Art and Culture

It Takes a Snowflake

It is almost inconceivable to my limited mind how many snowflakes it took to whiten our world yesterday morning.  This weekend, there will be far more snow (alas, it will be too cold to stick to the trees and create such a beautiful canopy; instead we will have howling winds and heavy going).  I might catch the first of the snowflakes tomorrow morning on my walk to work before the storm really comes in with all its wild fury.  When there are only a few, it is easy to see the individual flakes.  Once there is a storm, though, we tend only to see the storm.

Just as it is hard to remember that the snow is about both each individual flake and the whole snow fall together, we forget about the simultaneous place of ourselves as individuals as part of the whole, or we get caught up witnessing ourselves as individuals and forget that we are all a part of a much vaster energy.  The reality is that we are all both all of the time — we are completely individual and part of a vast, interconnected web.  When we can remember and witness both aspects of ourselves, then we can most deeply witness, participate in, and appreciate the extraordinariness of being.

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The Other Side of the Building

This is the view from the corridor just outside my office door.  On the left is the Tax Court.  On the right, is the homeless shelter where Mitch Snyder, advocate for the homeless, committed suicide.  In between, the highway emerges out from under our building.  At rush hour, especially on a rainy day, it is completely congested.  Even on a cloudy day, not much light comes in the window.  It is a north-facing view, and the windows are tinted.

If I were to be standing at a window on the other side of the building, it would be bright with sun.  On the left would be the Capitol and the west lawn.  In the center, the National Botanical Garden’s graceful contours would gleam on the far side of the reflecting pool.  To the right, the National Mall, flanked by museums, would stretch in the distance to the Washington Monument.

What is important to remember is that both sides are always present.  When we are facing harshness, demands, suffering, and challenges, we need to remember that beauty and light are still present.  When we are filled with abundance, beauty, and light, then we must remember that there are others who are challenged and suffering and make efforts to extend to them our own abundance and light.

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February House Practice Donations

This month’s recipient will be the Environmental Defense Fund.  Why?  Because in his State of the Union Address to much applause by Democrats (Republicans don’t clap for a Democratic President even if he is giving them everything they want), President Obama announced that part of the support for “clean” energy would be for nuclear power plants, “clean” coal (an oxymoron if I ever heard one), and off-shore drilling.

You might wonder why not have the February cause be an organization that is doing work in Haiti?  I feel it is important to support organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and Doctors Without Borders, who are doing yeoman-like work to ease suffering in Haiti and other places around the globe, and I have given some support.  Following disasters or major incidents, though, society as a whole often experiences “donor fatigue.”  I want to make sure that in the aftermath, the other changes I seek in the world do not go unsupported by me.  So I try to give extra, and I try to remember all the things about which I care.

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Advance Medical Directive (aka Living Will)

This week I drafted, and today signed along with two witnesses, a living will.  It has been on my “to do” list for a good 20 years, and I have been carrying in my wallet a card from the Society for the Right to Die (which no longer appears to exist) saying that I have a living will in my possession.  Two things led me to get it done at this time.  The first is my deeply held belief that privileging hospice is an important and mostly missing element of the health care debate.  The second was witnessing a dear friend have the last few months of her life being attached to machines and receiving ever more painful medical intervention even with end stage cancer.  I know that is not what I want.

This society gives you the medical care, though, whether you want it or not, if you do not say something loudly, clearly, and with technically the right jargon.  I could not wait any longer.  I did the research, drafted the document, spoke to my family and friends, and finally did it.  It is hard to do.  I am still anxious that I did not do it right or that in the end, should it come where the living will would be necessary, my wishes will not be honored.  It is hard to think about death, illness, and accident.  It is scary to approach legal documents that are so fraught with political and religious weight (a friend cautioned me to make sure I have lots of copies because of his experience of a nurse, who because of her religious doctrine, repeatedly “lost” copies of  his mother’s directives when she was dying from advanced Altzheimer’s.)

The yoga helps me think about these things with some measure of equanimity.  I have even heard teachers say that the whole reason for a steady practice is to be prepared for death and dying, so that we can go peacefully, comfortable with both our life and our death.  Part of the yoga off the mat, in this regard, is recognizing how society is likely to behave, and what we need to do to be healthy within the confines of society.

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Seen on My Way to Work

A bumper sticker that said:  “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

A helicopter landing on the west lawn of the Capitol, which is a fairly rare sighting.  My first two thoughts:  (1) who was getting the ride (i.e. was it the President or Vice President)? and (2) I’ve never ridden in a helicopter; I should do that sometime.

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Starting with the Foundation (and Samtosha)

Last night, at his workshop at Willow Street Yoga, Todd Norian discussed the niyama samtosha — contentment.  “Perfect,” I thought, because I had been contemplating the practice of samtosha all day.  When I had sat to meditate in the morning yesterday, it was hard for me to stay with my mantra or any sense of peacefulness, light, or delight.  Thoughts of the horrendous repercussions of the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance kept arising.  Time to get back to the foundations of practicing!  As I began walking to work (past the Capitol), I brought myself back to the practice of samtosha, which I find one of the most useful practices for me.

Samtosha is the second of the niyamas set forth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas are ethical precepts for living and for practicing.  In Patanjali’s eight-limbed, dualistic path of raja yoga, they precede the practices of asana (the physical postures), pranayama (breathing), and the various stages of meditation, which culminate in samadhi (equinimity or bliss).  When I am struggling with what I witness in the outside world, I always come back to the practice of samtosha. Some people may be naturally lighter-hearted than others, but contentment is indeed a practice, and it is a foundational practice.

When I practice contentment, I remember to be grateful for all that I have.  When I fully practice contentment, instead of becoming bleak and cynical (it is easy enough for me), I not only feel more naturally cheerful, but find I have have more strength to continue acting in accordance with my beliefs, even when I am confused, alarmed, outraged, and disgusted by what is going on outside.  When practicing contentment, I try to find my own light, I seek the love and company of friends, I join with like-minded persons to be moved to work for change, even if I do not trust it will make any visible change to anyone other than me.

FYI, Todd Norian will be at Willow Street Yoga Center all weekend.  If you are local and reading this in time, try to come for some of the weekend.  He is wonderful.

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A Senate Majority with 41 Out of 100 (and Maya)

In classical yoga, the term maya, one of the meanings of which is “illusion,” refers to all of our embodied being — the physical, mental, and emotional.  The perceptible world is not real; only spirit is real.  In the tantric philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, maya tattva means something different.  Kashmir Shaivism does not hold that the perceptible world is unreal, but rather that it is a more concrete form of spirit and that its very manifestness gives rise to the illusion that it is other than spirit.  Maya, as such, is the beginning of the measurable world of intellect and perception.  In this sense, it does not mean that any aspect of being of either ourselves or the very whole of being is more real than any other.  As maya tattva, it denotes the conceptual bridge between the unknowable idea of spirit and the manifest world of our day to day.  As we think and perceive the world in progressively more concrete terms, we tend to see difference, division, and diversity.  When we see only difference and not the pervading unity of spirit, it is maya, illusion.

Yesterday, following the election in Massachusetts, the headlines screamed that the Democrats had lost control of the Senate and that health care reform was in jeopardy.  Perhaps the simple arithmetic and vocabulary I learned in elementary school has changed, but last time I checked, 41 out of 100 is not a majority.  It is as though we are hunting for division, for us v. them.  We are looking for ways to create difference and divisiveness.  Would we be more likely to fund health care for all instead of two wars, if we could stop being so bound in the maya that we are not all equally of spirit?  I think so.  In this, I am divided from millions of my fellow voters, who prefer waterboarding to health care, war to building an environmentally sustainable infrastructure, etc. or at least vote that way  In thinking this way, I too am caught up in the web of difference.  How then do I see spirit in all people (regardless of how they vote and what they believe) when I feel so passionately about this divisiveness and all the conflict, destruction, and misery it engenders?  How do I personally (as my own yoga) create less conflict, even while working for what I believe?

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Start with the Foundation (On and Off the Mat)

John Friend tells us in teacher trainings that when we are observing students, start at the foundation.  In order to help a student have the highest, most joyous and expansive experience in a pose, the foundation must be secure, aligned, and basically in the correct form.  If the student does not already have a steady and aligned foundation, adjustments to other aspects of the pose will not well serve growth and understanding.  When we are practicing on our own, starting with the foundation is also critical.  If we do not make sure that we have the physical, energetic, and mental understanding of a pose, at best, we will have little appreciation for our practice and, at worst, risk injury.

Off the mat, the principle of starting with the foundation is even more important.  If we do not teach all of our children basic reading, math, history, and civics, how can we have a functional democracy?  If a house does not have a sturdy, well-built foundation, what is the point in spending lots of money decorating it?  If we do not plant a seedling at a depth where it can be properly rooted and supported, how can it best flower and give fruit?  If we do not provide all with adequate shelter, feed ourselves in a way that fosters both the environment and natural health, build an infrastructure that makes drinking water and breathable air for all, and have proper respect for the process of dying, how much true health care can come from privatized insurance, however regulated?

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