Once a friend told me that she was having her baby and that she was going to do it at home, without drugs, I’m told that means a lot of pain, and asked me if I would make her some CDs of music that would usher her through this grueling and beautiful experience with mindfulness and peace. I got to make the mix CD that became background music for one of the most memorable experiences that this woman will ever have in her life. I am honored to have participated in such a momentous event in that relatively small way.
Last year my brother made me a playlist for a marathon. It was mile 20 of the race, my tired legs were trudging up the side of this impossibly long and hill (it was a trail marathon) and just as I was about to expire, the cliché and unyieldingly victorious power-chords of Eye of the Tiger began beating in my ears. As that song began, my gaze focused, my legs jumped into action, and my nerves solidified. Those notes pushed me up that hill and fueled me to go on to finish the race. One track on my playlist was his voice telling me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Days change. The world spins around like a record and what we played as our background music today is different than yesterday. It’s all part of being real with where you are at today. It’s all part of paying attention and we do that in all sorts of ways, whether that’s through a yoga practice or choosing the song that acts as our background music for today.
What would be your background music today? Today mine would be If It Be Your Will written by Leonard Cohen and performed by Antony. If you are interested in sharing your background music for today, go to my Facebook page and share a link of your song. It will be wonderful to hear what other people have chosen for their music.
In non-duelist thought, everything has an equal counterpart that ultimately balances the universe into one balanced state. The symbol of yin and yang is a perfect example of this: each side is not only balanced by the opposite of the other, but more poignantly, the essence of one is located in the heart of the other represented by the black circle in the white space, and the white circle in the black space.
Balancing out the masculine energy of light and spirit, in yoga philosophy the energy of Shiva, is the creative and dynamic female energy of Shakti. According to this model of yogic philosophy, while the masculine energy is contemplative and spiritual, the female energy, however, is determined to do something about it-to dance and celebrate that spirit into form. It should be noted that despite our gender we all have energies and traits that are both masculine and feminine. Therefore, Shakti could be described as the spirit producing action. I'm guessing that we've all experienced this feeling of Shakti sometime or other when we've been inspired to action.
When we express this Shakti, we feel powerful and creative, we breathe and we move. This feeling of Shakti is very empowering. It is the defining action that changes worry into something productive. After all, as one of my teachers, Judith Lasater taught me, "What is worrying but praying for what you don't want." Not only worry, though. Shakti tells the Universe that you are serious by putting action to your resolve. Even if our answers to our doubt or what is moving in those subtle realms of thought and spirit isn't immediately available, by expressing this Shakti, we've open up a channel whereby more spirit and clarity can shine through. Sometimes it takes physical motion, a little re-arranging of the furniture, to realize the bigger changes that you'd like to see. Besides, it's fun! Fun is exactly this: motion on spirit.
I'd like to invite you to familiarize yourself with this feeling of Shakti. My mode to become familiar with this is by first drawing in through breathwork and meditation to identify spirit. Then using asana, we'll explore a way to celebrate that spirit that will be fun and challenging. We'll breathe, move, and sweat. Once we've been reminded of our higher selves through this practice of yoga, I invite you to apply the added spirit you will feel into the vital elements of your practice of everyday living, your relationships and work.
Why do we love tragedies? Why do we love a good cry? Why do we subject ourselves to the Twilight Saga? I mean really?! Why do we do it to ourselves? For the record, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve seen ALL the Twilight movies thus far and have every intention of seeing the next one. Not because I think that they are well written, acted, edited, or filmed, or that any of the actors are even attractive. Maybe it’s the fact that they are precisely not so that makes it so appealing, like they’ve gone so far down the road to bad that somehow they have circled the vast globe of badness and have magically found their way back toward something approaching good. Or at least interesting. Maybe morbidly so. Which is good. Which brings me back to my point: why do we love things that can be morbidly bad? Like Roquefort cheese. Have you tasted that jazz? It’s the most smelly-foot smelling and tasting cheese in the world of smelly-foot cheeses and I’m here to tell you that the stuff is off the hook! Yeah, I’m not going to eat it by the pound, but a morsel of Roquefort judiciously spread over a crispy wheat cracker is something that borders on perfection.
Why do we like things that aren’t all roses and laughs? Maybe it’s because what is most satisfying in life isn’t being happy. That’s what the Blues are all about. Being happy just one part of what it is like to be human. Because as human beings we thrive by working to understanding what we are. And to appreciate our own humanity means to understand everything that it is to be human: loss, joy, love, meanness, disappointment, gut-splitting laughter, an ache so large in the heart that it feels as if someone is literally standing on your chest. All of it. It’s because we cannot define ourselves by happiness alone, beyond happiness we keep searching for all the other things that make us US. It’s why we make decisions that we know are going to hurt but there is no other way. So we do it. We travel that tough road because we know that there is something over on the other side that calls to our True Self and we really have no other choice.
As if happiness weren’t large enough a word. It’s more about living this life to the fullest by accepting everything that this life will throw at us. It’s presence, which is what we cultivate and practice in yoga and meditation. Being present with a well-lived sadness is a great way of offering a gift to others in that sadness is such a real part of being human and expressing it fully reminds us all of the beautiful phenomenon of being. Just listen to John Lee Hooker sing Rainy Day and you’ll know what I mean.
So, you can expect to find me sometime in the near future contemplating existence while sitting alone in some dark theater, crying in tandem with the plaintive and gaunt Abercrombie models, alone, purely because no one can stand the smelly-feet perfection of my Roquefort movie treat. All this while being the most content person in the world. You can have happy.
Come as you are to practice and let’s agree to live all of it to the fullest.
Jin-soon and I had been talking casually for half an hour when we saw the monk. Tog-hyon emerged from the forest carrying a walking stick and wearing a Buddhist-chic, patchwork vest, baggy, gray monk's pants that tightened around the ankles with knots for buttons, and a large straw hat. He greeted us with a broad smile and bow and before even bothering to learn our names, he invited us into his small hermit's home for tea and lunch. He lived a mile into the forest, away from the principal monastery. He spoke to me in rusty yet precise English. During tea he said that he'd learned English in law school before he became a monk, fifteen years ago.
The warm spring morning covered us with a comforting blanket of fragrant, humid air. This deep into the forest, the whole world seemed to be the brightest most vivid green of new leaves beginning to spring from the trees. How could the world sustain such a fresh and new vitality?
It was 2003. I had been in Korea teaching English and studying meditation for almost a year. My dear Jin-soon (fellow teacher and guide to all the best things Korean) had invited me to come and visit her favorite monastery, where visitors get to live like monks for a while and find solace.
We sat down on the floor as Tog-hyon prepared the tea. Eager to begin conversation, I mentioned that it was very peaceful there at his hermitage, and without my knowing it, my lessons had begun. "Why do you say that it is peaceful here?" he inquired with that sage smile of his. I fumbled for something to say, sensing I had made a faux-pas and that my logic was about to be mercilessly squashed. "The peace we have can only come from within. Otherwise, it will always leave us. We are doomed for sadness if we base our happiness on things that are constantly changing." He stared deeply into my eyes.
After lunch Jin-soon offered to do the dishes and just before I jumped in to help, Tog-hyun arrested my gaze and asked me if I would go on a walk with him. I regretted that Jin-soon was going to miss this because of her offer to wash dishes. But it was just him and me.
We met a thin yet worn path that began near his house. He quietly walked along the path through the bamboo forest as I followed on his heels. I instinctively began to do the museum walk, hands clasped behind my back. I do this when I don't want to disturb the beauty and priceless art around me.
We walked for a few minutes until we came to a bamboo barrier lying across the path that was obviously made by him. There was a sign on the post in neat Korean. He pointed to it and pronounced, "This says that this place is not for just anyone. But you're not just anyone," and lifted up the barrier for me to pass. A few more minutes and we came to a small building, which looked like an organized sculpture of the trees and orange clay of its immediate environs. There were tree posts supporting it, a curved, tiled roof, and a large wooden deck. "I built this with three other monks. I had a very difficult time," he said, laughing. "Let's meditate." He offered me the only mat on the porch and we both sat down, cross-legged, and stared out into a vast, unspoiled mountain vista. West. Again, my meditation was deep and peaceful. My eyes were open. What is this spirit inside me? I thought. That seems to be the six-million dollar question, here. Again, I became very still. I stared at a tree in the distance. It was different than those surrounding it. It was a lone dark-green tree in an ocean of lightly colored spring-green trees. I felt like that tree was me.
After 20 minutes, Tog-hyun said, "Do you hear the wind blowing through the pines? There's an old Zen poem that says, 'What is the price of the wind blowing through the pines?' So I ask you. . ." (Damn! here comes another question!) ". . .what is the price of the wind through the pines?" I rattled off some light-weight answer like, "The wind, the trees, they are part of us all, part of our soul. Our soul is priceless- "You don't understand me, do you?" he interrupted gently. "I don't understand," I said. "You studied English in the university, and you don't understand?" he kindly goaded me. "Stop thinking about it. You can't use theories to answer the question. You can't use language. You must doubt. You must continually ask the question (Who am I?) and one day you will learn. It will take three days of constant meditation. Even while you are resting, your mind must be pondering the question of the price of the wind through the trees. Someday you will know. Let the blade of doubt cut through the blackness of the mind. Let's go back."
And with that, we stood up and he led me back to his house. He entered and this time opened the wooden shutters to the only window in the room. It opened to the West, and he had me sit directly to his left, facing the window. "He's so young and makes many mistakes, but he is very spiritually minded. I can see that," he said to Jin-soon and some other people who had come in our absence.
It was time to go. We'd spent almost five hours with Tog-hyun. Before going, I told him that I'd soon be home with family and friends in America and asked him if there was a message of wisdom he would like to send with me. He told me that a message from him wasn't necessary; instead, I must find the message within my own self and share it. I thought I should have learned that lesson by now.
Before leaving, Tog-hyun reached into a closet and gave me a very expensive box of tea. As he walked us to the edge of the hermitage he read the Chinese inscription on the box. "It says, 'Zen and the taste of tea is the same.'" Then without a segue he added, "Continue to doubt. Always doubt." And with that we bowed humbly to him, and left.
It was late. We hiked back to the principal temple grounds and stopped by the Great Hall one more time to make our final bows, grabbed our bags, and took the first bus out. We began our 4-hour trip home and I pondered Tog-hyun's words.
When we feel we know, when there is nothing else to search for, we become complacent, stagnant. Surety seems like a comfortable place but it's a damning place. It's the false security of thinking that the journey is over, that there's nothing else to search for or find. Doubt, wonder keeps our eyes open in wonder, keeps us searching and discovering. Let's not mistake doubt for cynicism, mind you. It is doubt that keeps us asking the questions that will lead us to the next mile marker, and the next, and the next. It's doubt that keeps us groping in the dark until we find our way through. But to think you have the answers is to lie and say you've arrived, to sit down and get sleepy, and forget what you are looking for while the grass grows.
Mysteries, Yes, by Mary Oliver
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.