Monday, February 27, 2012

Only Reverence Will Make the Center Hold

Remember that you are human
How could I forget? you ask
Very easily, especially if you have money, or you are powerful  
or so successful that you push every thought of failure
away from your mind-every thought of human error,
every thought of madness, every thought of death.

You will err
You will do crazy things, no matter how hard you cling
to the notion that your mind is sound.

Between now and death you will have many opportunities to
crash down from whatever height you have reached, and
you will fall harder if you forget that the human path is
strewn with many stumbling blocks.

No human being can
be the best in any contest,
for very long.
Human life is too uncertain to be judged
on the basis of any one part of it.

No one can safely claim to
be living a totally successful life, for
the future holds all manner of surprises.

These words from Paul Woodruff and his wonderful book, Reverence, Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. It is not money, or fame or family or even religion that will make the center hold. It is only bare reverence...the notion that standing in awe of things greater than ourselves is a lasting touchstone for other virtues like respect, trust and a shared humanity. Reverence is a feeling or attitude of profound respect for the divine sacred in every-body and every-thing we encounter in our lives. Imagine worshipping the god in everyone you meet; not just the symbolic god-on-the-cross in church every Sunday, but imagine conjuring up a loving attitude toward every person you meet on the street. Every difficult relative. Every person, different in any way, from yourself.

Heaven forbid if we worshipped eachother. Then do you think we would be killing others in the name of a superior religion or ethnicity? Or building up walls of division, not just in the world at large, but in our communities and families?

"We may be divided from one another by our beliefs, but never by reverence. If you desire peace in the world do not pray that everyone share your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent."

I am trying to learn and understand this notion of reverence. Like everything else, it makes sense intellectually, but how do I put it into practice? A small thing, a very small thing I learned at Upaya Zen Center is the simple act of bowing. When you bow, you lower your head below your heart for a moment, giving up intellectual posturing or thinking, and plainly offer your heart.

Before you sit down at your computer, put your hand to your heart and bow.
Before you step in that nice warm shower. Bow.
Before you leave for work in the morning, turn to your house and bow.
I am learning to do this in my mind. Especially in difficult situations. Bow before I act.
Bowing in my mind when I'm angry and upset...showing respect and reverence for those awful feelings and inviting them in rather than acting on them.

We will err.
We are human.
Only bare reverence for ALL that we encounter, will make the center hold.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Have Chai Tea with your Tai Chi

As we move into the Day of Love, I'd like to share Sharon Salzberg's teachings on loving kindness meditation, or "metta", meaning boundless friendship toward oneself and others. 

Lovingkindness meditation gives you a new way to connect with everyone — even the difficult people in your life.

"The practice of lovingkindness meditation brings to life our innate capacity for connecting to ourselves and others. The lovingkindness we cultivate breaks through the habit of indifference or judgment that keeps us feeling separate from others. A capacity for friendship and kindness exists within each of us, without exception. No matter what pain we might have gone through in our lives, that capacity is never destroyed. It may be - and often is - obscured, but it's there." This thought parallels yoga philosophy in that there is always a flame burning brightly in the heart, but it is often covered over by samskaras, or negative impressions like jealousy, resentment, and anger. Our job of a lifetime is to rekindle the everlasting fire in our hearts
What I find most interesting about lovingkindness meditation is, besides meditating on sending love to yourself and those closest to you (by reciting certain phrases during your meditation such as, "may I be happy; may I be healthy, may I live with ease"); you are also instructed to send the same feelings to people you dislike, people who are difficult in your life. It is not a forced practice, nor are you anticipating any specific response. But what you are doing is learning to open your heart. This is a bold undertaking: to think of someone you are estranged from or resent or have jealousy towards, and send him thoughts of love and well-being. If it is disturbing for you to do this, and feelings of annoyance arise, simply go back to your breathing and recite the phrases to yourself again ("may I be happy; may I be healthy; may I live with ease"). Then picture someone you deeply care for, and send those thoughts to him). Lastly, go back to the difficult person, picture him in your mind's eye, and send the same thoughts his way again. It is inevitable conditions in life will deeply hurt us. Our hearts will break open into a million pieces. And once they break open, we are vulnerable and raw; but here is the pivot point. We can work with this rawness to let go of ill feelings and practice filling our hearts again, softening with each new disappointment.  Or, we can continue with our negative leanings, and build up another hard wall of resentment. We have a choice.

Finally, in your meditation, go beyond yourself, your loved ones, and the difficult person by offering the phrases to everyone, without exception and without distinction: 
"May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. 
May all beings live with ease."

Like anything, a change in perspective comes with steady practice. We can go beyond our perceived limitations and open our lives to people far beyond immediate family members, to the world at large. I believe this engenders a greater open-heartedness, less judgment, and a way to live our lives with increased peace and ease, regardless of  our outside circumstances. 

Meditation is first and foremost the most important practice of my life. In my younger years, practicing both karate and yoga, there was a tendency to push towards something, working hard to gain a foothold in a routine, get deeper into a pose, all with a sense of forced effort. That was the beginning. Years later, I learned the "asana" or yoga pose, is perfected on relaxation of effort; this teaching was delivered, unfortunately and fortunately, via an injury. It was at this juncture that my yoga practice slowed down. It was only then I was introduced to the benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi. The movements are slow, so slow I can pay greater attention to my breath, and feel the giving and receiving of energy on each inhalation and exhalation, an element missed when moving too quickly, or applying too much effort.  A yoga teacher once said, "do everything 10% slower." My thoughts on that advice is do everything 25% slower, or more! Slow deliberate movement anchors the mind in sensation, and helps to drop your awareness to a deeper place within.

See Michael Costa perform QiGong with the beautiful accompanying music of David Stringer's chant, "Universal Prayer"). Michael's QiGong practice serves to open the heart, slow the mind and create peace within. One practice, one day, one moment at a time.

May you be happy. May you be healthy. 
May you live with ease.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Breathe Like a Baby, Bend in the Wind

When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace~Author Unknown

Try this.  Click here to view DO AS ONE.   Select your colors, your intention, a mandala, a beating heart...whatever brings you comfort.  

Conscious movement of the breath utilizes the belly, diaphragm and chest. To practice, take in a deep inhale (the lungs fill, the lower belly expands) for a count of 3 to 5 seconds. Pause at the top of your inhalation, then slowly exhale, for a longer count (4-6 seconds); practice without strain. Invite the breath to sink into the deepest reaches of your body, like a sponge soaking with water. Or, if you'd rather skip the technicalities, simply breathe like a baby. A baby blooms on the inhale, and surrenders on the exhale. Feel yourself unravel on the inside, and soften on the outside with each wondrous breath. 
I'm attracted to the idea of breathing along with the rest of the world. Breathing is a matter of contracting and expanding through the lungs, but think of that contraction and expansion spreading throughout your whole body, drawing rich oxygen to the cells, which also contract and expand in their minuscule way. Even the cells take in oxygen and dispel carbon dioxide; the cells mirror the lungs. We inspire (drawing in life's nutrients) and expire (letting go of that which doesn't serve us). The exhalation, one after another, elicits an ever-deepening relaxation response.
Conscious breathing. Pranayama (the practice of breathing), maximizes prana, or life energy. Not a cure all...but a practice that ripens with time. I was going to say, "not a quick fix", when in fact, yes, it IS a quick fix. Try conscious breathing anywhere, anytime and observe your mind and body relax. A gold mine of healing, calming energy available to us at all times, even when bedridden (especially helpful when we're injured or ill). 

The immediacy of this valuable resource cannot be understated. I've proven it to myself many times. After the publication of my first book, Baby Talk, I was scheduled for a TV appearance in L.A. on a daytime talk show that was doing a piece on the art of communication. The night before, in my hotel room, I meditated for a couple hours (instead of my usual watching TV or eating), with specific attention to slowing down my breath and heart rate. That night, I slept perfectly well. Then just before taping, with flutters in my stomach, I again sat down to breathe slowly for 15 minutes, calming my nervous system and steadying my mind with the phrase, "all is well." What a difference it made. As I sat in the green room with several other people waiting to go on stage, I felt perfectly calm, energized and confident. The taping went well, but more importantly, my body felt calm and assured throughout. I was able to recognize when the mind "takes off" into a tailspin, telling me this or that will go wrong, I'll forget my presentation, trip on-stage, whatever the pesky mind makes up to throw me off course. But none of that happened and I just kept on breathing with attention. This experience left an enduring impression.
I tried it again, just before testing for a black belt in Shotokan karate. Imagine a panel of three elderly Japanese men who are sitting stiffly, and completely expressionless; they are your judges, and as you walk out on the floor, everyone is quiet and waiting for you to perform. I smiled at them (because that is also relaxing) and commenced my routine. The jitters were gone and I got lost in a "flow" where I didn't have to think about individual moves; it simply felt effortless. I owe that success to daily practice, but even more so, to the fine art of conscious breathing. I've used conscious breathing to settle a stomach ailment while traveling, to birth babies (REALLY INTENSE), and to smooth out my reactions to severe turbulence on airplanes. And if I remember, during those ordinary times, I may as well practice while standing in line at the post office or grocery store. 

I have many breathing books in my library, some from yogic origins, others written from an experiential viewpoint. For thousands of years, yogis have benefited from the powerful practice of breathing to maximize energy, rejuvenate the body and calm the mind. I especially like Richard Rosen's The Yoga of Breath, A Step by Step Guide to Pranayama because he offers engaging and accessible practices that you can weave into your everyday life. A classic, by the father of Iyengar Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar's, Light on Pranayama, The Yogic Art of Breathing teaches the techniques of breathing, along with a comprehensive background of yoga philosophy; and lastly, Conscious Breathing: Breathwork for Health, Stress Release and Personal Mastery, by Gay Hendricks is a great book that skips any particular philosophies and charges into how and why a ten-minute daily breathing program can increase stamina, concentration and overall fitness.

Don't hold your breath. 
Breathe like a baby, and soften.
Become pliable as a young tree, 
 bending in the wind
    Without snapping.