Relaxing Relentlessly

VPF Meditation signThere have been times in my life when I awoke feeling so overwhelmed I’d wish the world would stop for awhile so I could catch up.  It’s relentless, I would say, sighing.

That’s why I found it especially funny on my retreat earlier this month when our meditation teacher U Tejanaya asked us to relax while meditating, to not stop relaxing—in fact, to relax relentlessly.  What an oxymoron, I thought!  Yet he said it was one of the two most important things to do when meditating; the other was to remember that all that we observe is nature and impermanent.

U Tejanaya and translator Ma Thet

U Tejanaya and translator Ma Thet

His emphasis was on noticing what we are aware of without trying to change or fix anything.  Not much energy is required to do this (see if you are aware you are reading right now—did it take much energy?).  If we get tired while meditating, we are trying too hard.  Practicing this way—whenever we remember, noticing what we are aware of—leads naturally to a strengthening of awareness.  And not trying to change or fix what we observe can help us relax, and we tend to be calmer.

As our mind calms, and we notice equanimity, we can then also observe wisdom qualities such as interest, confidence, mindfulness, curiosity, acceptance, compassion, and so on.  These are helpful to note; reflecting on these benefits of practice can help us arouse the energy to continue our meditation practice.

Path to meditation hall

Path to meditation hall

Since the retreat, when I feel that familiar energy of the modern world rushing along relentlessly, I smile and shift that energy to relentless relaxation.  And then I can bring the attendant calm and wisdom to the situation at hand, perhaps acting more skillfully.

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Soft and Strong

Where are we going?

Where are we going?

This morning in yoga Amy asked some questions:  What do we need/want from the class?  What is our intention for the class?  Then she guided us to quiet our minds and use our breath to tune into our bodies and hearts.

My first thought was that I wanted some power poses.  Like many people, I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me by this week’s news, and I need some support.  Next came the words “soft” and “strong.”  I want to come from an open-hearted space without being a pushover.

Throughout the class Amy kept prompting us to return to our inner focus, checking in to see how our intention was manifesting in our bodies.  We practice in a physical therapy office, so a lot of attention is paid to correct alignment.  When we’re aligned correctly we don’t use extra energy to keep us in the pose.  We can feel both our strength and the softening that correct alignment allows.  Sometimes we want to look “good” in a pose, and push too much.  Feeling the tension this brings helps us to realize that we are pushing (or our teacher comes by and corrects us!), and we can soften and relax.  For someone like me who tends to “effort,” this has been very helpful in class and in life.  On the other hand, we can collapse or not fill our bodies with energy, which can leave us feeling weak or spaced out.

Amita is strong and joyful!

Amita is strong and joyful!

Tenderness and strength

Tenderness and strength

Similarly, when we have clarity of intention for meeting challenges in our lives, we can feel both our strength and softness, and we can adjust the balance of the two.  Strong emotion is appropriate in dangerous or stressful situations; it can provide energy when we feel overwhelmed.  But it is not always the best way to meet others, so knowing how to maintain the strength that comes with the emotion while balancing it with compassion, curiosity and creativity can help us navigate difficult terrain.

As we move into this new post-election territory, may we all find our direction, get support, and balance our open-heartedness with resolve and strength!

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Quiet Mind, Open Heart

Kathmandu Diwali guide for light to enter home

Kathmandu Diwali guide for light to enter home

As we approach this important election, like many people I find myself nervous and stressed.  Last week I enjoyed photos of the Hindu festival of lights, which I was fortunate to attend in India and Nepal.  In Nepal people make an offering on wet mud; it’s meant to be a guide to the light of nearby candles to enter from the dark on the mud path into their home.

Lighting candles and making offerings are beautiful symbolic gestures, but I wanted something more.  And then I remembered the talk Ram Dass (of Be Here Now fame) gave in Reno many years ago.

He began by listing all the terrible things that were happening in the world (you can fill in the blanks here).  People would say, See Ram Dass, everything’s getting worse!  He would reply that he really didn’t know, but perhaps they were right.  What to do? he wondered. And he answered that it seemed he should quiet his mind, open his heart, and do what he could to relieve suffering.

Hindu offering

Hindu offering

And then he listed many wonderful things; people would say that all is getting better, asking for his agreement.  Again, he didn’t really know.  But if they were correct, what would be his response?  To quiet his mind, open his heart, and do what he could to relieve suffering.

So that’s my plan, come what may.

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Cat Consciousness

Calico Downloading Buddha

Calico Downloading Buddha

Calico arrived in my home almost eight years ago after living as a barn cat in central Nevada. Though too scared to allow herself to be touched, she used to follow the family around the ranch, so when they moved away the children insisted she be brought with them. They already had three cats, so they gave her to me.  She arrived on the same day as 6-month-old Rocky, who immediately set about turning her into a play pal.  Though it took some time, she eventually relented, and they are good friends.

It took much longer for her to relax and warm up to me.  About six months after she arrived, I awoke one night to find her perched on me, purring.  Next she began allowing me to pet her when she was on her condo.  She always hung around when there were people present, but would not let us near her.  Fast forward seven years to last summer when she jumped up on my lap for the first time.

Calico on Retreat

Calico on Retreat

Recently she has been climbing further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (modified for cats–she’s not self-actualizing).  Having achieved satisfaction of physiological needs, safety, and love and belonging, she is now working on self-transcendence.  Her new favorite napping spot is on my meditation cushions. When outside she likes to be under the Buddha, downloading directly from him.  And, like me, she sometimes needs solitude, so she retreats to her meditation cushion in the closet.

Ever calmer, ever more at ease, Calico is a true bodhisattva!

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The Schnoz

Kindergarten silhouette

Kindergarten silhouette

When I was nine years old, an artist friend of my parents told me I had a classic Roman nose and profile.  I wasn’t sure I knew what that meant, but almost fifty years later I remember it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my nose the last ten days, as I am recovering from surgery to repair a deviated septum.  My nose and its non-stoppable mucous production have been at the center of my existence as the need for rest and a fuzzy mind have precluded much else from consideration. (Surgery went well, and there’s been no pain, just discomfort and tiredness.)

Portrait age 11

Portrait age 11

By the time I got to high school, I was well aware I didn’t have the kind of beauty celebrated in the media, and it was painful for me.  I made my best attempts to “fix the problem” with hair style and makeup, but was never very skilled so that didn’t work.

High School Senior Photo

High School Senior Photo

Salvation (at least to some degree) came from an unlikely source:  my mother’s subscription to Vogue magazine.  In the mid sixties, during my high school years, Barbra Streisand and Cher became popular, and Vogue often featured them in multi-page spreads, with full-page facial portraits, including in profile.  These were immediately cut out and taped to my bedroom wall, reminding me that there is more than one archetype of beauty. In fact, it was clear that Barbra would have had a nose job, except that it could change her voice—too big a risk! Still, Vogue clearly considered her beautiful.  So that when people told me I looked like Barbra, I could smile and say “thank you.”  My senior photo shows my homage to her in hairstyle and (softened) makeup.

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One Hundred

Offering, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Offering, Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

A Mindful Breath began over two years ago as a way to share my photos, ideas and experiences.  This post is number one hundred!  As I began I asked advice of a friend who enjoys subscribing to blogs.  She suggested that I post on a regular schedule at least once a week, publishing on a weekday.  I’m glad I followed her advice as otherwise I doubt I would have continued this long.

Making the commitment to have the post come out every Thursday (except if there were technical difficulties or I was away) meant that often on Wednesday evening I would be sitting down at the computer wondering what I would write about.  I would moan and groan, remind myself that there were absolutely no consequences if I didn’t post, and begin scrolling through my photos or reviewing my idea list for inspiration.  It continues to amaze me that the inspiration arrived.  I’ve been grateful too that I tend to write quickly, usually with little revision, so I always got the post into the queue at a reasonable time.

I’ve been reminded that it is often difficult to resume a habit after we take a break, so my plan is to continue, perhaps with less regularity.  I have many photos in my library, continue to take more, and I am certainly always learning about this mysterious process of being human.

Thank you to all who read AMB; I’m especially grateful to those who comment either by replying to the email, going to the website and posting a comment, or saying something to me in person.  Although I enjoy doing it for its own sake, it’s even better to know that others enjoy or benefit from my musings.

May you and all beings be happy!

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Legs

Lake of the Woods Trail, Desolation Wilderness, CA

Lake of the Woods Trail, Desolation Wilderness, CA

I was walking on the trail last week feeling puny (love that word), slogging along, when I heard a voice from decades ago:  “You have strong legs—use them!” said the Aikido sensei to me during the brief period when I studied that wonderful, non-violent martial art.

I felt a jolt of energy, my speed naturally picked up, and my mood shifted.

When I shared the insight with my hiking buddy, he said “yes, I imagine my legs are the driver wheels of a steam locomotive.”  Another friend uses the image of the tracks of a (non-military) tank gliding along, effortless rolling over any obstacle.

Lamoille2For me simply being mindful of my legs has been enough to power my walking.  As I learned with meditation, the mind keeps wandering off; the trick is to notice it sooner and come back.  On this week’s hike it was my negative, worried thoughts about my fatigue or feeling my posture resume its old slumping position that cued me to re-focus.

Upper Velma Lake, Desolation Wilderness, CA

Upper Velma Lake, Desolation Wilderness, CA

Hike on!

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Sacred Waters

Dawn under full moon, Lake Tahoe

Dawn under full moon, Lake Tahoe

Last week on a meditation retreat I was inspired to swim in Lake Tahoe at dawn under the full moon.  Joined by my friend Christy (if she hadn’t said yes to my invitation, I might have slept in instead!), we braved the cold water to fully immerse ourselves.  It was interesting to have an hour-long meditation period to explore our cold bodies as they slowly warmed up.

Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash, TibetIt reminded my of several times I was fortunate to be in or near other sacred waters in Asia.  Lake Manasarovar, at the foot of Mount Kailash in Tibet, is one I sat near or dunked in. 

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

The Ganges (Ganga in India) is probably the most sacred river in the world; its headwaters are at Kailash. Indian pilgrims bathe in it in various cities along its course. 

Holy man, Sun Kosi, NepalAnd the Sun Kosi, which I kayaked in Nepal, also feeds the Ganges. This man was at our take-out, where there was a temple.

Full moon or not, I may make it a tradition to bathe at dawn in Tahoe at our annual summer retreat!

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Accountable

Larry and meGretchen Rubin posits in Better Than Before that we tend to fall into one of four tendencies, depending on how we hold ourselves accountable.  We are generally accountable internally (Questioners—we’ll only make external commitments if we understand and agree with what is being asked), externally (Obligers—we’ll follow through commitments to others, but not always to ourselves), both (Upholders—we keep our agreements with ourselves and with others), or neither (Rebels—we need to think that what we do is our own idea).

This explained a lot to me. I am mostly an Obliger.  I find it hard to keep my commitments to myself. “I’ll only eat one cookie”—then eat four.  “I’ll write my blog early”—then find myself, like now, writing it two hours before the time it’s due in the queue.  But I AM writing it, because I made a commitment to send it out to the world every Thursday, barring vacation or technical difficulties.  That is why I am nearing my hundredth post!

Last fall I discovered that my friend Larry is also an Obliger.  And like me, he is single and self-employed, so there is no boss or family member compelling him to act.  And, like me, he can get lost on the computer and avoid doing what needs to be done.

So we made an agreement.  For six weeks or so we texted each other every week day with our action plan.  We didn’t particularly follow up with the other’s commitments nor shame or praise each other—we just reported daily.  And it worked.  We were both very productive.  Recently I heard from him, and his timing was great.  I’d hit a trough and my Inner Slug (who is a Rebel:  “I’m going to do what I want, and that is to sit around and play solitaire!”) had taken over.

So we’re back to our daily posts, and I’ve already done more today than I have in too long.  Feels great!  Thanks, Larry!  Now, what to do when he leaves for Mexico in 2 weeks…

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Reunion

Lembert Dome, Yosemite

Lembert Dome, Yosemite

I should have known better.  When I casually announced I’d like to go up Lembert Dome in Yosemite, I imagined a relatively easy switch-backing trail to the top.  It does exist, but that’s how we went down, not up.

Version 2

Tenzin, Dick, me, Christy

This was a reunion of sorts.  Thirty years ago on an adventure in the Himalayan dragon kingdom of Bhutan, I bonded with our guide Christy, tent mate Dick, and logistics manager Tenzin.  All mountaineers, for them there was only one way up the dome:  directly up the face.

I’m a water girl, not a granite scrambler, or at least that’s my old story.  This was a 700-800 feet gain, sometimes so steep Tenzin had to haul me up.  Thirty years ago he had carried me up a high pass trail in Bhutan when I was sick; I joked that thirty years from now he’ll be spooning pablum into my mouth (with a shaking hand, he joked back).

Tenzin helping Heidi

Tenzin helping Heidi

There were nine of us.  The youngest, age 15, declared near the beginning that she couldn’t do it, but she conquered her panic and was the first one up (on mismatched sneakers, to boot!).  The oldest, age 86, walked on a badly hurt ankle and beat me to the top.

Sammy and I getting centered

Sammy and I getting centered

The lesson I’d first learned in Bhutan thirty years ago still held.  When I entertained negative or fearful thoughts I’d become unbalanced.  When I stayed positive I’d find the hand or foot hold, be able to look down the steep slope or out into the view, and carry on.

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