Monthly Archives: June 2012

True giving

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Think about the last time you gave someone something – your time, your friendship, a smile, or a gift of some kind.  If you are totally honest with yourself, did you truly give without expectation of return?  So often we give to others as if we are entering into an unspoken contract with them; we are thinking ‘I’ll cook you dinner this week, then it will be your turn’, or ‘I’m looking after your child, so when I need someone to do the same for me, I know you’ll offer’.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with this per se – reciprocity has been the foundation of our economics for centuries – it is a world apart from true giving.  Of course it is reasonable to expect that if we smile at someone, they will smile and be friendly back.  If they don’t, we may not smile so readily ourselves the next time we see them.  But sometimes we must give for the sake of giving.  When we donate to a good cause, we are not expecting any benefit to ourselves, at least in the short term.  We give because someone or something else’s plight has touched our hearts.  We give because we care, because we have allowed something external to ourselves into our hearts.

When we offer our help, our companionship and our time to our friends and neighbours, we may well find that they reciprocate.  But when they don’t, that can be fine too.  We help because we want to help.  Because we can empathise with their situation, and with their needs.  When we truly give, we give selflessly, and without thought of ourselves.  We are in touch with our more spiritual selves, with our sense of compassion,  as we open our hearts to those around us, and make their needs greater than our own.

Moving into stillness

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When we are busy and rushing around all the time, it can be too hard to simply be still.  Some of us are never still unless we are asleep.  This difficulty can put people off taking up yoga or meditation.  They would prefer to do some high-impact, high-speed exercise than to risk being unable to find the stillness which is buried deep within them.

And so when someone starts yoga, they need to learn to ease into that stillness.  Nobody can move from fast to still that easily.  We have built up a momentum in our lives which will take time to slow down.  So for most of us it won’t work if we rush in from our hectic day, sit or lie down and attempt to empty our minds.  It will take a bit more effort than that, a bit more preparation.  We make our slowing down a gradual and enjoyable process.

In class, we will generally start with some faster, rhythmic movements, which help us to initiate that process of listening to our bodies, co-ordinating our breath with our movements, and easing out any stiffness and tension.  Then the movements will slow down, moving into gentler, flowing sequences and a series of stretches and asanas.  Asanas may be held or we may flow in and out of them.  We are approaching that stillness in our bodies now, and moving towards a clear, calm mind.  Our physical practice can, in itself,  be a form of meditation.  One of the main reasons I chose to train in Dru yoga was because of the meditative, inward focus of the Energy Block Release sequences and the flowing postures.  Each part of the movement can be performed with awareness of different chakras (energy centres), with awareness of our breath, and of our state of mind.  Often we will pause at the end of a sequence to close our eyes and really tune into the effects we are experiencing from the movements.  The stillness follows naturally from the movement, without being an effort.

Only after this part of the class do we move on to meditation, pranayama or yoga nidra (deep relaxation).  The mental stillness follows naturally from moving and resting the physical body. Once the stillness is truly established, we may then – and only then – find an awareness of the subtle movement of energy in the body.  So just as movement naturally leads to stillness, so stillness will lead us into a deeper awareness and experience of our inner selves.

 

Exchanging ourselves for another

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Everyone has heard, at some point in their lives, the advice that they should  ‘think of someone worse off than themselves’.  It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always that easy to do.  Our own pain, whether physical or emotional, can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine anything worse.  Unintentionally, we are frequently rendered more selfish, more self-absorbed, by our own suffering.

But if we can, for one moment, put that pain aside, we will be able to see that, yes, indeed, there are many others who are in worse pain, who are suffering more than we are.  So we have a choice. We can allow our own suffering to shut us off from others, or we can use it to connect more deeply with the trials of those around us.  To acknowledge our common humanity.  To realise that even those who we feel ‘have it all’, will be struggling with their own private demons.

And so the first step is to not run away from our pain, but to look straight at it. To really see it for what it is.  To truly feel our emotions and to stay with them.  If we are sad, to really be sad, not to shut it away and numb ourselves with something else.  If we are angry, to experience how that anger makes us feel, without acting it out – yes, it’s hard!

And then we can start to think of others who are feeling the same thing – in their own way, and their own circumstances, yes, but just to acknowledge that there are others who we know, as well as millions who we don’t know, who are suffering  the same despair, fear, anger – whatever it is.  Millions of people experiencing their own pain.

And this is not just a logical, mental acknowledgement, it is an emotional process.  We feel our own pain, and we feel that of everyone else.  And, ironically, this can help to strengthen us in our own time of need.  We are not alone in our suffering any longer.  We no longer feel so helpless.  We are more able to extend ourselves to help others.

Because strength isn’t all about solidity, it’s about softness.  In Dru yoga, we soften the joints, even in ‘strong’ postures, so that we don’t block energy from flowing freely around the body.  Whilst we move from a strong core, we maintain a fluidity of movement through the body, learning where to soften and let go.  True strength comes from flowing through our lives with courage and determination, not from standing still and building up the walls between ourselves and those around us. Knowing when to accept help from others, and when to offer it. It can be wonderful to feel the effects of a beautiful yoga posture or sequence – but even more wonderful to send those benefits to someone who is in need of them –  whether or  not they are capable of accessing them for themselves.  When I teach Energy Block Release 3 in my class, a profound heart-opening sequence, we always pause at the end, hands in Namaste, to experience the peace generated by the movements, and each of us is then able to ‘send out’ that peace to anyone who comes to mind in that moment.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen is the exchange of ourselves for another. It reverses our natural tendency to run away from what we perceive as bad (suffering) and instead encourages us to embrace it.  It turns our natural tendency to shield ourselves from hurt on its head.  It gives us courage and strength, by allowing us to truly experience our weakness.  As Pema Chodron writes,

‘It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts’

~ Pema Chodron,’When Things Fall Apart’

We start by identifying our pain, and we breathe it in. On our outbreath, we breathe out softness, relief, and send it out.  This is a very powerful practice – instead of saying ‘no’ to what we see as ‘bad’, we say ‘yes, OK, this is how things are’.  We are accepting what is. Then we can think of someone else who is in similar pain – physical or emotional – and we breathe in their pain, too. We allow all this pain to open us, to free us, and we breathe out, softening and sending out this softness to them as well.  We can then move on to everyone who is sad,  angry, has a headache – whatever it may be – and  on our outbreath, send out that relief to them all.

When we have had a disagreement with someone, instead of isolating ourselves and allowing ourselves to make ourselves right and them wrong, we can instead try to breathe in their anger, opening ourselves to their viewpoint, and breathe out the softness, the spaciousness that we find. When we are anxious and troubled about someone, we identify with their pain, making it bigger than our own feelings about them.  We breathe in their pain and send out relief on our outbreath. There really are no limitations to this practise.  Whenever we feel good, we send it out.  Whenever we feel bad, we breathe it in. We can use it in formal meditation practice, or on the spot, whenever we remember.

If you have experience of working with tonglen, I’d love to hear about it.  If you haven’t and decide to give it a try, let me know how you get on.

Opening the heart

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heart-1213481_1280Many times in my previous posts, I’ve written about the need for us to stay with our difficult emotions, rather than to run away and hide from them.  When we run away, or try to ignore our more challenging feelings, we make them even bigger than they really are.  If we take respite in our usual mental processes, making ourselves right and the whole world wrong, the effort of holding on so tightly to our own beliefs can be literally exhausting.  If we run away and pretend  everything is fine, those same feelings will usually surface again the next time we feel pushed and squeezed by the circumstances of our lives.

Sometimes our feelings are just so huge that they cannot be ignored, and we cannot run away.  At these times, we find that very shaky, insecure being we actually are behind the solid walls we like to create –  the persona we like to present to the world.  We become more truly ourselves.  It takes real courage to face this part of ourselves head on.  But if you imagine that all your dammed-up emotions are like a fortress, then a crisis can be quite liberating – although it certainly won’t feel like it at the time.

When everything feels wrong, when we cannot feel good about ourselves, it’s time to allow what seems like a disaster to open us up, to soften us and to chip away at those fortress walls.  As Pema Chodron writes, in ‘When Things Fall  Apart’,

“It’ s a kind of testing, the kind of testing that spiritual warriors need in order to awaken their hearts.”

We find the softness deep in our hearts.  We start to dissolve the barriers we have built up over the years. We learn to truly experience our own suffering, both large and small, and so develop more empathy for the trials of others.  We begin to tune in to the true quality of our heart chakra, Anahata.  We find compassion for others as well as for ourselves.  We develop maitri, or loving-kindness. We welcome the opportunities we encounter to grow – embracing our disappointments, our sadness, our anger.  The good news is we don’t need to go out of our way to find these opportunities – we will all find that plenty come our way!

 

An abundance of turquoise cars!

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Have you ever noticed that  you see more and more of the things your mind dwells on?  When we were planning a house move, I saw ‘For Sale’ signs everywhere we went, but as soon as we were no longer looking, I just stopped even noticing them.

My son and I often play a game when we are travelling in the car, where we count  cars of certain colours.  We started off counting cars in colours that were easy to spot, maybe silver, blue or black.  But then he started suggesting more unusual colours, which we thought we would be lucky to see.  On one occasion, within half a mile of our home, he suddenly said he would look for turquoise cars and that I would spot pink!  Well, I didn’t see the pink car that day, but he did see turquoise around the very next corner!  For the next few days, he would say that he would spot turquoise – and it was amazing just how many turquoise cars there were!  I started noticing them even when I was driving on my own – and one day I was able to tell him that I had seen five turquoise cars, just on one roundabout! We moved on to lime green (dark green was too easy!) – not quite the same results, but still more than I would ever have expected.

So the things we are concerned with, the  things our mind dwells on, are what we tend to notice in our lives. So if our expectations of life are  more and more stress, bad luck and unhappiness, that is what we tend to encounter.  We will notice the bad things, and the happy events will fail to cheer us up as much as they could.  On the other hand, if we anticipate  that our lives will be generally happy, then that will be our experience.  We will notice the good, and weather the bad times more easily.  We cultivate a more optimistic state of mind.  We see the best of our situation, and magnify it by the power of our attention.  I would rather magnify the good than the bad.  

But we  all have genuinely horrible days, dreadful days where it all goes wrong.  At such times, it can be truly too difficult to see anything good in our lives.  It can seem as if we will never smile again.

At these times, the best we can do – and this can be hard in itself – is to avoid magnifying the bad and making it even worse.  Just trying to stay with the bad feelings, without spinning off in all directions, thinking we know how it is all going to work out.  We don’t.  One of the hardest – and bravest – things we will ever have to do is to stay with our negative emotions without trying to smother them.  However bad it seems, just knowing that it will get easier, without us trying to find a way out.  Making sure we don’t block out the sunshine with our own personal raincloud.  Remembering we don’t know it all.  Remembering that we probably have felt this way before, even if we don’t think it was this bad.  It most likely was, and we most likely will get over it this time, in just the same way.

And in the worst of times, remembering the best of times.  Not blocking out what happiness is still there for us.  Just keeping that awareness in the corner of our minds, and, if we can, maintaining those practices which make us feel  good.  Not to run away from the difficult feelings, but to learn from them.  Pema Chodron writes movingly in her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’, about how our emotions soften us and help us develop spiritually.  We learn to stop building up our armour against the slings and arrows of life, but to let them open us up to life in its entirety.  If we only take notice of the ‘good’, then we will never see that which we label as ‘bad’ as anything other than an interruption in the charmed life we believe is our right.  Not much growth going on there.  But if we can learn from the whole pattern of our lives, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, then we will surely continue to grow, day by day.