We don’t have to suffer so much. We have our reasons for it. I’m sorry we choose to carry them. The weight can be overwhelming. Whatever the reasons may be, there’s a way to lighten the load. Even to enlighten ourselves. Slowly or quickly, depending.
You’re the condition.
The method depends on you. Which is exactly as my teachers offered it to me. And exactly the way that frustrates folks because most of us prefer to outsource our well-being. We even say, ‘I just don’t have time for myself.’ Is it any wonder we have no idea what we’re meant to do to relieve our own suffering. If we don’t know enough to prioritize ourselves, we certainly don’t know what’s going to work for us when we eventually do.
Which is probably about where you are right now.
The human story, regardless of how or where it originated, is rich with wisdom on discovering solace. Universally, it involves a journey without a geographic destination. Where we’re meant to go is within. We go inside to go home. The path to follow will depend on who we are. To understand who we are, we’ll have to inquire.
For all of this, I’ve written a book. And this is part of it.
It’s meant to offer a hand as you make your inquiries. Also to share some of my own and those of others who shared with me. I don’t really have any answers; that’s your job. I do have decent questions. I’m grateful for an opportunity to offer some of them. Your role is to proceed with compassion and honesty as you answer them. It’s your path. How you navigate is for you to decide.
Because it depends on you, you’re the one who has to pay attention. You’re the one who has to discover your methods. You’re the one who has to come home. This is your journey.
May we learn, along the way, to recognize the guideposts that remind us to care for ourselves, to love ourselves, to realize ourselves. May we commit ourselves, moment to moment, to the wonder of being ourselves. May we realize that the journey into a grateful awareness of this precious life is the destination itself. May we free ourselves from suffering.
At this stage, I give my thanks to three friends who are taking the time to read through a working draft. And thank you to another friend guiding me toward gumption as he helps me format for the publishing process. Thank you to the friend patting me on the back. Thank you to everyone who’s trusted me so I might learn and share. And thank you to the friend who sometimes makes me dinner while I wonder at putting this out from such a great distance across such a wide world.
Couldn’t you just come over and we could talk?
I’d prefer if we could all just hang out. My friend from Australia reminds me that sometimes we have to accept that long letters will suffice and even make us happy.
Thank you to her as well.
I’ll keep you posted as I get closer to sending my long, long love letter to you. If you have space in your heart, please send good thoughts that I’ve honored my teachers and their teachers and all teachers with appropriate clarity.
More and more often, these days, I’m hearing from folks who are trying to begin meditation practices. They’ve read a book, downloaded an app, found someone with a nice voice on youtube or they’re going it alone, just sitting there, waiting. What adventurous people!
And then I hear from people that they aren’t suited to meditation because they tried it and they failed. Aw, well. Please let it be known: meditation is accessible and meditation requires practice. We can learn how to do it and we can decide to do it with patience and compassion towards ourselves. If we expect to become enlightened unicorn guru masters at the first go, we’re in for a great big sad. So how do we approach this? With total friendship toward ourselves.
Here’s the thing. Sitting down to meditate cold is about as comfortable as doing anything else cold. Let’s face it… most cold things are uncomfortable. At first. Until we warm up. So why not cultivate warmth and comfort?
It seems that meditation is becoming pretty hip for a few reasons. Some of them are pretty awesome. These are the ones that acknowledge how unnecessary it is to remain in anxiety, to languish in sleeplessness, to suffer chronic pain, to deal with constant distraction. Sometimes, I hear meditation is used to improve a love life or advance a career. That’s all well and good, but it might be a little ridiculously tunnel-visioned. In other words, it’s pretty likely that your love life isn’t awesome for a variety of reasons that are going to require a bit of self-examination. Likewise with your business. Let’s just acknowledge the appropriate starting ground. Realize and soften the impact of you on you (be a friend!) and your world improves.
This is where the concept of meditation may be helpful to understand. In the West, a lot of folks simply think of it as ‘sitting there.’ Some folks consider it daydreaming or spacing out. The contrary is true. Meditation is the practice of cultivating a single-pointed focus so the mind’s chatter quiets down. We can call it contemplation (originally, ‘the act of looking at’) as well, acknowledging that this means a high concentration on a single object.
Over the millennia, the focus of attention may have been light, God, love, breath. Whatever it is, it is only that in meditation. The process of being in that focus, over time, cultivates a merger with that object. What begins as an inward focus develops into an absorption in the one-pointedness. This has been called emptiness by Zen practitioners and fullness in the yoga tradition. Same same.
(In fact, the word zen is the Japanese word taken from the Chinese word dzjen or chan which is taken from the Sanskrit word dhyana, or meditative state. All paths get you there.)
Patience, grasshopper. It takes practice. The practice of meditation offers an abundance of gifts in itself. As you learn how to redirect your mind again and again, you will discover that this process is also available when you are not intentionally meditating. When we develop agency over the mind’s pursuits, we learn how to direct it to our benefit or the benefit of any situation. We become calmer because we aren’t ricocheting from thought to thought to thought without relief.
The kindest thing you can do for yourself as you begin is to prepare wisely. Choose a quiet space, turn off distractions, assess the condition of your body, pay attention to the speed of your mind.
For the space, let it be clean and comfortable. Make it special for yourself so you can develop a relationship with the space that will support your endeavor. You may like to light a candle, water a plant, or gaze on a pretty picture to settle your energy as you start.
For the body, ask yourself and answer honestly your ability to sit with an upright, extended spine for more than 5 minutes. If this is an impossibility, you’ll simply work your way up! Though it seems like yoga asana may be strictly for the purpose of instagram, the truth is, most of the poses are meant to prepare your body, energy and mind for the rigors of sitting still over extended periods. A simple sequence of gentle forward folds and simple spine extensions will increase your body’s acceptance of the position you will take. You may be interested in doing the simple, short practice here to prepare.
As you begin, please consider sitting just on the edge of a chair with your feet firmly resting on the ground so that you can lengthen your spine comfortably. If you insist on sitting on the ground, please lift your bum onto a bolster so that your knees are lower than your hips. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. If you need to move, do so mindfully to relieve whatever ache is developing. As you continue in your practice, over time, these instincts to fidget will diminish.
For your mind, as you get started, simply listen to the burbling brook of babble in your mind. There’s no need to judge it. Sometimes, I like to thank it when it’s particularly raucous. ‘Thank you, wonderful mind, for all of this amazing activity.’ That way, I remember that mind is a treasure that like a pile of gold coins with a tendency to scatter itself all over the place. It’s also nice at the start to simply notice the patterns of thought. I like to say, ‘Oh, you again. I hear you but now we’re focusing on …’ Sometimes, my mind will offer up a series of startling images or ideas. I say the same thing. ‘Oh, I hear you. Right now, let’s focus on …’ Constant redirection. And if I get lost in one of those images, it’s no problem. As soon as I realize I’m lost, I say, ‘Oh dear, we’ve wandered. Let’s get back to our focus on…’
Over time, with practice, the thoughts start to come more slowly because the mind has become more adept at remaining with its focus.
It’s not unlike strengthening muscles. At first, it seems impossible to lift a certain weight or run a certain distance. Over time, with training, it’s not only possible but pleasant. We learn about our capacity and the obstacles we put in place to enhancing it.
Most importantly, and I know I’m repeating myself, always remain friendly with yourself. That means all parts of you. A meditation practice does no good if we push and punish ourselves. I always loved when my teacher would remind us, ‘if you insist on being an asshole when you meditate, meditation will make you a bigger asshole.’
The best preparation is choosing how to be kind to yourself, to be comfortable, to be a friend. Please don’t be an asshole.
If you’re hanging out with me, here or elsewhere, you’re likely someone with a decent curiosity about life. It’s a precious gift, this life. The world we live in as well. The creation and development of both you and the world were so absolutely unlikely and yet, here we all are. We’re anomalies per se. And each one of us is completely unique. Within this menagerie of misfits, we all fit. We all have potential to share and we all have access to our potential.
Funny that most of us have no idea how that works.
Funnier that we aren’t taught much about it until we get to to one of those phases of life when everything seems dire and we sign up for the weird self-help, self-improvement, manifestation, claim your power, you can do it workshops facebook starts offering you when it notices you’re down. Maybe we stay for half of it.
So what’s wrong? And what’s right? And… what’s wrong?
At certain points in our life, we suffer. It’s part of life. Buddha nailed it. Jesus got it. Lao Tsu, MLK, Jr., George Harrison… a bunch of greats and lesser knowns from all time. They shared with us their compassion because they knew: we all suffer sometimes. We also have ways to understand our suffering and how to relieve it.
We have to understand the source. This is when what’s wrong can be replaced by what’s right. In order to do so, we have to remember that we each are idiosyncratic beings with our own set of funny habits responsive to our own set of history books. The way that I deal with a headache, for example, may not be the same as the way you deal with a headache. The way your friend tolerates muscle pain will be different from the way you tolerate muscle pain. We each have our ways and our way out of them is as unique as the way we got there.
When we set about trying to feel better, we first have to understand why we feel bad. People don’t like this part. It requires a commitment to recognize patterns that don’t work well for us. Then we have to inquire into the source of them. May we be grateful for every experience that brought us to the present moment. We’ve made it. Please know this.
The adventure into ourselves must be navigated with a deep commitment to personal honesty. This means that we listen carefully to ourselves first and hear what we have to say. Often, I hear clients asking for evidence that the experience they had is legitimate. Here we have a fine example of placing our own subjective experience lower on the dais than some attempt to define an objective reality.
This, my dear friends, makes very little sense when it comes to our own inner explorations. I won’t say it’s wrong, but maybe you can discover how to make your investigations a little more right. If you want science-backed data, be the scientist of you. Who knows you better than you? Who is better positioned to listen to your body and train your mind? Who has direct access to your spirit?
It’s you, my friend. What’s right is you. What’s wrong is thinking you’re anything less than perfect. What’s right is an instinct to explore yourself with wonder. What’s wrong is believing you’re not worth your awe.
It’s not every day that folks chitchat about yoga philosophy. It’s not everyday that folks even bother to associate yoga with philosophy.
It’s just a bunch of stretching! It’s just a lot of tricks! It’s awesome pants and playlists.
Well, fine. It’s a good way to start. Get your stretch on and groove. And fine, fine, fine to enjoy a moment on your head if you can do it safely and well.
And if you’d prefer to proceed from that position, please do. It’s a good metaphor – an upside down stance – from which to consider the following: are you capable of savoring every moment?
For example, let’s say you’re behind a slow car on the freeway. What would it be like for you to offer a word of thanks instead of scorn to Slowbie McSlowberson? You may think you’re in a rush and you may think your tasks are very important but maybe Mr. McSlowberson is offering you a much needed moment to take a breath and enjoy a shift of pace. Maybe Mr. McSlowberson is saving you from a high-speed chase down the road. Maybe Mr. McSlow is reminding you that someday you too may need to be slow, for whatever reason, and this little experience is a teacher in patience. Wow. Thank you, Slowbie! That was a good moment.
In the Yoga literature, the guidance to shift your perspective comes in various forms. The Yoga Sutra recommends that we learn to cultivate the opposite of any arising negative emotion. It also recommends that develop an attitude of friendliness toward those who are doing well, compassion toward those who suffer, forgiveness toward those who wrong us and ambivalence toward those who just don’t get it right. In the Chandogya Upanishad, we’re reminded that we become the reflection of our deepest desire. If your deepest desire is tethered to some future longing or past correction, you won’t savor this moment. If your deepest desire is to appreciate what you are, you will celebrate the abundance of right now. It’s all you ever have.
See what happens if you look around for a moment. From whatever position you’d like to take. Look around and savor this very moment. Notice everything here for you now. Not just your loved ones and shelter and food. Not just the earth and sky. Notice every breath. This is the culmination of your life and it comes and goes with every moment. Savor it!
Hi you! Wonderful you. Magical thing. You!
Remember back when someone in your life reminded you that you were one of a kind? Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have that now. If not, let me refresh your memory: You are unique; a right bit of you without equal. Maybe you can share that bit of information with someone close to you. Another unmatched wonder.
I tell you not to cheerlead but to lay a bit of foundation. We live in this world where we want someone to tell us what’s going on. We look at our phones to find out the weather. We wait for science to tell us what’s good for us. We refuse to believe until someone convinces us.
Unfortunately, that someone isn’t always aware of who and how we are.
A magazine article says breathing is good, meditation is good, movement is good. And pretty soon, people are doing some technique that a magazine says is good but it doesn’t feel good. Still, they do it. They try for a while. And then they start to lose interest because it sucks. The experience is frustrating. Nothing happens. Maybe meditation is good, and breathing is good, and movement too. But the article didn’t take into account the condition of the reader. Poor, gentle reader—stressed beyond belief, chronically anxious, shallow of breath with back pain. The article didn’t realize that the reader has fear of sitting still.
Now, the reader is also afraid of movement, breathing and meditation. May the reader find an invitation somewhere to try again. In the meantime, more suffering.
Which is why we might consider supplementing our dependence on external sources of information with steady inquiry into ourselves. There is information in there. About you. The information is compelling, if you are patient enough to discover it.
This is the process of self-realization. It’s simple inquiry. Introspection. Discovering your habits and patterns so you can discern appropriate means of working with them or modifying them.
There is no one better placed than you to consider you. I submit: your weather is what you see and feel when you step outside. Bring a jacket. And what’s good for you is what provides you a lasting sense of well-being and ease. Notice: lasting. Notice: ease. Who can determine what lasts and what feels like ease? That would be you.
So how do you do it? Pay attention. In all the seeking we do outside of ourselves, we neglect the potential of what’s inside. You are the wonder. You are the joy. You won’t understand the cause of you until you start to consider you. You must experience it for yourself.
See what it’s like to ask yourself the question: what do I feel right now? And wait for a moment to hear the answer. Then ask again. And wait. Gather your data and respond appropriately. Maybe it’s time to change your diet. Maybe you want to resolve your stress. Discover what your being is seeking. And consider how you might find it.
Good teachers are out there to help you but they will never replace the wisdom of you. The best teachers will guide you toward a systematic process of self-discovery. They won’t fix you or change you. That’s for you to do. The best teachers will guide you toward a loving appreciation of yourself. Toward direct experience. So you can remember your wonder. Just as the best scientists do.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.
Pause, open your eyes and experience your mysterious self for yourself.
Know this: you don’t have to do a single thing to find calm. Just decide. From now on, be calm.
It could be that easy. Read some Zen koans, some Osho, some Tao and see how crafty the sages have been with their recommendations. Find simplicity; find peace. There you are.
And I absolutely believe it. I absolutely know this is possible and our shared potential.
But first, with respect to Jack Kornfield, the laundry. And then the commute. The work. The kids. The meetings. The mortgage. The retirement gone dry. The agony. The grief. The fear. And what’s for dinner, anyway?
Finding calm within the storm isn’t our bailiwick. If the storm has arrived, we’re better trained to freak first, curse the weather second and then discover our better selves in the recovery effort. Hooray for the storm. Like all catalysts, it’s a gift.
Which is why Yoga, with its kind (occasionally disdainful) acknowledgement of our body and its energies, is such a special offering to humans. Especially these days. If I asked you to sit still for five minutes, without your phone, how would you do? Maybe you’d fidget? You’d itch? Would your back hurt? How many times do you think you’d check the time?
If you try it, notice. You’ll make it. Just notice what you discover. The foot sleeping. The mind shouting. The thoughts that concern you so much you open your eyes. The trash truck rattling the house.
We all have a dependency on distraction these days. It’s the nature of the world we’ve created for ourselves, in our technology, our cars, our jobs with their fun committees, our homes with their smart appliances and toys. In a strange way, it keeps us in a certain communion with each other. It’s a ‘misery loves company’ thing. Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy it. We suffer together because we don’t want to suffer a moment alone.
Which is the big charade. Whoever said the moment alone would bring suffering? The answer to that, broadly and somewhat metaphorically, is the distraction itself. We’ve been told that happiness is somewhere and we’ve all accepted that it must be out there because it’s the out there world that pays to get into your mind. You getting into your mind is free. But no one is advertising to promote this adventure. And it’s way easier, sadly, to just accept someone else in your mind than to do the work to get there yourself.
Though, that’s not actually true, if you decide. And commit to a bit of work. The advertisers do their work. Why can’t you?
The true purpose of Yoga is to calm the mind but to get there, it offers a sweet bit of guidance and preparation. First, you got to get yourself right with the world. Figure out a relationship with kindness and honesty, with moderation and generosity. Then, know that you’re going to have to make a commitment that will require a little introspection. This usually follows that revelation we all have… the one that sounds like this, ‘I don’t know what’s up with me but I’m tired of it.’
At this point, if you’re willing to pay attention, Yoga can give you a few tools to put your body in a state of stability and ease. The most introductory of these is all those poses. They are diagnostic and therapeutic. They can kick your ass and help you spend the energy of pent-up anxiety or they can encourage you to rely and rest on the ground beneath you. They can give you more than good deltoids and bulbous asses. They give you information about the state of you. Your physical condition, your nervous system, your resilience, your ability to focus, your balance, your breathing, your pride, your acceptance, your patterns. It just takes a moment to recognize that the inquiry is worth it. A reminder that you’re in the right place to observe you. The teacher, well, she’s cool. But observe yourself.
The next time you do a movement, any movement, do it consciously. Ask yourself: what is my body doing to get me from here to there? And how does it feel? And where is my weight? And do I always move this way?
Your asana can be this thoughtful. In fact, it’s just exercise if it isn’t. And what does exercise really mean if it doesn’t find some integration in your actual life?
Please let me know if you have questions. You’re a wonder.
We all like a moment of weird. We all seek a moment of wonder.
And Wednesdays are sort of, well, custom-made for the contemplation of those deeper truths.
Am I right?
If I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that the cultivation of connection—with people, animals, plants, rocks, clouds—is just about the pinnacle of our purpose. You may think you’re working to pay your mortgage but I bet there’s some ulterior motive there that involves someone else. Or at least the potential of a someone. Or you may think your purpose is to learn as much as possible about your very special field of study: ‘I’m an expert in drainwater litigation in the southern regions of Edgetucky.’ Well done, you. But who are you doing this for really? Because it puts you with clients. Or the rolling hills. Or water. It’s a connection.
And those of you who say, ‘I go it alone. I read alone. I’m the biggest introvert ever.’ You too are connecting. With authors generous enough to share their enlightenment through the ages. With poets who offer you their take on the world. With sages whose words ride on the breath of truth.
I don’t know much but I’ve observed the movement of the wind lately. It carries an offer into the trees and the leaves dance. It whispers around corners and the corners sing out secrets. Maybe I’m being a little poetic but it’s an inspiration. It suggests that the purpose of existence is simply to learn and share. To make our offers and experience the delight of acceptance. To give and also to receive.
Which is why the first Wednesday of every month is now Weird, Wonder, Wisdom Wednesday. Or just Weird Wednesday. And if you’re reading this, you’re invited. We meet and we chat about the wisdom that has traveled through the ages, across vast distances, or even just from our mothers and fathers. We share ideas that astound us with their importance. Or, we share fun that surprises us in its simplicity. We share storytelling or poetry and discover its guidance. We share food and ponder nourishment. We learn from each other and share again.
If you’d like to join us, and it’s convenient for you, please send along a note.I’ll put you on the invite list. We meet at my place. It’s sweet. We drink tea. Everyone who shows up is awesome.
Even if you can’t make it, please know that wherever you are, I’m grateful every day for the people who wander through with open hearts to exchange information with me. That includes you.
Have you noticed how deeply convinced you are sometimes that you are the primary mover and shaker of all? It’s what life does to us. We have jobs, kids, lovers. We think, somehow, without us, everything will drop into a sinkhole. We tell ourselves a funny story: if I don’t do it… well, the universe will crumble. Into a sinkhole.
But have you ever noticed that even your best efforts on behalf of everyone all the time doesn’t yield consistent results? Have you noticed that sometimes the results are just darn unsatisfactory? Have you noticed how you even start to build resentment—little by little—because no one sees how incredibly hard you work?
And still… you persist.
A wonderful teaching of yoga offers this reminder: your effort is required AND so is your acceptance of whatever results eventuate. You can find this teaching in a few prime locations.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises a conflicted Arjuna that his qualms about going to war against his family members are projections of himself. He asks Arjuna to see more clearly the forces at work before him. Sure, it’s a crappy situation, but Arjuna must look beyond his personal concerns to realize the crisis before him. It isn’t just about bloodshed, justice and death. Arjuna comes to understand that the real battle is the one within. To find peace, he must direct his inquiry beyond the risk to flesh in battle and learn the import of his purpose as a warrior.
It’s a beautiful metaphor. The arising of our doubts and fears signals to us the presence of obstacles. Who put those there? Guess. What you see as a crisis is a mirror inviting you toward self-discovery. We like to pretend like it’s the world out there to blame. Or the person in that car at fault. Or the other country, other community, other neighborhood provoking all the bad, all the horror, all the shit on all the walls. But these are judgments with a source within. As in, this kind of thinking is you forgetting it’s you. It’s always been you. As Rumi put it, ‘If you have not seen the Devil, go look in the mirror.’
Likewise, in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, we are advised that the transformative system of Yoga requires both our consistent effort and our patient acceptance. We engage. We do what we must. And then we remember that our attachment to the outcome will totally lead us to suffering. Come what may. So instead of attaching, what if we decide to honor whatever comes.
Think about it: if you work hard but your plan doesn’t work, you’re bummed. You put in your effort so where are your gains? Oh… we suffer. And if you work so hard and your plan does work, how long does that happiness last? Only as long as it takes your next plan to fail. As it surely will. (And should. Otherwise, how would you ever learn a thing?)
As you go about your day, see how it feels to engage with the world deeply while reminding yourself that struggles and distraction, celebration and defeat are all experiences to take you toward yourself. Make every effort to share your skills, your intellect and your heart and then observe with equanimity the evolving form of your world. It will always leave you in wonder if you stop thinking it should be otherwise.
Love. Wonder. Love.
It’s a funny thing about the world these days… in our increasing technological connection, we experience increasing disconnection from ourselves and others. We are so disconnected that I often hear students say things like, ‘well, I don’t know if I’m feeling that or imagining it.’ To which I answer, what’s the difference? And when people say, ‘I can’t imagine that,’ I sometimes suggest, ‘maybe try, if you want to understand it.’
So, is there a difference? Can you gain knowledge through imagination? Is this experience of imagining somehow a lesser enterprise than a straight-up, reality-based feeling. Which is what exactly?
Scientists play this game with their subjects. See what happens with daydreams (they enhance feelings of love) and self-imagination (it enhances memory) and pretend crises (they lead to greater empathy and willingness to help).
Old yoga dudes suggested as much when they lumped imagination and sleep in with other manners of gaining knowledge like firsthand experience, being taught by a teacher and memory.
What do you think?
Let’s play a little game. Imagine yourself becoming very sad. Imagine a very sad event. Remember the sadness you’ve experienced. See loved ones crying and dogs whining and mother nature exploited of her resources. Now watch the effects in yourself. Bummer, right?
You could do this for days. You could imagine that everything and everyone is sad with you. And, most likely, they will be. You’ll notice the saddest things. And when someone suggests you cheer up, you’ll think they’re in a truly sad state for not seeing how sad things are. Pretty soon, your thoughts will be stuck on sadness. Your body will follow the message of these thoughts and become heavy with sadness. In sum, from an imagined sadness, you’ll find sadness that is indistinguishable from sadness provoked by what you perceive as another means.
Likewise, you could try this. (Though, in truth, this is harder because you haven’t practiced happiness as much as sadness.) Imagine yourself feeling happy. Think of the happiest sounds of laughter and the happiest events. Imagine them now. See green grass and sunshine, ocean’s waves and smiling friends waving. See puppy dogs and tiny kittens play with otters. Now feel the effects. Better?
It’s all for you to experience. Whether you come to an experience through engagement with a teacher, through the written word, observation, dream, daydream or imagination, your experience affects you. It makes you feel. It’s a legitimate feeling. It leaves its mark and, if you’re paying attention, you learn from it. You get a taste of the greater fabric of life than you knew before.
So free yourself up to feel in whatever way you do. Leave aside doubt and misgivings for now. Pay attention and be grateful for every experience offered to you, in whatever form it arises. Purple elephants? Pretty! Life on Mars? Okay! See how it feels to consider the possibilities offered by your imagination.
And remember! It’s a blessing we don’t have to live through every sort of pain to generate compassion for the suffering in others. It’s also a relief to accept kindness from those who offer it even if they haven’t lived our story.
In this way, we start to see that the separation we feel is nothing more than a distraction. Just behind it—see if you can imagine it—is our true and profound connection to everything.
When grief arises, the whole world can become a devastation. A great loss may also take with it our own sense of purpose. We may feel abandoned. We may lose faith.A grieving heart doesn’t only hurt. Mentally, it saps us of clarity. We forget things. We feel distracted. Our mood may swing between sadness and irritability, causing us to make choices in our behavior that may numb the heart but not heal it. Intoxication may appeal. So might a review of the past actions that leaves us paralyzed as to choice in the present.
Using yoga tools in response to grief will help us find the perspective to understand not only the grief but the loss that precedes it. Loss is the event; the resulting grief is our process of restoring balance to the tipped scales. We can address the symptoms of grief—the physical and emotional pain, the confusion, sorrow, irritation—with special practices that help the heart. They will enrich our sense of peace, courage, faith. As we do, our enhanced relationship with peace, courage and faith will guide us to understand loss itself. Life is always in flux. Change is a constant. As we develop personal peace, courage and faith, the scales will not shift so abruptly as life comes and goes around and within us.
So we use the tools to strengthen the heart.
A strong heart is a peaceful one. It also offers us the courage to acknowledge the sorrow of loss, to integrate the power of it, and to allow it to transform into a sweet faith—in our abilities, in our insight, in our access to deeper wisdom. This access is the reward of grief; the door will open for us and we can step into compassion for those who suffer as we have and forgiveness of those who may cause it.
And it isn’t just our spiritual hearts that are strengthened in these practices.
The anatomical and physiological dimensions of grief will help you understand why loss can hit us so hard.
When we encounter loss, the primal limbic brain perceives the loss as a threat to our own survival. It orders up a resistance—and the nervous system prioritizes protection and self-preservation. You’ve probably heard the term ‘fight or flight.’ This is the primary function of the sympathetic nervous system. It responds to the brain’s perception of threat by creating physiological responses like increasing heart rate, enlarging bronchial passages, channeling blood flow to big movement muscles, opening the pupils, overriding circadian rhythms and slowing metabolism to ensure energetic resources are directed toward a fight or an escape.
As you can imagine, we don’t want to stay in this state for long. It’s stressful. Our digestion gets screwy, our sleep doesn’t come, our blood pressure soars and we don’t do all that social engagement stuff that humans, with their language and love, can be quite good at! Stress is meant for acute situations; depleting energy quickly, it’s not made for the long haul.
But this is what grief can manifest in us, physiologically. Anatomically and physiologically, grief looks very much like a chronic stress state. And because so many of us move through each day in a state of stress—constantly perceiving threat and risk and challenge—the arising of grief, for whatever reason, further tightens an already taut wire.
When loss complicates stress, the brain will seek greater protective measures, and these may result in seclusion, high anxiety, cognitive fog, indecision, distraction and anger. When these issues become chronic, we can become depressed with a distorted sense of self that is looking for any way to take control. Our hearts—physically and emotionally—may ache.
Welcome, yoga practices. If we’re lucky, we learn some techniques to reclaim our nervous system from a chronic stress state. If we’re disciplined, we remember to use them when stress arises.
Here’s how they work. One of the greatest gifts of yoga over the millennia is that it recognizes that a stressed person isn’t going to sit still easily. We don’t simply surrender to calm if we’re used to fighting for control. Meditation is awesome but inaccessible to someone who doesn’t know how to settle in for to rest.
Old school yogis (and some contemporary ones too) understood that our interaction with the world around us is not a one-way street. We aren’t made to simply react and react and react. Eventually, it wears us out. If we learn to understand the circumstances around us, we can respond appropriately. We can breathe in such a way that we indicate to the nervous system that it’s okay to rest. With consistent deep breathing, our heart is toned and soothed. With a good, long exhale, our nervous system understands that we’re safe. Thus, we open up a boulevard of experience in which we can send signals through our body to our brain as readily as the environment around us. We begin to see that impermanence is a constant but something about us isn’t.
So we find ways to calibrate our energy. We work with our energy. Maybe we do strong asana. Maybe we do soothing breathing. Maybe we rest on our bellies. Or chant. Or meditate. We find methods that restore us to balance.
In the case of grief, we strengthen the heart. We restore ourselves to joy. Joy, as you can imagine, strengthens the heart. She’s the sister of grief. She knows how to settle her down. It doesn’t mean that we push the heart or demand that we release all of our sadness. It simply means that we provide energy to the space at our heart so that the experience of grief has room to breathe. Practices like brahmari—a sweet hum on exhale—serve this purpose. When the heart gains a bit of space, the experiences that are gripped around it—of misunderstood loss, or unresolved grief—begin to soften. That’s when they begin to transform. They don’t go away; they integrate. They lead us to the wisdom of compassion and understanding. To an appreciation of all the comings and goings of life. To joy.