Meditation 101, part 2

I eventually ruled out mindful observation as a gateway to a meditative state.  I also realized that although it would have probably been really beneficial for me to be able to chill out in the midst of chaos…given my current state of mind, it wasn’t going to happen.  It felt more like running up against the same concrete wall again and again and again.  There’s a point where you need to recognize that there’s a concrete wall in front of you.  It was time to switch tactics.  

I decided to explore methods of breathwork in order to help me focus on the present, and I started with a method commonly known as square breath.  Breathe in for four counts, hold the inhale for four counts, breathe out for four counts and hold the exhale for four counts.  Square breath certainly made me deal with the present moment.  I found that hoIding the exhale triggered a panic attack, that was followed by a big and anxiety relieving gasp for air…which made the act of breathing in for four counts almost impossible.  As I progressed into the exercise, my square breathing went more like this: Inhale four counts and feeling good, Hold the inhale and chill out, Exhale two counts feeling dread, Exhale two more counts while feeling the panic come into play, Hold the exhale while silently chanting, “help, help, help….”, Gasp two counts and attempt to chill out during the next two counts, Hold the inhale feeling okay but knowing what was about to happen yet again…and so on…and so on.  Well, at least I was “in the moment”.  It was time to try something else.

I switched to counting the number of breaths that I took rather than focusing on the rhythm.  On one level, it was an improvement.  On another level, it triggered my workaholic concept of time management.  It felt like I was pacing inside my head the entire time, with every breath bringing a higher level of anxiety, while waiting for this to be over so that I could get on with my productive day.  I think you could say that this was a prime example of someone who could have used some meditation to chill out and I recognized the irony of the situation.  I began negotiating with myself.  You let me have this time for say one hundred breaths, and I will not go over the allotted time needed.  That way we’ll both win.  The set number of breaths did help to dispel my time management angst but on the other hand, it never felt like I was able to delve into the practice of truly keeping the mind focused on the present moment.  My mind either in the past, where I had just counted, and on the future, what my next count would be. 

Over the next few months, I tried several variations of the breath count.  I recited letters from the alphabet over and over with each breath, I repeated words or phrases with my inhales and exhales, and what I did eventually accomplish was to get in touch with my inner two-year-old… and not in a good way.  I had unleashed that screaming pouting inner child who was kicking up a monstrous temper tantrum every time I sat down to practice: “I don’t have time”, “This is stupid”, and my favourite, “What’s the point? We’re all going to die anyway”.

The frustration continued to grow and despite my dissatisfaction, I pushed onward, reminding myself to trust the process, trust the guy who introduced me to this concept and to accept that change is usually a painful process.  I have reached a modicum of success and that success has come with several adjustments that I made to suit my personality.  There was a point where I decided to apply my functional approach of physical training to my mental training, which is to not force the body into a specific method but to adjust the method to suit the user.  Everyone’s physical body has a unique way of moving and logic follows that their mental functions would also be as unique.  I now use the timer application on my phone when I meditate.  It allows me to be comfortable with the amount of time that I have predetermined to sit without the fear of wasting that precious commodity.  I tend to use breath techniques that focus on the mechanics of breathing, such as alternate nostril breath, where you inhale through one nostril and exhale out the other and then reverse that process, while using your fingers and thumb resting on the forehead and nose can help you control the speed of your breathing.  It can also be done without the fingers.  Feeling the air move in and out in a controlled manner really allows me to hone my focus into the present.  On the days when I feel the need to simple sit and breathe, I use mala beads, a string of one hundred and eight beads that my fingers slip over with every inhale.  When my timer goes off, I am done and for my quantitative workaholic nature, this is perfect.

Meditation has helped me become more present in the moment and it has helped me become more present to the people around me.  I recently took part in a meditation workshop that was held on Zoom.  It was a three-hour event that went over some meditation basics plus the individual insights and experiences of long-time practitioners.  True, a lot of elements that were presented were things that most of us attendees already knew, but as with presentation I’ve ever attended, there were new little gems of knowledge, some recent research, and some examined exploration.  It’s a shame that many of the attendees probably missed most these nuggets of wisdom.  Zoom has a chat feature, and it was firing off at full speed throughout the entire lecture.  A group of people who were unable to focus for a small period of time on the simple task of listening.  It seemed to me that they could have used some meditation.

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Meditation 101, Part 1

I would never claim to be an expert on meditation and my journey into the practice is one of novice ponderer.  Plus, I am one of those people that must examine all aspects of a new concept before I am truly comfortable with it.  It takes even more contemplation and examination of that new concept before I feel myself qualified to teach it…so far as meditation goes…not there yet.

My initial impression regarding meditation was that it was about stopping the brain from thinking.  Wow was I wrong…and that’s only one of my many, many misconceptions about the practice.  The first lightbulb of understanding went off early in my initial yoga teacher training.  It wasn’t simply the message that made the impact; it was the messenger.  He was my age, he was incredibly calm and soft spoken, there a was an air of mischief about him and he didn’t present his ideas as facts.  He merely presented what he himself had experienced and what he had observed of the world around him.  Here’s what he said, I have forgotten his exact words so I’m paraphrasing this:

Sometimes when you sit down to meditate, you open the door into a monastery filled with tranquil peace, and sometimes you open the door into a disco.

This from a man who had spent a lifetime meditating and guiding meditation.  He inspired me to start that journey and it brought me into one of the most frustrating periods of my life.  But first, a little background into my personality.  

When I was a child, I hated Sundays.  Sundays may have been my parents’ very needed day of rest at the end of a long workweek, but for me Sundays were painfully boring.  There was no school to attend and no dance classes to go to.  I was an introverted child who had moved across the USA several times and I didn’t make friends easily.  School and dance classes were my main source of mental and physical stimulation.  Well, that and unfortunately torturing my little sister.  There was nothing to do on Sundays except go to church and hang out with my family (I had two younger siblings at the time).

A frequent family Sunday activity, which my father loved, included drives in the car.  The boredom factor was amplified by my being seated in the middle of the backseat as a buffer between my warring siblings and by my not being tall enough to see anything out of the windows.  I spent hours of waiting for the inertia to end.  When you factor in the low self-esteem of a child who moved around the country a lot, the battered ego of a ballerina in a negative reinforcement training environment and the insecurity of being a female in a male dominated world, you might begin to understand why I’ve never been very good with being still.  I continue to wake up every morning in a race to grab every opportunity that the world presents to me, which has forever had me either working non-stop like a demon, or crashing from exhaustion…one hundred percent or zero, with nothing in between.  Meditation seemed to offer a pathway to balance.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that the pathway was fraught with a multitude of personal battles.

My first obstacle in meditation was the physical aspect…the simple act of sitting still.  Who would have thought that sitting could be such an issue?  After all, I sit all the time!  I’ve spent a lifetime sitting!  The challenge comes from stillness and until I started this journey into meditation, I never realized how much I shift and move around when I sit.  I began my first meditation with one of the traditional postures, seated on the floor with my back upright and my legs crossed.  It didn’t take long before my spine started wearying from the strain of sitting straight.  Soon my neck started to go into spasms and my legs began to go to sleep.  After a few days of continued struggle, I gave up, opened my computer, and googled some solutions.   I made a trip across the city to a funky little meditation shop tucked in between the pastry shops and delis of Greektown.  The store was filled with cushions of all shapes and sizes, plus little stools, incense, crystals, and wide variety of buddha statues.  It was a meditation heaven.  After considering all my options and consulting with the store clerk who looked like he meditated a lot, I bought a grain-filled meditation cushion and two small beanbag shaped mini pillows to shove under my thighs.  The next morning while attempting to meditate once again, I found that comfort had been achieved, but that comfort had not completely sustained.  My shoulders and neck still ached.  I soon discovered that resting my hands on my thighs helped…for a bit.  I eventually found that having a pillow in my lap for my hands to rest upon worked most of the time, although sometimes the body aches got so intense that I simply gave up and lay down on my back for the rest of the session.  Somehow that felt like cheating.   And sometimes I fell asleep which really defeated the whole concept of meditation.

My next hurtle in meditation was in developing my ability to concentrate.  I’m not sure the word “concentration” is the best description.  Maybe the better word would be “focus”.  I was trying to develop the ability to concentrate or focus on the present.  Our minds spend so much time fussing over past events or worrying about what might happen in the future that we forget to actually be in the moment.  What’s that expression…”Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.  It’s funny how when something interests you, like drawing a picture, you can lose yourself in that activity for hours, yet when you try to put that same concentration level into a seated rumination…nada.  I began to explore the different methods of honing my concentration, starting with focusing on a candle flame.  Within a few days, I soon abandoned that method.  My eyes watered constantly, and I could feel my face screwing up from the effort.  Developing new wrinkles on my forehead just didn’t seem like a worthwhile compromise.

Next, I tried to go for the mindful element of meditation by simply sitting and noticing the sounds and sensations of the world around me.  We had done exercises like this during our yoga teacher training; take a piece of chocolate and really spend some time examining it, smelling it, feeling the texture in your hand, feeling how it melted in your mouth, contemplating all the elements in the world that went into giving you this piece of chocolate, including the people who harvested the cocoa and store clerks who put the bars of chocolate on the shelves.  It’s pretty amazing when you really stop and think about everything that goes into the things that we use every day.  Another element of the mindful practice is one of non-judgement.  Notice something but don’t judge it as good or bad.   I sat on my meditation cushion, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.  I noticed the chirping of the birds who were sitting in the flowering quince bush near my bedroom window.  I felt a slight warm breeze coming through my open window.  I noticed the hum of a lawn mower down the street and the soft whoosh of cars passing the houses.  I noticed the whiny voice of my neighbour Roger who creeps me out with his constant sexual innuendos.  Then I smelled the stench of burning plastic that wafted over from Roger’s yard, as he was once again illegally burning his garbage.  Roger’s grandchildren who lived with him, burst out of their back screen door, and began to loudly argue.  The screams of the three-year-old could travel blocks.  Roger yelled at the kids and his wife Rita added her voice to the cacophony with a barrage of non-stop pleas, curses, and admonishments.  I began to pray for a sudden cloudburst that would drive them all inside.  Maybe my neighbourhood wasn’t built for a non-judgemental mindful practice.

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Where do I belong?

I am forever telling all the dance students and actors that I work with to stop trying to fit in.  Embrace all those things that make you unique.  Embrace all those oddities that make you feel uncomfortable in a crowd.  Embrace your foibles and flaws.  Almost every person that we look up to as role models became who they are by stepping outside of “the normal” and going in their own direction.  Yet despite the fact that uniqueness can be an asset, everyone wants to be accepted and appreciated.  Those differences can sometimes make us feel like outsiders who cannot connect with our fellow human beings. 

It’s very hard not to compare yourself to the people around you or to the people we are exposed to through media and the arena of yoga is no different.  Yoga in the North America tends to gravitate between two extremes: the esoteric/meditative and the athletic.  By the time I entered the yoga world as an instructor, I wasn’t a perfect fit for either of those modalities.

I am a person who takes a long time to examine and ponder new concepts…be they mental or physical, and I have never bought into anything anyone has told me right away.  I have to look at an unfamiliar interpretation from every possible angle until I am one hundred percent comfortable with passing that information on.  I can only teach what I believe to be authentic.  The yogic philosophy that forms the basis of the esoteric yoga practices is an immense and arduous study.  I would need at least another decade of concentrated study to obtain even a sliver of the knowledge that two teachers I admire and practice with have.  I’m working on it, but who knows when I will feel qualified to disseminate the information?

Some yoga studios market themselves towards the more athletic clientele where the popular teachers have centered their classes around the dynamic forms of yoga which include many challenging poses.  You know the poses I’m talking about.  They are the poses that you see on the covers of magazines and all-over social media postings, and they inspire a little awe in the viewer.   They are an instant and viable symbol of “I know what I’m doing” for the person executing them.  But what happens if you can’t do them?

I know a fair number of teachers who feel inadequate because they can’t achieve one or more of these challenging poses, like inversions.  I get it.  I can’t do a headstand without a wall for support, and I can’t do arm binds or poses that require arm binds because I have short little T-Rex arms.  I’ve beaten myself up for years over this issue but maybe it’s time all of us take a moment for a reality check.  These poses are achieved by and are reliant on strength, flexibility and what they rarely mention…body type.  

Have you ever really looked at all the old photographs of B.K.S Iyengar doing his yoga poses?  It’s an old-fashioned version of circus gymnastics.  Look, I’m not taking away from his valuable contributions to the world of yoga, but you’ve got to admit that you need a certain type of body to achieve those positions without causing permanent damage to your body.  So, my question is: what value does the execution of these positions bring to my life?  Beyond, “I saw it and I conquered it”, what does it add to my life?  There is value in the life-long process of shifting the body towards greater mobility and strength which requires self-examination, patience, and an intimate knowledge of your body.  However, there is no quick fix solution when you’re looking for employment at a studio where doing some of these poses is a requirement.  Plus, I no longer exude youthful vigor.  I have wrinkles, I have jowls, I have white hair and nothing is going to change that presentation.

Finding the right studio to work can be a trial-and-error journey and it can take years to find the best fit.  My own journey has been a long one and one full of missteps. I needed to be in a place that recognized my value as an older person and appreciate my forty plus years in movement-based work.  I obviously bring value to a studio that had an older clientele, and I can’t count how many times I’ve been thanked for my class with the added comment, “It’s nice to have someone nearer my age running the class.”   I understand that sentiment completely.  There’s nothing quite like watching the brash confidence of an eighteen-year-old explaining the meaning of life to a sixty-plus student.  Oh child…talk to me in twenty years and let’s see if you hold the same views.

Although I have finally found my ideal place, I often wonder how long I will remain here?  Who knows?  Life keeps changing.  The population shifts, the clientele changes, the current public thirst for yoga might begin to fade, more popular teachers may come along who are better for the studio’s bottom line.  I don’t know, but I plan to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

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Mentors are an essential element to anyone’s personal growth.  They are someone with experience who can guide you over new pathways.  They are also the person who encourages you and they are the person that you trust to be honest enough with you to tell you when you are heading in the wrong direction.  Sometimes mentors are assigned to you but in the long run, the assigned mentor will fade away if a certain level of respect and trust has not been established between the two of you.

I have been and continue to be a mentor to a fair number of young dancers, actors, choreographers and yoga teachers.  I have also been mentored in both my dance career and in my yoga-teaching career.  Here are a few things that I have observed:

  1. Some people confuse mentoring with being in charge.  You are not in charge; you are simply offering your opinion on a decision that someone else has made.  Your opinion is just that…your opinion.  And therefore, no one is required to act upon it.   Don’t take it as a personal affront if your mentee chooses another option.  Just remind yourself: Not your life, not your decision. 
  • Some people confuse mentoring with parenting.  If you want to control another human being, have a kid.  Then will you get total control of someone for about fifteen years.
  • Micromanagers should not be mentors.  They are the people who want to control every aspect of the people around them and have no sense of boundaries.  They are not good at the give and take aspect of mentoring.
  • Mentees move on.  Just because you were an awesome mentor at one stage of their life does not mean that you get to hold that position forever.  People’s needs change and with those changes, mentors become redundant.  Let your mentees go.

I had a yoga teacher who wanted to be my mentor but honestly it wasn’t going to work for several reasons.  Reason number one…I didn’t like the way he taught.  We all have our personal preferences and it’s important to connect with someone who you can relate to.  Reason number two… I didn’t understand the single thing that he directed me to do.  For example: “Be more mindful” Okay…but in what context?  I tried to apply his definition of “mindfulness” for over a year, but when he still wasn’t happy, and because he was getting increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as willful inflexibility, I terminated our relationship.  That’s not to say that his way was better or worse than mine, it was simply an oil/water oil moment…things that don’t go together.  You have to be able to communicate with your mentor and if that doesn’t happen, it’s time to move on.  

I treasure my mentors; those people that I seek out to learn from and to ponder how their views can enhance my own life’s journey.  They are supportive, they are quick witted, they are brilliant and they are perfect for me.

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Ubud overwhelms me.  It feels crowded.  There are too many people swarming the tiny sidewalks, there are too many colors, there are too many smells and there are way too many people invading my space; “You want a taxi?” “You want a taxi?”, “You want a taxi?”…Every fifty paces, “You want a taxi?”

Every inch of the long streets are crammed with humanity:  A shop, a temple, a guesthouse, an atm machine, a shop, another shop, a restaurant…for blocks and blocks and blocks.  Trees and plant life fight for every possible gap of space with their branches and fronds reaching towards the street and towards the sky. Parked motorcycles squeeze into every available nook between the buildings, spilling out onto the sidewalks.  Handmade prayer boxes by the hundreds litter the sidewalks in front of all the small shops.

Monkeys hang from the tree branches; they maneuver between the buildings jumping from balcony to roof, roof to balcony and precariously scramble across the overhead wires above the street.  One male jumps to a lower branch that dips under his weight until his back legs reach the street.  He briefly stands on his hind legs and puffs out his chest, challenging the cars screeching to a halt to hit him.  The standoff lasts barely a moment before he drops his front legs down and struts across the road.

Sound follows me constantly.  From the yells of the taxi drivers, the whistles of the police, the beeping of traffic vehicles, the laughter of uniformed school children, the clatter of plates in the restaurants and the chatter of tourists, speaking every imaginable language.  Everywhere there is sound.  Even back at my little hotel, there is no silence.  The air conditioners hum, the din of distant conversations waft over the walls, traffic is a constant yet softer drone, the fountain in the courtyard is perpetual dance of water play and there’s music that is always playing somewhere.  And then there is the rain, with downpours so violent that it sounds like you are in a tunnel filled with passing locomotive trains.

Walking along the streets so many different scents assault my nose.  Fragrant, earthy, pleasurable, sour, heady, rotting. There is a familiarity to them and yet I can’t seem to identify them.  Sometimes a smell catches me off guard with it’s such an enveloping and enticing aroma that I stop and breath in deeper.

I’ve had to relearn walking.  The sidewalks and paths are mazes of uneven paving, potholes, broken tiles and sudden level changes.  Gigantic puddles form from the daily rain storms, creating impassable abysses where the choice becomes: step into the never ending chaos of traffic or wade through the water not knowing if one of those hidden dangers lie beneath the water’s surface.  Even when your footing seems secure, there’s no guarantee.  My sandals slide over a thin glaze of mud left by the last torrential downpour.  My sandals slide over the slime of new mossy growth on rough stones.  My sandals slide over the perpetual accumulation of fallen leaves and flowers.

Every inch of Ubud is vibrating.  I look to my right and see an empty field of reeds. There’s a solitary path running through it, dotted with beautifully lit lanterns, leading to a restaurant.  A wide-open space.  My Canadian heart breathes a sigh of relief.

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