Evolution

Evolution

Yoga is a practice of liberation. It’s sometimes described as a discipline of freedom in which you learn more and more what it means to be trapped and what it means to be liberated. It is a Wisdom Tradition that draws your own wisdom from the core of your body out through all your limbs, your hands and feet, your eyes, your crown, and covers you with it. Your own goodness, your own wholeness, your own choice to be the way you want to be in the world.

When lying in savasana (resting in corpse pose), I’d hear my dear teacher talk about contentment, our true nature. I thought I knew what she meant. So I began striving for contentment. This is hysterical! I see myself as having chased contentment so much that I literally chased it away the way one keeps driving a puppy farther on by running after it. (You know, you have to get the puppy to wanna chase you, then you run home.)

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Hollowness, emptiness, obscurity, lack. That’s what’s left when contentment’s not around. But these non-feeling-feelings are vague and veiled, so sometimes they can seem like contentment. I’d say it to my own students, too, “Rest in contentment, your true nature.”

I had misgivings about this, about not being sure, exactly, what this true-nature-contentment thing was, so sometimes I wouldn’t say it. But I did know about the pause between breaths, that swirling spaciousness into which the exhale dissolves and from which the inhale arises. And so I’d invite my students to “Rest here, for as long as it lasts, and then enjoy the next breath whenever it comes along.”
This
felt
authentic.

20 years later

Authenticity
feels
full, warm, round.
Like a baby’s belly after just enough milk.

When my babes were growing into toddlers there was always a lot of talk about food. Meals, snacks, bites, feasts. Yoga is like this.

When my toddlers were growing into children, we talked about feeling full, stuffed, hungry, ravenous, and famished (never starving). I offered them “content” as a way of describing the sensation just shy of full. Did they feel (sense) they’d had enough to eat? What if we wait twenty minutes before having more? Did they feel content with what they had? Yoga is like this.

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Memorial Day weekend of 2020 I was on my first ever silent retreat. My first ever silent retreat was fully online. So, not the experience I had anticipated, but one that was rich and layered with new ways relating and new ways of knowing. It was on that Saturday after listening to poetry, feeling it in my body, and understanding the ways metaphor (which is language itself) translates to sensation (through the motor and somatosensory cortex) that I realized I had been selling myself short. Or (and?) selling contentment short.

I began to understand that I had interpreted contentment as a neutral sensation, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It seems I didn’t have a sense (a sensation) of contentment that resonated or vibrated in my body. Also, I had used the yogic practice of non-attachment as a way of trying to access contentment, and in so doing had separated it from sensation even further. In this way, contentment felt like nothing – no thing – there was no metaphorical/neural connection for me. When I thought or said the word contentment, neither my motor, nor my somatosensory cortex activated. My brain had nothing (no thing) to offer. There was not an embodied experience (a knowing) from which to draw meaning. No texture or temperature, no vision, aroma, flavor, or action. Basically, contentment was dead.

Enticing the Puppy

Have you ever felt a poem in your bones? Has your flesh ever vibrated with a knowing when your friend describes her experience to you? Has your body ever come alive as you describe your own experience to someone else? This happens because language touches the part of our brain that controls our senses and our movement. The only reason we know anything is because we have a body from which to draw meaning.

Through a series of contemplative inquiries, trauma-informed, resilience focused practices, and iRest yoga nidra meditation, I began to understand that contentment could hold really big things, like Ease, Security, and Safety. It was like a door had been opened, or the roof lifted off, and possibility entered in, lifting me like a cloud toward something even bigger – Joy.

I used to think, Joy? Who am I to feel joy? And then, Wait – why not joy? Why rest in contentment when I can rest in joy? Instead of coupling contentment with neutrality, non-attachment, non-touching, non-aliveness, I started connecting it with happiness, serenity, peace, tranquility, and even Bliss – full aliveness.

I began to turn away from striving, and instead began running home to my body. Contentment would follow me, like a puppy, and bring with her all the sensations of enlivenment like tingling, pulsating, vibrating, shimmering. This is Yoga.

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A touching. A coming together. A joining. A yoking. A completeness. A coming home. All of this inside me, coming to life.

The practice of contentment is one of non-grasping. It is deep below the surface where the waves do not disturb it. That’s how this all works. Have the experience of bliss and remain equanimous when bliss passes. Have the experience of spaciousness and remain at ease when spaciousness fades. Have the experience of peace and remain serene when peace dissipates. The depth of the ocean is content to remain in cold darkness, unmoved by the weather so far above.

The Evolution of Practice

Dear one, in the depth of your being be content to rest in joy, your true nature, unmoved by the circumstances of your life. Allow yourself to be breathed by the lifeforce of the universe. Feel the birth of the inhalation and the death of the exhalation. Allow yourself to rest in the spacious joyfulness between breaths where death dissolves and life begins.

Can you feel how big you are? Can you feel light radiating from you? Can you feel it in your blood? Your bones? Your skin? How you are touching Love and Love is touching you? How you are the ocean, how you are Love?

Photo by Irina
Iri

Take small bites. (Three little breaths.)

Nibble. (Have a few cat/cows.)

Just have a snack. (One goooooood sun salute.)

Eat just enough. (Two and a half minutes?)

Sense when you are content. (Relaxation.)

Feel when you are full. (Om.)

Get used to the idea
of being
such an amazing thing
as Joy,
and feast
when it is feasting time.

Contentment is big enough

And so are you.

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Making Space for Presence

This post explores the science of emotions, the research on social aspects of teaching, as well as the work of embodiment and how it can support us in moments of difficulty or overwhelm. At the end you’ll find an offering to create space for empathy & compassion for yourself & others.

Emotions
Dr. Eve Ekman is a contemplative social scientist and teacher in the field of emotional awareness and burnout prevention.  She defines emotion as “a process that is triggered in 1/25 of a second, lasts only about 30 – 90 seconds, and helps us respond to important challenges.”  Emotions get our attention and remind us of our values.  Being aware of our emotions allows us to acknowledge them without criticism and make wise choices about our role in what comes next.

Community 
Community spaces are filled with people, and as such are filled with emotions, as well as lots of triggers!  This is just as true for digital interactive spaces as it is for in-person events.  Whether you’re a leader, participant, student, teacher, parent, child, or all of these and more, spending hours each day in social environments creates an opportunity for emotional exhaustion

Research in education shows that practicing mindful awareness can help decrease burnout and increase an overall sense of well-being.  Because this is true in K-12 learning environments, we can reasonably extend these findings to include a variety of other group settings, such as professional and corporate offices, fitness centers, child care facilities, nursing homes, hospitals, and community events – basically, anywhere there are facilitators and participants, anywhere there is more than one person.     

Practicing Presence is the Seed of Empathy.

Compassion
Practicing Presence within community requires a certain amount of non-reactivity.  Being able to notice and observe our own emotions allows for a space between what activates us (or triggers us) and our next thought, word, or action. The space allows us to respond skillfully rather than react thoughtlessly.  It also creates pathways to take care of our own needs in the moment.  This practicing awareness of our emotional process gives us insight into the experience of others, precisely because all of us are human. Happily, that new information we gain inside that moment of presence increases the likelihood that we can, and will, envision ourselves in someone else’s situation. 

These are the seeds of empathy.

Empathy leads to another key aspect of mindful awareness, the active partner of non-judgement:  compassion.  What’s great about compassion is that it’s for everyone, including yourself, and it can really help guide challenging conversations and all manner of interactions. 

Compassion allows us to see our life-partner, who is letting the housework go and actively not asking us about our day, or our needs, as a beautiful human being who is fatigued and out of resources.  It allows us to see the student melting down in front of us as another human, just like us, in need of support.   Compassion can even bring us to a new perspective on the behaviors of our co-workers, family and community members, as well as complete strangers (and even people we might classify as the manifestation of enmity and animus – our enemy). 

Everyone is a human being – just like us. This fact is an excellent reminder that, perhaps most amazingly, self-compassion allows us to see our own selves as deserving of gentleness, acceptance, and encouragement, too, the hallmarks of empathy.  

SPACE
We experience emotions on a broad spectrum.  There’s a wide range of ways we can know anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment.  And knowing that the initial emotional reaction only lasts 30 -90 seconds, it benefits us to wait it out, seeing if it subsides or changes before we say the thing we really want to say (that thing we feel absolutely justified in saying).  The magic in this moment is patience. And one support for practicing patience is to go ahead do something.

Here’s an embodiment practice for that. I’m calling it SPACE, because I love talking about, thinking about, and accessing spaciousness as a pathway to loving and being loved.  It’s a way of being present in my body that allows me both to notice and observe my emotions, as well as wait for them to change or subside.

  • S – settle
  • P – pause
  • A – abide
  • C – center
  • E – expand

Basically, SPACE creates space.  And space allows for compassion.  First, I settle into my body by feeling my feet and noticing gravity.  I pause and breathe.  I abide in the present moment. I find my center, and then I expand from there – breathing in and growing my ribcage in all directions.  By expanding, I’m creating physical space inside my body, bringing about sensations associated with happiness, freedom, and joy.  I’m also creating intangible space between what is said and done, and what is understood and experienced.  No one knows I’m doing all of this.  I can settle, pause, abide, center, and expand while I am listening to the other person speak or while I’m experiencing their actions.  This embodied work allows me to feel grounded and gives me the space to choose what I will say and do, as well as what I will not say and what I won’t do.  

KEEPING ON

Continue practicing awareness. 
Keep non-reactively observing. 
Carry on with making space. 

If nothing else, the next time you notice a strong emotional reaction, let that be your cue to press and settle into your feet and expand from your center.  The breath will happen.  You will pause and abide, and you just might find yourself and others surrounded by the spaciousness of compassion. 

Your Yoga Practice

While you are practicing asana, concentration, and meditation, practice spaciousness.

  • Settle into your body by feeling your feet and noticing gravity
  • Pause and breathe
  • Abide in the present moment
  • Center yourself
  • Expand and grow your spacious heart

Then, take this wisdom off the mat with you and into the world!

With Love, Empathy, Compassion, & All Things Spacious

Amy

Universal Yogi

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The Spaciousness of Love, Revisited

Dear Readers, 

I wrote the original version of this essay a few years ago and have decided to revisit it.  What you’ll find below is a slightly reworked version oriented toward finding ways to take right action in light of the most current tragic events in the U.S. and the revelations of social divides and social injustice made more evident by this pandemic.  I hope there is something within these words that resonates with you, and that it helps inspire you to reach deeply into your own heart; find new ways of loving and embracing yourself, so that you may find new ways of loving and embracing the people in your own community, and so on outward to your village, township, parish, county, city, state, country, continent, and world.  My invitation to you is to start with yourself, and only then move outward, because you are just as worthy of your own love as your neighbor is.  The Divine lives in all of us and is the center of all things.  God is the hub; we are the spokes; this life is the rim.  And the closer we get to each other, the closer we get to God.    

As I write these last words, the reality of quarantine and safe (or social) distance measures strikes me squarely in the face.  My heart longs to enter back into the world, and yet I feel trapped, without clear pathways, and also a little fearful.  The need to take action is strong within me and many of the people in my community.  I am reminded by my teachers that right action will look different for each and every one of us.  For some of us, our first right step might be to hold our children close and feel what it feels like to be safe.  For some of us, getting involved in our community’s social justice groups is the most pressing immediate action.  And others of us will be called to speak in loving kindness with family, friends, and neighbors, or write letters of trust and strength and hope.  Still others of us will find ways to connect with our spiritual communities and allow the passion and guidance of our spiritual leaders to bolster our hearts in faith and love.  

May we be drenched in Holy Spirit wisdom, and soaked in gratitude, faith, hope, and love.

The Spaciousness of Love

If love is kind,
it is not cruel.

If love is not jealous,
it is supportive.

If love is not pompous,
it is humble.

If love is not inflated,
it sees rightly.  

If love is not rude,
it is enlightened.  

If love is not self-seeking,
it is generous. 

If love is not quick-tempered,
it is tranquil.

If love does not brood over injury,
it is forgiving.

If love does not rejoice over wrongdoing,
it offers compassion.

If love bears all things,
it turns nothing away.

If love believes all things,
it does not deny. 

If love endures all things,
it does not cede. 

If love never fails,
it always triumphs.

In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a scholar of Jewish law asks Christ, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus says to him in reply, ““What is written in the law? How do you read it?”  The scholar responds with what we know as The Greatest Commandment:  “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus replies to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live” (Luke 10:25-8).

From this quick exchange it seems our purpose on earth is simple, our mission, obvious, and the answer to the question of inheriting eternal life, a short one: love.  That’s it.  Nothing more, nothing less.

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However, as simple as love appears to be, isn’t it simultaneously complex?  What, exactly, is love?

In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul articulates clearly and beautifully what love is and what it is not, what love does and what it does not do.  And he acknowledges that our actions can be either devoid of love or infused with it.  We can serve in bitterness and resentment or in humility and compassion.  Even our most helpful of actions can be empty of love, performed in a negative spirit that crushes our own and that of the recipient.   St. Paul even goes so far as to proclaim that love is the greatest of all virtues, greater than faith and greater than hope:  “Love will remain even when faith has yielded to sight and hope to possession” (USCCB Commentary).

Thankfully we can look to these guidelines and explanations of love to give us a starting point, a kind of pathway forward, but I know how much I stumble and wander about aimlessly, how often I fall and clamber in the dark of my ignorance, for even though I hear the encouragement, “love one another as you love yourself,” it is as if I do not have ears; I still find myself screaming, in my most wretched hour, “How?”

The Greatest Commandment, love one another as you love yourself, assumes that we already know how we are to love ourselves.  

Zen priest and founder of the Center for Transformative Change, Angel Kyodo Williams, describes love as space:  “[Love] is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are — that is love”  (OnBeing interview with Krista Tippett).

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If love is space, it is not a vacuum; it does not pull all things into itself but expands and allows people to be who they are.  Love makes room for the full expression of the human experience.  Unfortunately, there have been many times in which I’ve been loveless.  I’ve had a habit of pulling all things into myself, making myself the center of the multiverse, sucking the life out of life.  I have been selfish, judgmental, prideful, vain, and vacuous, full of disdain, contempt, and self-righteousness, as I suspect most of us have at one time or another.  It is a crushing cycle to find oneself in, as it damages others, as well as ourselves, on multiple levels.

I want to choose space.

Choosing space is hard.

It’s good to remember that love is not passive; it’s an action, whether or not it looks like action from the outside.  To love is an act of the will; it is to choose, and we can’t make choices without awareness.  To be aware is to choose to see rightly, to see ourselves as we really are, without quite so many labels, inherited or created, without stories in which we are always the protagonist; but instead, to choose to see ourselves simply as children of God worthy of love, worthy of forgiveness, by our sheer existence.  Awareness can help create this space to see, this space in which we can choose dignity, this space to act in love toward ourself and our neighbor.

All this takes practice.  When we work on our yoga mat to create space in the body for healing, we do so with awareness.  When we work on our meditation mat to create space in the mind for choice, we do so with awareness.  And when the mind is able to choose, we are able to work in our daily lives to create space in the spirit for loving ourselves.  The hope is that if for a moment we can focus on the tree trunk, instead of the ever changing leaves, perhaps we will be able to notice, for even an instant, our constant spirit, instead of our changeable thoughts and emotions. And from inside this space, this separation between ourselves and our thought-feelings, we will find compassion for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, and for each person we encounter.

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Creating space isn’t easy.  It requires openness of mind and heart.  This can be unnerving and can seem irrational.  As human beings we strive to protect ourselves from the possibility of physical, mental, and emotional harm and to fulfill our basic needs.  This is survival mode, and it causes us to lose touch with others and even with our truest selves.  As we frantically search and scan our surroundings, our circumstances, we become absorbed with negativity.   When this is our baseline functioning, we run the risk of closing in on ourselves, forgetting who we are, and who we are in relation to those around us.

But we can try, little by little we can try to find that necessary spaciousness.  What can we practice letting go of to make space for something else, something like welcoming, like embracing?  Making space for ourselves, and making space for one another are true acts of love.  Even paying close attention is loving, for where we place our attention, there also will our love be.  Bringing our awareness to the present moment, including the people and events within that moment, and allowing space for the moment to be what it is, is living in love.

Our practices of the limbs of yoga – the yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana – with the wisdom of Holy Spirit, will lead us to the answers.  We’ll figure out what needs letting go of through practice, so we can’t quit; we can’t give up; we can’t deny ourselves the practices even when we are overcome with grief and anger – we take the grief and the anger to the practice with us. Just like we take the joy and the delight to the practice with us.  We take everything to the practice. Practice is truly our own best teacher.  

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Yoga instructor Bryan Kest speaks of a yoga practice on the mat as being like a mini-day, or a mini-life in which we encounter obstacles and challenges, and we practice being with them with equanimity, so that when we go out into the world we function from this baseline of non-reaction, with gentleness and self-compassion as our default mode.  Not only do we practice navigating difficulty as yogis, but we also practice nurturing ourselves through deep restorative postures and energy work that have the capacity to restore and bolster our right action in the world.  And this is paramount – we must care for ourselves so that we can care for others.  Continued, sustained practice creates in us the capacity to grow in wisdom and expand in love.  It is when we deny what is present, when we hide from what is happening, when we close in on ourselves and shut everyone else out through fear that our chests tighten, our hearts constrict, and our capacity for love diminishes.  Kyodo Williams encourages us when she says, ” for people who are not monastics, the world is our field of practice.”

And so we practice. We get on our mat every day; we let go of reactivity, harsh self-criticisms, vanity and pride, greed and grasping; we start to cultivate space for responding, for healing, for choosing, and for seeing rightly. We fail. We try again.

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We welcome wisdom into our heart and begin to understand what it means to be wisely generous and wisely selfish, so as not to overextend or overwhelm ourselves, but so that we pace, renew and restore and keep going. We take that spaciousness off our yoga mat, through the doors of our worship space and out into the moments, the circumstances of our lives, and we practice some more, and we practice again, and unceasingly, like prayer.

Love is not cruel; it is supportive and humble.  Love sees rightly and is enlightened.  Love is generous, tranquil, forgiving, compassionate, courageous, honest, eternal, and triumphant.  Love is wise.

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Love bears all things because love is spacious.  When we understand this and put it into practice by giving ourselves the space to be who we are without judgment, we will be able to give this same non-judgemental space to others.  From this place we will hear the encouragement, “Love one another as you love yourself,” and we will know, because we live it, because we feel it in our bones.

Space is ever-expanding.  So is love.  Love never ends.