Posted in Yoga

Richard Freeman on Yoga and Ambition

Here’s a short interview my friend Waylon at Elephant Journal did recently at the Yoga Journal Conference in Colorado with Richard Freeman about the trap of ambition in the path of yoga.

 

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Posted in Musings

Expect the Unexpected

You can never really count on things going the way you think they will, but here in Crestone, you can pretty much assume things will not go the way you think. After tending my garden for several weeks this summer, here’s what August weather can look like around here:

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It definitely keeps you on your toes!

Posted in Asia, Musings, Psychology

Attitude of gratitude and Thanksgiving resolution

Though I rarely celebrate Thanksgiving anymore– I’ve lived in Asia for over 10 years now– I love the spirit behind this day of thanks. There is a powerful message to be learned here.

This message was brought to me loud and clear this past few weeks, which have presented quite a few obstacles. Now, I know, obstacles are part of life. That’s not likely to change anytime soon. But I realized recently how much time I spend dwelling on disturbance, instead of reflecting on how darned lucky I am to have such unique obstacles.

The fact is, ruminating on how things are wrong does not make them right. So, as my wise and cheerful mother often says: just get over it! There are better ways to spend time than reviewing what went wrong.

I”m not suggesting that we go into denial–there is power in recognizing where things go slightly “off.” But once the mistake, or failure, or challenge has been identified, and we re-set our course, then it is a total waste of energy to keep looking back at what might have been. As we frequently hear, we attract the energies we send out. So if we want good things to come our way, there is no better practice than gratitude for what we already have.

I’m mixing things up this year: instead of waiting for New Years Day to make my resolutions, I’m starting early. My Thanksgiving resolution is to start each day with gratitude. I’m resolving to commit to a writing practice: to identify at least 20 things I’m grateful for in my life. The first on my list is yoga and meditation practice, which changed my life. Read how yoga and meditation can change your life too. Also high up on the list is writing, which keeps me sane and happy. And another entry on my gratitude list is readers like you, who allow me to share what I write.

So, thanks. May blessings flow to you.

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Posted in Asia, Meditation, Psychology, Resources

3 Tips for Mental Health and Well-Being during your Pilgrimage

So you packed up your home, put your life on hold, and now you find yourself traveling in Asia with an open stretch of time ahead of you. You plan to rest, take stock, and discover a new angle on life. Have a few adventures. Maybe make a transition in your career. No more boring days at a job you hate, performing mind-numbing tasks just to survive in the modern world. Bliss at last, right?

Right?

What happens when you finally get to your dreamed of destination, your tropical paradise, only to find that your niggling doubts, your habitual patterns, your fundamental discontent have followed you here? The tropical wildlife sends you screaming and scrambling onto the nearest piece of furniture, which breaks upon contact. You can’t figure out how to find the travel agent because the streets don’t have names and no one answers the phone (not that anyone there speaks English even if they did.) Or when you finally do get there, the computers are down, or they are out to lunch. For the week.

How do you make the most of your time overseas when you are just not feeling it? How do you manage your mind when it is conspiring to bring you down just when you’ve decided to take some time to find inner peace?

Travel is one of the best forms of therapy I know. It forces you to come to terms with aspects of yourself you might not confront in your everyday life—things that come up when your environment is unknown, unexpected, changing and often challenging. Or, to put it more directly, frustrating as hell.

  1. Look at your resistance

    What are you unwilling to accept? Often when we are confronted with things that challenge our outlook of the world, we struggle to maintain our sense of identity. Look at any preconceived ideas you may have to see where you may be stuck. You may want to try writing practice–scribble it all down in no particular format and get it all out. See the irony or humour if you can. Sure it’s easy to complain about inefficient systems and poorly functioning organizations. But if you had wanted the known, you would have stayed home, right? You asked for an adventure, so here it is. Adventure doesn’t always come in the guise we expect or ask for.

  2. Let go

    Well-being is about adapting to new situations with ease, learning to ride each moment lightly. Release expectations of how you thought your journey would unfold and let the path reveal itself regardless of your preferences. Learn to to be flexible in the face of sudden change or conflict. Take a deep breath.

  3. Relax and enjoy

    When you can appreciate the similarities and differences, then traveling becomes a joyful practice of observation. You start to see there are other ways of doing things. From how to eat, to how to relate to death family and intimacy—all cultures treat these in their own way. You can start to question if the way you learned to do things works for you. It gives you options to make changes or adjustments to your own life if you choose to. When I spent a year in India I realized money was not the number one theme of life, something my American culture had ingrained in me. It changed how I perceive and approach my life, allowing other aspects of life to take priority—it was the first time in my life I’d actually relaxed fully. When you are able to settle into a situation with ease and joy, new layers of existence are often exposed.

Part of the education of travel is seeing how people from different cultures approach and manage life. But apart from seeing our differences, you start to see how utterly similar humans are, regardless of the culture that raised us. We all smile and laugh and experience emotions. We may behave differently and do different things with these emotions but the emotions themselves are universal. This one understanding can change the way you approach your life and make you more sensitive to and of those around you. It can open the door to compassion. Buddhists call this the seed of enlightenment.

Learning to adapt is the best way to create a strong mind and boost mental health. Children naturally bounce back with resilience and just keep going with the flow—there is wisdom in this. There is a slogan from the lojong trainings of Vajrayana Buddhism that goes like this:

In postmeditation, be a child of illusion.

In other words, don’t assume things are solid and real or that you understand everything that’s happening. Allow for things to unfold without knowing how or why. Watch the play of the phenomenal world with innocent eyes, as if in a dream. When you can rest in your center without depending on the stability of the outer world, you’ll surprise yourself with an increased sense of confidence and well-being, knowing you can handle whatever challenge comes your way with strength and grace.

One way to benefit from this experience of shifting perspectives is to take up a meditation practice as a way to observe your mind. For a simple meditation instruction, click here.

Posted in Dharma, Musings, Psychology

Desire in the Dark Age

Clearly we are at the deep end of the dark age. I can tell because I’ve spent the last week eating cheese puffs. Like most of us here in the desire realm, I grasp at the world of form in a misguided attempt to reduce suffering. The array of distractions is vast: Cary Grant films, holidays at the beach, classic literature, retail therapy, red wine, dark chocolate, and, most recently, bite-sized bits of baked cornmeal covered in fake cheese.

The results are brilliant, though short-term. I encourage myself whenever possible to step out of this ultimately self-defeating cycle, but when the going gets rough, as it seems to be increasingly doing, I figure it’s better to choose my relatively harmless poison rather than losing it entirely and moving into heavier domains of negative karma, like homicide.

A few years ago, while I was trying to stay cheerful in the face of yawning issues like war, economic depression, and social disintegration, a popular Western Dharma teacher swept me off my feet. He lavished me with attention, entreated me to quit my job overseas and return to the US so that he could “take care of me.” After some time considering his offer, I showed up at his door one fine day. He dropped me the same day without warning, leaving me, in essence, on the street.  I subsequently learned that he had been less than honest with me. Of course, that’s my version, and if you ask him he would no doubt tell you another story. Now, I am a big girl and have learned to take care of myself, but I have to admit that this unfortunate episode was the culprit of my current one bag a week habit. I am still a bit disillusioned and apathetic, and every so often it comes back to haunt me.

“That’s bullshit,” offered a helpful dharma friend when I shared my disappointment. I might add that he was not my friend for the ensuing 5 minutes. I had gone out on a limb and trusted someone who is considered an “expert” in the field of loving-kindness. Isn’t that a fair description of someone who teaches Dharma? Was it so absurd of me to expect him to behave with integrity, and to treat me with respect? It does, however, make it rather hard to consider trusting someone again.

But then I got it. My indignation was just as confused, just as “wrong” as my betrayer’s disrespect. This is not the “Get What You Want” program. This is samsara, and our job as practitioners is to see through this dualistic illusion and help others to do the same. If we were looking for the pureland, then we took the wrong exit in the bardo–we took a smoky left instead of heading straight for the bright lights of dewachen. So by default, we signed up for this life of unfulfilled desire, lies, lust, jealousy, pride and outrage. It’s our job to work with it as it is. And that is so Un-American.

The point is that this path is not about creating a version of reality that we can live with. It’s about living with the version of reality that we have created. And this is a tricky one for Americans who have heard from birth that we can have it our way, with a side of fries. Does this make Dharma practice more difficult for us? Maybe. If we are to become bodhisattvas, we first need to learn to treat each other well before we can consider benefiting all sentient beings. And that sometimes means not having it our way.

As Dharma practitioners, sometimes I think we have it harder in the US because of our lack of roots. We are the newest country on the planet, and so have the shortest history. We also have an exquisitely developed culture of materialism that lacks deeply entrenched traditions, leaving our social fabric at times pathetically frayed. Our freedom to choose can translate as startling superficiality.

Desire thrives in this culture of materialism, so if we live here, we are constantly encouraged to wonder: What Do I Want? Of course humans in the East also deal with such issues, and yet the strength of family tradition in many Asian cultures creates a different holding environment for working with desire. Each culture creates its own unique set of habitual patterns to work with; we might say that the American habit is confusing freedom of choice with freedom plain and simple.

Is this a problem? Or could we look at it from the point of view of endless possibilities to deepen our understanding of practice, and to see that the original nature is not obscured by any of these games. In these dark times, any opportunity to wake up to what is true should be welcomed. Perhaps from that perspective, if we are serious practitioners living in the West, we already have everything we want.

Posted in Asia, Dharma, Psychology, Yoga

Why You Need to Reinvent Yourself

Q: Why do you need to keep reinventing yourself?

A: Because you do.

I know, you hate that answer. So did I. But by now, you’ve probably figured out that there’s no such thing as a straight shot when finding your way in life. Four steps forward, eight steps back; three steps forward, and the ground gives way.

Progress is an idyll created by those in a hurry to escape the present moment. Click to Tweet.

(This post originally appeared as a guest post at IgotKat’s The Epic Brand blog)

Five years ago, I was on top of the world.

Literally: on the roof of the world, in the Himalayas, working in Bhutan. I had my absolute dream job, teaching yoga at a small luxury resort. I was known as an expert in my field, enjoying a reputation that I had worked fifteen years to achieve. I was being paid to live in a $1000 (USD) per night resort suite, hobnobbing with Cher and Carlos Slim and some of the world’s most successful artists. I was living legally and free in the most elusive, exclusive country in the world, where most visitors must pay a $200 visa fee for the privilege of spending one night.

I had developed personal relationships with some of the highest masters of Vajrayana Buddhism, and the time and space to go visit with them and get guidance on my practice.

I had time to practice.

My work regularly entailed hiking all day in pristine forest to little known shrines inhabited by magical spirits. A thriving business developed around leading retreats and establishing myself finally after a long journey of false starts and dead ends. People raved about my teaching, and doors opened up one after another. I forged bonds with people and established deep friendships—some of the closest friends I’ve known since embarking on this journey of expat life.

Then, as if the cake needed icing, about a year after I landed in Bhutan, I met a man. Not just any man, but The Man. The whole works.

Someone I’d already known for 12 years, the perfect kind of man for my perfect life, so I fell hard and fast. He asked me to be with him.

It was as if a pure golden bolt of light just showed up on my doorstep. I was swimming in bliss.

Finally, I got it – the magic key – life came together once you paid your dues. My dues were finally paid and I could now cruise on the open sea.

Then of course, one day, just like that, it fell apart.

The man balked, and left me on the doorstep. Someone started spreading rumors about me in the expat community. The hotel didn’t offer to renew my contract. Bhutanese administration would not renew my visa. I returned to the US to wander around homeless, jobless, in a state of shock with a shattered heart.

Boy was that fun.

But this is how it goes: shit happens.

As Shakyamuni Buddha said, all composite things will eventually fall apart. And everything is composite.

Impermanence reigns.

You may dream of the situation where you will be peaceful and happy and things will go smoothly. And these days there are so many people willing to help you do that: coaches, advisors, teachers, gurus, counselors, consultants.

But the problem with projecting into the future this way, is that you then ignore one fundamental law of the universe: what is happening right here and right now is the only thing that exists.

Even when you finally get what you want, you will worry about it being taken away, (and it eventually will be) so why waste the precious present moment in future think, when this moment is already passing away?

The result of my mini-drama was that I ended up buying a house and becoming a shut-in for a year: I wrote a memoir.

A week before I was to submit the manuscript for peer review, an agent contacted me to ask if I’d like to write a book about Bhutan. Clearly there had been forces at work steering me onto the right path. I’ve now refocused my business to make room for my secret passion—writing.

Oh, and I discovered The Man had a history of bad behavior, making our downfall the biggest blessing I could have received.

So when things are not working out, listen up and see if it’s a sign for you to shift your focus slightly.

Here’s a little map to reinvent yourself when things fall apart:

1. Take stock and identify support: Let go immediately of what wants to dissolve. The sooner you are able to let go of something weighing you down, the better. Create space for something new to arrive.

2. Preserve resources: Stop spinning your wheels and reflect on the new landscape. This is when I usually schedule a meditation retreat. Make friends with space and try not to fill it up.

3. Dream up a vision for yourself, whether or not you think it is realistic. Solitude and silence are needed for creation. What do you really want? Where does your heart tell you to go? Sometimes the big breaks can give you permission to do what you’ve always wanted to do.

4. Take one small step in any direction: Just one step, for now. A life-changing journey begins with one small step.

Though Diary of a Pilgrim has not yet found a publisher, I did just publish my first Ebook, Ashtanga Yoga for Beginner’s Mind, and am revising my memoir to include how-to advice for aspiring yoginis, who are more often than not strong, fiercely dedicated, single women trying to find their way in a confusing new paradigm.

I’ve also created a thriving business out of Northern Thailand where I teach people how to use yoga and meditation practice to move through troubling life situations.

A version of this post was originally published at The Epic Brand, thanks to Kat Tepelyan.

Posted in Musings, Psychology, Yoga

Beginners Mind for Yogis

Here’s the honest to god truth: after over twenty years of devoted (bordering on obsessive) yoga and meditation practice, I am amazed at how much time I still spend criticizing myself, judging others and wanting things to be different than they are. Wanting things, in general. Or, not wanting things. Being mad at how our planet is evolving. I used to hear stories about long-time practitioners who suddenly gave up practice after years and years, and I couldn’t understand how anyone could be so silly. How could you give up after putting so much time in?

I get it now. What use are all the months and months on retreat and pilgrimage and attending hundreds of teachings and classes and conferences? I’ve spent thousands of dollars and many years, cumulatively, in intensive practice situations. I’ve sacrificed steady jobs, long-term relationships and stable housing situations.

And good old ego keeps asking: Why are you wasting your time?

The rest of this article is published in Elephant Journal…