Monthly Archives: July 2009

Elders, Revisited

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It has been over two years since my first post about elders. And now, handily, Brendan Myers has posted a lovely article on the same topic over at the Wild Hunt blog. Not only that, but he’s also taken up the issue of what to do when you have no elders around to learn from. All of which leads me to revisit the issue with something from my personal experience that may contribute to the conversation.

When I was 17, living in a student dorm in Berkeley, I had a very important dream. In it,

I walk into an amphitheater filled with women in long robes. I take a seat across the aisle from the leader, who then walks up to the dais and addresses the crowd. She says that today they have a very special guest speaker, and calls me up to speak! I panic, feeling sick to my stomach. I tell her there must be some mistake—I have nothing to say. I don’t even know their language!

Then the lecture is over. There is a long table set up by the door, filled with books on every esoteric and practical subject I want to learn more about, and I work my way through the crowd to get closer. But there are too many people milling about, and try as I might I can never reach the table.

I woke from this dream feeling tremendously saddened, almost cursed. Here I was in Berkeley, a place teeming with new schools of thought and ancient wisdom traditions, hoping to find a teacher and mentor. I wanted to live a spiritual life, wanted to figure out who I was and what I could be in the world. And in the midst of my yearning my dream was telling me that I would not find a teacher, or even find through books what I wanted to learn. That morning, I understood that it was through my own life experience that I would gain wisdom, if it was mine to gain.

This was a harsh lesson to get at such a tender age, but it was true. Feeling alone and without guidance forced me to fall back on my intuition, which has been my most reliable guide even when I was studying with very capable teachers. And when things ended or fell apart, the dream reminded me that the teacher wasn’t the most important thing, it was how I learned from the experience that mattered.

I recount this story not to say that elders are something we do or don’t need, but to hopefully reframe the issue somewhat. Deep spiritual loneliness is a major part of being a seeker, whether we live five miles from the nearest paved road or five minutes from the wisest mystic in the land. It is not something we should avoid or despair about, it is simply an existential truth: we are all alone, and while sometimes we will be filled with Spirit, at other times we will be completely empty.

It is at those empty times that we have the opportunity to deepen our own connection to the Life Force. We need to bring energy up from the earth and down from the heavens even if we don’t feel it; we need to trust in our own power, even when we have none. If we skitter around looking for something outside ourselves in those moments, we miss the most important lessons that are being offered to us.

That being said, we are social creatures. We desire and need connection with others who share our values and interests, which brings us back to the issue of what to do when you live very far away from the nearest teacher, or circle, or group.

I am a big fan of the “whatever works” school of problem-solving. I have seen lots of people find different solutions to the quandary of living hours away from everyone else (and spent years in that position myself). None of their work-arounds were convenient or ideal by any means, but they did them until they found something better to do.

We do what we need to do, for as long as we can keep doing it. This applies to elders just as much as it applies to anyone else. And while it is no doubt useful to address the pros and cons of the choices we make in order to connect, I hope that in doing so we do not lose sight of the gold that our current situation offers us in every moment.

Half Empty, Half Full

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It has been a very lean summer. Everyone is cutting back, stores are closing, and I don’t know anyone who takes their job (if they still have one) for granted. Those of us who are self-employed continue to blog, network, write our books, and drum up gigs wherever we can. We are all caught up in the Half-Empty, Half-Full game: the constant choice between focusing on what is not so great and what is still pretty good.

The metaphysics of this game are complex, but anyone can play. Just pick something—say your child has the chicken pox. She is cranky, feverish, and can’t go to childcare while she’s sick, which means that you have to stay home from work and watch her. You are suffering from sleep deprivation not to mention lost wages, increased health care costs and heightened anxiety. What do you do? Do you bemoan your fate or count your blessings?

I currently play several versions of this game. There is the almost daily trip to the post office, where I see whether my mail contains more checks than bills. When it brings in more bills I try to adopt a zen-like attitude and let my money worries flow through me like a mountain stream till I end up refreshed and re-focused. Some days this is easy, but sometimes my attempt at calm equanimity feels more like grim determination.

Then there are the days when the checks outnumber the bills. Oh, happiness! Yet are these too mere fleeting moments, or are they a sign that things are improving? The conundrum of the Half-Empty, Half-Full game is that no matter which answer you choose, it somehow never feels quite right. Hey, I’m an American! Don’t I get more choices?

Last month I re-injured my shoulder in a particularly strenuous yoga class. I took some time off to heal, went traveling to Chicago, and returned to yoga a week ago ready to face the new state of my body. Predictably, I was distressed at the decreased range of motion my shoulder has. After getting so much better over the past year, I could now barely lift my arm over my head without feeling strain across my neck and upper back.

It felt good to be back on the mat, though. Doggedly, I started finding work-arounds to some of the more shoulder-intensive postures, and have had some success with staying more mindful of the energy flow through my back and shoulders. But today I found myself in a familiar mental loop. I was sure my body was too old and cranky to overcome the injury and get better at yoga. Then I felt I could do it by cultivating more patience, which was a virtue in itself anyway. I should be grateful I hadn’t broken my leg, right?

Drat. I had landed right in the middle of another Half-Empty, Half-Full game. 

Fortunately I was deep into a 90-minute yoga session when it happened, sweating a river just like everyone else in the room. Either I was going to stay cranky or I was going to let something else show up, so I started breathing deeper with each movement.

The moves I could do, extending and strengthening my lower body, I did with full energy. When a posture required me to arch my back or extend my arms, I let my whole upper body fill with breath like a balloon that was inflated several inches beyond my torso. It felt like a protective cushion that supported my back and spine, expanded my rib cage, and didn’t allow any strain to creep into my shoulders, neck or head. 

I stayed with this visualization through the intense part of class, and felt an increased sense of lightness in my body. I kept at it as we moved to more gentle stretches and twists, and then it hit me. The whole transition of middle age is about letting go of how our bodies “used to work,” and accepting that we are more energy than form. What I was experiencing wasn’t a setback, it was a preview of things to come.

The solution to this particular Half-Empty, Half-Full game was to realize that I needed to shift my entire perspective. Instead of concentrating on building physical strength or endurance, it was time to learn about being at home with more breath, more ki, in everything. Eventually the body falls apart. But perhaps the spirit has even more to offer.

One of the things I love about yoga is that I am such a beginner at it. Now I feel even more like a beginner than before. This is a good set of problems to have: learning to readjust my expectations, and re-center my practice for a changing body and changing times. I don’t know where the glass is, but at the moment I feel pretty happy about the whole thing.