“…my work …is mostly rejoicing… since all the ingredients are here… gratitude, to be given a mind and heart and these body-clothes…” from “The Messenger” by Mary Oliver
When I’m actually doing my job, teaching, I can corroborate Oliver’s experience. In class, my work is mostly relaying my wonder and awe at the openings happening all around me; all the ingredients are there, I’m serving, and I’m grateful for my work. But when I’m NOT teaching, the work of accessing that gratitude in real time is grueling. How can any of us articulate the barest, most meaningful truths in order to reveal gratitude - as students or as teachers, in our yoga or in our daily lives?
The primary source of inspiration is closer than we think. Choose the most frightening, challenging, uncomfortable relationship you’re currently working on right now. Not necessarily a romantic relationship; it might be a friendship, a relationship with an employer, a parent, friend, sibling, or child. You’re committed, but perhaps you’re frustrated by your reactive behavior (whether inwardly or outwardly) and often feel drained just thinking about it all. Therein lies your inspiration.
“There is nothing like the crucible of a committed relationship to expose the deepest level of our primal mechanics, revealing both the crusty persona of our false self, as well as the strength and dignity of our truest self.” -from “The Alchemy of Commitment” by Nachama Greenwald
It takes time to wrap our minds around the fact that those ugly words describe aspects of our expression, but once we do, we have nothing left to hide – or hide from - and we can move forward. Yes, the crusty persona of my false self comes through when I’m dealing with the more confusing moments of my day. There, I’ve said it. Willing to shed that aspect of our communications, in appearances and assumptions alike, we can and will receive the strength and dignity of our most authentic self.
And if we claim to respect the earth, anything, or anyone, we must find ways to face the horrific glimpses of our primal mechanics, without judgment, and spend more time cultivating appreciation and respect for ourselves and for others. It’s the judgments that most swiftly take us away from the gratitude.
We already “know” all of this. It’s intuitive and obvious. Yet I still watch myself toss gratitude aside and judge immaturely, derail myself habitually. So I’ve actively asked for guidance. I’ve actually been on my knees a few times recently, just bowed down into child’s pose, arms out in front, hands in prayer, tears streaming, and asked for help in the silence of my own heart. I don’t want to act this way anymore. I want more equanimity, I want to be more grateful for the sheer blessing of my embodiment, more of the time. I want to receive, and be received. I was right there asking, and I’ll be there again, but we can be this attentive in the middle of the day without prostrating ourselves, and experience the same connectedness.
One trusted friend describes a reliable but elusive tactic that seems almost ridiculous at first.
“As you feel the rush of anger, STOP. Literally freeze.” Wait until the heat passes through your body. In one of those moments recently, I managed to hold still and be quiet. And the person with whom I was interacting courageously reminded me that we could – right then – forgive ourselves for the doubt and animosity that had just enveloped both of us. So we did it, we forgave ourselves, it felt like i was living in some afterschool special, but it worked [although one of us had to be present and creative enough to let go of the need to be right].
“…we are co-creators of the world that we appear to encounter.” from “Olafur Eliasson” by C. Gilbert, BOMB 88/Summer 2004
Next question: so what do we do about someone who is unwilling to forgive/move past the moment? Stop and be still anyway. When emotions are tugging at you, make space within yourself. What does that even mean? Try to keep your heart open and spacious, no matter how tempting it is to shut down and protect. In recent classes we’ve actually practiced creating more space behind and around our hearts in the poses in order to practice staying open in any circumstance or context. We slowly invite our breathing to clear us in the poses and we can feel the room shift.
With my own tendency to slam doors, both literally and figuratively, I can offer only what’s been useful for me and hope it’s helpful. When I feel any urgent anger, I try to stand stock still, unmoving, and ask myself where the gratitude is. It’s a state of inquiry, exactly what Byron Katie teaches so eloquently. It’s what Genpo Roshi urges us to do, to view it all from another perspective. It’s the teaching of Rajanaka yoga, it’s the observation aspect of the Gurdjieff work. It’s completely counterintuitive and often ludicrous to stand [or sit] still in such an intense moment, but when I use thankfulness as a trajectory for my attention, it works. I don’t want to raise the volume, I am done with running away and closing doors, so I just stand there and try to listen to the room tone so I can start to see again.
I’m practicing this for my child as much as for my other relationships. I know his future is at stake; my aim is to offer the imprint of a woman who’s at least attempting to be elegantly, calmly responsive amidst frustration or challenge. Then he’s more likely to seek out those qualities in his adult relationships. When I manage to stand still and locate gratitude for even one moment, the truth rushes into my heart, the anger moves out, and I’m free. Everything shifts.
Once we’ve managed just once to keep our heart open in any way, and tasted that freedom, there’s no going back. We avoid drama and learn to nourish ourselves using attitudes of our own choosing. The states of gratitude we cultivate will always propel us forward.
The ingredients are here. So if you’re blinded by rage or rancor, inwardly or outwardly, challenged to communicate your truth or open yourself in a yoga pose, remember to stop and ask, “Do I have gratitude for this useful mind, this fragile heart, these blessed body-clothes, right now?”
Thank you to my peers Christina Sell, Darren Rhodes, and Mitchel Bleier. In these days, from so far away, you’ve fed me some of the most nourishing and viable understandings I’ve received. Our friendships and gratitude for each other are our offerings back to our teachers who’ve given us so much. Watching you receive fully and give so freely heals me all the time.
Photo: Eric Cahan
Photo: Eric Cahan