Focus, concentration, things that masquerade as them and spiritual bypassing

Seal of Good Practice as it appeared in 1958

Seal of Good Practice as it appeared in 1958 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Practice is called “practice” because it is just that. The mechanism by which yoga and meditation practice work on us is repetition despite fluctuating desire and facility, and this repetition is called practice.  And you’ve no doubt heard and experienced that the point of showing up day after day, desire or no, and despite how easy or hard it is on any given day, is that we are practicing for life.

Meditation is described in yoga by the sixth and seventh of the “Eight Limbs” described by Patanjali. Dharana and Dhyana together describe meditation: concentration + focus. Concentration is the ability to stay present to the field of awareness, while focus is the ability to select and moderate that field. Focus, put simply, is the ability to choose your object of meditation while concentration is the ability to remain with it.

Meditation Sticker

Meditation Sticker (Photo credit: Sanne Schijn)

Dear Hubs and I often refer to one another’s quirky abilities  – you know, the character traits and capacities that can be endearing or annoying depending on how you relate to them – as special secret super powers. Organizing and focus are two of mine.

Any superhero will tell you that their super power can also create their biggest problems, and is usually the repository for the bits of experience they want to avoid. So how can a mere mortal avoid the pitfalls of special secret super powers if the chicks and dudes of flight and steel can’t avoid them?

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised the other day when my laser focus and persistent concentration were revealed to me not as super powers, but the armor with which I gird myself and fend off the demands of body and home.

When the mix of focus and concentration is out of balance, it’s pretty easy for me to catch myself using these capacities to live in my head rather than whole body and to snap at people who ask me to change the range or object of my focus. When Dear Hubs came in to ask how I’d like to be served breakfast, I’d become so absorbed in my focus that I snapped (not a proud moment, to be sure).

Like Gollum with the Ring, I had mistaken the object of attention for the value.

CG depiction of Gollum created by Weta Digital...

CG depiction of Gollum created by Weta Digital for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The object is only valuable for what it reveals about the field of awareness in which it resides.

Using my special secret super power as a shield from the world, I was so far in my head I had ceased to feel hungry, notice my posture and breathing or respond to the person I admire most in the world as the wonderful human being he is.

The balance of focus and concentration is part of what I need to practice when I arrive on the cushion or mat. My personal tendency is to fall into over focus, which can be a sort of spiritual bypassing, when we use our practices to escape the world rather than find equanimity in it.

How do the components of meditation show up in your day-to-day world? Have you ever noticed that you “leave your body” during your day-to-day life? How do you use what you learn on the mat and cushion to adjust how you relate to your work and love?

Hiking Yoga: What better way to get back to your roots?

The way we newsify things for the sake of entrancing eyeballs never ceases to amaze.  Authors and journalists and editors do it with politics, medical studies and trends in every realm. Yesterday I was listening to The Friday News Roundup and journalist and news analyst Juan Williams, commenting on recent happenings in the American presidential contest, commented something along the lines of  “People remember the truth and political spin won’t erase that.” (I

English: Journalist and correspondent Juan Wil...

English: Journalist and correspondent Juan Williams speaking at Chautauqua Institution in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

don’t remember whether he was imputing half truths to elephants or donkeys, he can be trusted to do both when appropriate.) Usually I read Williams as a realist, but I have to say that in this instance I found myself wondering how wide a net he was casting and if he’d read any Orwell (I’m certain, of course, he has. More the wonder he retains his faith.)

What has any of this to do with yoga or hiking or hiking yoga? And have you ever heard of hiking yoga before? Of course you have, if not in name then on your last hike you probably stopped at a spot of beauty and reached for the sky or your hiking buddy to stand in wonder together. The most organic form of hiking yoga.

Blue diamond-shaped sign used to designate hik...

Blue diamond-shaped sign used to designate hiking trails in provincial parks in Ontario, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I read Taking Yoga on a Hike  this morning I was struck by the mini-history given in the third paragraph:

“This yoga fusion option started in San Francisco three years ago and made its debut in New York City this spring, promising the chance to connect with nature in an urban environment, with stops for yoga along the way.”

Where does the need to pedigree and attribute natural, everyday activities come from except maybe word count? While outdoor and yoga on hikes may not be everyone’s cup of chai tea, folks have been taking yoga hikes as long as they’ve trekked the Himalayas or strapped a yoga mat on an old frame pack. These days I tend to throw my Yoga-Paws in my lighter pack, but it’s the same urge and the same amazing feeling.

The very things that can be complained about in outdoor yoga are the reasons that some of us feel best doing yoga outside: the variability. Sticks and stones  remind you you’re in contact with the earth, bird chirping and dog barking blend together (they only seem different – one more annoying and one more relaxing – because of our reactions), and uneven ground , while challenging balance, adds a tremendous core and functional element. Try doing Downward Facing Dog without a mat and tell me you don’t feel your core in whole new and different way.

I love my early morning and before bed yoga sessions in a flat floored room, on my silk rug with Jonathan Goldman‘s creations streaming from the sound system and candles flickering kind shadows on the visage of Kuan Yin staring down from her museum poster.  But I also love my yoga in the sand, among the cactus and lizards in the foothills of the Sandia mountains, or on the plateaus overlooking

An image of Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon (New Me...

An image of Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon (New Mexico, United States). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chaco Canyon… or a thousand other places. These sessions are a meditation, too, albeit with some extra bumps or slants under my feet and hands and perhaps the wave or querying head tilt of another passing hiker (I do tend to choose places where this is less likely to happen). What better intermediate training in watching and caring for your monkey mind in daily life? What more inspiring backdrop? And what better way to groove your own practice?

Subtle talk, subtle body

I’m  just back from my walk today and had to share this talk with you.

This podcast, “The Subtle Body,” is from Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico – worth a visit in and of itself. The peace and dignity palpable there are food for the heart.

The speaker, Tias Little, is a deeply accomplished yogi and teacher from the area. In this talk he illuminates the subtle body and gives eminently practical advice on how yoga poses, meditation, breathing, touch and attention interact with the subtle body to obstruct or allow healing and optimum function.

Equanimity

watching Shinzen Young videos on the iPad = ub...

Image by ~C4Chaos via Flickr

Just completed a fabulous mini-home-retreat. Usually I design and create these for myself, but I’ve found a meditation teacher who has honed the content and delivery to a “T”…. or maybe “M” for mindfulness. Shinzen Young‘s basic mindfulness home retreats feature his program of methods for mindfulness and are awe inspiringly powerful.

One of my “aha” moments during the four hour combination of didactic instruction, interaction, and sitting meditation made communal by the use of the internet (I use Skype to connect, quite happily) was Shinzen answering a question after the first technique was practiced. “Equanimity” is one of those words you’ll hear as often as “cool” in yoga and meditation circles, so hearing Shinzen apply his scalpel like mind and bring the discussion back to the definition is always refreshing. One of the many things I appreciate in his teaching is that he is truly a philosopher in the Socratic sense: philosophy is a practice as well as a system of interrelated definitions supporting clear thinking.

He reminded us that equanimity is the skill of allowing images, thoughts, feelings or sensations to arise “without push or pull,” without moving toward or away from them, without craving or aversion. Equanimity is what we exhibit when we allow these experiences to arise and pass away without our interference – perhaps without even our explicit notice.

And he asserted, if I understood properly, that this is our psyche’s healing mechanism. The intuitive appeal of this theory has me looking into his deeper philosophy, but for now all I can say is that it makes sense to me and resonates with my experience. I had an image of the desert plateaus and canyon floors I spend so much time traversing. After a good rain, an infrequent phenomenon to be sure, bits of the past surface with as much ease as spring water seeping through cracks, to be worn away and converted to light and heat by the wind and the desert sun. What a blissful new way for me to relate to sitting.

How do you define equanimity?

Grace

Landing with grace

Image via Wikipedia

Grace lives somewhere between denial and dissolution.

In the land of denial, the truth tickles our imagination, possibly irritating like a feather, or a fly. But instead of becoming curious and investigating, we wriggle away from the tickle and  white-knuckle through whatever we’re doing, resisting the actual experience of the truth – usually to “get-things-done.”

We usually get to the land of denial through fear of dissolution, but years of denial can indeed lead to a large dissolving event. In dissolution, we are so incredibly overwhelmed by the truth that we melt like sugar into a puddle of goo, in the very spot upon which we were struck by the full force of the truth. In the land of dissolution, there is no “getting-things-done” and not only the list, but the very structure of our lives can lose meaning. This is scary in ways that can keep us in list-making and slaying mode.

Yoga, years of yoga, have helped me wend my way between these modern manifestations of Scylla and Charybdis.  As an athletic, all-out life-loving, really geeky and slightly loner kid, I learned early that “grace” was not a quality likely to be admired in me. I was clumsy. I was the kid with bruises on her shins from climbing trees and jumping fences. Born with an appetite for everything, and not one to shy away from challenge (think bull, red flag, and yes, china shop comes next), I did a lot of white-knuckling and brushing away of tickles for the first several decades of my life. No regrets, either. I have a lot of experiences that are hard to come by and full of the nectar of life.

That life, too, led me to many moments of dissolution, some transitory, others full-on halting stops to the hustle and activity of life. And through the churning in the passage between the extremes I’d created, I became quiet with life and easy with the quiet. And in this quiet arose a voice like that of a child asked to say grace for the family before dinner: thin and reedy at first, finding it’s channel and finally flowing quietly back into the silence.

That voice was the tickle of the truth I’d swatted away so persistently before. I learned to laugh at the insouciance of tickle, and that lightness allowed space to open around the experience.  By actually having the experience, I never had to dissolve. Rather, the experience itself dissolved into another, and often into realization, and into natural action.

Grace is the moment of presence, pure opening, creating space in the now for simply “what is.” Grace can be cultivated in meditation and on the mat by watching, feeling, diving in. Once cultivated, it has a tendency to pop up in the strangest ways. Sometimes the dawning realization of how the body is feeling, and the space to adjust “the plan” ever so slightly to accommodate. Or perhaps it’s the presence of intuition about when to stop or start, or when to speak up or just listen. Grace comes in silence and doing that is not-doing, but actively reveals the truth more eloquently than wrestling and bending to our will.

I’ve always wanted “it all” and never accepted that this was impossible, or even that hard. I just had a different notion of what was included in “all.” Grace is merely opening to the all in the moment. Grace is the union of the opposites into which we try to split our experience. It’s taken a lot of swimming in the churning pool between “balls-to-the-wall” and “puddle-on-the-floor” to find my way to flow: to finding that “all” is not something I do, not merely a gathering of juicy experiences, because all the experiences in the world are meaningless but for the space to drink them in. And that everything I ever sought is here, now, for the price of a breath and a grateful and perhaps-momentarily silent mind.

Morning Practice

well stone after spectacular late summer monsoon….

prepared ground….

….. feet on mat….

hummingbirds…

stone cairns….

grandfather stones…

mother stone….

Hub & Spoke Meditation Link

Upaya Zen Center

This powerful meditation demonstrates and cultivates your second order reflexive awareness, or awareness of awareness. Dr. Dan Siegel leads us to pay attention to the “rim” of awareness by following spokes of sensation, thinking, feeling and connection to others, each in turn. Finally, you “turn the spokes back on the hub” and rest in your meditative center, the hub of consciousness.

The link above will take you to a recording of a talk containing a guided meditation (about 12-13 minutes in) given by Dr. Siegel at Upaya Zen Center just last month. You can listen to the whole series of 9 talks based on his new book MindSight, or simply enjoy this simple guided meditation. Here are some quotes from Dr. Siegel about the power of attention.

“The close paying of attention turns on parts of the brain that make synaptic change happen.”

“Mind is the embodied, relational regulatory process of the flow of energy and information.”

“We know from research that the way you develop your awareness changes the health of your body… changes your relational health… and cultivates mental health.”

“How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.”

“Well-being emerges when we create connections our lives.”

Balance, Acceptance & Integrity

Balance comes from understanding the opposing forces in our lives, and how we can integrate them in an expression of our deepest truth and values. Whether those forces are internal or external, chosen or non-negotiable, understanding their natures and contours as well as our deepest core allows us to most efficiently act from integrity at any given time.

Rather than trying to make our roles, bodies or activity fit a pre-determined mold, balance requires us to recognize what we have, choose and examine our foundation, feel our deepest center, integrate our periphery and unify what might at first seem like opposing demands. When we try to balance without practice or without consciousness, it can make us feel scattered and a bit nuts.

Sometimes this is because we’re not acknowledging the way things happen to be, or because we lack support, vision or strength of our core. But when you practice a little bit each day, you lay a foundation of consciousness, strength, awareness and support from which you can act to transform your world through concrete action.

The Dude Abides, The Writer Comes & Goes…

To abide is to remain, to witness, to sustain and to look upon with kind regard. To abide is one definition of meditation: to remain with one’s own mind in a state of kind regard. To abide is a gift, a discipline and a way of love & I have the most loving readers in the blogosphere!

I’ve been AWOL for months, focused on other areas of my practice, following lights I didn’t at first realize would lead me away from blogging. And yet, you keep visiting, reading & letting me know you are out there. My own practice has become more vigorous and maybe you’ve been following the CampNYoga developments on Twitter or Facebook. How has your practice evolved in recent months?

So while the Dude Abides, I come & go and I’M BACK! I’ll be posting about weekly and next week I’ll have an update on the first, invitation only CampNYoga, complete with photos 🙂 Twice daily yoga and meditation classes, dharma talk with Kirtan on Saturday evening, massage in camp, gourmet organic camp cooking, wine sponsored by Meagan the Wine Goddess at ABQ Whole Foods. We’re not calling it a retreat, because it’s an advance: we’re retreating from nothing, we’re embracing our lives with Love. Love, Truth, Beauty: Here, Now. Peace.

Cool Media to Inspire Your Practice & Your Life

Yogis need yoga, teachers need teachers and bloggers… need bloggers!

Here’s one I discovered today & I just love Davidya’s title “In2Deep“. “Basic Skills” is an extended reflection on attention & intention, but what grabbed me was the opening. She spoke to me where I am, reminding her readers that when our influences feel unsupportive, our attention can change our influences and that support is a breath away.  Speaking of a seemingly unsupportive “culture,” she says “it’s more a boogy than a monster.” Indeed, our focused awareness contributes to our culture and our support.

This next one is my current obssession: The Zen Brain Lecture Series. Time to get your geek on, and I mean seriously. If you’re not scientifically minded or not in a space where you can concentrate, pick something else. These are some smart people – neuroscientists, pathologists, researchers, journalists – reviewing recent research and making hypothesis and reporting on results of experiments with meditation. It’s about way more than Zen, or Buddhism. It’s about being a human being. This gathering in January was influenced by the gatherings initiated by the current Dalai Lama, during which leading lights come together to discuss the intersection of science and mindfulness. Goldmine for inspiration as well as confirmation that your yoga mat & yoga butt are “worth it” as well as some ideas to expand your notions of “mind” & “body.”

And finally, this on HumanKind this morning over our local public radio station, KANW: An interview with Bernard Lown, a Nobel Prize winning doctor speaking out for healing as part of the medical “model”.  His voice, stories and wisdom regarding the role of compassion in well-being are deep and touching.