November 9th, 2016.
Is this a little death of who we were, or a reset button to take action? These are trying and turbulent times that elicit, for many of us, an instinctual and purely guttural response of fear, flight or fight. My daily inner dialog recognized patterns of wanting to shut down and not deal with any of it, or trying to spin my Pollyannaish tendencies into a long-term happy ending. I also knew that neither of these Samskaras were helpful.
After the election I found myself freezing – in denial - realizing that I had assumed a different outcome. I was stunned, and yet I did not want to dramatize my disappointment and surprise, nor did I want to fall into apocalyptic speculation. I had to stand in front of a classroom full of shocked students, the morning after the election. Many were grief stricken, stunned and fatigued. I wanted to give some respite from the spectacle and create a neutral space to calm the fried nerves. And yet I could not ignore the situation and could not simply “Breathe” the confusion away. Our sense of a collective self, many of the values that we had built our lives upon, seemed to be pushed to the breaking point, a cultural catharsis. But we were together, and that was a good thing.
Grief is an interesting bedfellow. I have lain with grief many times; when my father died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2004; when Guruji BKS Iyengar died in 2014, and when I was diagnosed HIV positive in 1985. These were the capital letters, the bold face events when grief struck with a vengeance. But little griefs pass my doorstep on a regular basis. When I realized that my puppy seems to love my husband more than me, trite, and yet there it is - is disappointment a little death? When I cracked a rib doing Parsva Dhanurasana, would I ever attempt that pose again? When I was not invited back to a studio after teaching a weekend workshop. Perhaps these are simply distractions of the aberrant ego, but I felt them as little deaths.
We really have little support for living with grief. It can isolate us, make us dysfunctional and unpredictable. For me, I lost sleep. I found myself singing to Pavarotti full blast while driving over the speed limit. I practiced too hard and injured my shoulder, as if I could blast the suffering away. I would weep for no reason. Eating felt like I was giving to myself when I could no longer give to my loved one, my heart physically hurt, and I lost weight.
Each incidence is different. I recall recognizing the stages of grief when I was diagnosed HIV+: doubt (denial, it could not be me, I am in a monogamous relationship, have never done needles, etc), anger (my boyfriend kept a major part of his past from me), bargaining (if I find the right alternative meds), depression (I will die within a few years, there are no meds and no cure), and finally, maybe acceptance. My life had been turned inside out. For the first time I felt truly vulnerable. The support I did receive from my friends felt bittersweet; for I felt our mutual fear that I would not be a part of their future.
When my father died I really lost it, I had no control. At least when it was about me, I could do something. But Mr. Death leaves no survivors, and I could not save my father. I went into hyper-drive and organized a big wake. I yelled at my brother when he wanted to review legal documents. All I could think of was the last forty-eight hours of Dad’s life. His research was in life extension for he was so keenly interested in learning that he realized he would have to live a long time to learn as much as he wanted. I loved him for the zest and intrigue with which he pursued life. Yet what I came to realize is that he was equally afraid of death and the unknown.
With each drama I came to embrace that there would be another sunrise, for now at least. They say that we grow wiser with age. I think I just got used to the rhythm and cycles of suffering and loss. Winter generally gives way to spring, and I find myself in a new paradigm, perhaps a little raw at first. The tragic thing is that this vulnerability and tenderness dissipates and I find myself resuming the facades and coping skills that enable me to live daily, numb to the inevitability of the next catharsis. This is not to say that I want to live in a state of emergency, or on the edge of an emotional meltdown. Rather, the sunrise offers another chance to understand that I can be pummeled by suffering or embrace the wide horizon of possibilities and the hard reality that roses are beautiful, but they have thorns. Smell the roses, and learn to hold the rose so as to avoid the thorns.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. Perhaps this is akin to several seminal ideas in the Yogic texts. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna defines yoga as “evenness of mind” and “skill in action”. One without the other is but one of the two wings of liberation from suffering. Acceptance is not simply surrendering to a powerful force; rather it is when I can embrace a deep state of equanimity. And yet still act. To breathe is to act. Grief and recovery are strong acts of will and willingness. Acceptance is being able to walk boldly into the unknown with peace in my heart.
The Yoga Sutras have always been a fascinating scaffold for reflection. The two wings of the bird here, loosely interpreted, are skillful action and equanimity. 1.12. Vairagya classically translates as non-attachment, or dispassion, and infers a state when desire falls away and only the practice toward liberation remains. I, however, find that equanimity and acceptance means that I am at peace with difficult events around me. When I accept things as they are, and do not surrender to my fears, I can act heartfully, kindly, skillfully. T.S. Eliot said, in his Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”
I see death and rebirth as a spiral of plunging into the murky waters of loss, little and major, again and again and again. As I reflect in the not-knowing I try to open to different opinions, diverse perspectives, and my own quiet prayers.
When I was first diagnosed I reread the Faustian legend. Living with a life-threatening illness is like having an angel on one shoulder and a shadow on the other. Life becomes something really precious. I lived between loss and action, grief and acceptance, wonder and grace. It was my own quiet struggle. I preferred to deflect attention from myself and my story. Everyone is struggling with some form of loss. I was equipped to hold the space of the shadow of death. Someone else might stumble with a much lesser loss; it is loss all the same.
Living with HIV is a daily reminder of the preciousness and precariousness of life. This may sound like a cliché, but I find that often the simplest things are the most profound. Guruji Iyengar said that the greatest wealth is health. Health demands that I deposit daily doses of good nutrition; that I respect sleep; that I sit, reflect and meditate; that I love my neighbor. For The Name that can be named is NOW. I no longer feel turned inside out. Rather, I cherish the tumultuous balancing act of living a good life. Work, play, service, study, it is all part of the mandala of my life. Each sunset is special, I see the clouds, colors, and the change in the seasons. This is the preciousness, the Namaste at the end of class. And one day I will say Namaste to life, and close my eyes, knowing that I lived a life worth living. I have accept the cards that I was dealt, and I play my hand as best I can.
Living with death is equally living with not-knowing. When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time in the desert. I would wander, my mind empty, gazing at the sky, content. I remember one day asking my mother if my empty mind meant that I was stupid. How fragile is youth, how innocent I was! I have always looked for the essence of phenomenon, knowing full well how improbable any discovery could be. What is it that Lao Tsu says? The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The Name that can be named is not the eternal name.
My Rabbi once said that music, art and poetry are essential as they are potent ways to touch on the miraculous and transcendent. I found nature and yoga to do the same. Whether it was the desert, the ocean, Savasana, or my puppy frolicking on the beach, the ephemeral is in the way that I look at things. I am in awe of little joys.
I have been practicing yoga for over thirty years. For the first decade my day was not complete without a strong, sweaty practice. I was young. Now I adapt on a daily basis to the needs of the day. When I can practice, the spaces between the exhalation and inhalation, the in-between silent moments are, as Blake writes below, like holding eternity in the palm of my hand. Some days I practice pranayama, meditation and asana. Other days I barely manage my meditation or pranayama. Perhaps my lungs hurt, or I have a full day of teaching. Whatever is necessary is fine. I can live with the rhythms of practice.
Death and Rebirth are two sides of a coin; one would not exist without the other. Just like night and day, grief and acceptance, loss and recovery, the exhalation and the inhalation. I still think of death frequently. With every evening stroll to the ocean, I wonder how many more seasons I will enjoy watching the leaves change from red to brown to bare branches and back to full green sycamores. So each walk is special. Each morning is special. Each class is special. My sig line is: deep peace and simple joys. This is how I have come to embrace the sacredness of life.
The election marked a turning point for this country. Many of us will live with a shadow over one shoulder, worried about our national identity, core values, and the environment. Time does not necessarily heal all things, but reflection does help us perceive the cycle of things. The surprising outcome and loss of the election gave way to a grieving that will hopefully fertilize skillful action and, ultimately, some kind of tranquil equilibrium for all of us. These words from Songs to Myself by Walt Whitman speak dearly to me:
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content…
One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.