Friday, January 29, 2016

The Music City

Is he bragging or is it a cry for help?

Once again, it is time to drive for 16 hours and get myself to Nashville!  We are on Module 4 of our three-year, six module yoga therapy training.  I have today to recover from said drive and gather my strength for the upcoming nine days.  

It is intense and wonderful but there is not a lot of down time.  So, I am using today to stock up on food for quick suppers and do a few self-care things so that I can be alert - bright eyed and bushy-tailed - for tomorrow morning when it all begins at 7 am sharp.  One of my favourite rituals is going to the Whole Foods in Nashville and treating myself to something that I would never buy in New York - fancy soap or something.  

Today, I decided that I also would try a hot yoga class that was nearby and sounded fun.  I have never done hot yoga before.  Some people love it!  Note to self: never, ever take hot yoga again.  It possibly explains why I was about double the age of anyone else in the room.  People my age and older are supposed to have some sort of wisdom and there is nothing wise about hot yoga.  It was a hell realm.

My yoga mentor is fond of saying things like, "Patañjali’s Yogasūtra explains how the experiences we have shape who we are and influence how we conduct ourselves in our lives."  

Point taken.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Find Your Grace

In which we fattened her up! (March? 2015)
Dear friend and Dharma sister, Angela Mujaku Senjin Caponigro died very early yesterday morning.  She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer a little over a year ago.  Her healing became her final project, which she took up wholeheartedly and single-mindedly.

Her first project was dance.  She came to it later in life (as compared to most dancers).  But with that single-minded focus that was her hallmark, she achieved a high level of success.  Here she is performing Tympani, as part of Laura Dean Dance & Music.

(She is the one with the very long hair.) (Enjoy that early 80s PBS vibe!)

Her next big project was to take up kundalini yoga and convert Sikhism.  She studied, lived and taught in that community for decades.  Then she found Zen.  When I met her, she was a postulant doing a period of discernment to discover if she wanted to ordain as a monastic.  She did ordain and eventually became a senior monastic in the Mountains and Rivers Order.

I saw Senjin around the Monastery.  She fascinated me - it was clear that she had "a story" but she had a very regal, almost intimidating, demeanor so I mostly kept my distance.  The first time we really came into contact was when she was appointed to train me to be the altar usher for a sesshin.  It is a service position that prepares the altar for each service during the day - preparing and lighting incense and generally making sure everything is ready and in the right place.  There are a lot of details to remember in this position and, as it is often assigned pretty early in one's training, the components don't always make sense because the flow of the service isn't so clear yet.  At least that was my experience.

Senjin broke the altar usher duties into three dances - first you stand here and make these movements, then you move over here and make these movements, then back to here for the final movements.  It actually made a lot of sense and was really helpful to have it broken down like that.  But the thing that I remember most was that she noticed I had a slightly horrified look on my face as the list of things to do got longer and longer and it was clear that I was getting a little uptight about making mistakes.  She kind of stepped back and said, "Look, I know it sounds like a lot but the main thing is to find your grace.  The rest will follow."

I have kept those three words in my head ever since.  When I am in a situation that feels overwhelming, and not just at the Monastery, I call them up.  It is remarkable just how helpful they are.  I thought of them many times during this year of illness, especially when things got rough.  I'd think, "C'mon Senj, find your grace!"

Although she fought and fought and fought, in the end, she did find her grace.

Thank you my love-love, my Senjilina.  Thank you for everything.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Let Me Count The Ways

This blog has never been about one thing and one thing only.  I get a little envious of people who can contain their thoughts so that they relate mainly to one subject.  Art, yoga, Zen, kids,'s all too interesting to me to pick just one.

Someone recently asked me, "What could you eliminate in your life?  What feels like extra?" as a way of helping me feel a little less overwhelmed (it's been a rough two weeks between oral surgeries and sick friends and difficult teenagers).  I honestly could not see what I could eliminate - it all feels very vital and alive.

I thought perhaps I just need to schedule better and use my time more efficiently.  Like, not just schedule things for a day but get down to the real nitty gritty - hour by hour.  It's not really my style but I am willing to try.  Of course, I immediately cracked a tooth and dealing with all that threw any schedule out the window.

Now that my mouth is mostly healed, I can face this question again:

Hour by hour, what are you choosing to do?

Saturday, January 09, 2016

What Does Caring Look Like?

For over a year, a group of women, including myself, have been caring for a friend who has Stage 4 cancer.  The surgeon who removed part of her intestines when she was first diagnosed said she was about two days away from dying when she came into the hospital that first time.  Now it is over a year later and she went from being totally bed ridden to being back up and about, taking yoga classes, riding her bike, and feeling the love and care from the group of us.  This has been, perhaps, the most healing thing of all, as her life has not been an easy one and basking in unconditional love has been a rare occurrence within it.  (As an aside, I think it is pretty rare for most of us, so c'mon people!  Get out there and love unconditionally!  The world needs more of this, pronto!)

Since Thanksgiving, she has been on a steady decline and things seem to be deteriorating more quickly now.  The will power and inner strength that made her such a survivor in her troubled life - and in the last year of illness - are what are tripping her up now.  All but bedridden again, she speaks of regaining her strength and getting back on track.  In other words, she is in denial about what is happening.  Not complete denial - there have been moments when she lets drop a sentence or two, or even just a look sometimes, that reveals that she knows perfectly well what is going on.  In her moments of "once I get my legs moving again..." she also is convinced that things will be just as they were before she got sick.  Both are real and true for her.

So, what is compassion now?  How do we care for her in the way that best respects who and where she is in her life?  Should we travel along with her in her delusion about the future?  Or be more honest about what we see happening?  Neither is easy.

Among our group - "goddesses" she calls us - there are some who fall more strongly in the former camp.  They see no reason to do anything other than exactly what she asks.  Why would you steal away someone's hope?  I admit that I have trouble with this stance.  Sometimes hope robs us of exactly what we need to do and causes us a lot of suffering.

This is what writer and activist, Derrick Jensen, says about hope, or more specifically, giving up hope,
A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems—you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself—and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself. . . 
He is talking about the environment here, but I think you could apply it elsewhere in life. Or to life itself.  If my friend gave up her hope of staying alive for however long she hopes to remain alive, then she (and by extension, all of us) could focus on what her life is like right now.  We could take steps to make her more comfortable, steps that require that she admit that her time left on this planet is almost up.  Does that sound cold?  I hope not because it comes from a place deep longing to help her suffer less.

I often find myself asking, "what is the goal here?" when the next thing happens - she goes into the hospital or has another chemo treatment.  It doesn't feel like the goal is her comfort as these actions seem to cause more discomfort and pain.  And they create a greater distance from the reality of what is actually happening.  But it is what she wants to do.  This has been challenge of being part of her care.  Can I give up what I want, even when I see that it would be more helpful, less painful, and just offer her what she wants?  And is this really the best thing?  The best care?

There are no easy answers.

Here is a beautiful talk about death and dying.  May we all find our grace as we face that reality, whenever it may be.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Now We Can Begin

It has been my tradition to set some yoga āsana goals for myself at the beginning of each new year.  When I reflected on what I wanted to work on this year, I realized that I no longer have yoga āsana goals.  I love my primary series and there are still a couple of āsana that elude me but I no longer feel an imperative to "master" them.  Some days, they are like butter.  Some days, just setting out my mat is the biggest accomplishment.  Perhaps my goal is to allow this goal-less yoga to continue onward without fretting or anxiety or setting myself in competition with anyone, including myself.  You could say that I finally made it Square One, or Yoga Stura 1.1:  atha yogānuśasanam.  Now we begin the study of yoga.

I love that word: atha.  Many people zip right past it to get to the bigger words and the bigger meanings but I like to linger there.  It means "now" but it means now as in, after everything that has come before and you realize that there is something missing in your understanding, now, we can begin the study of yoga.  For some of us, it takes 50 years to get to Now.

Let's see how it goes!

BTW, I will be teaching a drop-in, ongoing chanting workshop at Abhyasa Yoga Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Sundays from 7:45 - 8:45 p.m.  Pay what you wish.  We will learn some basics about chanting and how to integrate it into our practice.  Chanting is subtle and powerful - the mystery of how it works on us is exactly why we do it.  We will move and breathe and chant while we move and breathe.  Sound scary?  Sound like it is not for you?  If you answer yes, then this is exactly the class for you!  Remember:  atha!

Monday, January 04, 2016

It's That Simple

Winter sunlight feels so lovely!
At the sesshin between Christmas and New Year's, we stay up an hour later each evening so that by New Year's Eve, we stay up to midnight to ring in the new year with a ceremony.  It is a most beautiful thing.  We also continue to rise at the same time each morning, which for me was 3:15 am.  This is a little less beautiful as the week goes on.  Our teacher encouraged us to look deeply within when we found our energy faltering, assuring us that we had what what we needed if we could allow it to come forward, pointing out how powerful it can be to learn firsthand just how much strength we have inside of each of us.

Sometimes I fell asleep anyway.

The thing about being that sleep deprived is that, when you really hit that edge, it is much easier to see and let go of all those ideas about oneself that take so much damn energy to prop up.  For myself, I have so much resistance to, well, everything.  It's like I am dragging an old tire (or 12) behind me everywhere I go.  If I can snip the ties to just one of them, I find myself enlivened and energized even on 4 hours of sleep.  This is a good thing to remember when I am not in the depths of sesshin but rather at the end of a long, busy day and realize that I still have laundry to fold and dishes to wash.

This sesshin, I spent some time paying particular attention to the one inside of me that needs to be special, whether it is from being exemplary in what I do or the most clever in what I say or write, or the most helpful or useful.  It's a pretty big motivating factor in my life, this need to be special or stand out in some way.  (See post below!  Funny how these things come up just before sesshin and lead to all sorts of things happening once we sit down and be quiet.)  Often, it results in things that are good - I aim to do my best and I try to serve others and generally get stuff done well.  But that little extra that I tack on - the need for it be seen and praised - that isn't so helpful.  Certainly it causes me pain when that kind of acknowledgment doesn't happen.  And sometimes it just gets so damn complicated.  A simple act of giving suddenly has all sorts of strings attached.  Yuck.  It makes me feel icky to think about how this is so, but that's part of staying up for 20 hours a day to meditate - you have to stick with that icky feeling and get it know it really well so you can remember it for the next time.  Or maybe even before the next time.

Part of the New Year's ceremony we do includes making an incense offering and setting an intention for the new year - everyone walks up to the incense box and does it (silently) in front of the whole community.  So, you aren't declaring it out loud but still, there are witnesses!  Among my resolutions to be more organized and disciplined, to do the right thing by my children, and to paint Finn's bedroom, is an intention to let my actions be (more) simple and unadorned, maybe a little less icky. Let's see how it goes.

Happy New Year!  I don't really have a sense of who is still reading this beyond a couple of people but I send my best wishes out to any and all!  May 2016 be simple and unadorned and a little less icky for you too!