take off the mask, you beautiful mess.

The Moment
~Margaret Atwood

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

Yesterday I was running errands when all of a sudden I was saturated with an overwhelming feeling of anger. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and irritated by anyone who was in my way. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be in nature. I wanted the library that I was encapsulated in to disappear and for everyone to shut up. I needed silence. And for some reason, libraries are no longer the sanctuary they used to be…

I usually love going to the library, but at that very moment, I didn’t want to be surrounded by library walls and library books and enthusiastic school children. I was suffocating in my awful mood and feeling too large to be held by four walls. I was pissed at the woman in front of me who was patiently teaching her son how to use the self check out, and I was irritated when one of my books didn’t register on the machine. I wanted to scream at the librarian and push everyone out of my way so I could beeline to the park where the trees were undoubtedly continuing to change colors under a hazy autumn sky. I was missing the show.

The funny thing about these moods is that I notice right away just how irrational and awful they are. But there’s a sense of urgency and intensity that is hard to shake off, let alone rationalize. If I slow down enough and utilize my breath, I can instantly notice the judgments that happen in my mind and the ways I want to lash out at other people who are around. Apparently, I want to make everyone else feel just as crappy as I do. Don’t they know I’ve had a hard day? Don’t they know I’ve had cancer? Don’t they know the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that I’m missing the trees changing in the park?

ahhh, the joys of anger

Brené Brown clarifies in her book Daring Greatly  (which I HIGHLY recommend to anyone wanting an amazingly life changing read on tapping into personal courage and living more authentically and wholeheartedly) that anger is a “secondary emotion, one that only serves as a socially acceptable mask for many of the more difficult underlying emotions we feel” (p. 34). Oh, right. My anger wasn’t really anger after all. It was sadness.

It’s true that my outward frustration was more socially acceptable than me melting down in a puddle of tears, but I felt like one of those monsters in Where the Wild Things Are. I was a beast who could have ripped my books apart and busted through the ceiling. I didn’t seem to have any ability to manage myself in that moment and, in hindsight, I should have listened to my gut in the first place and just bypassed the errands to go directly to the park. But I didn’t have that insight at the time. I just had my crappy mood and my sadness masked as anger (is there a Halloween costume brewing, here?).

I suppose the moral of the story (and I’m reaching, here) is that I need to take more time for myself and to notice when I’m feeling sad. Even if it means losing the books I have on hold at the library or not picking up my beloved coconut creamer at the grocery store. It means not checking my email or twitter or facebook to see if there’s anything I’m missing. Sometimes life is more important that the chores or tasks I have imprinted in my brain- those “shoulds” and “coulds”. And the real connection I long for is the one that doesn’t exist inside or online.

So, my friends, my personal assignment is to become more aware of my own needs in any given moment and to listen to my gut, which happens to be right a good portion of the time. If I need more outside time, I’m going for it. I’m going to (try to) admit my imperfections, even it means looking like a watery mess, and honor that this moment is another opportunity for growth. This is what I love about yoga- it’s all a practice and a journey.

The Yoga Sutras begins with Atha Yoganushasanam, translated as something like “now begins the practice/discourse of yoga”. It all leaves room for improvement. That was then, this is now. The past and the future do not exist. There is only now, and this is my yoga practice.

the more I learn, the less I know: reflections on my fortieth year.

You cannot travel the path until you have become the path
Gautama Buddha (563-483 B.C.E.)

Tomorrow marks the end of my fortieth year; a year I began by setting forth on a personal pilgrimage (of sorts). I didn’t leave for a foreign land, but rather traveled inward to explore the vast terrain of myself. I had no perceived notion that I would become enlightened or that I would achieve some divine status, but I had the hope/expectation that I would gain a bit of inspiration in the process and that I would learn some more about where to go from here. What I’ve learned along the way (about myself and the world):

 I am perfect and whole just the way I am (scars and all).

One of my personal goals for the year was to complete yoga teacher training. I had no idea that this very step would change my life as much as it has. I began a two-week intensive training not knowing a soul and expecting to learn a little more about yoga and to gain some physical strength. I left knowing that I had found a new tribe; people who loved me regardless of the fact that I contradict myself, act awkward in public, and curse like a sailor. I also left with a completely new and ever-changing perspective of “yoga” and what it means to be a “yogi”.

Note: being a yogi does not require perfection (thankfully), but it does involve thinking more carefully about how my actions impact the world and how I can continue to strive toward connecting to something larger than myself. One of the overarching philosophies of The Samarya Center, where I continue to study, is that everyone is perfect and whole, just the way they are. Yoga can be for everybody (and every body). Period. It is not just for skinny, physically fit people who can afford fancy mats or stylish yoga gear. In fact it isn’t about that at all. Yoga is a call toward physical, mental, spiritual, and social change. And if all of that fails, it’s working toward increasing the love in the world. Yoga means accepting self and others, scars and all.

Words heal, connect, and inspire.

This year, I decided to make my blog public and to post at least once a week (not an easy decision, but I’m glad I made it). I’ve used writing as a personal process tool since junior high/middle school when a teacher strongly encouraged me to put my thoughts onto paper (I was anxious, angry, and I talked way too much). From that time, the act of writing out my heartache, fury, joys, and everything in-between has been as important as eating a balanced meal. I may go days, sometimes weeks, without getting my writing nourishment, but I always feel more vibrant when I’ve put pen (yes- an actual pen) to paper (the stuff made of trees or plants).

Words are as important to me as fresh air, and I use them to create connection and meaning. Writing for a blog has shifted my practice and encouraged me to give up a small bit of autonomy in order to trust the process of putting my words into a public sphere. I’ve learned that just as I receive insight through reading other people’s words, having my writing read by others can feel incredibly profound and healing.

Recently, I joined a lovely blogging group in which I’ve been asked to look more intently at my own writing/blogging hopes, goals, and dreams as well as to support and encourage others on a similar path. Through this process, my sense of community has expanded and my sense of self has been humbled (again). Just when I think I know something, the Universe comes along and reminds me that I know nothing. And isn’t that grand? Which leads me to….

 The more I learn, the less I know.

Since being diagnosed with cancer four years ago, I have learned to let go of any expectations that I will ever know anything fully. I may learn many things and grow in magnificent ways, but the more I attempt to master anything or to gain insights into myself or the world, the more I realize I know nothing (or very little) at all. And this has actually been a source of comfort to me in the past year.

Being curious, humble and open far outweigh pretending that I know anything. Pilgrimage requires openness toward experience and sometimes stepping away from the path. My fortieth year has been one in which I have learned that outer stability does not matter as much as inner flexibility and a sense of humor. It has been a year of un-learning, expansion, and wonder, and I am so looking forward to seeing what adventures lay before me as I continue my wandering.

 

a yogi’s pilgrimage

 

 As I make my slow pilgrimage through the world, a certain sense of beautiful mystery seems to gather and grow.
–A.C. Benson

I watched a documentary last night that was filmed by people all around the world capturing moments of their life on a single day: July 24, 2010. Everything from kissing to eating to working to dancing to preparing food to celebrating to grieving to being. Moments that aren’t particularly spiritual or profound, but that together formed what I experienced as a spiritually tantalizing film and another reminder of the thin line between the sacred and the mundane.

Watching this movie got me thinking again about the idea of pilgrimage- not as a colossal sacred journey that requires travelling across the world in search of God, but as a daily experience of living intentionally. As a dear yogi friend reminded me at the yoga studio the other day, the sacred can be found in silence. No need to go anywhere but within. And then she sent Kabir’s poem A Great Pilgrimage to me:

 I felt in need of a great pilgrimage

so I sat still for three

days.

 and God came

to me.

I read those words, and I had a moment of great relief. There is nothing I need to do to find the Divine, and perhaps “doing” gets in the way sometimes. Or, maybe, working too hard gets in the way (especially when I’m on the yoga mat). Either way, it seems to me that the most important lesson is to live life and to take time to notice everything from the people I love to the experiences of self (body, mind, and spirit) to those small and seemingly insignificant times.

I’ve been trying to look at my life lately as a metaphorical pathway, and the people that I’ve met and continue to meet along the way as potential life guides. Even the people in my life who have been incredibly challenging or frustrating have at times been my greatest teachers- sometimes because of the way they acted (or didn’t), and sometimes because of what I learned from my own response. And, obviously, I have been shaped by my experiences (good, bad, and everything in between) and the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done or have had done to me. This doesn’t make me special, but it makes me uniquely me.

I think of my most recent pilgrimage beginning nearly three years ago when I first received the call telling me that I was diagnosed with cancer. An ordinary day that was instantly and drastically changed by a few words. Suddenly, I was snapped into seeing my own body and my future in a radically different light. Those words made me pack my figurative bags and set out on a pilgrimage of sorts without looking back at the burning building that was my life.

Several years later, I’m still searching. And maybe even more intensely now that I’ve distanced myself from labels and expectations. Every pilgrim needs time to rest, and my own rest involved trashy magazines, long weekends of watching predictable movies on the couch with my sweetheart, and comfort food. All of these acts (as well as the others I refuse to name) helped to prepare me for the space that I’m in now; living my yoga and seeking a connection with something bigger than myself. It’s the idea of throwing a pebble in a pond and watching the ripples reach shore, throwing the ecosphere into just a little bit of a different space than it was before that rock was lifted from the beach. Every instant holds the possibility of transformation.

What I’m struck by lately is that everyone in this world has complexity- not one person is absent a unique story. Occasionally this idea overwhelms me, but then there are the times when I have an appreciation for the connections that can be created when people open up to share just a little of their story. This week alone, I experienced and was witness to deep personal connections both in a training at my yoga studio and again in a volunteer training at my work; occasions for people to share a bit about what brought them forth to engage in work that requires compassionately offering support to people who need it. And both reminders that though my story is unique, I am not even close to unique in my need for connection or my complex history of personal loss.

The scars on my body serve to remind me of a blend of my humanness, my mortality, strength, courage, faults, mystery, beauty, and normalness; my everything and my nothing all at the same time. I am not these scars. Just like nobody is. But my scars represent a part of my journey- my path- and they are a map, of sorts, to a place that my journey began. My experience of having cancer helped me to enter into what I consider a pilgrimage; a journey into the unknown and, hopefully, into the sacred. I am a yogi wayfarer. And I never want to quit shedding my skin to make the journey  lighter.

between two breaths

Observe your life, between two breaths.
Breath is a wind, both coming and going.
On this wind you have built your life-
but how will a castle rest on a cloud?

Avicenna

Lately I’ve been catching myself feeling the indentation of my mastectomy scars. This is less of a voluntary, thought-filled experience, and more of an unconscious exploration of a part of my body I’d felt disconnected from for some time; not unlike the way a tongue unconsciously makes its way to the opening where a tooth used to be- a way of filling a gap and soothing an empty space without focusing so much on the need for a new tooth. No matter how many times I’ve attempted to intentionally touch my scars or to look at my naked body in the mirror, it’s often felt forced and like looking at foreign territory- like this altered body isn’t quite mine (and in the big, spiritual picture, maybe it’s not….). Somehow, my hand has proven to be more competent at doing the work of exploring my scars without the complication of connecting to my brain.

If I think of cancer and the surgery and treatments as a rebirth rather than as a traumatic series of events that happened to me, then this time, just over three years from my diagnosis, is my cancer toddlerhood. I’m still learning how to fully engage in this body. I’m still exploring an altogether new landscape….and being in a yoga teacher practicum has forced me to push into that terrain and to engage parts of myself that I had buried years ago.

For nearly a year after undergoing a bi-lateral mastectomy, I wasn’t able to practice vigorous asana flow. I relied instead on dance as my physical practice. Dancing was wonderful and healing, especially in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, yet I missed engaging my upper body muscles and experiencing the meditative quality of flowing through sun salutations at rhythm with my breath. As I was able to reach and stretch and put more weight onto my arms, I slowly re-engaged with yoga.

My post treatment yoga practice started with floor poses and transitioned into standing poses at the rate a baby would learn to move from crawling to walking. In class, I often had the urge to squeal with joy for the ability to feel my body engaging in practice. My joy and the occasional moments of frustration have been reminders that this body of mine is ever changing, despite cancer and all of the cancer related issues that I’ve experienced.

Now, I take pure pleasure in noticing the quality of my breath in practice. I’m enjoying the ways my body has been feeling stronger and more physically capable of holding poses I’ve struggled with since recommitting to my practice. This is your body on truth, I continually tell myself. I can’t be anyone else. I will never be stronger or more beautiful than I am in this moment. Or the next. I am fine with where I am- Santosha- which is quite fabulous, when I consider the alternatives.

the slush is melting, and yoga is being made

The slush is melting. A reminder of the snow that brought such mixed feelings to so many people, from exaltation to revulsion to dread. For me, being the Gemini that I am, each moment held a different feeling. I had moments of absolute giddiness, joy and hope and others when I wanted to hide in a corner sucking on a bottle of wine or run like a lunatic screaming profanity….But regardless of what was happening outside (with the weather) or inside (with my emotions), I bundled up and ventured out to be in it. I wanted to experience the snow and ice and slush- to breathe in the elements and be in the land of the living.

In my snow adventures I was often surrounded by people- a mixture of people of all ages romping and playing as people often do when it snows in Seattle (which is rare). I walked in areas of my neighborhood that I rarely visit, and I smiled at people I most likely ignore on any other given day. This is what snow does for me- it helps to bring the introvert out so that I can look people in the eyes and begin a brief dialogue. It also…brings out the worst in me. The angry me who gets frustrated by people who refuse to give space for me to walk past them on the sidewalk and the me who frets about the homeless, the flooding, and the power outages. I obsess. I ruminate. I “kvetch”. And there’s no rhyme or reason. I’m downright unpredictable and crazed.

Metaphorically, the storm and my ensuing moods related to change in my life are like my experience of cancer. I had moments of insight and recognition of luminous beauty mixed with times when I wanted to scratch incessantly at an itch that never existed. And this is where my yoga practice so beautifully comes in. I can once again feel pain without having to own it as something that will never go away. I can be in the experience of joy or pain or itchiness and trust that this is just this moment. My truth does not have to be dictated by this discomfort or this elation. And when I freak out, I can look at that as another opportunity to learn. Which seems never ending…

Lately, I delight in thinking about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.1 (that’s right- the very first sutra)- Atha Yogānuśāsanam, or something like “now begins the exposition of yoga”. Even in the slush, yoga is being made.

still standing…one year post diagnosis

The anniversary of my cancer diagnosis passed with little to no fanfare, despite the fact that I spent a good portion of the day reminiscing over the past year and looking at the photos of myself nervously posing topless on the beach. July, 2008 will most likely always be a time that I will be able to recall and to react to on a visceral level. I can bring up the smells and sounds of the day I was diagnosed, but I can’t even remember what I had for dinner yesterday. Probably an exaggeration, but not far off…

I can remember distinctly the feeling I had when the radiologist called me personally to tell me that I should contact a medical oncologist and a surgeon right away. I told him that I would begin the process on Monday, as it was Friday afternoon, and he urged me to begin making calls as soon as I hung up with him. I was stunned and distracted, thinking that I couldn’t possibly have such a diagnosis, and that if I did, in fact, have breast cancer, that I had no time for it. I thanked him for being so kind as to call me personally, and he asked several times if I was going to be alright. I wanted to ask him the same question. I had no idea what the future held. I still don’t. But I knew at the time that I had resolve and that I was going to begin the process of healing before people saw me as sick.

Now, a year later, I am still a bit stunned at the magnitude of it all, but I am also quite amazed at how naturally life takes on a new normal. At this point, I’m used to periodic infusions and scans, and dressing to hide my scars and the port that remains until I finish treatments. I am usually careful about what I put into, onto, and around my body, and I am skeptical of more than I ever was before. I recognize bullshit from a mile away.

My body is still not back to the vibrant and energetic state that it was at last summer, and I question whether it ever will be. Cancer has in some ways motivated me, and in others, has taught me to respect the fact that perfection is overrated and unobtainable. It’s ok to slow down and to enjoy sitting in the garden sometimes, even if it’s been days since my heart has experienced aerobic exercise.

Although I’m still working full time and I’m back to taking a full course load at school, I no longer feel the necessity to keep up a frenzied pace. I don’t have the capacity for the stress that I had before, and I recognize the importance of enjoying the ride and learning along the way. I want to feel into my days and to experience each moment for what it is rather than racing through to see how much I can accomplish.

Even the mirror reflects my changing self, complete with my short, curly hair, which is filling in quite nicely. I still admittedly feel like I look like an adolescent boy on occasion due to my lack of a chest, but I attempt to radiate my sassy feminine qualities, and to remember that my scars are proof of what I’m capable of; a badge of honor. Imperfection is a sign of strength and uniqueness, and in some ways, my differences give me more courage than I’ve had before. Like a warrior, I have gained clarity through my experience