Listening to the Call for Care
My last blog post was well over six months ago and was about my decision to return to Ireland. I've been here on the west coast of Ireland since August and it's been a wild adventure every day. Everything is so familiar and yet so unfamiliar after having lived elsewhere for so long.
I have wanted to sit and write of my return to Ireland for a quite a while. But for some reason it was hard to do it. I kept allowing myself to be pulled in other directions. Returning to Ireland and moving in with my family has allowed me the financial freedom to try and teach yoga full time without the pressure of rent and utilities (although that’s about the change), and I was really excited about this opportunity even though I knew it would be an incredible challenge. Well, let me report that it’s even harder than I thought it would be, and for reasons that I hadn’t even considered.
It’s not so much the doubt in my capacities (there’s plenty of that but I have tools to work with it and doubting one’s capacities has a role to play in staying grounded), not the difficulty of marketing (it’s certainly a hustle I don’t enjoy, but I knew I’d struggle with it—it’s absolutely my weak area), not the planning classes and actually showing up and teaching (I LOVE this part)—it’s the never off duty part.
I was excited to be my own boss for the first time in my life, but I had no idea how hard it would be to switch off the planning mind. The fretful mind always niggling, “you should be trying harder, doing more.” So every time I tried to sit and write this newsletter, I would find myself pulled into a Facebook shaped abyss to promote a class or event, or wondering what new events I should be booking, or thinking who I needed to call, or where I could better leave flyers for my classes, or what workplaces I could tap into for corporate yoga. Every time my ass hit the cushion whoosh!—planning mind was lit up like a multi-screen Cineplex and futuristic movies were playing at ear-splitting volume on more screens than I could count. I have been feeling exhausted for weeks now. I have been running and racing even when I have been sitting still. Every time I intended to do one thing, immediately I was distracted by another item on the infernal never-ending to do list. My discipline with my own practice has been deeply challenged and in the need to build a business, I have become way too attached to my smartphone. My sleep patterns are all out of whack. This wonderful opportunity to make a living from what I am most interested in, most passionate about, this opportunity for sukkha (happiness) has brought with it this dukkha (suffering) of “busyness” and “succeeding.”
Of course, my teachers had warned me about this. Theoretically, I “know” better, but in the swirl of trying a whole new thing, I very humanly have gone off course chasing security and control. I thought I was prepared. But I had no idea how challenging it is to be your own boss and follow the teachings of the Buddha. To be your own Buddha Boss. Even as I knew I was spinning out of my center, and calling myself home on the mat and on the cushion, I could still see myself out there spinning. What’s next? What else do I need to do? And then what? And then what? Making a both a busyness and a business out of yoga, the art of connecting to the present, was pushing me out of the present.
And then the election. I am not living in the US anymore, but all over the planet, people who value wisdom, compassion, generosity and peace cannot but feel deep pain in this seeming triumph of greed, hatred and delusion. And it’s not just affecting the US; the rise of hatred and division is happening here In Europe also. I have been in a strange state, alternating between feeling schlumpy, depressed, agitated and restless. I have been angry, sad, lonely, despairing of humanity and resolutely confident in the goodness of all beings. In short, I have been all over the emotional and psychological map. What do we do in the face of our own mad spinning selves and the madness that is very clearly spinning in the world?
Of course, there are many actions to take. And it’s important to be able to stand up and take action. But without some kind of calm at the center, the actions at the periphery will be hard to sustain and may even be misguided and harmful. I truly believe, not just because it’s what my teachers tell me but also because I know from experience, sustainability in wise action comes from a conscious turn towards refuge every day.
The crisis state I felt in my being, seemingly being felt all across the US and in the hearts and minds of many here in Ireland also, demanded that business as usual must stop. Busyness as usual had to stop. Conscious refuge became ever more important, whether it be in heart, mind or body. Not that they are separate, but we can approach the room of awareness and love through different doors, and sometimes the key turns easier in some locks than others. That’s why it’s so beneficial to have an array of self-care practices, a number of tools in your toolbox.
Sometimes I have been just too drained to move my body through a stimulating physical practice, and instead I do some down-regulating restorative poses and I trust that they are exactly what is needed. If restorative yoga isn't a regular part of your practice, this can take a lot of trust because we often think restorative yoga is not quite yoga but just what you do when you’re not well enough for “real yoga”. However, my wisest teachers have shown me that Yoga is about connecting to reality and the reality of our world is that we are all moving too fast and pushing too hard and that slowing down and practicing ease may be feel extraordinarily difficult--it's vary hard to drop out of momentum--but it's so necessary if we are to open space for wisdom and compassion to arise.
Sometimes a home physical practice every day just seems too much or too solitary but instead I have been able to sit and play harmonium and chant in a way that warms my heart and connects me to beloved teachers and friends from my yoga community. But sometimes, it’s challenging even to settle into that practice, so I turn to an online source for wisdom, either a dharma talk or a discussion of art, poetry or something creative and inspiring to the spirit (see below for some suggestions). And I knit as I listen; it’s very soothing for the nervous system and has been shown to have some of the same effects as formal meditation. So, there are multiple ways to practice quieting the mind and connecting to the heart. As my teacher Eugene Cash says, play with your practice. Maybe for you it’s taking the time to cook a nourishing meal, or taking a walk in the woods, or playing with your pet or playing the ukulele. There are many possibilities. But cultivate a daily practices that helps you connect with something nurturing and renewing and be conscious that you are doing this activity as self-care practice. Remind yourself you are doing what you can replenish and recharge your connection with your core values. This in itself is worthy and helps stave off the slide into despair; “I am doing something” These conscious self-care practices are the oxygen masks we need as we try to land this plane.
And I say self-care, but it’s important to remember that it’s really us-care. The more nourished you are, the less your loved ones have to worry over your malnourishment and the more likely you are to help nourish others, not only by your example, but also because a nourished heart radiates out kindness and warmth. That’s just its nature. The Buddha teaches that it is the nature of all of us; but don’t believe him, and certainly don’t believe me. Try it for yourself. Practice self-care and see what happens. The traditional practice of metta, or lovingkindness, is a potent medicine in this regard. It changed everything for me. And as it extends out from oneself to offering metta for others, it's the perfect self/us care practice. (click here for more on metta practice)
When I consciously turn to the refuge of self/us-care every day, I have more capacity to be with the pain and confusion of these times, globally and in my own little world. And, crucially, I have more ability to see and feel the joy that continues to show itself also. I have the space to see there is great love in my life. Undoubtedly, there is suffering (dukkha) but there is also beauty and delight (sukkha). To see that, really acknowledge it and relish it is good medicine. In his poem “A Brief for the Defense,” Jack Gilbert reminds us of the importance of seeing joy alongside the pain of the world:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
So the suffering of my own life transformation and the political transformation has forced me to look at my own patterns of busy-ness anew and reminded me that I have to be vigilant to take good care of my own practice if I am to be of any real use in the world that so desperately needs useful people. The shock and sadness of the election brought me to a full stop and I have been able to take a look at all the ways I have allowed myself to get swept up in fear around “being successful” and “getting things done”. I had been practicing every day, but often with a hidden agenda of impressing myself on some level, perfecting a pose that might impress others or planning a perfect class. I was not giving myself to the practice in a deep way. I was not being with the reality of my vulnerability, my insecurity, my ignorance. I was not listening. So now I’m really focusing on getting quiet again, my whole being is pleading with me for me to get grounded, to slow down and practice this quiet listening.
Before the election, I had been thinking about how the teachings of yoga and dharma had been showing up for me every day in recent months, how sukkha (happiness) and dukkha (suffering) are indeed woven inextricably together, how change is the nature of life, and how fundamentally interconnected we are. These three characteristics of dukkha, anicca (impermanence/change) and anatta (no separate solid self/interbeing) were showing themselves to me in very personal ways. I was very sad to leave San Francisco (dukkha) because I was leaving behind a life with work and play I really loved and friends I cherished (sukkha). Shockingly, over the course of my final days in SF, I was swept off my feet by an unexpected romance and I have fallen head over heels in love with someone who I believe to be one of the finest men I have ever met and he claims to be reciprocally smitten with me (sukkha) but we are 6000 miles apart (dukkha). I have this wonderful opportunity to try to teach yoga full time (sukkha) but it’s because I am living with my parents (dukkha—I love you Mum and Dad, but I miss my own space). I’m soon moving out into a ridiculously picturesque Irish cottage (sukkha) but I have no idea how I’ll stay afloat financially (dukkha). And now while global dukkha is undeniable, it is serving as a wake-up call to many of us to ask ourselves some tough questions and have some difficult conversations. Are we living in integrity? Who and what are we supporting in our activities and with our purchasing power? Are we walking our talk? Are we listening? Are we deeply listening?
The teaching of anicca (impermanence) is manifestly clear. The hope and optimism of 2008 is gone. But the corollary is that the fear and divisiveness we feel today will also shift and change. It may get worse before it gets better, but the truth is, we don’t know. A year ago, few of us thought we’d be where we are now politically. Trump was still considered an amusement. A year ago, I certainly didn’t think I’d be living back in Ireland. It was actually a terrifying idea, and yet here I am, half happy and fully in love. So it’s always uncertain. Will I remain in Ireland? Will this love continue to unfold with more joy than pain? It’s uncertain. But why does that make me feel better instead of worse? Because it connects me. To wisdom. To a lineage of teachings passed from warm hands to warm hearts, connecting me all the way back to the Buddha.
It reminds me of Jack Kornfield, my teacher Katchie Ananda’s teacher, talking of his teacher Ajahn Chah, who used to just shrug and say “it’s uncertain isn’t it” to almost everything anyone asked him. It sounds infuriating, but it always makes me laugh when I hear Jack telling the stories. And when I hear Jack talk, I hear my teacher Katchie, and I see her smiling as she talks about Jack because of how much she loves him, and I think also of my other teachers, Eugene and Pam and I smile thinking of how much I love them and I think of them smiling thinking of their teachers and there’s just so much warmth, gratitude and love in this connection. The love is sure. It’s not gooey and sweet and mushy. It’s tenacious, it’s gritty, it’s not polite and it’s sure as hell demanding of everything you have to give, but it’s what has held me together in recent years when there was tremendous loss in my life. The love from my friends, the new love in my life, the love from my family, the love I feel for all the people I left behind in San Francisco. The love I feel for the faces I have seen on television news reports, people who are scared just like me and looking for something to believe in. I say believe in love. It’s the only way out of fear and hatred. And it starts at home. In your own heart.
This is how I know we are not separate or solid selves. I am happier when I see someone else is happy. I am sad when I see someone else is sad. This love that ties us together is not a feeling; as my teacher Pam Weiss says, it’s a force. A charge. A pull. Everything we do matters. Everything. When we feel hopeless, defeated, overwhelmed, it can be empowering to remember this. Even the seemingly small things we do towards healing ourselves and others are important. We are fundamentally interconnected and if every harmful thought becomes a harmful word becomes a harmful action, adding to the division and pain around us, and I believe this is how it happens, then by the same logic (that’s for you my Logical Lover) every kind thought, every kind word, every action contributes to the dissolution of that pain and suffering. Every thought, every word, every action. Are we listening to the thoughts behind our words and actions. Now more than ever, let’s listen to ourselves, let’s listen to one another. That’s the love that will bring about the change needed to release us from this suffering of what my brother calls "crocodile living": big mouths, small ears. Let’s model Ganesh. Big ears, small mouths. Let’s listen.
Here’s a story from Pema Chodron
“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed to aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instruction for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said “thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast and I get very close to you face. The you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear”
As yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar famously said, there is a lot of movement in the world, but not a lot of skillful action. Let’s practice the skillful action of inquiring into the wisdom of all this momentum. Let’s stop believing our often fear-based busyness and accepting all the "doing doing doing" it demands. Let’s slow down, learn to focus less on the question of "what should I do?" and listen more to the question "how can I care?" Stephen Batchelor sums up the final teaching of the Buddha as follows: "Things fall apart, tread the path with care." Batchelor describes "Care" as the overarching virtue that includes within it all the other virtues, and he says that living according to the noble eightfold path and the four noble tasks (truths) a journey of teasing out and cultivating our understanding of care, and then putting that into practice.
So let's set our intention to spend more time consciously listening to this call to care. I leave you with this poem from Mary Oliver, a beautiful rendition of the call and the natural response of the wise heart.
Little Dog’s Rhapsody In The Night
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
He turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.