance, I’m beginning to see where I’ve cheated myself, cut myself off, dimmed myself down. I see that I’ve cared so much about everyone else and what they think that I’ve not cared enough about myself and what I think. Freedom has come to be that place of recognition where I see consciousness reflecting back at me. But freedom has also decided to be a very real experience of becoming less bound by my own judgement and expectation, so I can be everything and nothing. Of feeling more free in who I am and how I choose to express myself. Freedom in the choices that I take and being comfortable with each of them. Not trying to live up to someone else’s ideas or ideals of who I am or who I should be. Of holding myself whole and listening to the talking circle inside myself, embracing my inner child, owning my patterns, giving less of a shit about what defines good Col or bad Col, old Col or new Col, teacher Col or student Col, creative Col or consultant Col. Just being free to be all of me, without exclusion, shame, fear or diminishment.

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a fully integrated human but I know i’m emerging as a much less fragmented one and, as I lovingly stitch my canvas back together, other parts of me take form and I remember.

“Erase what you know, what you are so sure of. And then start thinking again. Not with your mind this time, but with your heart.” Elif Shafak