Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Happiness is not pleasure..."

Another wonderful piece in the New York Times today by Pico Iyer. (See this previous post for the last one.)

It's a look at the Dalai Lama, and his practical approach to achieving true happiness. I really appreciated this, especially since I hope to emphasize the practical in this blog. I know that I often deviate, and get going on the big ideas--because they excite me--but I am heartened to know that the advice I give about shifting attitudes and practicing new ways of perceiving the world is the kind of practical advice that the Dalai Lama would likely approve.

An excerpt:
The Dalai Lama I’ve seen is a realist (which is what makes his optimism the more impressive and persuasive). And he’s as practical as the man he calls his “boss.”

The Buddha generally presented himself as more physician than metaphysician: if an arrow is sticking out of your side, he famously said, don’t argue about where it came from or who made it; just pull it out. You make your way to happiness not by fretting about it or trafficking in New Age affirmations, but simply by finding the cause of your suffering, and then attending to it, as any doctor (of mind or body) might do.
I hope that the many posts I've offered here have helped to identify, analyze and isolate those arrows that cause suffering, and have inspired others to do what they can to pull them out. I love that the philosophy articulated above does not shun intellectual effort (such as analysis), nor is it passive, awaiting the intervention of some remote deity. I've always preferred prayer for guidance, rather than intervention, and the saying "God helps those who help themselves" to "Dear God, please help me."

Another excerpt:
I’ve been spending time for 18 years in a Benedictine monastery, and the monks I know there have likewise found out how to be delighted by the smallest birthday cake. Happiness is not pleasure, they know, and unhappiness, as the Buddhists say, is not the same as suffering. Suffering — in the sense of old age, sickness and death — is the law of life; unhappiness is just the position we choose — or can not choose — to bring to it.
Just last week, my yoga teacher demonstrated this approach. We were in Warrior II, and he had us hold the pose for quite a while. Eventually, a fire starts in the muscles. "Likely you're feeling a burn," he said. "But instead of popping out of it, what if you hold it, stay there, exploring that sensation? What if you look at it not as pain, but as a purifying effort?" I desperately wanted to release the pose, but considered if I could withstand the effort and do as he asked.

He went on: "Likely, this is not the worst pain you'll ever feel. Likely, at some point in your life, you will hurt much worse. How will you react?" His words rang true for me, especially now, as I approach childbirth. So, I stuck it out, figuring if I buckled from a tired quadricep, I'd never survive giving birth! What was interesting is that, like the above excerpt, I shifted my position toward the pain, and gained a great deal of mental (and physical) stamina and strength. And you know what? Once I did, the burn became more a curiosity, something to withstand and investigate, and less a source of suffering. I guess my point is, you can choose your pose toward suffering, and suffer less.

I think you'll enjoy Iyer's essay. Read the entire piece here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How to Fall in Love With Your Body

Regular readers of this blog might wonder if I will ever tire of talking about yoga or tai chi. Sorry, no. Amazing things have happened in my life thanks to these two ancient practices, and as long as I'm physically able, I will be practicing these Eastern arts.

One of the reasons for this devotion is that these traditions have given me tangible, impressive gifts. I often talk about the emotional and psychological gifts that I get from yoga and tai chi, but today I'd like to talk about the physical gifts.

I discovered one of those gifts today, while practicing yoga at home. When I started yoga in earnest back in Tucson, Arizona in 2003, I had a book of asanas (or poses). One of these, tree pose, or Vrksasana, is a standing balance pose, where you press the flat of one foot against the inner thigh of the opposite leg. Your arms can be pressed together in prayer pose (anjali mudra), or lifted up or whatever. The basic idea is that you balance on one leg.

My balance was pretty good when I started yoga, though it has gotten better through practice. But the book suggested that when you had mastered the balance pose, that you could go deeper by closing your eyes. Apparently, we rely very heavily on visual cues to maintain balance. This is why it's often easier to balance on one leg if you are focusing steadily on one single point on the wall or floor or wherever.

Anyway, I thought, "Hey, I can do this," and so I closed my eyes, and nearly instantly fell over. It was startling how fast my balance was yanked out from under me. Without my eyes open, I had no balance.

I've tried it over the years, and while I had improved a tiny, tiny amount, I still lost my balance very quickly when I closed my eyes.

I've now been doing tai chi for about 8 months, and so while I was in tree pose today, I thought, "Hmm, maybe I'll try closing my eyes." I did, and I was startled to discover that I no longer need visual clues to maintain balance. I stood there, like a bird on one leg, arms overhead, eyes closed, perfectly balanced.

I suppose it is difficult to convey what a sublime moment this really was, since it's not something most people are aware of, much less testing out on their own. But to feel this steadiness from within--and it was truly from within--was extremely powerful and even moving.

For starters, the first time I'd tried it all those years ago, I was so skeptical that anyone could really do it, it was that difficult. (Seriously, stand next to a wall so you can catch yourself, and try it right now.) To feel something change that dramatically is a rush, for sure.

But also, as someone who struggled for so many years between the union of mind and body, it is so satisfying to feel the body and consciousness fused so inextricably. There is a new power in this body of mine, and I am thrilled to experience it, both mentally and sensually. Furthermore, it's fun! It does kind of feel like a superpower.

It dismays me how many are discouraged from trusting in their bodies, simply because they are not fast, or muscular or innately athletic. I hated my body for so many years, because it didn't perform properly, nor was it "perfect" like a model's.

But now? Now I realize that my body is the most amazing thing, and that, hey, guess what? It turns out I am flexible, and have balance, and am actually perfectly suited for pursuits like yoga and tai chi. It makes me sad to realize how many children, especially the ones who don't excel in P.E., will turn against their bodies, frustrated with them, when all they really need is a way to learn their bodies in a mindful, supremely intuitive way.

It's something I wish I'd known about, wish I'd been able to do as a young girl. I know I'll teach it to my child, and I also know I'll never hate my body again.

So, no matter what you look like, your body is beautiful, and is capable of doing beautiful things. And, when you fall in love with your body, with its abilities (and its flaws and limitations!), you will be a happier, more harmonious, more blissful creature, for sure.

I'll leave you with this beautiful video, which shows you the form of tai chi I'm learning.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How to Cut the Crap

Bullshit. We should all know it when we hear it, and if you don't, then there is nothing I can recommend more than tuning up your bullshit detector. (See my earlier post on rhetorical analysis for some ideas on how to do this.)

Lately, I feel as though the world is awash in bullshit. It is all I hear on the news, on the radio, from most people I know casually. People have forgotten, or have never learned, how to speak directly.

I've been reading Walden, and Thoreau, though wordy, is not bullshitting. He is unafraid to say what he wants ("to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life") or what he observes ("the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation"). I read a work like this, and it only further highlights the difference between what is direct and true, and what passes for the same these days.

Mostly, this tsunami of bullshit has been perpetrated through language, through the corruption of words and their meanings. As a writer, this disturbs me to no end. As of late, I feel as though my tools are damaged, dirty and, often, dangerous. (Consider the word "dangerous." Everything is "dangerous" now. That medium-rare burger. The dog down the street. Freaking carbon dioxide.)

As of late, I have wanted to say less, and to say it directly. And yet, that is not the straightforward task it would seem to be. Because corrupted words do not uncorrupt depending on who is making use of them. The magic of words is that they contain layer upon layer of meaning, yet take such a compact form. But of course, these layers are applied over time by many, and cannot be removed easily, if ever. ("Villain," once a word for a simple farmer.)

So, it is harder than ever to communicate, especially as we retreat into our own righteous sects, certain we know what it means to be (insert label here). We spit out words without thinking, redefining them to suit our purposes, accepting redefinitions from others intent on their own shaping of public opinion.

And all this time, hardly anyone is thinking, analyzing. Instead, we're just readying the next load of bullshit.

Maybe you know a person who doesn't speak very often, because he is mostly listening. And people often ignore him, because of course he's not clamoring for the spotlight, hoping to have his ego stroked, to have his mean little jokes laughed at. And then, after a long silence, he speaks, and everyone is astounded. Not just that he has spoken, but that what he has said is very incisive, is amazingly considered.

My blog is about finding bliss, that's true. But honesty is essential to bliss, and even if others insist on lying to you, you don't have to 1) lie to yourself, 2) accept the lies of others.

It will take concentration, and some degree of fearlessness, but I exhort you to be more like that person I described above, and to do what you can to reduce the amount of bullshit you either generate or are exposed to in life. Whether it's from the nightly news or from a friend hardly matters. What matters is that there you are, striving for honesty.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Bells of Munich: My Case for a Weekly Spiritual Experience

I took this video with my little digital camera while I was in Munich last week. It's the Frauenkirche, and it's the Sunday bells. This clip is only 15 seconds or so, but these bells--and the bells of all the nearby churches--rang out for at least 15 minutes, calling the faithful to service.

It was so overwhelmingly beautiful. Early morning, cool air, bright, silvery sun, and the loud, clear tones of bells swirling together to create the most stunning audio landscape I've ever heard. It felt like the sound had color, the harmonies were so thick and insistent.

Walking out of our hotel into this scene, I was overcome with emotion. I started to cry, and I couldn't help myself. The bells inundated me, passed through me, striking a deep, largely inaccessible hollow of stillness, and caused it to vibrate.

I was being rung by the bells.

And this ringing within me shook loose profound feelings and brought them up into my awareness: joy, awe, gratitude, wistfulness, a powerful sensation of being alive. For those few minutes, the "I" part of me dissolved, and "i" was there, rooted, connected, expansive. A white, purifying Love--the love that is bliss, that is god--was called up, and it, in the most welcome way, demolished me.

When I finally came back to my senses and was able to speak, I mentioned to my husband how wonderful it would be if we had anything like this at all. (And by "we," I meant back home, in America, in most places; in other words, if humans could be called out of their narrow trances once in a while and reminded of the eternal and ineffable that is invisible but pervasive.)

This is what is supposed to happen in churches, I know. And for the first time in a long time, I was tempted to go to mass at the Frauenkirche. Unfortunately, I stopped myself with all kinds of silly reasons--I wasn't dressed right, I wouldn't know where to sit--all of the stupid human reasons that don't matter in the presence of pure love and god. (If only humans in church could be persuaded to ignore such things!)

But I am more convinced than ever after this experience that human beings, whatever their beliefs, need regular encounters with what is holy. Because you don't have to believe in "God" or Jesus or Krishna or any anthropomorphic deity to recognize the holiness that exists in life. Indeed, the people unable to see or acknowledge that our lives retain sacred mysteries and that there is holy beauty and holy love are the ones who are most profoundly sick, whatever their blood pressure reading or therapist says.

In America, we don't have choirs of bells calling out to us. We will have to find some other way. I go to yoga and receive some measure of this experience each week. If I lived near an ocean, I might go there. But I urge you to find a way to get this experience, in whatever way you can, at least once a week.

Be rung, be rung, be rung!