Of Gods and Humans

I’m watching Of Gods and Men.  It’s about a group of French Trappist monks who chose to stay in their community rather than flee to safety during the Algerian civil war.  They were kidnapped in 1995 by terrorists, but their death was never explained.  Some have argued that Algerian soldiers killed them during a botched rescue attempt.  The first part of the movie shows the monks selling their own honey and vegetables in the market, offering medical care and advice to the locals, who are mostly Islamic.   When fundamentalists come to their town, the town leaders come to consult with the monks.  When the terrorists come closer and begin to kill all foreigners, the monks refuse military protection.  The Algerian army, in fact, is just as brutal and violent as the terrorists.   This beautiful movie highlights the monks’ incredible forbearance and dedication to peace.  It is a portrait of truly peaceful Christian practice, so unlike the practice of our allegedly Christian, elected representatives, who wage war around the world and who never cease to find reasons to kill and main and destroy in the name of freedom.  But the film also highlights the peace and love that are central to Islam, as well, showing the daily lives of the people, their friendliness, their vulnerability, and their civility.  The terrorists are presented as men at odds with Islam, men who hardly know the Koran and who have a simplistic and militaristic interpretation of scripture.  They are not unlike those among us who vote for bombs and landmines and hatred for people who don’t worship the same god.

Since I have returned from Nepal I have reclaimed my sense that we are all united in a great web of being, of aliveness and no longer identify myself as an atheist.  Love is our greatest resource, the power most essential to our nature as well as the link between us all.  We are not singular and cut off from one another.  We only exist with one another, in relation to one another, and the relationship that we have with one another when we are being true to ourselves is loving.  We are true to ourselves when we treat each other with love and compassion.   Everything else about us—guns, violence, hatred, oppression, war—is against our truest nature.

Since I have embraced this essentially spiritual way of understanding the world, which was always very basic, if buried, in me, my attitude towards other believers, especially Christians, has changed.  I’m no longer angry.    I still dislike the masculinism underlying the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the ancient and arbitrary division between Self and Other that recognizes men as subjects and women as objects, but I have given up the burden of burning indignation.  My fury and resentment hurt me more than objects of my fury.  As Donna Farhi relates, “harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

The Dalai Lama was asked how he could feel loving kindness for the Chinese, who invaded his country, destroyed most of the monasteries, murdered thousands of Tibetans, and were continuing to repress and eradicate his people and culture.  He was silent for a long time, and finally answered that he distinguished between the act and the agent.  He could repudiate the actions of the Chinese but still feel compassion for the Chinese agents who brutalized his people.  They are suffering greatly, after all, because they have strayed so far from their true nature.

My true self is not the crazy tangle of thoughts and emotions that continuously run through my mind, nor my ever-changing body, but rather the silent, neutral witness of my experiences in the world.  It is this quiet aliveness, this prana, the shimmering vitality that I share with all other sentient beings, the life-force that courses through the forests, the oceans, the mountains, the rocks, the sun, the fiery core of our planet, the rivers, the plains, all plants, all organisms, even the stars themselves, that is my truest ground of being.  This is what Rainer Maria Rilke calls “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration.”  As he wrote,

Be in front of all parting as though it were already behind you,

Like the winter just gone by.

Because among winters is one so endlessly winter.

Only by over-wintering does your heart survive.

Be and know at that time the state of non-being,

The infinite ground of our deepest vibration

So that you may wholly complete it this one time.

Sonnets to Orpheus, 11.13.

Bikram 54

I don’t feel like I’m on day 54, but rather much more like I’ve just begun this practice.  It’s really hard and I’m not very good at it and I don’t think I ever will be.  I hurt my back about a week ago.  I don’t know how I did it, and the injury is not serious, but it has prevented me from doing all the sit-ups that the class does.  Also, on Monday night, which was my fiftieth day of bikram, I went to an advanced yoga class that I used to go to regularly but have not been to for a long time.  The practice kissed my asana.  It wasn’t so hard to hold downward-facing dog for 20 breaths, nor to assume a good, strong posture in chaturanga dandasana.  What I found difficult was keeping myself in that push-up for as long as Linda, my wonderful teacher, wanted me to.  Also, she has quadriceps of steel, and thinks nothing of asking her students to hold their body weight on one bent leg for what seems like hours at time, but which is really only seconds.

There was a time when I found that practice challenging in a pleasing way.  Monday night I found it downright exhausting and nearly impossible.  The room wasn’t heated to an unusual temperature, but the sweat poured off me as though it were.  At times I simply collapsed, face down, on my mat.  And I was incredibly sore the next day and the one after that, too.

Still, it was good to be practicing on my grimy old mat, my daily support and comfort.  It’s dirty and sweat-infused, but it’s my sweat and that makes it sacred to me.

O, and sivasana is still painful.  Especially after rabbit pose, Sasangasana, which I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to do properly.  I make the effort.  Sometimes more, sometimes less effectively.  It freaks my lower back out, unlike camel pose, Ustrasana, which tires but heals my spine like no other pose.  I never skip camel, even though I really don’t enjoy it.

Indeed, I don’t enjoy any of the poses, lately.  My ham strings are super-tight to begin with and my right one has been injured for months.  I am impatient so I tend to strain it when I should simply back off completely.

But the fact that it is injured means that even my favorite pose, standing bow, or Dandayama Dhanurasana, hurts the back of my leg quite a bit. I can get my head to my knee in the various compression poses that we do but only because I am bending my legs way up.  I understand intellectually that this is not “cheating” but would someday like to be able to pull out the hamstring instead of protect it endlessly and to no apparent end.

Also, the heat bugs me.  Some days it feels unbearable.  I hate to be hot.  I lie there and suffer and try not to move too much.  As one of my teachers reminds me, fidgeting with clothing or hair or limbs only encourages the mind to race in a thousand different directions.  The point of this practice is to quiet the mind.  And one quiets the mind by quieting the body and coming into awareness and control of the breath.  My mind is a monkey chattering and swinging and screaming and jumping.  I often give in to the temptation, the urge, to wipe the sweat and hair off my face.  I tug down my too-short shorts.  I have at least given up the water bottle.

Yes, some days I’m just a brain-addled, bloated hippo lying on a gassy stomach struggling to get my arms and legs into the air.  Locust pose–salabhasana–who invented this particular torture? My legs are straight, my knees are locked.  My toes are maybe half an inch from the floor.  My breasts and my elbows are smashed against the floor.  My upper wrists, which do not like to turn under at all, seem to be completely incapable of forcing the right kind of brace with which to get my legs up.

Some people go straight up into it like this:

But I will never, not in a thousand million years, do that.  I make the effort every day.  Every day I wallow there, wracking my brain and body to understand how, exactly, I am supposed to bring my weight onto my shoulders.  This seems to me a thing impossible. And yet I struggle away.

I don’t flail.  Above all, I try not to flail.  I try to move deliberately.  Either my body will or it won’t.   Sometimes I see other people, who have not yet done much yoga, flailing as they try to force their bodies to do things that their bodies are simply not ready to do.  They fuss and flap and flutter and steam and break themselves down.

They also serve who only stand and wait, as Milton said.   Not that the point of yoga is to serve god, although it might be that for some people.  The point of yoga, for me at least, is to calm down enough to think clearly.

I have never been flexible.  I have never once done the splits or a cart-wheel.  I can touch my toes and may even someday get my palms on the floor with locked, straight legs, if my ham string ever heals.   I’m somewhat strong but not particularly athletic and have thought of myself as fundamentally uncoördinated for most of my life.  Still, I love to dance and make an effort to walk with some grace.  If you can walk, you can dance, the saying goes.  If you can breathe, you can do yoga.

Yes, yes, these platitudes really don’t help very much very often.  It doesn’t matter that they are true.  They’re annoying.  And yoga is often painful, and I often don’t have a very good attitude about it.  I don’t go because I love it so much or because I’m a masochist or a health fanatic.  Right now I am going because I said I would.

I don’t want to go to yoga today.  Most days I don’t want to go.  Especially when going means starting the Jeep three or four times until the engines runs steadily, and then brushing all the snow off all the windows and the enormous hood, and then sitting and shivering in the car, with wet, freezing hands, waiting for the engine to warm enough to drive it.  And there will always be some idiotic, slow-driving nitwit in front of me on the way down there.  Then I will have to hunt for a parking place.  And endure the incessant blast of Mexican party music from the market below the studio.  And trudge up the stairs and wait in line to sign in and hope that I’ve come early enough to get a good spot for my mat.

I almost always feel better afterwards.  Some days I feel utterly transformed.  I walk in a cranky death-eater and leave like Kuan Yin.  Still, I am occasionally so tired that practice only slightly lifts me, and my back feels not healed but racked.  This, too, is part of the journey.  I never said I was always going to like it.

Where Did My Back Pain Go? Bikram Day 43

Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January.  So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice.  What is different?  Sivasana.

Yes!  Already!  It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat.  Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.

I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years.  It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort.  Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting.  Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture.  For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve.  It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable.  The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true.  It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.

What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up.  This is the usual response of my spine to the pose.  Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain.  What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create.  I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain.  That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it.  Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.

It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting.  Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up.  So my resting period ends up being quite short.  But it is getting longer.  That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.

Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana.  Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief.  But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief.  Where was the pain?  The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared.   I shifted position on the floor, looking for it.  It had to be there.  It has always been there.  But it wasn’t.

So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson?  Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world.  Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.

During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity.  I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it.  I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness.   What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.

The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond  the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be.  There was no pretending this devastation away.  In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt.  The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became.  So I had to learn to give in.

When I first lost him, I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.”  Of course I would weep.  Usually I would cry myself to sleep.  I did this for weeks, for months, for years.  But it was the only way to make it bearable.  Only by  focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way,  could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity.  I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.

The key is learning not to respond.  The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it.  I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.

To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma.  Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic.  And sometimes just breathing is traumatic.  Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away.   Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.

A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or  behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as over-exericising, over-eating, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life.  But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through  and  beyond it.

This is it: this is my life

So, tonight I woke up at a cocktail party and thought, ‘this is it; you have grown up and this is your life.’   So different from the way I grew up.  But which is worse? to grow up again and again in new worlds with their own particular customs and rules, or to grow up in the same place, again and again, with the tiny group of people you have always known.

So many people choose the latter, it seems, for safety.  I guess.  But I could never make that choice.  There is so little time left to me, I fear, and so much more to do, to see, to share.  In this brief existence, surely we are meant to learn as much as possible from as many different people and cultures as we can.  Surely we are supposed to try to understand and love one another.  So we should travel, and converse with, and learn to love, as many different people as we possibly can.  We should seek them out, and listen to their stories, and recognize our common divinity.  We should learn to experience one another with our hearts open and not closed.  I love to be on a bus or boat or train or plane in some place that is not home, and to encounter a person I would never have meant in my tiny little home world.  Sometimes  I resonate, admire, and even come to  adore, as in love, that person, or the person whom that person led me to.

What more matters, after all, than to have a good friend in life, someone you can truly count on.  A genuine friend who counts very few people amongst their real friends.

We don’t often meet people who, a) see us and b) respect us and c) call this and nothing other than this “love.”   Not that it has to be a sexual love.

But how could you love someone who can’t or won’t really see you, and whom you don’t respect?   That person might be in the category of just-met-and-really-fabulous, but you can never really love a person you don’t respect.   And you can’t really become available to be loved until you respect yourself.

So you have to do some diving.  You have to go down deep into what you call yourself and find out what it is that you really want, and how you really want to go about getting it.  You almost always really want peace.  But not death.   So there is this problem, this paradox, from the very beginning, and you have to sort it through.