Blind Pursuit of Happiness

Hotei, god of happiness at J%u014Dchi-ji temple

Hotei, god of happiness at J%u014Dchi-ji temple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another blog absence coming to an end–I have been busy in the real world, scribbling notes in my bedside journal and the moleskine in my bag when I can so I don’t forget any insight I’ve grasped at in the last weeks.

We moved. Again. Actually, we moved home. All through the years we were in Massachusetts, and this past year in Charleston, we never stopped referring to Maine as “home.” It is comforting that we’ve returned to enthusiastic and open arms after so many years away. Though I am a bit sad to say it took a scary car accident and 12 months of melancholy loneliness to get to this point… such are the trials of life. We are happy now which is all that really matters. The past is over, we learned some things, and we have moved on. Moving into happiness is always the goal, right?

Marriage, moving, motherhood–all of these things are loosening my grip on rigidity and perfection. The more I seek perfection the farther away it seems. So I’ve let go of trying to be that perfect girl in my 20 year old mindset (I am 30 now, after all). That 20-something doesn’t have years of independent living in her memories, she does not do yoga, she is lonely and though she may look lovely and beautiful, she is sad. It took ten years of running–literally around the planet–to settle back where I began, but this time it is with happiness on my side.

Happiness currently takes the form of a toddler, a wonderful half Japanese man, a dog with a curly tail, a yoga mat and salty air, a deep bath, walks along the rocky coast. But my experience of happiness is fluid, and I am happy when I am soaking wet in the hurricane-like weather we had last week, running late, splashed with spilled juice, and in uncomfortable new shoes. Because happiness doesn’t really have just one form, or any form at all. It isn’t a big house in the suburbs with a husband making a gajillion dollars a day so we can stay home and eat bonbons and write poetry. It is not traveling around the world, it is not spending every day at the beach until the skin is tanned beneath earnest coats of sunscreen. It doesn’t have a designer logo, and it will never ask for dues. It is not a destination, as the saying goes, but a way of being and breathing.

Happiness is a feeling of peace. It is waking up in the middle of the night and being able to go back to sleep without worrying about the agenda for the day ahead. Happiness is a deep inhalation and a steady exhalation. It is a soft seat for a weary body. It is gratitude and hope and humility. It is quiet pride and loud reverence. Happiness is knowing when to be persistent, and happiness is knowing when to let things be still. Happiness is waking quietly in the morning, and sitting softly beside the bed, honoring another day we have all been granted on the earth together. Happiness is meditation, happiness is action in inaction.

Someday soon this sentence, sunset and life will be over, so what sense is there in crunching up over worries? It seems we’re all on a path towards goodness, and though there are difficult times in life, happiness is always just around the corner.


Practice, and all is coming

Something I am working on: meditation.

It is hard to get up earlier than early, but on the days my mind takes control over my body, I rouse from the warm sheets and sit outside and listen for my breath, for the world to wake up. I am assuredly a happier, calmer, more pleasant person on the days I meditate. My goal is twice per day.

old zen saying

A couple of years ago, I went to a yoga teacher training and we were taught meditation. In fact, the yoga poses were a precursor to meditation, everything we did led up to the 30 to 60 minutes of meditation we did each session. Asanas to calm the body so it can sit still and focus on breath and the present. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done–sitting still while I wanted to lie down and go back to sleep, or look around at the French trees, or just ponder my life and my plans for travel once the training was over. Some days I was successful, most days I was not. But I was lucky to have that highly disciplined meditation training, because it enables me to fall back on those patterns today, when life is no where near as spiritual and quiet as it was then. Meditation is the ultimate example of action within inaction.

If you’re just beginning on your meditation practice, I suggest you start with five minutes. Or two, and work up to five. Set an alarm if you must. Stretch your body before sitting down, so you won’t be tempted to wiggle. Sit comfortably, but not too comfortably–sit on a pillow, or the ground (no soft chairs, lest you get too relaxed). Find a relatively quiet spot. Do not think about how much time is left in your sitting–focus on your inhalations, your exhalations. If your mind wanders, do not give up, notice, and move back to your breath. Feel the calm energy it brings to your mind and your body, even if it is only short instances of focus. The goal is to think about nothing, but this is much easier said than done.

Practice, and all is coming. After you master five minutes of meditation, move on to 10 or 15. It does wonders for my spirit and soul.

And maybe I’m biased, but I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from meditation.


Sunday Goal

Sometimes I just want time to stop. Or at least slow down so I can savor the day’s moments before going on to the next one. The azaleas, camellias, spirea, Dutch iris, anemones, and redbud blooms that all peaked last week are already colorfully decorating the ground. I thought I had time to enjoy them before they gave way to their hearty green leaves.

Milestones don’t stop happening when you become an adult. There are times that we grown ups finally learn to let in understanding, forgiveness, happiness. Maybe it doesn’t happen all of the sudden (maybe it does). Lately, I think of growing up akin to the process of letting my muscles become loose enough to comfortably sit in hanumanasana. It is said that the human body is innately flexible, that under anesthesia a doctor can contort his patient into any shape; but, the conscious nervous system prevents us from touching our toes when we want to, or flopping into double pigeon before a proper warm up. Little by little as an adult, I am learning what it means to hold grudges, to allow toxic people to influence my life choices, to be genuinely happy for the (seemingly) stress free life my sister lives. As I come to these realizations, I wonder if my busyness (you know, the pull to the iPhones, the computer, the newspaper sitting unread on the kitchen table) has been interfering with my ability to grow as a human?

This is a lofty question, and I do not intend to solve it on a quiet Sunday evening. But I am making a resolve: Sundays will be the day I unplug. I’m going to leave my phone where I don’t look at it when I am unoccupied for 30 seconds. I will use my real cameras. I’m going to stop checking social media on Sundays, devote this day to my family, my self, and the calming of my mind for a week ahead.

Upward and onward, is how I try to think about life. But sometimes, you just want to stay in bed. To rewind time and relive the amazing day you had with your family. Go back to the age of 1.5 and take back all the times you refused to nap and line them all up for an epic lie in. I’m not a lazy person, but who doesn’t long to linger in savasana?  With this time I dust together on Sundays, I might make a dent in the to be read pile that is higher than the nightstand, finish a pot of tea, reuse the leaves and drink a second pot. On Sundays, I will stop hurrying the dog through his morning routine, and I might finally pot all the plants that are rooting in glass jars along my windowsills. I’ll read more books to my son, keep reading aloud even when his attention fades after five minutes. On Sundays in savasana, I will let myself cross that visible barrier between consciousness and sleep. I might fold laundry too, but only if I feel like doing it mindfully. No folding laundry begrudging the amount of socks my family wears. I can resume my despair of sock matching on Monday, but Sunday should be a day of peace. A day of action within every moment of inaction.

Don’t you agree?


Chrysalis Phase in Retreat

The last few months have been tiring, notable here on my blog by the glaring lack of posts. I rarely opened my computer, but when I did and saw the wordpress icon, I looked away guiltily.

I suppose I am guilty of overextending myself sometimes, my aspirations are greater than the minutes each day has to fulfill them; eyes are bigger than my stomach. 2013 has been a mostly quiet year so far. Introspective and temperamental, but not unhappy. Reassessing and planning, as I’m wont to do every 4 months (sometimes 3) I find there is a shift. Sometimes with the seasons, sometimes with circumstances, but routines get broken up and as we’re settling into our new ones, life can feel a little rocky.

I do not have enough words to express the gratitude I have for the few constants I do have in my life: yoga, nature, the sea, my family, my friends. Today I actually practiced on my mat at home while my son played with the combination lock on my train case, and explored the rest of our usually off-limits adult rooms. Seeking strength through my core, knowing the limits of my flexibility and wanting to push past them: these are lessons from my mat that I need so badly to apply to the rest of my life. Holding my spine upright as I walk into scary meetings with new faces just might be the edge that gets me the job I am interviewing for next week.

As always, I’ve been doing my best. Many mammals hibernate in the winter, here I am stretching out of my air chrysalis phase and ready to dig my feet into the earth.

“We can stop thinking that good practice is when it’s smooth and calm, and bad practice is when it’s rough and dark. If we can hold it all in our hearts, then we can make a proper cup of tea.” –Thanks, Pema Chodron!

If I can offer one piece of advice so far for 2013: accept your state, do not judge yourself on sad or lonely days because they will end, and when they do share your happiness freely.

One more thing: This morning at the gym I was in the bathroom, washing my hands. I looked up at my face in the mirror, for half a second, and the lady washing her hands next to me turned and said “you look adorable, so cute.” She wished me a happy Easter (after asking if I celebrate) and breezed out the door. She infused me with joy. Husband had left for work very early, and my sweet son does not have much of a vocabulary yet. That kind stranger’s words gave me a kick of confidence, as I dragged my yoga mat into a deserted wall space.

image

Instead of kicking up to warm up my handstands against the wall like I always do, I floated on my hands in the middle of my mat for a few moments of unexpected bliss. Thank you, kind strangers everywhere!

Image: http://www.deutschefotothek.de/obj87503021.html


OM

I used to do yoga.

I used to do a lot of yoga.  I went to Prana 5 or 6 (or 7) times per week.  The 6:15am class was my favorite.  I would also frequent Back Bay Yoga, since it was around the corner from our apartment.  I did yoga on the living room floor.  I sat in lotus pose waiting for the doctor to come into the examining room.  I read the Bhagavad Gita.  I tried different styles (bikram is definitely not for me). I snubbed gym yoga classes (too much focus on the physical) and I outgrew my yoga DVDs after one viewing (not enough variety).

I took my first yoga class 10 years ago.  Three years ago, I moved to France for a summer to train to become a certified teacher.  Last year, I took weekly pre-natal yoga classes.  But last month, I couldn’t remember the last time I had been to an actual class.

In my own defense, I have tried to maintain a self practice.  There is an empty studio at my gym I use in the early morning hours.  I blast some Awolnation (and other non-krishna chanting tunes) on the stereo and stretch my muscles to the edge.  But I’ve had to put that practice on hold for the time, and last night I jumped at a chance to hit up Back Bay.  I went to a Yin class, followed by a Vinyasa class.  They were lovely.  I lost track of time the three plus hours I was there, and not just because I didn’t wear a watch and turned off my phone.  I stopped thinking.  My mind had nothing to worry about.  My sister was on call in case of a child care emergency, and baby was with a competent sitter.  For the first time in over 7 months, I put the to dos out of my head, and let mind follow the lead of my body.

As much as I love my solo practices, there is something beyond the educational and social fulfillment that a group yoga class provides.  Its a form of spirituality.  The collective OMMMMM chant at the beginning used to really weird me out.  I did 12 rounds of OMs last night–3 at the start of each class, and 3 at each end.  After I let my voice hum with the rest of the group, I let go of the weird feeling and enjoyed the vibration.

Meditation is all about finding that vibration and letting the wave of energy carry you from one moment to the next.  As individual voices rise and fall within this great collective OM, everyone’s effort join to create one destination.  It is all you can hear, feel, and see, and it wouldn’t exist without your voice.

That summer I lived in France, the training required us to sit in meditation for up to 60 minutes everyday.  Even with a conservative estimate, I therefore sat in meditation for 75 hours.  When I think back on that experience, I don’t remember the excruciating pain I would get from sitting cross legged on a hard pillow for hours–no.  I remember only three clear moments when I hit the vibration on my own.  It was so beautiful and amazing.  The first time I laughed out loud with delighted surprise (which promptly lost my thread of concentration).

Meditation is like grasping at sand.  If you try too hard, you’ll lose it.   Such a fine balance, but in a group OM chant, the peace of meditation almost always arises in seconds.  You’ll know right away if its not happening, and in my experience it is usually because my ego is too big to ignore any fear I have of seeming foolish singing out this sustained syllable.   Try it, you’ll see.  If you put your heart into it, your lips will tickle with the hum.  You might see a flash of bright white, or colors behind your closed eyes.  Your temples will tingle.  But none of this matters.  It only matters that you try.  It is a simple way to glimpse into the rejuvenating aspect of meditation.  And I’ve only really mastered it a couple of times for approximately 2 minutes all together.  Imagine being one of those sages who can effortlessly slip into a meditative state.  What a calm and peaceful life they must lead.

I really must work on getting to more yoga classes.  I know I’m not going to be able to convince myself that I’m accomplishing much if I go back to 30 minutes of meditation morning and night…as disciplined and enlightened as it may be, there is just no way I can fit it into life right now.  3 minutes?  Sure…maybe.  But for now, I’ll take the 3 restorative OMs at the beginning and end of each yoga class to realign myself with the vibration of the universe.

How’s that for some Saturday night philosophy?


Things To Do With Three Free Minutes

Action:

  • Check email and reply (briefly) to one
  • Text your mother/husband/sister/best friend to say you’re thinking of them
  • Stretch your perpetually tight hamstrings
  • Sort the recycling and change the trash
  • Empty the top rack of the dishwasher
  • Update your Facebook/Twitter/G+/Tumblr page
  • Measure and soak some beans to cook tomorrow
  • Update all your iPad and iPhone apps, charge your iPod
  • Dust off the leaves of the plants, water a few of them
  • Fill the dog’s water bowl and give him a hearty belly scratch
  • Flip through a catalog and fold down a few pages of things you’ll consider buying
  • Sort the laundry, switch the laundry, and start another load

Or, inaction:

  • Take these precious unscheduled free moments and sit.  Just sit and be.  Do not stretch, do not savor your tea, do not gaze out the window at the world.  Close your eyes if you have to so you can focus your breath and ideas inside.  What do you hear?  If its quiet enough, my ears are usually ringing with a white noise.  Do not judge this noise, but observe it, listen.  Do not try, just notice, breathe, and be.

I promise you’ll feel more renewed and energized after that inaction than any of the other ideas your mind leaps to when faced with a little free time.