New Year, Yoga and Writing

This year I have avoided the usual obsession with new year’s resolutions versus intentions and turning over new leaves, etc. Usually I get excited to start new habits, make all kinds of exciting changes and feel like I’m going to accomplish all these goals, then, like most people, run out of steam and keep very little going or follow through.

A while ago, as a way to look at the new year differently, I started picking words for the year. Last year was “Abundance”. It really turned into a year of abundance, which required patience and trust because abundance doesn’t just pour into your life on day one or month one or two! This year the first word I came up with was “AWESOME”. Then I picked two other words, “Quiet” and “Concentration” as intentions/motivation to continue things I’m already doing, especially my yoga practice.

My yoga practice has been the one thing I’ve kept up regularly for the last 3 and a half years. I already wrote two very long disorganized posts about it and realized I do want to write about it, but I need it to be organized and as usual, much shorter.

So this year, to add to my 6-7 times weekly 25-40 minute home yoga practice, I decided to link yoga with writing, as my intuition was that the two will go together well.

So this post is just a short post about my new year’s intention to link my yoga with writing. Since the new year, I have read a bunch of blog posts about different aspects of yoga, found some books, and started writing about my yoga practice.

Yesterday I wrote a long draft for a post on this blog, journaled a bunch before doing yoga, and then attempted to write in my journal a little while doing yoga and filled a page after my daily yoga in the evening. I decided to try to write immediately after doing yoga at least 3 times a week.

It’s going to be an experiment to see what comes up that I feel like writing about and how I am thinking about my practice, or what comes up specifically in any sequences or poses or other things that come up that may have little to do with yoga or seem to have little to do with it.

The words “Quiet” and “Concentration” can be connected to my writing and yoga. Sometimes doing yoga on my own is for the goal of getting quiet and working on disciplining the mind and body and learning how to be able to really focus and concentrate, which is definitely challenging with an undisciplined disorganized and full ADHD mind. I also associate these concepts with a story that I read a few years ago with my daughter that we’ve read several times and is one of both her and my favorite stories,  “The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar”, by Roal Dahl. It’s written long ago but the basic concepts are very universal and the story is about the use and misuse of yoga/training the mind. It’s a great transformation story in the category of stories like A Christmas Carol and the movie Groundhog Day. A selfish self involved character full of flaws, who goes through a spiritual transformation and becomes an enlightened evolved person who gives of themselves to the world, very uplifting. Everyone loves a sinner to “saint” type of story!

Sometimes getting quiet while doing yoga involves just noticing how not quiet my mind is and how distracted I am or how I am focused on what the next yoga pose will be or getting over with each pose. The challenge of concentration involves a lot of mindfulness/DBT “Radical Acceptance”.

Other topics I’d like to write about that go with yoga/writing are:

-how I got going with my home practice after 7 year hiatus of not doing yoga

-what my home yoga practice actually involves and how I learned to sequence from an intuitive approach in the moment

-the role of my yoga “coach” and teacher Liza in helping me learn about the physical, mental, and spiritual practice and deepen my practice

-yoga in everyday life and ways to use yoga to live life from a more accepting and moment to moment awareness

-yoga and “failure”

-the yoga of speech

-my specific challenges with my writing process

-yoga and ADHD and other issues like anxiety

 

The age old dynamic of spirituality versus organized religion… Another Book About It

If you’ve been waiting for a book on this topic, it seems like Harris has synthesized it all, and that his book is a mixture of memoir and non fiction, which in itself is an interesting genre (I found a great book about insects by a naturalist that did this mix well), but none if it will seem new to anyone who has dropped whatever organized religion or religions they were surrounded by in favor of spirituality as the more inclusive and non violent non excluding of parts of the human race which all religions love to do (we are right and the others are wrong. Therefore we will force every in else to believe what we believe or we will consider ourselves “chosen” in some way and better and more worthy than everyone else…) that the term “spirituality” embraces. Spirituality has become a slightly meaningless word, or maybe a word that gets thrown around a lot especially in opposition to “organized religion”, but I like to think of it as a combination of the ideas of mindfulness, which leads to appreciation of what is in and around you in the moment, and the practice of loving kindness towards all other beings, ultimately with the goal of not arranging people and beings in some kind of hierarchy of importance, which all religions seem to do. The bible is filled with stories of getting rid of groups of “bad people” and saving others, even killing innocent babies born to the wrong people. So many stories of wiping out lots of groups of people and starting anew with a few, the Noah story repeated endlessly. Genocide it turns out, in the bible, is practiced by the character “God”.

Before I go on into more related topics and meanderings, here is the link to the description of this book and quotes from it: The book is entitled “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”

Neuroscientist Sam Harris on Happiness, Spirituality Without Religion, and How to Cultivate the Art of Presence

Mindfulness is not religious; it works well with science as it involves the practice of basic detailed observation of the world around you, as well as observation of your own mind and noticing what your senses are perceiving. It also involves observing your own breathing and even your heartbeat, all of which are quite obviously agreed upon types of realities. You need believe in nothing to practice mindfulness. And not magically but probably due to something that occurs in the brain that neurologists will be able to explain, loving kindness towards other creatures will eventually follow mindfulness practice. It has already been well documented that empathy and compassion when practiced release some kind of endorphins and make the person practicing it feel good, which is why it has survived alongside human beings’ great interest in ways to destroy themselves and others and the planet. So science is taking an interest in certain topics that are also entertained by spirituality. If you go at it from the point of departure of spirituality, which could be defined as some kind of meaning seeking or meaning making that humans engage in and basically through the perspective of individual experience, basically engaging in mindfulness type activities, versus the scientists working on ways to map the brain and observe what goes on in the brain and rest of the body during mindfulness activities, you can choose to try to engage in the actual experience or in the observation of it and mapping of the brain. In some way those two activities do intersect, as the scientist who is mapping the brain is probably engaging in mindfulness while observing someone else’s brain engaged in it…

I am not sure about the mysterious connection between being more awake and aware of the world around you and your presence in the world with the practice of compassion and loving kindness. Harris describes the discovery of this kind of compassion towards all creatures as something he observes feeling after taking the drug exctasy. Luckily you are not required to take any drugs to feel this kind of equanimity mixed with compassion and a melting of the concept of self and others. Ironically, the practice if mindfulness will eventually take you there, but it’s a slower more annoying and boring path. Mind altering drugs have been documented as the quick ticket to this kind of awakening and awareness of really taking in the present moment and feeling your mind and consciousness expand. There are other documented ways to go this route by depriving the body of food and/or sleep or exercising to an extreme point of feeling this expansion at the expense of your health. People have starved themselves and stopped sleeping to achieve a mind altering state of consciousness, probably since the first humans were around, just like there have probably always been some kinds of substances like peyote, magic mushrooms, extasy, LSD found in nature that humans have ingested and noticed a mind altering state of consciousness experience.

Anyway, the cheap, challenging and not fun but healthy route to experiencing a real awakening to regular old reality is to practice disciplining the mind through mindfulness exercises which can range from simple meditation (following your breath, noticing when your mind has run away, returning to the breath) or meditation in action which simply involves being as aware as possible of your present environment and of your mind and body in the moment. According to this practice of “observe and describe”, you can really have a “spiritual” experience. Look at Harris’ words, which are similar to the new “Positive Psychology” and Psychology of Happiness that has become a flavor of the moment:

“Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.”

This is nothing new, it’s similar to what is said by Marsha Linehan in her writings and practice of DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which combines the dialectic of total acceptance as the route to change, and which has a big mindfulness portion as part of its “practice”, as DBT is ultimately a practice that is not limited to teaching people with BPD, but a practice that all of us can benefit from. If you read about the mindfulness aspect of DBT, it will probably sound a lot like what Harris is talking about, with more specific types of exercises to help the individual become more mindful and aware of self and environment. Ironically, by listening to our senses and perceptions in our minds, we are observing both what is in the present moment and what is going on in our minds in the present moment.

In the end, all of this stuff is very simple, but very difficult to achieve. Try, for example, testing your ability to experience time in the present. Unless you are very super aware of seconds, you will either be living faster or slower than real time. You start a stopwatch, or look at a second hand, then sit and wait until you think a minute has passed and check the stopwatch or second hand. Has a minute passed? Did you think it passed and only half a minute went by or did a minute go by and more? I knew I would be the former, as I am aware that my inner motor goes too fast, so when I first tried this, only half a minute had gone by, no surprise! You would think that as therapists we have a good sense of time, at least in 50 minute chunks, but it is not true!

Roald Dahl wrote a great story called “The Marvelous Story of Henry Sugar”, which is all about the use of extreme mindfulness and concentration exercises which he originates with yogis. In this story, you can see how this type of exercise can be used for personal gain versus for helping others. What is so great about this story, is that he captures how the practice of mindfulness type exercises leads to a natural change in a human from selfishness and obliviousness of others’ suffering to great compassion. He takes the character of Henry Sugar, who is wealthy, lazy, bored and completely oblivious of himself and the world around him, and transforms him. What is truly great is that Henry Sugar reads a story that convinces him to try the practice of yogic concentration in order to see through playing cards so as to win at the casinos and make money easily by in essence a kind of “cheating”; he spends many months training his eyes and mind to see through playing cards. Because he changes his actual daily experience from one of wealthy meaningless pursuits spent with other wealthy people, to spending a lot of time alone, meditating and focusing on the middle of the flame of a candle and then focusing on a playing card and concentrating for hours every day until he starts to be able to see through the cardboard of the card and see the number and suit.

As he is practicing this and becoming obsessed with spending his waking hours basically in yogic training, he is changing a lot more than his ability to focus and concentrate on a playing card. I was very excited when he was ready to go to the casino, to see if he would right away have a weird response to the casino and the people there, which of course he did, as he had a heightened sense of observation and taking in the present moment, so the world he had been used to inhabiting was now transformed into something he was observing from the outside. Even more excititng, once he had carefully won a lot of money but sometimes lost on purpose so as not to draw attention to himself, he noticed that he did not feel the way he had anticipated. He was almost disappointed, and definitely not that excited to go winning more wads of money for the fun of it. The rest of the story was splendid; in the morning he woke up and started throwing twenty pound notes on to the streets and caused a huge commotion. A police officer goes up to his apt. and has an interesting encounter with him, basically telling him he is causing a public nuisance and that this is a stupid careless way to give away money. It turns out the police officer himself grew up in an orphanage and suggests to Mr. Sugar that he give his money to an orphanage. The rest of the story involves Henry Sugar engaging in a focused plan to travel the world’s casinos, winning Black Jack with his yogic powers to see through cards and starting orphanages in every country with all of his winnings.

Besides the fact that this story with a story within the story, the story Henry randomly picks up and reads, is so well written and engaging, this is a great story about how the practice of mindfulness techniqhes leads naturally to compassion, and Dahl takes an extreme example of a very limited uninteresting, selfish uncaring man who becomes transformed by simply engaging in exercises of focus and concentration, simple exercises that require a lot of discipline and patience though, into a totally different compassionate and purposeful human being. There is some connection between midnfulness practice, compassion, and the experience of meaningfulness or “purpose driven” living. This explains how Marsha Linehan helped many extremely suicidal individuals with terrible BPD illness go from a state of constant emotional pain, self harming, suffering, suicide attempts, to not just being able to get through the day without engaging in unhealthy coping choices, but eventually transforming their lives and finding meaning beyond the terrible pain of their illness.

It seems that it is really true that the only way to overcome or go through suffering to something on the other side is to truly embrace the present moment and accept all that it contains, being in it while observing it as neutrally as possible. A whole new post could be devoted to the connection between finding a neutral position on the moment and self acceptance and acceptance of others…

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death and Legos

On Feb.2, 2014, (James Joyce’s Birthday), Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose. On that same day in the United States, about 99 other people also died of drug overdose.

This week in my practice, I had quite a few intense sessions with people, the kind of sessions that feel like they are of an existential matter, or an existential crisis. Talking people from the ledge, not necessarily people about to end their life immediately or go overdose, but people questioning their own life and its possible meaninglessness, feeling a lot of self loathing and worthlessness, or destroying their creative spirit with judgments, comparisons and criticisms. In about 9 sessions yesterday, I think Philip Hoffman’s death came up somehow in about 8 out of them and the morning before also in another session. What does his death represent besides a reminder of the deadliness of drug addiction and polysubstance and heroin abuse? It’s about recovery and finding yourself at a crossroads in your life, your shadow is beckoning you to eternal emotional pain and despair and a small shred of hope, a light in the distance, is still also there calling you away from the darkness. It’s about the work in most therapy, the goal being for the person to come to like him or herself more and hate him or herself less…

Some of these sessions went to a very blunt place where I pointed out, we all have what I see as 3 choices when faced with existential angst and self destructive thoughts about life being meaningless or ourselves being failures, worthless, whatever we make is not good, and being told positive things about ourselves makes us feel worse instead of better. So your choice is to end it now and be done with the endless suffering — what the BUddhists refer to as suffering due to addiction, attachment and delusion. The other is to kill yourself off symbolically and destroy your creative spirit and continue living the life of a deadened person; this choice involves giving up on yourself but continuing to appear to be alive but to be dead inside. Many have made this choice, a kind of circle of hell on earth, an acceptance of depression as part of everyday life. The other choice is the hardest for people who have been to the darkest part of their psyche and lived through it: the choice to awaken and emerge from the traps of addiction, delusion and attachment. All humans are at times addicted, deluded or attached. People wake up everyday and live through the day in such a state of mind. Addiction is not just to substances or gambling, sex, love, shopping, food or work, money, success, approval, anger, etc.

Delusion is not limited to humans wandering around in psychotic states. We are in delusion quite often in everyday life, when we do not observe what is really going on and enter a kind of state of ignorance.
“In the Mahayana tradition, two levels of ignorance (avidya) are identified. Dzigar Kongtrul explains:
There are two levels of ignorance: ignorance of the absolute, or the essential nature of phenomena, and the ignorance that prevents us from taking an accurate reading of the relative world. These two kinds of ignorance are like two kinds of thread: When they are tightly woven together, they are not easy to identify, yet they make up the fabric of delusion.
As a result of the first type of ignorance, we lack wisdom. Lacking an understanding of our true nature, we perceive that which is illusory and spacious to be solid and real. The second type of ignorance is the inability to clearly understand the laws of karma and interdependence, which then results in an inaccurate relationship to the world.” From Wikipedia

Carl Jung referred to this type of ignorance in terms of “attitudes”. When a person does not see clearly what is real, they take on an attitude or attach a kind of power to something that then renders it not real and the person continues to see it that way. We see this all the time with various kinds of simple realities. Your “boss” at work becomes more than a “boss”. A boss is someone who has the role of directing people who work for him or her and defining the tasks and roles of the people who work for him or her, but for many they attach more power to their boss and their boss becomes too powerful or their parent instead of simply their boss. We do this with all kinds of things. As an artist I have done this with a gallery or exhibition. My work gets rejected and for a while I live in a delusional state of mind in which this particular gallery and the “juror” who picked the work to go in the show and the work that was not admitted to the show become more than what they really are. I give them some kind of power to decide that I am a “bad artist”, “not good enough”, a “failure”. The gallery is one of probably millions and it is simply a place that payed someone to look through images of work submitted by artists and decide which to put in a particular show that would take place for about 30 days. When I let go of my delusions and attachments to this delusional idea of the gallery and juror of the show, I see the reality, and go back to doing what an artist does whether s/he gets in a show or not, creates art on a daily basis.

In reality, the gallery’s juror did not want any of ten images I emailed them to be in some show of theirs. I know these are ten of countless pieces I will continue to make. When I am not attached to my work being seen or to this gallery’s show, or even to a particular art work being good or bad or craving attention for my work or addicted to approval from the outside, I can be a relatively happy being who engages in the creative process for the sake of the process and my happiness is derived from the engagement with the materials and the process not with any product or result of a product. Because I have survived many of these rejections, each time I am quicker to be able to return to reality. Reality is always much simpler than the delusional or attached or addicted version of reality. In reality a glass of wine or a new dress is a material thing to enjoy but it does not have more power than that. Having a book published or a painting in a show or an award for a movie is a part of reality but cannot define a person. Exhibit A: Philip Seymour Hoffman, human who, given 46 years on earth, achieved a level of success, reknown, acclaim and material riches, as well as a family, and promise of more opportunities to hone his craft, gain more reknown and more enjoyment from his creativity as well as further fame and money, perhaps the joy of watching his children grow, that few ever come close to, he, who with all of thi,s was not able to escape the suffering that addiction brings to all who succomb.

Bringing us back to the choices and the therapeutic session sometimes taking on the conversation of existential dilemmas nobody escapes. Challenge is: can you wake up tomorrow and show up for life whatever it brings and be awake, not living in the past or some fantasy of the future moment? If you can do that, you will escape your own attachments to some definition of who you are, who you are supposed to be, who you expect yourself to be, your addictions to anything that seems like it will fill an empty hole, your delusions about your own reality and the people and other beings you encounter throughout your day. It’s an invitation to let go of your beliefs, your assumptions, your cravings, your attachments to outcomes and goals. As Marsha Linehan wrote: “The fundamental nature of reality is change and process rather than content or structure.” I found this quote, wrote it in my journal and shared it with about 4 patients in the course of my day, as I need to constantly remind myself of this truth; armed with this one small bit of wisdom about reality, you may save yourself from the terrible fate of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the 99 other unknowns who died on Feb.2, 2014 in the USA of the same cause… as well as the countless people walking the earth, who have no awareness of their own suffering in the form of addiction, delusion or attachment…

The philosophy of playing legos, contributed by a five year old, to be explored in another post.

Chinese “Funeral” Paper

To continue where I left off with my “multicultural rituals” series, I will now travel to China. It turns out from my hunting around on the internet, that the Chinese have a very complicated series of rituals. This website has a very long exhaustive description to read (http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_chinaway/2004-03/03/content_46092.htm), so I will just point out a few interesting points, although the whole long process is fascinating, and it is much longer than traditional “Western” funerals, actually 49 days, with the first 7 days being most important. I point this out in particular because I like the idea. In the West, mourning is often not given enough time, and there is something to be said for having an extended time to be mourning, so that you really experience how life is not back to normal for quite a while. This feels much more respectful of the dead and the loved ones of the dead. The Irish come the closest to understanding that a funeral and wake need a lot of time and many kinds of rituals.

Some interesting superstitions or beliefs: The Chines cover up mirrors so that the reflection of the coffin cannot be seen or it will mean you will have a death in your family shortly.

Funeral papers, called “Joss Paper” are burned, and it seems the kind of paper used depends on who has died: “Joss paper and prayer money (to provide the deceased with sufficient income in the afterlife) are burned continuously throughout the wake.”

I actually first heard of the funeral papers when one of my supervisees, who loved using my orange and gold and grey and silver special paper from the Chinese “Pearl River Mart” in Soho, told me that actually the paper was funeral paper. I was reminded of the paper today while showing it to someone and remembered that I had not ever researched it or checked to see what was done with funeral papers. And many people have been drawn to that paper from a vast array of choices in my paper drawer. Here is a detail of a small collage painting on board that I made a few years ago, in which I used a lot of this “Funeral Paper”. Most of the orange in it is from the orange background and the metallic colors are from both color papers. As I painted on top of it, you see it after it has been manipulated, but the colors are the same. The piece for me has some kind of funeral evocations as it reminds me of the Twin Towers..

Image

There are many interesting aspects of the many rituals described on the above website. Here is another involving paper as well, called “holy paper”:

“When the prayer ceremonies are over, the wailing of the mourners reaches a crescendo and the coffin is nailed shut (this process represents the separation of the dead from the living). Then yellow and white “holy” paper is pasted on the coffin to protect the body from malignant spirits. During the sealing of the coffin all present must turn away since watching a coffin being sealed is considered very unlucky. The coffin is then carried away from the house using a piece of wood tied over the coffin, with the head of the deceased facing forward. It is believed that blessings from the deceased are bestowed upon the pallbearer, so there are usually many volunteers.”