Today is Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the year to those of the Jewish faith which calls for reflection, repentance and atonement.
As I thought about this day and what it means, I was struck by the idea that the desire to make amends or reparation for wrong-doing to another is, at the heart of things, a process of recognition that we are not separate.
Repentance requires from the transgressor an identification with and a validation of the pain of the victim. Sin is an act of separation, but both repentance and forgiveness unite. Thus, atonement can be understood as At-one-ment, a fundamentally yogic practice.
The Jewish prayers said today enumerate the many forms of sin that might need to be confessed. One of the first of which is described as having “hardened our hearts“. The hardening of our hearts may sometimes start as a desire to protect ourselves, yet the armored heart ultimately functions to inhibit our ability to feel another’s pain.
Once our vulnerability is secured beneath the shell of a hardened heart, our compassion becomes hidden alongside it. The hardened heart is disconnected from the other and becomes consumed with the ego of its individuality which need not be affected by the suffering of another.
The hardened heart belongs to both victim and transgressor and in many relationships both parties play both roles, in turns or simultaneously. But there is a cure for this evil malady, it is the practice of unconditional love.
As my yoga teacher Shiva Das would say “it’s easy to love when it’s easy to love”. But it is when it is least easy to love, that it may be the most powerful and the most important to do so. This is a rigorous spiritual practice, it requires faith, humility and discipline.
The revelation I had today was that true liberation from my own suffering was possible through the healing power of love. In order to be free, we must reject the illusion that we are a wounded child and remember the divinity within us that connects us with infinite, benevolent power.
By choosing to love precisely at the moment that it would seem impossible to do so, by loving the person who seems least deserving of our love, we transcend the role of victim. We are able to view the transgressor and ourselves and the similarities between us with compassion.
The division between us falls away and we see that we are both struggling and striving in our perfectly imperfect ways to understand what we are being asked to learn. In this moment of Namaste, all things are possible.
Today I celebrate a deeper understanding of how “Love is the Strongest Medicine”. Even as we feel broken by others, we can heal and grow by consciously going beyond forgiveness and striving to love those who hurt us.
Perhaps the true loves of our life are the people who challenge us the most to love them unconditionally. It is not an easy path. But when we succeed, how sweet the reward. When my heart is fully focussed on giving love, there is no space to fear or recollect it’s absence. In this moment, love will give us a God’s eye view of the situation and miracles can truly occur.
“Life will break you.
Nobody can protect you from that,
and living alone won’t either,
for solitude will also break you with its yearning.
You have to love.
You have to feel.
It is the reason you are here on earth.
You are here to risk your heart.
You are here to be swallowed up.
And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near,
Let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps,
Wasting their sweetness.
Yesterday I found a new role mode, in an Elephant Journal article by Robert Sturman about The Guiness Book of Records reigning oldest living yoga teacher, 93 year old Tao Porchon Lynch. As impressive as her strength and flexibility are for someone of any age, let alone a nonagenarian, it is much more than her physical prowess that enchants me about this radiant being.
For not only does she love yoga, but also wine and dancing the tango.
In a interview with Tara Stiles-Parker, she credits her longevity and zest for living to proper breathing and making a concerted effort to think positive thoughts, along with a nightly shoulder stand before bed each night. She eschews fear and procrastination, simply doing the next right thing without delay.
She beams and twinkles with a light that simply dazzles me.
“Smile at everyone”
She advises as she illustrates the phenomenal magnetism of her charismatic charm.
This is how I want to live my life.
Waking up grateful for each new day,
thrilled by the prospect of all that I can learn,
all the wonderful places and beautiful people to be met,
making the most of the great gift of life
and blessing all I see with a smile.
It’s Mardi Gras tomorrow, historically a day of indulgence to consume the remaining foods that will be given up for Lent which begins the next day.
This 40 day period which begins on Ash Wednesday and culminates in the celebration of Easter is prescribed as a time of penitence for believers marked by fasting and abstention from luxuries.
I remember as a child being deeply mystified by the seemingly mixed message that on the one hand, God loved me so much and yet on the other, he wanted me to give up chocolate.
For more decades than I care to admit, I retained a very childish attitude of rebellion towards the entire concept of self-discipline which engendered many an unproductive internal conflict in the pursuit of healthy goals.
In a society that venerates conspicuous consumption, commerce and instant gratification, self-denial is a hard sell. For many people, self-discipline and deprivation are synonymous. Ironically, considering this was an issue that began in the Church in England so many years ago, my issue with self-discipline only came to resolution relatively recently thanks to the wisdom and growth I have experienced on my yoga mat.
Part of the solution lay in a more conscious consideration of the multiple meanings of the word discipline:
Yoga reminded me that a spiritual practice is a discipline in the sense of these meanings:
- Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.
- Controlled behavior resulting from disciplinary training; self-control.
- A set of rules or methods, as those regulating the practice of a church or monastic order.
- A branch of knowledge or teaching.
I realized that part of me had been stuck in associating discipline exclusively with these meanings:
- Control obtained by enforcing compliance or order.
- A systematic method to obtain obedience: a military discipline.
- A state of order based on submission to rules and authority: a teacher who demanded discipline in the classroom
- Punishment intended to correct or train.
Slowly but surely, my previous knee-jerk reaction to reject additional commitments faded and I started to appreciate that self-discipline can be a positive choice rather than a deprivation. I noticed that it is at the times that there is most chaos and pressure in my life, I find deep peace and comfort in routines.
Making a commitment to do something good for me used to feel like yet another chore on my to do list, in an overly full schedule. Nowadays, I see it as an act of dedication and devotion to taking good care of myself.
Investigating the meanings that we have for things can be so incredibly beneficial. By stopping and taking the time to examine the beliefs we are walking around with, we create an opportunity to change and grow, to throw out old ways of thinking that no longer serve us and try on something new. Which brings me back to Lent.
Even if you are not a Christian, Lent provides an occasion to try on some new behaviors. It is always interesting to challenge the things you believe you are dependent on. For some people it makes sense to give something up, even to suffer a little in the process, as a way of stimulating a form of deep reflection.
But equally, you may decide that you might have more to gain, spiritually speaking, during this period by adding something positive instead of giving something up. A couple of years ago, I found myself considering how I could choose to give up something that would also benefit others during this period.
I felt that in some ways, even giving up something that I loved seemed like a rather self-indulgent practice and so I picked giving up complaining for Lent that year. The commitment I made was to monitor everything that came out of my mouth and forsake all negativity.
I thought it would be so easy, after all I considered myself a relatively kind and positive person. It sounded so simple and yet I SUCKED at it. When I started to pay some serious attention, I realized I complained without even being conscious of it way more than I could have imagined. It was easy to avoid saying something bad about somebody, but I had no idea how much I bitched and moaned about traffic and the weather.
Over the entire period, I think I barely made it through two consecutive days of complete compliance. This year it’s going to be my goal once again and I hope that, regardless of whether you follow this or another spiritual or religious tradition or not, you feel inspired to think creatively about how you might benefit from a 40 day commitment to your personal development by giving something up or doing something new or different.
I have a confession to make, I fell off the self-care wagon. Looking after myself has been an Epic Fail the past few weeks. Quite frankly, if I were a dog-sitter I would have fired me for reckless disregard to needs for adequate exercise, rest and good nutrition
I had a major lack of short-term motivation to think about long-term goals. I was besieged by an inner conflict, as all my good intentions got defeated, one by one.
Healthy, mature me: “ I should really go to the gym tonight”
Adolescent me with bad attitude: “I’m gonna watch tv.”
H.M.M: “Ok if the gym is too much effort, I could do a little yoga here”
A.M.W.B.A: “Screw yoga, Where’s the wine?”
H.M.M: “At the very least, I think you really need an early night”
A.M.W.B.A: “Leave me alone, I’ll go to bed when I want to”
The worst part of not taking care of myself is that I know better – and not in any sanctimonious expert kind of way. Unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere, I think it’s fairly safe to say that we all have an idea of what self-care should entail. If only it were that simple. And it’s not just me.
I regularly meet people who wouldn’t neglect a house-plant they way they treat themselves. A big part of the problem, it seems to me, is that people are uncomfortable with the whole concept of self-care, judging it to synonymous with narcissistic naval gazing and self-indulgence of celebrity proportions.
There is such a cultural aversion to it that you could be forgiven for thinking there is a competition for America’s biggest martyr, when you listen to people try to outdo each other with boasts of how much they are working and how little sleep they are getting.
People who do a good job at looking after others are amongst the worst offenders when it comes to looking after themselves, it seems. As for professional caregivers – Oy. These are intelligent people with a good sense of cause and effect and more than a passing understanding of human biology and yet they would pretty much rather die of a stress-related illness rather than take the risk that anyone could possibly accuse them of being selfish.
The ironic thing is that actually, not taking care of yourself is really far more selfish. If you neglect your physical well-being for long enough, chances are you will be checking out on your loved ones somewhat earlier than they could have wished for. And back in the here and now, when you don’t manage your stress, you’re guilty of polluting other people’s day with a toxic emission of negative energy.
Self-care is about taking personal responsibility for your health and well-being. About ensuring that you show up for the people and things that matter, most able to give your best. At the very least, it’s about maintaining your physical body in good working order for as long as possible. Not eating crap, moving the moving parts on a fairly regular basis, resting when you are tired. That’s the minimum and yet even that seemed like an impossible task last month. I was way beyond prevention, but I was unable even to activate the rescue plan that I would usually implement to get myself out of burnout.
Happily, I think I have figured out was going on and it’s already getting better, thanks to the phenomenal healing gifts of Dr. of Oriental medicine, Tansy Briggs. She explained to me that when chronic stress reaches a critical level, it triggers a permanent acute response to everything. As my recent blood work confirmed, my cortisol (the stress hormone) level indicates that my fight or flight mechanism has been stuck in the on position for a while now and closely resembles that of someone with PTSD. Thanks to my mind, my body has been locked in survival mode.
The sympathetic nervous system evolved back in the day when having a snappy response to an approaching tiger was a giant asset. However, living today like a tiger is permanently about to attack is not conducive to doing most of the things that are helpful to my stress level. It makes sense really. If I thought the chances were fairly high that I was about to be eaten by a tiger, I probably would choose the extra calories with a side of Chardonnay. As far as exercise is concerned, I’d want to conserve my energy to out-sprint the tiger – this of course, is the reason that there are no prehistoric cave drawings of people doing aerobics.
No wonder I couldn’t convince myself to leave the house and head for the gym, my body was sending me signals that a disaster might happen at any second, sheltering in place was the obvious choice. Tansy explained that she needed to “reset” my adrenal function with acupuncture. And believe it or not, after just one session, I woke up with the startling realization that I wasn’t feeling stressed. Normal, happy even. Rational. Willing and able to quite cheerfully go for a run and hit both Saturday and Sunday 8am yoga classes this weekend. What a relief.
Sometimes it seems that just knowing what one should do differently is not enough. We need to ask for help. And that involves believing that it’s more than ok to take care of yourself. You deserve it and so do the people who love you.
At yoga this morning, our teacher, Shiva Das, announced that the theme of the class would be the water element, inspired by the rainy morning we found ourselves in. He spoke about embracing the element of water, the feminine, fluidity in all senses of the word.
As I practiced, listening to the rhythmic thrum of the rain on the roof and lulled into a deep meditative state, I thought about the nourishing quality of Spring rain. The way it falls so gently and seeps into the fragrant earth, calling forth green shoots of new life. I reflected on this promise of growth hidden within her darkness and wondered what seeds that lie within me, I would like to nurture into growth.
Patience and tolerance came to mind and, like water, the ability to flow. Moving gracefully around the obstacles in one’s path, instead of meeting them with brittle resistance. So I offer you this intention today, what seeds do you wish to plant and nurture into growth in your life today?
All these thoughts of rain and blessings, reminded me of this beautiful chant, “Like Rain” by my friend, Durga Das David Newman. Enjoy, Namaste.