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Advance thoughts on the inauguration festivities

The picture on top shows police blockades put up on the west side of the Capitol for inaugural preparations.  The bottom picture shows a bandstand erected at the extreme west end of the Capitol lawn looking over the reflecting pool and the Mall.  I’ve refrained from posting pictures of the hundreds of port-a-potties on the Capitol side of the Mall.  Event planners brought in 5,000 — more than has ever been put in the Mall area for an event.  The ones next to the Capitol are “United” port-a-potties; do you think they planned that?

Hard to imagine 2,000,000 plus or minus a million in this space.  I’ve been here with 700,000 or maybe even 800,000 at the fireworks and a couple of really big demonstrations.  But what seems a nice open space seems awfully small to hold that many people.  Just think:  right now there are only 450,000 residents of the District of Columbia and the greater metropolitan area has only about 3,000,000 (last time I checked, maybe it’s a couple hundred more).  But having them all 10-20 blocks from my house on one side with 10,000 of their charter buses only 8-15 blocks seems a shocking sandwich of huddled humanity.

Where will you be?  I know a few of you are volunteering and will have seats on the bleachers.  Many more of you have said you don’t plan to go any where near the festivities, but will appreciate this rush of energy from your warm homes or a friends’ house in your own neighborhood.  Several hundred thousand people on a nice day would be one thing, but a million plus on a bitter cold day with large chunks of the city not only cut off for cars, but also cyclists and pedestrians, seems quite another.

I do not think it means that I am not celebrating (nor a real tantrika) if I end up choosing not to squeeze myself into the crowd because I find it hard to revel in a crowd.  I’ll just be celebrating in my own way with groups of a size where I feel more comfortable.  I’ll be up in Takoma Park on Saturday teaching my regular Willow Street yoga classes.  On Sunday, I’ve planned dinner with a friend, but I am not sure about trying to plunge into the sea of humanity at the Lincoln Memorial earlier in the day.  On Monday, I plan to join 400 other yogins at a giant kirtan as my “inaugural event.”  As for Tuesday — I’ll wait to see what the energy feels like.  Whatever I’m doing, I will be sending energetic support for the trees.  They are stressed enough in the city that it is hard to have their roots trampled by so many people.  If you come down to be part of the crowd, please send loving energy to the trees.  Let’s also hope the new administration honors its promises and starts taking care of trees all over the country and the planet (and let’s support advocacy groups that work to care for the environment — now’s a great time to move forward in a positive way).

“This confused war”

My dear friend from college, Dan Harper, just posted the following on his website.  I feel fortunate to have a friend who inspires me to me more learned and more concerned.

Martin Luther King would have been 80 today. On February 25, 1967, not long before he was killed, he spoke about the Vietnam War and its effects on our country. The following excerpt from that speech could easily be delivered today, with just a few minor changes:

“This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies.

“Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the Great Society [anti-poverty program] have been shot down on the battlefield of Viet Nam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed domestic welfare programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home.

“While the anti-poverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously supervised and evaluated for immediate results, billions are liberally expended for this ill-considered war. The recently revealed mis-estimate of the war budget amounts to ten billions of dollars for a single year. This error alone is more than five times the amount committed to anti-poverty programs. The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Viet Nam explode at home: they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.

“If we reversed investments and gave the armed forces the antipoverty budget, the generals could be forgiven if they walked off the battlefield in disgust.

“Poverty, urban problems and social progress generally are ignored when the guns of war become a national obsession. When it is not our security that is at stake, but questionable and vague commitments to reactionary regimes, values disintegrate into foolish and adolescent slogans.”

Full text of the speech on Stanford’s Web site. Crossposted on PaxPac.

Hot Water Bottles and Wristwarmers

One of my father’s joke bits of wisdom is “everything in moderation, including moderation.”  When I first studied philosophy academically, I was very much taken with Aristotle’s concept of the “golden mean,” which (this is a gross oversimplification) advocates living in moderation as a way of right living.  Pantanjali in the niyamas in his Yoga Sutras invites the yogin to balance effort (tapas) and surrender  (ishvara pranadhana) in our practice.  The Bhagavad Gita suggests that extreme austerities are just as indulgent as wildly excessive consumption of food, sleep, and comforts.

What does that mean in our modern, middle class lives in a time when we are being confronted head-on with the impact on the earth and our fellow beings of the way we, as a society, have been consuming?

In part, I think it is mindfulness.  It is not denial, but balance — choosing ways to consume less, but still not feel deprived.  I am fortunate in that much of what we are learning now about both lifestyle and impact (the stuff under the “green living” umbrella) is not new to me.  My parents were children of the Depression and my father had a modest income. I went to Quaker youth camp in upstate New York in the 1970s, and I did volunteer work for the first Earth Day when I was in college.  We turned the lights off when we weren’t in the room, we turned off the faucets when we were brushing our teeth, or lathering our hair in the shower.  We creatively changed what we cooked out of Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Virginia Lee, or Diana Kennedy or the New York Times Food Section with what we learned from Diet for a Small Planet.  We wore warmer clothing inside to be able to keep the heat down.  It is important for me to try to live mindfully, but I also very much like to be warm and comfortable, love the feel of beautiful fabrics, and one of my greatest pleasures is eating well.

I have a number of reasons I like to keep the heat down in the winter:  it feels better on my sinuses because the air is not as dry and I do not like to have to run a humidifier (yet another electrical appliance); it costs a lot of money to keep an old row house at even 65F in the cold months; and I am concerned about my carbon footprint.  I can get really cold when I am working at my desk or getting ready for bed.  I don’t like being cold, and it seems silly to insist on being miserably uncomfortable just so I can feel better from the perspective of some perceived moral ground.  So I try to create a balance.

Hot water bottles and wrist warmers are part of the balance.  Two hot water bottles taken to bed (and then I use the water on the plants the next morning) makes going to bed toasty and delightful, but not too hot in the middle of the night.  If I am working at home and it is midday, I can warm myself up with a two-minute handstand or a few sun salutes or some abs work or other arm balances. That’s not an option if I am on a conference call or at the office.  Nor does it make sense after dinner when it is time to get energetically quiet.  The wrist warmers, though, make an amazing difference (I also enjoy wearing them when I start practicing until I warm up as another layer that easily can come on or off.  I kind of like the way I look and enjoyed all the complements I got when I was meandering around New York over the holidays.  They are a great way to use scrap yarn (especially if you don’t have the time, yarn, or inclination for a larger project — see my post on “Sauca (and the blanket).”

If you want to make your own wrist warmers and you are a fantastic knitter, you can go for four double-pointed needles, multiple colors, and add a thumb section.  For those of you who are newer to knitting or who want wrist warmers very quickly, here’s all it takes to make the one’s shown above.

1.  Two needles of appropriate gauge and less than a skein of yarn.

2.  Measure loosely around your knuckles.  That’s the right width for your wrist warmer (notice that the girth of your knuckles and your forearm a couple of inches below the elbow are about the same).  Then knit about a two-inch square to make sure you know how many stitches you get per inch horizontally.  When you have your gauge correct, unravel your test square to use that yarn in your wrist warmers.  I recommend rechecking the gauge about an inch or two into your first wrist warmer to make sure you were right.  It is easier to start over at that stage than to try and fix it later or have to give them away to someone larger or smaller (unless you want to).

3.  Cast on the correct number of stitches for how many stitches per inch you get with your yarn and needles and the width you measured around your knuckles.  It is OK to round to the nearest half inch.  First two rows are simple rib — k1, p1.  Then do basic plain knitting (k first row, p return row) until the first wrist warmer is about 6-8 inches long and reaches almost the desired length up your lower arm.  Then do 6-8 rows of moss stitch (row 1 — k1, p1, row 2, p1, k1) [or you could just do more ribbing].  Cast off.  Measure second wrist warmer against the second.  Turned inside-out, using the knitting yarn, sew into a tube, leaving a whole for the thumb a the end with just the double row of ribbing.  The sewn part at the knuckle end should be about 2/3 to 3/4 inches, then there should be about a 1 1/2 to 2 inch whole (just hold it up on your hand to make sure it fits).

4.  They will stretch out as you wear them, but if they are a little too wide or tight, you can wet them and then make them either longer and thinner or shorter and wider by blocking.

4.  Bored with the colors you have at home?  It’s pretty easy to swap with a fellow knitter.

5.  Want to be just a little fancier?  Do stripes by alternating colors when you change rows.  Want to practice cables.  Do one center cable, just remember that it won’t be in the center if you want it to go on the top of your hand; it will start a quarter of the way in.

6.  New to knitting?  Go into any yarn store, tell them that this is your project, and they’ll tell you a good yarn, what needles you need, and show you how to cast on, knit and pearl.  There are farmers at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market on Sunday who have beautiful homespun, hand-dyed yarns.  They might not show you how to knit, but they include patterns for hats.

7.  Have fun.  Be creative.  Be part of a fashion wave.  Stay warm.

Akasha (space)

When we can connect to the essence of the element of akasha, space, within ourselves, we feel less crowded by things pressing in on the outside, whether it be actual confinement or overcrowdedness or the sense of crowding from having too many pressing things to do.  For those of us who live in the District of Columbia, this weekend, with the extra million or two or three people in our neighborhoods and using our transportation systems is a great opportunity to discover the spaciousness within.

Practice dwelling in a supremely spacious place in your heart when you meditate this week.  Start by visualizing a vast space just beyond your third eye (the point between the eye brows).  Once you can visualize that space, the chidakasha, draw the space into your heart and rest there.  Then, when you go out onto to the Mall or onto the metro or onto crowded streets, bring enough of your consciousness into the vast inner space that you can feel comfortable with the crowding outside.  When dwelling in the inner and outer at the same time, it will be easier to marvel at the outside crowds.

For those of you who are extroverts who get exhilarated by crowds, of course, this practice would seem less critical.  I invite you to give it a try anyway.

Hard Freeze Forecast (Heyam Dukham Anagatam)

My favorite sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s is, II.16, “heyam dukham anagatam.”  This translates roughly as “the pain that is yet to come can be avoided.”  What does this have to do with a forecast of a hard freeze?

My chard, beets, and turnip greens are still flourishing.  They can manage with a night or two in a row in the high 20sF, and that is all we have had so far.  The forecast for later in the week, though, is for the first true cold snap since 1994 (you may remember that as the year when lots of people’s pipes froze).  My winter garden (which does not have a cold frame due to lack of space — maybe I’ll get more creative next year, and I’ll try an experiement with plastic bags on Thursday night) cannot survive lows in the low teens highs in the twenties.

I could suffer today by bemoaning the coming cold, worrying about the garden, and remembering that I don’t like cold.  That would be present suffering in anticipation of potential future suffering.  I certainly can avoid that.  I can also do what I did yesterday, which was harvest lots of the chard and most of the beets, put the beets into cold storage (vegetable bin in the refrigerator) and make pasta with sauteed garlic and chard.  Between now and Wednesday night, I’ll harvest most of the remaining greens.  I’ll make a big vegetable soup with the beets and the chard, maybe make chard pie or calzones (truly delicious), and eat the rest over the following days.  I’ll feel grateful that in the bitter cold, I can be eating fresh garden greens.  I’ll be even more grateful that I can just shop at the grocery store or the farmers’ market and don’t need to rely on my garden feeding me year round.  I’ll also be happy for the hard frost.  Part of the reason the aphids and the mosquitoes have been so bad is the absence of a hard frost in winter.

Some bitter cold in winter in a temperate zone is inevitable, as are sickness and death.  We can avoid suffering by not just getting anxious and unhappy and suffering in the present, but not taking action to alleviate potential suffering.  With preparation and practice, we can avoid some suffering.  Just has preparing for winter in the garden can allow it to be productive for greater parts of the year, so too, with a steady practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation we can avoid some physical and emotional pain and suffering.  Most important, with steady preparation (preparing for the potential for difficulties in the future is not the same as being anxious about it), when the inevitable comes, we will likely suffer less, at least in our hearts, if not in our bodies.

Winter Reading on the Tattvas (the elements)

I am returning to a contemplation of teachings about the tattvas (the 36 elements in Kashir Shaivism; in Vedanta only 25).  Each time I go back to study, practice, and contemplate the tattvas, a new understanding arises about how I am in the world and how I might want to shift my alignment to be better able to serve, for want of a better word, the good.  The tattvas provide a way of understanding the structure of consciousness [Consciousness], from the most metaphysical, universal elements to the most diverse, individual, physical elements and the relationship between the two.  Practicing asana with the Anusara principles of alignment at the same time as reading these teachings has, for me, helped bridge the space between the intuitive and concrete understandings of being in the world.  The point of trying to understand these extraordinary philosophical ideas is not for the sake of acquiring academic learning, but rather is an invitation to use the joyous experience of wrestling intellectually, intuitively, and physically to illuminate understanding, as a way to dwell more consistently in the heart.

Reading Sources:

Kashmir Shaivism, The Secret Supreme, Swami Lakshmanjoo, ed. John Huges, Universal Shaiva Fellowship (2003)

Kashmir Shaivism, J.C. Chatterji (SUNY Press, 1986)

The Triadic Heart of Siva, Paul Eduardo Muller-Ortega (SUNY Press 1989)

A Hawk

I saw a hawk when I was walking to work this morning.  It was in one of those stately oak trees in the park just north of the US Capitol.  I have occasionally seen hawks in the neighborhood alleys, but never one at the Capitol.  The hawk stood out for two reasons:  it was very large, and it was the only living being about.  Usually, there are a number of squirrels, pigeons, and maybe crows, sparrows, and common grackles about the park.  This morning, it was unearthly quiet; all of the other animals and birds were all in hiding.  It was probably a red-tailed hawk.  As I stood to watch this special being, a woman walked past me with her head hunched down, her hands shoved in her pockets, her briefcase weighing down her shoulder, and her face preoccupied, a common going to work look.  I called out to her, “look, a hawk.”  She was startled, maybe even a little upset at first that I had interrupted her thoughts, but then she, too, stopped and watched.  When I finally continued on to work, she stayed watching for a while, and she no longer looked preoccupied.  At the bottom of the steps of the park, I went past the police, who are there every morning with their cars parked on the sidewalk (blocking the way).  The police rarely say hello.  One of the cops, who had his dog out of the car, called out a good morning to me today, though.  I greeted him back, “good morning, did you see the hawk?”  “Yes, I’ve been watching it,” he said.  We had a nice chat about the hawk and about his being able to watch the bald eagles at Blue Fields in Virginia, where they do the training for the police dogs.

It would have been easy for me not to see the hawk.  I use my morning walk as a time for contemplation, and when I am in the park (leaving aside the Architect of the Capitol vehicles that sometimes intrude), it is a time I can be less careful about traffic and be more inward.  But it is also a time to look and to appreciate the opportunity to be outside, whatever the weather and the season.  The trees and birds and small animals and plantings and sky look different everyday.  While I go inward on my morning walk, I am also always noticing.  This is a kind of mindfulness — to be able to be resting with inward attention, but still be open to observing whatever is in view.  Is it less mindful to be so drawn inward that the outside disappears?  That perhaps depends on whether one has deliberately gone so far inward that the outside ceases to exist for a time, which is a meditation method, or whether one is just so preoccupied with the churning of the mind that one becomes less conscious.

Cold, dark, and rainy

It is always a temptation for me to stay home when it is cold and dark, to miss yoga class (when I am student, not teacher), to do my own practice and read and cook and play with the cat, rather than to be more engaged with all that is outside — friends, group yoga, and all the offerings of the city.  I am always happier, though, for having gone out.  Home is much more pleasing after an interlude with the outside.  And if I dress right, it is even enjoyable to walk out in the cold, dark, rain, and say hello to all the dog walkers.

Perihelion

Yesterday was this year’s perihelion — the day of the year the earth is closest to the sun in the earth’s annual orbit around the sun.  I find in interesting that the perihelion is at the coldest and darkest time of year.  The relative proximity of the earth to the sun is of far less import for warmth and light than the tilt of earth away from the sun.  So, too, with matters of the spirit.  It does not matter how close we are to sources of illumination and learning, if we turn away from them.  When we turn towards the light, even if the sources of light are farther from our reach, (the aphelion is in July, our hottest month), we are more likely to become illuminated.

Sankalpa (Intention)

In the tradition of our culture’s “new year’s resolution” I like to practice yoga nidra at this time of year to help establish a new sankalpa or intention.  A sankalpa is different from a new year’s resolution.  It is short, affirming, and is both in the present and forward-looking.

Usually it takes a couple of weeks for me to be certain of what sankalpa is right for me to work with for a period of months.  One year, I had been very sick for the entire fall and early winter, so it was easy to choose “I am healthy.”  For the past two years, as I struggled with my place this time of war and societal struggle and thought about my own role in creating and avoiding conflict, I chose the sankalpa “I will come from the light in all I do” (“light” for me meaning an inner place of peace, compassion and spaciousness).

In the past several months, mostly due to having thoroughly enjoyed creating meals from the garden and the farmers’ market, I am a little heavier than works with the clothing I own and my sense of comfort with my body image.  Instead of having a new year’s resolution to lose five pounds, which would likely fail, I am working with the sankalpa “I love and respect my body.”  The former buys into societal expectations of what my body should look like, imposes mental will over my body, and reinforces a mindset of negative judgment and denial.  The latter is joyous and affirming.  I believe that if I truly love and respect my body, I will eat in a way that is healthy for my body and the earth.  I will either lose the few pounds or be more accepting of my body as it is.  This sankalpa thus gives me much to contemplate in terms of my relationship to the mirror, my clothes, my asana practice, and my way of eating.  How much it gives me to contemplate expands if I think of the body extending beyond just my flesh and bones and physical appearance, but also to my energy body and all that I bring in through the senses.

What sankalpa would be transformative for you this year?  What would help you embody your sankalpa (other than, of course, establishing a regular yoga nidra practice — see yoga nidra resources).