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?

1 pose, 1 breath: What yoga practice looks like in times of hardship

Hip Replacements rock on

Hip Replacements rock on (Photo credit: Jerry W. Lewis)

Practice is just that. It’s not perfect, and often not pretty. It’s the opposite of a photo-shoot and exactly the same as showing up.

To be a practice, as opposed to a hobby, pastime or performance, the activity has to be undertaken by one person with enough regularity to create continuity over time, which is the only way to witness deep transformation. Regularity of this magnitude, nearly daily – shooting for daily – hoped for daily, means you will practice through hardship.

Practice is not about belief or knowledge. It is not about religion or virtue. It is about the essence of being human: being present; showing up. You might believe that this regularity will pay off in some way, and your knowledge will certainly grow. But practice is just about the rhythm, regularity, witness, same thing different day; same day, different thing-ness of consciousness.

When you practice, you show up during the hard times. This morning, I had the “best” practice I have in over a year. In that year I’ve two surgeries, one a hip replacement, a cross-country move, two dear friends die and a career change. The hip replacement wasn’t from lack of practice, healthy living or “proper” yoga. In fact, years of yoga and healthy diet extended the life of my natural hip 13 years beyond when doctors told me I’d need a replacement, due to the birth defect. But I’ve had many “yogis” suggest how I could “correct” my practice.

In Practice

In Practice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s what I know about today’s practice: I had more ease, more flow and more outward grace than I’ve been blessed with in a bloody long while. It felt GREAT. And it may not have been as valuable as all the halting, minimalist, do-what’s-possible practices in the year leading up. During those times, my asana practice was often restorative, sometimes a single pose. My meditation was frequently while lying down, and for at least three months after the surgery, always laying down and not infrequently ending in zzzzzzzzzzz… Not exactly zendo worthy, but not not practice.

While we were moving, I always had my yoga mat with me, but it was just a tease, a Manduka hope, a promise and an expression of longing more than doing. The yoga I managed was at truck stops while stretching our three dogs (one dying) or in the two foot space at the foot of the hotel room bed.

While and after our dogs died, one agonizingly and messily, one so quickly I’d have missed it if I hadn’t seen so many people die and knew the sound, a heaviness surrounded my heart that reached out to my fingernails and prevented a proud, warrior like stance. There were many aborted practices, begun with every intent of wringing the sadness out, and dissolving into tears. There was crying in fierce pose (see what that does to your diaphragm!) and child’s pose (oddly, even harder).

But without the mostly showing up, occasional giving in and constant consciousness of whether-I-did-whether-I-didn’t and how it effected the state of my mind-body, today’s practice could not have happened. And today’s practice doesn’t matter. Not in and of itself. It matters because it’s part that year, of all the years and of what will be to come. The ease matters because it’s a palpable sigh of relief, and those are to be appreciated when they arrive. It matters that I showed up, but not how difficult or “advanced” my postures were. I propose that Warrior I with total presence is a more advanced posture during some times than any “Series IV” practice ever dreamt.

When your yoga class is part of your practice, each and every breath takes on new and different meaning. There will be advances, set-backs, goals met and goals changed. All of which will pale in comparison  to the feeling of showing up for yourself, because you no longer know how not to.

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.