Sunday, January 14, 2018

Light Up the Lamp

Still using the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh to inspire my classes and blog this week:


The word "mindfulness" and the admonishment to "be mindful," are now well-incorporated into popular culture. That's not a bad thing, but like any expression, overuse can lead to a loss of true meaning. So what does it really mean, to be mindful; to practice mindfulness?

Keeping it simple, we can say that to be mindful means:

To pay attention to what is happening in this moment, right now; to pay attention to what you are doing, what you are experiencing, what you are thinking and what you are feeling. Right. Now.

It's the same thing we mean when we talk of being present or being awake. How much of our lives do we miss out on because our thoughts are engaged with past events or with possible future ones? Have you ever sat through a magnificent concert, only to realize afterward that you "missed" the whole thing because, although you were physically there, your mind was somewhere else? On the other hand, have you ever been at an event of family or friends and had a moment when you suddenly stopped and looked and listened, and realized in that very moment, how wonderful the chaos of it all was, and how much you loved these people and were grateful to be among them? That's a mindful moment.

And the benefit of mindfulness is not only being present in our lives, it also helps us avoid causing suffering for ourselves and others. When we are disconnected from our lives, from ourselves, we react instead of respond; we say and do things that we later regret. We hurt others, and in doing so, we harm ourselves.

Most of us, much of the time, are not very present, not very mindful. A typical example is when we are in conversation with another person. Often, we don't give them our full attention, don't let them finish what they are saying, or even listen to them at all! What are we doing instead? Usually, we are thinking about what we are going to say, or about how quickly we can end the conversation. It happened to me just yesterday. I felt myself starting to pull away from a conversation while the other person was still talking - as though I had something better and more important to do - which I didn't! Luckily, I had moment of mindfulness, in which I saw what I was doing. That moment of awareness allowed me to change course and I engaged with her fully, making eye contact, listening and responding to her in a way that showed that I had been paying attention to what she said.

So how do we become more mindful, perhaps even making it our new normal? As Thich Nhat Hanh says, the oil of our lamp of mindfulness is "our breath, our steps and our smile." In physical yoga practice (asana) and in meditation, we bring our awareness to the breath. This simple act allows us to focus the mind in one place. We choose the breath because it is easy to find and always available to us, and also because it offers us a physical connection to our awareness - we can feel it.

With practice, this becomes a tool we can use to become more present in our busy lives, not just something we do during yoga practice. Remembering to feel our breath connects us back to ourselves, puts us back in our bodies and in our hearts. It slows us down, giving us the opportunity to consciously make a better choice about our next step. In my case, I was given the chance to choose to be respectful of another human being, rather than dismissive.

In a stressful moment, say, in the checkout line at the grocery store on a day when you are on a tight schedule, and find yourself behind someone who hasn't quite figured out how to use the new chip credit cards, your impulse might be to roll your eyes and cross your arms and mutter some complaint under your breath. You might find yourself getting more and more worked up. Or, you might remember to feel your breath. And in that moment when you connect to your breath, there is a pause, a pause during which your perspective might shift. That pause might be just enough to allow you to see the confused person with compassion, to feel empathy for him or her - we have all been that person in some situation. And maybe your next step would be to smile and even offer to help.

The oil of that lamp is our breath, our steps and our smile. Our practice is to light up the lamp.

In my previous post, Take One Step, I shared another Thich Nhat Hanh quote, in which he advised us to take just one mindful step, and if we can take one, we can take another and another. This is what he means. Step one, come back to your breath. During that momentary pause, you can make a conscious choice - a mindful choice - about your next step, one that you won't regret later. And don't forget the smile.





Sunday, January 7, 2018

Take One Step

I'm picking up the thread from the previous post "Begin Anew," and weaving it into this week's post, "Take One Step," continuing with wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:



As a new year begins, we are drawn to the idea of change - changing ourselves, our appearance, our behavior, our thoughts, our situation, our lives. For many of us, there is a tendency to think BIG, which is not a bad thing, but can, sometimes, be self-defeating. We want big results, and we want them fast. We're not always so interested in taking small steps, or in taking things one step at a time. But the reality is that creating long-term, sustainable change in any aspect of our lives is dependent on understanding that reaching a "finish line" is the result of taking many small steps.

"...the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment." In yoga, mindfulness practice is a path to making change one small step at a time. This is the practice of learning to connect to the present moment, to being aware of what is right here with us, now, not what was in the past or may be in the future. The practice is simple, but not easy: we find a quiet spot, come to sit in stillness and focus our awareness on one thing - the breath, a word, a phrase, an image.

"...if you can take one mindful step, you can take another and another." If the goal is to run a triathalon and you are terribly out of shape, your first step is unlikely to be signing up to run a marathon next week! Rather, that first step might be as small and simple as today I will take a walk. If your goal is to meditate an hour a day, and you don't have much experience with it, or haven't had much success with it before, it is self-defeating to try to sit quietly for an hour on the first day. Or even a half hour. Even fifteen minutes may be too long. Try five, and if five is easy try ten the next day. You may find ten is too long. Go back to five. Let it be okay at first to take just one step.

PRACTICE:

  • Find a quiet spot with few distractions.
  • Set up a comfortable seat - a chair, or a stack of blankets on the floor.
  • If sitting on the floor, you might sit with your back at the wall for support.
  • Make sure that you feel connected to your seat and that you are sitting upright and not in a slouched position.
  • Set a timer for five minutes.
  • Close your eyes and feel your breath.
  • Try to keep your awareness with your breath.
  • When your mind wanders - which it will! - just come back to your breath.
  • Try to stay with each breath, one breath followed by the next. Nothing more.
  • There is no failure, nothing is ruined if your mind is busy and wanders a lot.
  • This is the practice - to keep the attention focused, and when it drifts, come back and begin again.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Beginning Anew

As this new year begins, I'm drawn to this wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:


I like this because, right off the bat, Thich Nhat Hanh changes our perspective on what it means to begin anew. He tells us that forgiveness from others, or even forgiving ourselves, is not a pre-requisite for starting fresh. The surprising message is that we shouldn't waste time with recriminations against ourselves; rather, we should let go of guilt or shame for whatever we said or did - or didn't say or do, and simply be here, now, ready and willing to act upon the opportunity to change.

This isn't to say that there should be no introspection - it is only through svadhyaya - self-study leading to self-awareness - that we come to see clearly where and why we went off track, and perhaps keep going off track time and again. Instrospection is necessary for knowing what we would do differently in the future from what we did in the past. But there is no need, and no point, in hammering ourselves over the head for behavior that was less skillful than we would have liked. 

Is it wrong or bad to ask forgiveness? Of course not. But, really, being forgiven only serves to put salve on our guilty wounds. It makes us feel better to be forgiven, but forgiveness in and of itself doesn't change anything. Change comes from seeing  and really understanding why we did what we did, said what we said, behaved as we did, and then - THEN, saying "Okay, what must I change in myself so that I do not repeat my mistakes? What must I change in myself so that I do not continue to act in ways that cause suffering for myself and others?" 

This is how we begin anew. And if we missed the first day of the new year with it, we don't have to wait until next January first. When you stop to think about it, every dawn brings the start of a new year. And we could even begin anew halfway through the day. There are no rules to it - just begin.

I chose Parighasana - Gate Pose - as my pose of the week. It symbolizes that taking of a first, simple step toward change - just open the gate and step through.

Protect the knee by padding it with a blanket. Align the knee directly under the hip. Extend the other leg to the side, resting the heel on the floor and the ball of the foot elevated on the block. I like to stretch away from the extended leg first, to create length on the underside of the torso and remind me to keep that length when I come into the full pose.

Here is Gate Pose. I side-bend in the direction of the extended leg, reaching the arm and hand toward the foot. The upper arm reaches up and over. Keep the hip and bent knee aligned; don't shift weight such that the hip moves out of position. Be careful not to put pressure on the extended leg knee. The pose is about length and extension as opposed to distance. The lower hand reaches toward the foot, but not at the expense of collapsing the torso forward or down.