Monday, December 27, 2010

Ishvara Pranidhana

Ishvara Pranidhana ~

surrender to God


"I wanna spread the news
That if it feels this good getting used
Oh, you just keep on using me
Until you use me up."
- Bill Withers

Our final topic for this year is also the last Niyama, one of the ethical precepts in our yoga practice. According to Wikipedia, that vast and definitive tome of yoga knowledge, Ishvara pranidhana is "In it's simplest form, a combination of the words Ishvara, meaning Lord, God, Supreme Being or Life Force, and Pranidhana, meaning attention to, love for, surrender to, faith in, or reunion with. "Attentiveness" and "Surrender" are both close English approximations. A close literal English translation of Ishvara-Pranidhana would give "Attentiveness to God" or "Surrender to God."

Donna Farhi, a well known and respected Yoga scholar, in her book "Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit', says that the practice of Ishvara pranidhana requires that we take time to contemplate and be open to an intelligence larger than ourselves (ourselves being our small I or personal ego) and that, 'ultimately, Ishvara pranidhana means surrendering our personal will to this intelligence so that we can fulfill our destiny'.

I have often said, in the past nine years, that only since I started The Samarya Center did I really and truly understand and believe in the presence of God in my life. I have seen again and again how, when we trust in God, or the Universe, or the supreme, or the divine, whatever we might name it, and when we work for the greater good of all beings, that we are nurtured and supported in every way. I have seen this in myself, in my students, in our community and in The Samarya Center itself. There has been a divine mystery constantly unfolding that has helped us to weather storms and increase our ability to offer goodness to a world so much in need. In truth, I became so trusting in this mysterious presence, that in some ways, I stopped working for it or worrying about it at all, both within The Samarya Center and within my own life.

I have not always been that way. In fact, I have been quite the opposite. I have always been a person who has been fortunate enough to get many of the things I wanted, and always through, what I believed to be hard work and direct action. It never really occurred to me that this too was God's presence, but I have certainly been grateful that whatever spirit I was born with was one that had this great ability to get things done. It also never occurred to me that this ability was a gift from God, and that I could use it for something bigger than myself; I was always too busy using it to get things for me. I remember being in high school, and like all the good upper middle class suburban kids those days, loving the Grateful Dead. On one of their tours, they were playing Madison Square Garden, close to my parent's home, and before I was able to get a ticket, the show sold out. At about fifteen years old, I decided that I didn't need to buy a ticket, I would just get on the guest list. So I found out where the band was staying, asked myself which band member might get the least attention from fans (I won't tell you which one I decided that was), and called him up from his hotel lobby. We chatted for about five minutes, then he asked me if I was going to the show. I told him I didn't have a ticket and he asked me if I wanted to be on the guest list. Just like that. Later, when I was playing in bands, I decided I wanted my band to be in the annual and prestigious South by Southwest music conference. Knowing competition was stiff, I booked a flight to Austin, found out who the promoter was, got a lunch meeting with her, and talked my way into a Friday night slot. Later, a similar effort helped my band play our beloved Seattle Bumbershoot festival. And after that, without being a yoga teacher, or having had any experience at all in business, I decided to open a wellness center based on yoga in the Central District. This was perhaps the first time that I consciously decided that I could use my gift for action and results to actually help others, rather than for my own self-serving. I decided to apply for non-profit status, and through more perseverance and determination, was soon granted a 501 c 3. Then it seemed smart to create a teacher training so that I could share what I knew and believed in with others. It didn't even occur to me then that most people who start yoga teacher trainings have most likely been trained at being yoga teachers themselves. I was used to this hard work, and I was used to it paying off. And God had already started showing up. For real.

The Samarya Center started to become this incredible place of healing, community and outreach. I had never planned exactly that, but I began to see that God was ever more present in my life when I offered my gift of fire to serve a greater good. Soon, all of these amazing people, dedicated to love, inclusion and social justice started showing up. I had never thought of that. Frankly, I didn't even know people like that before The Samarya Center came into being. More and more it seemed that I just had to trust in God, and that whatever this universal and divine source was, its direction would guide me, all of us, into the future. I didn't have to do anything but trust. Then all of a sudden, things changed. Just before the holiday party, we found ourselves in a pretty serious financial situation that demanded immediate action and a plan. I felt paralyzed, scared and let down. We were doing great things. We were changing the world. We were mending hearts and uplifting lives. Why weren't we being taken care of?

The other night I was watching Barbara Walters interviewing Oprah. As much as Oprah is a part of our common cultural experience, I sometimes forget how amazing she is. Here is this person, from very harsh beginnings, who has become one of the most influential and richest people in the world. And not only is she rich, creative, and talented, she is also larger, black and a woman. And, she uses her money and her status to help others less fortunate than she. And she's constantly thinking of ways she can do more. In her interview she referenced a previous interview she did with Barbara Walters in the eighties (and by the way, they both look a lot better now!), where she stated that she believed she was meant to do great things. She talked about the incredible backlash she received from the media and the community. Who is this person saying she is so great? Why isn't she more humble? Who does she think she is? How can she say that God meant for her to do great things? What about the rest of us?

Oprah and Barbara didn't have to laugh at the irony of it all. Oprah clearly is great and she does great things. She told Barbara that she often thinks of the refrain from the Bill Withers song, "Use me until you use me up," and uses that very phrase in her prayers to God every day. Here is a person who recognizes her considerable gifts and guidance, and uses them to uplift others. She said that her faith in God guides and supports every thing she does, but I think we could also agree that Oprah works really, really hard. In her efforts to bring about positive change for others, Oprah has both joy and humility, not to mention an ever flowing stream of creativity and money.

See, that's the funny thing about Ishvara Pranidhana. We can surrender to God, we can ask God to use us, but we have to work too. In Yoga, it is the balance between Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana, also known in its totality as Kriya Yoga, and our topics of the last three months. We have to put in the effort, evaluate and assess the results of our efforts, and at some point let go our own holding. That's the surrender part. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is famously counseled to relinquish the fruits of his actions. In a commentary I love by Mahatma Ghandi, he explains this paradox. It's not that we completely don't care whether our work bears fruit, we do want to see the benefits of our efforts as they are directed towards important change. It's just that our attachment is not about what we, specifically, individually, receive from our actions, or what that return might look like.

We started this year with the topic of Ahimsa, and in that newsletter I shared the beginning of my journey toward parenthood. Over the year, I shared with you, my beloved community, my struggles, my losses and my own letting go. I guess in that case, I did do the work, and I also let go. I didn't just leave it up to God, but I also didn't blame or think God wrong when my plans didn't turn out as I wished. It's fitting to me, that our final topic of this year is surrender to God, as if it had always been the plan to start with the intention and end with the letting go. We have a longing, and that longing may remain as part of our call to action, and may even remain if our work doesn't produce the desired result. But we trust too, that there is some divine mystery about our reason for being, the path of our lives, and how we worked towards fulfilling our own purpose, using the unique gifts we each were given. We trust that our gifts will truly serve in ways perhaps yet unimagined by us.

I think again about Oprah's words, quoting Bill Withers. "Use me until you use me up." To me, this really is what this dedication, attentiveness, or faith in God is really all about. We can allow ourselves to be the vessels for God's work, and we can add our own work to it. We claim our power, we channel our gifts without apology, we turn down the voices of the naysayers, and we attune more deeply to whatever we understand to be the presence of God in our lives, whatever we want to call it or however we experience it. We each have the capacity for that, and we certainly don't have to be "great," or "famous." We only have to open ourselves to our own purpose, and work to be the very best we can at that. It is in this opening that we find fulfillment in our lives, and fulfill our own dharma. Although I am particularly inspired when I see famous people like Oprah, Bono, Michael Franti, Bill Gates, Sean Penn, to name just a few, who use their considerable platform of fame and money to offer all they possibly can to help alleviate suffering, particularly in a world where we so highly value the vapid and self-serving, especially among the rich and famous, I also know that we can do this by being the best parent, the kindest person, the most dedicated learner, the most humble and inspiring teacher, whatever we feel truly is our life's work and calling. We use every gift we have, we let God "use us," and we offer that to contribute goodness to our fellow beings and to the world.

For my part, work has definitely kicked back in to the equation. As soon as I realized we needed some very creative thinking to keep our great center thriving, I started to brainstorm all of the possibilities. One thing that came to me was that maybe I could somehow meet Michael Franti, a Samarya Center musical favorite, who is also a yogi and social activist, and tell him about our little gem in the Central District. I told my staff I would meet him and get us on his radar. For the first time since my previous forays into the world of music and rock stardom, I wanted to meet this person not for me, but because I truly believed that somehow meeting him might plant a seed that could help The Samarya Center and all of the people it serves. So I wrote to a bunch of people, explored and used all my resources, including trust, and ended up meeting him. Next time you see Michael Franti, don't be surprised if you see him wearing an "unfold" tee-shirt.

The Samarya Center continues to be a manifestation of this powerful combination of effort and surrender. I have learned, again, that it's not just work, and it's not just trust, but it is the magical alchemy between the two that allow us to channel God's presence and to create the changes we wish to see, in ourselves, in our communities and in the world. In this season of gift giving, consider that truly embracing and embodying the gift of yourself, your unique talents and skills, your openness to mystery, and your attention to divine presence, might be the very greatest gift of all.

~ with much love and light in this holiday season and always ~ molly

me and Michael

Not familiar with Michael Franti's music?

Click here for a very Samarya-esque introduction.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Svadhyaya ~ stillness and movement, courage and change

"We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think." - The Buddha

This month’s topic, svadhyaya, or self-inquiry, in many ways is the foundation for all of the other yamas and niyamas. We can’t have ahimsa, non-violence, without self-inquiry. We can’t have santosha, contentment, without self-inquiry. It is only through our own self knowledge that we are able to practice satya, truthfulness. It is only through self awareness that we are able to practice aparigraha, non-grasping. Truly knowing and acknowledging our deepest selves, “the good, the bad and the ugly,” is the only way to create real and lasting change in ourselves, in our relationships, in our communities and in our world. So we might even say that svadhyaya is at the heart of The Samarya Center’s mission statement: fostering individual change as a means to radical social transformation. Svadhyaya, self-study, is a necessary practice for individual, and hence community or global change to be achieved.

It is important to note that svadhyaya is not just about this kind of self-awareness. Although at The Samarya Center, we focus heavily on this ability to know our part in a conflict, or to accept our faults, or to celebrate our many strengths and put them to good use, svadhyaya is also the concept of self-knowledge in terms of self-realization, or self-knowledge as God realization, “knowing our own true nature.” It also refers to “study” as in study of the scriptures and spiritual texts to gain insight and reflection into our Self as part of the divine cosmology. Contemporary yoga writer Judith Hanson Lasater describes svadhyaya as more than just mental clarity. It is the deep acknowledgment of the oneness of Self with all that is. In other words, to practice svadhyaya is to begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness we feel from ourselves, those around us, and our world. To practice svadhyaya is to find God in the person standing in front of us at this very moment.”

I have been thinking a lot about this concept at all of its many levels. I have been noticing how often we hold on to an idea, or a grudge, or an insecurity, simply by choosing to not be self-aware, and to deny or defend the very actions that cause us pain and suffering. Here is a recent story from my own experience.

Back in October, I attended a five day yoga workshop in Arizona. I was very excited to go when I signed up for the training, but following a series of personal challenges, the intensity of The Samarya Center teacher training, and an interruption of my own grief process after losing a second pregnancy, I was reluctant and less than enthusiastic when the time actually came. When I arrived in Arizona, I was stressed, lonely and physically and emotionally drained. When I arrived at my hotel, I thought more about lounging by the pool than showing up at the workshop in downtown Tempe.

On the very first day of the workshop I became anxious about the content and the process. I didn’t really want to do partner exercises, I didn’t want to do group sharing, and I was having a hard time feeling articulate and interested. When I did do a bit of group and partner processing, I felt misunderstood, misrepresented and frustrated. I was ready to leave the workshop, staying only because I had already paid for it, but I made a deal with myself, still being in “tapas month” mode. I would stay and I would keep a positive attitude. I would sit up front by the teacher and focus on his teachings, and be kind and generous with myself when I felt myself becoming separate. I decided that was my tapas, to keep recommitting, keep showing up, and keep learning. I was proud of my super yogic ability to turn my bad attitude around. I even exchanged some pleasantries with the person sitting next to me. I began to relax and soak in the teaching. That’s what I had come for.

The workshop was a typical American yoga workshop set-up. Everyone had their mats on the floor, sitting on blankets or with back-jacks, intermittently stretching their legs or moving around to adjust their positioning. The teacher stood in front of us and lectured. On this particular morning, I had pulled up all of my emotional and physical reserves and sat down in front and slightly to the right of the teacher. I was feeling fragile but determined. As the teacher began to speak, I became engrossed in the teachings, and was starting to feel a deeper sense of peace and belonging than I had on any of the days prior. I kept my eyes on the teacher as I stretched my legs out in front of me. Suddenly, the woman to my right tapped me on the shoulder. “How unusual,” I thought, “she’s trying to get my attention right in the middle of the lecture.” I leaned over to her, still trying to stay focused on the teacher. She whispered, “In our tradition…” before she said anymore I thought, “oh, she just wants to share a thought she’s having about her practice,” and although I wished she hadn’t interrupted the teacher to tell me, I leaned in to listen to what she had to say. “In our tradition, we don’t point our feet toward the teacher, so you may want to cover your feet.” BAM! I was taken out of every tiny bit of peace I had mustered and sent careening into defensiveness, irritation, judgment, anger and vindication. I just looked at her and said, “No thanks,” then stretched my legs out even further. In that moment, I was instantly back in the 5th grade, but I didn’t care. She was not going to tell me what to do. My mind reeled, “In my tradition, we mind our own business,” “In my tradition, we prioritize non-harming over schooling a total stranger,” “In my tradition, we don’t interrupt our teacher to try to tell another student what to do,” and on and on, and trust me, those are only the PG comebacks that whirled like dervishes through my head. I couldn’t focus. I kept thinking about the woman and her comment. I felt like I was oozing anger, and I felt like I was going to cry. Move my feet? Then she’ll think I’m doing it because she told me to. Don’t move my feet? Then the teacher will think I am disrespecting him, or someone else will tell me again. “I know more about YOUR tradition then you will ever know,” “Your tradition is some dumb Indian thing you are trying to co-opt to make yourself feel legitimized,” even, “I don’t like your mat, or that shirt that you are wearing.”

I managed to make it through the lecture, but carried my anger and insecurity through the asana practice, and on into lunch. I called my snarky support team to tell them of this great injustice that had been heaped upon me. I thought of even more and better comebacks. When we came back from lunch, I managed to not look at the offender. When she tried to engage me, I just ignored her. While I smiled and acted friendly with others, I made sure she knew that we were not friends. It felt really good. Not. But at least I was sticking up for myself. Sort of? I felt surrounded and infused with reactive, even hostile energy. It didn’t feel good, but I didn’t know how to make it stop.

In meditation, the image of a still lake is often offered for the quality of mind we are trying to cultivate. I have heard, and used, this image on many occasions. Meditation is certainly one of the practices that might help us to develop svadhyaya. We might say that emotions, thoughts, reactions, are all things that keep us swirling in confusion or illusion - these are like the ripples and waves on the lake. As we cultivate stillness, we get to more clearly see the “bottom of the lake,” or the still point in ourselves, the place in us that is able to be objective, non-judgmental, and reflective. In Yoga, this is our true nature.

On a recent morning in meditation, the image of a lake came to me spontaneously. But this time, I saw the lake that I actually know the best - the lake where my family has a summer house, and where I spent all of my summers growing up. This lake is of the “On Golden Pond” variety, quiet, remote and peaceful. I started to see myself as that lake, but in that image, I didn’t see just stillness. I also saw the activity on the lake, which more often than not consists of things like loons and kayaks. I thought about how the kayaks, like our thoughts, come into our vision in such a quiet and stealth way. They slip through the water, and then they’re gone, moving swiftly and silently. Sometimes thoughts are like that. They seem to come out of nowhere and then they disappear. If we wait long enough, we will surely see the kayaks come back around. So the lake remains very still, even though it has movement and activity. Then I thought of the loons. They are quiet and stealthy too, but they move very differently. They just emerge up out of the lake, then sit, as if they’ve always been there. Sometimes they are silent, sometimes they call out, sometimes their calls are answered. The calls can be loud and have a sense of urgency, or they can be haunting and isolated. Similarly, our thoughts can barely disturb the surface of the mind, but can feel pervasive and lingering, even in their quietness. Other times, our thoughts seem to be calling out, having long conversations of their own, which we do not understand at all, but are compelled to listen to. Then I had another image of the loon on the lake. It was when the loon, suddenly becomes aware of some disturbance, either from our presence, or from something beneath the surface, and dives out of sight. If we had not seen it go under, we would never know it was there. But we did see it, and we do know it is there. And in fact, if we know there are loons in a lake, then we can guess that sometimes they are under the surface, even if we didn’t happen to see them. I suddenly understood: thoughts are like that too. They too go under the surface, and live a whole other murky unseen life. It is this aspect of thought, of consciousness, of self-awareness, that, if uncovered, might offer us an even deeper understanding of ourselves and what drives us. And yet, because they are not immediately apparent, we can deny them. We can pretend we don’t know they exist. Or we can just forget that they do. But we can never know the whole lake without having some understanding of what is under the surface, even when the lake is still. Similarly, we cannot truly know ourselves without committing to curiosity, courage, and excavating the deepest parts of our own psyche. It’s scary going there, but if we want to truly “foster individual change,” we really have no choice.

Back in Tempe, the teacher didn’t seem to mind my feet facing towards him. In fact, he was very vocal about his support for The Samarya Center, so much so in fact, that several people came up to me asking about this amazing organization that their teacher kept championing. My arch-enemy looked at me with sweet, persistent and loving eyes, and asked me, “What does your organization do?” Well, I was stuck. I couldn’t just not answer her. So I took a breath and then started to tell her about all of the wonderful things The Samarya Center does and stands for. She engaged me, even telling me that the organization for which she worked, a company that makes yoga jewelry, had offered us support in the past for our fundraisers, and asked if I would like her to suggest us as a recipient of their donor program. In fact, she told me that she had sample jewelry in her car, and would be happy to send some back with me. I sat there, humbled and confused. I really was mad that she had “schooled me,” but she was a sweet and beautiful woman offering love and generosity. What to do? I took a deep breath. And then told her what had happened in my head. I told her that I was feeling insecure, and that in my fragile state, had been brought back to childhood fears of doing wrong, being the outsider, not being included. She told me that she had been working with trying to stand up for herself, overcoming the “loud voice of her father that always overpowered” her. That she wanted to practice telling me something that was important to her, but that she didn’t know how. When she finally mustered her courage and spoke her truth, she immediately wished she hadn’t and felt conflicted about the situation and how it had turned. We talked about how we could each handle the same thing in the future. I told her I thought she should speak her truth, but that her svadhyaya might come in the form of speaking from her own experience, rather than reprimanding a peer for “breaking the rules.” She told me that she understood how I felt, and that my svadhyaya showed up when I was able to own my own craziness in the situation, and to lovingly acknowledge all the under the surface emotions driving a seemingly disproportionate reaction.

Right after that, our teacher asked us to lie down for Yoga Nidra. We both hunkered down and covered up. We lay there ready for a few moments, and just before the practice began, I opened my eyes and turned to her and said “I’m so glad we talked.” She responded without missing a beat, “I was just thinking that same thing.” We closed our eyes and were led peacefully off into meditation. Minds still as lakes. Loons and all.

Tapas ~ The Hard Work of Healing

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

The Samarya Center’s mission is to foster individual change as a means to radical social transformation. That individual change is not an easy thing. It takes each of our own desire and dedication to make the change happen. Upon recently returning from our Yoga Teacher Training, I was sharing with my husband the satisfaction, humility and great appreciation I felt for being part of an experience that allows people to be open, spacious and compassionate with themselves and their many stories of trauma and suffering. He was struck by the stories and commented, “Wow, a lot of people in a lot of pain end up on your trainings.” I thought about that for a moment, then responded, “A lot of people are in a lot of pain. The experience of the training just allows them to share that and feel that they are affirmed, whole and correct in their hope for a sweeter life. “

In the past ten years, Stephanie and I have trained well over a hundred students in our yoga teacher training, and literally thousands have come through our doors and, by their own accounts, have found the simple experience of being a part of our community to be truly transformative. But the work has to go beyond that initial feeling of hopefulness and that glimpse of encouragement and acknowledgement. Indeed, healing into ourselves, healing our deep wounds, our traumas and grief, our deepest secrets and our greatest sources of shame, requires effort and determination; a tapas that will last a lifetime. It is a continuous return to practice, a brave, unfiltered look into ourselves, an unearthing of our fears and limitations, and an acceptance of healing as a process of integration rather than exorcism. We cannot go to a therapist for a year and call it good; we cannot go to our evening yoga class and expect that to do the trick. True healing is a long term, life long process that requires determination, fire and steadfastness.

In many ways, our culture is suited to this hard work. We like to “get the job done,” “pull ourselves up by the boot straps,” “get on with it.” We are reminded of this from both internal and external sources. When I recently reached out to a friend to tell her of the heartbreak I was experiencing, she, with all the best intentions, advised me to “go for a run, sweat it out.” “Work it out.” And in fact, that is what I had planned, without really planning it. As soon as I found out that my pregnancy would not progress, I decided to move on, join the gym, get back in shape, organize a workshop, write a newsletter, and meet with the adoption counselor. In our adoption interview, we were asked, “How are you dealing with your recent loss?” I came back right away with a sort of “Oh that? We’ve processed that already. I mean, that’s my work, I know how to do that.” I had already done that work. I had talked about it ad infinitum, I had rationalized my choices, and I had used the experience to learn something. So, it all seemed ok. Until it didn’t.

During teacher training one morning, we were practicing the challenging and illuminating Naikon meditation, asking ourselves silently, “What have I given, what have I received, what troubles or difficulties have I caused?” Later in discussion, one student shared her experience in the meditation, saying, “That meditation was hard! I didn’t want to ask myself those questions, and I found myself getting angry, even angry at you, thinking, why does she keep asking those questions over and over?” The student continued, “Finally, I just decided to stay with it, and just work through the questions, but that still didn’t work. I wanted to just tackle them and answer them, but I couldn’t. So I finally decided to just be with the questions. That’s when I felt the deepest peace.”

In fact, we seem to be hard wired to reaction and response. When we have or hear a question, we instinctively search for the answers. But often this active seeking limits our ability to simply be present to whatever the response might be, however the “answer” might manifest. If we return to the second sutra, Yogascittavritti nirodah, or “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mindstuff,”and the third sutra, Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam, “Then we know our true nature,” we might consider that all this seeking, all this “work,” is simply creating more waves on the surface of our minds, making it increasingly difficult to find stillness, “our own true nature,” where the most important answers, and the deepest healings, actually rest. In Buddhism, there is a concept referred to as “holding the question,” in which questions are purposely left open and spacious, the “answer” lying in the very act of posing the question. When we do not try to find a response, a way to tie up all the loose ends in a neat package, the response we need will be revealed to us. But holding this space is hard work, tapas, because it is not what we are conditioned to do. Stopping and stilling and just “be-ing,” are not what we think of us taking action, and yet, arguably, this dedication to quiet and space often requires the greatest amount of discipline.

This concept of the work of stillness, of both action and inaction, is found throughout The Bhagavad Gita. In Chapter 6, Krisha advises Arjuna, “For the man who seeks to scale the heights of yoga, action is said to be the means. For the same man, when he has scaled those heights, repose is said to be the means. In other words, there is the “work” or tapas of our yoga in action, but there is also necessary work in repose, in rest.

While on teacher training, I had two opportunities to walk a labyrinth with my students. On the second round, I had a rather profound experience. I happened to be the last person to enter the labyrinth, a triple spiral, and as such at times was very far away from the rest of the group. For the first time ever in this fairly familiar endeavor, I had very strong feelings about my relative (and changing) positions within the labyrinth and to the group. When I was on the outer most circles within the spiral, with the rest of the group seemingly miles away, I found myself feeling anxious and isolated, while when I joined the group in the center circles, I felt cramped, crowded and uncomfortable. I found that when I was somewhere in between, where I could feel connected to the group without feeling restricted, I felt safe, relaxed and present. This is an easy metaphor for the process of healing. The labyrinth itself is a physical structure that has an entry point and an exit point, and only one direction to get from one to the other, albeit through many twists and turns, much like the process of healing. And like the process of healing, there are times when we feel like we are moving in the right direction, times when we feel like we are moving away from our process, times when we feel like there is too much space and isolation, and times when we feel like we are too constricted, doing “too much work.” But the process continues to move forward, and it is our tapas that urges us to move on and move through, even when that “action” means space, stillness and rest.

We recently got to watch with, with joyful anticipation, the rescuing of the miners in Chile, trapped deep below the earth’s surface. Without knowing these people at all, we collectively prayed for their safe return, and cheered in tearful ecstasy as we saw them each emerge from the depths of darkness that had been there home for over two months. I couldn’t help but think of this same process of action and inaction for them, their families, their rescuers and all of us, as we waited with guarded optimism for them to resurface. Yes, they and their rescuers needed to work hard to preserve their lives. At the same time, we might imagine that the hardest work for the miners was the waiting itself. After some point, there was nothing to do but wait and pray and be. The two efforts combined, the hard work of problem solving and the hard work of just being, resulted in the best possible outcome ~ all thirty three miners brought safely back home. The whole world celebrated their triumphant return, crying in relief for the well being of people most of us have never met.

Imagine a world in which we collectively encouraged the steadfast commitment to healing, for ourselves, our communities and our planet. Imagine that as a culture we acknowledged and honored both kinds of work, the kind that requires a disciplined return to the mat, the therapist’s chair, the process of self-inquiry, and the kind that requires patience, stillness and space. Imagine what it would be like to sit quietly with a suffering friend, and to trust that the healing was being facilitated, not by our pearls of wisdom and advice to “run it out,” but by the space itself. Imagine if we all trusted that we could and would heal, but that it would require time, patience and effort, and that we could afford one another that time, and, as if in the labyrinth, that as long as we stayed committed to the process, there could only be one result, one exit. Finally, imagine if we assumed that everyone had something like their own personal dark, lonely and often terrifying depths, and as we did for the thirty-three miners in Chile, we held vigil, trusting in the process, praying for the safe emergence from those depths, back to light and life. Imagine if we celebrated every return to joy, peace and stillness. Could you imagine us saying to one of those miners, “Geez, are you still down there?” or “Stop processing in that way,” or “If you really want to get out, try harder,” or “Stop trying so hard?” That would be crazy and we know it. Imagine then, that we could look at our own process of healing, or the process of healing our communities and our planet, with the same determination, the same discrimination, the same patience and the same optimism. It would take practice, it would take will and determination, tapas, but more than anything, it would take a full understanding of tapas, the work of doing and the work of being.

We are all in this together.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Santosha, contentment ~ The Fruits of Practice

Do your practice, all is coming. ~ Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Increase your sweet practice. Your practice will benefit you at another time; someday your need will suddenly be fulfilled. ~ Rumi (from "The Guest House")

The motto of The Samarya Center's teacher training is "Teach from the Heart, Teach what You Know." I believe that whenever we teach from this place of authenticity and experience, we offer the gift of our own challenges and joys to illuminate some of the more hidden aspects of our spiritual practice. Our practice then, becomes something living and practical, rather than simply a study of philosophy, or a lofty idea. It is in this spirit that I sometimes feel that the Universe is speaking to me, through me, pushing me through trying times so that I might offer some bit of wisdom or contemplation to my community.

Over the past several months, the Universe has been preparing me for the topic of Santosha, contentment. It has offered me multiple opportunities to reflect, to desire, to be disappointed, to be optimistic, to be in love and to be humbled. During this time in my life, more than ever, I have been grateful for Santosha, and in particular, for my longtime spiritual practice. I know that it is my practice that has allowed me to come through all of these wildlyvacillating and rapidly changing emotional states with an intact soul, a joyous heart, and a deep gratitude for the mystery of life.

The journey to parenthood has been challenging to say the least. It has been well over a year of a constantly evolving emotional landscape and a reorganizing of heart, mind and body. After losing a pregnancy last year, my beloved husband Sasha and I moved on to our original plan A: adoption. Adoption had been our intention when we first were together, but over time, that intention turned into a desire to have our own biological child. It was not so difficult then, to decide that adoption was truly our path. We started asking people about it, researching it, going to informational meetings and generally getting excited at the idea that there was some little person out there that we didn't know and who didn't know us, but that would come into our lives and forever change us and them. Then, as it seems to often happen, in the midst of this, we discovered we were pregnant again. With the first pregnancy, it was all excitement and openness and adventure. With this second one, we leaned towards stoicism and reservation. We hardly talked about it at all, and didn't even tell our families until we had passed the timeframe that we thought was most fragile.

While visiting my parents in Canada recently, we finally began to settle into the idea that this was really going to happen. My parents were supportive, comforting and fun. They were optimistic and joyous when we felt good, and encouraging and understanding during the times when I felt down. Quite honestly, it was hard for me to believe in the pregnancy, having had only one other experience with it, which didn't turn out how I wanted.

One night when I was feeling especially unsettled, I was sitting with Sasha on the lake, looking at the seemingly infinite array of constellations and shooting stars. I turned to him and said, "I'm really scared, and glad to be here with my mom and dad. It's like I'm a little kid, believing that when I'm with my parents, nothing can go wrong, that everything is going to be OK." Sasha, in his wisdom, responded, "Or maybe, when you are with your mom and dad, you just know everything is going to be OK, no matter what happens." Santosha. That deep feeling of being OK, of being in the flow of life. I realized Sasha was right. I was going to be OK no matter what, and my relationship and faith in my parents had everything to do with my relationship and faith in God, the Universe, Ishvara, with Life itself. I started o reflect more intensely on this feeling of contentment. Even with the prospect of giving birth well within my mental reach, I also knew that this child, this pregnancy, this one desire, was not the thing that would bring contentment. I knew deeply that as much as I wanted this child, that I would always be, and in fact always was, ok. That even within the heartbreak and loss, there would always be a part of me that could find a deep sense of peace and ease. This overwhelming feeling of contentment, even gratitude, with and for my life as it is, held me in a soft and suspended place of truly letting go.

I recalled a few years ago when I was with one of my most treasured teachers, Pam Havig. Pam has one of the most beautiful marriages, families, husbands, perspectives on life, I have ever known. Several years ago, I was sitting with her and some of her students, and somehow someone asked her if she could be happy if something ever happened to her husband. Pam answered without hesitation. "Of course! I love Don more than anything in the world, but my ability to be happy is not based on his presence in my life." Wow. I was stunned. Pam and Don are the kind of couple that make you happy just to be around. They love each other so deeply, respect each other so much, and have so much fun together, it truly seems like they were made for each other, that one could not be without the other. I remember thinking, "How can that be so? I want some of what she's got." What she has is contentment. Santosha. That transcendent sense of being at peace, even in the midst of change, disappointment, simple inconvenience, and even heartbreak.

While Sasha and I were in Canada with my parents, we attended Catholic mass as we usually do with them. My parents instilled in all of their children that whether or not we chose Catholicism, as they had, that we would benefit fromtaking some time out of every week just for silent reflection and connection to something greater than ourselves. Although I am not Catholic now, I have held that teaching and enjoy going to mass, back to my roots, from time to time. During the sermon, the priest talked about his work as a chaplain in hospice care. He talked about how he had observed that many people died in fear and isolation, but that those who had made a practice of saying the rosary always died peacefully. He preached strongly to his congregation that they should start saying the rosary and make it a consistent practice. He reminded them that they could take twenty minutes here and there throughout the day to complete the rosary and that they would benefit deeply from their practice. When we left church, I said to my mom, "That was a lame sermon. I've sat with people at end of life and have observed both of those things, both the fear and isolation, and also the peace and readiness. And it did not depend on whether or not the person said the rosary." My mom agreed immediately. "A person can dowhatever their practice is. It might be saying the rosary, it might be reading the Torah or the Koran, it might be silent sitting, but what is the same is the dedication to practice. That's what develops that sense of peace and ease." My mom is awesome. And she's right. It is the dedication to practice that creates the change. It is the dedication to the idea of contentment, to developing this inner sense, that creates the feeling. When we practice, we get to reap the benefits, and we never know how or when we will most need the fruits of our practice. I think about learning to handstand, or headstand, and recall seeing those poses for the first time. They seemed so far away, almost impossible. But we dedicate ourselves to the practice, and we see the results. We learn to headstand, we learn to handstand, we progress slowly, our "success" looks different than anyone else's. But what we have in common is the desire to create that change. To move, or live, in a way that is more fulfilling than what we have done before.

Sasha and I are back to Plan A. Again. We lost our second pregnancy right at the magical, mystical twelve week mark. But the experience this time was radically different. We had already been on this ride, and we knew all of the possibilities. We had already committed to our love and gratitude for each other and had reflected deeply on our own contentment, whatever happened. Yes, it is a sad story, but it is not a story of sadness. This story, to me, is one of hope and joy. It is a direct experience of going through heartache and emerging OK. It's not to say that it was easy, nor to say that anyone else's experience would be like ours. But my desire truly is to "teach from the heart, teach what I know." And what I know is that with practice, this contentment is here, already, for anyone. But it comes with a price - the price of practice. So, like the priest said, twenty minutes here, twenty minutes there - do your practice. The gift of contentment is a gift worth working and waiting for. We believe that the gift of our child will be the same. Worth working for and worth waiting for. And that all that we have gone through, and our dedication to our practice, in fact will make us even better people and better parents.

"Do your practice. All is coming."

"Increase your sweet practice. Your practice will benefit you at another time; someday your need will suddenly be fulfilled."

Contentment ~ Here's more fun youtube to get you started.

~ with much love and light ~ molly

"When I dare to be powerful- to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid." ~Audre Lorde

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sources of inspiration ~ igniting our inner fire

This month at The Samarya Center we are talking about sources of inspiration ~ who inspires us, what our connection is to the people that inspire us, how we cultivate those connections, and how we relate to our sources of inspiration; are they demi-Gods that we can only hope to aspire to? Are they real people that we believe we can emulate? Do we idolize or pedestalize them, and ignore their faults? Or perhaps worse, when we find out they have faults do we dismiss them and deny their contributions to changing the world?

As we think about our own desire for peace and equality, and especially our desire to be catalysts and contributors to greater social justice, even fulfilling our mission "to foster individual transformation as a means to radical social change," we must also carefully consider what prevents us from fulfilling this desire, or truly benefiting from the fruits of our practice. If you are a student at The Samarya Center, you know that we have an altar that includes a "wall of peace and justice" featuring several important contributors to movements of anti-oppression, equality and service. But who are those people, and why did we choose them? Our list is included below, with basic links to each, and over the course of the month, we expect to have suggestions from our community for other people we think should also have a place on our altar. More importantly however, the introduction to the people on our wall will serve as a springboard for honest and open exploration of our own ideas and ideals, and for cultivating a deeper desire and call to action ~ a true stoking and igniting of our own inner fire. We really can be the change we wish to see in the world.

So far this month I have had the opportunity to talk about three of our sources of inspiration, or at least three of the people who are on the wall. Each of these people, for me, has invited a different exploration to our relationship with ourselves, with others in our community, and with the greater sense of "world famous" change makers. First I chose Bob Marley. Who doesn't know Bob Marley? I have to say that in my vast travels, I have never been anywhere, where I have not been sitting in some tiny shack of a bar, drinking a coldish local lager where I have not heard Bob Marley piped over whatever speakers might be cobbled together to create atmosphere. But why did Bob Marley end up on our wall? Even if you are somewhat familiar with his music, you might not be aware of his contributions through music to anti-oppression and social justice movements, or his world famous invitation of two opposing political party leaders, each heads of very heated, tumultuous warring factions that were creating lots of violence and gang warfare, and bringing them on stage together and getting them to join hands in a gesture of unity.

If you know anything else about Bob Marley, you are probably aware of his excessive marijuana use, if not his dedication to the Rastafari movement, which in and of itself is anti-white and oppressive in its backlash against the "establishment," and his philandering, having had at least 11 children with a variety of women. So, we must ask the question, does this take away from what he accomplished in his short life? In fact, we are all only human, and we all have both great strengths as well as serious limitations or challenges. Yoga is about wholeness and multi-dimensionality, and through our practice, we might look at our own tendencies to judge ourselves and others, to cut each other down, to pedestalize our heroes. Thinking of this, we might even explore our collective love of gossip, and how this is just another way that we take away from one another, or deny a person's wholeness. We might choose a practice of, when hearing gossip simply saying, "so?" and redirecting our thoughts and energies into what is good and right about a person and be less concerned with his or her faults. In so doing, we might also begin to accept our own wholeness, which in turn may allow us to focus and celebrate and truly use all of our gifts and talents to contribute to social change, without fear of being criticized or feeling at odds with ourselves. We can bring light, even with our shadows.

Next I chose possibly the least known person on our altar, William P. Ford. Mr. Ford was a very close family friend, really one of my dad's two best friends.

"William P. Ford, a trial lawyer, is the brother of Ita Ford, one of four American churchwomen murdered by security forces in El Salvador in 1980. Just days after the murders, the churchwomen's families asked Human Rights First to represent them in their quest for justice. Mr. Ford was a hands-on, active client, accompanying Human Rights First on numerous fact-finding missions and meetings with U.S. and Salvadoran officials. Mr. Ford has been a dedicated advocate - not only for his sister and the other murdered churchwomen, but for all the oppressed people of El Salvador. As part of a campaign for justice for his sister, he obtained a 54.6 million dollar liability ruling against Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who were retired El Salvadorean generals living in the United States. "

This was a huge deal in the media when it happened, and especially so in my family, as the murder of Mr. Ford's sister hit so close to home. My dad and Mr. Ford and their other best friend, were three very high powered litigators, and devout Catholics. I remember well the igniting in Mr. Ford, and in my dad and Mr. Heyman, when such a horrific thing happened to someone in their own family. Mr. Ford essentially gave up the bulk of his high powered practice in NYC and focused like a pit bull on Human Rights and especially US policy in El Salvador.
In thinking about Mr. Ford, I can't help but thinking about how each one of us, by being yogis, by being members of The Samarya Center, (or in Mr. Ford's case, by being a practicing Catholic) have this same sense of desire for justice and human rights, and we are like simmering coals ready to be sparked into action. Sometimes we may feel like we are not doing enough, but we don't know what life has in store for us, and what will be the very thing that charges and changes us forever. In our yoga practice, if it is truly to effect "radical social transformation," we must focus on our own sense of inner fire, on trusting in our own unfolding, but also on our responsibility to keep those embers alive, so we are awake and ready when the call to action comes.

Finally, I had the opportunity to introduce Mother Teresa. It turns out that for many people, although she is sort of an icon or archetype of a "do-gooder," what exactly she did is a mystery. In fact, Mother Teresa was a "do-gooder," internationally famed as a humanitarian and advocate for the poor and helpless, and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her tireless humanitarian efforts in India and beyond. At the time of her death, her organization was operating 610 missions in 123 countries. And, much like many others who have lived their lives in the public eye, recognized for their charitable work, Mother Teresa had her fair share of detractors and criticism. This brings up many of the same issues raised in the discussion of Bob Marley. However, another issue regarding Mother Teresa is to me, infinitely more interesting and poignant.

Mother Teresa, in letters to spiritual confidantes, made public after her death, expressed an on-going crisis of faith, that lasted nearly fifty years. She lamented an absence of connection to God, and expressed feeling bereft of the comfort of Jesus' presence in her life. Of course this acknowledgment opens the door for a flood of speculation regarding the nature of faith. As a yogi and a yoga teacher, the question of faith has always been an important one. These crises of faith, or "Dark night of the soul," a term coined by the 16th century Christian mystic and poet, St. John of the Cross, seem to be a natural part of a seeker's spiritual development as they endeavor to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God. As dedicated students of the spiritual discipline of Yoga, it is quite possible that many of us have experienced this same sense of confusion, disconnection, and disillusionment, especially as we seek to reconcile the faiths we grew up with and our new and emerging sense of a different, or even complementary faith.

Even as Mother Teresa struggled in her isolation and confusion, she continued to do the work of serving humanity, of advocating for the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. Her dark night of the soul did not keep her from reaching out to those whom she felt compelled to offer whatever comfort she could. We too can continue our work, of offering service, of becoming better people, of dedicating our hearts and minds to doing what we can to alleviate the suffering that is all around us, even when we are in doubt. Our doubt is a necessary part of our faith. And we don't need our faith to offer a hand of kindness or a loving smile. We can remember that when we do have these crises of faith, we can reach out to the community around us to lift us up and spur us on.

This month at The Samarya Center is about inspiration. We are a community that together and as individuals can do great things. We all have these gifts, we all have this potential, and no matter what else and who else you are, and no matter what your relationship in the moment is to God, source, the "something greater than you," you, we, can all continue to be inspired to do whatever we can. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "peace is every step."

Thank you for being a part of our community, thank you for being who you are, all of you who you are. We are all in this together.

To learn a tiny bit more about the other people on our altar, check the list below.

Jimmy Carter
Rosa Parks
Aung San Suu Kyi
John Lennon
Nelson Mandela
HH The Dalai Lama
Martin Luther King Jr.
Thich Nhat Hanh

~ with much love and light ~ molly

"When I dare to be powerful- to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid." ~Audre Lorde

Friday, July 9, 2010


This month's topic of shaucha is one that seems pretty easy. Shaucha, the first of the niyamas, or second limb of Yoga, refers to the concept of cleanliness, purity and orderliness. We can think of it as how we keep our homes, how we take care of our bodies and how we take care of our relationships. But shaucha also refers to how we direct our energies, and how we create both structure and freedom by creating a sense of order around us and within us. The trick, to me, with shaucha, is how to create order that feeds and nourishes my whole being, and not to use a false sense of order, or the "way things should be," to limit my own growth and opportunity. Sometimes, to find this sense of order, we actually have to be willing to rock the boat a bit, which may seem at first that we are creating more chaos than order.

Last Sunday I got to experience Loga, a brand of Laughter Yoga, developed by local Seattlite Andrew Whitiver, who will be opening our Sal-u-thon. Andrew offers Loga for free every Sunday at 11 am in Cal Anderson Park. I was given his name by a mutual contact, and as soon as we spoke on the phone I knew this would be an important relationship, and I was eager to meet Andrew in person. I was especially excited that he was immediately willing to help with the Sal-u-thon, our primary fundraising event of the summer, just by hearing about all the amazing things we do at The Samarya Center. He asked that I come to Loga in the park before committing him to our event, to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I had heard of
Laughter Yoga, and I really liked Andrew, but I wasn't sure I actually wanted to try Loga. It's not really "me." I don't just go out to the park, meet up with a bunch of strangers, open myself up to them, follow the exercises (laughing chorus anyone? perhaps a laughing shower?), and lovingly connect through a kind of odd process on a normal Sunday morning. I just don't "do" that sort of thing. I may seem to many of you like a person who is up for anything, happy to be goofy, and loves to laugh, and I am that, but I am also a person who likes to be and stay in control. So when I'm asked to do something that invites me to give up that control, that sense of order, I bristle, get all awkward and stand-offish, and generally keep myself on the periphery.

Last Sunday in the park was no different. As I walked up to the group of normally dressed, normal looking, laughing people, one, who turned out to be Andrew, said, "You must be Molly." There was a moment right there and then when I thought, I could just smile, say no and keep walking, and then the very next thought, "I have to stay, and I have to make a conscious decision right now to let down my guard, be totally present and non-judgmental, be open to the experience, and then decide if I liked it or not." I stayed, I smiled, I laughed, I was moved. So much so, in fact, that I ended up offering an experience of two minutes of non-stop pretend-turning to real laughter for a group of folks at The Bailey Boushay House. When we were done, they expressed the same thing ~ that they felt lighter, more connected and more at ease. I never would have known this experience if I had insisted on my own self-prescribed sense of order in my own identity. When I opened myself up to the possibility that this was a self-imposed limitation, when I "rocked my own boat" a little, I got to have an incredibly connecting experience. I created a new (inner) world order.

Over the past month, I have been thinking about this idea a lot, especially in regard to communication, and how much we muddy the waters of relationship and expression by holding too tightly onto our ideas of how we communicate, even how we are. Again, in an effort to maintain order, either by being too forceful in our communications, or being less than honest because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings or make waves, or being reactive because we don't have the whole truth because that might require us stepping outside of our comfort zone, we end up creating more disconnection, confusion and chaos.

So here again is an example of a self-imposed, identity based idea of order, that in fact brings us less structure, less reliability, less freedom. We consider ourselves to be clear communicators because we "tell it like it is," only to find out that the people who agreed with us out of fear, in fact are harboring resentments and misgivings. We consider ourselves to be the type that "doesn't create problems, goes with the flow," only to discover that we have put ourselves and others in awkward positions, because no one actually knows what is going on, and people are working on false assumptions of what is. We react to a communication to us without looking deeper into it, because we consider ourselves to be "trusting and forthright," only to find out that the person communicating to us is just as unclear as we are sometimes, and in fact, if we took the time to check back, patiently and without judgement, we might find out that we are actually on the same page.

So Shaucha, which at first seems so easy, might actually be a little deeper and trickier than we might think. Oh, Yoga. Isn't that how it always is? But yes, Yoga is a practice of awareness, of self-reflection, of "undoing" our most ingrained senses of ourselves so that we might open up to something even more beautiful, more intricate than anything we ever imagined ourselves to be. Yoga is the gift of discovery of oneself as something divine, perfect, complex and finally, free.

So Shaucha is an attending to a sense of order and purity, finding structure that helps us to live in a place of greater tranquility and freedom. But we might use our more subtle awareness to check in, to make sure that what we see as order, the way things MUST be, is actually serving, and not limiting, us. That our sense of structure and order is not simply something that we have decided is so, whether in our homes, our schedules, our identities, or our communications, that this so called "structure" is not actually limiting our deeper experience.

Finally, I must confess that in my own effort to be eternally optimistic and never let anyone know that I have anxiety about my future and the future of the Center, I often understate our need for help. Here is my clear communication: We really need your help now. Please reflect on what The Samarya Center means to you, and what it is worth in your mind, heart and yes, pocketbook, to keep it going. I know the Sun Sal-u-thon will be a huge success. Please be a part of that. We are all in this together.

~ with much love and light ~ molly

"When I dare to be powerful- to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid." ~Audre Lorde