Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Presence of Feeling

Sometimes we wake up with a song in our head. This morning, in Amsterdam, it was “This land is your land, this land is my land...”


Quite an ode to the USA while being in Holland, learning a new form of yoga, designed by a Brazilian man.


The second verse of the song, by Woody Guthrie, goes: 

“As I was walking,

I saw a sign there,

And on the sign it said,

‘No trespassing’,

But on the other side,

It didn’t say nothing...

That side was made for you and me.”


Many of the buildings here in the city of canals - and global center of commerce during the 17th century - lean slightly, in all different directions. Some sinking lower to one side or the other, leaning against their adjacent neighbor, others leaning forward or backward. Somehow, however, they stand stable. “Because they’re all together,” said Bonnie (the friend I am here with). That’s a metaphor if I ever heard one.


Bonnie is the reason behind us being here, and the one who introduced me to Kaiut Yoga, a specialized yoga we have been training in for the last week. My first time doing so - not hers. The opportunity to train directly under Francisco Kaiut, the technique’s founder, has been enlightening... It had not occurred to me until now - not really - just how crooked and tight so much of me was... And despite being physically and emotionally exhausted, we are not drained - so far enjoying Amsterdam between and after classes. Yes, we both need rest, but it’s an invigorated sort of tired. 


Today we both received certificates for the completion of a particular module. The next one will be taught near Sacramento in July. I am enrolling.  


Kaiut Yoga could be a metaphor for life. It is both complex and simple. It is an exploration of the self to find and clear blockages. 


In the body these are restrictions, or areas of heightened sensation (often called pain). By focusing on the body during certain poses and allowing tension release and restrictions to be ‘cleaned’ out, the mind learns to support the process and clears out storage of emotional or psychological tension as well. 


One often thinks of yoga practice as a way to increase flexibility, but presently yoga is often practiced in a way that causes rigidness, and even in ways that espouse restriction and exclusion rather than broadcasting welcomeness and unlimited potential. I don’t want to rant about this now, but suffice to say many techniques bring about injury - slowly or quickly - and ego-based practice does not offer much freedom to get to know thyself. 


Yoga should not allow you to hide from yourself; instead allowing you to know you...more and more and more. I think Francisco Kaiut has developed an approach that is true to the process of self-knowing. As he said to us the other day: “You cannot be smarter than you.” 


There are more than a few Americans that were part of this Amsterdam cohort. They join others from Holland and Europe, of course, as well as Brazil, where the technique was first developed. 


It feels interesting to be an American nowadays, more so than I remember it being in years past, and especially while off of American soil.


Since we’ve been here, the American president has visited the U.K. and France, and we - while avoiding broadcast news for the most part - heard whispers of a State Dinner with royals, awkward moments with British leaders, and speeches from heads of government, including ours, commemorating the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944, known as D-Day [the allied landing at Normandy that led to the liberation of Nazi-controlled France and eventually the Allied Powers’ victory ending World War II. Side note if-you didn’t-know-&-r-curious: “D-Day” refers to a military designation for a combat operation. ‘D’ for day and ‘H’ for hour are commonly used, and numbers typically follow the letters to indicate time before or after a specific operation: ‘D+2’ would mean two days after any given ‘D-Day’ and ‘H-5’ means five hours before.]


My father was a ‘third’, the namesake of my great-grandpa, because the family was proud of his service during WWII. I am still trying to think of a place for his official military portrait which my brother and I now have. 


War is of course complicated in its terminations and carryings-out. Decision-making before, during and in its aftermath is full of option-weighing of things certain and things - most things - uncertain. War feels wearisome...bad...for the good-hearted; intoxicating and mechanical for those who do not feel strongly. One prefers to keep the peace; the other is jaded by its inevitable end. 


Allies...alliances seem less complicated than war. Cohesion around peace and stability seems obvious in its good. If only for all, but certainly those adept in trusting their senses and judgement - adept in...knowing feeling. 


And alliances with those whom one shares values and culture with should be easy to maintain, as there is rational trust - especially from the American perspective - that no party will declare war on or try to invade the other. I guess I wish for the norms of diplomacy, the frivolous elegance, and the seemingly low instances of surprise amidst Western international relations after the Second World War.  


Last night I cried in bed. This yoga - with its focus on clearing restrictions in the body - can release things that have been deeply held in tissues for ages. More recently, I am still sad about my father’s death late last year. It has been a lesson for the animal self - that one must learn to live with, and appropriately nurse, wounds. But I also cried from having a sudden and seemingly random realization: that I have made others sad. Like a wave, I was overcome with flashed memories of instances and ways - grand and minuscule - that I’ve hurt people. Within one’s own body, hurting is more painful than being hurt. 


I wonder: if humanity’s attunement to feeling - not just emotional reactions, but physical, body-feeling and its ability to inform judgement, its  connection with a morality - becomes more and more heightened, will war even be possible? 


At the moment, anything seems possible. And that’s not necessarily a welcome feeling.


Just like, as Thomas Merton said, people immersed in sensual appetites and desires are not very well prepared to handle abstract ideas, nor are those who entirely ignore or cut themselves off from the body’s wisdom and its natural signals very well prepared to adapt. 


If one cannot adapt to environments and situations but instead requires environments and situations to adapt to them...well, one will always be disappointed. And those who cannot adapt to different environments find it harder to survive - not just major events, but even minor experiences, and therefore become more likely to ignore or hide from what is happening, both within themselves and outside themselves. And those who ignore what is happening within and outside themselves are not very well prepared to engage - or advocate for that matter - change. 


We need to ask ourselves: how does it feel to be divided? To be angry? To be scared? How does it feel to refuse - to literally be terrified and abhor the idea of - standing together? How does it feel to be embarrassed? To feel hatred and to not want to feel hatred at the same time? How does it feel to look at your neighbor? To talk to an acquaintance? A friend? To listen to your own thoughts? How does it feel in your body? 


This ongoing introduction to new yogic horizons has been intense, and being present in the world and in my self has meant that sometimes it is difficult to maintain good-feeling and upliftedness. 


In the last few months, I had decided I did not want the negativity of politics (which was my college major) or even ‘news’ in my reality. I didn’t want the energy of it, to interact with it, or to feel its effect on me. 


But there is strength in feeling. And one can feel truly, deeply, strongly - yet not be overwhelmed. There is a joy to be found in uncertainty, the exploration of self and society - a surrendering to discovery that comes with simultaneous relaxation and allowance of sensation. The process that leads us to adapt. And thus learn and grow and know what we want and where we stand. 


Exactly six months ago, I graduated (not sure of any other suitable word) from the Swami Krishnananda Yogashram outside Mysore, India. Today, I received my first certificate from Kaiut Yoga. 


The ashram experience was profound and transformative, of course, and very focused on discipline. But I went to India to escape myself after my father’s death. I learned there is no escape from the self - only getting to know it better and better and better, and with genuineness and no denial. That is the best way to face and heal injuries, to clear blockages and restrictions; to learn how to feel, and therefore be able to face the world from where I stand - with courage and clear understanding. 


“You cannot be smarter than you.”


Thanks for reading. Namaste. 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Not being broken

The other day, my husband and I could not remember which level we parked on, and then Terry McAuliffe got on the office building elevator with us. I have encountered the former governor during different political incarnations of his, starting with an internship I had at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee while a freshman in college. At that time, he was the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and would come to meetings and events at our temporary office space near Capitol Hill (a new headquarters was under construction). He would meet with my then-boss Peter Waldheim, and speak alongside the late Congressman Robert Matsui (our DCCC boss at the time) and then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (our big boss at the time). I can feel my Republican family members cringing.

Serendipitously I showed the governor the book I was holding, which was an advanced copy written and gifted to me by Lester Hyman (out soon - title: JFK, The Kennedys and Me - I'll actually be hosting a book signing dinner for him at the Arts Club of Washington on March 22nd). I reminded Terry that the last time we had crossed paths was at a restaurant in Georgetown while Lester and I were lunching. Terry had walked in and we couldn't help notice his jubilant arrival and the conspicuous presence of gubernatorial security guards. It was 2016, the eve of one or more major primary elections between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Both Terry and Lester have known each other a long time, both were friends and backers of Hillary, and I remember this being discussed.

Seeing Terry made me remember interning for the DCCC, and that I was only weeks into recovery from a major surgery which to this day offers a lot of challenges. It was done the summer after graduating high school. The surgeon broke my upper pallet in several places, and then put it back together, securing it with actual screws. Afterwards, my upper and lower jaws were wired together, so that my mouth was fixed shut well into my first semester at American University.

This meant that for my internship, I had to apply, be interviewed, and begin without being able to speak. It also meant for an interesting way of starting college.

Terry no longer has the gubernatorial security, but he was as jovial as ever. Politics is tough. So is life. He might run for president. I like him and liked seeing him, but am currently an early supporter of Marianne Williamson's campaign.

I am now once again in recovery, this time from the unexpected passing of my father towards the end of last year. Today I woke up before dawn to drive to his house to meet the tow truck driver who would take his/my old mustang convertible out of his driveway. When it runs, it runs rickety, and my brother and I decided to donate it to Cars Helping Veterans.

It was the car that we (my father, brother and I) would drive down to Alabama in when we visited family each year, stopping at caverns and other sites along the way. It was the car I learned to drive in. My father would stop it on a hill, push in the parking brake, put the clutch in neutral and tell me to get behind the wheel, shift into first and drive forward without stalling out. It was a process, but I learned to drive. It then became mine for two years until I left for college, and returned it back to him, allowing for a healthy amount of hi jinx in the interim.

A month after receiving my license to drive legally, the Mustang (and teenage me) was in a major accident - which, according to Kelley's Bluebook, totaled the car. But we still had it fixed. My father didn't keep collision insurance coverage so that meant we had to fix it out of pocket. The passenger door never again closed completely, but it was forest green with a tan top and a gold racing stripe and I loved that car. It took 20 minutes of jumpstarting the battery this morning to be able to back it out of the driveway, and its engine belt howled until it was fixed to the tow truck and turned off.

I have found myself reflecting on the concept of brokenness.

My parents divorced when I was six, so the term might be applied - by some - to elements of my and my brother's childhood. My mother remarried a good and kind man and together they brought my sister into being, who I love and learn from. Every break allows for growth. Appreciating that dance seems correct.

Our politics is broken, but we now have an opportunity to begin transforming our nation in ways that are truly revolutionary, which I believe involves a spiritual awakening as much as a new social contract.

We all have traumas. As individuals, families, communities and societies. We can try and share them or explain them but ultimately they are not healed from doing this. They are never healed. They do however expand our consciousness, making room for more awareness, and they therefore pave the way to more love, more compassion, and more joy.

We can heal our Selves not by getting 'over' anything, but by growing through and beyond obstacles...by acknowledging realities - of Self, of politics, of nature - and letting awareness guide our choices.

Having just returned from India, where I did a monthlong yoga teacher training at a rural ashram outside the city of Mysore, and also having recently openly committed myself to a spiritual journey, I have been asked whether I feel transformed. Sure. Of course. I have found myself saying that I am 'still processing' the India experience. But in reality, we are always processing, and constantly transforming. This gives me inspiration and hope, because within this process, we can never be broken.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

An Ace at the Gate


After arriving at Bangalore Airport, I paced outside until I finally hopped into a cab and told the driver that I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but I that I needed a hotel near the bus station. As it was already dark, I would head south to Mysuru in the morning. Per the emailed recommendations from the ashram, I would take the Skybus. My American sensibilities were suddenly rattled from the realization that not planning ahead spawns moments of uncertainty. The taxi driver seemed helpful, despite us only understanding perhaps half of what the other was saying at any given time. 

Until he told me he hadn’t slept in 2 days. 

“You need to take a break then, and rest.” 

“No break.”

Okay. 

We drove - or rather sat - through over an hour of traffic to get into the city, and once there it was clear he was trying to take me to a hotel owned or run by a friend of his. Or at least someone who gives ‘commision’. Understandable, but I was not yet willing to relinquish my Western mindset or middle class standards and I wanted a place with a private shower...and in a neighborhood amenable to sleep. I got the former. The first hotel he pulled up to was full. Glory be. The second one overcharged for what it was, but after 24 hours of transit, and my haggling inclinations never being particularly keen, I didn’t feel like talking with the manager any longer than required to receive a room key. 

The next morning I took a taxi the three hours south to Mysuru. It was fortunate because I was able to pick up a yoga mat (of all the things to forget) along the way. 

Here at the ashram we are amidst seven days of abolsute silence, imposed by the guru and started on December 31st. This is waived during lectures and classes so that we may ask questions, and during Kirtan - an evening ritual where we sing mantras and other songs together before bed. Someone sang Auld Lang Syne that last night of 2018. 

We are not technically supposed to leave the ashram, which is laid out on a number of hectares of vegetable fields, sprinkled and surrounded with tall coconut trees and brush. It is on the outskirts of a small, country village - itself on the outskirts of the city of Mysuru. It is composed of several concrete buildings that serve as male and female dorms, a kitchen hut, the main hall where we meditate and have class, and what looks to be the original farmhouse, now serving as the masters’ ‘dorm’. 

But with limited space, diverse personalities, egos and energies, all in different stages of spiritual awakening, one needs to take a walk occasionally. There is a shrine built around a large tree up the road, in the middle of a three-way intersection. It is the perfect place to walk to after First Meal (one of two vegan meals daily, plus fruit and herbal tea - no caffeine - in the morning and after lectures). The setting becomes more magical with each day. However even though an occasional walk off grounds may go intentionally unnoticed, it is important that we steer clear of the village. 

When we arrived two weeks ago, the ashram was still being built around us. They had moved from their former location in Mysuru (Mysore) just before this current session began, and the feeling is a special one - seeing something new literally rise from the earth, with the purpose of teaching something ancient. 

The villagers are mostly very friendly and smile when you see them on the road or on the ashram grounds, as they come in to farm or do other things. But they have specific ways of doing things within their community, and disruption to that can cause problems. Westerners with good intentions can be blamed for anything that might go awry weeks or months after they’ve left. Not to mention the propensity for unintentional cultural insensitivity. So we were told - rightly - to stay out, especially since the village leadership has significant sway over the ashram’s land lease. 

We all have our daily Karma Yoga here, which is our assigned chore. I clean the toilets and showers in our dormitory. Admittedly, when our Karmas were announced at orientation, bewilderment was followed by hope that this was a rotating assignment...before I gulped acceptance. 

“Do you like cleaning toilets?” my co-Karma’d newfriend Cicero half-jokingly asked me the first day we were in the bathroom together, brushing porcelain holes in the ground with blue cleaner. (These are the original Squatty Potties.) “It’s not my favorite thing,” I replied. “Well, I like it,” he said. When I looked at him quizzically, he added, “I like when toilets are clean, don’t you?” Wow. Fair enough. 

With new perspectives come new questions. When we discipline the mind not to seek every answer, but to await them, we evolve. Of course some questions are worth seeking answers for. But the concept of Self-exploration and internal work has never been so clear as it has become here, as well as the fact that the first requisite for any change to occur is the desire for it. 

“Wake up! It’s a brand new dayyyy!” plays abruptly from across the open-aired dormitory at 4:30 every morning because it is the smartphone alarm of the toughguy Yogi who is both our asana demonstrator and ‘Resident Director’. The singsongy tune makes me laugh despite my tiredness. 

Washing our food trays, utensils and cups after every meal inspires trust among the group: trust that you wash diligently after your use to ensure the clean and pleasant future use by an other; and that an other has washed sufficiently before your own next use. 

The guru is a long-practicing medical doctor (whose 3D computer internal body images enhance lectures on  anatomy and movement, if not also induce occasional squirms), Yoga PhD, and the disciple of Swami Krishnananda Saraswati, who was a disciple of Sivananda Saraswati (those unfamiliar can Google both). The asana teacher is a national and international gold metal-earning former competitor, and Hatha Yoga teacher for over ten years. As we strengthen our bodies and minds, tune our wills, address our fears and deepen our knowledge reservoir, we are in good hands for an integrated, Integral Yoga education here, and I am thankful for that. 

Oh, and the name of this blog post? The day after Christmas, I needed a sign from the universe, although I didn’t know it. My emotions and ego were driving the chariot of the Self and I needed to retake the reigns. The day after my birthday was the winter solstice as usual, as well as one month’s time since my father’s sudden departure from his earthly body the night before Thanksgiving. The next day was a full moon, the first since he died. Christmas Eve and Day had come and gone with little fanfare here, which was perfect. But I was unconsciously waiting for something while walking down the dirt driveway toward the ashram gates. 

My father liked playing cards. All the card games I know he taught me - including Solitaire. All the card tricks that I know he taught me. We used to play together with his siblings-my uncles and aunts, their kids-my cousins, and his mother-my grandmother while at the family ranch down in Alabama every year. It was often a good prescription after swimming in the lake or four-wheeling all day. He would give my brother and I a new deck of cards in our Christmas stockings every year. 

As I approached the gate, slowing to decide whether to pass through onto the road for a short walk, something caught my eye. 

An ace of diamonds on the ground. 

As I passed beyond the gate, I saw that there were different playing cards all along the road - a queen of diamonds, two of clubs, jack of hearts, eight of hearts, king of spades...as if someone had strewn a deck along the road outside the ashram. I heard a pair of other straggling students say in English (the common language of everyone here) to each other as they passed me on their covert reentry: “Weird how there are playing cards all over the place.” 

In the game of life there are many cards to play. Some are given, some are found, and all the plays are our choices made. 

As it happens, today is my little (now taller) brother’s birthday. Happy birthday, Little Bro. In this life, I’ll always have a higher number of years.