Surrender to Enthusiasm

We did a new activity in yoga class last week. My teacher suggested it’s was not an accident. Towards the end of an invigorating hour of practice that started with dancing to warm up, she came around and asked us to pick a card from a deck. Each card contained a word.

When she came to me, I noticed a card sticking out of the pile, but something told me I should pick another that was tucked a bit deeper into the pack. The card said “surrender.”

My first reaction was, “No. I really don’t want to.” And at the same time, I realized I might not have a choice. I’d been was thinking of giving up on something I could no longer control that was not serving me well.

After offering the deck of cards to the last student, the teacher came back to me with another card. “I have to give you this one too, because it pretty much jumped out at you!” she exclaimed.

The card say “enthusiasm.”

That one bugged me a bit because I didn’t feel like I always had the energy for enthusiasm, though I suppose that depends on how the word is defined. I was conscious that during the dance warm up at the beginning of class, for example, there was a physical limitation holding me back.

But back to the cards. It was easy to notice these two words formed a short but powerful sentence: Surrender to enthusiasm.

Opportunities for Enthusiastic Surrender

I thought about my little sentence on the drive home. Why not believe the message was meant to reach me at this moment? I immediately felt energized. But what, I thought, do I need to surrender to?

Maybe I need to surrender to others’ enthusiasm for things. Perhaps the yoga gods are telling me, for example, to stop wishing my husband would stop talking about buying a motorcycle. Or maybe the message was sent to help me deal with a member of my extended family whose exaggerated, enthusiastic tales often test my patience.

Or, it could be that it’s time for me to surrender to my own enthusiasm for something, which I think shows itself in calmer way. In fact, maybe I need to be OK with that instead of letting it stop me.

Just that morning, I’d been thinking about yoga teacher training and what holds me back from enrolling in one. Besides the money and time commitment (neither of which is as easy to work around at it would have been in the past), I’m afraid having the job of teaching yoga will ruin my enthusiasm for the practice. I think that fear comes from my experience as a public school teacher, when my love of learning was seriously challenged by having to deal with reluctant students, politics, lesson plans, and all the other things learning is not about.

I also haven’t found the right teacher or program for me. And I think that’s important.

And in case you missed the message the first time

When I got home from class, I returned to a book editing project I’d been working on for weeks. The book is about yoga and other tools for living a healthy, blissful life. Within moments, this sentence jumped off a page I was editing: When you are willing to surrender into greater energy, nothing is lacking.

The context was setting intentions for a life-changing practice that involves yoga, nutrition, breathing, meditation and other aspects of mind, body and spirit.

Hmmm, maybe that energy I’m worried about not having will be there when I need it after all.

Moments after that, my other word appeared, this time in a sentence about taking time each day to sit for five minutes and formally set an intention: Do it with enthusiasm. This is where you start manifesting your dream.

Now my surrender was about something very different than I initially feared. It was not about giving up, but about allowing something to come through and allowing it to come through with intention and enthusiasm. It could be my own brand of quiet enthusiasm, and that’s really OK.

I’m going to pay attention, so I’ll recognize that thing when it shows up and wants to come through.

They say that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. I did sign up for another writing course.

Giving Up Control and Letting Life Happen

This morning, I went to an early yoga class. I thought about skipping the class since I didn’t sleep well, but I managed to get myself up and ready anyway. At 7:40 am, tired not only from lack of sleep but because of lingering sadness over the issue that had kept me awake, I pushed myself out the door.

The issue that stole my slumber is one I’ve been struggling with for a while now. I don’t give up on things easily, but in this case, I’ve begun to feel like it really is time to stop trying. Some things are too draining and too difficult, and it serves us better to just let them go. At least that’s what my “yoga brain” was telling me as I headed to class feeling resigned to the fact that it was time to stop trying to solve the problem on my mind.

Giving up Control

Yoga has a way of calling us to the mat for very specific reasons. Of course, this doesn’t happen every time, but it’s up to us to notice when it does. Today was one of those days. The teacher began, as she usually does, by sharing a reading. This one was about letting go of control. “So often we feel like we need to be in control of everything in our lives,” she began.

I smiled, because this was right in line with the conversation I’d had with myself earlier. I’d set (again) my intention to stop trying to make something happen, because I knew there was no hope. I was just going sit (really, hide) and let whatever was going to happen (or not happen) unfold.

“Can you relate to this?” the teacher asked me. She’d noticed my smile.

“I just had this conversation with myself this morning,” I replied.

At least I’d thought I did.

My teacher continued to read a passage about things that challenge us in life and how we often want to put ourselves right into them and take control and direct the outcome. We just want to say, “Enough! I don’t like the way this is going.”

In my case, the control I thought about taking was going to look more like giving up. I would stop struggling with something that wasn’t going the way I needed it to go.

“But sometimes things are hard because they are meant to teach us something,” was the message my teacher was reading this morning.

It surprised me, because I thought the “control issue” reading would be more about walking away from things that are too hard to control instead of trying to control them.

When the reading suggested things are supposed to be hard sometimes, I was really annoyed! This wasn’t the message I wanted. I didn’t want to be told to keep enduring something that felt way too difficult really to deal with.

So I did what any good yogi would do. I bit my proverbial tongue (the one that wanted rebut this crazy thing I was hearing) and listened to the rest of the passage. If there’s any truth to the idea that things come to us when we need to hear them, this was one example.

Staying in the Storm

It’s tough to think there are some things in our lives that may always be difficult and that the difficulty is meant to be because without those challenges, we won’t grow in important ways.

I don’t know if I’ll eventually come back to my conviction that it’s time to give up on this one thing, but for now, I’m going to try again, maybe just this one time more, and maybe many more times.

I’ll try again, because I was reminded this morning that accepting difficult things without trying to control them is a powerful way to awaken. It’s another opportunity to flex a spiritual muscle. And we need all those muscles to be strong to stay on the path to enlightenment.

Spring: When Everything Old Can Become New

Spring is finally here! And that means it’s time for new beginnings. I’m excited because I’m ready for something new. It’s been an especially difficult winter on the east coast and for me personally, due not only to all the cold weather and snowstorms, but also some of those pesky storms of life.

The universe does have a way of nudging us toward a place we need to be, and that’s probably why I forced myself out of the house at the last minute to get to a yoga class today despite my inner protests (I have all this work to do; I’m tired; I can practice at home).

The teacher’s theme was, not surprisingly, spring-related. She spoke of doors and opening our hearts to new things; she asked us how we intended to greet the spring. Well, maybe that’s not exactly what she said, but you get the point.

Earlier, I’d been wondering why I wasn’t being strongly drawn to practice at any particular studio lately. I’ve been more or less bouncing from place to place for the last four or five years. Maybe the problem (if it’s even a problem) isn’t so much the studios out there as the plateau that I’ve reached within myself. I seem to be hearing (and saying and doing) the same thing over and over no matter where I go, and none of it is resonating the way it used to.

So it seemed this would be a good time for a new message, or so I was thinking as I unrolled my mat on this spring morning. I don’t mean an “out with the old, in with the new” kind of message. I mean I need to deepen my practice (my yoga practice, my spiritual practice, and my entire practice of life). Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I recently reached a milestone age. And I would like very much to be new.

Beginner’s Mind Makes Old Things New

So there I was in class waiting for something new. But there was really nothing new. Instead, the teacher invited us to experience the poses as if we’ve never done them before!

That was a powerful approach because this was in no way a beginner’s class. But then again, maybe it was. Maybe they all are (or could be). We do a lot of things in life so much by habit that it can become difficult to truly experience them anymore. And what happens? Sometimes, we get bored. And we start complaining about how we want to do something different or experience something new.

But what if we just started to think of the things we’re already doing in a different way?

This is especially challenging, I think, in our relationships. My husband reminds me of this all the time. We get so used to each other’s habits and ways of interacting that we think we can anticipate everything the other is going to say or do. Often, we can. But not always. And it’s usually when we can’t that we’ve missed something important.

So this little insight in yoga class was not exactly what I expected as an approach to this new season of spring. It’s better. Because the key to renewal may be simpler than we think. It may be that we don’t need to do anything new, just that we need to do old things in new ways.

So when you find yourself blaming your circumstances or routine for the lack of excitement in your life, try taking a deep breath and embracing whatever you’re doing right now. Do it as if you’ve never done it before. You may be surprised at how new old things can become!

It’s Okay to Say “God”

I’ve been a spiritual seeker for decades. I grew up in a religious (Catholic) family. Religion was not a bad thing. I went to church every Sunday until I was in college. Soon after I graduated, I followed the path of many twenty-somethings disillusioned with religion. It wasn’t that I saw no value in religion; it was that I needed to go deeper.

God is an Experience

Around the time I took my first yoga class, I spent some time exploring Christian Mysticism. I practiced centering prayer (similar to Eastern meditation) and read about the lives of Thomas Merton, St. John of the Cross, and other mystics. I was fascinated with “The Cloud of Unknowing” and a little booklet someone gave me called “The Hound of Heaven.”

The simple idea behind this mystic’s journey is God is in us. God is part of nature. God will call us in subtle and not so subtle ways. And if we really want to understand our connection to God, we have to go within ourselves to experience it.

This inner knowing was a bit different from the traditions, rules, and practices I’d known as religion until then. To mystics, God is more of an experience than a being you can figure out by thinking, reading, and following a set of rules.

Buddha

As I continued to practice yoga and learn more about Eastern traditions, my understanding of spirituality and what it means to be a spiritual being expanded. I began to learn about Hinduism, then Buddhism, Taosim and other Eastern traditions.

I’m open to anything that brings me a genuine experience of “something greater than myself” (something which I believe I am a part of). I have less need to define it or analyze it or intellectualize it. I just try to experience it and be it.

But I’ve noticed something interesting as I’ve come to know many other spiritual seekers on a journey similar to mine. It seems the word “God” has become taboo in some circles. Some people with Christian roots seem eager to throw the baby (Jesus) out with the bath water.

If you’re a Christian (and even if you’re not), you probably understand Jesus as someone who came to show people the way to God. The path to God is the reason for any religion. Of course, there’s a difference between Christianity and other religions, but it’s not the religion itself that matters most.

As human beings, we need to start with a set of rules that point us in the right direction toward anything we want to understand. And in trying to understand spiritual matters, various groups have established different religions. Religions are important. They start us on a path to God.

Rules, Rituals and Being Human

I hear a lot of people complain about Christianity because it supposedly encourages us to see ourselves as sinners. The problem may be a too-harsh definition of sin or they idea that sin makes us bad people.

Sin is anything that keeps us from God (so if yoga is your spiritual practice that can mean harming another being instead of practicing ahimsa is a sin; it can even mean skipping your practice or practicing half-heartedly is a sin if your practice is what keeps you connected to a higher power).

It’s a fact of human life that we’re not always perfectly focused on our spiritual goals. But if enlightenment is important to us, we need a way to stay on the journey.

Is it really too many rules and rituals that cause people to cringe when they see a crucifix? Maybe, like the rules you learned for solving arithmetic equations or driving your car, you don’t have to be so rigid about them once you’ve understand what your goal is in the first place.

In other words, it’s the spirit of the law, not the law itself that matters. If you’re getting the answer right, the steps you take may not be as important as you were led to believe when you first encountered the question. Just be honest about what’s happening. Are you really getting the answer, or is it just easier not to do your homework?

God will find you

I had a conversation about this recently, and my companion suggested that another reason people become disillusioned with Christianity is that they don’t like the idea of being eternally accountable to an invisible God.

So, here’s the thing. If there is an invisible God who is watching and taking note of our sins, we don’t have a choice in the matter. But that’s not something to worry about. There are probably eternal consequences to any choices we make in life. And eternity starts now. It’s not some final payment (or penalty) that will happen in the future.

The point I’m hoping to make is if you are truly honest about your spiritual life and your reasons for choosing your own form of spiritual practice, you will find your way back to your source. God by any other name is still God.

(Don’t) Worry; Be Happy

You may remember the song, “Don’t Worry; Be Happy.” It’s a catchy tune and a fine message, usually. If you practice yoga, you have probably practiced being in the moment, which usually suggests a state of blissful trust in the universe. In other words, you’re without

Sometimes worry is healthy

In the book “Aging as a Spiritual Practice,” author and Buddhist priest Lew Richmond writes about “healthy” worry. He describes the Buddhist concept of the “middle way,” comparing it to a lute string. In order to produce the best sound, a lute string must be in balance, that is, not too loose and not too tight.

My mom (who gave me the book to read) pointed this out the other day when we were discussing retirement. Realizing I had some concerns about having enough to live on in retirement, she said, “They say live in the moment, but how can you do that?”

Since I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the future, I thought I knew the answer. “You have to be aware of the future and make plans for the future, but it’s probably not healthy to live in the future,” I suggested. I’m not sure if that’s right.

The future depends on you

I guess the point is if you go through life in denial and truly live only in the moment, you will eventually encounter unpleasant moments. The unfortunate reality of having to save for retirement is one example.

I often encounter people who swear to me the “universe” will provide for them, that things will happen “in time.” And I’m not surprised to find out ten years later that they’ve made no real progress toward their goals (if they had any goals to begin with).

On the other hand, if we spend our lives obsessing about numbers (living in the future) or stressed out over how to be sure I lives go according to plan, we’ll likely be miserable for many more moments than if we go through life with trust and awareness of how the present unfolds into the future.

Our past does not disappear

Similarly, there’s no real way to be in the present if we have no connection to the past. Our past contributes to what is going on in our lives at this moment. Again, living in the past (brooding, regretting or wishing to return to “glory days”) is not useful. But recalling pleasant memories or appreciating the value of lessons we learned in childhood enriches each present moment, doesn’t it?

Learning to live in the present moment is (along with learning how to breathe) one of the best gifts I’ve received from my yoga practice. I could spend a lot of time feeling sad about things I’ve lost or fearing what will happen in the future, but thankfully, I don’t, at least not too often.

Keeping the Lute Strings in Balance

I try to spend just enough time in the past or future to keep my lute string balanced so I can make the best possible music. When I find myself tightening the string too much, I trust that I can take a step back and stop worrying, at least for the moment.

And when I realize I do need to make plans for the future, I tighten that string just a bit more, but not so much that I forget to appreciate the gift of living in this beautiful moment and trusting I’ll make (mostly) the right choice in each moment as the future unfolds.

The past, present and future cannot really be separated. But maybe this is just a matter of perspective. No one can be in exactly the right place at all times; we need to learn how to make adjustments, to loosen and tighten that lute string as we move through a series of present moment.

That’s the beautiful practice of the “middle way.”

Om and Dharma: Why Yoga is so Much More than a Physical Practice

A few days ago, I attended a challenging vinyasa yoga class at a studio I’d never been to before. It was one of those classes where once or twice I say to myself, “She must be kidding” when the teacher directs us into a pose that is just not going to happen for my body that day.

Still, I felt great after the class, despite thinking at one point that my thighs were going to explode during one of the vinyasa sequences. But as the class wound to a close and the teacher imparted a short final blessing, I realized that there were two things this class did not include that I missed: a dharma talk and chanting.

Yoga Wisdom and the Sound of the Universe

Most of the classes I attend over the last few years begin with a short discussion of a yoga-related topic or a relevant reading. These classes also begin and end with chanting the sacred sound of “om.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to have a wonderful class without either of those elements. Sometimes I want a shorter, “mostly asana” class, and I’d probably go to fewer classes overall if I didn’t have the option to take a shorter class now and then. It’s just that I noticed there was something missing in this case, and I was grateful I knew it was missing. In other words, I’m grateful to teachers who include some food for the mind and soul as well as physical movement for the body.

Dharma and Om

So what are the benefits of those dharma and om parts of yoga class?

What is the purpose of life?

The answer is probably different for everyone. Personally, I find a lot of inspiration for my writing in the themes my yoga teachers speak about in class. Speaking briefly to the class is also a way to connect, even though time doesn’t usually allow for an actual conversation. (I often think it would be nice to have an optional discussion at the end of some classes.)

Chanting is another way everyone in the room can connect. And just as in life, sometimes there is a wonderful harmony as people join their voices to “om” while other times there is more of a cacophonous clash of sound.

Either way, yoga and chanting go hand in hand in my mind, and I notice when the chant is missing.

Body, Mind and Spirit

Once in a while (though truly not often), I come across a person who does not like yoga. I don’t mean a person who has a preferred style of practice or who has not yet practiced long enough to fall in love, but someone who truly does not like anything about the practice.

Most of the time, this is a person who thinks of yoga as a type of fitness activity, like running on a treadmill or playing tennis. It’s tempting to engage such a person in a conversation until I have convinced him or her there is always something to love about yoga and he or she has probably just not found the right style or teacher yet. Instead, I usually decide it’s one of those times for letting go.

The point I’d make if I did engage the person is while there are many wonderful physical benefits to yoga, we come to class not only to tone our bodies but also to open our spirits and still our minds. Many of us come to connect with like-minded people as well.

Maybe my own practice will speak for itself, and someday, everyone will love yoga. If not, I suppose that’s okay too.

Do What You Want (as long as you don’t hurt anyone)

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who suggested a good motto to live by is “Do what you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”

On the surface, this seems like great advice. But something about it didn’t seem quite right to me, and I found myself thinking about it more. The question nagging me was this: Is it really possible to always do what we want without ever hurting anyone?

I finally decided the answer to my nagging question depends on what’s meant by “what I want.” The phrase what I want seems to disregard anyone other than me. Of course this isn’t always the case, and I know  it’s not what my friend meant when he shared his motto.

As it happened, soon after that conversation, as I was mulling over this idea of doing what I want (without hurting anybody), I picked up a book I was reading called “Awaken,” by Reverend Jaganath Carrera. And there, right on page 94, the very page where my bookmark was saving my place, was this quote:

The beneficial is one thing; the pleasant is another. These two, differing in their ends, both prompt to action. Blessed are they that choose the beneficial; they that choose the pleasant miss the goal.” ~Katha Upanishad

In the book, Reverend Carrera goes on to explain that when we do something pleasurable in the moment without regard to whether or not it is beneficial, there is no lasting value to that action for ourselves or for anyone else. “Beneficial acts improve someone’s material security, physical and psychological well-being, and advance spiritual growth,” he says.

We’re all connected, and our actions affect each other

Personally, I think the only way to live and “do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone” is if you have no relationship with others or with the planet in general for that matter. A more valuable and enriching philosophy, I think, is to make choices that are beneficial (including—maybe even especially including—those that are pleasurable).

Perhaps the most important person to consider when weighing whether or not an action is beneficial is other people (though they should be included), but you.

I’m no authority on anything, but I do think we should do things that help us grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. That doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyable; enjoyment of life is part of overall well-being.

The problem is if our goal is simply to “not hurt others,” the goal has little value and (I believe) is almost impossible to reach. The reason is it’s often not obvious when our choices, pleasant and innocent as they may seem, hurt others—and ourselves—in the long run.

Try to think of something you can do that doesn’t affect anyone, either positively or negatively. There’s really nothing. As human beings, like it or not, we are all connected, and in some way, everything we do affects at least one other person.

So let’s just say for argument’s sake that what people mean when they say, “I’m not hurting anyone” is “I’m not hurting anyone that I’m aware of at the moment.” And just to cover all bases, let’s also say “I’m not helping anyone” means “I’m not helping anyone that I’m aware of at the moment.”

The only way the philosophy of doing what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone works as a general way of life is if no one cares about you. It’s highly unlikely that no one cares about you. It is possible you don’t believe anyone cares about you or that you don’t feel cared for. If that’s the case, it’s easier to understand why you would think you can do what you want.

Do What You Want as Long as It’s Beneficial

A better idea (I think) is to do what you want as long as it is beneficial. And remember that you can be the one who benefits.

Think about the things you would like to do that you don’t think will hurt anyone. Are those actions hurting you? Are you sure? They are hurting you if they are not adding something truly positive to your life.

The benefit has to outweigh, or at least be equal to, the pleasure. Notice the pleasure is still there. (Yes, there are times we need to do things that aren’t pleasant because they are beneficial, but those are not the things I’m talking about.)

Does it feel good to eat a cheeseburger and drink a six pack of beer when you are alone and there is no one around who notices or cares about whether or not that’s good for you? Perhaps, but what’s the benefit?

And here’s another wrinkle. I think there are times when our actions do hurt someone, but it’s still the right (more beneficial) choice. For example, if you’re the type whose friends rely on you to validate, support, and help them with all kinds of problems, no matter what the time of day or night or how realistic their expectations might be, you may need to consider how beneficial your “help” really is.

A friend may feel hurt or offended when you don’t come through or when you choose to do something for yourself instead. Is it beneficial to continue to play the role of “good friend” at any cost? In a case like this, it may be better to do what you want even though it hurts someone else.

I think deep down we would all like to spend our lives growing, which brings me back to the quote I mentioned a few paragraphs back. It’s a really great quote, and so here it is again:

The beneficial is one thing; the pleasant is another. These two, differing in their ends, both prompt to action. Blessed are they that choose the beneficial; they that choose the pleasant miss the goal. ~Katha Upanishad

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