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Connecting vs. Centering: Cherishing Others as an Antidote for Self-Absorbed Anxiety June 29, 2024 11:44

If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, click HERE for the audio link.

During a recent online Dharma talk held at Sravasti Abbey, Ven. Thubten Jigme said, “Afflictions will come. What matters most is how you deal with them.”

I haven’t been feeling well these last few days. I’ve been anxious and restless—mentally scattered, easily distracted, and I’ve had mild bouts of fatigue and dizziness. In short, I’ve been in a funk.

I’ve taken extra care to stay hydrated (it has been exceptionally hot this week), rest, and eat good food. These have helped alleviate my physical symptoms.

For emotional and mental symptoms—I’ve taken time to reflect on the successes of others and to celebrate others, which has also been effective. The good news is, the month of June has offered several opportunities to do just that.

For example, on June 8th, the city of Indianapolis hosted a Pride Parade and Festival in honor of Pride Month. My daughter and I, along with my son-in-law, his siblings, and baby niece attended the parade in downtown Indy.

We gathered on Massachusetts Avenue, along with thousands of others who flanked both sides of the street to celebrate, support, and uplift the LGBTQIA+ community. There’s something very comforting and unifying about being in a diverse, inclusive crowd filled with people who are accepting, compassionate, and kind.

We watched and cheered as several businesses, non-profits, local organizations, and sponsors marched in support and celebration. Participants waved colorful flags, blew bubbles, tossed candy, smiled, and danced their way down Mass. Ave. It was truly a celebration of community members supporting other community members—and a colorful display of interdependence at its best.

A young man stood in front of me during the parade. He wore a bright purple outfit that he had designed himself specifically for this event. I watched as several participants in the parade stopped to compliment and encourage him.

One woman asked, “Are you Prince?”

He replied, “No…I’m me!”

This young man showed up, expressed himself with class and courage, and many others praised, acknowledged, and celebrated him. He was seen, and he was appreciated. That’s what this parade is all about, and I was grateful to witness it.

Being in the company of family and thousands of warm-hearted strangers who felt like family to come together, show support, and celebrate others was extremely hopeful and uplifting.

Just remembering and thinking about this event helped lift me out of my anxious funk.

Photo Description: Young man in purple watching a drag queen in a rainbow dress during Pride Parade in Indianapolis.

***

Another opportunity to celebrate others occurred on Father’s Day.

Elise, Christopher, and I showered Jim with gifts and attention at one of his favorite restaurants, Yummy Bowl, a Mongolian stir-fry and sushi spot in Greenwood.

Elise gave her dad a new baseball cap and dress socks, and I had given him a button-up dress shirt perfect for summer weather. We enjoyed our time, our conversation, and our bowls of noodley stir-fry.

Having time to celebrate with family is a wonderful antidote to hyper-focusing on the self.

Photo Description: Jim at Yummy Bowl on Father's Day

***

A few days after Father’s Day, on June 19th, we celebrated Juneteenth, which commemorates the ending of slavery in the U.S.

This holiday celebrates African American history, culture, and progress. In the days leading up to Juneteenth, I read Percival Everett’s novel James, a retelling of Twain’s Huck Finn from the point of view of Jim.

I had studied Huck Finn in high school with Mrs. Grenda, my favorite English teacher at Warren Central many years ago. I studied it again with a wonderful professor and Twain scholar, Dr. Baetzhold, when I was a student at Butler University.

Honestly, I liked James even better than Huck Finn! Everett incorporated familiar references and plot points early on in his novel, but he also created a fully-fledged and well-developed character through Jim, which is something that Twain did not do.

In this retelling, Jim is a strong, brave, intuitive, resourceful, philosophical, compassionate, and literate character. Reading this novel that focused on friendship and freedom was an excellent way to celebrate this meaningful holiday.

It also gave me time to reflect on and appreciate two amazing educators who inspired and encouraged my own journey in education as well.

Photo Description: Percival Everett's novel James on my lap. Maya is watching from the floor, curious about what I'm reading.

***

Last night, I didn’t sleep well, so when I got up at 4:00 AM, I decided to practice an online Feldenkrais lesson. Deborah Bowes was the instructor, and this particular lesson focused on fine-tuning awareness of the abdominals—and learning about how these muscles are the keys to finding stability, strength, and mobility throughout the rest of the body.

One of the lines that she said during the class was, “Noticing leads to awareness, and awareness leads to change.”

This quote, in a nutshell, not only describes the essence of the Feldenkrais Method, but it also describes the journey of progressing from focusing on the self to focusing on others. Like the abdominals, others are the keys to stability, strength, and mobility in the community, and they also help individuals find those same traits in themselves.

Only focusing on the self is like traveling down a dead-end street. Noticing the futility of this leads to the awareness and appreciation of others—the necessity and importance of connection and interconnection. This awareness transforms and changes the landscape, and it offers support and multiple opportunities for learning and growth. The dead-end street becomes a lush labyrinth of trails that welcomes exploration, curiosity, playfulness, and adventure.

Celebrating others—appreciating others—and connecting with others—these are rich, meaningful, and necessary antidotes to lifting ourselves out of the anxious funk that results from centering solely on the individual self.

***

By the way, another great way to lift yourself out of an anxious or restless funk is to practice mantra recitations with a mala. Currently, the Middle Moon Malas online collection is filled with beautiful malas designed to inspire and support meaningful practice. Please visit the homepage and view the hand-knotted malas that are currently available, and don't hesitate to reach out via the Contact Us page for custom design requests and inquiries.

 


Retreats: Recharge, Renew, Reflect September 30, 2022 14:46

snow capped mountains and bright blue sky 

 

If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE to listen to the audio link.

I recently read Tenzin Palmo’s biography, Cave in the Snow, by Vickie MacKenzie. She is a well-respected Buddhist nun who had spent over twelve years in a solitary mountain retreat.

While I have no desire to climb up a mountain in the Himalayas to meditate in a tiny cave while enduring blizzards, avalanches, predatory creatures, and minimal options of food and medical supplies, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s dedication to practice was certainly inspiring.

Retreats can be rejuvenating and motivating, but not everyone has the privilege or karma to leave home and practice in an isolated environment. The good news is, retreats don’t have to occur in harsh, barren landscapes (or extravagantly elegant ones, for that matter); they don’t have to be expensive; they also don’t have to be lengthy to inspire meaningful practice and to be of benefit.

This month, I had the opportunity to attend three retreats of different sorts: a three-day Chenrezig retreat in Bloomington, a ten-day Feldenkrais summit, and a series of online teachings that focus on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s The Power of Mantra: Vital Practices for Transformation.

Even though each retreat had a different focus and topic, I was able to participate, practice, and tend to the other obligations and responsibilities in my life.  As a householder, I don’t have the luxury or time to practice uninterrupted in a secluded place, but these mini retreats have helped me maintain my motivation to practice as well as honor my family and work commitments.

  • Chenrezig Retreat

This past Labor Day weekend, Geshe Kunga held a Chenrezig Retreat at TMBCC in Bloomington.

He held a similar retreat a few years ago, and I was able to stay on site by renting one of their cottages. This time, however, I chose to commute each day instead. Several other retreatants had traveled from other states and countries, and I didn’t want to inconvenience them or deny them the opportunity to stay on site.

This retreat included three days of in-depth teachings and meditation sessions on Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. We spent time reading, analyzing, chanting, discussing, and unpacking a specific sadhana practice.

Before this retreat, my personal practice had become a bit inconsistent and sporadic, so this retreat and sadhana practice was the perfect jump start that I needed. It offered just enough structure, it was meaningful, and it didn’t require a lengthy time commitment.  

Since Labor Day weekend, I have been practicing this sadhana every day. I read it aloud in English (and Tibetan), and I look forward to my practice. Sometimes, I can practice in the early morning; sometimes I practice in between student sessions at school, and sometimes I practice later in the day or evening. Regardless of the time of day, I feel like I’ve accomplished something meaningful, and it gives me a sense of purpose. This jump start wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for this short retreat.

I wasn’t in a cave—I still have to deal with rush hour traffic—I still have to make trips to the grocery store—I still have to pay bills and wash dishes—and I still have to interact with others. But the thread running through all of these “beads of responsibility” is the practice.

 

  • Feldenkrais Summit

The second retreat that I participated in was the Move Better, Feel Better Summit hosted by my friend Cynthia Allen. She has hosted several online Feldenkrais summits in the past. This is an annual, online event that lasts for several days. This year’s event was a ten-day summit which included keynote speakers, presentations by experts and Feldenkrais practitioners from all over the world, and three short Feldenkrais lessons led by practitioners each day.

Because the interviews and lessons were pre-recorded, participants could access them online at their convenience. I could choose which interviews to watch and which lessons to practice, and the best part was, this event was free.

This summit is a wonderful opportunity for those who are new to the Feldenkrais Method to learn more about it, and for those who are familiar with the method, it’s a great opportunity to deepen their understanding and practice.

Like most conferences, this online event can seem overwhelming at first, and it’s tempting to want to see and do everything. If I lived in a cave with internet access, I probably would, but instead, I chose to watch one interview and practice at least one of the three lessons each day. Carving out time for my movement practice—making room to cultivate curiosity through learning, growing, and playing while still tending to real-life obligations has helped me maintain a healthy life balance.

I was able to listen to interviews while I was sending morning emails to students—or while cleaning my living room, and I could begin or end my day with a short movement lesson. This summit added novelty and structure to my life, and it encouraged me to make time to move, play, and attend to my life more fully.

 

  • The Power of Mantra

Finally, my third retreat, which is still ongoing, focuses on reading and analyzing a Buddhist text: The Power of Mantra: Vital Practices for Transformation.  

Venerable Yӧnten is an amazing Buddhist nun who is currently teaching at Vajrapani Institute in California. She is teaching a series of online lectures that focus on this text by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

I’ve been following Ven. Yӧnten’s teachings for a few years. She’s a young Mahayana Buddhist nun from Montana who is extremely knowledgeable (and funny). I appreciate how she can unpack and explain complex Buddhist ideas as well as incorporate relevant and contemporary examples to bring clarity and understanding to ancient teachings and concepts.

I had attended several of her live teachings on Zoom a few years ago when she was teaching in Israel. I remember waking up at 4:00 AM to attend these talks.

Her current teachings from Vajrapani Institute are also available live via Zoom. However, she is also sharing them on YouTube as well, which is more convenient for my schedule.

This text, The Power of Mantra, is a compilation of what Lama Zopa Rinpoche considers to be the most accessible Buddhist deities and their respective mantras. It includes chapters describing Shakyamuni Buddha, Chenrezig, Manjushri, Tara, Medicine Buddha, and Vajrasattva. In addition to explaining the significance of each deity, this text also includes mantras and short meditation practices that correspond with each.

The text alone is an absolute treasure, but being able to listen to Ven. Yӧnten explain in more detail and lead listeners through the meditations is an even greater gift.

  

Retreats are important—they are meaningful opportunities and necessary pockets of time for practice—whether it’s a meditation, movement, or mantra practice—whether the practice is intellectual in nature, or rooted in curiosity, creativity, and play. Taking the time to delve into practices that resonate with you is extremely important. Retreats can help boost, recharge, and energize a fading or forgotten interest, and they can help add structure to a sporadic practice, helping to make room or time for them even during the busiest of days. They can also give you something to look forward to.

The best part is, you don’t have to take refuge in a cave (or an expensive resort) in order to make time or reap the benefits of meaningful practices. With a little creativity, resourcefulness, and planning, retreats can occur in the middle of your own life, and they can become the sutra running through your own beads of responsibility.

 Enjoy your own practices, everyone!  Talk to you soon.

If you haven't visited the MMM online shop in a while, new designs have been added. Enhance your own personal practices with a beautiful, hand-knotted mala. Visit the current collection here .

 

 

 

 

 


Movement and Mantra: Connecting Breath, Body, Heart, and Mind January 28, 2021 09:17

Several colorful malas lined up like bones in the spine. These designs are available now on the MMM online shop.

If you prefer to listen to this month's blog post, (and you might since I've included a mini-meditation in this article) please click here.

I started my morning with a Feldenkrais lesson. 

It wasn't something I had planned to do, although I typically do practice some sort of Awareness Through Movement lesson at some point during the day. However, today, I happened to catch Joe Webster's live class on his Thoughtful Movements FB group.

Joe is a Feldenkrais practitioner in London, and typically, when he teaches his live classes, it is very early in the morning for me. Luckily, I was awake today and decided to practice with him.

I was still in bed, and even though he instructed us to do the lesson in a seated posture, I decided to practice lying down. I scooched pillows out of the way so I could stretch out comfortably. Maya was curled up at my feet snoring softly.

This morning's lesson was very subtle--focusing on the breath and the connection between the ribs and the vertebrae of the thoracic spine--more specifically, the thick, cartilaginous discs between each vertebra.

Joe has a very soothing, calming voice, and he began the lesson by inviting us to focus on our breathing--to notice how the chest cavity would gently rise and fall with the breath.

Then, he asked us to imagine the vertebrae of the middle back spine--to notice how these bones would gently lift on each inhalation, and then softly fall back on each exhalation.

He led us through an investigation of each disc between the twelve vertebrae of the thoracic spine. We spent a few minutes on each disc--observing the breath (about ten breaths for each disc)--and imagining each disc rise and fall softly with our breathing.

Joe didn't suggest this, but I realized that ten breaths and eleven discs add up to about 108, so I decided to incorporate a simple mantra into this early morning practice. (There are perks to being a bit of a rebel--I found doing this lesson lying down on a soft surface to be extremely helpful, and incorporating a mantra practice with it was the icing on the meditative cake!)

The mantra I chose was Aham Prema. It is a short, simple, and powerful Sanskrit mantra that translates as "I am Divine Love."

As I imagined each thoracic disc rising gently on the inhalations, I imagined the Sanskrit word Aham.

With each exhalation, as the disc moved back toward the soft mattress, I imagined the word Prema.

Gently, slowly--visualizing each disc nestled between the vertebrae, the chest rising and falling in a slow, steady rhythm. The spine responding to this gentle, effortless flow, and the mantra steadily leading, guiding, and unifying the practice.

This subtle Feldenkrais lesson became more than an embodied somatic practice. The mantra transformed it into a powerful meditation connecting breath, body, heart, and mind.

As Joe led his listeners through each pair of vertebrae--and each disc in the middle back spine--a journey was unfolding for me:

I imagined the disc nestled between T-1 and T-2

On the deep inhalation: Aham

and with it...deep gratitude.

On the slow, steady exhalation: Prema

 

I imagined the disc between T-2 and T-3

On the inhalation: Aham

and with it...profound understanding.

On the slow, gentle exhalation: Prema

 

I visualized the disc between T-3 and T-4

On the next inhalation: Aham

and with it...selflessness.

On the relaxed, easy exhalation: Prema

 

I visualized the disc between T-4 and T-5

On the next, deep inhalation: Aham

and with it...transcendence.

On the slow exhalation, Prema

 

I imagined the disc between T-5 and T-6

On the inhalation: Aham

and with it...meaningful service.

On the steady exhalation: Prema

 

I imagined the disc between T-6 and T-7

On the next inhalation: Aham

and with it...safe refuge.

On the next, deep exhalation: Prema

 

I imagined the disc between T-7 and T-8

On the steady inhalation: Aham

and with it...connection.

On the release of the exhalation: Prema

 

I imagined the disc between T-8 and T-9

On the next inhalation: Aham

and with it...a vast, infinite expanse.

On the exhalation: Prema

 

I visualized the disc between T-9 and T-10

On the inhalation: Aham

and with it...deep healing.

On the exhalation: Prema

 

I visualized the disc between T-10 and T-11

On the next, slow inhalation: Aham

and with it...forgiveness.

On the next, deep exhalation: Prema

 

Finally, I imagined the disc between T-11 and T-12

On this next inhalation: Aham

and with it...compassion.

On this next, slow exhalation: Prema

 

One of the benefits of having a regular mantra practice is the ability to incorporate the practice into daily tasks and parallel interests. I've found that mantra practice makes everything better. It improves focus, enhances the state of being present, and makes tasks and activities more meaningful and interesting.

This lesson and mantra practice was a wonderful way to start my day.

 For those of you who may be interested in exploring this Feldenkrais lesson with Joe Webster, click HERE for the YouTube recording of the lesson.

For those of you who prefer to chant mantra with a beautiful mala--or if you would like to share a mala with a friend or loved one, please visit the Middle Moon Malas online shop HERE.

 

 

  


A Beautiful Tangle: Sitting with Confusion August 5, 2020 15:18

If you prefer to listen to this blog post, please click here.

We are living in a time when we have have many opportunities to explore our relationship with confusion. We're navigating the uncertainties of our own daily lives in the middle of a global pandemic. Some of us are working from home, some are seeking new employment, some are struggling to keep food on the table or to pay bills, and we're all trying to stay safe and healthy during this challenging time.

We're also dealing with the upheaval of social protests and finally facing the consequences of systemic racism in order to move toward necessary and meaningful change.

We're gearing up for a pivotal election in November. It's certainly been a long 3 ½ years, and unfortunately, our struggles are far from over.

 Confusion gives us the space to explore, to experiment with different solutions, to ask questions, and to research. Sitting with confusion is not always easy or comfortable, but it is imperative to novel discovery and learning.

Sitting with confusion requires patience, like untangling a massive knot. Confusion IS a beautiful tangle. When you have the courage to sit with it, without expectation, without judgment, it can lead to surprising revelations and profound wisdom.

Over the past several months, I have immersed myself in studying the Tibetan language. Progress is painstakingly slow, but learning new things is great for the brain. It broadens viewpoints and perspectives; it fosters creativity and curiosity; and it has given me many opportunities to practice with confusion.

* The Importance of Feeling Stupid

Early on in my studies, I was working with two Tibetan tutors online, additional materials from the Tibetan Language Institute based in Montana, The Manual of Standard Tibetan, and a variety of YouTube videos. Inevitably, I found conflicting information, especially regarding pronunciation (there are 220 Tibetan dialects). In the beginning, having too many sources was overwhelming for me, and it just made me feel incredibly stupid and inept. Navigating contradictory information created massive confusion and self-doubt. However, I found that by sticking with my tutors until I mastered the alphabet and basic sentence structure helped me negotiate the rough waters of hopeless confusion.

Curiosity is a motivator, and it is often driven by productive confusion. This curiosity led me to ask questions, to take my time practicing and writing out each letter, to make flash cards of simple words, numbers, and phrases. It also helped me weave my way out of self-doubt and discouragement, to seek understanding while simultaneously moving beyond the realm of the familiar.

*Time

I found out the hard way that I need to study in small bursts of time rather than in lengthy marathon sessions.

A few weeks ago, one of my sessions with a tutor went way over time (over 2 hours), and by the end of the session, I was discouraged, frustrated, angry, and more confused at the end than I was at the start.

Hour-long sessions are ideal for me. I can deal with 90 minute sessions, too, but anything beyond that is too much. Setting clear boundaries with my tutor regarding time limits proved to be very helpful.

Even when I study on my own, I find that daily sessions of 15-30 minutes is just right. Finding that tipping point where productive confusion slips into hopeless confusion was useful for me. It helped me to stay focused and engaged, and it helped to avoid sabotaging my own practice.

*The Importance of Rest

Taking breaks and resting between sessions is also crucial to learning anything new and managing the discomfort of confusion.

I already understood this from a somatic perspective. In Feldenkrais lessons, we move slowly and repeat movements with thoughtful, mindful attention. Between movements, or before layering movements with variations on a theme, we rest.

The rests function as points of integration. These necessary pauses allow the nervous system to process information.

It's the same with learning a language, or anything new, really. I found that if I spent a few minutes reviewing words on flash cards, then took a break to read, go for a walk, wash dishes, or nap--when I returned to review the same set of cards, my accuracy, speed, and retention were much improved.

*Letting Go of Expectation

The most important aspect of managing confusion while learning is to let go of expectations and judgments. This is also much easier said than done :). 

Putting too much pressure on myself when I'm learning something new only invites the inner critic to tear my enthusiasm and self-esteem to shreds. Sessions that don't have an agenda or specific expectation (I'm going to memorize all the vegetables in Tibetan in 15 minutes) allow me to enjoy the exploration and discovery process. These sessions are more playful and relaxed compared to pressure-cooker sessions where I'm striving, pushing, or rushing myself. There is more ease in the effort, and the cognitive connections are stronger and more relevant.

In addition to learning something new, I'm also reinforcing the importance of being patient and compassionate with myself. And, in turn, this carries over to being more patient and compassionate with others, as well. 

* What the Heck Does This Have to Do with Meditation and Japa Practice?

Well, pretty much everything! When we come to the cushion to sit or practice japa, we learn something new about ourselves or how to relate to others in the world.

The same tips above apply to maintaining a healthy meditation practice. Confusion surfaces regularly during sessions--maybe not in the same way as they do in learning a new language. Confusion appears in finding difficulty settling in to practice. Distractions arise--both internal and external (discursive thoughts, memories, random song lyrics or commercial jingles, a ringing phone, the sound of a television in another room, your partner or spouse talking to you while you're trying to practice: "It smells like you're burning underwear").

So, things will come up during meditation. Don't let that discourage you. Instead, find time every day to practice, even if it's ten minutes.

Every meditation session will be different, so don't micromanage or squelch your practice with a specific expectation or agenda. Instead, have the courage to explore whatever arises at that time, and in that moment.

Take breaks between sessions if you meditate more than once a day. Ideally, I like to practice three times a day. I have a short sadhana session in the morning, a japa practice in the afternoon, and then a longer sadhana session in the evening.

Remember that productive confusion is a necessary part of the learning process. It stimulates curiosity, it encourages inquiry, and it opens new doorways to awareness and understanding.

 Be curious, be open, and give yourself permission to sit with confusion in your practice. Invite it to tea without an ulterior motive. Follow its loops, twists, arcs, and jagged edges to see where it might lead you.

Happy practicing and learning, everyone!

By the way, I've added several new mala designs to the MMM website recently, so if you haven't visited in a while, I invite you to view the online collection at middlemoonmalas.com.


Climbing Mt. Kailash...One Tibetan Letter at a Time February 10, 2020 18:53

 

 "To learn is an act of deep work."  Cal Newport (associate professor of Computer Science, Georgetown University)

Some of the best opportunities that have occurred in my life were not the result of calculated planning, but out of being open, curious, and willing to explore the unknown.

Five years ago, I fell into designing malas and then building a small business (Middle Moon Malas) through this creative interest and a love of japa practice.

Two years ago, I discovered The Feldenkrais Method as well as other alternative movement modalities, and my physical, emotional, and spiritual health flourished as a result.

Two weeks ago, I landed, unexpectedly, in a small class that my dharma teacher is leading between his weekly dharma talks and prayer sessions on Sundays. I'm one of a handful of students studying Tibetan.

Learning a new language in my mid-fifties is much more challenging (and enriching) than when I was studying French in junior high school. The Tibetan alphabet is totally different from English, and several of the sounds are very similar, with subtle, nuanced distinctions. Therefore, the learning requires more time, deliberate care, practice, and patience.

It turns out, there are several benefits to learning a language later in life. It can improve problem-solving, critical thinking, listening, decision-making, and concentration skills. Learning a new language can also stave off dementia, mental aging, and cognitive decline. It also fosters deeper connections and appreciation of other cultures.

I found out about this class a few weeks in, so I'm a little behind and scrambling to catch up. I gave myself a week to learn the Tibetan alphabet--30 consonants, 4 vowels. That doesn't seem too demanding, right?

Uhhhhh.....

Turns out, I needed the full week. I spent about an hour each day learning and reciting the sounds of each new letter, tracing unfamiliar curves, arcs, and loops onto graph paper. I flipped through flash cards again and again, and I watched several YouTube tutorials in order to recognize, memorize, speak, and write these beautiful new letters that are like keys to a mysterious puzzle.

I barely deciphered the Tibetan alphabet in time for the following week's class. We're moving on to numbers and combining letters into words, which is an even deeper mystery for me.

I feel like I'm climbing Mt. Kailash, one Tibetan letter at a time. Thankfully, I'm not alone on this journey. I have a knowledgeable leader, a team of peers, and additional resources to guide me along the way. Most importantly, I'm enjoying the process. It's definitely challenging, but I'm benefiting from it a great deal.

I'm learning much more than a new language. I'm learning the value of maintaining Beginner's Mind. I'm learning the importance of being gentle and patient with myself (and others) as I navigate this new adventure. I'm learning the importance of moving slowly, deliberately, and without force. I'm learning that this new endeavor is intricately connected to my movement, meditation, and japa practices. Most importantly, though, I'm rediscovering that...

"Learning should be a pleasant, marvelous experience." Moshé Feldenkrais

 To listen to this post, click here

 


Jr. High Orchestra Saved My Life...and Inspired Me to Practice December 4, 2019 17:42

I happened to catch a film that I had seen bits and pieces of years ago. Hilary and Jackie focused on the relationship between Jacqueline Du Pré, who was an extremely talented and famous cellist, and her sister Hilary, who played the flute for a time.

Both were sisters, both were involved with music, and both supported each other in times of need.

Jackie was a prodigy and became a professional musician at a very young age. Unfortunately, her music career lasted only a short ten years before she was diagnosed with MS. She battled this devastating illness for 14 years before she died at the age of 42.

It was painful and heart-wrenching to watch her transform from a musical genius to a helpless invalid on film--but just as tender and heart-warming to see her sister nurture and support her.

Recently, I had an opportunity to present meditation and wellness practices to groups of educators at a local high school as part of their township's Professional Development Day. I was assigned to lead sessions in a 9th grade orchestra classroom. The acoustics were great, and the tiered levels of seats in a horseshoe pattern were ideal for these sessions.

While I was setting up for the first meeting, I noticed a chair and a framed photo mounted on the far wall of the room. When I walked over to check it out, I discovered that it was a tribute to a student who had passed away the previous year. Her name was Alex. She was smiling in the photo, caught in a slanting ray of sunlight. The chair had been hers in class, and her classmates had written warm, tender messages on the seat and backrest in silver Sharpie. This tribute was beautiful, moving...and devastating.

This was the third consecutive year that I had been invited to present stress-reducing breathing techniques, meditation, and movement strategies to overworked, exhausted educators. This was also the third year that I'd presented in this 9th grade orchestra room, which I appreciated. This room is calming, open, warm, and safe--it's also far away from the other sessions that take place at the nearby high school. 

Being in this room reminded me of orchestra class at Stonybrook Jr. High. These were definitely not the Wonder Years for me growing up--far from it. At that time I was living in a tumultuous home environment. I was teased and bullied virtually every day at the bus stop, on the bus, and in the halls at school. The only place where I felt safe at this time in my life was in orchestra class. No one made fun of me there. I liked the teacher, and I liked playing the violin. Playing music with other students made me feel like I mattered...that I had something to contribute...that I was valued and appreciated. I belonged. Orchestra for me was an oasis from daily battles and struggles. I was safe there and part of a community.

Being able to offer simple, practical techniques to help teachers nurture and take care of themselves in this setting has been a pleasure for me. I look forward to these annual sessions, and I appreciate being invited back. It made me feel good to know that these sessions fill up, and fill up quickly.  This year, we started with a breath practice similar to nadi shodhana, progressed to a somatic relaxation practice for the eyes. We did a little sounding--chanting the vowels--to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, a Feldenkrais-inspired shoulder exercise, followed by a body scan and a loving-kindness meditation. 

Thankfully, I no longer live in a tumultuous home environment. I am no longer harassed and bullied on the daily at school now. I have found safety in my own personal meditation, japa, and movement practices, and I look forward to visiting this orchestra classroom every year. It's a safe place where teachers gather--it's an oasis from the demands of teaching, even for just a day. It's a place of connection and interconnection, shared joys, hard work, and sometimes sorrow. It's a place of support...where people uplift and hold space for each other...it's a place to practice...and a place to grow.

 

Interested in growing in your own meditation practice? Check out the one-of-a-kind, hand-knotted malas in the Middle Moon Malas online collection (middlemoonmalas.com). 


Personal and Public Practice: Striking a Balance June 14, 2019 12:27

 

I love my personal practices (meditation, mantra recitations, somatic movement), but I also enjoy sharing a common space with other practitioners, too.

Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, ideally, a healthy spiritual practice requires a blend of both private and group settings in order to foster personal growth and social connections. 

Benefits of Personal Practice

Privacy and Agency: 

I begin each morning with a sadhana practice that my teacher gave to me. I sit in bed in my jammies while my dog and cat sleep on either side of me, and I recite, chant, and visualize the practice in the privacy of my own home. 

If I'm at school, and I have a few minutes between student tutoring sessions, I'll walk around the track and chant mantra. Adding movement to a japa practice with a little fresh air and sunshine is a great way to boost my energy and stay focused and sharp for my students. 

I also like to chant if I'm in the car alone on a long commute. It helps me to stay focused while I'm driving, and it's also a great way to ward off stress and anxiety during rush hour.

In the evenings, I sit on a cushion near my altar space to meditate. I'll light a candle or a stick of incense and practice for an hour. If I'm tired, sometimes I'll practice lying down on the floor. I have options--and I've learned the importance of being gentle with myself and taking care of myself as I practice.

Recently, I've discovered some wonderful Feldenkrais lessons online. I love ending each day with a movement lesson. I'm on a circular green mat in my living room. The lights are dim--the TV is on mute, if it's on at all, and it's just me, myself, and the movement practice.

Having the space and time to deepen and explore my own practices on my own terms and in my own way is nourishing and delicious to my spirit. I absolutely need the privacy and the time to practice every day in order to function properly.

Benefits of Public Practice

Connection and Support: 

 There's something really beautiful about sharing the practice and the space with other meditators or movers, too, however. In the last year, I have attended three, week-long retreats at a meditation center in Colorado.  Meditating in a large  group is very different from a session in the home space. Not only are you sharing a common physical space, and typically you're sitting very close to one another, but you're also holding space for each other in a communal practice setting. In this environment, you pick up on the subtle energies of the location and on the other practitioners around you.

The last time I was in Crestone, I kept getting images of eyes--close-up, huge, luminous eyes--of horses, of people, of cartoonish animated characters--big eyes everywhere! I'm not sure whose energy I was tapping into, but I was accessing unusual images and cultivating opportunities to sit with these differences in a non-judgmental way. It was interesting...and challenging.

Practicing in a group also lends itself to learning new ideas and strategies, too. I saw so many creative prop arrangements for seated meditation when I shared the space with 100 other meditators.

I recently started attending somatic movement classes. It's been nearly two years since I practiced in a group setting. I used to practice and teach yoga at a local studio, but I've since become a "reformed yogi" and prefer Feldenkrais lessons and other alternative movement modalities. I've missed the camraderie and friendship that practicing in a group environment can bring, and I'm so glad that I've found a local somatic group that I can practice with and feel safe. They are warm-hearted, friendly, and accepting. Having the courage to step out into a group space again has been a little unsettling, but it's important to nudge yourself beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone every once in a while. 

Practicing with a group is great, if the group dynamics are supportive and healthy. It took me some time to heal and deepen my own personal practices before I was ready to join another group, but I'm really glad I did. That supportive connection with others is so important.  

The closest I've come to chanting in a group setting is when I've attended an occasional kirtan event. Chanting and singing Sanskrit mantra with musicians in a group setting is a blast! It's an uplifting way to connect with others and clear away the energetic cobwebs. No one leaves a kirtan event depressed or angry.

I've also attended pujas and ceremonies at TMBCC in Bloomington where Tibetan monks have chanted prayers, sometimes for hours at a time. The energy of the temple is transformed when a group of a dozen or so monks are chanting. It is an energetically moving and powerful experience.

Introverts will gravitate to their own personal practices, and extroverts will undoubtedly be drawn to the public ones, but it's important for everyone to engage in both personal and public practices in order to benefit themselves and share these rewards with others.

For more information, or to view the online mala collection, visit www.middlemoonmalas.com.