meditation

Collective Healing

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This morning before my #40DaysofDevotion practice, I made what I often consider to be a "mistake before meditating" and took a walk through my FB feed.  I saw among other stuff, a short video made by a single mom who met her Prince Charming and thought she'd "found her happily ever after" only to discover that this bright, hardworking, charming man who she'd fallen in love with--a U.S. Navy veteran, a police officer, a devoted father of three--was sexually assaulting her 15-year-old daughter. (I didn't share the video, but I'd encourage you to seek it out, if you're curious. The mother's name is Catherine St. Germaine, and she's bravely public about her story.)

So I watched her video and I thought of my mother, thought of the women in my family. My mom's birthday was yesterday; she turned 61. She's the kind of woman who'd be appalled that I am sharing her real age online,  a woman with great skin, infectious laughter, a quick mind, and a boiling hot temper and a razor-sharp tongue. We aren't close, haven't been in years, and when I saw this video, I thought of her and the specter of rape and assault that seemed to haunt her my entire childhood. 

I am definitely one of the women who was taught how not to be raped. I carried a condom in my wallet for about ten years--all through college and for a long time after--fearing and hoping that if I was ever assaulted I could talk my attacker into wearing it, and avoid infection or unwanted pregnancy. Some part of my subconscious has language memorized about short skirts and tight jeans and black girls who are loud or drunk in public, and not making people think I was asking for it. 

So when I saw posts about April being #SexualAssaultAwarenessMonth, and watched this video, in which a predator was given a slap on the wrist for assaulting a woman, my heart reached back to my family. I am not a victim or a survivor of sexual assault. But I can look around my extended family gatherings and know that not every woman in the room was spared the same fate.

I had a cousin, Tamika. She was my mother's youngest sister's oldest child, and we called her Tammy--my mom coined this nickname, and I suspect it's because it sounded a little less black than Tamika (sounding a little less black has always been important to my mother) and I called her Tammy because my mom did. She was like a big sister to me: older; glamorous, even in the small, provincial town of Danville, Illinois; worldly--she could do dances that I didn't know, and seemed to know all the cool things that I just didn't have access to. I only saw her when we visited my grandmother, who had custody of Tammy and her baby brother, Alex. 

Tammy's mother died when she was young, 12 or 13, and Alex was still an infant. A fight with her crack-dealing boyfriend escalated, and when he pulled a knife on her, it scared her so badly she had a heart attack and collapsed right there in their dingy apartment kitchen. A heated custody battle put the care of Tammy and Alex in my grandmother's hands, and all I really knew about it was that it meant I could see Tammy more often. Now, decades later, I can look back at things and draw some conclusions. Tammy's early developed figure meant she'd certainly gotten attention from older men that wasn't age-appropriate. She knew more about men and sex than I did, and talked about it freely. According to my mother, she had a habit of attempting clumsy seduction at men twice her age, and if they rejected her, she would accuse them of assault. 

I remember my mother being furiously impatient with Tamika: why she couldn't understand that lying was wrong, that it just made things worse. At one point, someone floated the idea by her of having Tamika come and live with us, but my mom stopped it cold. There was no way she was going to invite a girl into her home who would proposition her husband and then accuse him of rape when he turned her down. 

What breaks my heart about this is that somewhere, in the days past of her life, there is some man who touched her, assaulted her, sunk himself into her flesh and her soul, without her consent. She was taught as a girl, that her body was not her own; she tried over and over to give herself away. All the signs are there that point to her having experienced sexual assault or rape. 

It never seemed to occur to my mother that someone, somewhere, really had assaulted Tamika. There was never any healing sought for her, never a discussion of how to help her hold the assault she almost certainly experienced, without having to reenact it over and over. No one ever tried to help her. My mother blamed her, judged her, but never seemed to want to help her heal, from wounds she couldn't see, but had to know were there. 

Tamika died last year, just shy of her fortieth birthday. I know that her short, painful life hurts my mother. I watched her at Tamika's funeral, sobbing, cloaked in a particular kind of guilt that it will take her too long to shed, and I recognized that Tamika is one of the projects that my mother had that she wasn't able to fix. 

I also know that my mother couldn't help her heal, but instead could only blame her or shame her, because my mother, too, hasn't yet healed from the wounds and scars of sexual assault that she bears. If, in fact, you are still blaming yourself for  your own injury, you can't hope to liberate someone else from their injury. 

So on my mat this morning, with every turn of the bead, I thought of this woman in Loveland, Colorado, and her young daughter, and all the work they have in front of them. And I thought of my cousin, who ran away from home at 16, who was homeless at various points in life, who'd been on and off I don't know how many drugs-- whose body bore more pain than anyone should have to; and I thought of my mother, so disappointed in her young niece for not being healed from her sexual assault, and decades later, so disappointed in herself for not being able to rescue her niece from that life-altering injury. I chanted for the healing of these women, present and absent, and for healing of all of us who are stumbling through the world carrying injury we are only partly conscious of. 

And I thought about consent.

Consent is something that is often taken for granted in yoga. If someone didn't want you to lay hands on them, they'd practice at home, right? Teachers have a thing, and students want to share that thing, want a piece of that thing, want to share that thing with a teacher that they respect, admire, onto whom they are projecting all their hopes and dreams (and fears and injuries). There are too many articles and posts for me to cite about sexual misconduct in the yoga world, but suffice to say, it's out there, and it's as insidious and deeply damaging as it is in families, in schools, in churches. Damaged people are everywhere: be wary of folks who use the word "overcome", but who don't talk about healing and struggle. But as people who are working in a place where the practical and the spiritual are as connected as sinew and bone, we have an obligation to consider what students are bringing to class: what anxiety around relationship, what frustration about job, what rawness about past injury that is so real they aren't sure that it isn't happening right now. 

So I try to use consent cards. My friend A.J. from Hippocamp Cards made them for me. I want everyone I share practice space with to be able to consent to touch, or not to consent, depending on the day, on the very moment.  The regulars I have in class really appreciate them, and even ask for them when I forget to put them out. Students do not consent to touch plenty, and I'm grateful when that happens. They set a boundary, and together we respect it. But I promise, as much as it's within me, our experience together will be in pursuit of your collective and individual healing. You're feeling hands-on today? Great! You're coming into the room charged, and want me to keep my hands off? Okay, thanks for letting me know. In a world where so much is a challenge, where so much feels taken from us without our consent, let's create a practice space where we agree to provide you with a practice space in pursuit of healing without triggering.

Rooting Down: A 40 Days of Devotion Update

Thanks, Mister, for taking this picture.  

Thanks, Mister, for taking this picture.  

I can hardly believe that I've been at this 40 Days of Devotion practice for halfway.  There's all kinds of writing out there about change management and cultivating hew habits, but to look back over the last two and a half weeks and know I've been holding steady at this practice is really encouraging. Doing anything quietly isn't really in my nature, and as much as I love cultivating stillness, it's been really difficult for me to do.

Theatre geek that I am, I keep thinking of that line from Macbeth, right after he's been scared to death by the ghost of Banquo, when he's thinking about all the ugly, deplorable stuff he's done to become king, and says, I am so far into this river of bloody deeds that to wade out were as difficult as to continue forward. (Yeah, it's totally morbid to compare my fledgling meditation practice to an overambitious soldier's murdering ways, and My Mister would say it's also mad pretentious to paraphrase Shakespeare in a blog post, but hey, I did 'em both!)  I look back and think I can't believe I came this far; and every time I'm tempted to let the day, the hour, the moment when I'd sit just slide by me, I think, how hard it would be to start from scratch and build up all this momentum, all this positive energy propelling me forward.

Lots of people make promises of what a mantra practice will DO for YOU! As if the Hindu pantheon were a cohort of cosmic gift givers, you pick your problem, pick your deity and pick your blessing. On further reflection, reminds me some of the contemporary prosperity doctrine that's taken hold of the Christian church, but that's a thought for another day. Anyway, I remember when I started, wanting very much not to approach my chanting practice with that in mind: this is not about chanting loudly or softly or sweetly or earnestly enough that I will earn favor demonstrated to me in the form of more money or travel, a new home, a thinner body, stronger arms, more flexible hammies, or any of the other objects or experiences I covet from day to day. This doesn't mean there wasn't anything I hoped to get: I definitely had my hand out. But I was seeking different qualities, as opposed to stuff.

I hoped to become less angry. I've been a person who is easily angered my whole life, and by so many things: I curse at drivers in traffic, I get belligerent when store clerks ignore me when I approach them for help, and I shoulder-check perfect strangers on the street who assume I will move out of their way. Usually these are white people, but not always, and I don't discriminate; I take up space, I demand that space, and I seldom apologize for it. There's plenty true about doing life as a woman of color that makes it reasonable to be angry. But often, I can see life around or above or apart from our fucked-up social constructs. At my best, I can see more humanity, and I sometimes I wish I weren't this way. I wish I were more accommodating of people for whom I am an obstacle and not a human, people who are consumed by their own lives and who have no problem expecting that I'll accommodate them. More than anything, I have trouble letting go of anger, of the pain I feel as a response to the behavior of loved ones, past and present, who either don't know or don't care that they've hurt me, and can't or won't make amends.

There's so much more to say about that. Blog post on taking or sharing space forthcoming. 

Suffice to say, I'm angry a lot, and I hoped that this process would drain the anger out of me, pulling the plug on a cold, stinky dirty tub full of my anger.

Well, not yet. A few days ago, I flipped some guy off who cut me off in traffic, and last night I definitely bumped into a Northwestern student who was kicking it with his bros, for whom I was invisible. ( I should say, I wasn't actively seeking to run into him, I just didn't move out of his way.) So, my dirty tub of anger: still full.

BUT--

I have noticed that there is some part of me that feels more real, and more concrete, that isn't angry. When I spit language or side-eye at someone, deep deep deep, there is some voice in me that says, "Huh. Okay, Jess. You're angry. Like, 99.99% of you is angry. But I'm that .01% of you that's not angry, that's just watching you fume. When you're ready, how about we turn the dial down on that anger?" And the rest of me listens. I become less angry, and a little faster than I used to. I'm also a little more compassionate with the person who made me angry, and a little more compassionate with myself for getting angry. 

A friend of mine described the mala of mantra every day as a kind of anchor, that drops down down down, into the center of us, a kind of touchstone that is present in the midst of all the junk roiling about in the surface of our lives, that maintains equilibrium. Even though we might feel tossed about, there's this practice that holds us firmly, safely, certainly, and can witness all of that movement without being ruled by it. 

Now that, I did not expect, but it's not bad, as consequences of meditation go. Let's see what the next 20 days hold.

Part One: 40 Days of Devotion

For a few months now I've been working on making a change to my daily practice. The perfect storm of over-commitment, under-sleep and the incredible shrinking physical practice have taken their toll physically and energetically. I really need to lean more on my seated practice.

One thing--of many--my teachers have taught me is that in our lives, there are practices that deplete prana*. Practices like too many complex asana that require us to work hard, and shorten our inhale and deepen our exhale; practices like eating junk food; like giving away more energy than we take in; like a preponderance of screen time; like family or friend relationships that are continually depleting and exhausting (can I get an Amen?). And then there are practices that build prana: like backbends, which at their best, require a long, deep inhale; practices like abhyanga, that are deeply nourishing to our musculo-skeletal and nervous systems; practices like quiet, like contemplation, like compassion. Practices like pranayama (I mean, it's right there in the name!)

So when I found myself feeling exhausted, dried out and dismayed at how work I loved so much could leave me so depleted, my teachers all kept pointing me to the same teachings: time to cultivate some prana. Sit still and use your breath. Which brings me to my new project:

40 Days of Devotion

 I was thinking: what can I do to engineer my life to cultivate a habit of a meaningful samyama practice? Then I thought, well I can't be the only one who's trying to build meditation into their lives. There must be all kinds of people, folk I know and don't know, who are struggling with the seated practice on their yoga path. Maybe I can create a community for all of us to work, both on our own and together, at drawing this new energy and spirit into our microcosm and macrocosm. Cultivating life change is easier in community, right?

So I wanted to extend the invitation to anyone who wants to join me, to do so. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Let's talk more about what we're doing here, yes?

(A quick word before I continue: you'll find the next couple of blog posts veritably littered with links to posts that will come in useful for cultivating a meditation practice. For one thing, I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. For another--and this is the really important one--so many folks have written about this with such knowledge and wisdom, that I want to humbly lift them up as shining examples and resources of how we can pursue this growth. I've no shortage of opinions, and I'll let you know, but I want to light up the good that is already a part of this conversation.)

Why cultivate a meditation practice, jess?

Because if you haven't heard, meditation is the ish. Meditation lowers blood pressure, it lowers stress, it can even boost immunity. Meditation is so good for your brain. On top of which, its regular practice helps us to deal in a healthy way with feelings that arise within us as we move through the world. If you've ever found yourself stress shopping after a tough day at work, bingeing after being triggered by some street harassment, or looking for the solution to a relationship problem at the bottom of another round, you know how easy it is to make mindless decisions to cope with the feels. Meditation creates more strength and ability to cope, to tolerate these difficult feelings, and to act mindfully in response to them. (If you're gonna eat a whole pint of ice cream, at least be conscious and judgement-free in taking every bite.)

Finally, and I'm not saying anything you don't know here, but some days our world is a difficult place to live in. It can feel, and often be, a risk just to walk down the street, to drive your car, to surrender to police, to fall asleep in your parked car, to work, to play, to rest. (Don't believe me? Are you watching the news?) Having a practice that connects us to something larger, beyond all the crap we get trapped in, can be really renewing and hopeful, a necessary practice for when we're out in the trenches of our life. 

Okay, so what are you suggesting?

Let's embark on a 40-day journey together to manifest a seated practice as a part of how we do life: as much a part of the routine as brushing teeth, morning coffee and checking Facebook. Let's build a new habit together that will help sustain us. I'll come clean at this point and say that I'm suggesting not just a meditation practice, but a specific kind of meditation practice known as japa, or the repeated chanting of a mantra. Consider this an opportunity to:

  • start a japa practice
  • renew a japa practice
  • work with a new mantra you've always wanted to try but haven't yet
  • cultivate a meditation practice that will allow a positive new habit to take root and flourish
  • meet some new people via social media, and inspire and be inspired by others on a similar journey!

So what is japa? Japa is the practice of reciting a mantra for a set number of repetitions, for . This comprehensive and easy-to-read article from Yoga International explains how japa works really clearly. For the TL;DR set, here are the highlights:

  1. Mantra repetition helps us shed the crappy thought and behavior patterns we've established in this life (and maybe in past lives, if that's your thing.)
  2. If you're new to japa, do yourself a favor and start working with your mantra aloud or in a whisper. Try to start chanting mentally before you've done the work aloud, and you'll be building a grocery list or composing an email in no time. 
  3. Use a mala. A mala is the tool from which the rosary is derived--globalism meets appropriation!--and has 108 beads on it. You'll  use your right hand to count each bead for each mantra that you chant and you'll turn the mala around at the meru or "guru" bead (sometimes a little larger than the other, but not always. More on the "how" of japa mala in part II of this post, but if you can't wait, this is a great start.)

What if I don't want to chant? Can I still participate?

Sure! For some of us, chanting may stray into a space that feels religious, but it doesn't have to. I love working in Sanskrit: it's an energetically powerful language, and chanting it aloud has powerful effects on the body and the mind. I'd encourage you to try working with japa, especially if you're new to meditation, because it gives your awareness a place to rest, and can help still the pace of your thoughts. It's nice to have something tangible (the mala) and something aural (the mantra) to focus on. Still, if after all that you still feel like you don't want to chant aloud, or at all, that's okay. I'd encourage you to stay open to whatever practice will help you build a pattern you can sustain--which might mean a short mantra, or even just the sound of OM, or maybe a mantra in English instead of Sanksrit. Maybe a practice of slowing down the breath and watching the breath, subtle as it is, is enough for you. So long as you're down to work consistently for 40 days on cultivating some devotion, the precise shape of your practice is your own.

It is true that a mantra confines the mind—that is part of the discipline of meditation. By centering your mind in a mantra and allowing the mantra sound to fill the space of your mind, you can set other thoughts and mental processes aside and stabilize your attention. Although the journey is gradual, you will sense that little by little the effort to confine the mind in this way actually produces quite the opposite effect.
— Rolf Solvik, from Yoga International

Where can I get a mala?

Good question, and the answer is lots of places. I myself like practices that are accessible at every level, so I wouldn't go out and drop 80 bucks on a jeweled mala if this is your first time out. If you're in Chicago, there are shops on Devon Street that import malas from India. My favorite is Resham's: the people are super-friendly and very helpful. Don't be afraid to ask questions. There's also a little tiny Patel brother's shop (not the grocery store, unless you need food, too), where I've bought malas before. Sandalwood is a nice mala to begin with, as is Rosewood. They're hearty and not easily breakable, and the Sandalwood smells nice.

Having said that, if you're down to spend some cash on a mala and you aren't in Chicago, or don't need or want to buy local, there's always Etsy. There are a ton of shops there that make and sell malas. Be a little choosy here: chances are you probably aren't getting a 100% bona-fide turquoise mala if it's ten bucks. Also, it's worth buying a mala that is knotted, or has a knot in between each bead: makes the counting easier, and if the string breaks, you won't have to be on hands an knees hunting for beads. I really like Mountain Malas; the stock is gorgeous, the owner is a gem to work with (who works with gems! Ha! Wordplay!), and the quality is indisputable.  You can choose a mala you like because of its color, you can choose one based on its energetic principles, or you can choose a mala based on the mantra you'll be working with. Trust your intuition here, and let it guide you.

Okay, how do I choose a mantra?

This is a very good question. Asking this question now, before we start, will give us time to reflect on what we want to manifest in this 40-day journey, and then pick a mantra that will help us in pursuit. 

If this is your first time working with mantra, choose something simple. This article lists several short mantra that I think include great choices. If you want to overcome obstacles, the Ganesha mantra is where it's at. If you're seeking protection, power, divine righteous justice, you want a mantra for Durga, the Warrior Goddess. I've worked with both of these at different times, and have been grateful for the energy they've provided within and for me. Even the mantra OM is a fine choice here. 

Those of us familiar with mantra can choose any of these, or another mantra. The Gayatri mantra is a fine choice, as is the Maha Mrtyunjaya mantra. Lately, I have the Guru mantra stuck in my head, and I think it would make a beautiful choice, to help remind us of the wisdom and education we can get from the teacher who is right here, if only we will see it. 

When do we start?

On Tuesday, March 15, in about one week. In Part Two of this post, I'll include a lot of how-to instructions, and hopefully a tool you can print out and put on your refrigerator or bedroom mirror that will hep you keep track of your forty days. 

Are you excited yet? I hope you'll consider joining me on this journey. Check this space in a few days for Part Two of our set-up for 40 Days of Devotion. 

 

 

 

 

*Prana is that vital life force that keeps us all healthy, moving, and able to do life in a meaningful, consistent way.

Religious Traditions

I am not a Hindu. It's not a label I wear: I've never observed a puja or attended temple and engaged in whatever ritual takes place there. I don't know what it means to be a Hindu or to observe Hindu traditions. It's not a tradition that I can claim, I think. My yoga practice seems to require of me, though, more than just engaging a tradition without examining its roots. That is to say, I can't participate in yoga blithely and ignorantly without considering the subtle, esoteric and religious connections it shares with Hinduism and Buddhism. I have no illusions about the overlap--or maybe line of connection--between my practice of breath, movement stillness, and connection, and the yogis' search for God.

When I think the history, the religious history that I was raised in, this history I participate in complicitly or explicitly, I think of something I heard the Dali Lama say in a talk online. He was asked by a Buddhist student who was also Jewish if he, the student, should leave behind his tradition and convert to Buddhism. The Dali Lama said, if you are not a Buddhist, don't leave your tradition to join Buddhism. If you are a Jew, stay a Jew. If you're a Christian, stay a Christian. There are all kinds of Buddhists.

And so I am not a Hindu. My practice doesn't require me to convert. I was born into a vaguely Christian culture and raised in what became a sincerely and seriously Christian family. That's my tradition.

I was reminded of that, walking through Saint-Chappelle. I often forget my tradition. The vengeance, the hypocricy, the judgment that has become so much a part of Christianity, well, I don't like it. It doesn't resonate anymore. I needed my tradition to grow. Still, it was nice to look at these stories I've known for years dramatized in stone, and in colored glass.  It reminded me how much beauty there is in the stories of Christianity. 

I have an altar at home that has as icon of Ganesha and of Nataraja on it. I often wonder if this is negatively appropriative. But in the morning when I am praying, when I need a place to focus or I need my mantra to have extra power, I'm grateful for it. I don't feel like I'm borrowing a tradition or crossing a boundary; I'm just accessing the Divine in the best way I can.

There is someone who probably thinks I should be ashamed of myself, who would say I should stick to my own tradition: with its burning bush and child sacrifice, with its swallowing whales, water walking, cheek turning and death that only lasts three days. I suppose I should. I haven't forsaken that tradition. It feels rich and wonderful. But there must be enough space for a monkey who can leap over oceans and a whale who swallows reluctant prophets. There must be enough space for an archer to talk through self-doubt with his charioteer, as there is for a carpenter's son to wander the desert, wrestling with his demons.

I had a religion professor who said that maybe, in the time between Christ's 12th birthday and when he began his ministry at 30, he went off to India and studied with the Buddha. 

Maybe these traditions are one.