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Let’s Breathe (a 2-for-1 “missing” post) May 26, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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[This is the “missing” post related to Monday, May 24th and Tuesday, May 25th (TRIGGER WARNING). You can request an audio recording of either practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.

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“You must finish a term & finish every day, & be done with it. For manners, & for wise living, it is a vice to remember. You have done what you could — some blunders & absurdities no doubt crept in forget them as fast as you can tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it well & serenely, & with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day for all that is good & fair. It is too dear with its hopes & invitations to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.”

 

 

– quoted from a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to his daughter Ellen, dated April 8, 1854 (as printed in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, volume 4, edited by Ralph L. Rusk, 1939)

There are some practices, like at Common Ground and during the old rooftop practices, where we don’t use a playlist. Sometimes, like on Saturdays, we often start the practice without the music. However, more often than not, I pick something instrumental to set the tone. It may even be something that is “punny” and/or something that contains an inside joke or subliminal message. On Tuesday, for instance, we started with “A Breath of Stillness” – and just like on Monday that was the focus of the practice; to find the stillness that allows us to breathe and then to find stillness that speaks to us in between the breaths.

There are whole (ancient) texts written on asana, but my go to reference (for quick and dirty instruction) is Yoga Sūtras 2.46 – even though that is the first in a series of three sūtras detailing postural instruction. While other texts (like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, and Shiva Samhita) give more detailed instruction about how to position the parts of one’s body, Patanjali’s instructions are consistent with the qualities one needs in order to practice: stability and steadiness, comfort and ease, equanimity and overall peace of mind (joy). The other texts primarily focus on achieving these qualities through the site chosen for the practice, while Patanjali focuses on the mind-body as the site. All the texts, however, point to the quality of breath as an indicator of the quality of the body’s position.

But, what happens when our body is not in a position to breathe? What happens when we don’t have (as instructed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika) “a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds…” or find that we are not “in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.”? Do we not practice? Do we not breathe??

Of course, those are ridiculous questions. Of course we are going to practice (if we are committed to ourselves and our practice). Furthermore, we have no choice with regard to our breath, because as long as we are alive, we will breathe. We may not breathe well; we may need the assistance of a machine or a reminder from a teacher/friend, but breathing is one of the biggest parts (and signs) of being alive.

When we “sit” and breathe on our mats and on our cushions, we acknowledge that this is something people all around the world have done before us; something millions and billions of people are doing at the same time as us; and something people will be doing, all around the world, long after we are gone. On a certain level, we acknowledge the divinity of the breath and breathing… the universality of it… even when our experience of it is different.

These types of acknowledgements allow us to experience a deeper and richer breadth of breath (and life). These types of acknowledgements also allow us to take a journey into the stillness and into the richness within us and all around us – and to tap into what is divine, or universal, within us and around us.

“[T. K. V.] Desikachar realized that his father felt that every action should be an act of devotion, that every asana should lead toward inner calm. Similarly, [Sri. T.] Krishnamacharya’s emphasis on the breath was meant to convey spiritual implications along with psychological benefits. According to Desikachar, Krishnamacharya described the cycle of breath as an act of surrender: ‘Inhale, and God approaches you.  Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you.  Exhale, and you approach God.  Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.’”

 

 

– quoted from the May/June 2001 Yoga Journal article entitled “Krishnamacharya’s Legacy” by Fernando Pagés Ruiz

 

Don’t let the word (or concept) of “God” bother you and become an obstacle to your practice/journey. After all, you could use the word “Light” or “the Divine” or “Goodness” or “Goddess” or “Universe” or “the Community / World.” Try it, just breath for a moment and use the word(s) that work for you.

One of my favorite Yoga Sūtras is 1.36 and I refer to it often: viśokā vā jyotişmatī, which encourages us to focus on the place inside of us that is “free from sorrow” and “infused with light.” According to the practice, focusing in this way anchors the mind and brings peace of mind. Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, even points to traditions where this is the “core of the entire text” and of the practice. We find this central idea – even this centering practice – in other religious and spiritual traditions, including Christianity and Buddhism.

I specifically used the two examples above, because over the weekend, I got similar reminders from two different contemplative theologians/teachers from two different spiritual communities. The first was Thomas J. Bushlack, PhD, who is a Christian professor of theology and ethics – as well as a longtime practitioner of yoga. The second was Buddhist dharma teacher Tara Brach, PhD (who, I believe, also practices yoga). As I already mentioned, both are contemplative leaders in their traditions and also offer meditations to people within and outside of their spiritual communities.

Full disclosure, Dr. Bushlack is someone I know personally, someone who is part of my yoga community, and someone I closely associate with the religious philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. This weekend, however, rather than quoting Saint Thomas, he was quoting a different namesake: Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and one of the three co-developers of Centering Prayer (which Dr. Bushlack offers as a foundational practice for religious and non-religious professionals). While I shared a bit more (here and in class on Monday night) than he did, the reference to “our core goodness” dovetails with Dr. Brach’s use of “Buddha-nature” and both references are in relation to a practice that is fundamentally tied to knowing there are times we can do something (as much as we can for as long as we can) and other times when we have to let go, surrender.

“1. …. This basic core of goodness is capable of unlimited development; indeed, of becoming transformed into Christ and deified.

 

2. Our basic core of goodness is our true Self. Its center of gravity is God. The acceptance of our basic goodness is a quantum leap in the spiritual journey.”

 

– quoted from “Chapter 13 – Guidelines for Christian Life, Growth and Transformation*” in Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating

*NOTE: These guidelines are intended to beread according to the method of lectio divina [‘divine reading’],” meaning that they are to be integrated as the living word through four steps of practice: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate.

“… we can’t do it alone and we can’t do it if we think it’s like a sense of my own ego’s heart. In other words, that doesn’t work. If you think you’re responsible, [you’re personally responsible,] for another life, then your heart won’t be able to open big enough. So, in a way, you have to hand that over… just sense that there’s a love and intelligence in this universe that’s bigger than this personal self. And you can entrust whatever feels like too much into it….

 

It’s a practice.  And it took me a long time, because, I, especially when I was a active as a therapist, really thought it was up to me to fix people. Until I came to this amazing realization that everybody has Buddha-nature. I mean, everybody has that light and that heart and some people are going to unfold more than others in ways that manifest….

It’s a surrendering of control and thinking that we’re the doer – and realizing that this body-mind will serve the greater good best that doesn’t think it’s ‘a doer.’”

 

 

– quoted from a weekly Satsang / Live Q&A session (recorded 10172020), regarding “Holding Space for Ourselves and Others when the Suffering Feels like too Much” – part of “The Power of Inquiry: Healing Conversations” by Tara Brach

 

Normally when we come to a really big anniversary – the anniversary of something good or bad, monumental, even tragic and horrific; something that left a mark on our hearts, minds, and psyches – we remember where we were, what we were doing, maybe even what we were wearing and who was with us. We can remember exactly how we felt and what we thought. I find that’s the norm when we come up to an anniversary, especially a personal or universal anniversary that was tragic. We remember little things, minute, seemingly inconsequential things – even when the event affects each of us in different ways.

But, May 25, 2020 is a little different for most people in the world.

You may not remember exactly what you were doing a year ago today – let alone what you were wearing. We were still in the (relative) beginning of the pandemic shutdown, so maybe you remember where you were and what you weren’t doing, because it was outside of your normal routine. Maybe nothing stands out in your actual physical memory of the day itself, other than that it was Memorial Day… or maybe a special day specific to you. Yet, you remember today the events of today.

We remember today because it is the one year anniversary of the death of George Floyd and while many people witnessed some aspects of his murder – maybe even on this date – most of us weren’t actually there when it happened. We may have only been a few blocks or miles away, but most of us were completely unaware of what was happening until after the fact. Even then, most of us didn’t imagine the horror of the act itself. On May 25, 2020, most of us were completely unaware that what was happening around us – and that the world would be able to watch the horror of it all, in real time – was about to change everything. It changed the way people interacted with each other.  It changed the way people understood (or thought they understood) one another. It changed the way people thought about their breath… and their ability to breathe.

“Continue to breathe
Continue to breathe
In times like these
That’s what your heart is for
Continue to breathe
Continue to breathe
In honor of your brother
That’s what your heart is for”

 

 

– quoted from the song “Breathe” by India.Arie

Breathing is connected to our autonomic nervous system; it is something that happens to us, and also something we can engage or control. When we inhale, there’s a little micro-extension in the spine; a moment of heart-opening (and bending over backwards). When we exhale there’s a micro-flexion in the spine; a moment where we turn inward and perhaps surrender. Notice that there is balance in this system: the inhale is active/yang; the exhale is lunar/passive.

In fact, each part of our breath is associated with a different part of our nervous system. The inhale is tied to the sympathetic nervous system and our fight/flee/freeze or collapse response. It activates when we need to “GO!” and, therefore, is considered the gas pedal. The exhale is connected to the parasympathetic nervous, which is connected to our ability to rest and digest – as well as to create. It activates when we need to slow down or stop and, therefore, is considered the brakes of our system. (Notice that “STOP!” would fall into the sympathetic nervous system category.)

So, our physiological systems are designed move in and out of balance – to find balance within the imbalance. However, situations that activate our sympathetic nervous system (making us want to fight, flee, freeze, or collapse) also create a breathe pattern that is not sustainable over long periods of time. Additionally, we are living in a time where our sympathetic nervous systems are constantly activated – sometimes to the point of being over stimulated – and we develop a habit of bad breathing. Add to that the fact that the physiological – as well as emotional and psychological – effects of COVID make it harder and harder to breathe.

To make matters worse, in some traditional sciences (like Chinese Medicine) the vitality for the heart and lungs is associated with the arms and with emotions of joy and grief/sorrow+loss, respectively. Each of those meridians is coupled with another meridian – specifically the intestine meridians, which are related to how we digest. Remember, our need to process, digest, metabolize, and release waste is not restricted to food, drink, or medicine that we consume. We also consume experiences, actions, thoughts, and words – which means we also have to have space and time (not to mention the energy) to digest all that! And, over the last year-plus, we have had a lot of “that!” to digest.

“First, keep breathing…. Don’t take this next breath for granted. Never take your breath, which is a symbol of your life, for granted. Take the deepest breath you’ve taken all day, every day. Then follow it with another… and another. Make it a habit, a practice, to very deliberately and intentionally breathe. Do it for yourself and those you love. Do it, also, in honor of those who ‘can’t breathe.’”

 

– quoted from my blog post/page “A Place to Start”

 

Last year, I made a point to emphasize things I say all the time, things I’ve been saying for over a decade – but those things landed differently after we watched George Floyd die. As I knew it would. Which is why I added that last part, the reminder to “Do it for yourself and those you love. Do it, also, in honor of those who ‘can’t breathe.’”

It’s unfortunate, tragic, and horrific that George Floyd wasn’t the first person to utter those words before dying during an encounter with the police. It’s unfortunate, tragic, and horrific that it’s more than Eric Garner, who was killed in New York City on July 17, 2014. Those are just the one’s vaguely familiar to most of us.

But what about Nicholas Dyksma (August 31, 2015 in Harris Country, Georgia); Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin, Jr, (January 4, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona); Hector Arreola  (January 10, 2017 in Columbus, Georgia); Christopher Lowe (July 26, 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas); Javier Ambler II (March 28, 2019 in Austin, Texas); Derrick Scott (May 20, 2019 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma); Elijah McClain (who was restrained on August 24, 2019 in Aurora, Colorado, declared brain dead on August 27th, and taken off life support on August 30th); Byron Williams (September 5, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada); John Elliott Neville (who was restrained while in county jail on December 2, 2019 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and died on December 4th); Manuel Ellis (March 3, 2020 in Tacoma, Washington); or William Jennette (restrained and died in a Marshall County, Tennessee jail in earlier this month)?

Just for the record, those are not the only people who died or the only people who experienced similar restraints and positioning during police encounters. What about David Cornelius Smith, who (on Thursday, September 9, 2010) was restrained (after a Taser was used on him multiple times) at the Downtown Minneapolis YMCA, mere feet from where I taught yoga? He was in a coma and on life support before being declared dead on September 17th.  (In 2013, the City of Minneapolis promised to offer additional training in restraint safety and paid Mr. Smith’s family $3 million in a settlement after footage from one of the officer’s personal cameras, i.e., not body-cam, was entered into evidence. Some have said that the 2010 footage bears a striking resemblance to the footage from last year, in terms of the restraint tactics and overall attitude of the police officers involved.)

And, let’s not forget the teenager who was previously restrained by the same police officer who killed George Floyd?

Finally, please note, that not all of the aforementioned were Black, nor were they all minorities.

“Fight for your life
Fight for your life
In the face of a society
That doesn’t value your life
For the men in your life
For the boys in your life
For your brothers, for your fathers
For the ones that came before us
For the future, for the future
For the future, for the future

Continue to breathe”

 

 

– quoted from the song “Breathe” by India.Arie

 

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea,
Drink the wild air’s salubrity [well-being]:”

 

 

– quoted from part II of the poem “Merlin’s Song” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love reading the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, born May 25, 1803 (in Boston, Massachusetts), even though I sometimes get frustrated reading Emerson. I love reading Emerson, because over 200 years after his birth, his words are still relevant to our society. But, I get frustrated, because… his words are still relevant to our society. It’s like we’ve learned nothing individually (or collectively) about our mind-body-spirits and our relationship to the rest of nature. Both my feelings of love and frustration are enhanced by the fact so much of Emerson’s essays and speeches, especially on subjects like Nature and consciousness and Creation, sound like my Yoga philosophy books – like the Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras and the Bhagavad Gita – as well as certain religious commentary that I find myself diving into.

Those similarities are not a coincidence. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a theologian (as well as a philosopher) who graduated from Harvard Divinity School before becoming the leader of the transcendental movement in the 19th century. He was a student of Eastern philosophies and ancient religions. He was also a poet, a teacher, and an abolitionist whose views on race (and nationality) did not age well. He was also banned from his alma mater (for 27 years and 6 days)  for speaking up about things he saw wrong within his own religious community.

Despite the aforementioned sketchy ideas about race and nationality, Emerson believed in the sanctity of all things – as he saw all things as connected to God; but his critics accused him of diminishing God. In a sermon, his Harvard Divinity School mentor, Henry Ware, Jr., spoke of “The Personality of the Deity” and said, “Take away the Father of the universe, and, though every ordinance remain unchanged, mankind becomes but a company of children in an orphan asylum; clothed, fed, governed, but objects of pity rather than congratulation, because deprived of those resting-places for the affections, without which the soul is not happy.” His idea that “the fact of knowledge and ideas reveals to him the fact of eternity” also did not sit well with the clergy.

“Once Emerson, on being asked by a relative if he were a Swedenborgian [a devotee of Swedish Lutheran theologian and church reformer Emanuel Swedenborg], replied: ‘I am more of a Quaker than any­thing else. I believe in the “still, small voice,” and that voice is Christ within us.’ Just how well Emerson understood his own position presents an interesting problem. Discovering how much of a Quaker Emerson really was may add the history of another influence on Emerson’s thought, and hence define more clearly one of the great influences on American ideals of today.

 

The problem of determining the existence and extent of any particular influence on Emerson is complicated by the difficulty of separating that influence from the many others that have been discovered in his work. How much Plato Emerson knew, how well he understood the neo-Platonists, whether or not he ever comprehended the message of the orient, and what was his attitude toward science are questions that must be satisfactorily considered before an exact and final statement of the Quaker influence on Emerson can be made. To attempt such finality here would be foolhardy; to at­tempt any sort of definition may be fruitless in view of G. E. Woodberry’s statement: ‘One follows him [Emerson] into the books he read, not for the sources of his thought, but for the mould of the man himself.’”

 

– quoted from “1. Introduction” in “The Quaker Influence on Emerson” (a thesis submitted for the Degree of Masters of Arts, University of Wisconsin, 1939) by Charles D. Gelatt (the then-future entrepreneur and philanthropist  

 

Of course, another reason it would be “foolhardy” to try “determining the existence and extent of any particular influence on Emerson” is that, by his own admission, he believed in tapping into that place inside of himself – that is also inside of all of us. Whether we call that place our heart, our spirit, or our soul; whether we identify it as God, or Christ-nature, or Buddha-nature; whether we identify it as the source of Light and/or the greater goodness inside of you, we can use the breath to tap into it. We can find it in between the inhale and the exhale. And I will meet you there.

 

“Three problems are put by nature to the mind; What is matter? Whence is it? and Whereto? The first of these questions only, the ideal theory answers. Idealism saith: matter is a phenomenon, not a substance. Idealism acquaints us with the total disparity between the evidence of our own being, and the evidence of the world’s being. The one is perfect; the other, incapable of any assurance; the mind is a part of the nature of things; the world is a divine dream, from which we may presently awake to the glories and certainties of day. Idealism is a hypothesis to account for nature by other principles than those of carpentry and chemistry. Yet, if it only deny the existence of matter, it does not satisfy the demands of the spirit. It leaves God out of me. It leaves me in the splendid labyrinth of my perceptions, to wander without end. Then the heart resists it, because it balks the affections in denying substantive being to men and women. Nature is so pervaded with human life, that there is something of humanity in all, and in every particular. But this theory makes nature foreign to me, and does not account for that consanguinity which we acknowledge to it….

 

But when, following the invisible steps of thought, we come to inquire, Whence is matter? and Whereto? many truths arise to us out of the recesses of consciousness. We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man, that the dread universal essence, which is not wisdom, or love, or beauty, or power, but all in one, and each entirely, is that for which all things exist, and that by which they are; that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; one and not compound, it does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through ourselves: therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old. As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power. Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? Once inhale the upper air, being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite.”

 

– quoted from the essay the 1836 essay “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

There is no playlist for the Monday night practice at Common Ground Meditation Center.

 

Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “10272020 Pranayama II”]

 

Check out my previous blog posts about the Ralph Waldo Emerson’s August 31, 1837 speech for the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the July 15, 1838 speech to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School (that got him banned until 1865).

”3. God and our true Self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true Self are the same thing.”

 

 

– quoted from “Chapter 13 – Guidelines for Christian Life, Growth and Transformation*” in Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating

*NOTE: These guidelines are intended to be read according to the method of lectio divina [‘divine reading’],” meaning that they are to be integrated as the living word through four steps of practice: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate.

“‘No one really understands the Atma [Soul/Essence], Arjuna. One person sees it as wondrous, another speaks of its glory, others say it is strange, and there are many who listen but do not comprehend it at all. Very few even think of inquiring into what is beyond this physical world.’

 

‘I am well aware that I have veered into high philosophy, but you must understand that all beings, whether called ‘friend’ or ‘enemy/ have this indestructible Atma within. You must be poised above this debilitating sorrow of yours.’”

 

– Krishna speaking to Arjuna (2.29-30) in The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners by Jack Hawley.

 

### “For your brothers, for your fathers, for your sons, for your daughters, for your mothers, for your sisters, for your friends, for your teachers, for your cousins…continue to breathe” ###

 

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