“The meek shall inherit the earth”

IMG_0579This blog’s Biblical title enters my mind fairly often when I contemplate my workplace.  And if I haven’t scared you off with this reference, I can tell you several reasons why my job draws it out.  For one thing, the disability services organization I work for as a program manager has little structure or supervision, and yet our staff engages in humane and caring interactions with people in pain, every day.

Another reason is that this job has introduced me to people who continually remind me of the most important things in life.  The job has exposed me to people with developmental disabilities with whom the only way to be, or so it feels, is present and genuine, responding from my better self as I talk with others about our shared realities.  A third reason the job suggests to me another way of being, which may one day come into focus, is that we recognize staff for their contributions, their losses, and their joys.  My cat died recently, and I was devastated to lose my long-time companion.  Instead of ignoring or belittling this loss, people expressed concern and verbally acknowledged it.  My boss bought me a card, and everyone signed it.

A few of us garden in a plot off the parking lot, share the vegetables, and instigate cooking contests.  We pick up food from the local food bank to give to those who need it, and we have celebratory parties with our clientele.  People of various races, colors, ability and disability, those of changing genders, share food together.

The effects of such an environment are disorienting if you’ve ever worked in a more formal office.  On the one hand, the lack of structure and accountability at our center elicits our insecurities, but it also allows us to find our own voice and our own compassion for ourselves and others.  I’ve had my share of struggles with the place, grappled with my own insecurities roaring up from the void, but slowly and surely, I’ve defined my own way of helping, and I’ve learned to be fully present for many an encounter with an array of unusual souls.

Like those with a psychic Iraqi war vet who attends my yoga class and describes vibrant images that arise for him during class.  With a woman with cerebral palsy who cannot talk but communicates worlds through her eyes and her expressions, aided by technology.  With several disabled children who grin widely when I walk in the room and settle down to a half hour of engaging play with iPads.  With the newly blind young man who lightly grasps my elbow as I guide him to his destination.

I will not work at this center forever, but for a time, as the world spins, the economy falters, the climate changes, and we continue to make and buy a plethora of electronic and plastic goods, I can feel the profundity in my own little world of our daily encounters, our care for one another, for the animals among us, and for our earthly sustenance.  In this environment among the forgotten and marginalized, I can find my center, my mindfulness, and I can remember that it is the small and human interactions that are the most precious and that it is the connection with the earth that is most integral to our life.  I know I am lucky to have a job that stirs such “memory.”  That reminds me it is the gentle in this human life that is truly most strong.


When the shell cracks

I’ve been wrestling with my job in a disability center since I started it a year and a half ago.  Once I went in to the boss to quit, which led to a surprisingly good outcome:  She clarified my job description for me and then for the staff, which seemed keen on having me do parts of their jobs.  But I continued to struggle with defining my tasks for each day.  All the while I’ve squirmed with my role in a free-form environment with a complex clientele.  To top it off I felt a disconnect between my identity and the role.

Yet this complex situation has taught me more than the jobs that felt like a natural fit.   I’ve learned to stand up for myself, to really assert what will and won’t work for me, and I’ve learned to let go of my ego, my previous way of defining myself.  Sound paradoxical?  Yes, and true, and the beauty in the paradox is more evident to me through the help of yoga and mindfulness meditation.

Here is one good lesson:  When new to the job, I met with three women working in similar positions at an organization in a town nearby.  These folks have created elaborate social activities for their constituents.  They go out to restaurants, take vans of people on weekend trips.  Made me want to run the other way if those things are part of my job.  But I’ve built my program with smaller support groups, based around assistive technology and other topics, leaving room for some sharing.  I started a yoga class.  And I carved out some time to retreat to the computer for record keeping, newsletter creation, and website management.

I’ve been able to find ways to serve that are compatible with my more introverted temperament.  Instead of den mother, I am behind-the-scenes facilitator.  I water flowers, set out recycling, demonstrate use of assistive devices.  I participate in community gatherings and parties through setting up, clearing up, socializing.  I connect more deeply with those in my yoga class.

I watch myself respond; I honor my nature; I let go of some resistance.  And the environment accommodates me.  Whatever this job is in terms of career development, I cannot yet say, but in terms of spiritual development it is filled with fruit.

This strange little job has cracked me open while yoga and meditation kept me grounded.  I have been witness to the lives of those with disabilities, and I have been part of a community sharing experiments on healing, on living with limitations, on finding our roles in the community.  It is an unusual job in a unique environment.  I love my alone time as much as ever, but I also love this way of being connected.  I love having the chance to experiment.

It’s been very uncomfortable and rewarding at the same time.  I move out in the world, and yet I am authentically quiet and gentle, finding the background when I need it.  The stories I tell myself shift; my experience in the world transforms; my body and mind soften; my feet stand steady; and my heart engages.  That yoga and mindfulness practice has taught me how to feel, how to open, how to free fall:  It is pretty smart stuff.

Further adventures in yoga

I have so much faith in yoga to affect things physical or mental that I notice a need for it in many places.  Yoga for disabilities, yoga for kids in the justice system?  Amazing and effective in grounding, bringing more mobility and peace of mind: I have heard feedback from students corroborating my impression.  Now I have an opportunity to teach yoga, breathwork, and yoga nidra (deep relaxation) for veterans at a local clinic.

The prospect of working with vets traumatized by war is intimidating, but so was the prospect of teaching the other groups.  My friend Gina works at this vet center and is the one who invited me to teach; I ask her what it is like to work with these people, how they are affected by trauma the trauma of war and reentry into society.  She describes the anger, anxiety, and problems adjusting, and tells me it is challenging to work with this fallout of combat.  I get on the Give Back Yoga website and order CDs by folks who work with veterans:  They are on breathing and on yoga nidra, a practice for relaxing the body and even employing some hypnosis.  After years of my own practice and the influence of good teachers, I trust the ability of the yoga to do its magic, and I know how to incorporate feedback from the participants.   It’s a good starting point for challenging work.

We will meet once a week, equipped with mats, blankets, blocks, and bolsters.  My friend will be present, and that eases my mind.  Her experience dealing with the anxiety and anger that can erupt will be helpful to us all.  I will review all I have learned about dealing with trauma through the body and with mindlfulness.  With Gina there, and equipped with yoga and my own grounding through the practice, it may be doable.  It may be a healing experience.

There are now techniques for addressing trauma, whether from war, abuse, or accidents.  Yoga provides some that soothe the nervous system and rewire patterns in the muscles and nerves:  These other approaches, such as Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, try to access traumatic memories and neuronal patternings and provide alternative experiences and a type of reprogramming.  My training in hakomi introduced me to basic presence and vocalizing with people re-experiencing trauma, and these other approaches go deeper in working directly with that trauma.

Twenty-three vet hospitals in the United States have yoga classes.  The Veterans Yoga Project is providing support and training to yoga teachers and centers introducing yoga to vets.  It’s pretty cool, really, to see an institution turn to yoga acknowledging the need and embracing the techniques and healing aspects of an ancient practice.  I am ready to jump into the pool and swim with the current on this one.

The Veterans Yoga Project’s mission “is to provide education and support for the mindful use of therapeutic yoga practices as an aid in the recovery process from post-traumatic stress and other psychological difficulties among US Veterans, their families, and their communities.”  The Project notes the following, information heeded by the vet hospitals around the country:  “Veterans coping with post-traumatic stress who practice yoga report better sleep, improved focus and concentration, less anger and irritability, and an overall greater ability to enjoy life in the present moment.” 

Embodied Mind

The most profound experience I’ve ever had is the hardest one to write about.  Mostly because I doubt that I can convey this experience in words, but also because I believe it is elusive to those of us living in Western culture.  But I’m learning this is what writing, or at least blogging, is about:  sharing experience and letting the results take care of themselves.

I have experienced revelatory change several times in two years; it fades and then recurs, but always some part remains with me.    It happens in a yoga class.  Yes, yes, we’ve all felt our bodies awaken a bit in yoga as we move joints in new ways or stretch muscles we didn’t know we had.  But in this class, I come alive.  I learn elementary and transcendent truths about being human, and they are one and the same.

I say elementary because they are so simple:  There is a mindful way to be in our bodies, and we can learn it by paying attention.  Profound because when we are mindful in our physical reality, we are at one with the world, and we sense our way on our path.  I believe this phenomenon is world changing, and there are other writers who agree.

But first, my experience.  In my class with Wendy Bramlett in Boulder, Colorado, I was turned inside out and upside down.  As I lay there, unwinding muscles and habits and energetic kinks, I thought, “How could I live 49 years and not be informed of this truth?  How can we call what we do with kids in school “education” if we do not talk to them about embodiment?  And how can we be fully human if we “manhandle” our bodies?

These thoughts surfaced many times in the first six months with this teacher.  Yes, there’s been a rise in yoga and in fitness and wellness centers, and yes, many more people work out or park their cars far from the storefront.  But man, is that the best we can do?  No, it isn’t.

As a yoga student of 30 years and teacher for 10, I have experienced meditative peace, and I have felt much physical pleasure and relished the practice of yoga.  But in the past I brought my Western mentality, my mind vs. matter approach, and my need to accomplish to yoga. Only recently have I really begun to understand yoga physically, mentally, and spirituality.  I think that coming to a real understanding is a long-term process for other yoga teachers as well.  We may understand the philosophy, the energetics, the subtle body, the structure of poses on one level, but still not understand sheer presence and it’s profound effects.

And so my yoga teacher takes us on a tour of our inner bodies.  She cues us on how to observe, how to pay attention, how to trace effects of one movement through a limb, or an opposing joint.  We experience the mind-body connection, and it is much more than listening to the body.  In being fully present and embodied, we awaken.  I feel profoundly relaxed, even mildly disoriented when my bones and muscles have moved in new ways.  Prana, or energy, shoots through my body in waves or streams, quieting my head and leaving me speechless, unable to comprehend what is happening intellectually because this experience is new, and because it is not easily describable.  I find my way into what I recognize as yoga poses, but the process ofgetting there, and the sense of energy coursing through my body, are new to me.

It is not just that I become aware of sensation; it’s that I feel into and am fully aware in the sensation as it occurs.  My mind travels into my very cells, and prana lights them up as though I have touched a match to them.  Then my mind becomes conscious.  I am in the world open hearted, in a state of being rather than doing and  thinking.  I am flowing with life, participating in consciousness.  And I am guided by deeper wisdom.

Here is what other writers have said about the subject:

Joseph Campbell

“The ancient myths were designed to harmonize the mind and the body. The mind can ramble off in strange ways and want things that the body does not want.  The myths and rites were means of putting the mind in accord with the body and the way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.”

Moshe Feldenkrais in The Elusive Obvious

“Harmonious, efficient movement prevents wear and tear.  More important, however, is what it does to the image of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us.”

Philip Shepherd in New Self New World

“At the core of this book is the belief that the individual and collective challenge of our age is to allow the mind to identify with its true sensitivity . . . As we learn to let the consciousness of the pelvic skull awaken to match that of the cranial skull, we will feel again the psyche pervading ‘every living part of the organism.’  Once that happens, and the corridor within us brings male and female into correspondence and opens to make room for all the world, then we will enter an entirely different experience of the self—one that we might call the felt self.  Until your awareness can journey to and merge with the mindful place in the body that enables you to consciously ‘be,’ the self will not be able to unify; and as long as your self is not able to unify, you will not be able to feel it.”

We can think about the idea of the mind and body as one, but until we experience the truth of this fact, it doesn’t mean much.  Pay attention when you sit, when you move.  Move more slowly, change how you move.  Notice some more.  How are you affected?  Start educating  yourself if you will; there is much wisdom to recover if we want to be whole.

Hakomi homies

I have been interested in models for mental health care for many years, beginning in college where the approach was behavioral and not to my taste.  At that time I asked one professor if he could recommend some books on the history of psychology so I could learn more about where the field had come from as well as about other schools of thought within it.   Later I worked as a writer for the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and for Common Boundary, a magazine on transpersonal psychology.  And now I work in independent living, which is akin to the clubhouse model in mental health.  This model emphasizes connecting individuals with community and a range of practical resources to help them live the lives they wish given their disability or disorder.

Shortly before this stop on my journey, I joined an experiential training in hakomi body-centered psychotherapy.  This is a mindfulness-based approach sometimes called “assisted meditation.”  During a two-year training I traveled through new territory of emotion, psyche, and community.   With two excellent teachers and 22 brave cohorts, I left the achievement-oriented world and explored inner terrain I hadn’t known was there.

Hakomi drew me like a magnet.  As a yoga teacher and meditator interested in the emotional and spiritual effects of practice, it rang true for me as a method for freeing oneself of some reactivity, old beliefs, and behavioral patterns.  Observing the sensations of the body and the responses to statements and “experiments” in social interaction seemed a practical way to heal, to develop “new neural pathways” and to lighten up on the old ingrained ones.

The training was extraordinary but challenging for this introverted writer.  I had resisted group interaction most of my life, yet there I was, sitting in a very large circle “talking about my feelings” or someone else’s feelings. It was downright scary at times, but I was also awed.  The blend of teaching, experimenting, and sharing perceptions with others amazed me.  Where else, I wondered, would you find a group so willing to put their psyches on display and learn with others how us humans work, with all of our ingrained beliefs and perceptions and reactivity?  Where else would people be willing to let down old responses in the presence of others and make room for new ones?

Hakomi, which was created by therapist Ron Kurtz and is influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and even psychoanalysis, is a way of being with others, usually a therapist, in a mindful state, and noticing the sensations in one’s body as well as the thoughts and images that emerge.  Sometimes these things poke their heads up on their own, sometimes they arise as reactions to a statement or “experiment” designed by the therapist.  In this experience we begin to see how we are “organized” and what our core beliefs are.

The beauty in it is the principle of compassion for ourselves, the respecting of those resistances we have, and just observing them.  The gentle acceptance of the therapist allows all kinds of beliefs and reactions to arise and be “studied.”  Sometimes the noticing itself brings a shift in the belief.  In bringing mindfulness and compassion to one’s patterns, we see how they work, and we see the possibility of different conclusions and more choice in responding.

I often felt insecure and flawed sitting in a big circle and having to “share” my experience, but I learned, particularly I learned to give myself a break.  I learned from others that they all have their own patterns, that even those who seem most together have insecurities that motivate much of their behavior.  Forcing myself to talk, feeling analytical and scared, I watched myself perform, became more able to admit my discomfort to the group, and gradually to express a feeling or thought more spontaneously, with less analysis.

I loved the teaching and the one-on-one process. I gratefully soaked up words of wisdom about how we organize around our early experiences, about the dynamics and intricacies of anger.  Mostly I absorbed a capacity to be sloppy, to connect with others in the chaos and the tossing up of our fears and shames as just part of the human canvas.  To explore with others our childlike needs and how we manage them.  To dance without self-consciousness when we turned on some music and let ourselves move.

Ultimately, I came away more solid, more engaged with the world, and freer.  Being a hakomi therapist wasn’t for me, but hakomi infuses my yoga teaching, my writing, my meditation, and my interactions with others.  It changed me just like a year in a far-off land would: It pulled away my assumptions, my frame of reference, and let me experiment.  It gave me a more flexible sense of myself.  An invaluable trip, I’d say, this one with my “hakomi homies.”

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