Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.
After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.
– Zen Saying
I’ll never forget my first taste of enlightenment.
I was sitting in the driveway, surrounded by three children, two still in diapers, and one rambunctious puppy. My middle child, typically the one causing problems, was happily creating a masterpiece at my feet with sidewalk chalk. In a valiant effort to preserve her peaceful state, I was desperately trying to keep the puppy and my youngest child from eating her chalk while, simultaneously, preventing my oldest child from mischievously throwing that same chalk over the fence. The yoga book I’d been hoping to read while they played had fallen unceremoniously to the pavement.
“For Pete’s sake!” I thought. (Honestly, that sentiment is considerably whitewashed.) I closed my eyes and rubbed my head. “All I want to do is go somewhere to study yoga and figure out how to be a better person and I’m trapped in this whirlpool of chaos!”
In the two seconds that my eyes were shut, the puppy grabbed my book and my daughter erupted into a tantrum because her brother had pitched her precious pink chalk over the fence. Fighting back a tantrum of my own, I found myself taking a deep breath. As I exhaled, I suddenly “got it.”
“This is my life and I wouldn’t trade one of these little chaotic beings for all the peace and quiet in the world. This is my classroom. There is no school or ashram better suited to teach me how to live the lessons I’m learning on my yoga mat. This is where I’m meant to be. This is where I will figure out how to be a better me.”
And, with that, I rescued my book from the dog’s mouth, guided my son and the baby toward his wagon, retrieved the pink chalk from the neighbor’s yard, and plunked down on the ground to draw with my daughter. From the brink of a tantrum to full surrender to the moment in the time it took to take a deep breath. If that isn’t yoga, I don’t know what is.
Richard Rohr, of the Center for Action and Contemplation, writes that “there is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a very different way.” He’s not saying that seeking spiritual growth will lead you to a new life. He is saying that when you spiritually awaken, you suddenly experience the life you have – “the good, the bad and the ugly” as they say – in a whole new way Every encounter, every action, every word you speak becomes an opportunity to share God’s love in the world. This is what we’re here for.
Seen through the more “earthy” lens of my moment of enlightenment, living my yoga meant being a mom in the same way that I imagined I’d be a full-time yoga student in an ashram. Every encounter, every action, every word I spoke could be an opportunity to live as the person I yearned to be. I’d glimpsed this “me” on my yoga mat, but she was elusive. She had a frustrating tendency to slip away as soon as I walked back into my house after class. I now knew that she could exist in my actual life.
In hindsight, it was in this moment of clarity that I took my first step toward truly, consciously, deliberately living like the person I wanted to be – that I was, in fact, created to be. This isn’t to say there have not been (and continue to be) a million steps in the other direction – steps when I throw the tantrum rather than taking the breath, steps when I wish away the moment I am actually having. But this first step and all I realized at that moment has never left me.
To this day (please keep in mind that the baby who was eating chalk that long ago day is now in high school), the light from that first moment of spiritual understanding still redirects me when I find myself lost or wandering. Whether you find yourself stretching to act and live as a person of faith or as a the person you are on your yoga mat or a little of both, I hope the story of my moment of enlightenment gives you the peace and willingness to rise to the challenges and to receive the gifts of your life as it is – right here and right now.
This has been a week filled with setbacks for me. Nothing earth shattering, but worse than pesky annoyances that I can choose to ignore. I’ll share two with you as a teaching tool.
1) While climbing over the baby gate that keeps our puppies in the kitchen (our zone of “house-training success”) for the 800th time, I smashed my toe. It was bound to happen. I’m not the world’s most graceful gal. The gate is high enough to seem insurmountable to jumpy pups. I was in a hurry. It was dark. It’s not even an important toe that I hurt. It’s the fourth toe on my left foot. I’ve studied a lot of anatomy, and I am confident that toe does mostly nothing. But, boy howdy, does it hurt right now. Especially when I’m on my yoga mat. There are definitely postures and movements that I need to skip while it heals – a couple that I was pretty fired up to work on. But they’re going to have to wait for a little while before I can focus on them again.
2) After two and a half weeks of no accidents, one of the puppies piddled in the house. It was a very rainy day. On rainy days, my little princes prefer to stay indoors where it’s warm and dry. When encouraged (i.e. forced) to go out, they enjoy drinking the puddles on the driveway, which (in a shocking twist), makes them have to go out into the rain even more often. The morning of the accident my husband and I had been happily discussing expanding the puppies’ “zone of success.” This is a fancy dog-trainer way of saying that we were fantasizing about escaping our kitchen to enjoy rooms that we haven’t been in for 6 long weeks. When a puppy has an accident, the owner must reset the counter of accident free days to 0. We were suddenly looking at another 2-3 weeks in the kitchen.
Again, I did confess right out of the gate that these setbacks were not earth shattering. In fact, as I describe them to you, they seem about equal in terms of impact on me. My reactions to them, however, were wildly different. My stubbed toe hurts, but no more than any other ache or pain that has cropped up on my mat. I know how to modify my practice while it heals. It’s irritating, but I know it will go away and I’ll soon be back to normal. To quote my teen-aged children, it’s basically worthy of a [sigh, shrug shoulders, roll eyes] “Whatever.” The puppy’s accident, though? I actually cried.
What’s the difference?
The answer lies in the definition of setback itself. Merriam-Webster defines a setback as a problem that makes progress more difficult or success less likely. Whether you are focused on progress or success seems to be the key in understanding my divergent reactions to two setbacks that should have been relatively comparable.
If you’re simply hoping to make progress, a setback feels like a speed bump or a detour. It slows you down or forces you to head in a new direction. My stubbed toe, in other words. It is slowing down my progress in my practice, but it hasn’t stopped me from practicing. It’s taking me in some new directions. It’s even teaching me some things – as in, there are times when the fourth toe is a lot less useless than I originally thought. Over the years, yoga has taught me to leave expectations (even hopes) of success at the door. It’s all about progress on a yoga mat. Yoga has also taught me that sometimes progress comes from detours and even complete reversals in direction. In other words, a speed bump on my mat is old hat. Worthy of a whine, perhaps, but not much more than that.
If, on the other hand, you’re focused on success, a setback can feel much more debilitating. Our perspective on training our dogs had shifted dramatically away from celebrating progress to fixate fully on success. Success here was defined by escaping our long confinement to our kitchen. (By the way, our kitchen is a lovely room, but even the loveliest room gets old eventually.) In order to escape our kitchen, we need fully house trained dogs. Experts say, a fully trained dog is one who has not had an accident for 2-3 weeks. Because we had our eyes glued fully on “success,” this accident didn’t feel like a speed bump. It felt like a pronouncement that our puppies were untrainable. It felt like a derisive laugh in the face of all our hard work. Not to get dramatic, but it felt like a death sentence. (That’s probably why I cried.)
And we find ourselves face to face with one of yoga’s most powerful lessons. Our perspective means everything in how we respond to the twists and turns of our life. Even more powerful, we learn over time and with practice, that perspective is a choice we have to make. With regards to setbacks, then, yoga teaches us that we are free to focus on progress or success. The week I’ve just had has confirmed how important this choice is. While I’d prefer not to have a sore toe and to have house trained dogs right now, when I deliberately choose my perspective, I am confident that soon enough I will have both.
While I can’t debate the merits of this argument from a scientific point of view, I can say that I’ve found it to be true on many levels. In my garden, for instance, the empty space left by the sudden death of a large, old shrub was filled astonishingly quickly by an overwhelming thicket of weeds and thorns the likes of which I’d never before seen in our yard. Similarly, in my home, beautiful empty spaces on counters and shelves left by an aggressive, mid-winter clean were filled frustratingly quickly with the clutter and detritus of my three, less-neat-than-I housemates. Just so you don’t think I’m free of responsibility, precisely the same thing happened in my half of the closet after I cleaned it out, and the “stuff” that filled that heavenly open space was all mine.
In short, it is my experience that empty space seems to be a magnet for “stuff” – living or inert.
Empty space and stuff aren’t always as tangible as the above examples. Let’s take a look at yoga. In the second verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is defined as the stilling of the mind. In Sanskrit, yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ. This is often translated as “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Typically, we think of the quiet mind created by yoga as a meditative state and, when we think of someone meditating, we typically think someone sitting still. Why then, if yoga’s ultimate purpose is to lead us to inner and outer stillness, is there so much movement involved in the practice? Why, if we’re meant to eventually learn to stop doing and start being, does yoga give us so very much to do?
Have you ever tried to meditate? Or just to sit still and do nothing? I don’t know about you, but as soon as I sit down, my mind instantly provides me with a list of things I could or should be doing. My daughter actually teases me about it. She says I’m the worst lazy person in the world. She bursts out laughing at how many times I’m up and down before I finally settle into the comfy chair next to her to watch a show. Well, it’s about a thousand times worse if I plop down to meditate without preparing myself through my yoga practice. It turns out that human nature (or at least my nature) also “abhors a vacuum.”
The “vacuum” in this case is the empty space left when doing stops. Yoga’s long-ago creators understood this intimately. I like to imagine that they had as much trouble sitting still and quieting their minds as I do. So they created a practice that offers us many things to do in its effort to teach us to do nothing. Most obviously, we must learn to move into and out of yoga postures – some simple and some remarkably complex. As we become more adept, we dig into details and nuances of these postures that we didn’t recognize when we first learned them – how the hands are aligned, how the pelvis is tilted, how we distribute the weight, which muscles we are activating and which we’re releasing, how we hold our head. Physically, there is an awful lot to do in each and every posture we take.
Beyond the physical, we’re asked to coordinate our movements with our breath. Just paying attention to whether you’re inhaling or exhaling takes a great deal of concentration. Learning to manage your breath – to regulate its pace, to control its intensity and to count your breaths while you’re in a posture – requires even greater levels of focus. We simply cannot worry or daydream while we focus on our breath. As we pour ourselves into this work (this doing) we get a taste of what it means to separate from the endless chatter of our thoughts.
As we practice, we also begin to better understand the “stuff” with which we tend to fill our empty spaces. This stuff can be lists of things that need to be done, worries, daydreams, an endlessly replaying loop of a stressful conversation, or repeated poking and prodding at a hurt feeling. It is said that we think 60,000 thoughts a day. It is also said that we’ve thought 90% (i.e. 54,000) of these thoughts before – perhaps many times. Even if that is a wild over-dramatization, we all absolutely have a lot of clutter in our minds that needs to be cleared out to find some empty, quiet space.
Over the course of your practice – whether an hour or 15 minutes long – we get many experiences of what it feels like to be in this empty space. It feels focused, centered, and open. It feels rich and full. It feels as right as it feels rare. Over months and years of practice, this collection of little experiences grows. Not only do we get better at settling into a quiet mind, but we are drawn to do so. In fact, we may find ourselves seeking quiet off our mats as well. Better yet, we may find ourselves creating quiet for ourselves using the skills we have practiced on our yoga mats.
As you practice today – or as you move through your morning – pay attention to what you’re “stuffing” into your empty spaces. What clutter can you clear away? What tricks help you do so? When you do, I suspect you’ll realize something profound. The “vacuum” you were instinctively abhorring is not a vacuum at all! It is a quiet place filled with the deep gifts of self-awareness, a sense of connection to the world around you and the opportunity to stretch toward your deepest desires and the yearnings of your spirit. It turns out this empty space is wonderfully full indeed. We just have to be still to see it.
The summer before our son headed off to high school, we decided to have him assessed to learn more about the way his mind works. Because he had always been a bright and curious kid with a phenomenal memory and an abiding passion for books, we’d made the assumption that he would be an academic superstar. Suffice it to say that our assumption was more a daydream than an accurate prediction. When we met with the psychologist to receive the results of his tests, she said something to my son that I’ve never forgotten.
“You need to remember that everything we learned about you through these tests is meant to be a tool to help make you more successful in life. None of these descriptions of you is meant to be a label or a crutch.”
She went on to explain to him that just because he has an attention issue, didn’t mean he couldn’t do or shouldn’t try certain things. His diagnosis, in other words, wasn’t a free pass to throw up his hands and say, “Oh well, I can’t do that. I have an attention issue.” Rather, his diagnosis was a tool – a level of self-knowledge and self-awareness that he hadn’t had before – that would help him to create situations for himself where he could be successful at anything he set his mind to.
Even at the tender age of 14, this tremendous life lesson was not lost on him. That single meeting ignited a self-confidence in our son that we’d not seen before. Even today, almost 5 years later, he employs many of the same self-management skills that he was taught that morning.
Clearly, we’re not all fortunate enough to take a battery of tests and have an expert tell us more about ourselves. (What a luxury that would be!) But we are all able to take a step back every once in a while and reflect on our strengths and our weaknesses. In fact, doing so is a natural part of the life-long process of growing up. But as we do this introspection and reflection, we need to be careful. Unfortunately, our inner “seer” is rarely as wise and gentle as my son’s psychologist. Rather than inspiring us to be innovative in our approach to something new, it is far more typical for us to walk away from an encounter with one of our weaknesses feeling defeated and limited. “Oh well,” we think, “I can’t do that because of [insert weakness or fear or limiting belief here].”
Self-awareness has the power to change our lives. It can keep us small – hampered by our natural limitations. Or it can help us stretch to greatness because we truly understand ourselves. The power it has in our lives is up to us. It’s a choice we have to make. Consistently making the choice to grow and stretch and change takes practice.
One of the fundamental tenets of yoga is svadhyaya or self-study. As we practice yoga on our mats, we learn about our bodies – how we are weak and how we are strong, whether we are flexible or inflexible, what makes us afraid and what excites us. We also quickly learn that what we learn about our bodies one day is often not true the next. We learn, then, to hold our beliefs about ourselves lightly, giving ourselves the space to change – sometimes so quickly it’s dizzying and sometimes so slowly we would miss it, if we weren’t paying such close attention.
As we practice, we also learn about our minds. We glimpse how we are weak and how we are strong in our reactions to something that is hard for us. Do we quit? Do we keep trying? We begin to understand whether we are flexible or inflexible. After we’ve surprised ourselves a few times by doing something we were positive we couldn’t do, we will begin to suspect that our rigid ideas of what’s possible need to soften. We notice what makes us afraid and what excites us. And, over time, we notice that what once frightened us no longer does. Again, we’re left holding our beliefs about who we are with a looser grip.
As we practice, like my son, we learn to create situations – inner and outer – in which we can be successful. Some of us discover that the best way to face a fear is to jump right into the deep end, while others ease in step by step. Some of us learn patience when faced with the slow opening of tight muscles. Others learn faith when, without warning, a posture that was wholly out of reach is suddenly feasible. Some of us witness chronic negativity and, over time, slough it off. Others notice a repeated pattern of naïve optimism and, with practice, develop a healthier sense of reality. Most of us develop a more discerning ear when our inner nay-sayer begins to chant. All of us – truly all of us – will, with steady practice, become kinder and more gentle with ourselves.
The self-awareness that we develop on our yoga mats does not stay there any more than the strength and flexibility do. As we move through our lives – the challenging times and the easy times – we find ourselves relying on the lessons we learn (and practice) during our time on our mats. Like my son after listening to the psychologist, we find ourselves liberated from any labels (self-imposed or “given” to us by others) and without need of crutches. Instead, we freely shoot for the stars and follow our hearts to become the very best versions of ourselves that we can imagine.