open up and say AWE

*pardon the long absence. I’ve been distracted by…life.

Spokane River
Spokane River

flow like a river

When I was a kid, I used to spend entire days wandering the riverbank near our family home. The allure of the river and all that surrounded it called to me on a daily basis, and there was no end to the wonderment that I experienced once I crossed River Road. Even without knowing the names of the trees, the brush, the birds, the wildflowers, I knew they were a central part of who I was, and I knew that I was more myself when I was in that part of my world.

Beginning in the early spring, I took to the terrain surrounding the river like a true explorer, ripping off my shoes (and sometimes more) and padding through the thickets without any worry about what anyone thought. I delighted when the spring runoff caused the water to rise, creating secret lagoons where I pretended the cottonwood and alder trees were the canopy of a Louisiana swamp. I hid in the grass, ran through the fields, jumped over horse droppings, and sang at the top of my lungs. To this day, the blossoms of red osier dogwood and the tender toughness of buttercups and bluebells enchant me. And to this day, I feel the pull to run barefoot over the earth while swinging my arms in wild abandon.

I wish I had a river so long. I would teach my feet to fly.
-Joni Mitchell

And yet I don’t do these things now. In fact, I rarely even walk my dog without my smart phone tucked into my pocket, because God forbid I see something spectacular that I miss for an Instagram shot. And what if someone tries to reach me by text? Or I want to casually glance at Facebook or Twitter, or to look at something interesting through the view of my phone, thinking about capturing an image rather than taking it in and tending to the experience that comes up when I look at beauty or witness nature?

Never, in my entire childhood, did I carry a camera to the river. I don’t even know that I owned one. I can’t imagine that I thought about what anyone else was doing, aside from whatever random friend or relative I managed to wrangle into what I considered my very own nature preserve. I simply entered into my experience fully and with all senses alive to whatever came my way. As an adult, this takes more intention and a willingness to pull away from the distractions and minutiae that so often pull away the possibility for moments of awe.

awakening AWE

The river and the area surrounding it represented where I found my “flow”; not for the way the river carried water or fish or water bugs, or for the way groups of children careened down the steep banks on inner tubes after a snow storm, but for the way I lost track of everything and entered into ‘effortless action’ when I was there. Now, as an adult, I recognize my need for more opportunities for flow, and, more importantly, for A.W.E.: (an acronym I made up while riding my bicycle) aesthetic wonderment experiences.

AWE’s don’t have to take a lot of time, and they certainly don’t have to be moments of spiritual awakening. They merely require an ability to awaken the senses to wonder (which may be easier without a computer, television or a smart phone nearby…). Moments of AWE are different for everyone and there are a bazillion opportunities for AWE for each individual. The only similarity is that all AWE moments are opportunities for letting go and experiencing what it is to be alive and connected in this world.

For me, these moments are most likely to occur when I’m outside. Maybe it’s in the garden, on the beach, riding my bike, stomping in puddles, or running with my dog. But they can also happen when my face is buried in my partner’s back while I listen to the heaviness of her sleeping breath or when I pause from looking at the computer screen to gaze out the window at a couple of birds frolicking in the tree. There aren’t rules. Just possibilities.

And that’s the beauty of it. AWE is available right now. And I firmly believe that AWE could save the world. Sort of an alternative version of ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. Only in this case, no need for psychedelics. Turn on your intention, tune in to experience, drop out of the judging, thinking, worrying, craziness of life. Be. Here. Now.

choose love

choose love

Context

 I was sitting in a coffee shop with a fellow yogi sipping chai and discussing my latest interpersonal frustration. I was feeling discouraged and lost, and I was looking for some honest advice about what to do next. I knew my friend could be counted on to cut through the crap with her laser-like perception and ability to say the right thing. I looked at her over the cardamom scented steam, waiting for some words of wisdom.

“Choose love,” my friend said.

I sat there, feeling stunned by this basic suggestion truth. I knew she wasn’t trying to push my concerns aside or wave some positive thinking bullshit in my face. Rather, she was telling me that the loving path is the path the shows up, faces fear, states the facts (even when they’re hard), and exposes the soul when it’s the right thing to do. It’s the path that Brené Brown describes as the courageous path:

What we know matters, but who we are matters more. Being rather than knowing requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen. It requires us to dare greatly, to be vulnerable.

Perspective

To choose love is to choose the audacious and most daring path; the path that requires being willing to be seen and to swallow the needs of the ego (to be right or to be perfect, etc., etc.).  For me, choosing love demands that I stay present rather than closing off. When I’m stressed or sad or hurt, I tend to defend myself by acting like nothing happened- all along having the expectation that ignoring the problem will cease all conflict (often, however, this creates conflict, in myself and in others).

What I’ve noticed in my week of dedicating to choose love is that showing up and being loving might seem harder at the time, but it almost always makes things easier overall. It’s a basic principle in yogic philosophy, too- the idea of Satya, or commitment to truth. I notice all too often that I hold back telling someone my irritation/ disappointment for fear that I will hurt their feelings or that I would be judged for my own feelings. I don’t give others the benefit of the doubt that they can take care of themselves. I know I’ve said it before here, but it’s worth saying again (and I’m speaking as much to myself as I am to anyone who needs the reminder):

You do not always have to take care of other people. They are more often than not able to take care of themselves.

Agreed- there are always exceptions to the rule, but the basic principle is that human beings are resilient and capable. Most people grow best when challenged to show their radiant selves through hard work and dedication rather than over-nurturing. Think about it: those times in your life when you worked hard at something and had something to show for your effort are often the most pride inducing times. Yes, maybe you had guidance along the way, but you had to strike out on your own and often times had to face fear and failure before success happened (I’m thinking of my most recent love of handstands- never would have happened if I had my legs held up every time or if I didn’t topple over a few times). It takes a loving and supportive person to give us the space to grow.

Moving from Choosing Love to a Guerrilla Love Revolution

One of my yoga teachers, Molly Lannon Kenny, reminded me lately that love can be a revolutionary act- that we can actually step outside of our normal way of loving and being in the world to expand love in the community. She created a Facebook group dedicated to this mission, where people can post their acts of “guerrilla love”, and I took it as a personal assignment to spread as much love as I can through the month of December (and possibly- hopefully– beyond).

I began by chanting “Lokah Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu” out loud  on my bicycle all the way home (a mantra meaning, loosely: may all beings everywhere be happy and free of suffering and may my own words and deeds contribute to the happiness in the world). I loved it. It made my bike ride feel joyful and lighter than usual. It also helped me to feel connected more positively with everyone along the route- even the cars felt less intimidating and more a part of my community (that’s really saying something, because I often find myself praying for safety from them rather than wishing peace and happiness for them).

My next act of guerrilla love (also bicycle related) was to wish everyone along my route to work a good morning. I started by smiling at the people at bus stops, but I realized that most people don’t look up at people passing by. I felt a bit deranged, straining to smile at people looking down at their smart phones or staring at the street where the bus would be arriving soon. I also noticed how much of a cultural shift it was for me to try to make eye contact with people in a city where that doesn’t happen a whole lot. I decided instead to say “good morning” to the people I could, and it turned out to be stunningly enjoyable connecting to fellow bike riders, construction workers, and people waiting at crosswalks. A small act, but something I wouldn’t normally do without a nudge.

This weekend, my partner and I enjoyed time away at a cottage on a beach. Because it was just the two of us, my guerrilla love act was to pick up trash as we wandered along the shore. I held the idea of loving the planet and doing my small part to care for the sea birds and animals that live in that ecosystem. I assume nobody will notice the lack of bottle caps or plastic junk that littered the driftwood lined beach, but it felt good to me to know that the next person to walk the beach might not be distracted by trash and could instead focus on the beauty that is naturally there.

Loving is a choice: it’s about connecting, nurturing, and growing as human beings. I like the way Hafiz says it best (translation by Daniel Ladinsky):

Plant
So that your own heart
Will grow.

Love
So that God will think,

“Ahhhhh,
I got kin in that body!
I should start inviting that soul over
For coffee and
Rolls.”

Sing
Because this is a food
Our starving world
Needs.

Laugh
Because that is the purest
Sound.

Yamas and Niyamas- Bicycle Style

 

bicycle at Fisherman's Terminal

shifting light & changing gears

The quality of light has shifted in the past couple of weeks, reminding me that summer is coming to an end soon. There are fewer birds in the trees on my morning bike ride and the geese that I’ve witnessed turn from chartreuse gosling to awkward adolescent have finally made it to full-fledged goose.  I’ve planted winter crops in the p-patch, begun to empty my closet of summer wear and pulled out my socks and boots in preparation for fall and winter. And just as the trees are beginning to change color, my wardrobe is beginning to move back toward my basic black.

Usually this time of year makes me a bit wistful about what I’ve missed out on during the long, lazy days of summer, but with the overwhelming events of the summer, I’m feeling ready to hunker down for the dark days. That is, except for my bike commute to work…I’ve been riding my bike to work regularly since early spring of this year, and I’m not quite used to riding in the dark or the rain. I’ll be damned if I’ll be a fair weather rider again, and so I wanted to inspire myself to take my cycling journey more seriously. I realized I needed to pull out the big guns. I decided to look at my cycling through a yogic lens of the Yamas and Niyamas.

my journey of bicycle riding through the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga

Yamas: Moral principles and social behaviors (some call these the “restraints”). If followed, these five precepts can help anyone to find balance- which is always good when one is riding a bike.

  • Ahimsa (Non-Violence):  Donna Farhi describes Ahimsa as “a state of living free from fear”, which is the perfect reminder for my bicycle riding. It’s impossible for me to ride a bike without experiencing some amount of healthy fear, but I can’t allow this to impact the entire experience. I have to trust that I will not necessarily fly over my handlebars or be slammed into by a texting driver. As regularly as riding a bike brings me in touch with my mortality, I have to understand that nobody is out to hurt me intentionally. And riding a bike subsequently causes less harm to the planet than my driving a car- which makes me (and my body) happy.
  • Satya (Truthfulness): Honesty is moral and good, and so is following rules. So, to be completely truthful here, there are times when I run red lights or blow through stop signs on my bike (like at 5:40 in the morning when there’s no traffic at all). The important thing is to have a commitment to being an upright person in thought, action and speech. This means being honest with myself and others as well as living as impeccably as I possibly can. Sort of like confession- I speak my truth to you about being a morning stop sign runner and now I am forgiven (ok…not really).
  • Asteya (Non-Stealing): Asteya has as much to do with not taking from others as it does not stealing from ourselves. It could relate to not cutting someone off or riding too close- stealing space. It can also be an opportunity to practice being generous- welcoming another biker to take the lead, offering assistance to someone who is broken down or offering up an extra bike to someone who needs one (this is really generous and builds up positive biking karma).
  • Brahmacharya (Celibacy/ Self Control): It’s important to hold back sometimes to conserve some much needed energy and to notice the small things that might have seemed insignificant before. If we’re only going full speed ahead searching for that biking orgasm, we aren’t going to notice the little thrills along the way. And isn’t noticing the small sensory details one of the best things about biking?
  • Aparigraha (Non-Grasping): Be here now. This moment matters, and if you’re grasping onto what just happened or where you need to get to, you’re potentially missing out. You’re also likely distracted from paying attention to things like cars, other bikers, pedestrians, rodents, potholes, etc.  Another perspective is this: riding a bike is just about riding a bike. All of the gear in the world doesn’t take that away. Your bike just needs to get you from point A to point B. Everything else, my gear-head friends, is icing on the bicycle cake. I may want the Linus bike, but do I really need it? Probably not (but don’t tell Santa…).

Niyamas: Personal observances that focus on inner discipline and responsibility (connecting with the self) in order to cultivate a connection to the Whole.

  • Shaucha (Cleanliness): Wash up, people. And that means not only your body but your mind, too. Clutter creates chaos, so it’s just as important to clear your mind as it is to clean out that pannier. I like to take a few minutes before getting on my bike to think about my ride and to prepare for entering the world. If I have everything ready the night before, I have the time to setting before setting out in the world.  That way, my ride itself can be meditative. And that’s really a lovely experience.
  • Santosha (Contentment): Contentment doesn’t mean “happy”. It means equanimity- not placing “good” or “bad” on the situation. Traffic is just traffic. Rain is just rain. Sunshine is just sunshine. A flat tire is just flat. And all of this shall pass- the good, the bad and the ugly.
  • Tapas (Fire/Austerity): The amount of energy you put into anything is what you’ll get out of it. I like to think about the idea of alchemy: burning away those things that don’t matter to make room for the things that do. Riding my bike at the end of the day allows me to forget the things that I was freaking out about just minutes before (refer back to Santosha). It also helps me to decide what it is I want to spend my energy and attention on.
  • Svadhyaya (Self-Study): Svadhyaya refers most specifically to study of scripture and ancient texts. In bicycling, this doesn’t exist as far as I know- but might I suggest reading Pedal, Stretch, Breathe by Kelli Refer. It’s a small little book that takes up very little space and costs just a few bucks. It’s sweet and honest and has incredibly simple suggestions for ways to move your body before, during and after riding. And if this doesn’t appeal to you, I would propose that most spiritual texts are meant for you to take the teachings into the world- why not read the Bhagavad Gita and explore the ways riding a bike in the city can make you feel a bit like Arjuna preparing for a battle (and then go deeper into the concept of dharma, morals, ethics and spiritual connection).
  • Ishvarapranidhana (Devotion): When I open up my heart to God, the Divine, that which is greater than me, I see the world with new eyes. My ride becomes less about where I am going and more about the experience of being connected with everything around me. I develop a greater peace and I soften to the subtleties that occur when I’m on my bike.  I notice my heart beat, the resonance of the birds along the canal, the rhythm of the tires on the pavement and the sound of other bikers breathing as they pedal to pass me. When I pay attention, my interconnectedness with everything feels like a great comfort- and this is really what draws me to riding my bike in the first place.

seeing with new eyes


Yesterday I rode my bicycle to work differently than I had in a long time. I stepped through my front door with the intention of truly experiencing my ride; to notice the details through all of my senses. Instead of rushing through the process in an attempt to break my all time record of 35 minutes, I made my ride my morning meditation. I focused on my breath, the sounds around me, the feel of the air on my skin, and the small details that I miss when I’m looking straight ahead.

It helped that it was a gorgeous spring morning in Seattle, and everything had the extra appearance of sparkle. The birds seemed drunk on sunshine and the few people who I saw on my journey had smiles on their faces. Even the bits of trash that littered the sides of the pathway and the graffiti under the bridge looked as if they belonged (maybe that’s a bit much, but I was meditating).

By slowing down and engaging in the world around me, I experienced a shift from peaceful to joy to connection. I realized that I am not separate from the sea birds I pass on the ship canal or the couple kissing in the early morning sun or even the homeless man asleep on the bench under a tarp. Not that I am these people or animals, but that I am connected in a worldly sense. And I had peace around that.

Maybe this was a continuation of my attempt to cultivate bicycle santosha, and maybe it was a temporary sunshine high, but it felt amazing. And it felt like a doorway opened to a new experience. My ride was inspired in a way it hasn’t been for a long time, and I was seeing the world with new eyes. The experience felt less like contentment and more like devotion- to what or who, I can’t say. Maybe to God, maybe to Universe, and maybe to the people, animals, and things I witnessed on the path. It was Bhakti bicycling. And it was pure bicycle bliss.

Seeing With New Eyes
~ Pei Hsien Lim

Yesterday I sat down
with water colours and drawing pencil
for the first time
in a long time.

O how my hands shook
and I really had doubt
if I could do it again.

When I had both eyes
20/20 vision
in my casual arrogance
I took one look
sure that I saw everything.

Now that I have only one eye
I always take a second look
and see with humility.

Slowly the hand steadied
once again
the creative process began

And I saw the whole universe
inside the pink lilies
saw beauty like I’ve never seen before.

go ahead and don’t- you’ll be glad you did.

I was talking with a colleague the other day about my slow and wandering bicycle ways, and she handed me a little sign that she keeps on her desk that says “you don’t have to go fast, you just have to go”. I took a deep breath, thinking that that this couldn’t be truer for where I am in my life- on my bicycle, on the yoga mat, and in general. There’s nothing I’m fast at these days …and very few things that give me so much of a sense of urgency that I feel the need to get frantic. This little sign, granting permission on one hand, and offering an alternative on the other, made me happy. I don’t have to go fast, but I do need to keep trucking forward, because life has a way of moving in that direction, and whether I want to or not, I have to go with it.

So I thought about all of the other things that I don’t need to do, just to take the pressure off. I offer the list here that I made for myself. I call it the “go ahead and don’t” list:

You DON’T have to make everyone happy: Because the more you try, the more frustrated, defeated, lonely, exhausted, and sad you will be. Trying to make everyone happy is impossible. (Note that this is not saying not to do good things, to be loving and compassionate, give gifts, or smile at the world- it is saying that despite all of those acts of love and kindness, some people are not going to be happy. They may not even like you. And that’s ok. You don’t have to like or be liked. And, also, people can take care of themselves….for the most part).

You DON’T have to act small: It’s ok to take up space. In fact, it’s liberating to be big in this world and to show your beautiful ways. Take pride in the things that you feel good about, toot your own horn, dance when you want to shake your backside, and sing out loud when the inspiration hits. People may look at you like you’re crazy or bitchy or they may even ask you to tame it down, but you only limit your possibilities by shrinking down, and you almost always resent or regret it when you do. So be large. Take up space.

You DON’T have to be perfect: In fact, perfection is not only impossible, it’s also very, very boring. The scars are what make you interesting and unique. The process of learning and trying in life add to the journey. The fact that you can’t do a handstand without the aid of the wall does not make you a lesser yogi, it makes you a person who is working toward doing a handstand. Period. The process itself is what matters- be authentic and real. Fail sometimes and learn from it. The handstand moments will come, and they will be mind-blowingly fabulous.

You DON’T have to follow: Trust your gut- it’s the best compass you have for your own life. Although others may know a more direct path, you’ve always appreciated the scenic route. Continue on your journey and ditch the map so that you get the chance to experience reality from your own perspective. Less metaphorically speaking, it’s acceptable to recognize that what works for other people often fails to work for you. So do what feels right for you and make up your own mind when you can. You’re a smart cookie.

You DON’T have to have the answers: Sometimes not knowing is far more interesting. Be curious and open yourself to learning through new interactions and experiences.  You will gain far more knowledge through shutting up and listening generously than trying to pretend you know something that you don’t. Genius is not gained through talk alone. Be humble with what you don’t know to make space for the new.  

You DON’T have to keep moving: Remember that you will not reach enlightenment through house cleaning alone. You have permission to stop cleaning, making, and doing. Take deep breaths and sit still from time to time. It feeds you in ways you rarely admit, and despite your antsy nature, you always appreciate it when you make space for silence and stillness. You deserve that for yourself.