Hey Angry Couch-guy, Genghis, Meet Faith

“Hey moron, look at that guy’s snazzy car. He must be makin’ a mint, unlike you, the nine-year payment-plan to buy a Hyundai putz. Hey, move your under-achieving ass and get me the remote. While you’re up I need another beer,” says my inner critic, always.

I’ve been struggling in my Mysore yoga practice for a long while. At first, I was saddled with self-inflicted injuries that dogged me nearly a year. Lately, I’ve been battling frustration at how incompetent I am in so many of the poses in my practice, despite how long I’ve been doing them; or, how long I have been trying to do them without much success.

These realities point to many things, paramount among them, at least in my mind, being the undeniable fact I am not a young man anymore. If I am being honest, I try to be noble and graceful about aging, but in truth I hate that prospect. It sucks. There are other aspects of my life that suck besides aging. I wonder if the struggle am experiencing in my yoga is a reflection of my conflicted feelings about where I currently stand in life; whether it portends anxiety at the thought of more grim realities in store.

I am aware the toll aging will have on my body. It’s an inevitable facet of existence. Up until recently, the reality remained in the realm of abstraction. I am in better shape now than I was in my late twenties and thirties. People aren’t just being polite when they express shock at hearing my age. I sense at times they are thinking “this guy’s pretty immature for a forty-something,” which I’ll take as a compliment. No matter how youthful the image staring back at me in the mirror appears, the duration of time my injuries linger – from yoga, of all things – is certain proof that aging has caught up with me.

Even though I appear young, am not flabby, and don’t have grey hair, at least on my head, teenaged employees at the grocery store call me ‘sir.’ The young and cute marketing reps downtown giving away energy drinks or other stuff to get young folks hooked on don’t even bother giving me a freebie. I’m not in the cool target demographic anymore, which basically means I am in the segment of society whose existence no longer really matters. ‘Is there a smell that betrays my age?’ I wonder.

I don’t know why, but I thought I’d be dead by now. I’m not a gangster; never been a coal miner, high-rise window-washer, or test-pilot. I’ve never been addicted to anything harder than Zesty Cheese Doritos. I just had a feeling when I was fifteen that forty-something was as doomed as ninety-one. There was no forethought to mentally prepare me for the age I’ve managed to acquire, despite myself. It’s the second time arriving at a place in my existence – ostensibly because I wanted to – without a plan for enjoying it or an expectation that it could actually be enjoyed. The first time I was struck by the feeling was the day after I got married.

I tend to push myself in everything I do. I am desperately trying to be better than everyone else; the thinking being that, once I stand alone at the pinnacle, there will only be one person instead of legions to make me feel inferior. Since self-loathing is the quintessence of loneliness I may as well be at the top. So far, neurosis has undermined my ascendancy with perfectly placed banana peels I can’t ever seem to avoid.

When I started doing yoga seriously, the intention was to do the poses I had seen in posters of the Primary Series. I didn’t really take much heed of the possibility my meaty legs, barrel chest, and tight ass might not be able to compress or bend accordingly. It never occurred to me the waifs in the pictures I was trying to mimic didn’t look like they’d been eating bacon and binge-eating their neuroses away in their spare time. No matter, my mind was intent on making it happen, body be damned.

After about a year of that nonsense, my body had had enough. Even the simplest movements were punctuated with pain. My body would not allow me to bend as I had done countless times before.  I’ve been paying penance ever since, wondering when I will be forgiven. Every time it seems I’ve got a foot out of the dog house, my body throws a twinge here or a throb there to remind me: you pushed too hard, asshole.

I get frustrated quickly, with myself, with the shenanigans at work, with senseless violence in the streets, with the lack of world peace; with the fact an unapologetic douche-bag like Donald Trump is a genuine contender in the GOP race. I am a habitually impatient person. I’ve never suffered fools very well. It disturbs me profoundly that so much of our society’s wealth and power is in the hands of utter douche-bags; that the wealth we generate is not easing the suffering of so many millions, but increasingly lines the pockets of cretins intent on using their influence to immiserate the lives of the majority.

I have difficulties with focus, my mind wanders madly. I’m often grappling disappointment with many things in the world, especially myself. When I struggle with all these emotions I redouble my efforts to fix the shit out of that negativity. l’m grimacing, pushing, squeezing, wincing, forcing myself to be happy if it kills me. There is no letting go; there is no acceptance of the way things are. There is no trusting in the wisdom of time; no memory of how often it has whittled away the sharp edges of adversity, how it has carried me through in the past. There is no belief in the power of a graceful approach when the intense heat of the present seems unbearable.

It’s hard not to notice all of these mind-states when you’re doing a self-practice based yoga. There are no sultry instructors to listen to, no people to follow along with; nothing to steal your focus – other than your own raging mind. With practice after practice swirling in a mental cesspool of frustration and self-recrimination, there is residual anger at the cruel alchemy of cosmic forces that made me this way.

“I don’t like how this shit is going! I am gonna siege and plunder my external reality to quell my inner angst!” says my ego, always.

I imagine in another life I was either Genghis Khan or his caustic side-kick – plundering and ransacking the world with brutality to fill some gap in his soul. There is difficulty with relaxing into my yoga; or into my life. My preference is to force the issue; to push too hard. In the past, the victories arising from this approach were pyrrhic; I don’t know why I still cling to it, but I do. Hence the feelings of constant struggle. All this self-awareness can be difficult, because the revelations aren’t brimming with the positivity and bliss we tend to expect from yoga.

Several months ago, I was sitting with my legs out on my yoga mat, doing nothing. The sludge had bubbled over in my head and drowned out my yoga practice. I battled the urge to call it quits, fought back tears, and was tormented by feelings of being a total fuck-up; a cruel tenor of self-reproach that’s dogged me for years.

My teacher came to me and said, “Just keep moving. Don’t stop in the thoughts. Have faith in the breath and follow it with your focus.”

I said, “but I’m just so … ” gassed, I may have said, or something like it. He replied “take it easy, but keep the practice moving.”

But how? It’s not in my nature to take it easy when I’m in the throes of total, abject failure. I can’t fail, yet again. I need a success.

After doing this kind of yoga for almost three years, I am beginning to understand what makes yoga a “spiritual” practice. There’s no escaping the outer layers of self when you’re trying to bend, twist, or bind and you can’t stop clenching to allow it to happen. The fact I persist, despite the struggles, the self-inflicted injuries, and the doubts about the point of continuing, is my first foray into the kind of faith my teacher was pointing to. Larger truths transcend our limited prior notions about the content of those glimpses of wisdom. In my case the insights have been more often humbling than blissful.

For once in my life, I am not as threatened with being honest about some of my shortcomings. That honesty has allowed me to see the good things too, which were hidden beneath all the anger, indignation, and striving undertaken to please my inner critic. When I practice yoga, it’s me on my rug. The inner chatter, opinions, and negative judgements emerge from a mind conditioned to do just that. It’s not really me, as much as it is a pernicious habit I can’t seem to relinquish despite its drawbacks.

The moment I sense a struggle, my mind reacts quickly with frustration or anger to push through the problem. It’s so automatic I don’t even notice my eyes shifting around and my breath stultified. The angry voice fears failure; it doesn’t trust that something as simple and soft as a breath can solve the problem. My mind, body, and breath have no history of working together. The integration was lost from all the years I gave exclusive reign to my discursive mind.

This highly reactive mind of mine has countless times thrown me under the bus. It has ruined or severely strained countless relationships; I’ve said and done things to cause damage that I can’t take back. And yet there I am, doing it even when I practice yoga. It is irrefutable proof how deep are the ruts, how effectively they carry the rivers of distorted narratives to my consciousness, how routine it seems to drink the poison cup.

It is a profound lesson in humility for a grown man of my age to accept. It is easy to understand how I became injured, why I’m so hotly agitated with things, and why I periodically think of calling it quits with yoga. I cannot stop the affliction despite how pernicious and counter-productive it is to a positive outlook. Sometimes I wish I did not have to see it, but if I go back to denial and distraction it will return as a force in my life again, which I no longer want.

In times of trouble my inner voice is like an unwanted, angry old friend who arrives unannounced to crash on my couch. He fritters away my money, drinks my beer, and binges on junk food as he slouches in my couch, robbing my soul with his incessant put-downs and naysaying. Like a drill-sergeant, he believes the abusive hectoring is needed to light a fire under my waning spirit. In reality he’s fanning the flames of psychic self-immolation. Despite his penchant for destruction, he’s got a set of keys to my mental space, and creates a dour mood when he’s around, which is more often than I would wish.

Zen Buddhist master Suzuki-roshi speaks of the need for a “don’t know mind.” In meditation as in life, the adage is to practice being in the world as if we were beginners, dispensing with our expectations and understandings of the way things are supposed to be. These ideas narrow our perception and close our eyes to endless possibilities.

In our culture, we engage in relentless pursuit of competence to avoid a “beginner mind.” The idea is anathema to how we’re conditioned from an early age. We are told it’s in our best interest to acquire the education, skills and wealth to navigate life successfully. Nobody wants to be a beginner; nobody reveres a beginner; being a beginner doesn’t pay the bills. The greed, indifference, and ethical abyss our societies have descended so clearly attest to just how hollow our ideas of competence truly are.

Okay then, back to the beginning. In this case, this blog post, where I attributed my inability to do Mysore yoga to my increasing age. Clinging to the idea makes it easier for me to remain foreclosed to the possibility of good things ahead despite the inevitability of aging and the certainty of more experiences I will struggle with. The negativity stirs my mind to dispatch its mental army of resistance against reality on a quest to preserve my youth and conquer life’s obstacles with brute force, instead of accepting things as they are and charting a path with heart through them.

Maybe the angst has been a motivator in the past, but mounting such resistance is as exhausting as it is futile in the end. I need a new approach; more openness, less anguish, no expectations. Maybe I’ll learn to just see what happens without all the agitation, and patiently wait to see what comes with a more easy-going effort. It’s a hard shift to make; it’s been the acerbic couch-surfer, Genghis, and I manipulating the tragic, dysfunctional fable that has been my life for such a long time.

When I stand at the edge of my mat tomorrow morning, and the morning after, and the morning after that, I’ll thank my prognosticators for doing their best in trying to prevent me drowning in complacency and resignation. I’ll mean it too. But I’ll have to let them go so my practice, and my life, are imbued with greater freedom, even in the struggle. I will do my best to breathe, focus, and keep moving through it, as the teacher says, instead of fighting it with stridency or conceding defeat.

None of us really knows what lies ahead. Life’s constant flux, the fear of being overwhelmed by the next unseemly circumstance, is at the source of my struggle for control. The uncertainty compels me to reach for my sword. With a little faith I sense a better future; the softening of my mind invites a wider range of possibilities to make it so.

Ambling Mind, Meet Full Moon

Full Moon ManThis morning I was sitting in quiet meditation as I do most mornings. Well, I was sort of sitting. More like squirming. And cursing under my breath, having another heated argument with myself.

Okay, I wasn’t really squirming as much as bouncing and jerking around as if I’d jumped on the back of an unbroken mustang and it was way pissed I was there. He would not relent, that testosterone-laden young buck, and I could not find that place of stillness despite all my efforts to hang on.

“What the fuck is going on?” I angrily mused. Another one of the Six Perfections I am nowhere near perfecting – Patience.

This is not really the best tone for one’s inner voice when practicing shamatha-bhavana – cultivating calm abiding – when thoughts arrive to invade the mind. If anything the angry reaction just compounds the disruption of a relatively minor thought.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Should I be ashamed that I still have a “beginner’s mind” after almost eight years of meditation? Sigh.

Yeah, yeah. I ain’t Suzuki.

This morning thoughts raced in my consciousness like a meteor hurtling to earth, displacing the still, glass-like waters of my peaceful lake at dawn as it left a massive crater on impact with the ground. A giant cloud of ash and soot sent waves of discomfort throughout my body and mind, leaving them tense, twitchy, and agitated as hell.

You’re supposed to return to the breath when thoughts arrive to draw your focus away. You’re not supposed to suppress the thoughts as they come. It’s okay to notice them, to acknowledge them passing your view. You can even say ‘hello’ as they pass by, as you would in passing sweet elderly people at the park.

What you don’t do is entertain the passing thoughts. You don’t change direction and start walking wherever it is they’re going. You don’t yell at them indignantly as you do at speeding cars racing down your quiet side-street. You don’t say “what the fuck is going on,” that’s for sure.

I know this, dang it. I’ve been doing this stuff for years. Geez.

Mr. Zafu – my meditation cushion. Somedays it’s my saddle, and instead of meditating, I go for a ride on the mustang that is my ADD-infected mind.

But some days it can be really, really difficult. I have ADD. It’s a miracle I can sit at all, let alone abide my breath.

Sometimes, it is calm, exactly what you’d expect when meditating. It feels as though I am sitting at the beach watching my children swimming, on a beautiful summer afternoon. I am reading a favourite book, sitting under the shade of my umbrella, listening to leaves humming as they are grazed by a gentle breeze. Seagulls heckle each other, hovering joyously above the landscape, waiting for a six year old to trip and spill her bucket of French fries in the sand, scavenging an easy meal as she mourns her lunch.

Ahhhhhh. Shamatha-bhavana, indeed. This ain’t so bad.

Suddenly, a bunch of obnoxious hooligans arrives on scene to mess with my bliss. I hear the unmistakable buzzing sound and two-stroke insanity of small watercraft. It’s like twenty-one gun salute of buckshot, instantly killing the chorus of seagulls; a raiding party of lumberjacks cranking up their chainsaws to fell the trees and silence their beautiful hum. The morons, incapable of handling machines they’ve been cavalierly allowed to use in a public swim area, narrowly avoid colliding into children who swim oblivious to the danger lurking in their midst.

Then I secretly wish there were Great White Sharks in the fresh lakes where I live. Those runts wouldn’t be so happily endangering the lives of small children then, would they?

They say I’m not to be so easily pissed off by the douche-bags possessing my thoughts. I have to return to the breath. Just like that. It was such an awesome day at the beach. I have a right to be mad at those jerks on jet-skis, those meteors, those wild, untamed mustangs I deign to ride.

Usually, in spite of myself I am able to do just that. To remain relatively unmoved by the arising thoughts. To re-direct back to the breath. I get a clear mind for about a minute or two, maybe forty-five seconds. That’s the longest spell of peace my ADD-addled mind allows before it gets restless and invites a jungle of macaques promising a year’s supply of bananas to come and throw their shit in my mind.

This morning, the monkeys arrived a little more randy than usual. Their all night binge slapped me in the back of my head, punched me in the gut, and shoved bunches of bananas up my ass. They left me with taut shoulders, a wincing stomach, and clenched hips and butt-cheeks. To add insult to injury, they also dragged their elephant friend along, and he sat on my chest, leaving me nearly breathless.

I was pitching and rolling on my meditation cushion, as if sitting on a white-water raft about to plunge over Niagara Falls. My arse was nominally in contact with my cushion, my ischial tuberosities afraid to fully acquaint themselves with Mr Zafu.

All my tricks to fend off the worst house-guests in history were futile. I tried several Pranayama breaths, as I do hundreds of times in a single Mysore practice. Nope.

Samavritti breathing – equal counts inhale and exhale. To a count of twelve! If I don’t pass out first, it’s bound to get me back on track.

Ha Ha, it is to laugh, little Buddha. Mantras. Nope. Count the damn breaths. Nope, not quite. Tickle the roof of my mouth with the tip of my tongue. ‘Gawd dang, that feeels weird!’ I’m just wincing, now.

Time to bring out the big guns. Kapalabhati breath. Suck it, rogue-like, ambling mind. You’re going down!

Vanquished again. But my sinuses were clearer than they’ve been in days. You know, the smell of defeat isn’t all that bad.

Then my timer goes off. What?! It’s been twenty-five minutes already?! No way. Let me check that iPhone’s not wonky.

Ischial Tuberosities, also known as "sit bones." These are the bones that one is theoretically supposed to make contact with the ground when sitting. In my case, I'm usually too taut in my shoulders and hips, so I sit on my hamstrings instead.

Ischial Tuberosities, also known as “sit bones.” These are the bones that are theoretically supposed to make contact with the ground when sitting. I’m usually too taut in my shoulders and hips to do that, so I sit on my hamstrings instead.

Usually, this tango with my mind goes on for about ten minutes before I can settle in to a relatively steady routine of calm meditation and violent distraction. Today, distraction landed a Mike Tyson hook square in my meditation’s temple, thirty-eight seconds into the fight. I remained in the ring only because I lay in unconsciousness for the remaining twenty-four minutes, twenty-two seconds.

What the fuck?!

I went through the items on my post-meditation checklist. I am not stressed about work. Things with my partner are awesome. I am not displaying any symptoms that may be distant early warning signs of cancer, this week. I slept okay, I think. I had some off the wall dreams, actually. I was naked with an erection, the opening scene in my fantasy was looking good. Until I looked around in my dream and realized I was boning in a public place, again, which made the whole thing pervy. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you’re constantly having a dream that makes you want to turn yourself into to the cops when you wake up. So I just repress it, which usually works.

Wait.

What day is it?

Cripes, it’s a Full Moon.

That’s why I wasn’t rushing off to go to my Mysore class today. Those weirdo Ashtangis don’t practice on full moons, for some arcane reason. I assume the meat-loving schlubs like myself who do Mysore yoga are the only ones totally unaware of why this is.

When people ask about it, I just say something to stem the implied ridicule in the question like, “hey, the tides react with extremes on a full moon, and we ARE, like, ninety per cent water, so …” Usually they shake their head in agreement with something in that statement. It saves me having to give a real answer, which I don’t know.

This is the mantra I typically do. It's the mantra named after Amitabha the bodhisattva of compassion which is what I need when I am cursing myself during a lousy meditation session.

This is the mantra I typically do. It’s the mantra named after Amitabha, the bodhisattva of compassion, which is what I need when I am cursing myself during a lousy meditation session.

Now, I think maybe there’s something to this whole business of a Full Moon not being good for practice. I sit in meditation nearly every day, so I notice when a session is particularly shitty. Today was a side-show, as was my frenetic morning routine.

At one point this morning, I got confused about what to do first – make the coffee, get dressed, or have breakfast. So I did them all at the same time. I almost got into three accidents on my way to work. I had coffee grounds and jam in my underwear, which I didn’t discover until much later on.

Then, instead of immediately getting to work once I sat down at my cubicle, I started writing this blog post. Aha! A Full Moon makes me too frazzled to get my work done. But I procrastinate on a quarter, half and seven-eighths moon. Maybe it’s the moon just being there. I wonder if I could get a doctor’s note for this work-disrupting disease related to the moon’s existence.

This is going nowhere.

I asked my cubicle neighbor if she slept well last night. After shaking off her puzzlement at the question, she did mention her sleep wasn’t great. She then said she was snappy at her son, and extra bitchy in her e-mails this morning. She started talking about her drive to work before I cut her off and said, “I think I’ve got enough, thanks.”

Three people called in sick – on a Wednesday. A Wednesday! It’s cloudy outside, too. Could it be they are really sick? Were they barking at the moon a little well into the wee hours? Hmmm.

Another office colleague returned from her morning coffee having gone on a buying binge, grabbing one of every on-sale “food” item at a drug store chain. She generously shared her bags of sodium, sugar, preservatives and other nominally edible toxins with her appreciative colleagues. There was an explosion of excitement as we stood around stuffing our faces with carcinogens, significantly shortening our life spans. What a care-free breakfast gathering it was!

"You wanna marinate, b*tch?" "No, Mr Tyson - Meditate"  "Marinate on this - " As his left hook smashes into the temple of my meditation session.

“You wanna marinate, b*tch?”
“No, Mr Tyson – Meditate”
“Marinate on this – “
As his left hook smashes into the temple of my meditation session.

So, it may be there is something to this “Full Moon” business, after all. Or maybe I’m just grasping at straws to find a suitable excuse for another crappy meditation session. The idea there’s no reason at all for my ineptitude, besides the fact my mind is like a six year old tripping out after a gummy-bear binge, sucks. That just leaves me with trepidation at the thought of many more unexpected rides on the mustang when all I want is to sit on Mr Zafu for a pleasant ride in a canoe on a serene lake at dawn. Full moon it is.

Ambling mind, I’d like you to meet full moon. Full moon, meet my mind. Something tells me you two know each other.

174 and 1/2 Steps To Be Thin, Happy, and an All-Around Amazing Human Being in Under Two Minutes

Okay, the title is a little dishonest.

In reality, I’m not going to give you any finite number of simple steps toward anything. This is a cliche I don’t mind employing from time to time: nothing worth doing is easy.

The gist of my title piggybacks on the blogging trend in vogue these days. Every article is fashioned into a list, with the aim of grabbing the attention of a culture who seems collectively to have the attention-span of a six-year old. This is completely benign when it comes to the subject of the “10 Child Stars Who Still Look Like They Did When They Were Child Stars” or “15 Ways to Get Laid, Paid, and Never Be Afraid.”

But I have some serious reservations when this editing approach is employed to articles attempting to give serious advice to those who feel their well-being suffers. I understand perfectly why there are dozens of web sites catering to the legions out there who feel fat, lonely, miserable, or otherwise unfulfilled in their lives. I was, and to a degree still am, one of those people. I think the intentions behind all the advice columns out there are noble, and I still regularly consume many of these myself.

However, there’s a danger in framing the solution to overcoming some serious problems as if it was “Easy as 1-2-3.” The solutions aren’t that easy. I understand that, to reel people in who are feeling not great about themselves, you have to think of ways to get them in the door with offerings of hope.

I’m not sure false hope is much of a sinecure for any despair these people feel. And it seems to me these editors – because I bet the bloggers didn’t write their articles this way – are sacrificing the self-esteem of people who genuinely suffer. They dangle dubious promises of hope with blogs edited down to an unrecognizable husk of their original depth to increase readership which feeds advertising revenue and blah, blah, blah.

What happens? People who are suffering read the 10 steps to happiness, try them out for a week or two, inevitably fail, and then ask “what the fuck is wrong with me?” The simple solutions have added a section of naysayers to the stadium of negative self-critics already in their head. It’s another nail in the tattered self-esteem of anyone who has struggled with an issue that has dogged them for years.

The truth is, the things we need to do to get out of our ruts vary widely. But the ruts we are in are all rooted in the same issue: a distorted mental view. Because we are all human, and most of us have a mind, we tend to face certain shocks to our psyche in the same way.

That’s where things went south for most of us. We need to find that nugget of pathos, put it in our hands, smell it, and get to know it. Then, and only then, can we start to build a new road for all the spheres of our lives where we may, or may not, be succeeding. New eyes driving a new road can also lead to new perceptions of our “failure,” something few of these blogs ever touch upon.

So, here is my list. The list of things, the nugget, beneath every big issue written about in the self help industry: abuse, depression, anxiety, body image, relationships, career, and happiness. Wait for it …

1. Your Ego

Here is another list of what you can do to change this:

1. Tons of Fucking Work

Easy as pie right? And with fewer ingredients too.

I realize, these lists are a hell of a lot less appealing as blog titles go than “Eight Ways to Liberate Your Soul.” Let’s try it out, “You Have to do Tons of Fucking Work To Figure Out Why Your Ego Keeps You: Depressed, Eating When You’re Not Hungry, Sabotaging Your Chance of Having a Good Relationship Because It’s Choosing the Wrong People to be in Your Life, Choosing Goals That Are Vapid, Shallow, or in Disharmony With Who You Are, and Acting In Ways You Know for a Fact You’ll Regret Later On”

Wow. That is a long title. I bet folks will probably not be crashing the server of the blog-site where that article was posted.

Now, I’m not a PhD psychologist whose articles are edited down by some dude with an MFA from Fordham. I’m not a “Life Coach” or Yoga teacher. But I have been meditating for eight years and doing yoga slightly less. And I’m also not giving you any lists. I’m just sharing my realizations about this stuff because I did a lot of hard work to get them.

I don’t meditate sometimes. I meditate every day, except when I don’t want to. I do retreats where I don’t read, talk, telephone, or anything other than meditate, and they suck a lot. But they work, magically.

I do Mysore yoga, which doesn’t allow me to compare myself to the rest of the class as I pose. I basically force myself to be with myself. All the time. It sucks sometimes too, but ditto above about working, magically.

That stuff is way harder than reading a list, for sure.

But now I know my ego. All I have to say is “that little fucker.” He’s the one who purports to act on my behalf before I can intervene with wisdom to stop him. He’s the one telling me I am not good enough all the time. And now I also know where he placed all the shit he couldn’t, wouldn’t, or was too scared to deal with.

I understand the reasons why he did those things, but it’s kept me emotionally swinging in the dark, which screwed up many parts of my life. I know how he rationalizes his dysfunctional way of dealing with emotional turmoil in the same way: avoidance, denial, distraction, defensiveness, posturing. I know he sprung out to protect me at an early age against some pretty deep emotional traumas.

I’ve seen how the same single pile of emotional shit seems to stick to the bottom of my shoes, and is there no matter where my ego goes. But it was the SAME emotional pile stinking up every sphere of my life.

Dealing with that one pile would negate having to deal with what appeared to be separate piles in ostensibly separate parts of my life. That would obviate the need to remember the self-help blog list for my eating problem, another for my sad problem, and another for each of my partner, mother, brother, best friend, boss, and co-worker problems.

Added up those lists are about 174 things, plus a 1/2 because I don’t care so much about one of the things on one of the lists that could make my co-workers like me. That’s a lot of things to remember. It’s a lot of compartmentalizing of a human being. It re-inforces the lie that we are somehow capable of switching ourselves on and off so easily without any residual damage to our psyches.

The switch-off leaks out if we don’t address it. Ask any professional who regularly attends crash scenes, a soldier in a war-zone, a police officer, a social worker about swiching-off or compartmentalizing. It’s bullshit. To a very small degree, this amount of dissociating from ourselves to function in certain spheres is functional. Until it becomes pathological for the infinite ways we try to shield our emotions with our egos.

That’s a lot of big, fancy-pants talk. Ego? What’s that? I bet you’re wondering where the easy part comes, right?

There is no easy part. There never was, nor will there ever be, particularly if you are in your mid-life and have been dealing with your issues for a long while. There are some ingrained perceptions and distortions perpetuating your problems. Your ego – the persona most of us tend to identify with, that generally perceives the world and then behaves accordingly – has kept you where you are because he has been doing the mis-perceiving and distorting of your reality. He’s done the best he can, but it’s time to give him the shove-off if you’re stuck dealing with the same problems.

You cannot just take a list created by some random blogger’s “happy mind” and stuff it in your ear so your mind will adopt all the perceptions, and feelings, and outlook that combine to make the blogger’s happy view even possible. Your ego will easily reject all the foundations upon which that list is built. It will want to place you back in the zone it is most comfortable, which is outside the mental bounds the list springs from.

Something in your mind sees the attraction in the list. So, the work is, you need to get behind the ego and see your mind for who and what it is and what you really are. You are not the things your ego says you are.

Throw away the lists and find a way into your mind. For me, that was meditation and yoga, for you maybe it’s therapy or something else that removes you from the nutty world your ego put you in. If you don’t retreat from that place to a demilitarized zone, your ego will continue in the dysfunctional tactics it evolved to defend you.

In other words, there is hope for change. The change lies in coming into direct contact with who you are. Then you can start to walk the earth with a mind that is more objective in its view of things, including how it views yourself and your place in all of this.

But it takes work. It took years to get into the problem and it will take years to get out of it. This shouldn’t be a source of discouragement.

That’s the other thing I really, really hate about many of these easy-peasy self-help articles. They are just another insidious voice in the Western rhetoric that puts little gadflies in our heads about how easy conquering all the problems in our life should be. That idea is an accelerant for low self-esteem, because it is false and bound to fail. People offering self-help advice should not be putting a recipe for failure in the hands of people with poor, vulnerable self-perceptions.

After eight years, the massive shit-pile I discovered in my self-study isn’t gone but it is smaller, more manageable. I can step around it most days without having it stink up my behaviour in all the facets of life I have to juggle.

That’s progress, and that is reality. It is one hell of a lot better reality than the one my ego saw before I started doing the work. In order for it to stay that way I will have to keep at it; life and my ego created the pile before and they could do it again.

The work of overcoming my problems forced me to cultivate lasting habits, and disciplined practices that I don’t need to remember from a list. The functional habits I have are based in perceptions crafted by my mind, for my mind. I promise, you can go and get your own better mind too, with some considerable effort.

So I lied. I am going to proffer a list.

Three reasons your hard efforts to heal are worthwhile:

1. You

2. Your loved ones

3. Humanity

This is My Yoga

Practice and all is coming

– Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

My Yoga - Stillness

I’ve come to love yoga for so many reasons. I wish more people would give it a try because it has helped me with some of the anxiety and focus issues I’ve grappled with for much of my life; that many Type-As like me suffer from in our busy-obsessed culture. On any given day, there are countless unseemly interactions I have with strangers that suggest a lot of people are in need of something – anything – to calm them down; to give perspective to the insularity and self-importance that seem to drive a lot of ignorant behaviour. Most days, I’m pretty forgiving of it; it’s how I used to be, after all, and I’m not such a bad person, even if sometimes I do crappy things.

Yoga saved my skin when it felt like my life was falling apart and scattering in many directions. But it also helped soften my attitude toward things; things about myself and of others. It’s helped keep me solid and whole through some discombobulating upheavals in recent years. It’s given me the tools to mine the brightness amidst the reactivity that was my default; that in the past would have powered the negativity spinning outwardly from my reeling, pissed-off mind.

Just this morning I watched a facebook post that was so full of joy it brought me to tears. In the past I would have mentally vomited as my intellect summed up the whole thing as trite, common, gratuitous sentimentality. The kind of bile underneath the pit of negativity I used to wallow in makes me shudder. But I forgive myself because I wasn’t really aware of what was going on, at least not consciously. I did the best I could with the limited means to tap into wisdom I had. I am sorry for those who were unlucky in the past to have consumed my toxic sludge energy. I am sorry for those who, on a bad day, will be doused with it in the future. Trust me, I am working on it. I’ve got yoga on my side.

Many days I bounce around the office with a goofball air in my step. I like to be silly and share that with others, whether they ask for it or not. I respond to the feeling of joy and lightness that overcomes my body when I encounter it. I never used to feel that before because I was so taut with anxiety and striving. Actually, I think now, I was constantly fearful, perhaps of the consequences of simply being myself. That fear is still there at times, but far less so than in the past.

I’m really thankful for the ability to connect with my own neurosis the moment it occurs and to let it go in the moment as well. I feel the seething much more readily in my body now, and the discomfort kick starts adjustments that restore the ease – in both mind and body. It saves me having to fend off the regret later on because I could not get my agitated mind and body under control.

It’s still a work in progress. I still have fragile ego and still do set my antenna seeking perceived slights and fighting imaginary injustices. I still fight dissatisfaction, perfectionism, and impatience with people and things that I find stultifying. I work in a bureaucracy and some days there aren’t enough down-dogs in me to ward off the feeling that it’d be better if I shoved my head through a wall.

But the calm is starting to really take hold, I feel as much every day; a lightness I have not fully known since childhood. Even those bad days are not nearly as frequent or as intense as they once were. When I slip up I am aware more quickly of how it happened and how not to let it spiral out of control and light a fire through the day. For now, the nearby walls are safe, I suspect. I hope.

What helps is the increased ability to breathe deeply, paired with a much greater awareness of what my entire body feels like when it is too tense and reactive, and how this differs from how I feel when I am calm. I’ve been meditating for years, and I was able to connect with my mental sense of calm, but I did not register the degree of tension throughout the rest of my body. It was there, but it never struck me that it ought to be different. I assumed my burning knees were a necessary – if evil – aspect of sitting in meditation. Yoga has been essential in making my insight much more complete – and for alleviating my pain when I sit to meditate.

I am eternally grateful for the practice. Grateful to be here in one whole piece and not fragmented and feeling pulled in so many different directions by life. I am grateful to be capable of gratitude at all, instead of filled with cynicism. So, I’d like to share the insights I’ve had in my yoga practice with the hope if you’re struggling to find some peace of mind you will start down the path to changing that for yourself. Or, if you’re looking to be grateful for something when it seems like your habit is to be agitated or filled with dissatisfaction or ill-will, here’s something that may help with that. Maybe there’s some appeal in my experiences of yoga that encourage you to take actions to move beyond whatever it is within yourself that stands in the way of your joy and equanimity.

My Yoga - Anjali MudraUnity and Goodness

We tend to see the body and mind as two distinct spheres of our being, especially in the West. We are a mind over matter kind of people, a people who takes the body for granted and rests on the laurels of the mind’s ingenuity. We unconsciously abuse and mistreat our bodies for years and then rely on the techniques of mind – medicines, medical procedures and devices – to heal us when it breaks.

In reality the mind and body are inextricably linked; the body an almost perfect reflection of the mind, and certainly not something the will of the rationalizing mind is capable of mastering. Instead of dominating our bodies and willing our body to do as we please, yoga aims to strengthen harmony and awareness of ourselves by softening the clinging, externalizing mind with practices that “go inward.”

This should be a source of encouragement, even if your body seems ill-equipped for whatever it is you believe is yoga. You do not have to do poses that put your leg behind your head or have you balancing on your arms.There are steps well before that impressive end well worth taking. Just because some of us live to ninety and others live to fifty doesn’t mean you throw your hands up living. Do what you can with what you have. That is the principle. If you can open your eyes and breathe, you can do yoga.

The point is we can unravel the inner workings of our mind through conscious effort, without need of an MRI, or other technologies that require a direct examination of the brain to know what’s going on. We don’t need to look amazing in a photograph of ourselves posing. That is not the point of yoga.

The point is to gain awareness of ourselves by practices that orient our gaze away from externality and inward toward our bodies. This re-establishes awareness of the connection between body and mind and helps us to understand who we really are when we are free from the reactivity – which can be witnessed throughout our bodies. It takes lots of practice to get to that point but it is worth it because you begin to see far more similarities between yourself and others and all things if you stick to it. It softens the feelings of separation and alienation we can sometimes learn in this individualist culture we live in, which lead us into feeling as though we have to engage in combat with the universe to further our aims.

So, if we desire to feel good and be happy, one way to achieve that result is to cultivate good intentions within ourselves, doing so with diligent, regular practice and honest effort with that very simple aim in mind. The intention to practice. Simple. Not so simple once you start and see what lazy, novelty-starved, quick results-oriented Westerners we are.

In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga we begin with an opening chant to affirm the intention of practice. We are trying to get beyond the crazy un-reality of modern human life, to become more grand as beings than the impermanent artifacts of our material lives. The more we habituate to keeping the focus close to ourselves the more tenuous are the attachments tethering our feelings of happiness to external things. Most of all, we affirm and take responsibility for tending to ourselves, for being our own healers by practicing.

When you practice yoga with spiritual intention and not to achieve a nice body or to snap pictures of yourself doing cool asanas, you discover the fleeting and empty nature of the things you identify with; how they leave you with tension and agitation in your body for so long, for such little in return. In that respect, yoga can be a discovery, at least if practiced with a constant focus and effort. Just be careful to remain abreast of the intentions. At the start, be simple. Say to yourself ‘I intend to expend the effort, keep an open mind, and trust the process.’ Leave it at that.

The number of people injured in Ashtanga yoga attests to right intentions gone a awry because we bring our Western, goal-seeking egos to it. Just listen to your body as you practice diligently. Nobody has a body that lets them stretch until they tear a ligament. We do that by ignoring the signs our body is sending saying ‘please don’t’ and force our bodies to do the will of our striving mind. In this, the goal becomes about perfecting the pose on our timelines to the detriment of our bodies.

I’ve fought two major injuries since practicing that nobody except me is responsible for inflicting. It wasn’t the nature of the yoga, it wasn’t my teacher. It was me. My teacher can’t feel what my knee is telling me, he can only ask ‘is this okay?’ and trust when I say ‘oh yeah, it’s fine’ that I am really paying attention. I wasn’t. I was striving to finish Primary Series. That messed with my intentions and misguided my efforts.

Attentive listening and focus will guard against other, sometimes harmful intentions creeping into your practice. Erase the pictures you’ve seen of experienced yogis doing the asana in the Primary Series and focus on where your body is in the poses as you learn them (preferably Mysore style – sorry that’s my bias). Start with being good to yourself in this small way regularly and goodness will blossom from there outward. Be good to yourself first. Nothing teaches you how to approach that more than some of the poses in the Primary Series of Ashtanga. This is especially so if you’re like me tend to be self-critical, for reasons you’ll discover as you see yourself trying too hard – of not being nice to your body and inflicting needless pain – and then lightening up to really delve further into the poses.

You are Infinite

An antidote to the conditioning and reactivity, the constant motion of modern life is to still yourself long enough to get a good look at what’s going on inside your body and mind, to discover the essence of your being as it is, not to identify with the self who is engaged in the fast-paced auto-pilot that emerges from living among such busyness. You can see how your conditioned mind, your ego, has fashioned certain patterns of thinking, perceiving and behaving to help you cope and function in the world. You realize that identity is merely a relative thing, it isn’t real. It is the person we’ve erected through our experiences, by cherry-picking attributes we believe are most functional in the environment we typically find ourselves in. They help us get through, but they are not who we are; not entirely, at least.

This is where it begins.

This is where it begins. Those are feet, by the way. If you practice you will be surprised how distant you and your feet have grown over the years. I just met my feet a few months ago. They’re not bad peeps, actually.

Your thoughts, opinions, tastes, preferences, job, role, gender, or ethnicity is not the totality of who you are as a human being. Those are merely the scaffolding for the identity you’ve built, which is instilled with traits, perhaps by others, perhaps re-inforced by your own behaviours, but which you continue to cling to for your own reasons. But identity seen in this way is the narrowest version of your true self.

Although our identities serve a purpose to help us function in the world, it is not necessary to cling to them as if they were permanent or real, especially in settings where it is unnecessary to maintain those roles, such as when at home with friends or loved ones, or when alone. To do so is to limit the range of possibilities that exist in your life; to perceive yourself, others, and the circumstances of your existence as though they were basically parts of the same narrow reality you’ve created in your mind.

To break this habit requires a different, wider perspective, which is how practicing something like yoga or other meditative, ego-softening practices can help. A new perspective is possible. This is of so much value to anyone suffering from emotional or psychological illness rooted in distortions in perception that emerge early in our formative years; that keep most of us repeating particular behaviours that stand in the way of our own growth and wisdom.

Your mind is reflected throughout your body

When in the middle of a stressful day, stop and notice your breath. When you’ve just received a terse, accusatory, or pushy e-mail and are in the midst of a mental reaction, notice your posture. You’re driving home and someone cuts you off, or honks at you for no reason. Is your breath shallow and quick? Is your face taut? Your shoulders hunched up and forward? Are you slouching in your seat? Do you have tightness in your chest and hips? Are your eyebrows raised? Are you hyperventilating? Is your finger raised and your mouth shouting the words “go fuck yourself asshole!” Even though you never set out to be an irate cabbie from the Bronx you’re suddenly an irate cabbie from the Bronx.

Watch a young child moving actively. Notice how supple they are as the bounce off walls and contort their bodies in unfathomable ways. We are not born inflexible, but made that way by our habits and conditioning. Everyone’s identity has varying degrees of reactivity, anger, anxiety, need for control, dominance, escape, denial, or avoidance of reality.

The patterns arise in our early emotional development and the defenses we erect to guard our psychic need for security become common features of how we relate to the world. The nature of these behaviours can be discerned right there in your taut hamstrings, your clenching jaw, your inability to breathe deeply, your inflexible hips, and your wandering eyes, especially in difficult poses. The asana reveal in unmistakeable ways the nature of how we deal with change, adversity, and even the joys in life. For this reason, asana can be discomforting, literally and figuratively.

Hold a challenging pose to the count of five deep breaths. If you can reach the count of five without an interceding thought or undulation in your body, you may very well be the next Buddha. If you’re like the rest of us, you’ll be struggling to perfect the pose, or thinking “shit, this hurts,” looking between your legs to see how well the next guy is posing, or trying to unclench a twitchy muscle.

You won’t be breathing fully; you won’t be relaxed or grounded, most likely. That is the nature of our minds. It loves to order reality, opine, stir you into action, control, react, resist, force things, stimulate, arouse or avoid, and it does so in infinitely clever ways. And most often, it does so with a sense of urgency that is unsettling; that is wrought with either too much tension or total capitulation to the gravity of the circumstances.

What would any article about spirituality be without an artful image involving a cat?

What would any article about spirituality be without an artful image invoking the cuteness of a cat? Meee-om. (Sorry, I could not resist)

Yoga can help you understand the flavour of those tendencies by connecting awareness of the thoughts to the tension or floundering in your body. By being able to relax the tension in some places, and bring energy and alertness to others you can lighten the urgency within the mind; which seized your body with its panic or fear. Body awareness is an alternate channel into consciousness when reality is highly arousing and has stirred the mind into habitual coping behaviours that bypass our consciousness, which limits our ability to impart wisdom into the circumstances.

That alternate gateway to an awareness of the mind’s instability can help introduce just a split second between the arousing event and behaviours propelled by reactivity. The awareness allows the opportunity to apply the techniques in yoga that re-introduce calm and stability to the mind by yoking our perception of things to our own true nature, rather than mooring it to external provocations that stir our egos into action. A mind that is pointed and alert, but calm and tethered to its own sense of morality and goodness, is much more attuned to the needs of any given moment than one that is overly aroused and easily caught in the grip of reactivity. The result is a being whose nature will be more happy and free, and whose conduct will be more skillful and wise.

Yoga is a spiritual practice that cultivates greater awareness and identification with our own intrinsic nature – understanding the nature of the energy we possess and the energy we project into the world through our actions and intentions. It isn’t just about mastering poses, and it isn’t just about ‘feeling good.’ It isn’t just one type of practice, but many. These methods connect the practitioner with his innate wisdom in order to relate to other beings and phenomena in the world in a spirit of harmony and goodness. The growth, an end that cannot be known at the outset, is in the process; the process of doing, and with focus and concentration, the discovery as the process unfolds.

So, just go do it. Go and practice, as guruji instructs. “Yoga is ninety-nine percent practice and one percent theory.”

Guruji. Namaste.

Guruji Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

 

A Place for Smiles – Even if Contrived – Among the Snowflakes

(Written December 2013)

This time of year it’s hard work fending off despondency because of the dreary weather. From October to March, it’s mind over matter to stop the spirits from being iced-over in a city where the weather is brutally cold and the winter season is endless. Many days I have to chisel a cheap smile on my face to mask the disdain for existence that easily freezes over any sunniness in my mind.

For inspiration, I summon up my eight-year old self at Christmas. I remember savagely ripping into a big parcel from “Santa” only to learn it was an 8-pack of socks and underwear from some family prankster whose focus on ‘practicality’ in gift-giving seriously tanked their reputation in my greedy mind. My first instinct was to throw the tube socks into the fireplace, but cooler heads prevailed. I knew I’d be getting a bike or something awesome once I’d trudged through the crappy gifts and mustered up the guile to utter some saccharine niceties that would mimic genuine appreciation.

But the need to feign gratitude before the onlooker adults in my family inspired some Oscar-worthy performances, and the method-acting skills I honed then have served me well, especially at this time of year when punch-drunk buffoonery and sugary small talk make me want to grab the plate of shortbread cookies on the ‘down-low’ and stuff my face with fattening christmas grub in quiet solitude.

So, I’m trying to stay focused on the positive, even when crappy things happen, because at best I am a B-list actor and I think the forced smile looks more creepy than convincing. The other day I took a gander in the mirror and thought, ‘Is someone tugging on your balls or is that a smile?’ It made me realize how badly I need experiences to produce the real thing, and fast. Lately I’m freebasing chocolate to keep my head above emotional water and it’s turning me into a zit-faced, jumpy junkie, which would be awesome if I was thirteen, but I’m not, so it sucks.

Oh yeah, it's so pretty, picturesque even, right? Wrong. Imagine it's Monday morning, you open the door dreading the meetings and petty office politics and douchey office people and this (THIS!) is what you wake up to. Imagine this every day for months and picturesque just doesn't do it justice. Fu*king insane ... That's more like it.

Oh yeah, it’s so pretty, picturesque even, right? Wrong. Imagine it’s Monday morning, you open the door dreading the meetings and petty office politics and douchey office people and this (THIS!) is what you wake up to. Imagine this every day for months and picturesque just doesn’t do it justice. Fu*king insane … That’s more like it.

I do yoga at a time of day when only bakers, cab drivers coming off shift, and 7-11 clerks are awake. This morning a guy wearily sauntered into the studio struggling to remain erect as he scouted the room for a spot to practice. Zombie-like, he walked right across the back end of his soon-to-be neighbour’s mat just as he was coming out of a handstand and got clubbed in the head. I’m glad he laughed it off, because I was feeling happy inside, relieved to know I’m not the only one who’s been clocked by flailing yogis because it’s too early to be alert. The Schadenfreude made the remainder of my practice feel light and free even when it wasn’t, which it usually isn’t.

The city was being blanketed by mounds of falling snow. As is my custom, I was daydreaming at work, staring out the window wishing my cubicle was anywhere other than in a building in a city smited by God. Then I noticed an 18-wheel transport truck spinning its wheels on an icy patch of road at an intersection. He was going nowhere. I could see the hand gestures of the drivers in the cars behind him saying ‘what the heck!’ or something of that nature. No matter how many arms flailed pointlessly as they did nothing to help, and no matter how many curses were leveled at that truck, it just didn’t move. It was stuck, like me in my dead-end job in a crappy cubicle, except the only one casting aspersions at me is my twenty-two year old self who would want to shoot the me I have become. He’s a douchebag anyway, so screw him.

There was a woman in the food court who sneezed six times in quick succession. After each sneeze, an older gentleman sitting at a table nearby, a stranger to this woman, said “bless you.” She said thanks, and laughed with slight embarrassment. She had a funny, cute little sneeze, like a two-year old girl mimicking a train. It was like, ‘choo-choo-choo-choo-choo.’

But the sneezes reminded me of my long-deceased grandfather, whose sneezes started many avalanches in the Rockies and scared the living shit out of me when I was a kid. For years I wondered why I always felt like I was walking on eggshells. It struck me then that it wasn’t because I was a neurotic, anxious hypochondriac who always had a symptom eerily similar to a form of terminal cancer, or because I imagined there was a homicidal toy doll in my closet taunting me with inexplicable sounds at night. I was jumpy because of my grandfather’s violent sneezes, which erupted randomly and sounded like a man screaming in terror from being hacked by an axe murderer.

I just applied for a personal loan to consolidate some old debt. My banker called me today to ask about two delinquent accounts on my credit report. I’ve learned that, in the eyes of a lender, I am bottom-feeding pond-scum. My credit score is seven, thanks to some random bank screw up. My rage turned to daydreaming about trips to escape the cold I could have taken with the twenty-five grand I allegedly bilked out of creditors. Then I smiled, knowing there’d be no trips this winter because the financial fuzz planted their dope on the wrong guy, which meant I’d be stuck in my winter gulag.

Thanks to the bank conspiracy, looks like there's only going to be one beached whale for this winter getaway.  The world has been cheated the sight of my pasty brown belly.

Thanks to the bank conspiracy, looks like there’s only going to be one beached whale for this winter getaway. The world has been cheated the sight of my pasty brown belly.

I put my coat and book to hold a comfortable chair as I waited in line for my coffee. From the lineup I saw an old lady casually lift my coat, mitts, hat, and book – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by the way – and plop them on the side-table as she snuggled into my chair. What gall! Some very non-Zen thoughts swirled around in my head – nasty things about old people, dementia, elevator farts, walkers, and that ilk.

After cursing she and her great-great-grandchildren, I decided I’d just say “You’re welcome, ma’am” followed up with a dramatic lifting of my things and a histrionic huff as I turned on my heel. That’d send a message. As I prepared my coffee, dreading the quasi-confrontation I crafted in my mind, she stood up and went on her way. Yeah, that’s right, old lady. You’re lucky you left because I was gonna say something.

My autistic son loves the mandarin oranges that come out only at this time of year because the dog sleds delivering supplies to my arctic wasteland are in full operation. I have to keep my eye on him to make sure he doesn’t sneak too many before dinner. We do the dance like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Because I was shoveling snow I didn’t set up my ACME “Catch the Crook” monitoring kit to alert me to his orange pilfering (That is, I forgot to remind my other son to rat him out).

When I came in the house I had to avert my eyes from the massacre. Orange peels, Nutrigrain Bar crumbs, Fruit Roll up wrappers, and empty juice boxes strewn about with reckless abandon! It was a classic binge by his sugar-craving body. I padded the walls, hid the sharp objects, and waited for my beautiful son to turn into the Tasmanian Devil when the sugar kicked in. Then I made a sign reading, “That’s All Folks” to hold up to viewers as my lousy parenting skills sent me plunging to the canyon below.

Me and Wile E, hapless parenting schemes sending us plunging to the canyon floor like home-boys.

Me and Wile E, both having to execute our ill-conceived, hapless schemes to see our endeavours through, the abjectness of our failure sending us plunging to the canyon floor like dim-witted home-boys.

It’s Christmas, which means I’ve been indulging in countless pagan cultural rituals to celebrate a seminal event like the birth of Christianity’s namesake. On the plus side, the workplace has been particularly turgid this year, which will prove sadly entertaining once the booze starts flowing. Tonight I watched a Christmas movie with my kids, which was dripping with moldy, smelly cheese. In the movie, Jamie Lee Curtis plays a dowdy, suburban empty-nester whose neighbours terrorize she and her husband for the blasphemy of going on a cruise instead of drinking the Christmas Kool-Aid like the rest of the lemmings on the block. Uggh.

Until, that is, a scene where Curtis appears from a tanning bed wearing a skimpy bikini that leaves little to the imagination as to her ‘chest area’. Before I knew it, I was instantly brought back to my eleven-year old self watching the movie Trading Places in which Curtis peels off her shirt to reveal the younger version of that chest area. Just like that, my chestnuts were roasting on an open fire, stoked by the same awe and wonderment of pre-pubescent hormones at the sight of boobies. And the smile that adorned my face was neither false nor forced, but very real indeed.

So, on this cold, wintery day I was reacquainted with my capacity to smile at random little things. In yoga I wasn’t laughing at another’s misfortune, I felt a sense of unity with that stranger, who was human, and capable of stumbling just like me. A machine gun sneeze transported me to sleepovers at my grandparents, and fond memories of a grandfather who was my idol. I was patting myself on the back from a couple of big work victories until the cosmic glitch that tanked my credit score brought me back down to earth. The lady I cursed for momentarily borrowing my seat made me see the dangers of casting aspersions at total strangers; of seeing how crusty I can be if I’m not careful.

My autistic son will do what he does, whether it makes me look good as a parent or not. As long as I’ve kept him safe from harm, it’s best to keep that perspective. But I’ll hang on to the wooden stakes, blank signs and marker for the next time I’m plunging off a cliff because I was dumb enough to try and harness a child who’s meant to be free. That much became clear when I saw JLC’s well-aged boobies; when the bliss of childhood wonderment freely ran through my veins, and it was good.

Inner Peace. Who Wants a Piece?

In my early-thirties I became increasingly curious about spirituality and other practices that appeared to offer the promise of calm and inner peace. I’d spent most of my life mired in distractions, chasing achievements, self-improving; always fighting the feeling that I was late to the party and came wearing the wrong outfit. If I wasn’t spending late nights on the job to make my mark, I was frantically trying to raise my intellectual bar higher to cultivate an urbane mind to pad my accomplishments. I was a classic Type-A personality of the species hubris overachieveritas academicus. I was bright, clever, and capable, but also chronically unhappy, anxious and agitated. I never felt relaxed and constantly battled the urge to psychologically slip out of my own skin.

This is my old attitude. It's still kinda funny in an asshole-ish kinda way.

Sarcasm is hilarious – so long as it’s not you who’s pissed off enough to be unleashing it all the time.

I was aware of exotic “new-agey things” like yoga and buddhism, and attracted by the sense of calm and groundedness it offered, but was skeptical. I believed people who were outwardly calm were seething cauldrons of rage just waiting to boil over – like me. I was convinced the world was going to shit, that it was ruled by thugs, thieves, and troglodytes, and that all with a conscience were right to be pissed off about it. The idea of “mindfulness” and dubious fitness trends like yoga were soothing antidotes for personal setbacks, but weren’t contributing much to end the insanity I perceived as the undoing of the human race. It never occurred to me then that the locus of my perception of insanity, my grim outlook, was at the heart of the problem.

Today, I accept many things are beyond the grasp of reason, especially in human affairs. I don’t presume my mind is capable of accurately diagnosing the world’s ails or fabricating ideas to fix them. That project is flawed in intention and doomed by its very design. I aim to be one less active part of the problem by taking steps to become more mindful of how I conduct myself; a task which must necessarily begin by banishing a half dozen pathologies from my mind.

In my twenties, I was unknowingly doing my best to soil the planet with well-intentioned, but objectively dodgy ideas and conduct. These days I do my best to apply mindful restraint to prevent the unleashing of my culturally pre-ordained sociopathy on the world. I am aware of habits of mind that influence my perception of things, which leans far too readily to the grim and cynical. I began to let go of trying to fit the world in my mind and force it to unfold according to my plans. It’s made for a much more calm and peaceful existence, and yoga and meditation are what brought me to that place.

Before I took up the practices I would have easily tried to intellectually shake down a Buddhist or a yogi to debate them about the virtues of their “religion.” I mostly thought of spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and Desmond Tutu as good people on the whole, but fatally flawed in a way that simply had been well hidden from public view. I gave them props for spreading a positive message – the left-of-centre ideologue in me was attracted to the rebellious, emancipatory spirit of “Free Tibet” – but I wasn’t buying what I they were selling. Christopher Hitchens’ bilious assault on the alleged fraud of Mother Teresa’s crusade against poverty was emblematic of the kind of cynicism I harboured about “spiritual” movements, which I viewed as one of many in a string of dangerous assaults on reason.

As much as I thought sitting on a cushion doing nothing but “relaxing” and putting my legs behind my head was – logically speaking – ridiculous I was still intrigued by the promise of inner peace to fully discount the ideas. By my mid-thirties, when life had handed me a few more disappointments and unexpected turns than I anticipated, the abysmal coping mechanisms of my “reason” had me desperately craving a piece of the Peace I heard was within my grasp but did not really believe. I may have been suspicious of the Dalai Lama, but his happiness and radiance, in spite of living in exile and witnessing the cultural genocide of his people, suggested he was doing something right. It seemed worth a try.

My initial curiousity was piqued by falling into an old habit: I did a lot of reading about buddhism, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. I bought some buddha statues and put them around my home. I bought a couple yoga videos and went to a hot class or two. I even contemplated getting a buddha tattoo. I listened to Dalai Lama talks on CDs. Like a good North American I started the process of spiritual exploration by cultivating an identity around my sense of what it meant to be a peaceful dude without actually being a peaceful dude. However, the same basic message of the books I dug into over pints of beer and bags of chips was unavoidable: practice, practice, practice. Don’t read, don’t ponder, don’t muse and banter about meditation or yoga, they implored. Do a regular, disciplined practice.

I felt initially that this kind of approach was too soft to achieve much. Plus, I was reluctant to fully embrace being nice and mellow as a way to smooth over my abrasive persona. My ego had hardened around the idea that it was me against the world and I was apprehensive about softening the armour I’d put up, especially in my line of work at the time. I didn’t want to be a tree-hugging pushover. I was also an ardent rationalist, genuinely frightened of becoming a blinkered bliss junky. My identity was caught up in the idea that there was virtue in being a skilled, consummate critic. To a degree, maybe there is, but I found that it just dug me deeper and deeper into a pit of negativity that was difficult to crawl out of when I wanted relief; when I wanted to not be angry and indignant, to let loose, just for while.

In spite of my negative, cynical self, in 2006 I gave yoga and meditation a real college-try. I haven’t looked back. Sure, there have been ebbs and flows in the regularity of how I practice. I am a quick-fix Westerner, after all.

Certainly, I’ve slipped into old habits of negativity – they were thirty-some years in the making. But I’ve stuck with it and the practices have changed my life for the better. I am happy to report that I can still reason and judge, I just do so with a more open mind and come away from the exercise without being singed by a seething cauldron of outrage.

This Work is no Walk in the Park

Even now, seven years after exploring a meditation and yoga practice the thought “what

Marichyasana A. At first, me getting into this pose was like trying wrestle a wild boar to the ground. Now it's just like trying to hug a galloping pony.

Marichyasana A. At first, me getting into this pose was like trying wrestle a wild boar to the ground. Now it’s just like trying to hug a galloping pony.

bloody good is all this?” still creeps into my mind. The doubt is especially intense at six in the morning at Mysore, when I am falling over balancing on one leg while holding the other suspended in the air by the toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana). My pride is shaken when, from across the room, my instructor catches me stealing a furtive glance at the sublime curves of the down-dogging yogini in front of me and quietly, calmly exclaims “look at your nose, Edmund.” Many mornings as I struggle to get my arms to wrap behind me and around my knee and fold into a forward bend (Marichyasana A) I muse about the relative attractiveness of sleep in my cozy bed and curse myself for the decision to come so early to a room of organic farts, sweaty, unwashed bodies, and the amplified Darth Vader din so characteristic of Mysore class.

Some mornings I fantasize about driving back and forth over my zafu cushion as I sit in the wee hours, the sleep still in my eyes, with feet that have ceased to exist and knees that feel like they’ve been through a New York Yankees batting practice. I feel my frustration starting to build as I obsess about my grocery list, remember bills I have to pay, and re-hash conversations where I wish I’d said something more poignant, more funny to score points (usually with a woman who is much too young for me). I find myself repeatedly humming the same annoying jingle, or realize I am mentally masturbating on the image of the yogini in front of me at yesterday’s Mysore class and feeling embarrassed for having been busted by my teacher.

My timer rings and I have to fight the feeling of failure about the fact that, over the past thirty minutes, I’d had maybe three minutes of darn good focus on my breath and twenty seven in the jungle swinging from tree to tree, beating my chest and throwing shit like the unruly monkey my mind happens to be. The success is that I sat there. I got those three minutes, which is better than nothing. I also became a little more familiar with what makes my little Curious George throw shit and get jumpy. It’s insight I can use later on.

This inner-focused, meditative stuff is maddeningly difficult for me, and I’d bet its probably so for most constantly distracted, perpetually busy North Americans. It was much easier training to run half marathons than it is to sit and focus on the breath and mindfully set the body in various poses. It was hard to keep up a good practice when I was suffering emotionally during the early stages of my separation and sobbing in a perpetual state of semi-catatonia.

This is all to say that sometimes – often, frankly – it isn’t easy work. Yoga isn’t just “stretching” – especially if you choose Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow. Meditation isn’t just “thinking.” Meditation definitely is not as glamourous as the posters of a peaceful saffron-robed monk sitting serenely in front of a giant Buddha statue in an exotic Asian locale. Yoga is not as glitzy as the photo-shoots of air-brushed naked toe-sock-wearing yoginis depict. Both are a lot more gritty than that in reality. There’s pain, and sweat and lots of frustration. There are tears, anger, and eventually, laughter.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose). Okay, I'm an Ashtanga purist in saying this, but she should really be holding her to and looking to her right, but you get the idea, the pose is an ego killer and makes for some fun times in a crowded class. Try it and see.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose). Okay, I’m an Ashtanga purist in saying this, but she should really be holding her toe and looking off her right shoulder, but you get the idea, the pose is an ego killer and makes for some fun times in a crowded class. Try it and see.

I am grateful for the serendipity that got me sun-saluting on the mat and sitting on the cushion; that compelled me to give it a try and to stick with it when at first it really sucked. When I was lamenting the fact that my life had turned to shit back in 2006 and I wanted to hurl myself off a bridge, instead of blanketing myself in booze or addiction I just said, “what do I have to lose with this buddhism and yoga stuff?” I started to regularly roll out my yoga mat at home and practiced to yoga videos from a box set that someone had given as a gift. We didn’t really do yoga and I remembered looking at the DVD box set thinking, “Isn’t Muriel Hemmingway an actress, and who is this Rodney Yee guy with the really long, healthy hair? What are these two waifs going to teach me about fitness?” I gave it a try anyway.

At the same time, I started going to dharma teachings and soon signed up for meditation retreats. I sat for a meditation session daily, no matter how short. For the first time in my life I started to experience genuine calm, even if only ephemerally. Old habits die hard. I wasn’t a walking dove and giving hugs to the homeless, but I could see changes in the way I was coping with things that had, in the past, sent my mind in a cycling frenzy.

I am glad I had the faith to just try it and stick with it, even though “results,” whatever I thought they’d be, were hard to come by. I am able to say without any equivocation that, if I had not spent the previous years cultivating a robust meditation practice before I separated from my wife in late 2011 I would not be writing this article today. I’d be in a pine box, or dust in the wind. I simply did not have a positive outlook or any functional method to bring me out of my tendency to stew in the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that so easily germinated in my mind. When I first separated from my wife, a woman I’d been with eighteen years, the seeds spawned in my emotional garden were of the hemlock variety.

Negative thoughts and emotions still arise – that will never change – but after I’d taken up yoga and meditation I no longer instinctively repressed them under the din of activity or distraction. Nor did I get so wrapped up in them for as long as I had before. I became more able to confront my strong emotions about things and just let them be without needing to “do something” about them. It was extraordinary progress in my level of self-awareness and emotional growth.

I won’t tell a lie, I’m not even close to being the next buddha. I am still far too enamoured of bacon and the taste of other inhumanely slaughtered flesh tearing to pieces between my teeth; I am still neurotic, slightly compulsive, and just a tad more indulgent than I should be because of my Attention Deficit Disorder. I’d have to bribe someone on high to claim just a sliver of real estate on the spiritual pedestal. I am too flawed to be a sage, and I’m just fine with that. There aren’t any bodhi trees where I live anyway, so I’m out of luck.

At the same time, I am much less a slave to my neuroses and the dysfunction they perpetuate than I used to be. I am not the negative person I used to be, nor am I so easily attracted to other negative people. If I can change, anyone can. The change can occur without over-reliance on anti-depressants and psychotherapy, which leave you with wait gain, a loss in libido, and quite a few bucks lighter in the wallet. The point I want to make here is that there is something else to try. Work at it, and give it time, and see what happens.

Two months of unlimited yoga classes at my studio costs just a little more than one session with a shrink. Meditation is free – other than the one-time cost of a cushion – and a dharma class costs whatever you want to offer in terms of dana. These are modest investments for sake of one’s well-being and much more assured of results than anti-depressants and shrinks alone.

Carve just twenty minutes away from tweeting, facebooking, porn-surfing, gaming or any of the multiple distractions you’re using to titillate your stimulus-craving mind and use the time to sit in meditation. Instead of beating your body into submission at the gym or on the track, try yoga a few times a week; maybe repair some of the damage you’ve done to that vessel of yours because you’ve subjected it to so much stress and mindless activity.

Instead of hiding under the blanket of meds and psychoanalysis, go on a scavenger hunt. Suss out your demons and look them square in the eyes. See how they look when you’re not running away. All you’ve got to do is sit, or hold a pose and attend to your breath; wait for them to make an appearance. When you’ve done your sessions over and over again with your demons trying to spook you out of your practice, the realization that you’re okay, that you’re still in one piece, will diminish the their ability to mess with your mind. You will win, in your own way. Your monkey will be off your back and on your leash, I just know it.

Just Have Faith – In Yourself

What's it gonna be? Mindless distraction or meditation?

What’s gonna be better for ya, Snooki or meditation and yoga? It’s like the choice between heroin and a fruit salad, isn’t it?

Just do the practices and see for yourself, preferably without fettering your experience with a bunch of expectations about what it’s all supposed to be about. Most of us are conditioned to see every thing we do in the world instrumentally, in terms of how it suits our aims. Not everything worthwhile can be quantified and evaluated like a capital investment, and neither can we apprehend everything that is worthwhile in the world from the jumping off point of our own minds. It’s all really about the process, which you have to allow to unfold as it does for you.

It’s difficult to believe this at first because the practices are deceptively simple and yet extremely difficult in the application. They have to be done with energy, effort, and focus – end of story. Yoga and meditation aren’t rightly approached as part of an ego-project to chalk up another achievement – that of enlightenment. They are, simply put, transformative in such a profoundly positive, impactful way for each who practices.

The only faith required for this practice is in yourself and in the process. If you don’t have a clue what that process is, find a teacher and follow their instructions with diligence. A cautionary word of advice for anyone coming to the practice on the promise of a quick fix: that attitude will be the greatest hindrance to your practice. There is nothing to “fix”. You’re lost, not broken, and the rescue mission is going to take time, especially if you’ve been running away from yourself for a long while.

Practice to free your mind from the layers and layers of conditioning you’ve been subjected to your whole life, that have sent you grasping into the world with endless desire in your heart. You are not the sum total of your cravings and reactions to the frenzied drama of modernity; you are not the hungry ghost of your conditioning. The practice of looking closely into your body and mind will gradually unearth the human being you really are. Aren’t you the least bit curious to know who that person is, after all these years?

Dalai Lama on Love and Freedom

It’s wisdom we all feel in our hearts is true, but it takes practice to actually live this wisdom in our lives everyday.