Monday, November 29, 2010

Sitting Around the Fire

Celeste and I spent the last several days in Central Utah enjoying Thanksgiving with a few friends. What I love most about that part of the world is the mind-blowing landscapes and the gobs and gobs of peace and quiet. One day we went on a day-trip over Boulder Mountain and among other things, stopped at the Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Utah. The relentless wind, ever-present in that part of the world, blew right through us making our teeth chatter as we explored with wonder the remains of an ancient people who used to inhabit these lands. We saw their homes they made of rock and mud and imagined what it would look like to live at that time in this harsh environment during the wintertime.
As I looked into their homes, it was clear to see that the interior designer of these small abodes made a striking thematic presence of the small fire in the center of the living quarters. The winter time is the time to go inside, to hibernate, to sit around the fire and hear listen to stories. These stories were not simply to pass the time on long winter days but to help the storyteller as well as the listener to remember their identity, where they came from and what their purpose is.

So, as you’re bundled up on this winter day, here’s a story about another people from a cold part of the world.

The Story of Skeleton Woman

The story of Skeleton Woman is a hunting story told by those who live in the far north. It is a story that outlines the life-death-life cycle of relationship. I heard the story as told by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. She heard the story from an Inuit woman who was a cook on a expedition she attended.

Those who tell the story cannot remember why, but one day a man who was very angry with his daughter drug her from the house, brought her to a cliff at the edge of the sea, and threw her in. As she sank deep, deep, deep, into the water, the fish in the sea ate her flesh and eyes so that eventually, all that was left of her were her bones which were churned by the currents of the water as they lay on the floor of the sea.

Most people stayed away from those waters because they felt they were haunted. But one day, a lonely hunter, a man who had never married, strayed off course and ended up in these waters, fishing. He threw his bone-hook connected to his line and fishing-stick into the water and let it sink deep, deep, deep. The hook caught the ribcage of Skeleton Woman and as the fisherman gave his line a jerk, he thought, “Oh! I’ve caught a big one.” The hunter dreamed of the many people he would feed with this big fish and the leisure he would enjoy, freed for a while from the task of hunting. As he began to pull up his catch, Skeleton Woman began to thrash against the line which only made her more tangled. The closer that Skeleton came to the surface of the water, the more the water turned to a turbulent froth. Finally, the fisherman gave a big pull and up from the surface of the water arose Skeleton Woman’s bald, skull with crustaceans on her cheeks and teeth. The fisherman screamed with fright, dropped his fishing stick in his kayak, and immediately began to paddle toward the shore. Not realizing that Skeleton Woman was tangled in his line, she thrashed and kicked as she was pulled directly behind the fisherman. The faster the fisherman paddled toward the shore, the faster Skeleton Woman seemed to be chasing him.

Finally, the fisherman came to the shore, grabbed his fishing stick, leapt out of his kayak, and ran for his snow house. Directly behind him, he could hear the clatter of bones against the rocks as Skeleton Woman followed, still tangled in his line. Eventually, he dove into his snow house and lay on the floor panting, “Oh, thank the gods, Raven and Sedna, for keeping me safe from harm. I am safe now in my house.” Slowly as the fisherman gained strength, he lit his wale-oil lamp and to his amazement saw Skeleton Woman in a heap of bones on the floor.
It may have been the soft lamplight, it may have been how tangled and sorry she looked, but the fisherman began to have compassion on Skeleton Woman. He very carefully crept over to her and began to untangle his line from her bones. Then, bone by bone, he cleaned her and placed each bone in the order that a persons should be. Finally, he wrapped her in skins to keep her warm. Skeleton Woman lay completely quiet, lest the fisherman become scared and drag her out of his warm house and break her bones on the rocks. The fisherman rewound his fishing line, became very drowsy, and fell asleep. Skeleton Woman lay completely still, listening to the fisherman breathe.

And as dreamers sometimes do, a tear formed in the corner of the fisherman’s eye. Skeleton Woman was very thirsty and she saw this tear in the corner of the fisherman’s eye glimmer in the lamp light. So, very quietly, she crept over and put her mouth on the fisherman’s cheek, close to his eye and drank the tear which quenched her thirst. She looked at the fisherman and longed to have flesh. Very carefully, she reached into the fisherman’s body and pulled out his heart. And beating his heart as drum, she began to sing for flesh and hair and fingernails to form again on her bones. Bit by bit, Skeleton Woman gained flesh, and hair, and fingernails, everything that a normal woman would have. Once Skeleton Woman had flesh, she carefully placed the fisherman’s heart back into his body. She looked at him and longed for the feeling of flesh on flesh, so she climbed very carefully into the fisherman’s skins with him.
In the morning, the fisherman and Skeleton Woman woke, tangled from a night of love making. While no one knows exactly what happened to the fisherman and Skeleton Woman, it is said that they left that area and lived the rest of their lives together, very happy. For the rest of their lives, the fisherman and Skeleton Woman lived on the bounty of fish, the very fish that ate the flesh of Skeleton Woman and who now offered themselves as food for the fisherman and Skeleton Woman.

As so we see that both the fisherman and Skeleton Woman needed each other to become complete. The fisherman thought he had hooked into a “good catch” and would live an easy life. He was tangled together with Skeleton Woman, and though at first it was scary and messy, eventually it was this entanglement that drove them together and eventually made them both whole. It was compassion that began the conversation of give and take between the couple that ended in the happy entanglement of lovemaking. When all was said and done, were it not for the life-death-life cycle as shown by the fisherman and Skeleton Woman, neither would have been made whole. In relationship, we hope for one thing, maybe an easy life or relationship, but by the necessary entanglement of this cycle, we receive something much more valuable and lasting. Do not be afraid of the life-death-life cycle of relationship, it is the necessary step that will lead you to your greatest fulfillment.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Remembering with Food: A Mindful Approach to Thanksgiving

Several years ago, my wife, Celeste, and I studied meditation in Korea. Nearly every day we performed the same ritual: Around mid-morning, we’d walk the mile or so to the meditation center, don our blue martial-arts-style uniform tied with the lofty white belt (the first level), and take our seats on the padded floor with the other practitioners. We were the only Americans. We’d slowly move through martial-arts sequences, and then meditate while standing, sitting, and lying down. Often, at the end of practice, the master would pull out a small table, place a few tea cups, procure a thermos of hot water, and begin making tea without a word. With the tea now steeped, the master would ceremoniously pour a rivulet of tea into cups whose small veined cracks were stained by a thousand previous pours and a thousand previous conversations. We’d sit quietly and drink tea. I understand now the tea was part of the meditation.

After our very first meditation class, our Korean friend and fellow meditation student, Jin-soon, led us down the street to the most unsuspecting little concrete building containing a church on the top floor, a karaoke lounge on the bottom, and something called Purin Nuri (“green-blue world”) in the middle. We climbed the stairs, slipped off our shoes, and entered through the door into a different world, leaving the garish and abrasive city behind. Inside, we were embraced by the comforting smell of freshly baked bread, aromatic rice porridge, and steaming soup. Soft Korean music floated through the air as we followed Jin-soon to pick up a simple wooden bowl, spoon, and chopsticks, and began to sift contentedly through the Buddhist buffet, containing fresh lettuce leaves, glass noodles with mushrooms, tofu and veggie dishes, and a traditional cinnamon drink made with jujube berries and new pine needles. This style of food is called monk’s cuisine in Korea and attempts to be as close to the earth as possible. In fact, much of the food would be harvested from the wild that day by the owner, Moon-kyung, and her friend and helper, Sun-hee: bitter wild dandelion leaves, sharp-tasting new pine needles, and fragrant and edible flowers. These two were the only people running this intimate culinary temple. Once we filled our bowls, we sat on the floor on a cushion, our legs crossed under a low wooden table. We paused for a moment of gratitude for this feast and for our lives, and then began the long, happy process of mindfully eating. Like tea, our meditation extended through lunch. This, too, became part of our daily ritual.

Meditation is, in part, a method designed to help us understand better who and what we are through the process of mindfulness. Most of us eat three times a day, every day. No wonder it’s so easy to allow something as wonderful, sensual, and delicious as eating to become mundane or a chore. With the ease of consuming on the fly what I call edible non-food substances (read: energy bars), it’s easy to forget that eating is a sacred connection. Eating is a natural break in the day where we stop to eat the roses. We stop our work and our intellectual spinning, and fortify ourselves with something as simple and immediate as physical sensation that brings life to our bodies.

Eating is the sacred ritual of cycling life through our bodies as we ask the life of other beings, plants and animals, to become a sacred part of our own life. We re-member ourselves—as in to make ourselves whole from a dismembered state, by consuming other life and making it a part of us. Eating is like many of the old stories and myths from ancient cultures (stories like Isis and Osiris, Rama and Sita, Tristan and Isolde, even the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) where gods, creatures, and people are re-membered, are brought back together and made whole again, after the refining and learning process of death and dismemberment. And like these ancient stories, so are we re-membered, or placed back into a greater wholeness (the whole of creation), as we stop the process of hunger and death, and assimilate other life by eating. We are gathered and re-membered into an even greater whole during the sacred sacrament of sitting at supper with friends and family, laughing, sharing, eating, drinking. This reverential ritual deserves mindfulness.

The mindful approach to food invites us to pay close attention to what we eat, where our food comes from, and what impact this food has not only on us but on our environment and our economy and peoples. When considering food in this way, we may be tantalized by the panoply of flavors, colors, cultures, temperatures, textures, stories, and histories of the food we consume. With mindfulness, even a humble meal of rice and beans becomes a banquet. With mindfulness, we may sense the love that went into preparing the meal or envision the farm where the food was raised or grown. We may also sense the financial benefit to our community when we choose to support local sources. This heart and soul of eating can be gone in a flash: a fine nine-course French meal may as well be fast food if it’s mindlessly gulped down and barely chewed between commercial breaks, newspaper headlines, or text messages.

Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, a way of practicing mindfulness is to pause for a moment of gratitude before your meal. If you don’t pray, you may be creative in your expression of thankfulness by reading a poem about food or gratitude, offering thanks to the elements that are sustaining your life, or telling your dining partner(s) what you appreciate about them or the meal. I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving I spent in Zion National Park, under the afternoon shadows of the red cliffs of Angels Landing, where Celeste and I shared a meal with a wonderful friend and her daughters. For their gratitude for the meal, these friends sang a simple song together, smiling and giggling. After, we all clapped, laughed, expressed how we appreciated one another as well as the meal, and then dug into our cold turkey, green beans, and potatoes, lovingly hauled down to Southern Utah in a couple of giant coolers.

With the right mindfulness, there is no guilt in food. We may choose to eat what we feel is nourishing for us, body and heart. And we get to decide what that means on any given day. For my birthday this year, I went to the Beehive Tea Room (300 S. Main Street) and enjoyed my favorite pot of raspberry mint tea and the biggest piece of chocolate cake in the history of chocolate cake. I ate it without a shred of remorse, knowing that this is a way I celebrate my life, and chose to enjoy every decadent bite. It nourished something deeper than body. With mindful eating, we’ll know when to treat ourselves, when to nourish ourselves, and when those two happily intersect.

At the end of the day, ordinary or extravagant food becomes exquisite with mindfulness. Without mindfulness, anything can become as bland as a chalky protein bar. But with the right mindfulness, even a naked bowl of oatmeal could prove to be very provocative!

Here is a quote from one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry. Post it next to your dinner table, perhaps, as we have:

Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.
(from his essay “What Are People For?”)

Monday, November 15, 2010

That's How the Light Gets In

Last week's message was about standing where you are, unafraid to be with what is most real for you. I was extremely touched by your responses to my letter. Many of you responded to my email with real and honest stories about where you stand, many of you came to class and practiced standing tall despite our challenges, and I'm sure many of you read the message and perhaps forwarded it on to a friend or simply walked silently into another week with increased courage to be exactly where you are. One lesson that writing these newsletters has taught me is when I am the most genuine to my own heart, when I am real, it invites others to be likewise. Not just back to me, but I hear the stories of how people are moved to be genuine to their spouses, families, friends, and strangers. This is the real message of yoga for me. Yoga literally means union. I'm honored to be connected with you in this way.

I feel honored to practice this union not only through the healthy benefits of moving through our bodies, reducing stress in our lives, yes, but in the important work of the nit and grit of every-day life, the practice of every-day living. It's apologetically showing up on the yoga mat and/or in life and simply speaking to where we are. Doesn't have to be pretty.

So I've been thinking of another cool way for us to practice this union. It's with song lyrics. Yep. I did an experiment on Facebook recently and I want to try this out on a bigger scale. I'm interested in the words, set to a groove or a melody, that have spoken wisdom to you, given you courage, or simply made you think. I feel that some of the most powerful poets of our time, those so able to speak to place, have been standing behind a guitar with three chords in their heads and a mic in front of their mouths.

Here's what you do, one of two things: You can click on the "B" at the bottom of this message that says Blogger next to it. This takes you to the comment section of my blog. Write a line or a few lines of lyrics that have moved you, include the artist and the song (you can sign your name as the one submitting the lyrics if you want), then click on "anonymous" and the big orange bar that says "publish your comment." The second way is through Facebook. If you Facebook, click on the "F" at the bottom of this message and on my page you'll see other people's posts with their favorite song lyrics. Add your favorite by commenting on the post. That way everyone who comes by these list of comments, either through my blog or Facebook, can read everyone else's words. This will be a fun way to connect with each other.

I'll start . . .

"Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything,

That's how the light gets in."

Leonard Cohen in Anthem.

See you in class.

Monday, November 8, 2010

This Is Where I Stand

You know that pose firefly or titibasana? Can't do it. Splits or Hanumanasana? Nope. Not me. And you know what's even more real for me? It's not embracing the challenge of whether or not I can do the splits, 'cuz who really cares, right?

The hardest things I'm faced with is having someone I dearly love battle pain and fatigue every day because of an autoimmune disease she's got. What's real is the fact that I've put my career on the line for a business that I hope will go well but is still concrete and I-beams, while I sit back and hope that people still read this stuff that I send out each week. At this place in my life, I come to the mat and practice working through my own insecurities on a daily basis. Truthfully, I flirt between confidence and insecurity. I hope. I hope, I hope, I hope that one day my love will find her strength again and end this long night of illness (8 years). No pity. I don't need understanding. This is simply the most honest picture of where I am. This is where I stand.

I don't care if you can touch your toes, or if you have perfected a backbend or can hold a handstand. I don't care if you've practiced every day for a decade or haven't looked at your mat in a year. I don't care. I'm more interested in whether or not you are willing to come to your yoga mat today and meet yourself exactly where you are physically, emotionally, and mentally, to practice engaging life from that radical frontier. It's not about who has won or achieved some shallow level of success. For me, it's more about being willing to stand where you are, where life has put you, and with dignity and integrity, look the world straight in the eyes saying, "This is where I stand." In this embrace with the world, there is no wallowing, only an honesty of being. For me there is nothing more powerful.

The word Asana means "your seat" or "where you stand." In Yoga practice, we place ourselves in postures, in asana, to practice standing assertively like the warrior, virabhadrasana, and firmly like the mountain, tadasana, or in submission like the child, balasana. More importantly, we place ourselves in these asanas to explore and expose the place we stand in life. Maybe you stand in a place of deep loss or insecurity. Maybe you stand in a place of strength and security. I've invented a pose called "weeping hovel" asana that speaks to where I get sometimes. I should likewise invent "Toyota Jump" asana for when things are awesome. It really doesn't matter as along as you are willing to engage. And once you do, once you speak to that place through your breath and your body, you open up to the real conversation of the practice which is really the practice of every-day living.

Join me this week. come to practice and take your seat. Stand on your mat and say, "This is where I stand."