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releasing and mourning a dream

I recently celebrated a dear friend’s 40th birthday. In the celebrating, she admitted to the complicated layers of emotion surrounding turning 40. My heart pushed forward to meet hers when she talked about the grief of letting go of the dream she had had in her younger years of what her life would be like today; the many emotions around seeing a very different life today and going forward. This was particularly poignant around having children.

I‘m divorcing Sweetheart. After 9 years, there were multiple, layered and complex reasons behind my deciding that we should no longer be coupled. What’s most shocking to many of the people I’ve told about our separation is that many of them knew we were trying to have a baby. Only a little more than 2 months ago, our idea—our almost tangible vision—of what our lives would be was very different from the reality we are living today. People thought we were idyllically happy. We thought we were idyllically happy.

To get to the point of committing to having children together had taken a lot of work, intention and preparation. Neither of us approached bringing a life into this world lightly. We asked ourselves if we were ready—in our checkbooks, in our home, in our habits, in our careers, in our hearts and in our bodies. And then we sealed our conviction by trying to conceive, tracking cycles, timing sex, waiting for a sign of something and then nursing a strong drink when my menses would come and our hearts would break just a little bit. And then we’d start over again.

I remember feeling deep in my bones that I was ready to be a mother.

Leaving my marriage has meant grieving the end of my love in that relationship (even if I hold out hope for a different kind of post-consciously uncoupling love with Sweetheart). And it has meant grieving the loss of the possibility of becoming a mother in the near future. It is a grief I hold as a mental fog, as well as a heavy weight in my heart, in my bones.

But now, I exert great effort to inhabit my body differently. I am pushing it to be strong, shaping and challenging it to show up differently, be tougher. Part of that is to be able to channel the wind I feel whipping the planet to spin faster and faster these days. Part of it is to learn to step into strength and leadership. Part of it is to make the pain outside match that within, and also find some joy in the endorphins and dopamine from cycling hills, lifting weights and running along the ocean.

The possibility of motherhood is not lost entirely. I likely still have a decade to conceive. But perhaps more importantly, I hold now the opportunity to understand motherhood differently. Mother to a child? Or mother to a community? I know there are ways I can inhabit that role that are my own to devise.

But with laying to rest any dream, there is grief. Sometimes it is slow and creeping, and sometimes it surprises me from around a blind corner. Sometimes it’s in a child’s sweet face. Sometimes in an emptiness in my belly. Sometimes in just looking up with a slight expectation to see a well-rehearsed dream begin to materialize, and seeing only the sun coming into any empty room where I am alone.

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how I remember shoken michael stone

Shoken means “sees clearly”.

Shoken Michael Stone had a way of looking at me with his clear seeing hawk eyes that made me squirm. For me, being his student meant being forced to face discomfort and my own unending awkwardness as a young meditator and yogi.

In interview on the meditation retreat I sat with him in Canada, I pulled the zafu cushion a few inches away so we wouldn’t be knee to knee. He moved closer, face expressionless and eyes illuminating all of my bullshit and hindrances. Or so it felt.

This was after I had gotten my room assignment wrong and stole a bed from another retreatant. Later, I spent the whole second half of the retreat sick with a fever and endlessly runny nose.

On yoga retreat with him in Wisconsin, I was the only person who didn’t know anyone else there. So I wandered around the town looking for a place to eat dinner, only to walk into the same restaurant Shoken was at with his closest students—except I was getting take-out, and standing around awkwardly while they waited for the check. And then I got sick, again.

I started to wonder if my getting sick was Canadian super bugs (Shoken and his crew were from Toronto), or if Shoken was spooking me into runny noses and fevers.

Last week, Shoken died. When the official statement came out from his family, it detailed his battle with increasing mania tied to bipolar disorder. And that he wanted relief, even in the form of an opiate. And so he finally went and found some, and died of an overdose.

I hadn’t spoken to Shoken in years and I was never a core student of his. But in the wake of his death, I find myself deeply saddened, asking why he left us—this love army out here working to grow consciousness and wake the goddamn world up. I hurt for how weary he must have felt, how much he must have been suffering and how conflicted he must have felt as a father of much life on this planet, including four young children, who just wanted to slip into a non-manic sleep for maybe just a little bit.

As the object of my metta and karuna meditation, he feels vividly close by. I can see my hand beyond my closed eyes in meditation, stretching toward him and resting on his chest. Though I can see the color and feel the fabric of his tee shirt, the rise and fall of his breath, I don’t see his face. Over and over, I wish for him to be free.

Shoken’s closeness to the edge—of mania, of risk, of the dharma—also feels close by and real. I reflect on his early days driving race cars, learning to meditate from his uncle in a mental institution, leaving home as a kid in a van and how he recently wrote about picking up skateboarding at the skate park again as a practice of “dropping in”. It fuels a growing closeness to my own edge—whether it’s a growing edge or a precipitous edge, sometimes I can’t tell.

I feel into the desolation, void and sadness that accompany Shoken’s death and walk myself into the night. Feeling the wind on me, doing Mu-I to push the energy and pooling emotions up and through me.

I feel a fear and foreboding that I am on the brink of getting to know the void, mystery and death even better soon. Like it’s around the corner about to pull someone else away and down into that poppy sleep. And like I’m being pushed closer to an edge—again, what kind of edge, I don’t know.

I practice yoga like Shoken taught me. I recall my more youthful awkwardness, shame and longing for connection around him and his sangha without regrets. I sharpen my own clear-seeing eyes and cultivate this edge like my tongue is feeling around in the dark for a piece of glass.

I choose not to fall asleep, to dream. I choose to wake the fuck up. This is how I remember Shoken Michael Stone.

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my loving kindness practice on the siyli blog

Screenshot of blogpost "Loving Kindness: Two years and going strong"

Last week, we tried something new on the blog at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), where I work. So, of course, I was the guinea pig. h/t to the amazing Lise Waring, who manages content for SIYLI and came up with the idea to blog about staff mindfulness practices as a way to build up evergreen content for the blog!

It was a joy to write about my metta loving kindness practice, though I had to work hard not to write too much! This is what I nerd out about, y’all, if you can believe it.

I’d love to hear what you think!

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how to practice in difficult times

I let my domain hosting expire. Again.

And, again, I let it lapse for so long that the database backups for my site expired. So after a few months of seeing a “no website database connection” error and scratching my head as to how to restore my website to its former mediocrity, I decided to clear the slate and just start anew. So here’s a new theme, and a blank website (or it was until I imported all my old blogposts).

After all, it’s a new year. No, not a new calendar year. According to numerology, a new personal year (which starts on your birthday).

I just turned 35 and I tell you, it’s glorious. (Aside from the crepey skin, which I wish I could figure out.) It is such a relief after living through my teens and twenties to finally feel grounded on this earth, able to stand on my own two feet. I have a knowledge of self and a self-confidence—and perhaps most importantly, a self-love—that have been welcome discoveries in my 30s.

The emotional rollercoasters are old hat. I have many, many tools to let the vicissitudes of life come and go, ebb and flow. I’ve come to embrace that my job—kind of my only job on this planet—is to allow things to not happen to me, but happen through me.

Speaking of emotional rollercoasters, have I mentioned I’m getting divorced?

Practice Tips: Meditation & other practices for the apocalypse

Here are some of the practices I have been using to get energy to flow, to process large amounts of emotional information and changes—and to make swift, assertive (and yes, counter-intuitive and to some, shocking) decisions when it feels like the world is crumbling around me:

  • Seated meditation, obviously.
  • Letting the wind take what’s not needed. It has been important to cut through the emotional noise and the clutter that is useless fear. So whether it’s being by the ocean or standing on a mountain in the desert or sitting on a bench outside work, I have brought my awareness to the wind on my skin and asked it to take whatever is not useful to me. I imagine the wind even flowing through me, sweeping away the bits that get in the way of seeing with clarity. I raise my arms away from my body and ask the wind to take what’s not useful anymore. I sometimes also knead and massage myself, exhaling deeply with the same intention of letting go. I start at the top of the head, then go down one arm at a time, then the front of the torso, then the back, then one leg at a time. At the ends of my arms and legs, I pull at the toes like I’m yanking out and flicking off something. I learned this from Roshi Norma Wong, who along with Zochi also taught me:
  • Mu-I Tai Ji, a 10-step practice that very effectively boils stagnant qi and moves it through the body.
  • Journaling. This is new for me and has turned out to be extremely important. I sit down and write freeform until I feel like I’m done. Whatever comes up goes down on the paper. I’ve realized that, unless I do this, I carry around the same thoughts in my head and in my body (in the form of muscle tension in my shoulders, neck and back).
  • Exercise. A sense of bodily strength has been important to give me the confidence that I can make it through difficult, challenging times. I’ve been spending a lot more time in the gym working with small freeweights and bicycling. In fact, today was the first time I made it through the Ashtanga primary yoga sequence in maybe a year. Even though I was certified to teach yoga in 2012 and used to have a daily practice, it has not been calling to me—perhaps because it is too yin. My meditation practice and the resulting self-awareness have been useful in holding any aggression that naturally comes up with this sort of exercise, but the increasing yang has been important.

Some things I have found unhelpful:

  • Listening to music compulsively, even if it’s damn good. Gotta keep that Spotify shit in check.
  • Television and movies. I am currently watching one TV show episode per week, and only occasional videos on Facebook.
  • Being too busy. I make sure to have time alone, doing one of the above useful practices every day.
  • Eating a lot of meat. I’ve felt a lot better equipped by eating mostly vegetarian, with max one meal with meat per day.

What practices or habits help you in times of transition or stress? What do you do to get clear when a BFD decision needs to be made?

 

**metta**

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Resources for new meditators

I meet a lot of people at Stanford (and beyond) these days who want to learn how to meditate or who are new to meditation and want to deepen their practices. I’ve put together a list of resources and tips, mostly focusing on recommendations for stuff in the Stanford/Silicon Valley areas that I hope are helpful!

(Please note that I’m most familiar with the Insight/Vipassana traditions in the US, so this resource is far from exhaustive, and does not include yogic, Zen, Tibetan, Asian Buddhist communities or many sub-lineages that exist in the US.)

I want to learn how to meditate. How do I start?
Great! You have a few options:

  1. Download an app with guided meditations and training curriculum, like Headspace.
  2. Get a book from a well known meditation teacher, like “Meditation for Beginners” by Jack Kornfield.
  3. Go to a beginner’s class at a meditation center like the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. There are organizations with meditation classes in other religions, lineages and traditions (TM, Yogic/Hindu Vedantic) that I’m less familiar with in the area, too.
  4. Stanford also offers beginning classes through @BeWell and the School of Medicine. (Know that these tend to be less holistic and focused on an adaptation of Buddhist meditation called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction/MBSR.)
  5. Meditate with a sitting group at Stanford! Email me about guided meditation at the GSB, MemChu or with the Zen group on campus. I’ll hook you up.

– – – – – – – – – –

I started meditating with a book/app and I want to learn more. What’s available?
You can  set a goal for yourself of sitting more regularly and for longer periods of time, but if you’re asking this question, you might be feeling like this isn’t something you can just do by yourself. So, here are my thoughts:

  1. Find a sangha, or community. Having people who understand the value you’re finding in meditation and who can share their own experiences with you is invaluable. A sitting group at Stanford or elsewhere is a great place to practice, make new friends and learn a lot of cool new things. See 2 and 4 above.
  2. Sit a meditation retreat. These can range in length from 1 day to several months. If you’ve started sitting with a sangha, you can ask the teacher about retreats coming up in the area and with teachers they recommend. You can also look online at various meditation retreat centers like Spirit Rock in Marin, Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz and Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Washington. Each center has information about how they run retreats and what the schedules and norms are.

Note that the Insight Retreat Center offers retreats for free and by lottery because they get so much interest. Other retreat centers generally charge for retreats on a sliding scale or offer scholarships for individuals on fixed incomes, People of Color, GLBTQ meditators and people under 30.

The retreat costs do not cover honoraria for the teachers, so that’s something else to budget for. Retreats are becoming more and more popular, so it’s wise to try to plan for and register for a retreat at least 3 months ahead or they’ll be full.

A lot of folks hear about Vipassana retreats in the S. N. Goenka tradition. These are the ones that are 10 days long, you have to do a 10-day before they’ll let you do a shorter one and they’re free of cost. My first few retreats were Goenka retreats, and they served me incredibly well. However, it’s important to know that their approach is very intense and rigid — I call it “Buddhist Bootcamp”. Although I am incredibly grateful for having gotten started in this lineage, I have three complaints/warnings about it:

1) They misrepresent that their way of teaching Vipassana is the “only” way. In short, it’s not.

2) They discourage you from exploring other lineages or practices, including walking meditation. You’ll be best served if you dedicate at least 1-3 months honestly exploring a lineage and a specific meditation practice you like, rather than floating around without ever investing yourself. But it’s BS to think your practice will be damaged by being open to other approaches.

3) It’s not necessarily right for Americans, especially us ambitious, Type A personalities. The Goenka approach can make Americans too rigid, too ideological and amplify how hard we are on ourselves already.

– – – – – – – – –

I’m bad at meditating…
Nope. I’m gonna cut you off right there. There’s no such thing as being bad at meditation.

If you’re encountering a lot of resistance to efforts to concentrate and quiet your mind (restlessness, tiredness, boredom, a busy mind (aka “Monkey Mind”)), then you’re doing great. Keep up the good work ’cause the practice is doing what it needs to do. Your job is to just stay curious, see what’s coming up and follow whatever instructions you’ve chosen to follow.

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To dream in VR

When I cue a Vrse film on my phone and pop it into a Google Cardboard Virtual Reality viewer, I enter a new world that is slow, sumptuous and filled with wonder. Like a dream, it’s enveloping and satisfying. I enter a world I don’t want to leave.

The experience is slowed by the processing requirements of rendering richly detailed, 360 degree animated landscapes and — in the case of live action films — the fact that VR camera rigs are clunky and for the most part stationary. This more contemplative pacing makes VR films a welcome respite. Like in meditation, my task is to arrive fully, using all senses to observe and explore my surroundings. Again like meditation, the best VR films are ones that spend just enough time with “nothing” happening so that the eyes and mind adjust to see everything that stirs beneath the surface.

While gaming companies invest millions in creating experiences that are like the fast, action-packed narratives we know today — where the player is the protagonist, hero, shooter, quarterback, etc — I believe the biggest promise is in what one might call “Slow VR”.

Slow VR calms and feeds the senses. It invites wonder and exploration. Rather than giving us the chance to see something through another’s eyes, the veil is pulled away from our own as we visit new places and spend time with new people — letting go and experiencing fully embodied, with all senses through the safe remove of a cardboard viewer.

What a gift this calm and wonder can be. Not just in those few moments we spend slowly turning in circles in our living room, a small cardboard box strapped to our faces. But in all those moments when our VR training could incline us to fully arrive, be present, observe and invite wonder wherever we are.

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A seat at the table

When I was a Senior in high school at a fancy boarding school in Connecticut, the famous New Republic editor, writer and LGBT activist Andrew Sullivan came to speak. I was thrilled that I was invited to have dinner with him along with 2-3 other students.

One of the other students who was invited to dinner was our Student Body President. He was a star wrestler and an all around good guy. Larry and I were seated on either side of Sullivan. Across the table, if I recall, was the President of the Gay Straight Alliance, Atlanta. She was a theater tech geek with short hair who wore a lot of black, big ear piercings and combat boots. She was often mistaken for a boy and was in an openly gay relationship.

I had to recall today if Atlanta was even there at the table on that night,16 years ago. What I do remember clearly is that I felt like I had a right to be there, and to sit by Sullivan’s side. I was an outspoken, activisty student and was a casual board member of the GSA but really spent my extracurricular hours focusing on Amnesty International and a Human Rights Watch chapter I had started. I was, at the time, bi-curious but certainly not openly so.

But more importantly for this blogpost and this realization today, I was cisgender and relatively feminine in appearance. I conformed (more than Atlanta anyway) to centerlands conceptions of beauty and social charm.

As this moment rose to the surface of my memory today, I realized that that was why I was seated next to Sullivan. In truth, I probably seated myself there. I felt completely entitled to my place next to a celebrity LGBT activist and writer like Sullivan. Indeed, that was how deeply and blindly I had embraced my privilege and then appropriated the work of our school’s GSA, thinking I was the better spokesperson.

Remembering all of this today in quick flashes over lunch — and drafting this post relatively hurriedly afterwards — reminded me of Katie Loncke’s post over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship about being invited to attend a Buddhist Summit at the White House and going to DC. And then not entering the building.

My first thought when I saw her post was that clearly she should have gone in. But reflecting now on my own choice to take that seat next to Andrew Sullivan and represent the GSA sheds light for me on the nimble dance that Buddhist meditation practice has trained me to do.

Faced with the same opportunity today, I would do as Katie did outside the White House and notice the strong excitement and urge to take that seat next to Sullivan — and then get curious about where it was coming from and see the hand of ego in it.

I would see the urge to prove myself worthy as a young woman of color who wasn’t in the popular girls’ clique, and the allure of the prestige associated with being seated next to an intellectual superstar. And I would ask myself what good I would honestly be contributing by sitting there — not in simplistic terms but in far looking, nuanced ones.

And finally, I’d pull the chair out for Atlanta next to our guest of honor, give her a wink and take a seat across the table.

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Training for death

Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations – we fall to the level of our training.

– Bruce Lee

I heard this quote from Sifu Bruce Lee last night at a meditation sit in San Francisco with Anushka Fernandopulle. Anushka shared it in the context of cultivating one of the 7 qualities of Awakening enumerated in Buddhism (Buddhists love numbered lists): upekkha, or equanimity.

We were talking about the relationship between equanimity and death,  a two way street. On the one hand, reminding oneself of your own death can spark the recognition of the impermanence of all things and the reality of all things being interconnected (so there’s not stand alone, individualized self). That creates a chain reaction that can result in knowing equanimity, which I think of as the willingness to be equally near to all things and phenomena (h/t Christina Feldman).

On the other hand, someone in the group was asking for guidance on cultivating equanimity towards death — the very thought of it fills him with fear and dread. He found the reminder that, because our cells turn over and are replicated constantly, we are constantly dying and being born to be helpful. In the course of 7 years, in fact, every cell in your body has been replaced. The person you were 7 years ago no longer exists. The person you were when you started reading this post is gone. The day to dayness of this idea does seem to help one build up a willingness to even be near to death.

I’ve seen dead people and animals, but I’ve never watched anyone die. I’ve read and heard that people can die in so many ways — full of fear and venom, or peacefully ready to let go. This Bruce Lee quote suggests that how you die is informed by what you’ve practiced most in your life.

This is a good reason to meditate. I meditate for a few reasons, but now one is because I want to die well. Meditation is my training for the many moments of duress I encounter, the biggest ones to anticipate being related to death.

May the training of mind help raise me to my expectations in those many future moments of struggle, panic, fear and loss. And may my expectations reflect the truths I’ve come to know through my training.

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after the transhumanist apocalypse

…Continuing from my previous post from a few months ago on Transhumanism:

The ultimate rub of the Transhumanist movement for me is that it seeks to achieve something that already exists and yet is unattainable by the means Transhumanists want to achieve it: fundamental human transformation.

In my last post, I daydreamed with a Sci Fi fan’s optimism about the potential of tens of millions of people being interdependently linked by technology so that our fundamental brain chemicals, hormones, energy levels, thoughts and practices could come into line — and closer to Enlightenment. But here’s the thing: we already are.

In my last post, I daydreamed with a Sci Fi fan’s optimism about the potential of tens of millions of people being interdependently linked by technology so that our fundamental brain chemicals, hormones, energy levels, thoughts and practices could come into line — and closer to Enlightenment. But here’s the thing: we already are.

It didn’t start yesterday or with the invention of the internet. As long as the universe has existed as we know it, it has existed in what Thich Nhat Han calls “Interbeing.” It’s the First Law of Thermodynamics. In this isolated system called the universe, energy can neither be created nor destroyed — it can only change form. We are made of the stuff of the stars and being permeable on a molecular level, we are all of us beings connected to one another.

The path I’ve chosen to overcome the anguish and suffering of illness, old age and death, is accepting them. I can only hope my right effort will bring me closer to uprooting the egoic personality structures that causes me to cling to this body and this lifetime and my sense of who I am or must be. I strive to embody that in every moment and then let go of the grasping and sense of lack that drives me to be smarter, faster and better. I aim to just be.

Well, easier said than done, right? There’s a part of me that thinks there’s a certain inevitability to the coopting of Buddhism and Buddhist practice into Transhumanist pursuits, as it is already happening in Silicon Valley, and to Transhumanism. Even though it’s fundamentally wrong-headed, I think the Transhumanist adoption of decontextualized Buddhist ideas will happen anyway. So I get lost in my own imaginings of what a post-transumanist apocalypse would look like.

Well, like this: a world in which narcissism and the perception of resource scarcity coopts spiritual traditions like Buddhism into an effort to “get” Enlightenment through technology and shortcuts, and not deep practice and radical reinvention. Science is mistaken for spirituality and information with insight (nod to Richard Eskow). The privileged — mostly white and male — drive this effort and pour resources into the transhumanist effort as “the answer to all of mankind’s problems”. But what fundamentally lacks is the expansiveness of true compassion and the radicalization of true Wisdom — and the participation of the poor, the uneducated and the disenfranchised.

What are we left with? A world in which a privileged few skipped crucial rungs on the ladder to become awakened but not purified of mind, and they’ve given birth to an artificial intelligence in its own image that can justify cruelty, exclusion and oppression just as privileged humans do to protect our own narcissism.

I’m gonna write a scifi/fantasy novel trilogy about it one day.

 

*-* metta *-*

 

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Beware all enterprises that require new clothes: Part 2

A recent post on Lululemon’s blog extols Ayn Rand and encourages Lululemon-wearing yogis (but mostly yoginis) to read her books for inspiration on how to “elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness” (the company’s motto).

I have a hard time understanding the connection between accumulating expensive yoga clothes and rising to greatness, especially in elevating a personal yoga practice, which is multi-limbed. But perhaps that’s the fundamental conceit Lulu has lost sight of.

I am reminded here of American Yogi Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “Beware all enterprises that require new clothes, and not the wearer of new clothes,” which gave me occasion to rant about Lulu before.

One of the yamas  (internal restraints) within the eight limbs of yoga articulated by the sage Patanjali is aparigraha or non-grasping/greedlessness.  And I’ve found it useful to activate this yama in my life by asking myself that simple question when I’m contemplating something I want or “need” to acquire: Is it necessary?

Specifically in the case of the Lululemon tank I thought for a long time about buying: Is it necessary to elevate my practice –  my whole practice, including the cultivation of the yamas in addition to postures?  The answer was no, because the blessing of yoga practice is in its ability to fashion a new wearer of clothes, not the new clothes.

“By “the body,” these ancient traditions are not referring to the body in relation to the world: large, small, healthy, beautiful, round — but rather to the sense of the body as a frame of reference.” – Michael Stone, Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind  (emphasis mine)

My attachment to the tank was an obstacle to cultivating this sense of the body that is actually the opposite of self-image.  Buying it would have cultivated attachment and grasping.  Clearly, it was not necessary.

So instead, I bought two tanks from American Apparel at a fraction of the cost that serve me very well and don’t inspire the same clinging.

Back to Ayn Rand – a commenter on the Lululemon blog noted “Ayn Rand wore a huge gold dollar sign brooch and was known for saying: “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue.” A wonderful slogan for a multimillion-dollar corporation, perhaps.”

There is a clearly discernible alignment between Rand’s values and Lululemon’s hinged on self-reliance and individual motivation.  But it’s a limited view that reflects The Yoga Bubble and is most firmly rooted, in this case, with striving, accumulation, and self-image.

I do recommend reading Atlas Shrugged.  But I also recommend balancing it out with two of Barbara Ehrenreich’s books – Nickel and Dimed and Bright-Sided to help cultivate understanding, perspective, and compassion – and aparigraha.