chakra 5: authentic expression

"Stories are medicine." -Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes

 

I didn’t plan on becoming a yoga enthusiast. It happened to me. Seven years ago. I had just gone through a break-up. (Again.) With another guy named Peter. (Seriously.)

I felt like the ground had fallen out from under me. I couldn’t get my bearings. The scariest part is that I knew I wasn’t really suffering because of the guy. His main service had been to distract me from the truth that my life wasn't particularly joyful or meaningful, that it hadn't been for years.

My days were not centered in any core values or driven by any real purpose and, as I think anyone would, I fell into the most basic mode of existence: survive and seek pleasure. When the relationship fell apart, so did the illusion of cohesiveness. Like untying a ribbon around a bundle of twigs, I suddenly saw that there was nothing of substance holding together all of my parts. 

I made myself go to yoga class--something that I had been doing off and on for years but hadn’t made a regular habit. The class was full. The teacher, a favorite who always made me feel safe and inspired, gave a talk about coming home to yourself. She said it’s never too late, no matter how far gone you feel. Toward the end a Krishna Das song came on. It’s like I was hearing with new ears as he sang of devotion toward his teacher: “I am the prisoner, you are release.” 

Coming down out of wheel pose, something inside me broke open. As I came to rest on my back a sense of belonging, connection and hope flooded my chest and drained out of the corners of my eyes. This experience needed no translator. Some tender, easeful, honest self had been released from a years-long imprisonment. 

This implied another self--a part of me that had judged the more tender sister as unfit, had built walls around her, and diligently paced the gates. But in this moment I felt no anger toward the judge, the prison-builder, the prision guard. That would come another day. For now, there was an inner reconciliation, a return to balance and wholeness. In this moment all of my parts sang one note: Gratitude.

I would need to do more yoga, to incite more prison-breaks, to invite more reunions. I would have to pay for all those yoga classes and I didn't have much money, so after class I signed up to do a work exchange at the studio. I became a servant of the students there, a devotee of the teachers. 

Transformation came fierce and fast. Just a year later I would graduate from yoga teacher training and embark on my first purposeful career path. Oh, and not long after I would move in with a new guy. This one would become my best friend and fiance.  

Those of you who know me well have heard some version of this story. I told it many times to myself and others over the years. I made it into my own personal myth. 

Joseph Campbell defines myth as “a projection of the deep wisdom of the psyche.” A ritual or a spiritual practice is the acting out that myth. So when I get up and go to my meditation cusion in the morning, or when I roll out my yoga mat and step onto it, I am acting out this story. I come humble, human, flawed. I break down false walls and free what's been chained. I reunite my selves and raise them up in joyous chorus. When I walk away I am renewed, reconnected to my own wisdom. Again an able servant for all who might need me.

Campbell says it this way. "By participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life."

I maintain my meditation and yoga rituals every day, lest I forget. But in moments when I still find myself too loose, too untethered, or too unbound, I need to double down on my myth and its rituals. Same when I find myself too sticky, rigid, squinty-visioned or constrained.

If I fail to do this I am especially vulnerable to be swept up in disempowering stories. We have spoken of stories as prisons in previous posts. Much of the work we have been doing is to free the chakras from stories that restrain them and prevent them from working in their full power. This brings us to the work of CHAKRA 5.

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"Stories set the inner life in motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us a fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives." -Clarissa Pinkola Estes

 

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Chakra Five is the center of language, song, story, symbol, communication, creativity, authenticity, personality, self-expression. Located in the throat, I think of the center as the BARD. Her voice is unique, one of a kind. But the stories she puts out into the air are human. They belong to all of us.

This center is damaged by participating in slander or perpetuating old stories that are no longer alive with truth. It is cleansed by sacred silence. This center is weakened when we don't trust ourselves enough to speak authentically. It is empowered by engaging in truthful talk and sincere song. 

Why did I cover my middle school notebooks in Nirvana lyrics and fill them with terrible poetry? Because authentic expression requires that we don't just regurgitate or reject what we hear, but that we creatively process it.

Why did I cover my middle school notebooks in Nirvana lyrics and fill them with terrible poetry? Because authentic expression requires that we don't just regurgitate or reject what we hear, but that we creatively process it.

Gently caress your neck with your hands. Notice the shape of the neck, slender, spreading out toward the head at the top and spreading out toward the chest at the bottom. Feel the ridges that mark the outer boundaries of the important tubes that run down the length of the neck. Feel the passage of AIR flowing up and down through this tubing. AIR is the element of Chakra 5 and by honoring the breath and exploring the qualities of AIR and WIND, we begin to open an understanding of the Throat Chakra.

Just as the Throat is more of a passageway than it is a place, AIR is more of a medium than a solid thing. Things are getting more subtle, less obvious and visible, which is a tell-tale sign that we have entered the arena of the UPPER CHAKRAS. Air, in case you were wondering, is actually a mixture of gases that is maintained by the earth’s atmosphere. This atmosphere is, as far as we know, unique to this planet. It co-evolved with life here. 

Us animals rely on air to live. It brings precious oxygen to our cells, and the cells use oxygen to produce energy. No wonder the word for breath and lifeforce are the same in Sanskrit--prana. When we exhale we release carbon dioxide which the plants use in photosynthesis. Plants, in turn, release more oxygen—the very part of the gas compound that we need most! It's a beautiful cycle and reminds us that "waste" is a human invention. Nature’s design is too tight to abide such a concept. Her ways are too exquisite, too wholistic; everything has value in her system and nothing is wasted. 

You breathing right now is a gift to the whole atmosphere, to your environment and everyone else in it. By exhaling now you are giving your unique gift. And by inhaling you are receiving the gifts of the world. To be alive is to be in this constant cycle of giving and receiving. It’s perfect. You are made perfectly. And so is everybody else. We forget that too often. 

The pure gases which make up the air are invisible to the human eye. So breath and air have always been related to the divine—that which is present but only visible in its results. The word SPIRIT is in the word respiration. Spiritu is latin for breath. The same is true in many languages. In classical systems, AIR is sometimes referred to as WIND—it is in the moving of more solid stuff that we see evidence of air. 

Wind makes the leaves and branches dance before our eyes. It can bring a feeling of coolness or clarity to the skin. It can bring a scent to the nose, along with all the emotions or memories that scent triggers. And if course it brings sounds to our ear, it vibrates the little airs that allow us to hear. This month I urge you to study air and wind, vibration and movement. Notice what travels on the airwaves--the unseen medium that makes so much of our lives possible, especially in this digital age.

The color of the throat chakra is SKY BLUE. Bring your hands back to the space of the neck. Envision a ball of sky blue light there. Then pull your hands away so that they hover just a bit outside of the skin. Perhaps the ball of vibrant blue light expands as well. Perhaps you can feel into a heat or an energy there. Working with this color can be extremely healing. There is a Tibetan Buddhist exercise where you fill the entire body with a clear, blue light which I made a daily practice for a long time.

Now hum and feel the vibration of this area of the body. See if you can extend the vibration down into the heart, belly, pelvis and legs and feet. See if you can extend the vibration up into the ears, forehead, back of head and crown. Sound heals the throat chakra and, in turn, the throat chakra can heal the other chakras. See if you can feel that for yourself. Each chakra has a bija mantra--or a seed sound which you can work with. 

Chakra 7: OM (silent)
Chakra 6: OM
Chakra 5: HUM
Chakra 4: YUM
Chakra 3: RUM
Chakra 2: VUM
Chakra 1: LUM

These are cool and I recommend that you try them out. I will put a recording up soon that you can sing along to. But, really, any mantra work is leveraging the healing power of sound. Experiment with making the sounds aloud and also with making them silently. Notice their effect.

The delicate contours of your throat are unique and the sound of your voice is one-of-a-kind. Your throat chakra creates a special auditory thumbprint, allowing your sounds to come out unlike any other creature, past, present or future. So it is not just the breath that you exhale which is a special gift to the world, but the sounds that you make. To honor Chakra Five requires that you truly honor your own uniqueness. That you come to appreciate your special gifts, that you learn to enjoy them on your own and share them for the benefit of others as well.

Doing any kind of creative work will bring us into better appreciation of our unique gifts. Unfortunately, much of our uniqueness, much of our joy in creativity is educated out of us. So it may take some de-programming to remember what it feels like to just create for creation's sake. It make take some un-education to get back to what true gifts your weird and wonderful self is here to share.

One great exercise for this is to call your inner child. Sit in a meditation posture and quiet the mind by feeling your breath for a couple of minutes. Imagine now that you are sitting in a beautiful place. Take a little time making the details of your environment rich, so that the imagination can begin to open doorways in your consciousness. When you feel immersed in your visualized setting, notice as a little human approaches. It is you as a child. Take in the presence of this child and greet him or her in whatever way feels authentic. Then sit down with this person and ask: what do I need to know right now in my life? You can ask any questions you like of course! 

The Sanskrit for Chakra 5 is visuddha. This means “purification.” The first two reasons might feel intuitive, from what we have already covered. Firstly, because its element is AIR. We felt before how the process of breath moves through the throat, bringing in fresh, clear air on the in-breath. Releasing toxins on the out breath. 

Secondly, because sound vibrations have a purifying effect. This is largely why we chant OM or other mantras at the beginning of yoga class and hymnals in church. Next time you sing, notice what parts of the body vibrate and envision the purification process happening. Think about how a washing machine agitates your clothes, freeing-up gunk stuck between the threads. It makes room for clean, soapy water to move into the tiny little spaces in the clothes. When you chant, something similar happens--on a physical level and on an energetic one.

The third reason this chakra is the purifier is because of the way that language works. And this brings us to our main focus of this installment. When our words are authentic and properly connected--to the world around us and to the energy within us--they filter out what's not helpful, what's not relevant, what's not loving, and most importantly, what's not true.

Every time that you participate in something that is distracting, destructive, inauthentic or false, it leaves a residue. Just like most things that travel on the air, we can't see this residue. But, much like air pollution, the results of living with this residue unattended can be disastrous. But don't worry! Just by getting clear again, aligning with healing again, and speaking truth again, we can clean up that residue. Positive speech purifies.

To become conscious of how this works you can consider talk therapy and Catholic confession, or how good it feels to finally say "I'm sorry," after you've been a jerk. Or just pay attention to what happens when you say something untrue. Here's an example. "I hate my dog." Just writing this feels shitty. When I say it out loud it's almost like a poison spreads through my throat and chest and belly. The untruth has created discord in the chakra system. It has made Chakra Five, the Bard, sing a song that is out of tune with the heart, the holder of what I value most dearly. What's extraordinary is how quickly things fall into alignment again when I say "I love my dog!" 

Try it for yourself right now. Say something that your heart does not believe, that your body does not believe. Feel the effects. Next, sing the truth and feel the internal harmony. Ahhhh.

Uttering a lot of sweet truths gently and regularly brings us gradually back to our most authentic shine. Sometimes, I find, I want to shout a single tough truth. One radical truth can transform a huge amount in one tsunami of sincerity. A quick power blast of truth is often challenging to experience at first, but when it passes you will feel fantastic, suddenly unburdened by a stinky, sticky, false perspective. This is why they say that the truth will set you free.

Truth is a relative thing. Nothing that is "absolute" truth can be put into something as relative as human language. This is something that we'll get into deeply in our exploration of Chakra 7. In the context of our chakra work truth means, that which is aligned with the values of your heart. You can return to the previous post if you want to explore that more. It's really important that you get a sense for what Chakra 4 deeply values if you want to get the most out of working with Chakra 5. No one else can feel your heart or access your sense of care for you. That's your personal responsibility and privilege.

Chakra Five articulates the raw experiences of the lower chakras into something that the mind can understand. It translates that data into something that can be integrated into philosophies and worldviews--the stuff of Chakra 6. It sends that energy up to be transcended--the stuff of Chakra 7. Without the logic and clarity that comes from language, there would be no way to make sense of sensations, desires, actions and feelings of Chakras 1-4. 

Going the other direction, the fifth chakra is responsible for sharing the visions, theories and systems of chakras 6, and the transcendent experiences of chakra 7 with the body and the world. The energies of the upper chakras are too subtle, cold and abstract to influence material reality without Chakra Five. It brings its creativity, its melody, its storehouse of song and story, it brings its unique personality and warmth to bear on the energy coming down from above. This enables us to integrate spiritual experience into daily life. This enables us to have an idea one day and have a blog post, a workshop, a child, a cathedral, a country, a spaceship, a cure for cancer some day in the future.

Language is how we connect the dots in our own understanding and how we connect with other speaking beings. But if there is not a freshness, playfulness and earnestness to our communication, then language can end up forging and fortifying unhealthy connections. If I have heard a story over and over again without questioning it or allowing a playful engagement with it, then it hardens into a solid "truth," aka a dogma, which stops revealing anything useful me. If I repeat the story to myself enough, the dogma creates a kind of prison. 

As a baby, you learned your mother tongue by simply hearing and repeating the sounds around you. Even if your heart AND your logic totally disagree with an act of language, if you hear it, it makes its way into your psyche and wants to be addressed. Because we are hooked up this way, to absorb what we hear and repeat it, we need a strong visuddha to sort through it and re-organize it what we take in, to make sense of it, to decide if it aligns with the heart and the mind and to make a response. 

What is the nature of the stories that you are soaking up all day long? How much time do you spend engaging with things that are trivial? Things that are negative? How much time do you spend engaging with language that is in alignment with the values of your heart? 

Growing up as a child actor I heard again and again that talent was innate. When I got to my mid-twenties and hadn't made anything of my acting career yet I thought, "Welp. That ship has sailed! I guess I don't have talent." I didn't go get more training, I didn't seek the help of a mentor, I didn't double down on my networking. I just gave up. This one line story has some truth to it and is useful in some scenarios. But it is by no means the whole truth and, in this case, it was the wrong truth to be repeating. Every time I repeated it I reinforced the prison walls. Every time I spoke to myself in that demeaning and dismissive tone, I amplified the obstacle between me and achieving my dreams.

And, as you have probably noticed, language doesn't just happen "out there." Most of us are talking to ourselves all day long! And getting a handle on how you speak to yourself is a huge part of healing Chakra Five. We all have skin in this game. Not just artists or writers or professional singers or speakers. The stories we tell ourselves form our experience of reality, so if we don't take responsibility for them, we lose ownership over our experience of our lives. 

What is the nature of your internal dialogue? With what tone do you tend to speak to yourself? Is it harsh or kind? Is the inner language creative and varied and colorful? Or does it tend to be black-and-white, cliche, predictable? 

What are the stories that you tell yourself when things get rough? What are the stories you tell yourself when things are going well? Examine them. Be willing to play with them, rearrange them, modify them and invite in new ones.

Experiment with how address yourself and other beings, in your mind and out loud. 

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"The Indians addressed life as a “thou,” I mean, trees and stones, everything else. You can address anything as a “thou”, and you can feel the change in your psychology as you do it. The ego that sees a “thou” is not the same ego that sees an “it.” Your whole psychology changes when you address things as an “it.” And when you go to war with a people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those people into its, so that they’re not “thous.” - Joseph Campbell

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"Thou" feels a bit awkward on my lips personally. But what if you started calling yourself, "sweetheart" when you were feeling rejected. What if you started calling yourself, "fierce goddess!" when you were low on courage. What if you took a walk in the park and said, "hello, holy tree!" to every tree you saw. What if you took a break from using harsh or demeaning words when speaking about other beings. In a Tibetan Buddhist tradition I was involved with for a while, everyone called everyone else, "hla" which means "dear one." You would put it at the end of a name, "Aaron'hla." It made us all more tender, more affectionate, more interconnected.

We all have much to lose if we cannot learn to be more creative and authentic with our language--not just artists or writers or professional singers or speakers. The stories we tell ourselves form our experience of reality, so if we don't take responsibility for them, who can we possibly blame when the world doesn't seem honest and empowering.

Dreaming is the unconscious, creative sorting of the impressions we take in all day. Making art of any kind is just the awake version of this--it is how awake/woke people process information and make sense of the world and ourselves. The byproduct is "art" something that can be shared with others to help them, in turn, process and make sense. We are all dreamers and therefore we are all artists. 

I'll close this blog post with what I would call the ultimate 3-step process for honoring, exploring and healing your throat chakra. 


1. REST: Spend a little time without taking in or putting out words. Silent retreat is the ultimate version of this. But for most of us, scheduling in some silent moments throughout the week will suffice! It can help to listen to a guided meditation (l have a few on the side bar of my blog), put on relaxing music, follow the sound of the breath or repeat a mantra. Those exercises tend to focus the mind away from the inner dialogue long enough to cleanse the mental palate and drop you into a quieter place. Don’t feel like you have to do some formal seated meditation practice either. A walk in the park without a podcast, a quiet cup of tea without reading the news, a jigsaw puzzle with the classical station on—that’ll do it!

2. PROCESS: Make a regular creative processing ritual for yourself. Do journaling practices. Talk!—To your therapist, your friend, or one I’ve been using a lot up here in the mountains, the voice recorder on your phone! Make art of all kinds. If you don't know where to begin, think about what you loved to do as a kid and start there.

3. REFRESH: Spend some time nourishing yourself with language and story that feels refreshing, honest, loving and wise. Find recordings of your favorite orators and listen to them in the car or while you wash the dishes. Whose words feel the most true and whole and resonant? Put their books by the bed and read a bit from them first thing in the morning and last thing at night so that your day begins and ends with truth instead of whatever the hell is on all of our newsfeeds. (Granted, there’s some really inspiring stuff on there too! But while I scroll and scroll and scroll to find it, my mind is already being invaded by fear.) Or revisit your favorite epic novels and adventure movies. You know the ones. They help you make sense of war and peace, dark and light, challenge and rest, little picture and big picture. 

chakra 4: be love

THE HEART SAYS HELLO!

 

We’ve arrived at “heart of the matter,” the middle of the chakra system, the energetic centerpoint of the human experience. Every chakra is necessary, of course. But there is something special about THE HEART and its element, LOVE. You might sense this intuitively or, as the saying goes, “just know it in your heart,” but if you’re looking for evidence, it’s all around you. Note the countless idioms and cliches about the heart that are living through everyday language. Tally the popular songs and stories about love. Observe how people gesture to their hearts when they are being sincere (or pretending to be!). 

 

Lightly scratch the surface of any religious tradition and you’ll come up with heart references galore. Go deeper and you’ll realize that the great heroes of scripture are all embodiments of a vast, loving heart. Think of your own favorite human ambassador of love. Does he or she demonstrate the signs of a healthy, radiant heart chakra?

 

  • PRESENCE: an ability to be still, focussed and present; ability to BE WITH whatever and whomever is in front of us
  • SERENITY: an ability to find and create emotional harmony, even in challenging situations
  • SINCERITY: speaking and acting from a deep sense of inner authority
  • COMPASSION: an ability to connect with others, to step into their shoes and forgive them their shortcomings
  • TRUST: a sense that the journey is worth it, that everyone is doing the best they can, that our original nature is good
  • HEALING CAPABILITY: an ability to help others discover their original state of wholeness
  • HONOR: a recognition that there are things of higher value than his/her own comfort
  • RESPECT: a recognition that the lives of others are just as valuable as his/her own
  • EMOTIONAL RANGE: access to the full range of emotions but the steadiness not to be swept away by them
  • EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: an ability to be guided by emotion; at times this may almost seem like clairvoyance

 

Nisargadatta Maharaj tells us that great love, “Is not choice, or predilection, or attachment, but a POWER which makes all things love-worthy and lovable.”

 

So why, with all this emphasis on the heart, with these shining examples all around us, do we still live in a world that seems so devoid of these qualities?

 

Countless reasons, but we can follow them all back to one simple acknowledgment: we are wounded. If the wounds are in the lower chakras we will be struggling with the basics. If we cannot feel safe and nourished in our bodies, if we do not experience freedom from oppression and destruction in our daily lives we will not be able to drop into the care of the heart.

 

If the wounds are in the upper chakras we will likely get stuck in the mind. We give more power to our stories and ideas than to reality itself. The mental activity whips itself into a self-referencing whirlwind and we lose the way back to that quiet truth at the center of the heart. Without even being aware, we talk ourselves into leading lives that don't connect back to our real values. 

 

How can we heal these wounds? How can we, imperfect as we are, begin to open the heart and return to a connection to what we care about most? 

 

Countless ways, but they all begin with one simple step: offering our time and attention. Though love takes infinite shapes—nursing a sick child, “liking” a friend’s post on social media, praying to a beloved deity, donating to a worthy charity, writing a ballad to your beloved, gesturing “thank you” to a stranger who offered a hand or a smile—every one of them requires this preliminary gift of our time and attention. These are the resources that all of us have, regardless of our own wounds and shortcomings. That's the beginning of living love. All else is just frills.

 

Most of us are trained to believe that love is just for our romantic partners, our immediate families, our closest friends, or those who share our beliefs. But the heart says differently. It says that love is the very stuff we all are made of. It is what connects us all. If we allow ourselves to just give a little time and a little attention to whatever is right in front of us our love moves into the next level

 

ALLOWING EVERYTHING TO BE AS IT IS.

 

Give your time and attention to whatever is before you--be it animal, vegetable, or mineral, be it a computer screen, a glass of water, a beloved pet or a stranger passing by. When your mind starts to comment or your body starts to become restless, take a deep breath and return your time and attention to what is before you. LET IT BE EXACTLY AS IT IS. This is how my teacher once defined real love: letting everything be as it is. Not coincidentally, this is also how he describes meditation. 

 

Yes, there are situations that demand assessment and action. But if we don't allow the heart to do its work of accepting and caring, where are our assessments and actions coming from? What are they moving toward? 

 

 

ANAHATA = unstruck

 

The Sanskrit word for the heart center is anahata, which means unstruck. The name gives us a clue as to the nature of the heart—in its true nature it is unstruck, unwounded, undivided, unconquerable, unharmable.

 

This is good to remember as we address our wounds. If we believe that the heart itself is broken or closed then we shut ourselves down from its healing power. Think of the heart as being underneath those wounds and scars, perfectly vibrant and healthy. Our emotional damage is always surface. The depths are always A-OK. Remembering this gives us the hope to move forward and discover love again.

 

The name anahata also reminds us that the heart radiates out a powerful vibration at all times. Imagine a drum or a piano, sitting there silently. When you approach and hit the skin or the key--sound! If you do it several times, we might enjoy a song.

 

But the heart beats all on its own, without anyone else manipulating it. It is the drum and the drummer in one. It is the original vibrational energy of YOU and the center point of your relationship with all beings. When connected to the heart, we sense the importance of relationship; we realize that the space between two hearts creates a vibration greater than the two individuals and we learn how to create, protect and utilize the beauty of that space. There is that subtle giving and receiving happening all the time and we are a part of it. 

 

With so many traditions emphasizing the heart, it's not surprising that there are lots of different ideas about what it's made of. Often you'll find the heart associated with the element of AIR. Sometimes, as in Tarot and Astrology, with WATER. But, based on my research in multiple traditions and most of all on own personal experiences of an awakened heart, I have assigned the heart the element of LOVE.

 

You can think of LOVE as a kind of energetic currency that relates us to everything around us. Love is a sort of bridge between your heart and all other beings. Once you establish a vibrational relationship with someone else, the bride is open and you can send another being thoughts, words, actions, anything you want. Though we usually focus on the ways that love shows up, it's important to remember that love exists prior to us doing anything. LOVE is the connection itself. 

 

 

WORKING WITH THE HEART

The lower three chakras connect us to physical reality, raw resources, the unconscious powers of body, sexuality and other animal instincts. The upper chakras connect us with the more subtle, refined and conscious energies of language, thought and spirit. The heart is the bridge, the uniter between upper and lower. Its energy empowers us to hold that between space of life—between two distinct chapters, between two different emotions, between two distinct worlds, between two different beings.

 

If the lower chakras give us life itself, and the upper chakras give us life with meaning, then the heart really makes life worth living, for love gives everything VALUE.  Without love we don't care what happens. And if we don't care then there's no reason to do anything at all.

 

So honoring the heart means honoring your values. 

 

<< VALUE/IMPORTANCE  >>  "The heart of the matter" 

 

The heart holds our deepest values. What we care about most deeply. When we're suffering or acting in ways that we're not proud of, usually we are fretting unimportant details and failing to connect to what really matters.

 

When we connect to care it not only ensures that we don't lose track of what this life is all about, it also gives us a kind of rocket fuel for achieving our goals. In moments where we remember what's at stake, that what we love needs us to step up and serve it, nothing can stop us from getting there.

 

Below is an exercise for this.

 

CONNECT TO YOUR CORE VALUES: Go to the heart and ask, “What do I most love? What do I most value? What is it that I care about so much that I’m doing all this self-exploration, all this spiritual seeking?” 

 

If you get stuck, ask yourself WHY do I love that? Ask that again until you connect to something that feels powerful enough to build your practice on.

 

Now ask “To what am I giving my time and attention?” 

 

Now ask, "How are these things liining up? How much am I giving my time and attention to what matters?" "How much am I giving time and attention to things that distract me from my values or fly in the face of them?"

 

Now, "How can I begin to close the gap? How can I honor what matters most to me every day?"

 

Continue to contemplate this as long as you need to. Once you get in touch with whatever your core value or values, find a way to connect with it each and every day. Is there an image that you associate with it? Or a word or phrase? Maybe there is a physical feeling that you associate with your heart value. Maybe some combination of image, word and feeling.

 

> HONOR YOUR CORE VALUES: Set yourself up for success in your spiritual practice by giving yourself reminders of it constantly. 

 

 

EXPLORATION of the heart

 

Place a hand on your heart and take a deep breath in. As your lungs expand and take in fresh oxygen, that supple and powerful muscle between them moves as well, graciously accepting the nourishing gift of breath. As you exhale allow your shoulders and face to soften. The heart softens too.

 

Notice whatever is present in the heart and give it permission to be there. Whether it is ease or tension, tenderness or anger, numbness or aliveness, meet it and welcome it. You can even say, "You are welcome here."

 

To explore the heart, return your awareness to this physical space as often as possible. I highly recommend doing this alone in the quiet. But once you have done that a few times, try bringing it out into the world. Allow the person across from you to be exactly who they are, how they are right now. Allow the situation you are in to be just what it is. Say, "I give you permission to be what you are." 

 

When inner commentary arises, when you start to hear the mind say things should be different, when you feel the body start to "fix" the moment, try to soften. Can you let even your resistance to this practice be how IT is? Without grabbing onto any of it, just soften and let it swirl and move and, eventually, settle.

 

Below are more ways to explore the heart and its qualities. If an intuition tells you to dig deeper in a particular area, try the exercises there.

 

 

<< PRESENCE/HOLDING SPACE >> "Listen with the heart"

 

The heart’s most basic mode is to be BE WITH everything that it comes into contact with. This BEING WITH might not sound so impressive, but it is absolutely essential for working with the chakras, or doing any other spiritual work for that matter. For if we cannot meet our circumstances, our fellow humans, the pieces of our own inner reality with an open acceptance, how are we ever to know those things as they truly are? And if we don't really meet something, how can we possibly HONOR it, EXPLORE it, HEAL it and INTEGRATE it? 

 

> BE WITH: Think of someone who you want to connect with deeply. Dedicate some time and attention to them--make a date. When you show up do the heart honoring practice above. This will make the other person feel seen, heard, respected. And THAT is to feel loved.

 

 

<< RELATIONSHIPS/KINDS OF LOVE >> "What is love?" (Baby don't hurt me. Baby don't hurt me. No more!)

 

When connected to the heart, we sense the importance of relationship; we realize that the space between two hearts creates a vibration greater than the two individuals and we learn how to create, protect and utilize the beauty of that space. There is that subtle giving and receiving happening all the time and we are a part of it. That is love.

 

But most of us have unexamined assumptions about what love is that limit and frustrate us. Maybe we think that love is only being "nice" or being in a romantic relationship. Maybe we think that some people are loving and others are not. But everyone's heart chakra starts the same! Everyone wants to give and receive love. 

 

> "WHAT IS LOVE?" CONTEMPLATION: Go through your day finding examples of love. Try to find funny ones, surprising ones, touching ones. Before you act or speak, ask yourself, "What would love do?

>  FEEL LOVED: Think of someone who shows up for you with real love, who meets you and honors and cares for you just as you are. Humans are all fucked up in some way or another so you might want to choose an animal! Once you have someone in mind, just feel at your heart level. That does it feel like in their presence? 

> SONG SWAP: Our culture is obsessed with romantic love. Swap out "lover" for a favorite deity or the mother earth or a dear friend. I love singing Van Morrison's Crazy Love to my dog. (Note, this doesn't always work as well with sexual songs. But try it!)

> EXAMINE EXPECTATIONS: When was the last time you felt like someone was unloving? What were your expectations around how love was supposed to show up for you? What were your expectations around how you thought you were supposed to be loving?

> LOVE LIST: make a list of the 4 most surprising ways that someone has showed you love.

 

 

 

<< BALANCE/INTEGRITY/WHOLE  >> "May all creatures everywhere be happy and free"

 

Feel yourself as an embodiment of love, accepting everything and everyone, honoring and healing by your very presence.

 

The heart is unstruck vibration. This vibration builds a bridge between you and everyone around you. This vibration brinigs interconnection, wholeness and balance, just by being that bridge. But when we are too busy thinking and doing we interfere with that simple vibration. So the most powerful thing you can do for the heart is just to trust its endless song, to get quiet and present and allow the heart and everything around it to simply be. 

 

> RADIANT HEART MEDITATION: Sit and imagine the vibration of the heart extending out in all directions to everyone around you. Then send it out further and further.

 

> ALL IN THE FAMILY: Treat everyone and everything like family. Yes, even inanimate objects. Ask them how they're doing. Compliment them. Tease them. Ask for their help and thank them when you get it. You don't have to be precious with everything to show it all love. Just treat it all like you treat your family!

 

 

<< EMOTIONS/SENSITIVITY/INTUITION >> "I just know it in my heart!"

 

Once we establish a connection to the heart, a natural emotional intuition starts to guide us. We usually are trying to control our emotional experiences, labeling some good, some bad. But in reality they are all here to tap us into deeper wisdom. Sometimes they are giving us information about the emotions of others in the room, the city, the country, the world. Sometimes they are giving us information about old wounds that it's time to confront. In all cases, it behooves us to listen.

 

> Next time you have a decision to make, pause and drop into the heart. Go through the choices you have before you, one by one, asking "Does this resonate with the heart?" Try it with small decisions at first, then bigger ones.

 

> Next time you find yourself swept up with an emotion, drop into the heart and ask, "What information is here for me? Where is this emotion trying to guide me?" Try it with pleasant emotions and with less pleasant ones.

 

 

<< AUTHENTICITY/SINCERITY >> "Speaking from the heart"

 

Words and actions come from the heart, they are always more powerful. So often we are just doing what we think we are supposed to be doing. If we want to really unleash the power of the heart we must learn again how to be authentic and sincere. 

 

> PAUSE: Take more pauses before you speak. Notice if what you are saying comes from direct experience or you are just repeating something someone else said.

 

> STUDY: Spend time taking in the words of authentic and sincere beings.

 

 

<< COMPASSION/UNDERSTANDING >> "I get it"

 

The heart allows everything to be just as it is. When it does this it learns that everyone got to where they are for a reason. From this comes deep understanding and compassion. 

 

Try my 'Loving Kindness" meditatoin on the sidebar to the right. 

 

 

 

HEALING THE HEART

 

When the heart is closed, well, I think that we all know what that feels like. We are stuck in our own little story without the ability to honor the experiences of others. We feel small and shut down. Any other chakra at this point might migrate to the CENTER. We might become obsessed with the physical or the mental. We might find ourselves constantly doing, consuming or producing, lower chakra stuff, so that we don't have to deal with the hole at our center. We might end up living in the mind, in stories and beliefs, abusing word and thought to distract from our lack of emotional connection and/or to justify it. 

 

Now, I don't exactly believe it can be TOO open. But, if we don't understand how the heart works--and how it doesn't work--it can really seem like that. If we somewhere along the way learned things about love that aren't true, we can go around thinking that we're loving, but failing to really connect to and through the heart. We go around "looking for love in all the wrong places!" So for someone who seems to have a TOO open heart, they might always be putting themselves into situations where they get wounded. We call these people "sensitive."

 

This was me for several years. I was a sensitive person, which really is a great gift of mine. But instead of honoring my emotional intuition and taking advantage of the information it was there to offer, I overly identified with all my emotions--as if they were a permanent part of who I was, rather than a visiting guest. I judged myself for experiencing difficult emotions and generated lots of fear and self-loathing. And when I experienced positive emotions I got attached and couldn't release those guests when it was time for them to leave.

 

This made me a kind of positive emotional junkie. Always going around seeking good feelings. My favorite way to get my fix was to get other people to like me and give me positive feedback. I began doing "kind" things, not because it was the right thing to do or because I genuinely wanted to make someone else happy, but because I wanted others to vindicate my story. I wanted them to SEE me doing a nice thing and note it. It was about my reputation and, ultimately, convincing myself of something that deep down I feared might not be true. "I'M NICE! I REALLY AM!!!" At the same time I had a difficult time being direct because I didn't want people to not like me. I couldn't say no. But I felt no. I felt it in my heart ALL THE TIME. I was always judging other people and myself. But I showed a false face of kindness. It was living in division when the heart is the place of integrity. It was living a lie when the heart is really the place of authenticity. 

 

Most of us are in a cycle where we put out "love" but with all sorts of unexamined expectations and caveats. It doesn't work the way that we anticipated. We get wounded and then we close down the heart. So we end up with this heart chakra that is totally hardened in some places and kind of floppy in others. And, ironically, being hard makes us more fragile, so, unless we go totally numb, which is living a kind of non-life, we end up getting broken over and over again. The place in us that is supposed to be in balance becomes anything but.

 

If this is you, you can heal the heart by dropping these stories, and learning to honor the moment exactly as it is showing up. Positive or negative emotion--ok. You like me or you don't like me--ok.

 

You can heal the heart through connecting with what you most honor and taking care of it. Heal it by being honored by others and letting them care for you. Heal it by picking up whatever instrument Grace gave you and joining the band. Heal it by respecting your contribution and by respecting the contribution of others. And when it's healed, it will heal everything else. That's just what it does.

 

One thing that can be helpful is to pay attention to what brings up a fullness in your heart. Maybe it's being grateful for what you have. Maybe it's remembering those who have less than you and feeling into compassion. Maybe it's spending time with an inspiring being. Maybe it's watching touching videos on FaceBook. Whatever it is, build a practice around it. Do that practice every day until you feel the power of the heart arise.

 

Through the exploratory work above you may have discovered that there are emotional wounds that have closed the heart down. We all have them. Keep doing your heart work but also reach out to someone who you think can help you directly address traumas from your past.

 

 

INTEGRATE

 

Integrate by building small, regular practices that return you to the values of your heart regularly. I'm here to help you with that. Reach out!

 

chakra 3: your inner sun

 

Even
After
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth

You owe me.

Look
What happens
With a love like that, 
It lights the
Whole
Sky
 

 

Hafiz knows. The sun doesn’t illuminate the sky for a paycheck. It doesn’t warm our bodies for praise. It doesn’t transform solid earth into living abundance for bragging rights. 

 

The sun grants countless creatures light, heat and energy because that’s what it does. 

 

You can think of Chakra 3 as your inner sun. Its Sanskrit name is manipura, which means “the jewel in the city.” When it functions properly this “jewel” is to the rest of the chakra system as the sun is to the solar system. It is the center of ACTION, and this big action generates a fire power that keeps the rest of the chakras functioning properly.


When it's healthy, the third chakra encourages us to rise and shine like the sun and cheerfully attend to our work. It brightens with a healthy sense of pride when our work hits its mark and takes full responsibility without shame when we err. Seated at the core of the torso, its heat is responsible for digestion, detoxification and purification--it processes the bulk, sorting it into what is useful and what must be left behind.
 

Think of someone who strides right into the work that must be done, consistently producing and providing without a fuss. Someone whom you admire for their charisma, confidence, courage, clarity and strength. That's someone with a bright, healthy manipura chakra.

 

The problem is that this center is often unhealthy. That inner sun can burn way too hot, causing us to be constantly doing without meaning and without necessary rest. This leads us to feel irritable, anxious, and burnt out. We might suffer from an overly-quick metabolism, chronic muscle tension, frayed nerves and sleep issues. 

 

Or the sun can grow cold, not generating enough activity to bring warmth, propulsion and transformation into our lives. We feel sluggish, depressed, indifferent, frigid or numb. The mind feels dull, the body slack, the metabolism weak and the nervous system undercharged. Getting out of bed? Not so much.

 

Most of us go back and forth between these two. Burning too hot, burning out, falling cold, then ramping ourselves up to hyper speed again as if we have fallen behind in some imagined marathon. This is not a good cycle to be stuck in. When our actions fail to excite and energize us, they take on a dry obligatoriness which easily leads to resentment. Then we become the foil for the Sun of Hafiz's poem--one who has forgotten that doing its brilliant work is actually the very source a joyful, easeful existence.  One who has forgotten that it must act, connect and give to be what it is. One who sends heartbroken Earth a bitter letter and a hefty bill for back-payment.

 

chakra 3 mix: run by sun

 

WORKING WITH MANIPURA CHAKRA

 

The first two chakras brought stability and mobility. They are the homes of our yin elements, earth and water. While these forces are powerful, necessary, and very much alive, they are raw, passive and subject to gravity. 

 

Chakra Three comes along with our first yang element: fire. It is big action, always seeking something to act upon, to warm, to propel, to process, to take responsibility for. Fire defies gravity, transforming heaviness into light and heat, and then into smoke and ash. This action sends the energy of the lower chakras upward.

 

Chakra One’s motivation is to survive and avoid suffering. Chakra Two’s is to procreate and pursue pleasure. They are focused on the most basic human needs. Chakra Three’s motivation is to change. Its light illuminates the world’s problems and its great energy provides fuel for us to create solutions. Manipura wants to fix what appears broken, to refine what feels stagnant, to burn through what’s stuck. Without this force, everything is fine as it is. We would never run after our next meal or fight off someone looking to make a meal out of us. We would never be compelled to stand up and help others, clean up our messes, put words on a blank page or bring music into the quiet air.

 

This healthy urge to improve the world can slip into a hot, burning drive to conquer and manipulate that ends up, not just changing our world, but razing it to the ground. Beware of this energy turning into a blind ambition or a compulsive need to act. If our actions are not connected back to a greater purpose and higher values, its flames can end up destroying the very things that they are meant to improve: our world, our selves, the beings around us. A healthy balancing effort coming from the other chakras ensures that this fiercely positive energy does not turn destructive. 

 

This urge will remain compulsive and unsatisfying unless mainpura has a healthy connection to the upper chakras. Chakra Four is most important. It is home to a deep sense of care for the beings around us and ensures that the actions we take come from respect and love, not selfishness. Chakra Five helps us access and appreciate our unique gifts and callings. Chakra Six cures us of shortsightendness, for it shows us how we everything is interconnected, that our actions are part of a more comprehensive story. And Chakra Seven aligns our individual purpose with the wholeness of the universe.

 

When all of the chakras are functioning properly, Chakra Three is a bright shining jewel in deed. It is becomes the home of a deep sense of purpose and gives us the courage to do what's right, even if it's challenging.

 

To work with manipura, we will go through the steps of HONORING, EXPLORING, HEALING and INTEGRATING.

 

 

H O N O R

 

To honor something means to make an offering of your time and attention. 

 

Give some time and attention to the physical home of manipura chakra, the belly, and to the physical processes that occur there. Give some time and attention to the gifts that fire and sun bring to our world. Give some time and attention to people who inspire you with their strong and healthy inner sun. Look for shining examples of  confidence, courage, clarity and strength in yourself and others. Celebrate them!

 

As you give your time and attention, you may feel inspired to give offerings of gratitude as well. I recommend that you make a practice of saying, “thank you,” to the fire in your belly, to the bright sun in the sky, to the warmth in the pipes that heat your home, to the flame beneath your cooking pot. Say “thanks” to the fiery forces for good in this world. 

 

You can offer your gratitude in plain words, in prayer, in song, in movement—Sun Salutations, anyone? The form the offering takes is not important. The sincerity of the offering is all that matters.

 

Ideally the time you spend honoring maniupura chakra creates an atmosphere of deep respect. In this sacred space of honoring, we will gain access to the profoundly transformational gifts of Chakra Three.  

 

 

 

E X P L O R E

 

Now that you’ve begun to honor manipura chakra, you have a safe and dynamic environment in which to EXPLORE how it is functioning in your own life. I recommend that you begin your EXPLORATION of Chakra Three by reading up on it below, or using whatever resources you have at your disposal. 

 

Then, if you’re inspired to do deeper exploration, choose a few issues that jump out at you and try the exercises. If you try to work on all of these issues at once you’re likely to loose fuel and focus, so it’s best to start with one, two or three pointed efforts.

 

Everything here is meant to inspire exploration of Chakra Three, not to narrowly define it. Stay open, playful and alert, explorer!

 

 

CORE STRENGTH

Chakra 3 is the center of the physical body (as opposed to the energetic body, whose center is the heart). It is our "core" the place where, if we're not physically toned enough, the rest of the body greatly suffers. On the other hand, when we become too fixated on strength, hardness and endurance we lose the suppleness necessary for fluid movement, the ease required for rest and enjoyment. 

 

Metal is tempered by heating it up and then cooling it down again. We do a similar process to build muscle strength. How do you create a strong center for your life? What are you strengthening? How do you face up to challenges? Do you run from hot situations or do you allow yourself to see what you're capable of by staying with it? 

 

LIVING FROM THE CORE > Wherever you are right now, pull your belly back to your spine. Feel everything lengthening out from the center of your body. Notice how it effects you, physically, emotionally, mentally. Try engaging the core at different moments throughout the day and see how it effects things.

 

SUN SALUTES > Try doing a few sun salutations first thing in the morning. Or 100 sit-ups. Something that honors and awakens the fire within you.

 

 

DIGESTION / PROCESSING

In ayurveda the fire in the belly is called agni, and attending to it is pivotal for our health. What’s going on with your digestive fire? 

 

If there are issues here, study up on nutrition from a trusted source. Look at what you're eating and at what times of day (aka how does your inner sun relate to the outer sun?) Do you ever dump a bunch of logs on your fire, putting it out, by trying to burn up more than you could possibly need? Do you ever run on empty and create anxiety and exhaustion in the body? 

 

We know that the belly is the center of detoxing, cleansing, purifying physically. But manipura can help us process more than food. Stale energies, painful emotions, immature stories and half-baked ideas must be cycled through for us to feel clean and clear. How do you process? What tools do you have for working through your bulk to sort out what’s useful and what’s not?

 

CLEANSE > Do a detox, fast or cleanse. It doesn’t have to be extreme. I do a mini-fast most days a week by eating an early dinner (say around 5 or 6pm), then having hot lemon water in the morning, possibly followed by juice. By the time I eat for lunch I have gone about 18 hours without food and feel cleansed and energized and hungry for something nutritious!

 

TWISTS > Set aside 10-30 minutes and do all your favorite twisting yoga poses. (The mix above makes good accompaniment!)

 

UJAII BREATH > Constricting the glottis creates friction in the throat and increases the detoxifying potential of the breath. Next time you do yoga make it all about the ujjaii breath. Notice how you feel after.

 

JOURNALING > Set a timer for 20 minutes. Write about a challenging experience that still hasn’t been totally processed. Don’t let your hand stop moving on the page. Don’t go back and edit anything. Just let it all come through and don't stop your hand's motion until the timer goes.

 

 

ENERGY / STIMULATION

The belly is also home to the solar plexus--a ganglia of nerve endings that report to the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for our "fight or flight" instincts. You may have heard someone use the term, "trial by fire," or refer to an instance being "thrown into the fire." Those refer to circumstances where someone was in an emergency situation which tested his or her deepest animal instincts. What do you do when you're suddenly in an emergency? What kind of instincts come forth?

 

We are hooked up to be able to get great bursts of energy when the time is right: when we need to chase our next meal or escape becoming someone else's! (This all links back to the bigger manipura themes of food, work, the ability to sustain ourselves.) In emergency situations the sympathetic nervous system releases a chemical sequence that generates a sense of speed, vigilance, heightened awareness—all good things under the appropriate conditions. But a great percentage of modern humans suffer from this chemical sequence firing way too often and for too long of a time, depleting our resources and stressing us out. 

 

Check out your energy levels and the quality of your energy. Watch it throughout the day. Notice what effects it positively and negatively. Do you stomp and fume over mundane things, like burning the toast? That sounds like excess fire. Maybe you need better rest rituals. Do you have a hard time getting excited about facing your day? That sounds like not enough fire when it's most important. 

 

GOOD MORNING > Early morning energy tends to burn clean and bright. Check in on your morning routine and make sure that you are using that precious time wisely.

 

GOODNIGHT > If you’re overly energetic at night, create a bedtime ritual. Go through it really slowly. Restorative or yin yoga poses are great for this time of day. Technology/media are not. Breathing with your legs up the wall for

 

TECHNOLOGY/MEDIA CLEANSE > Look at your technology use and how it effects your nerves. Notice what kind of media content you’re ingesting and how it effects your stress levels. Decide to do a technology/media cleanse. Maybe try to give yourself the first 30 minutes every morning and the last 60 minutes of every night screen free. Maybe do a whole day or a whole week. 

 

 

 

SPEED / UPWARD MOMENTUM

Whereas earth and water are inert and subject to gravity, fire moves upward. Think about the fire of the hot air balloon, powering the basket's lift off the earth. What do you do when you feel too heavy? How do you experience upward momentum? 

 

This power can also work like a motor, propelling us forward at incredible speeds. Do you ever feel slow, depressed, left behind by others or behind on your own goals? Do you sometimes get ahead of yourself, trying to be 3 steps ahead of the present moment?

 

VIGOROUS EXERCISE > When I feel mentally or emotionally stuck, it’s helpful to know that I am not so physically! Do something that builds up a sweat!

 

BANDHA WORK > The bandhas bring energy upward. Go for it next time you’re in a yoga class and see what happens.

 

RESTFUL EFFORT > Next time you’re doing something that requires a lot of effort or will, see if you can soften and relax into it. Whether it’s a hard yoga pose or a difficult conversation, I bet you’ll find more strength underneath the ease!

 

 

 

ACTION

What's your relationship with ACTION? How many of your actions every day feel meaningful? How many feel empty? Are you afraid of action, tending to hide from work? Are you constantly moving, not knowing how to sit still? Do you actually manage to both avoid real work AND never rest? Keeping yourself entertained but never actually accomplishing anything? Maybe even distracting yourself because you are afraid of doing the real work of your life?

 

INTENTION > Next time you want to take a powerful action, pause and get very clear on your intention for taking the action in the first place. Align yourself with that and then more forward.

 

STIMULANT SWAP > If you are not feeling genuinely pumped about something that needs to get done you might find yourself abusing stimulants—from coffee to sugar to technology to ritalin to cigarettes to cocaine, stimulants tend to give us a big boost followed by a big crash. It’s a painful cycle, whereby the seeking out of peak energy creates a great energy valley each and every time. Try substituting an energizing activity for that cup of coffee: A brisk walk, a headstand, 50 jumping jacks.

 

 

 

RADIATION / TEMPERATURE / PROXIMITY

Energy radiates out, effecting everything around it with its heat. This brings in the important issue of proximity. If this planet were closer to the sun, it would burn up the potential for life here. And if it were further away, life would be frozen out.

 

Pay attention to how your energy radiates out from you and from others. Notice how you physically navigate your world. What energies are you drawn toward? Do you huddle into them, or stand confidently next to them? Are you always running hot or cold? Not just physically, but emotionally? Do you tend toward irritability or anger? Or do you tend to retreat emotionally? What warms you and makes you comfortable? What burns you up? What leaves you cold? How do you interact with other people's warmth? Do you spend a lot of time in the center of the action, or far removed? 

 

QI GONG WARMUP > To increase circulation shake out the limbs and move the fire around. Pat up and down the limbs. Then vigorously rub.

 

INNER SUN MEDITATION > sit and feel into a bright yellow sun at the center of your belly. feel how its heat radiates out in all directions, bringing warmth, goodness and light to every thing around

 

SOCIAL SUN > Next time you are about to interact with a difficult person, prepare with a few moments of INNER SUN MEDITATION. Try to maintain that connection to your strong, bright center as you approach and interact with this difficult person. Keep your confidence and your light beaming and, if you're generous with your light it might start to burn through their difficult energy.

 

 

TRANSFORMATION / DEATH / BIRTH

Whatever the heat of fire touches, is powerfully transformed. What is being worked on by fire ceases to be what it was and reemerges as something new. This is death and rebirth. 

 

Pay attention to this. What is your relationship to all kinds of transformation, release of the old, bringing in of the new?

 

DEATH BIRTH MANTRA > Death is to life, as the exahle is to breath. It is an equally important aspect of the cycle. You can’t have one without the other. As you exhale say to yourself, “Letting go of the old” On the inhale say, “Inviting the new.”  

 

BLESS YOUR FOOD > Something died for you to have this meal. Yes, even if you are a vegetarian. Plants must die for us to eat them. Honor the life left behind on your plate for what it truly is: the ultimate sacrifice by another being.

 

 

LIGHT / DARK / DUALITY / CONFLICT

Fire not only throws off heat, but light. Light is great of course! But it also always comes with its partner, darkness. Whatever lies outside the reach of the camp fire is not only cold, but invisible to the eye. So with this chakra we are introduced to duality: light v. dark, inside the circle v. outside, us v. them, good v. bad.

 

How do you deal with duality? Do you have a tendency to see things as black and white? Do you love the light but revile the dark? 

 

It’s the friction between two things that creates energy. Think of two sticks rubbing to make a spark, or a piston firing. Yes, everything is ends up in harmony, but conflict, friction and challenges are part of that harmony!

 

Do you avoid conflict at all costs? Or are you always seeking it out? Is there a healthy balance to strike? How do you handle tension? Is there a way to be comfortable when tension arises inside or outside?

 

MEDITATION FOR CONFLICT > Next time that you feel conflicted, sit still and connect to a strong place in the belly that is centered and steady. Do your best to watch the ups and downs from this place, aware but unchanged. 

 

LIGHT + DARK ALTAR > make an altar that honors life and death. Collect objects that say life to you. Collect objects that say death. Arrange them on the altar.

 

 

SEPARATENESS / AUTONOMY / RESPONSIBILITY

Duality introduces the idea of separateness. There is here an idea that I am a separate being from you, and from my environment. While this is not the whole truth, it is part of the truth (1/7 you could say.) And it's an important way to see the world at times. Now there is an autonomous ME who can take responsibility for my actions. Who can choose to transform, to warm, to light up and change the world. Or who can choose not to do those things.

 

Anyone who is playing the victim or the controller too often could use some work here. Anyone who is always playing powerless victim to circumstance or to other beings is not properly engaging their authority. Anyone who is being too controlling of others is failiing to respect the autonomy of others. Personally, when my fire isn't burning properly, I go back and forth between feeling victim to outer circumstances and trying desperately to control them. It's a loop that I set myself up for. Anytime I step in on one side, I end up on the other. To break this cycle, stand tall in your power, and peacefully grant power to others.

 

AFFIRMATIONS TO ESCAPE VICTIMHOOD> I am responsible for my own actions. No one else can force me or coerce me. I am a powerful force. I reserve the right to say no. I reserve the right to say yes. I am worthy. I am strong. I am a hot burning sun.

 

MEDITATION TO SEE YOU’RE NOT THE CONTROLLER > Just because we are empowered does not mean that we can or should control every aspect of reality. Sit in meditation, resting your awareness at your own strong center. Every time something arises to take you out of that center say to it: “Ok.” You don’t have to condone it or celebrate it, but neither do you have to resist it or manipulate it away. Just say, “Ok.” Give everything permission to be as it is.

 

 

WORK / PURPOSE / POWER

Finally, the transformational journey of manipura brings us to the issue of our work. This means our livelihood, our ability to put food on the table, yes. But it links up to something bigger than that—one’s purpose in this lifetime. When we are connected to this we are hooked up to the hugeness of manipura’s power while being protected from its more dangerous tendencies. 

 

LOOK AT YOUR WORK HABITS > When do you feel the fire burning strong, allowing your work to happen almost effortlessly? When does it go cold? How do you face up to the work ahead when you know it will be difficult? Do you use stimulants to get through work? Are there better ways to inspire your fire?

 

IF YOU KNOW YOUR PURPOSE > We need you to live that purpose and to transform the world by it. How well your actions are aligning with that purpose? How might you bring that sense of purpose into more actions throughout your day?

 

IF YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR PURPOSE > How exciting that you’re about to explore this for yourself and unleash the great power of your inner sun. Ask yourself: “What makes me feel vital and empowered? What activities make me lose track of time when you are immersed in them? What careers of others do I most admire? What do I love the most in the world, and how might I begin to serve that?”

 

 

 

H E A L

 

Guess what? Just by honoring and exploring manipura chakra, you have been healing it. Well done! Now that your relationship with your inner sun has deepened, check in and decide if there is more pointed healing work that needs to be done. 

 

If so, state a clear intention about what you want to heal and set aside some special time for doing this work. Perhaps you do one of the exercises above, but with an intention to HEAL rather than EXPLORE. Perhaps you reach out to a teacher, counselor, friend or group to help you with this sacred work.

 

Whatever is happening, I highly recommend that you do a… 

 

<<< FIRE CEREMONY! >>>

 

ITEMS NEEDED: (1) a fire and (2) something to burn. The fire can be as simple as a candle in a bowl or pot. You can burn leaves or sticks or dried flower petals. You can burn little pieces of paper with writing on them. It doesn’t matter.

 

STEPS:

1. Create a sacred atmosphere. (See the section on HONORING for this.)

2. Hold your burnable object. Tell it what you are ready to let go of. 

3. Blow your heartfelt wish into your burnable object. 

4. Then put it in the fire and watch it being transformed.

5. Burn as many things as you need to.

6. Sit for a few moments in quiet when you’re done. Feel into the heart. Is there something nacent there? Something whose birth will be enabled by this clearing?

7. Close the ceremony by thanking the fire and anything else that you feel grateful for.

 

 

I N T E G R A T E

 

To integrate means to acknowledge your manipura chakra and use it to make positive changes in your life. This is the point of all of this, really. To become the best version of ourselves so that we can save the world. So don’t just sit around admiring your fire. Use it!

 

You can use your fiery manipura chakra to:

  • Thaw out frozen parts of your heart
  • Open the hardened parts of your body
  • Shine life into dormant hopes so that they may come to life
  • Burn away all the old shit that’s holding you back
  • Fuel your next big transformation

 

And so much more. Let me know how it goes in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

the spark in the dark

Originally sent as a newsletter November 18, 2016

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I was shocked and bewildered by what was happening on the national political stage. In the past I would have found a sense of center by dropping deep into my Brooklyn community, but I don’t live there anymore. I tried to connect via social media but what I found there appeared to be more lost people, narrating their own tumble through the abyss. Some clung to debris, some clung to each other, many shouted instructions at the rest of us, “Flail like this!” I was not reassured.

I’ve had a few of these experiences in my life. The Greek word for it is aporia. As my dear philosophy professor would have told you it means an impasse, a place that you can't get past with the tools you currently possess. The place of aporia can't be found on any of the maps you already have and getting out of it requires you to abandon your maps altogether.

Socrates would intentionally guide his interlocutors to this place, teasing out of them the shortcomings of their own beliefs. If you started somewhere confident like, “To be a good person means x! Everyone knows that!” aporia would be that moment where you realize you don’t really know what goodness is, or if it even exists. 
 
Right before arriving into the abyss of aporia, you watch your own familiar concepts falling apart in your hands. For most people, this is not fun. It can feel like the scariest kind of betrayal, to stand there as these most intimate objects—your own thoughts, ideas and beliefs—change faces and then abandon all together. You thought that you were standing in truth, fighting the good fight against untruth. But this old guy just showed you that the enemy, deceit, was living within you all along. Ouch. (History tells us how much the powerful Athenians liked that…)
 
Most of us come to aporia in need of healing. Anyone who feels hurt right now: may you take rest, find ease, calm your nervous system and heal your wounds. Do a media cleanse for a day, take a walk in the woods, call me or come visit me upstate! Don’t worry about people telling you that you must get up and fight right this instant. No great cause is served by wounded people flopping around the battle field. Heal first. Always and forever, heal yourself first. 
 
When strength and sanity return, when you have mourned the loss of tools, maps and ideas that you once trusted, the aporia will not seem so dark. New concepts will begin to form from the ashes of the old. Sturdier beliefs, more soundly rooted in reality, will grow. Old tools you thought you’d never need will catch your eye, glistening from the dusty bottom of your toolbox. Just the right resources will surface, just the right allies will arrive. Don’t be surprised if you find a sense of power and purpose beyond anything you’ve ever experienced. Crisis calls such things forth.

 

******* 

I want to share with you a dialogue I had with my teacher, Adyashanti, the last time that I felt lost in the abyss. 

At the time I was experiencing disillusionment with some gurus who had previously held my devotion. When I left my study with them I also left behind the reassuring answers they had to give me, the comfort of their practices and protocols, the protective community of fellow students. I left behind self-identifying labels and world-creating beliefs—sounds nice for a Buddha looking for emptiness, but it was terrifying for a young woman looking for hope.  

I asked him if I needed to find a new lineage. He responded with a gift far more powerful than an answer. He gave me the chance to find the answer within.

“Exactly and precisely, why are you doing this?” he asked me, meaning meditating, doing spiritual practice, being there with him on retreat. “What’s this really about for you?”

A response arose in my chest and belly, strong, immediate and wordless. My mind grasped for a the right language to translate the feeling inside. It landed on “love.” It felt too obvious, too cliche, but there it was, as close as I could get. 

“Make a commitment to that,” he said.

Wanting to make sure I understood, I pointed at my heart. “If I trusted that, could it take me all the way, without me having to be part of a lineage and have a guru?”

Here is his reply, transcribed this morning from an audio recording:

You don’t need anything but that thing inside you. If you don’t have that, lineage, guru, avatar, they can’t really do a lot for you. Aside from allowing you to sit around adoring them, you know? But that gets tiresome after a while. Even when you’re on the adored side of it. ‘Ok, it’s all projection time, ladies and gentlemen!’ So, yeah, if you have that, that spark in you, that’s the most important thing. And that tends to find its way. If it needs some mentoring (not worshipping! mentoring) it will find where it feels most resonant. It will lead you to the right teacher. But never let anyone else define it for you. Don’t conform to whatever the model is. That spark is the best thing you got going for you. It’s a very strong force, whatever it is. When all your energy starts to come back to that, that will find your way.

 

*******
Today I double down on my commitment to the love that lives inside of me and inside of all beings. 

I will give myself space and time for healing.

I will take some of that energy back from my own ideas and projections and identities
so it can return to reality.

I will meditate because that teaches me how to listen.
And how can I honor truth without listening?

I will wake up every morning and ask
“What would love do? How would love respond?”

I will continue to walk proudly down my unique path
because I want to keep growing my capacity to give and receive love.

I will passionately advocate for this beautiful Earth
which is our only home.

I will stand up for any being who is being told to stand outside of Love. 

I will remind anyone who has forgotten,
that Love is not a thing, possessed by the privileged,
but the very stuff we are all made of.

If you stop and ask for directions,
I will do my best to lead you back to the spark of truth in your own heart.

*******

What's this all about for YOU? How will you commit to that? 

chakra 2: power, yearning and pleasure

Chakra One says, "You are home. You are real. You are connected to the whole earth and you are nourished by it." In a firm and steady voice, muladhara says, "You are One and One is perfect." The whole story would begin and end right there if not for the awakening of desire that comes from Chakra Two. 

 

Svadisthana is the Sanskrit name for Chakra Two. It means, "her favorite resting place." I imagine "she" to be the earth energy granted us through a healthy first chakra. That energy tends to rest and collect and circulate in Chakra Two because that is the dynamic home of a rich, humming, human energy that she loves to meet and mate with: that of the homo sapien reproductive system. Yee haw!!!

 

Chakra Two tells us that there is more than One. In a seductive whisper or an elated roar, depending on the circumstances, she says, "There's something else out there, baby. Let's move, let's meet, let's unite, let's expand, and let's have a hell of a good time doing it!"  Without this energy there would be no need for other chakras because there would be no desire to move and connect and reproduce. Chakra Two is the impetus for the journey and the joy of feeling ourselves move.


Photo by Ben Bernard

Photo by Ben Bernard

Second Chakra energy is powerful. Just a few weeks ago I realized why I have had blockages there for so long--because I was terrified this power. And for good reasons! It seemed like all my scariest experiences had to do with the bigness of that power and the smallness of me. 

 

 •    Childhood encounters with sexuality that I was too young to make sense of.

 •    Adolescent longings for the likes of Kurt Cobain and Agent Mulder that I had no opportunity to satisfy and no tools to discharge.

 •    At the same time as I was feeling these new desires, learning that my new female body would require lots of diligent maintenance and upkeep. (Enter some level of eating disorder for most young girls.)

 •    Being ostracized by my high school girlfriends for hooking up with the wrong guy.

 •    Developing unhealthy relationships with alcohol and my friends' prescription Adderall in college. Watching loved ones struggle with addiction. 

 •    Deeply desiring a competitive career path in my 20's and being too terrified of rejection to truly pursue it.

 •    Despairing that I would never find a proper mate. 

 •    Suffering from intense jealousy when my mate showed interest in another woman.

 •    Worrying that I would never have children.

 •    Spending 34 years in a sexist culture which told me that: 

     ◦    A) My value as a person comes from being the best possible object of pleasure and

     ◦    B) To be the best possible object of someone else's enjoyment, I better forego my own enjoyments! Those things might make me too fat or too old-looking or too craven or too independent or too weird or too wild

 

All of this amounted to a huge amount of anxiety around the energy of the second chakra. My answer was to use a whole bunch of energy from other chakras to regulate the bejeezus out of it. I made lots of rules around how and when and why and with-whom I might get pleasure. I fused pleasure and suffering, as if you couldn't possibly have one without the other, as insurance that I didn't enjoy too much. When I did enjoy "too much," the guilt came on strong so that I remembered the price tag. (See New Year's Day, a.k.a. a handful of hours after the above photo was taken.) 

 

That worked ok for a while. Until it didn't. See, the second chakra energy isn't just responsible for moving us toward a lover or glass of wine. It's responsible for moving us toward our personal and spiritual goals. Eventually I got to a sticky place on my path that I wasn't able to move past without more power. By getting that second chakra energy fully back online, and relieving the other chakras from being on 24/7 police duty, I was able to access more than enough juice to push past that sticky spot. And the not so coincidental side bonus: I am getting much more joy out of every moment.


mix for chakra two: brave deep waters

Music can be really helpful as we learn to turn on our sexual energy. This mix begins with cleansing water sounds and fluid melodies which are perfect for releasing anxiety and other blockages. Then it moves into tunes that won't let you keep your hips still. Then it asks you to dissolve completely into soothing rain and ocean sounds. 

Listen for the profound Chakra Two teachings hidden in the music. Bjork tells us "It takes courage to enjoy it." Ibeyi teaches us how to let the water wash away our "ego and blame." Aretha teaches us that dancing can awaken our "spirit in the dark" and Vaults implores us to "just let go" when we feel like we're losing control and "let the midnight river roll!"

WORKING WITH THE SECOND CHAKRA

 *This work can get into some deep shit. If you run into something that feels too big to handle on your own please ask for help. Reach out to me, a trusted friend or a mental health provider. 

 

There are the 4 steps for working with any Chakra: HONOR >>> MEET  >>> HEAL >>> INTEGRATE

These steps tend to work in a loop. We honor a chakra by studying it, connecting to it, observing it and awakening it. This work helps us meet the chakra, to discover how it functions (and fails to function!) in our life. In meeting the chakra, we learn what improves its functionality, and also what impedes it. With that information we can heal the chakra, removing blockages there and inspiring fresh life. It feels so good to have an optimally functioning chakra that we feel naturally inspired to maintain its health. And that's the role of the fourth step: integrate. This means (a) putting that chakra to work in our lives and (b) establishing a regular practice for the chakra's upkeep--a way to honor it, meet it and heal it on a consistent basis.

 

 

HONOR

  • get curious about your experiences with sexuality, longing, merging, pleasure, fluidity
  • make a list of all your second chakra experiences
  • read books, look around online
  • attend workshops on the subject
  • talk to people about it
  • meditation
    • visualize an orb of pulsing orange light at the space between the navel and the pubic bone
    •  visualize the reproductive system itself, feel its liquid movements effecting the rest of the body
    •  bring to mind an object of longing sitting about 6 inches in front of the chakra, see if you can feel energy welling up in response 
  • lubricating, sensual movement
    •     qi gong
    •     tai chi
    •     modern dance
    •     vinyasa yoga with emphasis on smooth transitions
    •     dance parties! (these seemed to work best of all. i could totally surrender to the music and when i caught my reflection i saw a being vibrant, joyful and sexy)

 

MEET

While I did these things, I held an intention to MEET the energy. This part is tricky, because you have to have some maps of where you’ll find the energy and some ideas of what it will feel like when you do. But if you’re clutching your maps and descriptions too tightly, you might miss the thing itself! (Imagine wandering right past the person you’re seeking because you’ve stared at their photo so long you never expected to find him/her sporting a different outfit, expression or hairstyle.) To truly MEET something we must approach it with openness. 

  • I paid attention to my sex life and tried to give it a lot of room
  • I paid attention to the ways in which I sought out pleasure or avoided it
  • I paid attention to what tended to awaken a longing or desire
  • I let myself get quite quiet in meditation before sending awareness down to the second chakra, so that my mind was less likely to trick me
  • I let myself feel more deeply in sensual situations

I found that, for me, this energy is a kind of welling up of longing in the pelvic area. When I am able to meet this longing without some big story about the object that inspired the longing, or what I'm going to do to resolve that longing, I meet the svadisthana energy as it is--raw, beautiful, powerful and MINE! 

  

MEET ITS INHIBITORS

To meet a chakra really has TWO steps. One, to meet the energy as it is. And, two, to MEET ITS INHIBITORS. These are energies from other chakras that are supposed to bring balance, but all too often actually damage the functioning of the chakra in question and the system as a whole

Boy oh boy did I find a lot of opposition every time I went to meet Chakra 2! At first I couldn't get close to pleasure without feeling a kickback from somewhere else in my consciousness. The inhibitors I met were all bred from Fear. They took the forms of Guilt, Shame, Judgement, Repression and Oppression. 

  • Chakra 6 was throwing down its net of beliefs onto this energy. If my particular experience of movement, excitement, desire or pleasure didn’t fit neatly into my beliefs about how things are “supposed” to be, I felt cognitive dissonance and an inability to surrender to the pleasure and power of svadisthana's movements. 
  • Chakra 5 was tossing down labels and stories and judgements. Most of these stories were absorbed unconsciously from a patriarchal, Puritanical culture that I thought I had disavowed. The thing is, a lot of these stories made it in. It was really scary at first, to admit that I had downloaded narratives which were keeping my sacred sexuality imprisoned. But when I finally was able to admit it I was finally able to do the work of letting them go of their false labels and judgements. 
  • Chakra 4 is supposed to make the space for the other chakras to function properly, but all the judgement from above made me withhold that acceptance and love from Chakra 2. The energy of Chakra 2 didn’t/couldn’t actually stop moving, so it started to do its thing in the shadows. Ironically the damage is way worse when we can’t let things work in a space of acknowledgement and respect. 
  • Chakra 3 hijacked the sexual energies for its own purposes, relishing the predatory nature of sexual power. Yes, Chakra Two energy can attract others, dominate them and leave them behind like spoiled goods. This is perhaps the scariest aspect of this energy and the one that Chakra 3 gets all fucked up on, claims as its own and wields with horrible consequences. When, on the other hand, Chakra 3 feared that it would become prey to someone else's predator, manipura put tight boundaries around svadhistana, making that energy totally taboo, making it the scapegoat for all ills, imprisoning it, and doing its best to stay high, high above its dirty ways.
  • Chakra 1 hijacked the sexual energies to establish feelings of safety and a sense of home. It used pleasurable experiences just to get a break from fears of not being enough.
  • Now, looping back to Chakra 7. This one doesn’t really inhibit anything. But these other negative relationships prevented me from connecting sexuality and spirituality and that perpetuated the problem.

The irony with this kind of work is that you can’t shame away Shame or judge away Judgement or Repress away repression. These things just grow if we do so. Instead I had to cultivate a space of acceptance for all my parts—even the parts of me that weren’t being accepting. This is the only way to stop the cycle of inhibition.

The best practices for being able to meet something without inhibiting it? Meditation. Listening. Pausing before taking action. Holding space for others. Letting others come as they are. Love.

 

HEAL

You can see how, for me to HEAL this chakra, I actually had to address its relationship to all the other chakras. My intention to really meet Chakra 2 and my intention to really meet its inhibitors made up the bulk of my healing work. 

It was important for me to give less power to the “shoulds,” stories and demands coming at svadisthana from the outside. If I got a sense that something from above was inhibiting second chakra energy I would ask myself, “Is that true? More true than the raw power or Chakra 2?” I would ask myself, “Is this prohibition keeping my life balanced and safe? Is that necessary?” If I felt safe and trusting enough I would try to let the second chakra energy flow out of the bounds being imposed from elsewhere.

It really helps to keep the other chakras busy! So, for instance, you can use chakra 6 to visualize the reproductive organs or to systematically work toward a new way of viewing sexual energy. Chakra 5 can give things new labels, tell new stories. Chakra 4 can hold the space for desire and pleasure to live without judgement. Chakra 3 can connect the power of 2 with its true purpose, utilizing its charge for a the greater good.

On its own, Chakra 2 tends to have the very wounds I described above. Here are some ways to work with them.

  • work with sexuality
    • address sexual trauma 
    • address sexual repression
    • address issues caused by sexism in our society
  • work with your feelings 
    • feel each emotion fully as it comes. what are the physical sensations right now? are there thoughts present? 
    • does anything arise in your awareness that makes it hard to just be with feeling? notice those things too. they are part of your experience of this emotion.
    • can you feel that the emotion is fluid, not fixed? using water imagery to imagine the emotion as it moves can be helpful. 
  • work with pleasure 
    • notice what stories you have around pleasure. are there rules around receiving it? where do they come from?
    • integrate healthy pleasant experiences into your life
    • pause in your day and see if you can soften into a sense of pleasure (try it in moments that you label as “pleasurable” but also those that you don’t label that way)
    • if you have addiction issues, work on those for sure. (you might find that they fall away on their own because of this work)
  • work with power
    • notice what stories you have around power
    • when are you most powerful? what does that feel like? can you feel powerful right now?
    • when do you give away your power? what does that feel like? why do you do it?

 

 

INTEGRATE

Well. At this point in the journey, the Second Chakra energy should be flowing! Just like its element, water, wherever svadisthana flows, the richness and diversity of life follows, multiplying and flourishing! Without being hyper-regulated by the other chakras, chakra two brings a rich and organic sense of empowerment, joy and drive.

At this point you can use this energy to revitalize anything that needs it: your sexuality, your creativity, your relationships or your physical wellbeing. That’s INTEGRATING IT.

At this point you will want to make a commitment to maintaining a positive relationship with this energy. I recommend starting with a VERY simple practice, but one that you intend to do regularly. Here are some examples:

  • Every day I will sit and feel my second chakra energy for one minute.
  • Every time I interact with water (doing the dishes, taking a shower, drinking) I will try to remember its sacredness.
  • Once a week I will do something that I truly enjoy and I will let myself get lost in pleasure.
  • I will begin every weekend with a wicked solo dance party. I'll make a 30  minute mix and not let myself stop moving til it's over.

These are just some examples. I would just choose one at first, otherwise you will just start to get overwhelmed. Your second chakra will let you know how to move forward with this work. Enjoy it!!!

the chakras: a brief overview

The chakras are the seven major energy centers of the “subtle body” or the body of light. Though we can pull them apart in theory we can never do so in reality. Just like the five elements which are associated with the chakras in many traditions—earth, water, fire, air, ether—we never actually find any of these energies in a vacuum.

 

Think about it. If you were to pick up a piece of earth in your hand it would have some amount of moisture (water), temperature (fire) and density (air). It would also have some intangible quality that defied our human explanations (ether). This holds true for all the elements. Just imagine trying to build a fire without the solid material of earth to burn or the quality of air to move it.

 

Your subtle body comes as whole package, just as the world does. Humans pick it apart post-facto, with the power of language and vision (thank you, fifth and sixth chakras!). You will never actually find a lone chakra just hanging out on its own. Each is always in relationship with the others. If there is damage in one area, all the others will somehow be effected. If one chakra begins to come into balance, the others will receive benefits.

image from http://www.jewelforhealing.com/

image from http://www.jewelforhealing.com/

 

I will introduce each one, along with my own name for its archetype. Then I will give you its Sanskrit name and meaning, its color, and its elemental character. I'll give a little description of where to feel it working in your body and how to feel it working in your life.

 

 

CHAKRA SEVEN : THE MYSTERY

sahasrara = thousand-petaled-lotus // violet // spirit

This chakra is located at the crown of the head and can be experienced as a portal opening up to the heavens, or as an orb that radiates partly inside of and partly outside of the skull. You can think of it as a heavenly doorway, or a many-petaled flower opening up to the grace of the cosmos.

Sahasrara is the gateway to that which is beyond human understanding: the infinite, the invisible, mystery and spirit; the most subtle aspects of existence. From this perspective we see the limitations of all other perspectives—even the limitations of the chakra system itself! From here it is clear as can be that the truth of you, the truth of reality, is beyond all descriptions, labels, doctrines and maps. 

When this doorway swings open, we directly realize that we are pure consciousness. For this reason, some schools of yoga and Buddhism put a huge emphasis on this chakra as the means for achieving samadhi or emptiness. Though this realization can be hugely helpful in our spiritual progress, it is dangerous to put all the emphasis on a single chakra. We can get stuck here like we can get stuck anywhere else.

If your intention is to bring balance into your life, you probably don't need a blown-open sahasrara. Just a nice healthy crown center will do; one that feels porous, perceptive and vibrant. With that a sense of trust pervades our lives, for we know that whatever happens in this body, on this earth, in this moment, is just a tiny part of something far far bigger.

If the energy here feels weak or totally blocked, you are likely suffering from attachment to your beliefs. If we are too stuck on what has happened before or what we want to happen in the future, we cannot enter the timeless knowing of Chakra Seven. Try meeting the moment as a mystery and training yourself to become comfortable with the unknown. Meditation is great for this.

If, on the other hand, the energy here is overactive or too open without enough support from the chakras below, we can end up having unsettling energetic or psychic experiences. In that case, spend some time getting grounded in tangible reality. 

 

 

CHAKRA SIX : THE SEER

ajna = the command center // 3rd eye/pineal gland // indigo // ether

Ajna lives at the center of the brain and is responsible for vision—for literal seeing with the eyes, but also for “seeing” a bigger patterns when presented with an instance, for “seeing” the wholeness from experiencing one small part, for “seeing” the more subtle connections between things. People with a strongly developed ajna chakra are called intuitive, clairvoyant or clairaudient. The thing is, these powers are innate to everyone, only they must be cultivated. 

So it is not a command center in the way you may think. It is not a little general in our brains, telling everyone what to do. It is more like a lens through which we see things. Just as the settings of a camera lens dictate how we receive visual input, the programming of your ajna chakra dictates how you see the world. 

Once we have a worldview, a theoretical understanding of how the world works, it is easy to fall into a habit of trying to make everything we meet fit neatly into that worldview. That is a huge trap here. If you are frustrated by experiences that aren't going the way they "should" be, it is likely that you need to do some work in chakra six. 

Over-thinking can clog this chakra. If you're caught up in your thoughts, practice giving energy back to the rest of the body and the rest of the world. If, on the other hand, you don't feel like you have systems to rely on for picking the world apart and putting it back together in your mind, you might want to build more time into your schedule for reflection, study and theorizing.

This energy can be cleaned out and revitalized by engaging with visual beauty, focussed study, doing visual arts, studying systems and cultivating imagination.

 

 

CHAKRA FIVE : THE BARD

vishuddha = purification // throat // sky blue // air

Vishuddha lives in the throat and is responsible for labeling, self-expression, communication, articulation, song and storytelling. Just as the ajna chakra is a kind of filter for seeing and presenting visual information, vishuddha is a filter for hearing and making auditory information. 

Its name means “purification,” because when it is functioning in a healthy way, we filter out lies. Without it, we can absorb a lot of untruth and send it right back out into the world. It also purifies energy within the chakra system itself, articulating the raw experiences of the lower chakras into something that can get processed by the upper chakras and integrated into our philosophies and worldviews. Without the logic and clarity that comes from language, there would be no way to make sense of sensations, feelings and actions. Going the other direction, the fifth chakra is responsible for sharing the theories of chakras 6 and 7 with the physical body. Without the unique personality and warmth of voice that vishuddha provides, the abstract energy of those upper chakras would not be able to influence material reality.  

This center is associated with creativity because this act of purification/articulation is, in fact, a creative act. Chakra 5 requires us to keep a freshness, playfulness and earnestness to our communication, otherwise we end up deaf to truth. If we aren’t creative in our language we end up deflated, feeling exhausted from shouting into a squall or simply losing our ability to speak.

This center is damaged by participating in slander or perpetuating old stories that are no longer alive with truth. It is cleansed by silence. It is empowered by engaging in truthful talk and sincere song. 

 

 

 

CHAKRA 4 : THE HEALER

anahata = unstruck // heart // green // love

If Chakra 7 is a doorway upward to the heavens, and Chakra 1 a doorway down to the earth, Chakra 4 is a doorway that opens in all directions, connecting you to other beings. To anything and everything that has an energetic vibration.

The heart has a special place at the center of the chakra system, and in my experience it is the home of its own special "element:" love. (Good reminder that I am not totally aligned with any classical system, here. I don't think anyone else has made love a freakin' element...) Love (which could also be called soul) is actually the substance of all the chakras. The heart is responsible for healing all the chakras inside, and all the beings out in the world, because only it can regenerate that most precious substance.

Anahata means unstruck. The name gives us a clue as to how to protect the heart: remember that nothing from without can harm it—in its true nature it is unstruck, unwounded, undivided, unconquerable, unharmable.

When we forget this it is easy to shut down the tender space of the heart anytime that we feel hurt. Being gentle with the heart is helpful when first working with this chakra. Once we have learned how to honor it sweetly, we can begin to release the blockages created by old wounds and to tap into the delicious, healing, regenerative power of the heart.

You could think of this chakra like a drum that needs no drummer. It is the original vibrational energy of you and the center point of your relationship with all beings. When connected to the heart, we sense the importance of relationship; we realize that the space between two hearts creates a vibration greater than the two individuals and we learn how to create, protect and utilize the beauty of that space. There is that subtle giving and receiving happening all the time and we are a part of it.

Heal it through connecting with what you most honor and want to care for. Heal it by being honored and cared for. Heal it by picking up whatever instruments Grace gave you and joining the band. Heal it by respecting your contribution and by respecting the contribution of others. And when it's healed, it will heal everything else. That's just what it does.

 

 

CHAKRA THREE : THE WARRIOR

manipura = jewel in the city // solar plexus // yellow // fire

Manipura is where we build a sense of unique and separate self. Some people say this is the ego which is a bit overly simplistic. I would define "ego" more as an experience: that of clinging to something as ME/MINE or rejecting something as OTHER/NOT MINE. The clinging and rejecting are two sides of the same coin: a desire to control, and this can happen at any chakra.

Manipura does enable the process of ego, of course, because from its perspective there is a distinct “I.” And that is absolutely its greatest weakness.

The name gives us a clue as to the danger of manipura. If we admire it as the only jewel in the city (ignoring the many other jewels, be they the gifts of the other 6 chakras, or the value of  another being in the world), we can become so obsessed with the power of a separate self, that we lose total track of the point of living. We can end up spending all of our time and energy feeding Chakra 3, bolstering it, protecting it and showing it off and this always leads to suffering. We see how personalities and cultures that do this harm those around them. But any person or society that acts this way is surely damaged INSIDE as well. If the energy of six chakras is being hijacked on behalf of a single one, we will never feel safe, satisfied, complete or at peace.

However, without Chakra 3, I cannot take responsibility for my actions, past, present or future. Without it there is no one home to take the journey of evolution, no one to take responsibility for the suffering of the past, no one to wake up to reality, no one to manifest the vision of a new order.

When this energy is unhealthy we may feel on the one hand like a victim, always projecting the power outside of ourselves and blaming others. We can’t take transformational action, life feels cold, dark and uninspired.

On the other hand, we may become so infatuated by our own actions that we are blind to the power of others. We micromanage, believing that if no one else but me can do this. We are overly busy, constantly trying to prove ourselves, obsessed by the game of making new “gains” for this separate sense of “I.” 

This energy is healthy when it is connected to a sense of purpose and power; then we feel like a warrior fighting for love and wisdom. To wake this up, think about what you love most (bring in the heart!) and figure out how you are uniquely equipped to serve it. THEN SERVE IT. Chakra 3 responds to the feeling of doing. And when our actions align with the wisdom of the other chakras, chakra three comes into balance and brings fire power to all the good things we want to accomplish in this lifetime.

 

 

CHAKRA 2 : THE LOVER

svadhisthana = her favorite resting place // reproductive organs // orange // water

Svadhistana is responsible for the animal process of reproduction. I call it the Lover, but I don't mean it in the same sense as Chakra 4. In Chakra 4 it is more a kind of tenderness and care, a respect and honoring. Here it is more like deep longing, the impulse to move and connect and merge with something else. We are talking about sexual energy here, people! It is usually felt as a strong physical desire, accompanied by rich emotions and pleasant sensation. That being said, each energy also contains its opposite. So we can experience the stirring of this energy create a strong repulsion, uncomfortable emotions and unpleasant sensation.

Add its shadowy side to the fact that this energy comes from the dark depths of our animal unconscious and it is no wonder that this energy is often problematic. The greatest risk to this chakra in our culture is the other chakras abusing, usurping or shutting down its energy out of misunderstanding, fear of suffering, fear of being subsumed by a power beyond comprehension. 

When this chakra is aligned we feel graceful, powerful and sexy. We take pleasure engaging with the world, moving through it and just being in our own skin. 

When we have abused it or imprisoned svadisthana in any way, we invite in great danger because then it has to work in the shadows. We will find our pleasure-seeking urges popping up in weird places. Until we work with this stuff in the light of love and reason, it will feel like a game of wack-a-mole where each time we try to control an urge it just shows up somewhere else--usually from deeper in the shadows. 

If you feel stuck with this one, spend some time thinking about how the fears and deficiencies at other chakras have effected svadisthana. Spend time just being with that energy and getting to know how it functions when it is not being so constricted. You can do this by moving the body (especially the hips!), lubricating the joints, getting fluid and rhythmic. Put yourself in situations where you can surrender to pleasure in a safe way. Try to pause and feel pleasure in moments that you normally don't associate with pleasure. Where does that liquid lover live in you and how can her presence refresh your life?

 

 

CHAKRA 1 : THE MOTHER

muladhara = root support // pelvic floor // red // earth

This chakra can be experienced either as a doorway opening downward into the earth, or as an orb that is partly inside of the pelvic area, and partly protruding past your physical body.

Muladhara is responsible for the number one animal instinct—surviving. If we don’t feel like we are welcome and at home, if we don’t feel like we will receive the basic shelter and nourishment which every earthly inhabitant needs, we will have a difficult time truly enjoying any other aspect of being alive. For anyone who doesn't know where to begin on their journey of healing, I recommend starting here + Chakra 4. 

We see a great deal of muladhara deficiency in our culture. It's great that technology has made it possible for our bodies to travel across the world in a day and our thoughts to travel across the solar system in an instant. But, as with everything, there has been a price to pay. Most of us have much less contact with the physical world and we can see the damage it is doing inside and out.

Being constantly on the go, being flighty, being "up in the clouds" can all be indicators that we ultimately don't feel the realness, solidity, interconnectedness and innate worthiness that comes with a healthy muladhara

Some people cope with their Chakra 1 wounds here by clinging to stability, by not allowing themselves to ever confront a change of routine or a change of scenery. Sometimes taking ourselves out of the comfort zone heals this area, because then we realize that we really carry the stability of home with us all the time.

Anything that grants us real stability, safety, groundedness and regular routine restores this chakra. Honoring the real needs and desires of your very real body hugely helpful and spending time in nature is great cure. When we're in the natural world, seeing how everything there works together, it is hard to cling to our deluded stories.

 

 

chakra 1: at home in this body, at home on this earth

M U L A D H A R A    C H A K R A

Muladhara means "root support." And chakra means a vortex of energy.  Living at the base of the spine, muladhara is the first chakra of seven. Like its names suggests, it is the vital exchange point for our relationship to the earth. A healthy root chakra begins with honoring this opportunity to be embodied. 

The root chakra is about the basics, the foundational stuff. When we don’t have a good connection through this center we will feel anxious, unmoored, alien. We become disassociated us from our bodies and other peoples' bodies. It can cause us to treat the physical world with a lack of respect and care. 

In one extreme, this becomes the personality unable to put down physical or emotional or spiritual roots, of creating nourishing and restful routines. In the other, the desperate search for safety and solid ground drives one to become rigidly stuck in routine, unable to go on new adventures, to flow with life or change when necessary.

To bring the root chakra back into optimum health means to bring about a sense of SAFETY, groundedness, deep connection and belonging. 

Below are some notes on the chakra system as a whole. I will properly introduce the 6 other chakras next month. For now it’s all about creating a safe and stable space, an environment that is nourishing and friendly. Then we have good ground for planting more information!

Listen to this earthy playlist as you try some of the exercises at the end of the post.

working with the earth is, um, grounding. did i mention that this stuff is intuitive?

working with the earth is, um, grounding. did i mention that this stuff is intuitive?

WHY THE CHAKRA SYSTEM?

The human condition is complex. Even though I live it every day, there is much about being human that I still don't understand. While there is much I don't know, I have figure out that I really care about upgrading my consciousness--I have experienced time and time again that immaturity and ignorance keeps me in cycles of suffering. Happiness seems to come in the wake of wisdom.

I also know that I would like to improve the quality of my contributions to the world. I am endlessly inspired by the wise folks of this world and want to bring more of what they're bringing. And I am regularly saddened by the damage immaturity and ignorance can wreak on our communities and our shared resources. 

So, in a reality where I know very little, I am sure that I want to evolve into someone who understands more and moves in a wiser way. But where do I begin? Without turning to some kind of system for understanding my own complex being I feel bewildered or overwhelmed. If I don't have a kind of blueprint for my makeup it is easy to get lost in one little detail of my being, or to give up the endeavor all together.

When we look at the chakra system we get a kind of blueprint. We can back up and see how everything fits into a larger whole. Or we can zoom in and check out the details of what happens in each "room" or energy center.  

There are lots of systems which could do this. I have chosen to focus on the chakra system because it is ancient, accessible, elegant and effective. People tend to have some baseline knowledge of this system because of the popularity of yoga in the Western world. It posits that there are 7 main energy centers in the body and that by learning how they work and applying their wisdom to our lives, we learn how to diagnose and cure our various ailments, body, mind, heart and soul. 

I have studied the chakras with several different sources and will do a little resource list at some point in this series. For now, know that what I will present in these blogs is an integration of all that I've studied and tested against my own experience.

While I ask that you give this stuff a chance to soak in and work on you, I hope that you also keep your curiosity active and your sense of autonomy on line. Listen, be open, note what your intuition is drawn toward and do your own research. Sure, search on line and read books. But too much information from outside can actually just create noise that drowns out true wisdom. The best research findings will arise in your meditation practice and in your daily life. 

Be patient, calm and steady as the earth and you will eventually have experiences that prove the efficacy of chakra work to you, one way or another, indisputably and first hand. I recommend picking one or two of the exercises, doing them for the rest of the month and taking notes on any shifts in your energetic, mental or emotional wellbeing; watch for new experiences in your work life, your relationships, or your environment.

If you can (1) learn the system, (2) devote some time and attention observing yourself through its seven lenses, (3) do the work that your observations point toward, you will grow up into your own guru. You will start confidently, compassionately and wisely guiding yourself through your journey. This is good news.

chakras + endocrine + nervous systems

chakras + endocrine + nervous systems

ANATOMY OF THE SOUL?

Chakra is a Sanskrit word that means wheel or disc. The system developed in India and we will refer to Sanksrit names for the chakras throughout this series. But similar systems came out of indigenous spiritual traditions all over the world. Some likely spread from India, but others, like those that arise in Shamanic traditions in the Americas, seemed to develop independently. 

Some describe the centers as spinning wheels of light, as the name suggests. In my deep meditative states I have mostly experienced them to be orbs. I will invoke the different imagery at different times and I encourage you to play with both. There are 7 major centers, but there are also smaller centers elsewhere, all linked by the nadis or meridians, rivers or circuits, of energy. Together this whole system is called the “subtle body.”

The yogis and shamans teach that the subtle body is prior to the physical and lasts beyond it. It is the part of us that never dies. They believe that your chakras hold the memories of previous lifetimes, like data banks, and that the circumstances of this particular physical incarnation relies completely on the programming carried over by those centers.

Through contemporary medical science, we now know that the chakras line up with the major centers of our endocrine and nervous systems. Together, these two physical systems are responsible for how the body communicates with itself. The glands of the endocrine system secrete hormones which move through the blood stream; each ganglia or nexus of the nervous system sends information via neurons. 

In deep meditative states we become aware of more subtle aspects of our reality, we develop the ability to access, observe and effect those deeper levels, often to the great benefit of all that which it connects to on the surface. Perhaps the physical reality of glands and nerve clusters came first, and the yogis and shamans experienced the vibrational fields they created—just as we can now scientifically measure the vibrational fields of all beings. Maybe they could feel those hotspots humming with our most essential human programming. Maybe their trained awareness picked up on the activity of life communicating with itself. 

Whether the subtle body is just the energy fields manifest out of the physical, or the physical was born from the energetic body, the chakras are powerful internal mediation objects, great aids to anyone who is committed to getting to know them. Whether the ancient yogis or the modern scientists are right, the chakras point to where your deepest programming is stored. They introduce you to the aspect of you which is most exquisite, mysterious, ancient and profound.

The chakras teach us how to connect the visible and the invisible, the known and the unknown, matter and spirit. And that is a great gift. Let’s see what happens when we start working at the level of light…

to nurture the root chakra, pay attention to your daily routines. do you some spend time every day in a safe, clean and welcoming physical environment? what are your sources of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual nutrition? 

to nurture the root chakra, pay attention to your daily routines. do you some spend time every day in a safe, clean and welcoming physical environment? what are your sources of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual nutrition? 

< < < R O O T    C H A K R A    P R A C T I C E S > > >

When the root chakra is out of balance you are either letting too much energy in without letting it back out, or you are closed and and can't get in fresh energy. Often both are true!  

Can you give away what you've been stuck with? Can you receive back new energy, new information, new collaboration, new love? 

You don't have to stick to the list below. Perhaps they will inspire you to create your own practice that dissipates fear and grows trust.

 

/// AT HOME IN THIS BODY ///

PHYSICAL EXERCISE

The root chakra governs the whole body. Feeling the realness of your body against the realness of the world is brings it into balance. 

Anything that helps you feel safe, strong, vibrant and easeful in your body is great. Working with the feet, legs and pelvic floor can be especially helpful.

  • OPEN FEET > feel your feet on the ground while you're sitting or standing. can you make the feet more supple? spread them out and imagine you could breathe in and out of them. release your energy down into the earth and draw her energy back up. rolling out the feet with golf, tennis or lacrosse balls is also great.
  • STRENGTHEN LEGS > do squats, tadasana, warrior poses, kali pose
  • YIN OR RESTORATIVE YOGA > this helps you redevelop trust in your quiet and still parts
  • BE TOUCHED > get massage or reiki or receive a nice long hug
  • TOUCH > lay hands on a loved one or anything connected to the earth (pets and trees work great for this one!) be still and quiet, bring your awareness to the energy exchange between you and the other. sense how your not so separate.
  • NUTRITION JOURNAL > How do you nourish yourself? How do you nourish others?
  • SAY GRACE > Before you eat, thank every being that contributed to your food's journey between the earth and your mouth. If it takes too long, consider getting closer to the source of your food. ;)

 

MEDITATION

If you want to build your life on a solid foundation, meditate every day. I haven't found anything better suited for cultivating a deep connection with everything that is steadfast, peaceful and healthy.  

Here are few examples of mediations that help heal muladhara chakra

  • NOURISHMENT MEDITATION > Get into a comfortable position. Breathe in and out, noticing how the breath brings in what you need and releases what you don't. Rest. Feel how you are always being comforted, nourished and loved by your environment. You don't have to "earn" it by doing anything. Just be.
  • SAFETY MEDITATION > Visualize the safest, most comfortable environment you can. Feel yourself sitting there. What does it feel like in your body, that sense of being safe? Is there a way to feel this way more often in your daily life?
  • TREE MEDITATION > Sit in a comfortable position. Imagine that you're growing roots through your lower body that connect you deeply into the earth. At the same time feel that the upper body is expanding up and out like branches. Be a tree, perfectly rooted, perfectly reaching, perfectly connected, perfectly content.
  • COLOR RED > Visualize yourself as the root chakra, breathing in and out scarlet red
  • PELVIC FLOOR MEDITATION > Sit comfortably and get a sense that you are anchored on the earth. Feel your perineum. Practice softening it and relaxing it down. Practice contracting it and drawing it up. Then try to find something in the middle, a relaxed awareness of that part of the body. 
  • MANTRAS > you can work with these seated, or going about your day:
    • I am grounded. 
    • I am nourished.
    • I belong.
    • I am real.
    • I am here. 
    • I am never disconnected from the source of life

 

  

approach the tree. ask permission to spend time with her. if it feels right, put your hands on her and notice the energetic exchange. feel the energy moving from you to her. what are you releasing? does it then travel onward down through her roots or upwards out through her branches? what are you receiving? how does it feel in your body?

approach the tree. ask permission to spend time with her. if it feels right, put your hands on her and notice the energetic exchange. feel the energy moving from you to her. what are you releasing? does it then travel onward down through her roots or upwards out through her branches? what are you receiving? how does it feel in your body?

/// AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ///

It can be helpful to take a good look at your daily routines and physical environments and how you interact physically and energetically with them. 

What will more firmly establish the sense that you are safe, you are steady, you are connected to the Big Mama? What can you do to give Her some of your load? What can you do to be more open to Her nourishment? She wants to help. But you have to open the door. This is muladhara chakra work. 

 

ROUTINE + RITUAL

Routine that is solid and steady but also loving and alive develops a healthy root chakra. If you feel anxious, exhausted and burnt out, it's likely that you are avoiding those regular routines that bring grounding and respite.

If, on the other hand, you are totally resistant to change, then your daily habits may have become so hardened that they are not actually bringing in the nourishment they're meant to. Are your routines open enough to let in water, light and air?

Rituals help us remember that spiritual work happens right here on the material realm. Watching your own embodied form undertake sacred actions heals the divide between matter and spirit.

  • DAILY HABITS JOURNAL > free-write about your daily routines. set a timer for 10 minutes and don't let the pen leave the paper til the buzzer goes. if you have trouble getting started, begin by making one list of the regular habits you have and another of regular habits you want. then see what happens!
  • REGULAR RITUAL >  develop a simple regular ritual for yourself--something that you will actually do! a 1-5 minute meditation practice every morning before you leave the house or a weekly bath will change everything.
  • SEASONAL RITUAL > do an earth ceremony. get some potting soil and an object from nature. plant a hope/wish/dream/intention in the soil. feel your hands in the dirt. then be patient for your new life to grow.
  • GENTLE CHANGE > letting go of old negative habits and creating new ones is not easy for any of us. BE KIND TO YOURSELF. as you begin getting the nourishment you really need through your new habits, like meditation, the old ones will begin to fade away on their own over time. let the process work without you rushing it.

 

PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

What does home feel like to you? Do you spend some time every day just resting in a nurturing environment, or are you always on the go? Maybe it's time to do some nesting!

Are you so afraid of being unplugged from home that you never go on adventures? Maybe it's time to remember that you can be home in other environments.

  • HOME IMPROVEMENT > refresh your living space by cleaning it out, reorganizing it, redecorating. burn palo santo, sage or incense while saying, "anything that isn't here for my greatest and highest good, please leave."
  • BODY LANGUAGE CHECK > pause in whatever you're doing and bring awareness to your physical habits. what's your posture like? are you moving a lot or quite still? practice grounding more through your feet, relaxing, breathing more deeply and moving less. notice how this your energy, mood, words and work.
  • WALK/RUN OUTSIDE > This opens the senses and helps our body remember how it is at home here in the natural environment.
  • TRAVEL > Go somewhere new and discover. 
  • NATURE > Spend some time hanging out with our beautiful Mother Earth. Commit to visiting the park each day or even spending a few minutes looking at the sky out of your window. As in our human relationships, you have to devote some of your precious time and attention to grow a bond between two beings. You will never be satisfied if this bond isn't nurtured. 

 

i'm not ready

On the weekend of the summer solstice, 2014, my friend Manisha helped me put my stuff in the car. It wasn't a lot. A few changes of clothes, toiletries, a yoga mat, a meditation cushion, a notebook, two translations of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and a special chiming alarm clock that didn't make any tick-tock sounds. It all fit nicely in a single suitcase but on our way out the door Manisha's mom had handed me a Native American drum of some kind without any explanation. I was able to shove the drum's mallet in amongst my clothes but the circular instrument made of wood and stretched hide would have to be carried separately. I didn't want to lug an extra item around, least of all one whose purpose was unclear to me, but less so did I want to seem rude, so I put it in the car and off we drove to Light on the Hill Retreat Center outside of Ithaca, New York. I was to stay there alone for 3 days in a little hut without electricity or running water. I was planning on getting enlightened.

 

At this point I had been meditating daily for 4 years. I had already done one solitary retreat and one group retreat. I had left behind many negative habits and broken world-views; I had created a career for myself, teaching others how to experience similar transformations to the ones that I had enjoyed. I felt that I had made so many large strides in my spiritual journey, especially over the course of the 6 months prior to this retreat.

 

January of 2014 my friend Manisha had introduced me to a dharma teacher whose explanations of human and universe made so many things clear to me. So as I rode up toward this 3 days of silence, solitude and deep nature, I felt cocky. "I'm primed and ready to awaken and it's really going to happen," I thought. "On my way back south on this road I will no longer identify with this body or this mind, but instead with the part of me that is outside of space and time. This is going to be awesome." 

 

But as soon as the back of my friend's car disappeared up the dirt lane, assuredness fell away to reveal a deep layer of lonely. I wandered around the property, noting how beautiful it was and wishing that my inner experience better matched the outer environment. And when it got dark I was embarrassed by the amount of fear I felt. I grew up in the country and had spent a handful of nights alone in my isolated home, but that house was familiar, chocked full of my daily comforts and humming with electricity. This place was strange, dark and ever so quiet.

 

The nighttime trips to the outhouse were what I dreaded most. When I got back into my hut I locked the door quickly. What if a bear came? Or worse, what if a person came? A person that wasn't supposed to be there. In my head I knew that spiritual seekers had been using this hut for nearly two decades without incident, but my gut wouldn't listen to logic. I was too proud to break my own rule and power up my cell phone, but I memorized the hand gesture it would take to reach under my bed, into my bag, and pull out that lifeline if I needed it.

The one-room hut that I stayed in for 3 days. The sliding glass door provided a view of a sweet little pond.

The one-room hut that I stayed in for 3 days. The sliding glass door provided a view of a sweet little pond.

I was sticking with a retreat routine that my Tibetan Buddhist teachers had taught me. The only hard items on my daily schedule were 4 hour-long meditation periods. One that began between 4 and 5am, one between 9 and 10am, one between 4-5pm and the last between 9-10pm. For each of them I was to sit in the same spot in my little hut for the whole hour. But besides those sessions, there was nothing planned. And I was supposed to more or less honor those spaces in between meditation sessions for exactly that--nothing. That was it. The teachers who taught me how to do solitary retreat insisted that the magic happens in those moments of not-doing and that the main thing to be wary of is creating distractions for oneself. So no novels, no music, no big projects.

 

What one is trying to step into on retreat--what one in pursuit of yoga is trying to do all the time--is the sense of steadiness and joy at the heart of simply being. We spend most of our time trying to take something in or push something out. But retreat asks: what are you when you're not you're not consuming or producing? 

 

Sure I did things beside meditating and doing nothing. I slept and ate and went to the bathroom. I journaled in the morning and evening. I did an hour or two of study in the afternoon. I had chosen the 4th book of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras to be my text for the retreat and I would memorize sutras that interested me and repeat them as mantras while I walked around the retreat center. I did about an hour of yoga asana practice out in the field each day. On the second night I did a little fire ceremony like my shamanic teacher had taught me and threw into the fire all that I was ready to release. Then I threw into the fire all that I was ready to embrace.

 

In the first two days I had some helpful realizations, a few fleeting experiences of peace or joy, and one exquisite meditation, but much of the time my heart felt heavy and my mind's dialogue was uncertain. That made it really uncomfortable to "just be." There is a part of every human that resists the uncomfortable, the unknown the unfamiliar, always striving to find some way to drop back into an old, familiar pattern. I dealt with all the fear, the sadness, the loneliness, the boredom, by turning to an old tried and true habit: busy-ness.  

 

My fear of being alone with my anxiety expressed itself as a drive to explore every inch of the huge retreat property in 3 short days. Each day I came up with a totally arbitrary schedule that had me running around to all different areas of the property all day long. Going up to the labyrinth in the early morning, a patch of grass by the small pond to do asana practice, back to the hut for mid-morning meditation and a nap, lunch at the big pond, hiking to the the waterfall, back for study and the early evening meditation session. Dinner, a walk, a fire ritual, night meditation, prep for bed and, finally, sleep.

 

I had scheduled so much in between my four meditations, and at such disparate destinations on the map, that I was rushing all over this retreat center all day long. It must have looked pretty silly to the eagles above but it felt great to me. Stressing my way all over Brooklyn is how I spent the other 362 days out of the year. This satisfied the ego because it made what was supposed to be an extraordinary journey into the heart of the unknown feel just like home instead.

 

Then on the last night I decided I would break my own rule. (They're all my rules when I'm on solitary retreat. All the more reason to honor them.) I wasn't going to do my nighttime meditation in my hut but instead to walk a mile through woods and field to the chapel. It would be empty of course but it was closer to the road and the retreat center caretakers. I was trying to fix the loneliness and craved, at the very least, physical proximity to other humans. I was walking quickly as I thought that I might be able to catch the end of a sunset through the chapel's west-facing windows. And maybe that would cheer me up. Receiving the gift of a beautiful sunset might convince me that I am beloved by the powers that be. Perhaps that gift of a sunset could make me feel connected to something, someone, anything, anyone, but especially anyone who might be holy.

 

But then it started to smell like rain and the sky got dark. I was already walking fast, lest I miss a sunset that might prove I was beloved from above but the threat of rain got me really hustling. Until I remembered that I had left my running shoes and sweaty clothes on the deck of my hut and realized that if I didn't want them to be ruined I would have to turn around.

 

This made me angry. I cursed myself for leaving the stuff on the deck. For being in such a rush everywhere. For being angry. For being horrible at doing retreat. For being so deluded as to think that an idiot like me could get enlightened, when here I was, on this last night, literally sprinting around the retreat center like the stressed-out New Yorker that I really was. I cursed myself for not being able to stay faithful to the rules I had set for myself or to come close to reaching my own goals.

 

As my internal storm gathered force, so did the external one. Booming thunder rumbled the ground and huge flashes of lightning lit the summer sky. The rain poured down on me as I sprinted through knee-high brush. I watched a thick, ragged charge of lightning connect cloud and land not far from me. And a bolt of an idea connected a memory in my mind with the tenseness of my heart. Seeing that lightning made me think of something that my Shamanic teacher had mentioned in passing. She said that many of the Shamanic masters of her lineage are struck by lightning in their moment of realization. It's a common motif, apparently. You're doing all your spirit work and then one day you get struck by lightning and, boom, a deep instantaneous shift in consciousness occurs. Enlightenment.

 

Now, this is what I had asked for. I wanted to be enlightened. But I did not want to be lightninged. Not at all. "I'm not ready." I thought. I would have yelled it up to the heavens but I wasn't willing to try breaking another one of my own rules tonight. So I said it fervently, but silently, and I said it over and over over. "I'm not ready. I'm not ready. I'm not ready." These were the most fiery prayers I had uttered in a long time. "I am attached to my body, I am attached to my mind. I don't want to be struck by lightning. I'm not ready to be struck by lightning. I'm not ready for pain, for seismic change. I'm not ready to let go."

 

I got to my hut, pulled off my wet clothes, put on dry ones, and sat watching the storm through the sliding glass doors. The thunder and lightning had grown intense. Thick drops of rain were pounding the roof of my hut and animating the surface of the pond directly through the doors. Wind was whipping through the trees, sending leaves and small branches through the dark sky. The scene was gorgeous and terrifying and made me feel puny inside of it, made me feel lucky to be dry and warm and safe in spite of it. 

 

My breath was still quick and I wanted to scream or shout or sing. I remembered the drum my friend's mom had given me. When I was leaving for retreat, I considered it an unwanted thing to schlep and had only accepted it out of politeness. But now I finally knew why it was with me.

 

I didn't know how to play it but I picked it up and found a rhythm with the mallet. It made me feel relaxed and somehow powerful to feel mallet strike hide. Not as powerful as the storm or the Nature that had made it, perhaps, but empowered in my ability to respond to the noise and the swirl and the fury of the storm. I felt as if I had some little role to play, a voice in the larger conversation and feeling in partnership with this wacky experience allowed me to breathe more easily. I was still repeating in my mind, "I'm not ready," and now the phrase connected with the rhythm of the drum. "I'm not ready," I repeated but now it was a soothing mantra rather than an urgent plea. Instead of begging the universe to spare me pain, to bend to my wishes of how this evening would go, I was expressing surrender to the way things were going, saying "yes, ok, I'm with you" to how the universe was shaping me.

 

There was peace now as the thunder drummed and my drum thudded and my mantra sang over rhythm of heartbeat and worldbeat. "I'm not ready." It felt like truth. It felt like a relief. I had finally stopped trying to force myself into some grandiose idea that I had in my head. I had finally let go of striving and struggling to be anything at all. I was nothing special, just some silly, lovely, sweet and humble woman sitting in a hut with a drum, having a conversation with a storm. And that was perfectly enough.

 

"I'm not ready," I admitted, now almost proudly. And after a while, from somewhere deep within, a voice said, "Have I ever given you anything you weren't ready for?" I smiled through grateful tears. "No." I replied. "No, you never have."

Me, proud and contented, at the end of the retreat, the day after the storm.

Me, proud and contented, at the end of the retreat, the day after the storm.

I spent the last 18 hours of my retreat solely in my hut except for bathroom breaks. The storm died down before I went to bed that night, but a light rain continued until my departure around lunchtime the next day. The urge to zoom all over the place physically had disappeared, and something inside clicked into a state of quiet, peaceful, contentedness. My hut transformed from a dark and depressing prison at the end of the earth into a dry, cozy refuge. My heart was the center of that universe, my body a cell-membrane around that center, the hut was the membrane around that center, and all other spaces and species rippled out from there. I realized that I needn't move anywhere at all to be connected to everything holy.

 

I didn't get enlightened, whatever that means, but I broke through some serious blockages for myself in those final hours of meditating, journaling and simply being, of allowing myself to be still and present. To be without a schedule or agenda, without some lofty expectation and the judgemental attitude that accompanies such. To be in a space of trust and ease. I came back with immensely greater tools for relating to my partner, my family, my friends, my students and myself. I came back with everything that I needed.

the preliminaries step 7: draw the teacher home to your heart

Step 0: Dive in

Step 1: Be still

Step 2: Call the teacher

Step 3: Get taken care of

Step 4: Take care of others

Step 5: Own your shit and let it go

Step 6: Own your gold and let it go

Step 7: Become the teacher

 

Pada pada, step by step, you have been proceeding into the cleared space within which meditation is possible. Now you have arrived.

 

In Step 2, we called the teacher and had him or her come and sit across from us, remaining a presence through all of the exercise. This visualization practice is the final step of the Preliminaries. It is a ritual, really, a rite of passage marking the transition that you have been working toward all this time.

 

Watch as your teacher floats up off the ground, becomes small--about the size of your thumb--turns around so he is facing the same way as you, and comes to rest on your head. 

 

Then draw the teacher down through the crown of your head, through your shashumna nadhi and into your heart center. When you need support or guidance, during your meditation practice or beyond, simply bring your awareness to your heart space, the home of your teacher.

 

Cambodian statue of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Sandstone, 7th century CE. Many statues of this version of the Buddha feature the teacher seated on the crown.

Cambodian statue of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Sandstone, 7th century CE. Many statues of this version of the Buddha feature the teacher seated on the crown.

In Step 2 of the Preliminaries, we saw the teacher as an authority. Now that authority rests inside of us. The reverence that we felt for someone "out there" is now directed inwardly. 

 

In the seminal Yoga text, the Yoga Sutras, Master Pantanjali tells us “A spiritual practice has a firm ground when it is pursued incessantly, with reverence and for a long time.” (YS 1.14) I earned the first and the third quality practicing the Preliminaries every morning for almost 5 years.  Incessant? Check. Long time? Check.  The second quality, reverence, is more nuanced. 

 

I actually had a deep sense of reverence from the very beginning, but a different kind than I developed over years of doing the Preliminaries.  At first it was a kind of superstitious, almost fearful, reverence.  It did not come from a deep understanding of the practice or from a knowledge of the reliability of its source.  It came instead from desperation.  I had been a young woman long lost and weary out at sea, and this was the lifeline that was thrown my way.  In the beginning I clung to my teacher, my community and my practices out of fear that I might slip back out there into the cold, dark, hungry vastness again.  

 

But now I appreciate the Preliminaries with a reverence that comes, not from fear of the dark, but from an open-eyed love for the whole experience. I have started to take the power from Dumbo’s feather and replace it with a sense of the science behind means of flight. 

 

Like the oldest mythical stories and the most enduring world philosophies, an ancient spiritual practice is likely to contain a comprehensive universe of wisdom. I believe that these practices, myths and belief systems last through centuries and are effective across cultures and climates because they have come from somewhere so deep within the beings that taught them, that they touch on a part of us that is universal.  And if we find a story or practice that speaks to us, if we return to it again and again with regularity and an attitude of earnest seeking, it will reveal new layers, new insights, new connections.  

 

The Preliminaries, eventually, put me in touch with the place within me that is never disconnected from universal wisdom. But I now try to keep with me something that I didn’t grasp when I first fell into the Tibetan Buddhist lineage. That no practice, story or system gets the whole truth right, however comprehensive, however sound, however enlightening it might be.  Truth itself is beyond words and stories.  The whole Truth belongs to the whole Universe, not just to the speaking human--certainly not just to one tribe of speaking human.  It cannot be captured and clung to or doled out and disseminated.  Like a firefly in a jar, if you try to snatch Truth out of the air and claim it as your own, very soon its light will dim and its living essence will disappear. 

 

I thought that my savior was something out there, reaching over to pluck me from the dark mess I had made of my life.  That belief was the seed for something that might have grown into fundamentalism:  “This is the thing!  This is the way!  This is the guru!  We all must practice the Preliminaries to be saved!!!” 

 

But I see now that my savior had been within me all along.  It is the voice that wrote the answers to the yoga training application. It is the part of me that was compelled toward meditation. It is the aspect of me that is posting this blog, even though another, harsher voice tells me that there are already too many blogs out there about yoga and meditation and "life."  It is the deep center that keeps allowing me to leap, to mature, to crumble, to build, to connect, to transform, and to release the firefly back out into the night. 

 

I am no longer part of the Tibetan Buddhist lineage that taught me the Preliminaries. The guru that I have committed to doesn't teach meditations with complicated steps, he doesn't have us bow many times or give gifts. He considers his main job to be reminding me that my inner teacher is what led me here and helping me grow my trust in Her. 

 

His name is Adyashanti and after working with him for a  couple of years, and through trusting him, I have learned to trust myself, to connect more deeply and more frequently to that nurturing, freeing, love-soaked part of myself.

 

Working with the right outer teacher gave me some practice in listening to wisdom and love. When I listen to recordings of Adyashanti--and even more so when I get the opportunity to work with hime live--a particular inner environment starts to coalesce, one that is conducive to truth and trust.

My teacher, Adyashanti. Taken by his wife, Mukti, in 2011.

My teacher, Adyashanti. Taken by his wife, Mukti, in 2011.

I realize that this is exactly what the Preliminaries are meant to do.  Finding the right practice and finding a great teacher function in a similar way. Each one is like a boat that helps us from one shore to another. The thing is, once we get to the other shore, it is likely that we won't need the boat anymore--or at least not in the same life or death way.

 

True meditation is being ok with just being. It's a state of feeling at home in Reality. True meditation is actually our natural state.  The Preliminaries and the guru are meant to help you remove obstacles to this, to help you locate and release all the ways that you resist What Is. By the end of the Preliminaries, you have dropped the egoic perspective, the fearful one, the one that thinks is is a foreigner in its own skin. You become the teacher. A more enlightened perspective has begun to operate at the center of you.

 

I don't do the Preliminaries every day anymore because, after years of this practice, I have finally begun to learn to trust my own heart. And now, when I sit, I just watch my breath for a bit, and then turn my awareness to my heart and listen deep. But I am forever grateful for these practices for clearing the path, for setting me up and teaching me how to trust myself and my universe.

 

I wish you the best of luck on your journey. May you continue to discover that you're already home.

 

 

 

the preliminaries step 6: working with the positive past

Step 0: Start Fresh

Step 1: Watch Your Breath

Step 2: Call Your Teacher

Step 3: Take Refuge

Step 4: See How We're All in This Together

Step 5: See What Causes Suffering and Disable It

Step 6: See What Causes Happiness and Enable It

 

Sharon Salzberg tells a story about going to a conference with the Dalai Lama in 1990. When it was her turn to propse a topic for discussion she asked the great teacher about self-hatred. "What is that?" he asked in earnest confusion. His translators were having a hard time getting him to understand the phrase, which has no direct equivalent in Tibetan. "But you have Buddha nature. How could you think of yourself that way?" 

 

This story says much about how much your culture molds the way you look at your self and your world. Self-loathing seems to be a predominantly Western issue. And within my own community here in New York City, I have discovered it to be one of the greatest obstacles to meditation. In this step of the Preliminaries we learn how to recognize our own light and how to grow it without being blinded by it.

 

In Step 3 you called your teacher. Now tell your teacher about something good or kind you have done. When you first start practicing the preliminaries you may want to go back and think of highlights from throughout your life. But eventually, you will just scan the period of time since you last did this exercise.

 

Spend a little time resting with your teacher in the warm atmosphere that recalling your good deed has created. Then contemplate the circumstances around your good deed. How did that come about? How might you perpetuate and propogate similar actions in the future?

 

What we pay attention to grows. So it seems unfortunate that most Westerners spend so much more time hashing out their mistakes than reflecting on their virtues. Marianne Williamson famously wrote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."

 

Why are we Westerners so afraid of being great? Maybe we're afraid of the effort that greatness asks of us. If I'm truly a good person, a smart person, a talented person, then I am probably going to have to take responsibility for those qualities and use them to make something of value in the world. Sounds like a lot of work! It might be more appealing to just hang out on the couch and eat Doritos. 

 

Maybe it is because I heard from someone else that I was born without value, that goodness was a quality to be found "out there," "over there," or "up there." Maybe I was infected by a story that it is ignorant, vain or even "evil" somehow, for me to think that there is something fabulous at the center of me. Maybe the people who told me such stories seemed so convincing because other people told THEM those stories a long time ago. Perhaps a story of worthlessness just got passed down through the generations like DNA, and feels too difficult for one person to shift in one lifetime. 

 

Maybe I'm afraid of being great for some combination of those reasons and others. But what keeps me coming back to meditation, yoga and buddhist teachings, is some primordial part of me that just doesn't buy the fearful stories. Some part of me that can't truly enjoy vegging out, checking out or running out on self-progress. It keeps me a little on edge while I evade doing the awesome work that's meant for me. Creating an off-flavor in my mouth when I'm done with my Doritos or causing me to stumble in my sprint away from goodness. It says, "This isn't the way. You are meant to evolve, expand and prosper. Get up and turn back toward your light."

 

In addition to the reasons we spoke of above, there is another really compelling reason that we get stuck in the negative. Many people fear gaining an inflated sense of self. This is a legitimate concern. But what people don't seem to see is that a blown-up ego and a deflated one are just two ways of experiencing a single delusion. Like the front and back of your hand, these two perspectives come together, they are just one little twist or poke apart, and they are equally false and lead to an equal degree of suffering. Whether I think that I am the least important being in the universe or that I am the most important being in the universe, I have an ego-centric perspective. In reality, of course, Aaron Knowles Dias could not be the MOST of anything, but simply another intrinsic thread of the woven whole.

 

If I believe that I am "the best" I end up getting frustrated at everyone around me and am constantly finding them sub-par. I end up being that nagging girlfriend or complaining customer who only sees the negative, making every moment into a bummer, for myself and everyone else. I lack the ability to see the uniquness of each being and the special positive qualities of each circumstance. 

 

And the delusion that I am "the best" is eventually ripped away from even the most raging ego-maniac. The universe is so much bigger and greater and smarter and more stunning than any one individual aspect of it. When I forget that and weave my life around a false sense of greatness, one little failure can make it feel like I have lost everything. The universe inevitably sticks a needle in the side of an over-inflated sense of self, and if it's grown too large, that that "pop" can be completely devastating. For most of us this "pop" happens quite early. But at the latest, every body succumbs to its limitations and perishes. Even Donald Trump can't best death.

 

This "pop" moment can ultimately lead to an intense anger aimed at the self, it can lead to depression, confusion and debilitating nostalgia. For if I give such an overheaping value to a good thing I did yesterday, but today I don't do something equally amazing, the self doubt becomes overwhelming. Where once the story was, "I am so great!" The story becomes, "I was so great and never will be again. My golden age has come and gone." This self-sabotaging story is one of the most painful that I have encountered. It is building a shrine to the past and going there constantly, as Hafiz says in his poem And it keeps us from being able to see the goodness right here and now. It keeps us from stepping into loveliness in the future. 

shrine to the past

When my boyfriend and I first got a dog we learned that the best training method was positive reinforcement. If your main method is to punish the dog when she misbehaves, yes, she may very well learn not to do that behavior again (in front of you) but she also picks up other behaviors that you probably don't want in a dog. A beaten animal is fearful, skittish, untrusting and often, over years of only getting negative reactions, becomes aggressive and dangerous. You don't really know what the side effects wil be, but you're kidding yourself if you think that beating the dog gives you control over him. You are actually conditioning the dog to become unpredictable and unmanageble. 

 

The trainers we worked with all told us that, instead, a good dog owner should mostly ignore the negative behavior. When she realizes that she is not getting attention from doing bad things, those habits fall away. The main training is to reward the dog when she does something good. She loves getting the positive feedback and eventually learns to repeat the good behaviors. 

 

It didn't take long for my boyfriend and I to start using this method on one another. While before I would nag at him to do a the dishes or punish him with a mean comment or bad mood when he "misbehaved"--failing to clean up after himself or coming home late for dinner without texting or whatever--I learned to curb that instinct for negative reinforcement. Instead I started to praise him each time that he did something that I really liked. And lo and behold, he started initiating cleaning on his own and became better at informing me when he had to work late. Meanwhile, he began giving me more thanks and compliments for any number of little gestures that I used to feel the he wasn't appreciative of. As you can imagine, we both started to feel more valued and the atmosphere of our home grew cleaner, brighter and kinder. 

 

If we know not to beat the dog, why do we still beat up on ourselves so often? If we know that nagging drains the joy out of our partnerships, whey do we let the inner critic attack the self all day? If we know that showering our loved one with praise when they do something awesome makes them feel happier and work harder, why do we withhold rewards and back-pats from ourselves? If we know that spending less time fixating on the negative and more time bolstering the positive makes our world a nicer place to live, why can't we bring more sparkles into our inner environment?

Our dog, Maude, when we first adopted her in 2013. She had been in and out of different adoption situations for nearly 4 months by then and who knows what trauma she lived through before she was rescued. After about 6 months of living with us her left ear stopped drooping and began to stand up confidently.

Our dog, Maude, when we first adopted her in 2013. She had been in and out of different adoption situations for nearly 4 months by then and who knows what trauma she lived through before she was rescued. After about 6 months of living with us her left ear stopped drooping and began to stand up confidently.


The answer is simply conditioning. In the West we have been conditioned to think a certain way. And that means that, with a little bit of time and effort, we can unwind the work of that conditioning and free ourselves. Really, that's what the Preliminaries are all about. Steps 5 and 6 are all about learning how to see ourselves clearly, without adding in a lot of judgement and commentary. Learning to own our past, work with its lessons, and then let it go to make way for the present. Considering most of us have spent a lifetime (or more, if you consider the way these stories of low self worth get passed down generation by generation) beating the dog, it seems wise to spend some time and energy balancing out the work of the negative. 


You have a Buddha nature. Keep it simple. Do good things. Thank yourself for doing them. Repeat.

the preliminaries step 5: working with negative past

Step 0: Start Fresh
Step 1: Watch Your Breath
Step 2: Call Your Teacher
Step 3: Take Refuge
Step 4: See How We're All in This Together
Step 5: Work With the Negative Past

Oh, regret. I have done a lot of stupid things in my life. Some of these things have led directly to pain. (Fall off bike --> break tooth. Ouch. Pain.)

 

But pain and suffering are two different things and suffering is the one that we have the most power over.  (Fall off bike --> break tooth --> Decide that my life is over at 25 and that I will never be successful or find someone to love me. Proceed to act out my role in the crappily scripted tragedy that I just made up. Whoa. That's suffering.)

 

We do our best to make fewer mistakes and feel less pain, but having some of those sprinkled into life seems to be part of the deal. Suffering is different because it is caused by the way we think about the mistakes and the pain.  I didn't realize this until I had been meditating for a while, but it is possible to experience pain without suffering, and it is possible to experience suffering without pain. This post is a study on what the mind does with regretful memories and how much we can mitigate suffering if we start to understand how this process works.

 

As always, my test subject is my own mind. When I go into storytelling mode around a regret, I begin to have a warped relationship with the memory of the event. Because I believe that a past event (something I cannot change) is the source of my suffering, instead of my thinking in the present moment (something that I absolutely can change) I often attempt to manipulate my relationship to the past event.

 

Here are some of my favorite manipulation tactics. Sometimes I relentlessly cling to a single tactic. Sometimes I get creative and mix and match!

 

Tactic 1: Burial. I sense that I am not proud of some thing I have done and I immediately bury the memory down somewhere deep in my subconscious. This is done in an attempt to "protect" myself and it would be all well and good if it actually worked. But burial does not take away the event's power to influence my behavior, it just puts that power out of the light of day, out of the reach of reason. And this is a much more dangerous place for regret to live, for from the shadows it can sabotage my happiness without me being aware.

 

Whether it takes 5 seconds or 5 months or 5 decades, the burial is followed by the inevitable sniffing out the buried goods. When another person's words or actions, or some life event, begin to poke at that place where this memory is hidden, its influence begins to show itself. I tend to grow uncomfortable and experience any range of strange emotions. If I'm being mature about things (big IF!) Then I might recognize my own buried regret to be at the root of this uncomfortable experience, own it, and properly attend to it. More likely, I will proceed to tactic 2 or 3...

 

Tactic 2: Distracting from the stinky truth. If I begin to smell the rotten regret I buried down but I am still not willing to own it, I begin pulling out different techniques to move the attention away from it. I might avoid anything to do with that event by hunkering down with some good mind-numbing habits. I might attack those who remind me of my regret, attempting to fling the attention onto their mistakes or negative qualities. I might develop a pattern of running fast and far, leaving relationships, jobs, situations, in a cloud of raw emotion and specious reasoning. But wherever I go, it turns out that I bring the stink with me, so the cycle just continues. 

 

Tactic 3: Unhealthy obsession with the regret. When confronted with the regret I might pull out the most convoluted tactic of all. I pick it up, squeeze it, and refuse to let go. I go over and over the scenario, weaving stories, making judgements, assigning blame and attaching my identity to it. I replay the scenario not just in my mind, but in my life, projecting it onto my present and future. I imagine that everyone else is also obsessed with my negative event, that they are constantly judging me for it. All of my interactions become flavored by the regret--sometimes making me seem explosive or defensive, sometimes pathetic or unworthy, but always making me less than a joy to be around.

 

Pulling the regret close is the flip-side of burying it, but it is no less deluded and leads to suffering just as surely. The truth is, I'm not pulling close the actual event, as it happened, in and of itself--that would actually lead to forgiveness and healing. I'm pulling close my regret about it, the false judgements and invented stories that I created and attached to the thing that happend.

blame.jpg

The answer to this whole issue is NOT to stop making mistakes or to run away from all pain. Trying to do that will just lead to more delusion, which always leads to more suffering. The answer is to learn to see what your mind does in response to the mistakes and pain. Meditation creates space for noticing the story-making, the shaming and blaming of self and others. For seeing that all of this deluding is what's causes suffering. And seeing that the story-making and the resultant suffering is all optional!

 

Step 5 of the Preliminaries gives us tools for interacting with the past event in a new way. It teaches us how to pull a regret out from the shadows, own it, learn from it, neutralize its negative ramifications, and move on happier, wiser and kinder. 

 

Here's how you do it. 

 

Think of something that you regret. When you first begin doing this practice you might be working on a backlog of unfortunate actions, but eventually things will clear up and you will start focusing on the thing you're least proud of from the past 24 hour period. 

 

Remember how we called our teacher a few steps back? Well the teacher is here and he or she is going to help you with this step. Calmly, without a whole bunch of wincing, hand-wringing or commentary, show the teacher what you have done. 

 

Ask the teacher to help you see the the mistake for what it is, prior to any labels you have put on it, more fundamentally than any stories you have woven around it. Your teacher is wise, which means that he or she has already accepted that flaws are human and forgivable, so a real teacher is the least likely type of person to freak out, judge you or punish you. He or she just wants to help you back to the truth.

 

Now think of a positive action that you could carry out which would counter-act the negative thing. We feel so crummy when we fuck up because we fear that we have knocked the world out of balance so that it now leans toward negativity. Doing something positive, in turn, can help us feel centered again. 

 

Make a promise, before your teacher, who really represents your highest self, to perform a balancing action. This does not need to be a grand gesture, just a thoughtful one that you will actually do. So if you were careless, be caring with something in your day. If you were harsh, be gentle. If you grabbed from someone, take a moment to give.

 

Try it. Let me know how it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

the preliminaries step 4: cultivate bodhicitta

Step 0: Ditch that old stuck self

Step 1: Sit down and be still, for God's sake

Step 2: Call on the guidance of a teacher

Step 3: Take refuge in something true

Step 4: Cultivate bodhicitta

 

One of my Buddhism teachers calls practicing meditation without bodhicitta a "dry" meditation. Yuck. In this post we will explore what bodhicitta is, why we want to cultivate it and how that can be done.

Bodhicitta is often translated as “the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings.” It is a driving motivation that comes from a deep sense of fellowship and compassion. If one is trying to meditate without there being some kind of love to move things along, things can feel forced and inauthentic. It is actually a naturally occurring state but, due to conditioning of all sorts, most of us have let that part of the self go to sleep. Unless we learn to wake it up, spiritual practice gets overly dull or agitated, it can feel boring or irritating, it can stall out or become a chore. 

In this step of the Preliminaries, you can do a simple practice that is sure to reawaken your own sense of bodhicitta. Bring to mind a person whom you deeply love and consider that person in pain. Stay still and attentive and engage with whatever authentic emotional response happens to arise. 

The masters who came up with the Preliminaries knew that if a meditator can light a fire of connection and care, stoke it and sustain it, then it will provide a powerful energy source to propel her practice. We start by feeling connected with those who are near and dear but inevitably the circle of concern will begin to expand outward, connecting you to more and more beings. When we can sense that invisible thread of connection and care linking us to every being whom we encounter, then we have accessed the enlightened state.

When I first started meditating, it was my little brothers who could take me there fastest. I have always felt close to them and protective over them. If one of them is suffering I instinctively feel pain. If one of them is experiencing joy, then I automatically feel joy as well. If there is something that I can do to make one of their lives better, I do not hesitate. So thinking on one of them in pain is enough to generate that emotional connection while I sit on my mediation cushion. One might think that this could be distracting, but in fact it has the opposite effect. 

At least until we have more practice connecting with it, the mediation object tends to be not such a compelling place to hold our awareness. The mind is in the habit of spending its time stuck in old grooves or seeking out the mental junk food of new stimulation. The meditator battles the perpetual distraction of thoughts spontaneously arising in the mind and struggles to stay engaged with the meditation object--whether it be the feeling of the breath, a mantra, or a visualization practice. But as we cultivate bodhicitta it adds a non-intellectual component, a passion component, something that begins to feel important in a way that we can register in our emotional and physical body. And this brings fresh life to our practice again and again, this helps us keep returning to the object we have chosen even when it is difficult.

Bodhicitta saves our meditation from being "dry," because it brings some fuel, nourishment and fluidity into the practice. It can motivate us to make time to get onto the cushion, into the classroom or out on retreat, even when we are feeling too lazy or busy. If I think, "This will help my brother suffer less," then it is harder to ignore the call to go meditate. And once I'm there, it helps me stay connected to the object in a more organic way because I'm not doing this out of duty, or some other put-on imperative, but of a love which motivates from within.

Me and my youngest brother, Adrian, back in 1994. My love for him creates a great intrinsic motivator for me to become stronger, wiser, kinder. And funnier. (I don't know why we're cut out and pasted onto something. Us 90's kids just did that kind of shit.)

Me and my youngest brother, Adrian, back in 1994. My love for him creates a great intrinsic motivator for me to become stronger, wiser, kinder. And funnier. (I don't know why we're cut out and pasted onto something. Us 90's kids just did that kind of shit.)

The word bodhicitta is made up of two other really important words in Yoga and Buddhist philosophy. Bodhi (pronounced BO-dee) means awakened. It is the root of Buddha, which means the awakened one. And citta (pronounced CHI-ta) means conscsiouness, which can also be translated as "mind-stuff" or "thoughts." We find this word in the famous 2nd Sutra of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: yogas citta vritti narodaha. "Yoga is the cessation of the spinning mind-stuff."

So when we break down the word bodhicitta it literally means an awakened state of consciousness. This implies that the mind does not wake itself up by way of thinking on its own, but rather the heart must come and help it shift. The the caring self, the emotionally invested self FEELS its way toward higher awareness. If the mind can come to rest its agitated state, if it can stop making so much noise and learn to hear the wisdom of the heart, it will learn how to honor a two-fold truth. (1) All beings seem to suffer. (2) We are all interconnected. Once the heart and the mind can both agree on this, then one will have a much more grown-up, woken-up, reality-based engagement with the world. And it will lead to a spontaneous experience of bodhicitta, of the great wish to help all those around me. 

So now the question arises, why would my meditating be so helpful for my brothers? Why wouldn't it be more helpful to spend that time in other ways? Why wouldn't I instead focus on the actual things that they need? For instance when they're broke why shouldn't I focus on making money so that I could give it to them? Or when they're lonely, focus on entertaining them or introducing them to cool friends and pretty girls? Or when they're sad, thinking of fun things to do with them to cheer them up? Because, though these obvious and material "solutions" to their problems might help in the short term, they are actually all distractions that prevent us from addressing the true source of suffering.

The Buddha identified that the true source of suffering is avidya, or lack of wisdom. This ignorance of the true nature of things creates delusion and living in delusion is actually what is responsible for all of the many negative experiences that humans have. If unhappy experiences are the leaves of the misery tree, perhaps a lack of material resources or other negative circumstances might be the branches, but avidya, is the roots. So if I want to effectively address the problem of suffering, I can lop off leaves and branches all day long, but more strife will surely grow unless I attend to those roots. 

The path of "waking up" is beginning to develop more and more wisdom--vidya or prajna. Now I could give my brothers a lot of things, but if those resources don't come with wisdom, then they may not actually be that helpful. We have all seen examples of a person who was simply handed bountiful resources without having an appreciation about where resources come from--they usually end up causing suffering for others and, inevitably, eventually, suffering themselves.  We see a lot of people whose lives seem like they should be totally flush, yet they are unhappy. 

On the other hand, we see people who, judging solely by their outer resources, seem to have little but are perfectly content. The former don’t understand what their resources are for--they seem to have collected everything but wisdom. The latter know how to use what they do have. They have wisdom, they have that trump resource, and though they encounter pain like everyone else, they have managed to uproot ignorance, so that pain does not turn into suffering.

Wisdom is the maha-resource because it is the only one that can give us insight into the real nature of the other resources or into how we should be using them. How do we know which resources are most important? How do we know when we should invest one resource to gain another? How do we live with them without getting attached and suffering when that resource moves on? Only he who has developed wisdom can begin to confidently answer these questions. If I want to help my brothers, my boyfriend, my parents, my students, my friends, well then I better be able to share wisdom. That is the resource that I am working hardest to cultivate. Because the wiser I am, the more of that I will have to share

"Bodhicitta is the essential, universal truth. This most pure thought is the wish and the will to bring all sentient beings to the realization of their highest potential, enlightenment...Bodhicitta is the alchemy that transforms every action into benefit for others. Bodhicitta is the cloud that carries the rain of positive energy to nourish growing things. Bodhicitta is not doctrine. It is a state of mind. " --Lama Thubten Yeshe

We all have our own reasons for wanting to meditate, wanting to engage in a spiritual practice. But some motivators will take us only so far and then leave us stranded, high and "dry," as it were. If we can find the LOVE lying deep down in our motives, it will take us to all the way to wisdom. And the more our wisdom grows, the more it will continue to grow our love.

When you forget why you're doing this, think of someone whom you love. And when the love isn't easy to access, remember the two-fold truth that we are all interconnected and we all suffer. Bring the mind and the heart into a harmonious resting in the truth of what is, and this whole meditation thing begins to flow.

the preliminaries step 3: take refuge

Step 0: Set the conditions for a new start

Step 1: Attend the breath

Step 2: Connect to a teacher

Step 3: Take refuge

It was early March 2010 and I had just spent the better part of the winter pushing and puling my way through a shitty love affair. Every time that I tried to narrate the story of how I had spent the last 6 months it made me more nervous. The stories kept showing me how I had been putting my trust in people and situations that weren't healthy or supportive and I became wary of putting it anywhere at all. I was afraid that I had been devolving and I was terrified that I didn't have the strength to get my shit together and start evolving, meaning that the spiral would just persist ever-downward. When I looked backwards I felt fear, when I looked forward I felt fear. And the present was not a place where I even knew how to be.

The antidote to all that fear? Trust. Step 3 of the Preliminaries is all about finding something that you can really trust and building a relationship with it.  It's about connecting to the support that exists when we have a regular spiritual practice and all that comes with it. We are meant to feel into what it is like to be held, protected, provided for, sheltered. When I get to this step I begin by just asking myself, what support do I have today? What comfort is there here for me in my life right now? And then I generate some gratitude for these conditions as they come to mind. The best way to appreciate comfort and support is to BE comforted and supported. In other words, lean into these forces, to relax and allow them to hold you, envelop you, bear your weight and shelter your being. The best way to fight fear is to develop trust. The best way to gather strength along the path toward your next big evolution is to take refuge. 

Traditionally, a Buddhist doing this exercise will take refuge in the Three Jewels. The Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. And though it took me years to realize it, it was a profound experience of these Three Jewels giving me refuge that took me from the winter of fear into a spring of trust. One split second of refuge pushed me right onto the path of becoming a meditator and a teacher.

photo by Kevin Cooley

photo by Kevin Cooley

TAKING REFUGE IN THE BUDDHA

"Without trust there is no peace...Of all people, the knower of the self, the liberated man, is the most trustworthy." - Nisargadatta Maharaj

Nisargadatta says that you should figure out whom you can trust and rely on them, for without that you will not have the requisite peace to do the work of evolving. That boyfriend and I were having such a hard time because our small, scared selves were always meeting one another and in those clashing interactions we kept trying to seem big by making the other feel smaller. The reason that the liberated man is so trustworthy, is because he is not trying to prove anything or sell anything; his Big self to do the steering, which means that real love and real wisdom are in charge. He has a little self, he has a body and a brain and a personality, but he doesn't live in service those aspects. This makes him free. And he will help you learn to do the same. Not for pay, not for glory, not for anything that caters to that small desire to get big. But simply because that's what Buddhas do. Simply finding this kind of person to interact with is a game changer.

To take refuge in the Buddha means to connect with the support of an enlightened being or guru. Yes, we talked about calling the teacher in the last step, and here is the teacher again. The spiritual guide is a big deal and at the start and center of almost all the foremost spiritual traditions. In some, such as Buddhism, the guru is seen as a person who achieved some advanced level of realization and, instead of hanging out and keeping all that bliss and wisdom for himself, went around teaching from his enlightened perspective, bringing us all along with him. Many people take refuge in the literal historical figure of the Buddha. But taking refuge suggests coming home, and your home, by definition, isn't everybody's home. So, by all means, study the stories of the Buddha and spend time getting to know him. But I would recommend also experimenting with bringing to mind a person to whom you feel a more personal connection when you get to this step. Think of someone who has helped you and remain present for any sense of gratitude that arises.

When I first started meditating, many obstacles arose. Skepticism for one. Maybe this whole thing was a waste of time, I thought. Maybe I would be better off doing something else besides meditating, studying, chanting, changing. But these teachers seemed so intelligent and grounded and content, and they told me awesome stories of other meditators, culled from a long, rich history of others who had walked this path. That gave me the inspiration to hop on the path myself. Plain laziness is another huge obstacle, of course. I was used to sleeping in late and doing whatever I pleased, but now I was expected to meditate every morning and attend classes and do homework. But I had these teachers whom I respected greatly, and they were there holding me accountable. That motivated me to ditch old lazy habits and get to work. And then there was all that self-doubt. Maybe I'm not smart enough, kind enough, good enough. And in those moments, the teachers, who saw potential in me to which I myself still remained blind, offered little pushes of encouragement that got me through. 

This brings us to a third sense of "taking refuge in the Buddha" which is really referring to your Buddha nature--your own innate capacity for becoming enlightened. This is what my teachers saw in me before I could. To take refuge in this sense of the Buddha, is to take heart in the fact that we are actually all, always, moving forward toward the goal of enlightenment, even if it sometimes feel that we got lost along the way, or stalled out or started moving in the wrong direction. According to some teachers, we will all arrive eventually and inevitably. According to some, we are already there, we just have to wake up from the dream of being un-enlightened. 

 

TAKING REFUGE IN THE DHARMA

Dharma is a Sanskrit word, of hefty and diverse significance for all of the spiritual traditions that can trace roots back to the Ancient Indus Valley. I'm going to offer 3 basic definitions. One translation is "the cosmic order," the laws of the universe, the way things are. In this sense dharma refers to something similar to the tao of Chinese traditions. When we try to fight against the laws of this universe, guess who wins?  So to take refuge in the dharma, in this sense, means to study the way things are, to get comfortable with these laws, to surrender to them and sync with them. We tend to try to work really hard to get things done, but if only we can become aligned with the divine order we enter into flow, we find that power, clarity and accomplishment can become ours with minimal effort. To take refuge in this way is to appreciate the gift of being a participant in this universe with its incredible design, its mystery and beauty, and to relax into that belonging.

For Buddhists, dharma refers to the actual teachings of the actual Buddha. But it can also refer to the teachings of any great guru from any lineage. There is so much value to be gained in going to the source of one of these traditions and dwelling there a while. If you have a particular tradition then this step is all about reflecting on how the teachings of your lineage give you something trustworthy, tried and true. As one of my teacher's said, if you want the cake to rise, follow a good recipe. Now, there is no escaping that every individual seeker must take responsibility for her own journey and make her own discoveries as she goes. But the teachings of those who went before you means that you don't have start from scratch. If you listen, trust and follow the instructions you will have a map and a vehicle for moving forward.

Going to a good yoga class or listening to a recording of a teacher that you love, or reading a classic spiritual text are great ways to start to connect to the dharma. But it is important to remember that you can only connect with what someone else says, because there is somewhere within you that already knows it. In colloquial English we say that wisdom is what you know, not in your brain, but somewhere deeper. We say "I know it in my heart" or "feel it in my bones" or "in my gut." They all point to the same thing. That real wisdom, the wisdom of the universe, is different from an opinion or a data point or a storyline because it is IN us. It can't be so easily articulated, brushed aside, extracted, forgotten or altered. So taking refuge in the dharma means to start trusting those deeper instincts that guide you. If you do this then everything that you do begins to move from an authentic center, and your presence becomes a refuge for others. 

You may also hear of someone "living his dharma" which speaks to the idea that each individual has a path that he or she is meant to travel in order to achieve this lifetime's purpose. One of my favorite moments in the Bhagavad Gita is when Krishna tells Arjuna that "It is better to live one own's dharma poorly than to succeed at another's dharma." What he means is that there are callings, pastimes, partners, careers, friendships, styles, journeys, ways of being, that feel authentic for an individual. Almost everyone I know has gone through a period of time when he looks around and attempts to imitate another person's path--some people build much of their lives upon this attempt. But, again, refuge means home. To walk someone else's path is always accompanied by a sense of unease, of being a stranger, of being slightly unsupported. When you find your dharma you will have something special in which to take refuge. Even when you stumble, as we all must along the way, it is your own ground which will catch your fall.

When I take refuge I celebrate all three senses of the dharma, humbling myself in gratitude toward the ways of the universe, the wisdom passed down by my teachers, and this unique path that I have been given to walk. I bow down to all the wisdom that I've accumulated over my 33 years of living, embracing the victories and the failures, the triumphs and the mistakes that brought me here. Try it. Sit for a while in the sweet, sturdy home that you have built out of your own intuitive sense of what's really important in your life. Any other issues that are whispering around your door, any worries about the resources that are coming and going aren't so troubling to you from in here. Only ignorance can truly harm you and doing this reminds you that you dwell in wisdom. Take a deep breath in, exhale slowly and be still. 

Lord Krisna advising Arjuna on the battlefield. A scene from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous and beloved books of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. 

Lord Krisna advising Arjuna on the battlefield. A scene from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous and beloved books of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata

 

TAKING REFUGE IN THE SANGHA

In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle made the point that "no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all other material goods." If there were no humans with whom to share our material wealth (or to whom to show it off!) what would be the significance of wealth? We are truly communal beings, everything given value within the context of living among other humans and the final of the three jewels recognizes and celebrates this. Sangha translates into "community," "association," "assembly," or "company." It refers to a group of people who are gathered together under a common aspiration. To take refuge in sangha means recognizing the support of a community, rallying it to you and reveling in its dynamic embrace. 

In its most literal sense "sangha" means a community of faith, more or less interchangeable with the words, "satsang" or "kula." But I believe that you can have sangha without being part of a spiritual group--you can have it, even, without identifying as a spiritual person. The question is: what do you care about most and where are there other people who also care about that? Can you build relationships of deep trust with these people. 

Growing up my mom used to say that theater was our church. And, though she didn't know this word at the time, we had a strong sangha, made up of the artists and writers and performers that filled our dramatic church. We all cared about something bigger than ourselves--in some communities it's a teacher, or a set of teachings or a mission, and in our case it was the play. No matter how brightly a single individual shone, the play would be a failure unless we all came together as a community. This meant that, especially when we were in production, petty personal differences were left at the door so that we could all open into the vulnerable creative space. We had to build discipline, mutual respect, and a shared set of priorities and guidelines for interaction, otherwise the play would never get up. That took us all some place deeper than personality, into the powerful, transformative, communal work of theater. 

Me as Wong the Water boy (front and center with the little hair and big grin) in a promo shot for a play that mom directed. Chestertown, MD, 1997. The theater community was our sangha. 

Me as Wong the Water boy (front and center with the little hair and big grin) in a promo shot for a play that mom directed. Chestertown, MD, 1997. The theater community was our sangha. 

When I started meditating, connecting with the 16 other students in my training was at least as important as connecting with the teachers. I remember the moment when it first struck me that I had a sangha. I was really excited about a romantic interest and then terrified that it might work out badly--like the break up that I described at the beginning of this post! But then I realized that it was different now, because I had 16 people who would pick me back up if I fell down. I knew that I could call any one of them at any hour and be received with a hug, a cup of tea and a dose of empowering wisdom to warm me and set me aright. This is taking refuge in the sangha. The darkness that arose in that moment doesn't visit much anymore. And if begins to, I just reach out for the light of a good friend--or even just reflect on all those people who would be there if I called--and the fear disappears.

Seek out others who share your passions and, when you find them, respect them deeply and give them the opportunity and the impetus to do the same to you. Be real, be vulnerable and take risks in their presence. Have great conversations where, instead of protecting and projecting your own ideas about things, you actually dare to listen to the other person. Eventually we want to treat the whole world as our sangha, respecting and loving and listening and being real in everyone's presence, but for most of us this takes much practice. And a small family of dear friends is the best practice space. 

 

FINDING REFUGE

While I was in the midst of that breakup and so afraid of fear, I did one simple, smart thing and that changed everything. I went to my favorite yoga class with my favorite teacher, Lesley Desaulniers. I had just come down out of a full wheel pose and was resting there on my back, one hand weighing on my heart and one on my belly, when a greet surge of hope went through me.

In that moment I felt a deep certainty that I was being held and supported. I felt that if I could continue to come back to this sacred space more often, if I could spend more time in the presence of this teacher, if I could practice yoga in a more dedicated way, if I could connect with the people all around me who were feeling their breath fall and rise beneath their hands too, who were also on a journey of healing and growth, then I was going to be fine. In that moment the truth broke through and I saw that the stories about me being such a lost cause were available to be rewritten. All of those negative moves that I had made before, all of those "mistakes," had set me up perfectly for this positive experience, for this utterly transformative encounter with wisdom and love. Fear itself had prepared for its dissolution. It had made me available to trust. 

I had been practicing yoga for 7 years but had not dared to deepen my commitment beyond a little 10 minute morning practice each day and 3-5 drop-in classes per month that I would attend willy-nilly, whenever I felt like it. Immediately after this class I signed up to do karma yoga at the studio--cleaning the floors, lighting candles, signing in students, in exchange for free classes. This deepened my commitment to the studio, to the Buddhas who taught there, to the ancient practices that were being passed down there and to the sangha that was its soul. My karma yoga shifts became my favorite times of the week and that inspired me to do a yoga teacher training. 

It was in that training, about six months after my holy heartbreak, that I learned about the Preliminaries and the Three Jewels. I realized that all three of those Jewels had been there to give me refuge on that Sunday morning: 

In Lesley's presence there was a real Buddha, someone who had put aside her ego's agenda to hold and serve the students. She taught real dharma: philosophies, practices and poses for health, evolution and wellbeing that had been passed down through an authentic lineage and tested over the years by her own experience. I was getting a glimpse of my personal dharma path too, connecting to a calling to become a yoga teacher myself. And I was in the presence of a sangha, a group of people gathered to do this deep work, to get vulnerable and get healed, and therefore I could meet my pain and struggle held by their unconditional care.

You have already come a long way. You've stumbled, fallen and gotten back up, you've feared and you've hoped, you've written and re-written the story. And, in the coming stages of the Preliminaries you will be asked to do some more hard work. So this is the moment of pausing in recognition that there is something truly trust-worthy in your life that wants to hold you. Take refuge. Find where your best self is honored, come in from the storm of doubts and shelter yourself there.

the preliminaries step 2: call your teacher

Step 0: Make yourself available for a life changing experience

Step 1: Learn how to say "yes" to what comes and "no" to what goes

Step 2: Call your teacher

 

Think of a being whom you deeply respect and ask her to come and sit across from you. Bow to her, thank her for coming and offer her a gift. The teacher will remain a presence through the remaining steps of the Preliminaries, a witness to all of the work that you do.

 

If you want to learn something new, seek out a teacher. Whether you want to learn how to speak a foreign language or play an instrument or compete at a sport, it's smart to find a person who is (a) decent at doing that thing and (b) decent at teaching that thing. In meditation, as in all disciplines which I have tried to learn, progress is only accomplished by the student's dedicated practice. But an experienced guide, one who has already walked the terrain before and comes back to tell you what obstacles and pitfalls that lie ahead can save that student much time and energy. If the student runs out of resources before reaching her goal (or, what is more common, simply fears that she might run out) she is likely to turn back. So success often depends on finding the right guides and spending time with them.

 

I first learned the Preliminaries from a teacher named Kelly Morris. I listened to a recording of her leading the Preliminaries every morning until I had it memorized and could lead myself. Later I studied the exercise more deeply with a monk named Venerable Thupten Phunsok whose variation was slightly different. What I share with my students today is my own adaptation that owes great debt to both of these teachers, as well as a handful of others whose workshops and seminars I dropped in on, or whose books I read along the way. My guides did not only teach me about steps to this practice, but also gave me other exceedingly helpful bits of advice such as how to set up a meditation posture that is kind to knees and hips, what times of day were most conducive for meditating, how diet might effect the practice, what to do when the mind felt dull and sleepy, what to do when the mind felt totally agitated. 

 

Ok, you may say, that's all well an good, needing a teacher to reveal practical things about the subject matter. But what is all this bowing and gift-giving? Why is that necessary?

 

I'm glad you ask. It happens to be a question that I've thought about a great deal.

 

At the beginning of my foray into Buddhism, I was struck by how all the Buddhist seemed obsessed with the guru. We were taught very specific guidelines for interacting with them in a respectful way. Never turn your back to a teacher, never put your feet out toward them, learn what your teacher likes to eat and drink and always give your teacher an offering when he or she comes to transmit knowledge to you. Almost everyone in this lineage would do 3 full prostrations to the teacher when he or she entered, or to pictures of the teacher if they were absent. We were taught about that a spiritual teacher had an extremely vital function and that if you were serious about reaching enlightenment, that you must find your own special teacher, what they called a "heart teacher." There were classes just on that--finding your "heart teacher." 

 

It was difficult not to feel a little suspicious. When the person saying that you MUST bow deep and low to the teacher to attain your enlightenment is the one on the receiving end of the gifts and prostrations, it can resurrect those anti-imperialist instincts that come with being American. Did our Founding Fathers and Mothers do all that work just so we can go find someone else to whom to bow? Why do so many seemingly-awakened, wise and loving beings belong to these religious traditions where another person is treated as a living God? I find these questions, and the host of others that stem from it, fascinating.  And here, in a nutshell, is the response that I've come up with. 

A mass ordination of 34,000 monks at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a Buddhist temple in Thailand. When I first learned to prostrate, I was surprised that it felt so GOOD.

A mass ordination of 34,000 monks at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a Buddhist temple in Thailand. When I first learned to prostrate, I was surprised that it felt so GOOD.

A teacher is essential because she serves as your model for what you would like to become and your guide for how to get there. But, the reason why there is such an emphasis on how we treat the teacher has less to do with the teacher herself and more to do with the student. Any action that develops the devotional mood starts to shift the inner landscape of the student in a serious way, changing the nature of all her relationships.

 

The teacher may be brilliant, but if the student is disinterested then she will never excel. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that an exceptionally devoted student becomes a master without profound or renowned teachers around or with very little formal training. The difference must be within the student. If one is engaged, curious, eager, earnest, excited and respectful of one's studies then she is bound for success. And, though it is not the only way, going through the motions of being devoted to a particular teacher can begin to instill in a person just these qualities. 

 

So all the rigamarole with the teacher is an outer gesture that is only important insofar as it begins to shift something within. I have heard it said that bowing is so prevalent in Eastern tradition because lowering the head represents the pouring out of the ego. If I can pour out my own ideas about who you are and how you should be when we meet, then I have a better chance of being available for whatever or whomever you actually are. That increases my chances of learning and growing from my exchange with you. If my metaphoric cup is so full of my own knowing then there is no room for the wisdom of an experience--with a teacher or anyone else for that matter--to enter. Going at the world with arms crossed and eyes rolled to the side cuts me off from the nourishment and evolutionary mobility that I crave so deeply. A good student is one who is not full but hungry, and humbling acts such as bowing help to make us feel that sense of spaciousness, readiness, willingness to learn. 

 

I am going to dare to oversimplify the psychology proposed by Vedic-based philosophies (which includes Yoga and Buddhism) and say that, at its most basic level, a person consists of the small self and the Big Self. In contemporary Buddhist circles it's popular to call them the relative self and Ultimate Self. The relative self is always and ever in relationship to its world. Its existence is married to space and time, so it is always changing and shifting. The Ultimate is the source and the result of the universe itself, not bound by space or time, always expanding out to the edges of existence and always moving into the center. Unborn, undying, unchanging, any words that we can put to it cannot do it justice as language is limited and relative. And this, of course, is Ultimate.

 

Now the relative self is not in and of itself bad. It's pretty fantastic actually! The trouble comes when we forget who's who in our inner household. If the relative self puts on the wrong hat, accepts the wrong status and starts out trying to complete the wrong tasks, will become frustrated by constantly bumping into its own built-in limitations. If this continues long enough it will start to fear transformation, run away from hard work and cower into comfortable crevices.

 

But we set out on a journey precisely so that we could transform. And, when it tries to be Big, the small self will keep driving us straight into our obstacles, right down into spaces where we get stuck. Until we can return the Big part of us to its proper place in command, it's going to be a long, frustrating and bumpy ride. So when we take a devotional attitude toward a teacher, when we say, "Lead me. Please. Get in the driver's seat and I will be the passenger." It's a way of acting out the returning of the Ultimate self to leader and the relative as led. In its rightful role, that relative self can learn its true character again, it can learn to listen and relax and trust. It can, again, become what it craves to be, what it must be if its goals in this little lifetime will be achieved: a good student

 

Working with these invisible inner characters is difficult to do. So we practice with outer relationships, we go through the motions of deep respect with someone "out there." Now we come to the inevitable question we raised earlier. With whom should we do this guru practice? We've all heard of gurus clearly working from their injured relative selves. Do we want to bend low for just anyone? Absolutely not. Until we have re-calibrated the dynamics of the inner relationships to such a deep extent that we can look around and see our wise, loving Ultimate self in everything and everyone wonderful, and in turn simply see our own uneducated, struggling ego in everything that is not so great, then we must be careful about what and whom we surrender.

Psyched to be singing for my teacher in January 2012.

Psyched to be singing for my teacher in January 2012.


In the last post, Preliminaries Part 1, we talked about the most basic aspect of meditation: Pay attention to the breath and ignore other distractions. This develops the ability to say "yes!" to the object of your intentional focus and say "nope" to everything else. From that first step we gain back our own energy, ease and clarity. This allows us to pull in our resources from whatever is not of great value, giving us freedom and power to begin investing in what is truly important. But how do we know what is important? Well that search is upon us now in Step 2 of the Preliminaries and how the search goes will decide what is so great that it's worth the humble devotion of our small self.


Most people would like to direct their resources toward something meaningful, helpful true or good. But these qualities can feel overly vague when they're swishing around in the mind and people all around us seem to disagree on what really is meaningful, helpful, true or good. So considering our values strictly on a conceptual level confuses the average person, and can lead him into ego-set traps. But if I start to ask instead, "What kind of person do I respect and admire most?" I tend to have an intuitive and emotional response that leads me straight to some real connection. 


Who is it that engenders in you a deep sense of respect? Contemplating those who you have met physically and those whom you have only met by their words or works, ask who is that has changed your life for the better by their guidance and example? When I first learned the Preliminaries I cycled through a rotating roster of teachers. Buddhism teachers, yoga teachers, college professors, my parents, my self as a child, my self as an old lady, my friends, my boyfriend, my siblings, my dog, musicians whom I admire, wise writers, talented actresses with whom I felt competitive, the person who just body checked me in the subway and didn't turn back to acknowledge it, my own negative emotions, my own hope, my own fear. Everyone I called taught me something. And eventually, after some years, I did find my heart teacher. But it helped that for a long time I was willing to look for him in everyone and everything.


As you begin to identify some of your many profound teachers, a sense of gratitude should naturally arise, as well as a deep appreciation for your interconnectedness with others. So that when you land on some person to whom you would like to do the exercise, it should feel nice to call them to you and maybe quite natural to bow and offer them a gift, as your heart will have already opened simply by contemplating the contributions that this person has already made to your wellbeing. Because it's a visualization practice we continue working with our teacher on a playful yet deep, pre-rational level as we think about what the teacher would like and whip it up with our own imaginative capacity. This aspect of the Preliminaries might be why I noticed that my creativity skyrocketed when I started meditating every day. 


The point of this is to get us in touch with our deepest values, to humble the ego before a wiser and more powerful aspect of self. Bearing witness to the extent of what an incredible person can do is inspiring and expanding, and if we can begin to bow ourselves to those many miraculous beings then are well on our way to becoming like them. Acting as the devoted student gets our inner household in order and our outer deeds will reflect that. You will inevitably become the role model, the guide, the teacher, for others. But don't take my word for it. Be a good student. Be a true student with this. Be open, curious, brave and experimental. Give it a try.



the preliminaries step I: breathing the "no" of wisdom and the "yes" of love

Step 0. Set the conditions in your life for meditation to become possible.

Step 1. Watch the breath come in. Watch the breath go out. Repeat.

 

The first step in any meditation practice is to sit down and still the body. We all know what it means to do this physical thing, even if it doesn't come easily. But few of us have learned what it means to still the mind. In Buddhist meditation the first step once we have made our way onto the meditation cushion is to engage in a shamata practice. Shamata means single-pointed focus and it can be obtained by any any exercise where we choose a single object, put our awareness there and maintain that connection as best we can over an allotted period of time. It could be any object, but here we will choose a classic one, the sensation of breath at the tip of the nose. 

 

When the attention is being dragged here and there by one thought after another, it gets stretched out, stressed out, dissipated and depleted. In the short term this can cause us to feel distracted, agitated, exhausted and powerless. In the long term it leads to chronic issues that can manifest in all sorts of ways on all levels of our life--mental, emotional, physical. This shamata exercise begins to concentrate our awareness creating a sharp sense of focus which is inevitably accompanied by its partner, a soft sense of ease. Here's how it goes.

 

Focus your awareness at the tip of the nose, at the place where the air first enters your body the inhale and exits your body on each exhale.  Inevitably the mind will wander away from your experience of that tiny body part.  When you notice that has happened, bring it back to the breath with kindness. 

 

That's it. It's quite simple and straightforward yet challenging for the average person. The kindness bit might sound like an afterthought but it is especially important that one remains relaxed and trusting that the exercise is working. Again, the immediate qualities that we are developing are mental clarity and relaxation. A harsh, overly-critical attitude will certainly prevent those qualities from coming about. A classic image for the meditative mind is a still body of water. Frustration and doubt are two of the most effective ways of creating more distraction and strife, of stirring up ripples, waves and whirlpools.

 

In the short term I found that doing this exercise in the morning greatly improved my ability to focus on tasks throughout the day and generally elevated and stabilized my mood. And it made me feel empowered, creative and resourceful. All wonderful benefits. But it is what I gained in the long term that really wowed me. By sitting on my cushion and saying "no" to distractions I was training myself to say "no" to what is not working, not truthful, not real in my life. And by saying "yes" to breath I was learning how to say "yes" to everything that is. This is the "no" of wisdom and the "yes" of love--two intertwining parts of one whole.

 

Cards 1 and 2 in the Major Arcana of the Tarot respectively represent odd and even, action and stillness, sun and moon, light and dark, masculine and feminine. The universe is comprised of these energies in balance. From Kim Krans' Wild Unknown deck.

Cards 1 and 2 in the Major Arcana of the Tarot respectively represent odd and even, action and stillness, sun and moon, light and dark, masculine and feminine. The universe is comprised of these energies in balance. From Kim Krans' Wild Unknown deck.

Wisdom and love. No and yes. Inhale and exhale. North pole and south pole, yin and yang, feminine and masculine, left and right, moon and sun, dark and light, up and down, in and out, stillness and action, ease and effort. I began to feed each pole of my existence, bringing more steady ease and more vital action into my life, bringing an illuminated universe more into balance, one breath at a time.

 

NO PRACTICE

When I first started meditating daily I was a privileged, healthy, well-educated, bright woman in her twenties. I had a supportive family, tons of friends, many useful skills and talents, a job and a roof over my head. And I was pretty much miserable. I knew that I had the potential to do any number of things, that almost anything was possible, but I had no tools for eliminating the noise of that everything and hearing the signal of a single something to guide me. My days were both utterly overwhelming and totally boring at the same time, marked by little breaks of base pleasure or short-lived excitement, sure, but void of substantial happiness. Once I finally broke out of this phase it struck me that there had been a constant ache all throughout it.  My essential center was shrouded during these years, as if my soul were in mourning for the person I should have become but had not.

 

At that time “no” was not a word that I said very often and it was definitely not a word that I ever wanted to hear. I didn’t have a clear destination in mind, let alone a map of how to get there, and it put me at the whim of whatever other people wanted, whatever emotions happened to be careening through my system, whatever thoughts happened to be bouncing through my mind. I never wanted to tell someone “no” because I wanted everyone to like me. I thought that denying a person or a thing was a cruelty that would do damage to my world by chopping pieces of it away. I never wanted to hear “no” because of the same reason--I assumed that denial was equal to condemnation. A "no" delivered in my direction could make me feel damaged, cut up, rejected. At that time I believed that someone else could sever me from my own self-worth with a negative remark. This worldview had me living in fear of losing the option for any one of a thousand potential choices or missing out on the praise of one of a thousand voices. 

 

Of course there is an irony here. It was the entertaining of so many options and the courting of so many other people’s opinions that had in fact been distracting me and dissipating my resources for so long. What about the “no” that we tell a child who just doesn’t know any better?  When we move, say, a knife or a glass of wine from a baby’s grasp, it is not a deprivation for the baby but a boon. Practicing breath meditation reminded me that the most positive response can sometimes be a negative one. The “no” of meditation was not harsh or severing, but a "no" of relief and even healing. Delivered with wisdom, the "no" didn't take away life, but encouraged it, by stripping away the options that damage and the clutter that suffocates. This is the “no” that clears out invasive weeds so the vegetables and herbs and flowers--the things that nourish our bodies and hearts--can thrive.

 

Repeating "no" in my meditation practice revealed the negative connotations that I had given that word and allowed me to start seeing how the positive can live within the negative. Sitting alone each morning, I had been training myself in letting go of experiences that didn't fit on my intended path. I could say "no" to that last glass of wine so that my morning meditation was more sweet. I could say "no" to the urge to lash out against a loved one. "No" to friends or activities or habits that had been sucking away my life energy. 

 

I had once felt so much fear around the "no" because I thought, maybe, if I failed to take a particular road, or decided to hop off that road for a bit, that entrance to that pathway would be barred forever. But the "no" of the shamata exercise lasts only as long as the meditation session which taught me that I could say "no" without it being permanent. "No, not now." Is not the same thing as "Never!" I learned that I could put something down and pick it up later. No big dramatic door slam necessary. I learned how to say no without guilt toward myself or anger toward another.  I gave my world permission to whisper sweet “nos” in my ear.  And I gave myself permission to say them back just as sweetly.

 

Something even more profound then begins to arise. If I can say “No, not right now,” to any of my mind’s contents, it becomes more and more obvious that the contents aren’t me. The contents are always shifting, seemingly coming and going all on their own but I’m still here. Learning to say "no" also taught me what I am not. I am not my thoughts. I am not my emotions. I am not my ideas about who I am. All of that stuff was just passing through. I had heard teachers say that before, but sitting still each day watching the process allowed me to experience this profound truth for myself. I became more fluid with my identity and more at ease and contented about who I am. Things that before I had said "yes" to I began saying "no" to. And things that before had been too "not me," too other, strange or scary, seemed more possible. And what's really cool, things that had once been too energetically expensive, I soon became able to afford. 

An inexplicable poster in the front window of a nail salon in Carroll Gardens. No! Yes...

An inexplicable poster in the front window of a nail salon in Carroll Gardens. No! Yes...

 

YES PRACTICE

If I had a whole bunch of dollar bills and scattered them all over Brooklyn, they wouldn’t be of much use to me. Or if I every time I had the chance to spend 50 cents on bubble gum or a fake tattoo I jumped, likewise, I wouldn't have much purchasing power for anything useful. But if I sought out my bills and gathered them together, if I made a conscious choice to say "no" to the bubble gum and fake tattoos, well then I might be able to invest in something great or purchase something worthwhile. That’s what the "no" practice did for my time and energy. It gathered my precious life force back from all the distractions. The “yes” moment is the investment. It’s how we learn to take that gathered awareness and direct it toward something truly satisfying, something that could give back--a nurturing relationship, a fulfilling career, a creative endeavor, a new adventure of body, heart or mind, an act that makes the world a better place. The “yes” is the moment where we start to feel a sense of purpose and place in the world.

 

We say “Yes, breath. I am listening. I am here with you 100%” directing all of our now powerful life energies to one place. We don’t actually do this with most of our interactions. We are usually only partly tuned-in. When I sit down across the table from my life partner I may be only partly listening to his words. I might be judging him, thinking about how he should really eat better or get a better job or a better attitude. Often I'm not thinking about him but me, wondering if loves me enough or pays enough attention to me. I might be nodding along but actually judging the food we are eating or wishing the server would bring me more wine already or playing out a scenario in my mind that has nothing to do with here or now. That division of the mind--acting as if I am in this place and time, but really following my thoughts somewhere, somewhen else--is accompanied by any number of emotional and physiological counterparts. I might feel bored or annoyed or anxious. I might feel guilty for not being a better listener. If I am not able to find something about my partner and our shared experience to engage with then it won't be such a great dinner date. If we have too many dinners like that, the relationship might not last.

 

Of course the "person across the table" could be a career or a passion project or a hobby, it could symbolize a task we have to complete or a skill we want to master. Once we choose something that we care about, the "yes" practice teaches us how to direct our resources there and make a powerful investment. We do this by being truly present with our experience, meaning that we drop judgements, daydreams, agendas, strategies, shoulds, coulds and stories of all kinds. Only then are we really with something. The payback from the investment is that through learning about this thing, gaining its trust, entering into union with it, it begins to become a part of us. When we have that moment of totally dropping in with our object of meditation or the person across the table or the big project for work, it is also accompanied by emotional and physiological counterparts: a sense of ease, contentedness and wholeness, a vital surge of energy. We are 100% here and there is no other place we would rather be.

 

It's not so easy to pay attention to the breath. Plus, the benefits of paying attention to something that is already happening all the time unconsciously might not be apparent. The breath is invisible, constant and subtle. Which is why the average, healthy person spends most of his life not paying any attention to it all. But because it's not so easy, we build up some significant qualities in ourselves if we see the exercise through day after day. If we don’t say, "Look, Breath, things were really nice yesterday, but today I realize that I'm just not that into you,” it starts to solidify something in our personalities. We build staying power, discipline, patience, focus and drive. If you can figure out how to commit to the breath, you develop the ability to say “yes” to what you care about, to see through any number of challenges that arise in life.  You become that reliable guy, that person of integrity. 

 

On those days when it is hardest to stay present with the breath, I employ techniques to make the breath more engaging. If simply feeling the breath at the tip of the nose isn’t working, I will imagine the breath in beautiful colors, or envision a little sentinel there diligently watching all the air that enters the precious body and all the air being sent back out into the precious world. Or I will use a mantra, attaching simple yet meaningful words to the inhales and exhales so that the breath feels connected to my mind, heart and intentions. One technique is only better than the other insofar as it helps me stay connected to my object: the breath.

 

Since I am committed to my relationship with the breath, I will do whatever it takes to nourish this relationship and keep it alive. What that requires will shift and grow over time, just as it will in any long-term relationship. So in addition to all the other positive qualities, we also start to develop curiosity and creativity. The imagination is required if we are going to watch something invisible.  An awareness of what helps one stay connected is required if the thing you are connecting to rarely calls or knocks on the door demanding a conversation, an explanation.  The breath never says, "Where have you been?!"  She just does her thing.  It's up to us to get to know ourselves well enough so that we can get to know her.

 

When I started meditating I was a wanna be actress, 30 hours a week bookkeeper, who-knows-how-many hours a week bar fly. I wanted a meaningful career, a nurturing and exciting relationship. I wanted desperately to have a purpose in the world but with my energetic wasting and spending habits, I didn't have the purchasing power for anything so valuable. Three short months later things were totally different. I was studying non-stop, completely driven and exhilarated in my training for what would become an extremely fulfilling yoga teaching career. I was dating a wonderful person, one who "checked all my boxes" for a life partner. One year later I was living that career and living with that partner.

 

Now it's five years later and that same career and that same relationship are stronger than ever. I continue to deepen my commitment to them and they continue to shift and grow and support me and surprise me. Sometimes it's hard work paying attention to these things I care about most. Sometimes it's stressful or scary or annoying or dull. But I have learned how to stay patiently and listen openly and to continue breathing my life force into what I love. My understanding of my practice, my work, my students, my partner and myself have all deepened over the years that I have been saying "yes" to them all. And I can call on that deep understanding when I get stuck. What interests us, what triggers us, what harms or helps us? All the knowledge I've gained through curiosity and creativity draws the map for reconnecting to the things I've chosen in my life. I can rely on myself now, and the wonderful people about whom I care know that they can rely on me too. And when I begin to waiver, it's ok. I have a purpose and mission that I can come back to on any time that I need to renew my vows to this life I love. 

 

The “no” aspect of the practice taught me what I wasn’t--all those passing thoughts and emotions and whims and energies. The “yes” aspect taught me what I was. Awareness, the ability to connect, the ability to love and nourish something which in turn nourishes me. The ability to see and hear and attend to what is important and true and life-giving and right in front of me. The “yes” of love allowed me to make choices toward my best life and invest more into that life day after day. Before this, I had been saying my "yes"es and "no"s out of laziness, engrained habit, and fear. Once I learned to say them with wisdom and love it turned out that much of what I had said "no" to got a "yes" and much of what I had been drawn to by compulsion was now met with repulsion. And it all happened so simply. I just sat for a few minutes each day and watched the breaths go in and out. Now I no longer am in mourning for an imaginary self. I am living in full celebration of the very real, whole, powerful and purposeful being that I am. 

Nisargadatta Maharaj. (1897 – 1981) Indian teacher of Non-dualism. A book of collected dialogues of him and his students, I Am That, gave him worldwide recognition.

Nisargadatta Maharaj. (1897 – 1981) Indian teacher of Non-dualism. A book of collected dialogues of him and his students, I Am That, gave him worldwide recognition.


ALL AND NOTHING

"When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. Between these two my life turns.” - Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj 


The inhale inevitably follows the exhale. Often called opposites, they are not in a state of conflict as that word might imply, but in a state of harmonious union. One makes the other possible. Through the breath practice I learned the “no” of letting go, and its counterpart, the “yes” of intentionality. The freedom of “no” makes way for choosing one thing and declaring a wholehearted “yes!” And, in turn, the commitment of “yes” gives more strength to us when we need to say “no” to whatever takes energy away from our commitment. Through withdrawing into stillness we empower meaningful action in the world. By singing our song forth in the world we learn how important it is to return to the silence. The yes is in the no, the no is in the yes. The yin is in the yang and the yang is in the yin. Inside out and outside in. Everything and nothing, wisdom and love, become two poles between which a meaningful and satisfying human life turns. 


the preliminaries step 0: the zealous zero

When does the story of my meditation fixation begin?  One might say that it was sparked on a groggy morning when I was 19, the moment that a handsome bedmate whom I had won the night before slipped out from under my arm and straight onto a meditation cushion.  The way he looked there in the golden morning light--so at ease, so steady, so complete--I instantly fell in love with something living in that image.  Yes, of course, I mistook the passion as being all about the boy.  But nonetheless I found myself at a used bookstore later that day, perusing the “Spirituality” section.  I left with a book called Raja Yoga, by Wallace Slater, which taught me about the most basic Yoga philosophy.  

 

It could be interesting to start the story when I was a small child being raised in an avant garde theater community.  By the time I was 18 months old I was performing on stage and, of course, participating in the company trainings and warm ups, initiated into a set of techniques including breath exercises, mindful movement and vocal work.  Before I learned my ABCs I was already a student of the mind-body connection and an explorer of ways in which a person might instigate opportunities for an openness ripe enough, an integrity complete enough and a presence full enough for diving into the great unknown of live performance.   

 

Or here’s a poignant opening image from which we could commence.  The first time that I cried in yoga class.  I felt a warmth around my heart as I descended from wheel pose and I was surprised to feel tears of relief and gratitude falling down my cheeks.  A thought moved across my awareness that wasn’t a like a normal thought at all, but more like a revelation.   It said, simply, “I need to be here.”  Taking it quite literally, I signed up to do karma yoga service at the studio later that day, and within a year I had completed a yoga teacher training program and become a teacher there. 

 

If we go back further we could weave in the fun influence of genetics and cultural influences.  My fascination with the mystical might begin with my Sephardic Jewish ancestors.  My love of ritual and my connection to Mama Earth could have been stored in my Hawaiian DNA all along.  My passion for sniffing out unconscious assumptions and holding them up to the light of reason might be traceable to my passionately Atheist great-great-grandfather who memorized the Bible so that he could more powerfully debate the evangelists who surrounded him in Kentucky during the 1850’s. 

 

None of those stories would be more or less truthful than the one I choose to write today.  But beginning is hard unless we start somewhere.  So let’s begin at nowhere.  Let's start with the experience of a nothingness so big, a hunger so deep, that I was drawn to devour everything whole, unexamined, unmeasured, un-masticated.  This is the story of how I first learned to meditate for keeps, for everyday, for my dear life.  

 

In the Tarot, the soul's journey toward enlightenment doesn't begin with the number One, but Zero. Card from Kim Krans' Wild Unknown Deck.  

In the Tarot, the soul's journey toward enlightenment doesn't begin with the number One, but Zero. Card from Kim Krans' Wild Unknown Deck.  

It begins in a small room in the back of a yoga shala in Union Square on a fall Saturday afternoon. It is our hero’s first day of yoga teacher training.  She walks in as The Fool, not at square one but ground zero. She walks in without real passion for anything in her world. She has a dull day job and an acting “career,” which she is currently approaching in a totally lackluster fashion. (Needless to say, it is repaying her with an equally lukewarm attitude.) Although she often says she would like to, she doesn’t read interesting books or go out to see great shows or keep a journal or have much meaningful conversation like she did for all her years up until 22 or so.  At the nowhere where we begin her only weekly thrill, really, is passing off as relatively charming and intelligent over long, uninspired nights in Brooklyn bars.  She has no deep relationships, no hobbies, little sense of self worth and absolutely no sense of purpose.  Well, at least none that she is consciously aware of.

 

She walks into the little room without having interacted with the program’s founder and central teacher in any way, without having vetted the Tibetan Buddhist lineage into which this training promises to immerse its participants.  The very act of filling out the application online, barely a month prior, had felt completely compulsive.  Yes, she was keeping a list of potential yoga teacher trainings in her notebook--for later.  For next year when she would have more time and adequate money.  But when she came across this particular website and clicked on the “Application” tab, she was compelled by the questions that appeared on the glowing screen.  Her hands seemed to simply start responding to them, sometimes typing faster than her mind could think.  “What draws you to Yoga?” it asked.  She had never considered this question before but some part of her knew the answer anyway.  This application started the first interesting conversation that she had had in about 5 years.  These were the most meaningful ideas that she had contemplated or written about in all that time. Something was waking up.  Something numbed part of her was beginning to awaken. 

 

This Fall Saturday gave her that same sense of intuitive ease that she had when conversing with the website, that same feeling that she was being driven somewhere special at high speed and that her job was simply to stay fluid so as not to get jerked off the ride; the same sense that her responses were emerging from somewhere beyond conceptual understanding.  The room was already full of bright-eyed people with beads around their wrists and tattoos around their ankles and welcoming smiles on their lips.  She felt thrilled at the certainty that these strangers would become her community.  When the teacher walked in there was an electric shift in the room.  Every eye was on her as she threw open the door and apologized for being late.  Every student was riveted watching her as, half way between the door and the makeshift altar, adorned with candles and photos and flowers, she went silenter than silent, closed her eyes and completed 3 full prostrations towards the altar.  Then she sat down and began to speak.  

 

Our hero was so hungry for guidance, purpose, connection, realness, meaning, community and support, that she devoured every morsel of the 3 hour teaching without any discriminatory instinct, without an ounce of doubt.  She awoke the next morning, no bedmate beside her but her own enthusiasm, and slipped right onto her cushion.  Her meditation practice that morning consisted of a set series of steps that the teacher had taught her.  The practice is called “The Preliminaries” and in certain Tibetan Buddhist lineages it is believed that following its steps cleanses the mind, transforms old negative karma, and prepares the practitioner for achieving a deep meditative state.  Our hero would continue to do these steps first thing each morning for years to come.

 

So we begin with a powerful lack. My state of deprivation was so complete that I had become a big fat zero waiting to be filled, a clean slate awaiting significance, a dark and ready chaos, like soil before a seed has been sown.  And, for a while, in a few different ways, that state served me quite well.  First of all, smacking bottom is one sure way to stun the inner voice of judgement long enough for someone else to hop in the driver's seat and start steering everyone in a new direction.  My discriminatory faculty had been predominant and unchecked for so long at that point that it had obliterated my world, judging everyone, doubting everything, tearing every option to pieces, letting fear have the first word so that no other words could follow.  That voice had kept me loitering around the door of my own good life for too long already, just kicking dust around with my hands in my pockets, waiting for something not totally stupid to come along and whisk me off.  But at ground zero the nothing was so profound that even that voice shut up.  As one songwriter who could probably use a good mediation practice once said, “Hunger hurts, but starving works.”

 

Without any meaningful hobby, relationship or career taking up my time and energy, and with all the extra resources I had retrieved from my habit of constant doubting and nay-saying, I was able to throw my entire self enthusiastically into the studies and duties of a new initiate.  Not only did I pour myself completely into my required spiritual practice and coursework for the training program but I showed up to every event affiliated with the NYC branch of my Tibetan Buddhist lineage.  Even before I graduated from the training, already-established teachers from the community began asking me to sub classes for them.  Why not?  I was present, engaged, enthusiastic, pushing all the right buttons and, of course, hungry hungry hungry.  I said yes to absolutely everything and I said it with a sincerely grateful, not at all put-on, bow of the head.  I couldn’t get enough of the teachings, the practices, the community, the opportunity to be seen and to be helpful and to be wanted.  That zealousness paid off as I started to finally, for the first time, build an actual career--one as a yoga teacher.  Being a hungry zero worked for me as I began to finally, for the first time, build an adult life with purpose and passion, one with structure and meaning and real satisfaction.  

 

If a catastrophe had not occurred next I wonder what would have happened.  Would I still be a card-carrying member of that lineage?  Would I still be trying to convince every friend and family member going through a difficult time that all they needed was to enroll in my yoga teacher training program?  Would I be working toward a nun’s maroon and saffron robes right now?  I wonder.  But a catastrophe did occur.  Things went haywire way up at the very top of the lineage’s hierarchy. I heard it all through third parties, as I was still on nearly the lowest rung of the ladder, but I heard it and immediately wanted to un-hear it.  Accounts of scandal, tragedy, domestic abuse, mental illness and even death.  There were arguments between parties that I thought were above arguing, lines drawn in a community that I thought was indivisible, accusations hurled publicly by people who preached acceptance and humility.  These “holy” beings were handling the discord with more finger-pointing and cross-talk than my young, religious-less parents had done during their divorce two decades prior.  Why weren’t they living up to the role models I had made of them?  

All aglow with the other students in my yoga teacher training group. These wonderful, humble people were my teachers as much as the gurus that we were all idealizing.

All aglow with the other students in my yoga teacher training group. These wonderful, humble people were my teachers as much as the gurus that we were all idealizing.

 

And then the very teacher who had saved my life by teaching me the Preliminaries, the very one who prostrated devoutly to her lamas before approaching their photos, declared herself no longer a Buddhist.  Done.  Unsubscribed.  I thought that, even if a teacher was fallible, then at least the teachings themselves stood up.  This was all very hard to reconcile.  There was a time of difficult questions.  If I stopped being a devoted follower, would I be thrust back out into a passionless, purposeless, structureless life?  Would doubt and judgement take over my mind again?  Would I just show up starving at someone else’s doorstep after another phase of struggle and directionlessness?  If I started a new program, how could I ever trust it not to self destruct?

 

I began to explore other spiritual paths.  But the resurfacing of that inner critic was not crippling this time.  The work I had done over the two years of following my teachers’ instructions had bolstered other aspects of my psyche so that voice of doubt was not allowed to run rampant.  It actually felt good to think critically again, to begin to step out in front of my own journey instead of scrambling along behind someone else’s footprints.  I began to dissect the various practices to which I had been blindly clinging, I began to hold their components up to the light of scrutiny, to juxtapose them to other practices and other traditions and to contemplate how it all worked.  All of it--not just one particular brand of Buddhism.  I began to develop and hone my powers of discernment and intuition again and I learned to trust my gut about how I spent my time and where I deposited my trust.  

 

When it was time to start saying goodbye to some of the teachers and practices that I felt were no longer serving me, complicated emotions arose.  At first I had guilt about parting ways with people who had given me so much guidance.  I had anxiety about dropping the very practices that had given me the scaffolding to support my building a solid self.  If I clung to any one emotion I would start to get sucked into a different dangerous direction.  I was tempted to stay sad and weary of spirituality altogether, or to feel shame that I had gotten duped by an imperfect system and pretend it never happened, to harden and close myself off.  I was tempted to let an anger burn hot enough that it would torch the whole chapter so that I could leave righteous and cursing.  I was tempted to rebound right into some new tradition and never spend time processing at all. 

But after some excellent counseling, a decent amount of time, and a lot of silent reflection, I was able to part in a different way.  In gratitude.  What a miracle that all of that had been there for me when I was a nothing stranded nowhere.  Halleluja!  That being said, I also saw that it would be foolish to marry the shell of a miracle that had already occurred.  Gratitude for what has happened was a perfect response, but my indebtedness needn't cut me off from continuing to grow and explore in an authentic way.  Wouldn't it be complicated and cumbersome if we needed to strap ourselves to every kind passing stranger?  Sometimes a heartfelt "thank you," uttered before turning on our heels is just the right way to transition.

 

Then there are the practices and teachers with which I decided to keep working.  And for those I developed a whole new kind of respect, a more mature reverence.  The Preliminaries is one of the practices stood the test.  And it is my respect for this practice that inspires the first 8 blogs.  This post will be the first of a series reflecting on my journey, using the steps of the Preliminaries as prompts, aids and mile-markers.