~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Letter from the Practice Mat #2

August 9, 2020

Dear Friends -

As we settle into August, I am writing with another letter from our shared practice mat. If you have been joining us virtually for our classes, this will be a review and a reminder of some of the themes we've been exploring. And if you haven't been joining us, my hope is that you might find something here that inspires and informs your own practice during this strange and difficult time.

In recent weeks we have been exploring the many beautiful ways that our practice can serve as a refuge and a sanctuary that allows us to feel at home and at ease in the world. Experts tell us that a sense of being safe and sound helps us process stress in more beneficial ways than when we live our lives on high alert to any danger that may be headed our way.

When our nervous systems are in a state of alarm, our bodies are primed to act, to move, to respond to the outer environment. And that means that when we are stressed, sometimes movement and action can be healthier alternatives than staying still. That's why a qigong routine or a yoga sequence or even a brisk walk down the street can be so helpful when we feel tension rising up within us.

Spending a little time moving and breathing in wholesome ways - as we've been doing in class - can help us down-regulate the nervous system so that we can live with greater balance and ease. And this helps us cultivate resilience in the world. Practicing can feel pleasant and soul-satisfying, and the after-effects stay with us long after we gather ourselves us from the mat and head back out into our day.

We can discharge stress with our weekly classes, or even with daily practice. And we can even keep our nervous systems in a balanced state by slipping moments of practice into the folds of our day. Any time we sense our inner temperature rising, we can call on a breathing technique or a physical movement or a mindfulness exercise that we've learned in class. We might do this many times throughout the day, just to keep our lives on an even keel. Instead of waiting for the boat to capsize entirely, we take small actions when we feel the boat beginning to list in order to keep ourselves safely afloat. 

Those who have been in class also know that this summer we have spent a lot of time close to the ground, letting ourselves be held by the earth, letting angst slip off our bodies, and waiting patiently for a sense of spacious vitality to bubble up like spring water from the depths, lifting us back up and out into the world.

More recently, we have been reclaiming the sky, too. We have been playing with the possibility of embodying both the constancy and faithfulness of the earth that holds us and also the sky above that draws us up and out into the world. We've been playing around in the poses in ways that are more earthy and ways that are more sky-filled. And we've been considering our lives as the intersection - the conversation, perhaps - between earth and sky.

As our explorations deepen, we can even begin to shift the inner felt sense of groundedness and possibility within a single moment. We can let our tree pose feel more earthy and rooted, or we can let it feel expansive and close to the sky. And as we move through our days, when we feel uprooted or manic, we can shift into "grounding" mode. When we feel stuck or inert, we can add a little sky to our lives, to bring ourselves back into balance.

All of this helps us feel more at home in our bodies and at home in the world. And that is a feeling that we may all need in this time when life conspires to keep us off balance and on high alert. 

Throughout the pandemic, we have been exploring the twin practices of iron and silk. We've been considering the importance of staying strong and steady and resilient. We've been calling upon poses and practices that cultivate gentle strength and stamina. We need to keep our heads above water, and we are going to need to stay strong in this way for a long time to come, it seems. We can use our practice to cultivate this inner strength and substance.

At the same time, we need to stay close to our tender hearts. We need to stay open and clear and loving. We need to offer ourselves and others a sense of allegiance, support and goodwill. We need to keep close to the juiciness and vitality of life. We need to stay close to lovingkindness, both toward ourselves and the world around us. We need to stay in loving connection with the wider world.

Some days require a little more iron and some days call for the softness of silk. Our practice gives us the opportunity to cultivate both, in balanced and responsive ways. If you've been in class you know that I call on my "iron goddess of mercy" often to help me stay both strong and soft. You might have an image or practice that works similarly for you.

Our lovely Monday night meditation group has been chugging happily along, with moments of camaraderie (including virtual tours of our gardens) and shared practice. I love the quiet time we share together. I love the friendship that somehow reaches right through the screen. I love the faithful reminder that we are all in this together and that somehow, in the end, everything is going to be okay.

The point of meditation is to steady the mind in a way that helps us see clearly the truth of life so that we can act in ways that are wholesome and helpful in the world. In other words, as teacher Sylvia Boorstein says, we are habituating the mind to respond to every moment - whatever happens in the world - with clarity and kindness.

One tried-and-true way to steady the mind is to give it something real and constant to focus on: the breath, sounds, bodily sensations, a phrase or sound or wish for the world. Different anchors work in different ways for different people, and recently we have been getting to know our favorite "home base" meditation techniques.

We have also been paying close attention to the pesky tendency of the mind to create melodramatic stories about our lives that may or may not be true. The mind left to its own wandering ways can quickly get us into deep trouble. Or, as some might say, "The idle mind can be the devil's playground."

Meditators teach us that we can nurture happiness in our lives by sticking a little more closely to the facts - to the raw sensations of being alive - and by being a little more skeptical of the dramas our brain creates for ourselves. Teacher Sharon Salzberg suggests that we keep an eye out for the "add-ons," for the extra commentary we layer on top of the raw experience of being alive. With a little practice, we can learn to stop piling on those add-ons before they get us into trouble.

Thankfully, meditation practice helps us train our minds to stay present. It also helps us tease out what is real in our lives and what is delusional... like many of our thoughts and fears and stories we tell ourselves. We get better about stopping our thoughts in their tracks, noticing they are heading into dangerous territory, and reeling them back in more wholesome directions.

Please join us on Monday nights any time you might like a healing dose of peace and calm!

In class we've also been reminding ourselves that we are heading into the secret fifth season of the year, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. We are heading into long summer, the season of balance, the season of the earth. To me this time feels like being at the top of a ferris wheel - no longer rising up and not yet slipping down. Here we can take in a vaster view, relax into the moment and savor all that is good.

Let's not miss this moment of utter balance. Let's keep our eyes and our ears trained right here and right now. Remember our late summer homework: grab a blanket, head out into the backyard (or deck or terrace), lie down, and gaze upward at the green leaves and the puffy white clouds and the vast blue sky. Ten minutes, at least, and hopefully every day. This practice may just save you, as it does me.

Wendell Berry offers the perfect mantra for this season of long summer: "What we need is here." (Find the whole poem here.) Even in this difficult time, it is extremely likely that in this moment and in this breath we have all that we need to be happy. Maybe happiness and peace rest less with changing things outside of ourselves and more with changing our inner thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. And maybe this shift in perspective will enable us to cultivate a deeper sense of wholeness and contentment in the lives we are living  right here and right now.

I have a few recommendations to share, as always. I loved Susan Kaiser Greenland's interview on the 10 Percent Happier Podcast (episode #231 on March 18). She discusses ways of cultivating mindfulness and calm among kids during this pandemic, but I found her suggestions equally helpful for adults.

In classes, we've been making an effort to "take in the good," to give happy moments their fair time in the sun, and here's a nice explanation about why this can be so good for our mental health. And if you'd like to explore the intersection of love and social action, you might want to revisit this fantastic On Being interview from a few years ago with John Lewis.

As we've been exploring simple and portable practices that can help us stay afloat in this challenging time, I've pulled together my favorite simple breathing practices - the ones you can carry around and pull out just when you need a little steadying and calm - into a single space on my website. Those who have been practicing with me will recognize these practices as good friends we explore often in class. Enjoy!

And I rediscovered this essay I wrote several years ago about the gifts of summer. Clearly it was written in a different era - the ease and possibility almost seem quaint - but perhaps there is inspiration there that still holds in this strange time. We still have a month of summer left, so perhaps this essay will prod us into diving into the glories of the season before it slips away.

Classes continue online for the foreseeable future. Please feel free to join us on Monday evenings for meditation, and on Wednesday and Saturday mornings for movement and stillness. One of the silver linings of online classes has been that friends old and new have been popping up from all over the country. And long-time students have been having fun slipping friends and family members into our community, too. Welcome, all!

Details about our classes can be found here. My classes are freely offered to all, with deep appreciation to those who are moved to help support my efforts using the Paypal link on my website here. I have been so touched by your generosity. Thank you!

If you've been a regular, I'm sure you've noticed that simply showing up keeps us honest and keeps us moving forward, offering us steadiness and grace during this challenging time. And if you haven't yet joined us, please know that we would love to have you any time.

I hope to see you soon, and send love to you all!