A Few Thoughts on Community  ~David Stein

 

Did anyone see the movie “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” earlier this year? I did and I loved it! Marcel said many profound things about community. As such, he has rocketed through the ranks to enjoy the status as one of my heroes. “It’s pretty much common knowledge that it takes at least 20 shells to make a community,” Marcel formerly enjoyed life with his extended family. But with their mysterious disappearance he has dedicated his life to finding meaningful community. Marcel understands community better than most people do.

Community is so easy to say. And the word gets a lot of attention these days. It seems like a fairly simple and natural concept and word but it’s meaning is actually fairly complex. I think a community is a collection of shared connections. But let’s take a closer look.

Communities are formed and maintained to meet the shared needs of the members. Chief among these needs are safety (if we don’t feel safe we can’t connect), belonging, trust…all within the context of the stated purpose/purposes of the group. Like living organisms, communities have life cycle stages: inception, expansion, establishment, and maturity (this is sometimes referred to as “forming, storming, norming, and performing.”) The stages don’t necessarily happen in succession and some stages may repeat.

The Sol Center is a community. More precisely, it is a community with various communities nested within it…much like a Russian doll. For example: within the Sol Center there is the yoga community which can further be divided into Sunday yoga, weekday yoga, etc. There is also a community of meditators and communities organized around special classes and programs within the greater Sol Center community. The Sol Center (and all of the communities nestled within it) has 100% of the characteristics and qualities listed above. I never really thought much about community until I stumbled into the Sol Center.

There is a Hebrew folksong that I learned as a little kid. It essentially praises community and it is called Hinei MaTov and it goes like this (in Hebrew)…

Hinei ma tov u’mana’im
Shevet achim gam yachad

…which loosely means (it’s been said that translation is the first step toward interpretation as often words don’t readily translate from one language to another and meanings change over time):

How good it is, how sweet it is to be together on this day.

 

 

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness or The Satipatthana Sutta

 

As mindfulness has come to mean many things in our modern usage, with the potential to be watered down into being calm, relaxed, or nice it is useful to reflect upon its actual roots in Buddhism.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, or the Satipatthana Sutta, is the classical teaching attributed to the Buddha which outlines a simple, direct way anyone may lessen and end suffering. Below is a brief overview of the foundations as I understand them, express them, and explore them as an interfaith practitioner. Interfaith here implies a respect for the world’s spiritual and religious traditions without identifying as one in particular.

The first foundation is the body, the physical, our direct sensory connection to the world.  Use your senses, your body, and your breath to bring you home.  It is simple and significant. This place you are is the only place you truly exist.

The second foundation is the feelings.  Being aware of your emotional reaction to the present moment.  We are always emoting subconsciously.  Literally, we are having a reaction whether we are conscious of it or not.  Mindfulness asks us to make it conscious, to see it clearly and to not be so driven by emotional reactivity.

The third foundation is the thoughts.  Being aware of the thinking process.  We are often lost in thought, convinced of thought, trying to think our way out of stress & suffering.  In reality, life does not yield itself to simple problem solving.  Awareness of thoughts as things rather than certainties gives us much more perspective and response flexibility.

The fourth foundation is more complicated.  It is sometimes referred to as awareness of mental formations.  I once asked a very experienced Buddhist friend to explain it more to me, she said “it’s everything else.” The energy with which she said this, as a devoted meditator, struck me.  This the launching pad into the mysteries of consciousness and the possibility for clear comprehension within the vicissitudes of this wild and precious life.

What is particularly interesting in this ancient understanding via the Buddha is that it matches our concept of the evolution of the brain- from biological instinct, to raw emotion, to abstract thought.  And it champions the ability we have to integrate it all anew; to live with more intention, care, and wisdom.   To lessen, and potentially, end suffering.

Simple but not easy.  Profound and Practical.  May it be so!

Inner Peace – Six things to make it easier

not being afraid of change

kindness toward others

honesty with yourself

intentional actions

self-awareness

Yung Pueblo, Clarity and Connection

 

I offered this Inner Peace formula by writer and contemplative activist Yung Pueblo in the July news. One of our thoughtful students took “intentional actions” as a point of inquiry asking me and himself, what is intentional actions? You may simply want to consider the question without reading on.  One of Yung Pueblo’s gifts is his economy of words.  Here is my philosophical and hopefully practical response to the question:

In mindfulness training, and yoga as well- the idea of knowing how to work with the impulses of the mind/body moment to moment is the key to ending unnecessary suffering…

Intentional action implies working as skillfully as possible with the past/present momentum of doing, relating, managing, fixing, controlling, willing…

Intentional action asks us to consider deeply. What is really happening within me and around me? What is called for (if anything)?

Much of formal meditation practice teaches us to harness the mind/body energy and purify it (so to speak);  so our presence and action can be use-full, help-full, care-full, beneficial, healing rather than reactive, aggressive, selfish, impulsive, harmful…

The Dali Lama has said “ My greatest protection (against fear and negative emotions towards the Chinese for instance) is my sincere intention.” This has always been an important quote for me personally.  A reminder that if I can be clear and sincere, to the best of my current ability, I am protected.

This brings to mind another related quote, by Mother Teresa.   She details many ways the world and people may judge and criticize your actions and motivations, making you doubt what you should do.  Her advice is, “do it anyway.” The last line reminds the person of faith, “ You see in the final analysis, it is between you and God; It was never between you and them anyway.”

And from another perspective regarding intentional action, there is also Victor Frankl’s famous statement adopted by the mindfulness movement: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Then again, it always comes back to daily life practice really.  Consider what it means for yourself in the next few situations you are navigating; how do I be intentional here? It might be as simple as being present, being connected to what you are doing, nothing special yet fully experienced.

Or more challenging, what it means when you are upset in some discernable way, wanting “it” to be different than it is right now. How do I be intentional here? It might be as simple as not doing what you usually do.   As the zen saying goes, “where there is awareness, there is wisdom.”

Yoga as a Vocation Sol Center

I use to teach a lot of yoga, hours every day. I joked that, though it wasn’t all super physical, I was a marathon yoga teacher. I taught different things in those many hours. It was also in one facility, so I didn’t have to drive hither and yon. I loved what I did and I earned a good living in the days when teaching yoga wasn’t really known as a vocation.

It is said you teach what you most need to learn, maybe that is true. I guess I needed to learn how to be in my body, how to be myself and connected to something more. I also learned a lot about teaching, communicating, relating. For me learning is primarily about self-awareness, and secondarily about information. This is why I teach yoga and not history, which was incidentally what I studied as an undergraduate.

For some reason, my desire to talk about the breath today brought me back to reflecting on these early days of marathon teaching. I taught this morning, a short 75-minute class and everyone was very focused. It felt like many years of what it took for me to learn were transmitted and absorbed by everyone in the room. It was a bit of a time warp really, it felt like we must have practiced for hours to get that deep. At the heart of this story is the breath.

If you have practiced yoga with me, you will know there is a special way that we breathe. This comes from my teacher Rama and is the essence of her method, which she will not name. She calls it Yoga. There are lots of layers to this teaching, but in a nutshell it is a way of using the breath to create shifts and changes in our being without activating the ego or the will. It is a way of working within the yoga poses that takes you into deep states of meditation where subtle conflict is resolved. It is a way of converting the oxygen we breathe into the prana or energy we need to maintain our integrity.

How does all this happen through breath? I wish I could describe it here. I actually have been trying (and editing it out) but it is really something you have to experience. For now I will simply say breathe in and receive: oxygen, energy, light! Breathe out and move: do, allow, flow. And stay aware of the source of the breath as well, know that you needn’t give anything vital to your being away, to do what you are doing.

Sol Center Reflections

Reflections, Appreciations, and Intentions

Reflection 1: While the situation of life as usual is not “life as usual”, life goes on. One of my favorite simple thought adjustments recently is to shift from thinking about life happening to me or me having to make things happen, to life happening through me. In this shift of words and thinking I remember that I am not helpless, I do not have to force things, I can be and breathe with life, and I remember to enjoy the emergent process. How does life live through you?

Reflection 2: As the year closes, as the light wanes, as the world turns I often am struck with just how fast our life goes, how precious it should be, how we should take nothing for granted. Yet we do. As most of you know I am the queen of slow- motion yoga, of teaching in a slow, deliberate, and philosophical way. Weaving in being with doing as thoroughly as possible. Would it surprise you to know that I can’t always find enough of this for me? That I need to slow down more than I let myself? That you all help me walk my own talk? If I am gentle with myself, I can feel the goodness in this confession.

Appreciation 1: Thank you for helping us keep the Sol Center going this year. I get thanked a lot for various things I do, and I thank people a lot myself- for what they do. But what does it really mean, to be truly grateful? The idea of the Sol Center has been in my heart for many, many years and is slowly growing into a meaningful reality for many people besides myself. Each of you help bring this vision into the world. To feel the collective support for the vision gives me the courage and inspiration I need to keep us going strong. What did you keep going this year? Who helped you?

Appreciation 2: I continue to be grateful for all the teachers and teaching I have been given so far, that I (and we) have access to now. There are many moments when I wish I could fall back and simply bask in one teacher or teaching, one practice or path. But it all is part of one teaching and path for me that I am still living into, that I want to share from as I continue to learn and grow. My interfaith mentor Beverly Lanzetta says “the spiritual life is a happy life because you are doing the one thing that is most necessary.” What is the one thing that is most necessary for you?

Intentions: Beverly’s words echo in my mind as I consider the new year. I see that I have hinted at some of mine already.

• To be present for the flow of life, moment by moment.

• To be gentle with myself as I do all of what I am doing. (we all do so much! much more than we realize!)

• To give/take/structure more meditative/reflective time for myself.

• To feel the goodness and abundance of what we are all doing at the Sol Center and beyond.

• To wholeheartedly receive the help that is offered.

• To be more with the teachers and teachings I love. To be a faithful and diligent student.

If you would like share some of your reflections, appreciations, and intentions send me a message and I will add them to my Solstice thoughts and prayers.

Seasons Blessings, Natasha

The Truth is Somewhere In Between

There is a meditative inquiry process I learned from my Integrative Restoration/iRest training that I find very potent.  It involves the alternation between polarities to create a new felt sense of something in between.

To keep this from being too intellectual I invite you to try a basic example of it here:

Feel your body contacting something solid right now…really feel it…describe it simply

Feel the parts of the body that don’t touch something solid…really feel it…describe it simply

Go back and forth, feeling one and then the other…distinctly…as fully as possible.

Now feel them both simultaneously…both together…as fully as possible.

What is that like? Can you describe it?

What most people report is that they don’t quite know.  The experience cannot be thought about so concretely.  The process actually arrests analysis. I almost feel it as a neurological release.

When we feel into it with interest, it often feels good.  Like something new and different.  As a well cited Rumi quote goes: Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about….

This practice and quote are glimpses of a non-dual state.  A “place” that we long for on some level, and yet don’t trust as real.  A taste of it is liberating, and yet hard to sustain.  With exploration and practice it is an important element of healing the body, mind, and spirit.


I have a lot of tools in my bag when I work with people individually.  Depending on what people come to me for:  Yoga, Meditation, Mindfulness, Stress Reduction, Grief, Astrology, Spiritual Direction, I use the tools I think are relative to them and will work well for them at present. In reality I mainly rely on deep listening and deep faith. Faith that everything is part of the whole.  Even and especially when it is hard and heartbreaking.

The polarity exercise came up recently as I was hearing someone who is struggling, physically and emotionally, express a string of negative thoughts about what is happening to them.  When we did an inquiry exploring the negative thoughts and their opposites, she offered the insight “the truth is somewhere in between.”  We could both feel the power of her statement, and how it could help her navigate, but also the pull of the negative thinking and the struggle to be OK with not being OK right now.

There is a lot to explain there, and it won’t all come through clearly in words, but I will say simply that with all my tools and training, what is often most important when we are deeply struggling is letting ourselves feel our feelings through, finding safe ways to do that.  Giving ourselves time, it takes longer than we think it should.  And, being kind to ourselves as we grope.  It’s OK not to be OK right now.  It’s OK to not know what to do yet.  There may be nothing that can be done. The difficulty and vulnerability are its own teaching, its own worth and wisdom. We are learning to be in between.


The last part of this contemplation of the truth is somewhere in between takes me back to some teachings from the Yoga and Buddhist traditions as well as a few people I hold in my heart at this time.

In Yoga Philosophy, as expressed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there is the basic premise that wholeness, our spiritual origin, or the light of consciousness is always there.  It is the churning of the mind- our sensing, thinking, and selfing brain, that obscures the fuller reality of Oneness.   We confuse our own personal perception with the truth, again and again and again.

The path of Yoga is said to be simply, the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, so the true light of consciousness can shine through.  While this sounds anti-intellectual, it is really about understanding consciousness and requires great amounts of viveka khyati, discriminative awareness, a high meta- cognition faculty.

To keep it simple, Yoga reminds us that our brain and perception are problematic. Even correct perception will ultimately be a stumbling block.  Yoga challenges us to hold to the oneness, rather than be caught in polarity.  To use our Rumi quote, to lie in that grass.  Again, to learn to be in between.

The Buddhist perspective, has a different take on ultimate reality.  Not as oneness or something constant to attune with; but as flux, change, impermanence.    It is our grasping and effort to control the uncontrollable that causes suffering.  Freedom from suffering is about loosening our grip. Like viveka kyhati of yoga- sati, mindfulness, is one of the important skills that helps us see what is actually happening in the body/mind and make choices that are freeing.  We are learning to be with life on life’s terms.

I won’t expound on Buddhism more, as I don’t want to do it an injustice.  What I will share are a few of the ways I felt it was conveyed to me that point again to the non-dual state. Both come from the Buddhist teacher I have been with most, Michelle McDonald.  She loves to refer to and quote from Nisargadatta Maharaj.  He was a modern Indian saint from the Vedic Tradition. Not a Buddhist, but considered by those of his time as a fully awake and realized person.  He did not teach theory, he only taught direct perception.  How to see through the duality to the deeper foundation of being.  His quote that I have rested in most is, “Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. And between the two my life flows.” Once again, the invitation to acknowledge both /and.

The last story I will tell, related to all this is the response Michelle gave to someone’s question regarding the personal agenda of waking up; the paradox of seeking freedom when we are also told to let go of wanting, to be present now.  The younger teacher responded “Yes, that is the paradox, we learn how to bare it.”  Michelle in her maturity said, “No, it is only a paradox if you are in your head about it.  It is resolved when you stay close to the present moment, the direct experience of life unfolding.”

As closure I offer, you one more Michelle quote about the power and potential of true presence, which for me is the abode of the non-dual, in-between.  “The truth is we don’t know what is going to happen next…each moment is newborn or life isn’t alive.  Aliveness requires the birth and death of every moment. “

Blessings to my friend Katya who is currently living into dying.  And to my friend Nathan who slipped away too soon.

We are approaching Winter Solstice, the low point of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. The time of year and the election/transition predicament have me reflecting on an important myth in the yoga tradition.

It is called the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and tells the tale of a search for immortality. In order to find it, opposite beings must work & churn together; half on one side and half on the other. Alas, once it is found there is another struggle for which half shall imbibe it.

In the story, the light beings/Devas are the one half deemed to receive it. The dark forces/Asuras are tricked out of it; although, they receive much bounty along the way and would likewise have tricked the Devas themselves. Some of the dark forces get the nectar and are made immortal nonetheless- they continue to show their power in the form of eclipses, regularly blotting out light from the Sun and Moon. They also show their power in the form of wars and plagues in general; delusion, greed, and hatred in particular.

I image you are thinking, this sounds pretty familiar…

This myth, like many of its kind, points to the incessant struggle between light and dark forces. The supremacy of light, but also the relevance of shadow and darkness as well. In the full story, they were needed to churn the ocean and helped bring many gifts and splendors to the world. For instance, the last figure to arise from the Ocean with the chalice of nectar was Dhanvantri, a celestial physician and giver of medicine. And lest we think the Devas are perfect, there are plenty of stories of their follies and foibles.

What is useful about myth is the potential to see life from a non-logical, right brain perspective. They are links between our personal and collective dramas and a deeper understanding of life and humanity. The renowned mythology scholar Joseph Campbell called myths ”pubic dreams” and dreams “private myths”.

I invite you to gently consider what is useful about this story as you live into the rest of this strange, sad, and significant year? How do dream your private myth?

The outer light is waning at this time of year- the inner light is always available. Here’s my dream:

I shine my light for the benefit of all, without exception. We work together to create a better world for all beings.

Five Facets of a Mindful Person

One early analytical model of what it means to be a mindful person was developed by Ruth Baer PhD at the University of Kentucky. This model is significant in that indicates the most important factors and provides a way to measure mindful traits and how they might correlate to physical and mental outcomes. The analysis yielded five particular facets: acting with awareness, describing, non-reactivity to inner experience, non-judging of inner experience, and observing. Using this template, here are some key touchstones to orient you towards the cultivation of mindfulness on a regular basis.

1. Be aware of what you are doing.
This does not imply it is necessarily easy, pleasant, or interesting to pay attention; simply that you are showing up for the actual experience of living rather than going through the motions. Basic daily tasks can become mini- meditations: brushing your teeth, taking a shower, getting the mail, drinking water.

2. Find new ways to articulate your direct physical and emotional experiences.
We have lots of ways to talk about concepts and things, and often don’t know how to describe what we are sensing and feeling. There is great power in noticing what you notice and speaking from your present moment reality. Try it with simple things: How does a walk make your body feel? How does someone’s smile make you feel? How does it feel to be wrong or right about something? Or, to not know?

3. Recognize that you get stressed, triggered, reactive many times every day.
It may be related to past or future events on your mind; it may be situational or relational; it may be the state of world. Recognize that it is happening and work with the energy right now. These are your patterns and unconsciously influence how you will react and respond. Conscious breathing helps to harness the stress energy and shape the future.

4. Recognize that much of what you perceive is colored by your own judgments.
Judgements are unavoidable and limiting thoughts. It is helpful to remember that thoughts are just things, not fixed realities. They can and should evolve as we grow and learn. Play with catching some of your habitual judgmental thoughts, “Hello judgment!”

5. Awareness of Awareness.
The fifth facet has to do with the distinctly human ability to be aware of the mind itself, referred to as meta-cognition. This is where the formal practice of meditation is uniquely powerful as a way to be aware of sensations, emotions, thoughts, and not so reflexively driven by them. Meditation is linked to the phenomenon of brain integration, where the three levels of brain function coordinate in new ways.

Meditate in some way- it will help you live and lead with dignity.

Bringing Mindfulness to Grief & Loss

Let’s start with a caveat.  Grieving is natural and it is hard.  There are many forms of grief; some stemming from birth and childhood, some from particular occurrences or from a progression of causes and conditions, some that will be with us every day, and some that do eventually ebb and integrate into the weave of our life.  Each of us has our own unique array of losses and coping mechanisms.  Each of us is on a journey to understand ourselves and this life.

Mindfulness simply put, is a way of orienting our attention to the present, expanding our awareness, and softening our critical/reactive impulses to our own inner experience.  On the journey of reconciliation and healing, being more at peace with what has been and more present for the life unfolding before us, mindfulness supports the meaning making process.  What is referred to in Buddhism as insight, and what is now referred to by grief specialist David Kessler as the sixth stage of grief.  Here are some thoughts of how they go together.

It’s simple, but not easy. 

Paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non judgmentally is one way to describe the technical mindfulness practice.   This can be applied to daily tasks- wash the dishes while you wash the dishes.  And it can be applied to formal meditation, be aware of your breath flowing in and out. As we attempt to be more fully present, we are often shocked with how hard or uncomfortable it can be.  Distraction and preoccupation are ingrained habits and can be exasperated with grief and trauma.   Getting pulled into difficult thoughts and feelings can also prevail.  Building connection back to the physical body and present moment awareness may take some time and work. The effort is actually part of the healing.

Kindness & Compassion are a must.

Mindfulness is like the light of the Sun, helping us to see more of what is going on in our body, mind, and heart.  Kindness & compassion are like the warmth of Sun, we need the warmth to help us make sense and meaning of our lives. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, one of the first experts in the modern field of death & dying used to frame all of our griefs as lessons to be learned so we could fully know love.  When it gets hard in any moment, find ways to evoke the warmth of kindness and compassion.  It is there, and you need and deserve it.  To be able to care about your own pain is an important inner skill to practice.  Sometimes the simple affirmation “this hurts”, “this is hard,” is enough to help you over the peaks of difficult emotions.

It’s OK that you’re not OK

When we start practicing mindfulness, we perhaps think we will feel some calm and then be able to do something productive with our messy grief…

In reality, as we learn how to be more present and aware of our inner experience we will see that it is messy!  The practice then becomes getting to know that, learning to navigate that, learning from that.

As we are able to be more aware and less reactive to our sensations, emotions, and thoughts, we see ourselves in a bigger context.  We are not just these sensations, emotions, thoughts.  They are part of us, but they do not have to snare us the same way again and again.

We can acknowledge, honor, explore, even befriend parts of our experience that we couldn’t tolerate before.  It is OK to be as you really are, right where you are, for now.

 

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

 

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

~Elisabeth Kubler- Ross

Having a home yoga practice has a whole new meaning in this time of virtual yoga classes and social distancing.

Students have commented that while virtual classes aren’t quite the same, they have helped them create structure, practice more regularly, manage the stress of this extraordinary event; as well as, make, sustain, and renew connections with others.

There are also the privacy, convenience, and cozy factors.  You don’t have to drive across town for your favorite class, practice in your underwear if you want, and you have your pets nearby.

Taking all this into account, as well as some of the challenges, here are some suggestions about how to make the most of the virtual yoga experience.

  • Am I doing it right? Remember that Yoga is so much more than the poses and techniques; the process has its own magic. The way we endeavor to teach is extra awareness based so there is less chance of doing it wrong and more chance of learning from your direct experience.  *If you do have a particular question about technique, ask after class or email. 
  • What are we doing now? You can get lost at times….it may be that the teacher wasn’t perfectly clear or that you spaced out a bit….no big deal, just tune back in and find your way anew. If you have feedback for any of us in regards to clarity, tell us or email so we learn.
  • Is there anybody else out there? Sometimes it helps to notice the participant list of who is in class before we begin and recognize that you are doing this with other people at the same time. You are actually having a communal experience. There is a period before class and after class to say hello, and you can also just zoom in and out without socializing.
  • I really need to vacuum…It can be useful to create a dedicated space in your home. And to keep it clean and clear of stuff. This is a very classical recommendation for yoga, create the space that signals your brain that you are doing something special. If you can’t find that space in your home, or your device doesn’t allow that, it can just be your mat zone while you are on it.
  • Am I doing enough or am I getting lazy? Being physically challenged can be over-rated, you end up forcing it and creating pain rather than relieving it. And, it is hard for us as instructors to know what is safe and productive when we can’t see you. A good rule of thumb is to do 80% of what you think is doable. If you want to see how it is to challenge yourself with a particular pose, do it every day at 80% and see where you are in 1 week.