Monday, November 30, 2009

The Sacred Has a Way of Sneaking up on You

St. George Utah can be kind of a quirky place. It’s a remote and arid landscape that grows outlet malls, golf courses, retirement communities, tanning salons, and time-share condominiums. Despite this oddness, St. George is simultaneously sublime: red rocks, eternal desert wilderness trails, breathtaking desert landscapes, and so close to Kolob canyon and Zions National Park. Besides, compared to St. George’s next-door neighbor, Las Vegas, everything seems mild.

Celeste and I were enjoying a warm Thanksgiving in Zions and stayed in St. George for a few nights before coming back north. Like an oasis in the wilderness of red rock-desert and frozen yogurt shacks stands an amazing restaurant named after its owner, Benja which serves wonderful Thai and Japanese food. We had ordered our meals and were sipping some aromatic jasmine tea when Celeste noticed the music playing in the restaurant. It was very minimal, a soft chant set to simple and basic music. Celeste closed her eyes, leaned back in her chair and listened. After a moment of reverie she said, “We may as well be in a Benedictine monastery in Europe. It’s amazing how the sacred has a way of sneaking up on you.”

And it is amazing how it seems that in the most unlikely of places, this oasis in the desert, both culturally and literally, how we could find this snippet of time at a restaurant where we can sit and enjoy such a beautiful reminder of the Divine. With awareness, one begins to see the sacred in everything, how indeed it can sneak up on you and surprise you when you least expect it. It may take stepping out of our own personal paradigm prison but with a little awareness, we see how not only the desert is a spectacular landscape, but somehow even the tanning salons, outlet malls, and golf courses contain some magic about them. Somehow, if we look deep enough, everything points back to the Divine.

We are being hurled into the holidays and it’s so easy to become cynical and jaded by the commercialism and rat-race of it all. With a little awareness, perhaps we can see how the Divine reveals itself in many ways, from the various spiritual traditions around this time, to people’s desire to give something to others, to somehow even the hustle of holiday shopping. There’s something of the Divine in it all. Perhaps we can see the nuggets of the Divine in the least of likely places this season rather than chalking it up to another year of the same. It’s amazing how the sacred has a way of sneaking up on you.

Come to yoga and let’s practice.

Monday, November 23, 2009

All Weepy and Such

This is my vulnerable letter. It’s the one where I decided to tell you what I love. I make it vulnerable on purpose because in my mind it doesn’t count unless I let you in and let you see past the wall that has taken me years and years and years to build. We all have one. It’s the wall that we build so that people can see our general form, the basic shape but they can’t see our soul, they can’t see all the way in. Because if they did see in, if we were exposed naked and raw, then people would know our secret, that dark secret that no one would believe but us: that what’s deep inside doesn’t matter. And this week I’ve decided I don’t care and that the real way to give something back, to offer gratitude for all that I have is to give that biggest thing, give up the wall and let you see what’s inside.

Let’s go straight for the jugular here. I love, love, love—heart -aching, squeeze my breath out, leave a pit in my gut, a pull in my throat and tearing up as I type kind of love—my wife Celeste. It’s that kind of love that makes me stupid. I’d do anything for that woman. She understands me better than any other human on the planet. She gives me eyes to see this world.

I love my twin brother. Yes, I have a twin. In addition to sharing DNA, we share our sense of humor, although he was portioned much more of it, and much more creativity than me. Good thing I was given all the good looks (understand that we’re identical). I love that I can call him (he lives in LA) and that we can drop suddenly and seamlessly into the mundane details of each other’s lives and both understand that it’s not the minutia that we’re talking about but that we’re holding an underlying tacit conversation of connection and support.

I love yoga, this amazing path toward self-understanding. It’s beautiful, challenging, mentally, spiritually, and physically engaging, and at the end of the day just feels damn good. I love this healthy body, my vehicle for driving me toward understanding this crazy/beautiful world. I know unequivocally that not all bodies work like they should and to have one that does is an amazing blessing.

I love to feel this body move whether that’s by yoga, running or dancing. I’m a closeted dancer, you know, who is starting to come out into the light. I love Ecstatic Dance for inviting that part of me to live.

I love God.

I love waking up and lying there in bed, warm listening to the silence, soaking up that peace and contentment. I love watching someone play and sing their guts out on a guitar. I love the sound of a cello. I love to listen to someone who knows their business on a stand-up bass. Who ever invented the concept of hot cocoa with whipped cream and cinnamon, I want to kiss you on the mouth! I love stepping into my apartment, closing the front door and standing there for a moment in the dark and the quiet, safe. I love my dearest friends who’ve got my back and who know my problems and secrets and neuroses and who still want to hang out with me and drink tea or eat Indian food. I love those people who really get me. I guess I feel that I really need that. I love my mentor, Teri. I love hanging out with my dad and just listening to music, no need to talk, just sit and listen, mostly jazz. I love stepping into my moms house and smelling her home-made rolls. I love my Thursday morning ritual: led by my sax teacher, spelunking into the heads of John Coltrane and Miles Davis and others and I find my own voice as I blow through my saxophone on maps that the masters have drawn. I love to sing though my sax. I love Jazz’s freedom and language, it’s soul. Then getting chocolate after at Hatch Family Chocolates.

I love to be privileged to have found work that feeds me. It never feels like work. I love the sacred privilege you give me to sometimes step into your lives. I love you all.

Most importantly and simply I love. Along my own journey, it’s taken me years to take down the walls. Thanks for visiting this soul. And here’s the paradox, I’m trying to give something back and have spent the most beautiful hour filling my heart with all the things I love until I’m weepy and sappy. Any you know, I can’t wait to live this day! Hey everyone, try this. It’s fantastic!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Angels in the Rafters

I love rituals. They make the everyday special. I also love chocolate. So it's no wonder that one of my rituals is to regularly and consciously go to my favorite chocolate shops and deliberately enjoy. Everything about the experience becomes part of the ritual, including the people who work at the shop. It turned out that as part of one of the rituals, one of my sister's good friends worked at one of these shops. His name was Ryan.

When Celeste and I lived in Korea, one day I was talking to my sister on the telephone and she mentioned that Ryan had killed himself, tragically, along with his sister in a joint-suicide. Even though I wasn't extremely close to Ryan and had never met his sister, this news weighed on me immeasurably. I couldn't shake the thought from my head. Lucy, my sister, asked me if I would go to a Buddhist temple and light a candle for Ryan and his sister. I didn't know if they even did that in Buddhism but I told her I would.

It was about this time that we went on a meditation retreat up in the mountains with our dear friend and guide, Jin-Soon. After our time at the retreat was spent, Jin-Soon suggested that we go on a light hike up the mountain to her favorite temple. It was late Autumn and we hiked, swimming in the warmth and light of the sun, especially after the biting cold of the morning.

We came to a small temple and quietly, we took off our shoes and stepped inside. Already sitting inside the temple were 2 female monks, both with shaved heads and gray habit, sitting on mats deep in meditation. I thought about my own meditation experience, how difficult it can be at times, and I wondered how long they had been there or planned to be there. They looked as though they may as well have been permanent fixtures in the temple. Jin-Soon handed Celeste and me a mat, and we all sat down and began our own meditation. The sun shone through the window of the door in a perfect rectangle that surrounded my body like a picture frame. I was warm and quiet. I don't know how much time we spent there. Time just dissolved.

Once we finished our meditation, outside of the temple, I remembered the promise I had made to Lucy to someday light a candle for Ryan and his sister. I asked Jin-Soon how to go about getting candles lit in the temple. She kindly walked me to the center of the compound not far away and helped me buy two 14 inch candles.

With the candles in hand, I walked to the main temple, took off my shoes, and solemnly entered the door. Just inside the door was an old monk whose face was perfectly wrinkled, obviously from a life-time of smiling. He saw the candles in my hand and speaking no Korean, I motioned that I wished to place them on the alter. He understood and beckoned me to follow his lead. I watched as he approached the enormous, golden Buddha in the front of the room and performed a dramatic bow, lowering himself to the floor then standing up again with his hands together in a prayer motion. I was amazed and how similar this bow was to the Sun Salutations, Surya Namskar, we practice in yoga. The monk performed this beautiful bow simultaneously honoring both the Buddha and the Buddha Nature in himself and all beings. I approached the Buddha to give it a try. I kept Ryan and his sister in my mind and intended to honor their Buddha nature as well as my own and that of every other being. As I accomplished my bow, I tried to remember all the steps I saw the monk perform. I did my best version and then together the monk and I walked to the alter and placed the candles gently on the candle offering.

After placing and lighting the candles, I retreated slowly backward and made motions to leave. My monk, however, had more to teach me. He held up seven fingers and motioned that it was now necessary to complete seven more bows. Again, he made dramatic motions for me to see the precise actions to perform this rite. I tried to follow his exact gestures but got lost in the details. The kind smiling monk instructed me to do it again and made me watch him again to get it right this time. Again I tried and by now the monk was softly laughing. Despite the spectacle I was making, I couldn't help but smile as well. With my every attempt at a bow, the monk hovered over me and corrected me where I forgot. Before too long, the monk decided that I was all but hopeless and encouraged my actions by physically helping me put body in the right places. After what seemed like 30 tries, I eventually performed seven correct bows. I guess this is how I learn the best; by experience. This is the process: Stand with legs together, hands in a prayer stance. Kneel down and cross the left foot over the right while placing the palms on the floor and lowering the forehead to the floor. The butt must come down and touch your ankles (which must be much easier for him than it was for me because the monk couldn't figure out why I couldn't get that right and corrected me repeatedly on this point). With the forehead on the ground, raise the hands off the ground, palms facing up. Replace the hands on the ground, palms down, uncross your feet, and press yourself to a squatting position. Then stand up, feet together, without using hand. Finally, with hand pressed together in a prayer, make a deep bow toward the Buddha. When I completed my offering, my monk gave me a gentle bow and an enormous smile. I reciprocated in bowing and smiling my deep thanks to him.

As I left the temple, I was certain that Ryan and his sister were sitting as angels in the rafters, laughing at my tutelage and grateful for my gesture. I'm sure of it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Not an Escape

Something unique happens when we come to the yoga studio. We close the door behind us, shutting the noisy world outside. We remove the dirt and insulation of our well-worn shoes, forgetting for a moment the path we trod to arrive. We shed our coat, those heavy responsibilities we carry like burdens. We even drop our bag carrying our identification card proclaiming who we are. And then, lighter, like walking on sacred ground, we enter the yoga studio and roll out our mat, our sacred practice space.

It’s difficult not to feel like we are escaping from something. The irony is that the more we try to escape the world, the more the world seems to be on our heels. You may say to yourself, “I’m consciously escaping the world. Ah how sweet.” But what happens the second you step out of the studio? “Darn you, World!” you say as you pump your fist in the air, “I was escaping you and here you are again!” Unfortunately, our problems don’t go away because we choose to ignore them.

Instead, as we practice yoga, we choose to momentarily hang up our responsibilities and problems like our coat on the hook. Yes, and so doing, we refine the conversation with our truer selves, the constant part of us that is the same whether or not we made our mortgage payment on time. In yoga practice, we quiet and focus our minds, open our hearts, and ground ourselves as we move, strengthen, and stretch our bodies, the divine vehicle for mind and spirit. And as we get into the groove of our practice, our practice feels more real than even our mortgage payment.

After class, having touched this truer self, we now have the privilege to go back and grab our bag, don our coat, and put on our shoes, now with a different relationship to our responsibilities. Either they are no longer a burden but rather a sacred stewardship, one that grows from the relationship we have with the brilliance of our truer selves, or we now have the clarity and courage to change that which doesn’t make us feel alive. Our problems don’t change but our relationship to them does.

As we practice yoga regularly and apply this concept of relationship, we begin to treat our life like our yoga practice, balanced with steadiness and ease, with power and grace, and with an open heart and full attention. Now, we are summoning our highest selves to lead this life. With this higher self in control, what we finally escape is not the entire world, just the part of it that contained that old self who carried all those burdens and who lacked the power to make courageous changes.

See you in class!!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Now is Harvest Time

It's Harvest time. I think that this meant a lot more to our grandparents and great-grandparents, many of whom were raised on the farm or who were agrarian for much of their lives. Even if we aren't running our hands through the soil for our daily sustenance, I believe there are many forms of harvests in life. These Harvests equal understanding what you've cultivated, understanding what is, and learning to enjoy the present moment. Yoga teaches us that now is the time to feast on the banquet of what life is offering.

We celebrate the life that causes us to grow. We celebrate understanding that we are all somewhere in our season of growing, of blossoming into our own potential. We make several harvests along the path to this potential. These harvests are not only harvests of years or experience, but also harvests of understanding and realization. Perhaps we have ripened in our career and its time to ask for a raise; perhaps its time to try a more advanced yoga practice, or commit to a consistent meditation practice. Or perhaps our harvest is realizing that things are perfect the way they are and we can learn to be still and appreciate that. I believe one of the richest harvests is simply being present with what is right now. These harvests come and go, and if we are not prepared to see them, if we are not present and mindful, the opportunity, the realization, will pass us by. Rainer Maria Rilke says in his poem, "Ripening Barberries," that unless we learn to harvest what is here and now, unless we come to realize this cornucopia of abundant being inside, we are lost in a world of seasonless stagnancy. Kinda harsh but very true. Here it is:

Already the ripening barberries are red
And the old asters hardly breathe in their beds.
The man who is not rich now as summer goes
Will wait and wait and never be himself.

The man who cannot quietly close his eyes
certain that there is vision after vision inside,
simply waiting for nighttime
to rise all around him in darkness--
it's all over for him, he's like an old man.

Nothing else will come; no more days will open
and everything that does happen will cheat him.
Even you, my God. And you are like a stone
that draws him daily deeper into the depths.

We cannot wait for some other time to gather what we are searching for. We must find it, to whatever degree, now. We cannot base our life on contingencies. Unless we learn what abundance is present here and now, we can never hope to see it in the future. Yoga, meditation, breathwork are all ways of learning to open our eyes and see what is here. Every practice is a harvest. We practice until we find the harvest in every minute, where the regale of the world opens up to our understanding and we feast on our lives.