'The jnani does not think he is the body. He does not even see the body. He sees only the Self in the body. If the body is not there, but only the Self, the question of its disappearing in any form does not arise.'
Over this past year my body changed quite dramatically. I have had biopsies and bruising, a breast removed, a slice of flesh removed from one inner thigh and moulded into the shape and place of the old breast, this flesh dying three days later, being removed and an implant put in its place. (You can read the back story to this first here)
Perhaps I am unusual in that, mostly due to the practice of yoga, I’ve liked my body for the past fifteen or so years. It is interesting dealing with plastic surgeons, who I associate with beauty and attempts to defy age, when what I am looking and asking for is a body as close as possible to the one I had before.
And also, perhaps unusually and also fortunately, at 45 years old it is not the first time my body has been changed through illness and surgery. Twelve years ago I had a section of my right foot removed, including the little toe, fifth metatarsal and some of the muscles of the foot. This surgery not only reshaped my foot, but it reshaped my life as I was no longer able to continue as a full-time yoga teacher.
The way I can now see it in hindsight, this is all excellent practice. The ancient yogis, and many of the Eastern wisdom traditions I’ve studied, speak of the importance of a good death, and some of this is our physical death but much of it is the intentional death of the ego, of who we think we are. Each crisis we go through in our life is potential preparation for both of these types of death. A crisis always invites some form of letting go. When the body is resculpted and its capacity changes, we cannot avoid looking directly into the question of whether we are the body - or not. Am I any lesser for having three pieces of my physical body removed? Am I any less alive because a few parts of me have died? And what or who, precisely, is in charge of all of this?
When I came out of hospital after having had a total of 13 hours of surgery, a bid disappointment and on top of that a bad reaction to a pain medication, I was completely full of gratitude and love. Some psychologists call this ‘post-traumatic growth’ and mine is far from the only account of it’s impact (see this article for example).
However getting to that point was not easy, and it can go the other way for some. It required a grieving of the part of the body that was lost, a readjustment of the idea of who I was, and a deeper humility as my pride took another knock as it was shown it was far from being in charge of my destiny. It also required a letting go of old patterns – I watched as my mind attempted to move into blame and self-pity, but, from many years of meditation, knowing that those old patterns simply weren’t going to work the only option that remained was to face and be with the pain, disappointment and sadness. It was excruciatingly hard at times.
But ageing and the body changing is a natural process and fighting it is like King Canute commanding the tide not to come in. As a yogi, I know and see that change is inherent in all things, and so things can and do change, often positively if we work in harmony with our nature and energies, but also sometimes in a direction that we do not want. How often do you see a straight line in nature? Most change is far from linear, more cyclic and organic in its movement. And, in my opinion, this creates far more beauty than the right angles beloved of mankind.
So although I have lost some (more) physical capacity I have gained a valuable skill. I have tasted the possibility of opportunities I love shrinking away. This is where most of us will find ourselves if we are lucky enough to live to an old age, as our eyes and ears and memory and strength fail, as we are less able to fulfil society’s preference for ‘productive’ citizens. It is a taste of falling apart, a taste of not getting what you want, and facing this helps us recognise the beauty and value of this very precious life, and to remember that what is important is rarely what our society and others want us to believe.
This past year, 2016, has been a momentous year for me. It is as if my personal microcosm has reflected the macrocosm of Trump, Brexit, huge refugee migrations and uncertainty over what the future might look like.
I could write this blog post from a physical, emotional/psychological or spiritual angle, although the three are blended and swirled together like a raspberry ripple, each really indistinguishable from the other and all making up the taste of the year. So, I’m going to post in stages. This first stage focuses on the broader picture and why I’m posting about it now.
I adhere to the principle that while I am still in process about something, and there’s a fair chance I might get upset/react rather than respond/cry or get otherwise emotional if someone speaks to me of it, I do not share it in a public forum. My work as a coach and yoga teacher involves me holding space for and helping others navigate their challenges and processes. So I do not consider it appropriate for me to bring my own emotive issues into that space, and so take the energy and attention away from them. Some things need to remain hidden in private circles until such time as the emotional charge is reduced to the point that I can speak with equanimity about it.
And I’d say I’m about there now. So here goes…
At the start of 2016 I admit to being stuck. Stuck in low energy, stuck in low motivation, stuck in my spiritual practice and in some doubt about my work and career. The year started with a project to which I’d devoted much time and energy blowing up in an uncharacteristic wave of anger and frustration, and I felt I was going backwards.
Then I noticed a lump in my breast. I’ll tell in other blogs of the journey into underlying causes, what I learned about myself, and the experiences and insights into our amazing and also greatly strained NHS. But, for now and to keep it short, it was breast cancer.
I went through a spring of uncertainty and multiple biopsies, a summer of surgery that at first succeeded and then failed in a deep splash of disappointment, and an autumn of chasing up notes and referrals to figure out my next steps. As the physical wounds healed and I reentered my working life, I got really busy. That was great in terms of my bank balance, as a self-employed person the summer entailed so many raids of our emergency funds that they completely dried up, but I also noticed that I had put up some levels of protection that were not there before. I was still finding a delicate balance in my resculpted body, growing into the new sense of who I was and integrating the deep teaching I’d received from the process, and I couldn’t expose this to the world. So I protected it with uncharacteristic scepticism, being sometimes preoccupied instead of fully present with others, and finding ways of distracting myself. Perhaps getting so busy, although it appeared more by coincidence than by intent, was a part of that protection. But also, by hiding my 'secret', I was holding something back.
It took a while to see what was happening, and to realise that I wasn’t, fully, allowing myself to be the new version of myself that this journey has created. And as that is what I encourage and hope to inspire in my clients, I absolutely need to embody it in myself. So I needed to look a little closer.
I saw that each time we are stirred up, particularly in more dramatic ways, new aspects spiral up to the surface and need to be acknowledged. For me, one such piece was the part of me who since being a little girl wanted to be a writer. Although I’d thought I’d lain her to rest in my 20s, when she got entangled with other’s expectations, and realising that freed me up from the torture that the writing process was at that time, she emerged clear and resolute this winter, demanding space to fulfil her ambitions. She may appear to have nothing to do with the illness and recuperation, but it was most definitely her time to emerge.
So I am writing this, and other things that have long wanted to be written. And as I write, the hard edges fall away, and I feel ready to be fully open again. And, indeed, my whole life is flowing again, and in really beautiful and unexpected directions.
If I’ve learned anything from my own inner microcosm, and from the wider outer macrocosm, we need more openness, more vulnerability, more kindness in our inner and outer worlds. And so here I am, doing my best as 2016 closes and 2017 opens, to do exactly that.
I found myself, recently, advising a friend how to make gravy.
As someone who was a vegetarian for nearly 20 years, and has very rarely cooked meat, I realised that it was a bit of a strange situation. So, how did I become someone who knows how to turn meat juices into gravy?
Well, all through my childhood I watched my mother (and grandmothers) make gravy, and often helped them. Stirring the gravy is the kind of job another pair of hands, however small, can help with when there’s all the other things to get ready and on the table for the Sunday roast. And, even when I lived in Africa and the Middle East as a child, my mother would try, quite regularly, to recreate some of those family traditions through roast dinners, pies and puddings served in the equatorial heat. Living abroad meant that, at times, the modern convenience foods were not so easily available, and cooking from scratch was essential.
I picked up a huge amount of knowledge and experience about how to cook from my mother, alongside the expectation that food is at its best when freshly prepared and enjoyed at a table with others.
I realise that, these days, this is not all that common.
Yes, I ate a few Fray Bentos pies and plenty of frozen peas and fish fingers as a child. But these were emergency foods for when we were camping, sailing or back home late. As a student at university I was surprised how my flatmates scarcely cooked beyond heating up baked beans. I have had many friends and clients with eating disorders, where their relationship with food has become painful and destructive. Many more have struggled with their weight, and seen food as calories to feel guilty about or avoid. I have seen meals such as pasta salads (slathered in mayonnaise) and diet chocolate bars and drinks (full of sweeteners and additives) labelled as ‘healthy’ and dried fruit, nuts and proper meals containing good fats and protein labelled as ‘bad’. There was even a tricky moment with my boyfriend, now husband, who tried to impress me with an apple crumble – made from a packet. For so many people the pervading mentality around food is still one of self-denial and discipline, or comfort and convenience. And trying to change this, if you were brought up on takeaways, oven chips, ready meals and processed snacks is very hard to do.
My mother’s version of a diet was to eat a bit less for a few days. My mother’s attitude to food was that if you could pick it fresh from the back garden, then it would taste even better. My mother accepted that cooking from scratch takes time, and planned meals and menus in advance, making chutneys and jams (and yes, she also worked much of the time). I remember the smell of pizza dough rising in the airing cupboard and looking forward to dinner time. But most of all my mother’s attitude to food showed me that cooking nutritious, fresh, tasty food is a tremendous way of showing love and care to yourself, your family and friends.
So I am so grateful, on this Mother’s Day, for the good food habits that my mother has instilled in me through her example and own good habits. I am grateful that I crave broccoli and brown rice at least as often, if not more, than I crave crisps or chocolate. And I am grateful that I know how to cook pastry, roast dinners, cakes, desserts, pies, quiches and, of course, gravy.
Thank you Mum!
The past month has been very busy. There was a week’s retreat in France, a new social enterprise launching next weekend (more to follow on that!), an MSc assignment to write, meetings for two new initiatives with different groups of people, all interspersed with regular coaching clients and other scheduled work. Each time I have planned to have an evening or a day off, life has decided otherwise: a close family member was admitted to hospital unexpectedly, our drains got blocked, we had to get rid of and replace our broken down pickup, and unexpected visitors of both human and canine varieties came to stay.
Although I am usually very good at taking time for myself and doing my yoga and meditation practice, this past month has been so packed that some of there simply hasn't been enough down time. And although physically I’ve felt ok, there’s been a part of my brain that began to feel deeply exhausted.
So finally, when I got a day off, what did I do? I went foraging.
In order to pick blackberries or apples or do any kind of foraging you have to stay quietly present. If you don’t, you will either miss what you are looking for, get scratched, stung, covered in sticky seed cases or you just won’t end up with many to take home. And it is precisely maintaining this present moment awareness, or alpha state, that is so deeply restful. It is in this state that we restore our balance from too much forward planning and calculating, from too much stimulation, from too much thinking. It is in the alpha states that we build resources that actually help us become better in all these other states that are so common in our lives, precisely by giving us a break from them. It certainly worked for me, and when I sat in meditation later that day, I could find the restorative quiet I had been so badly missing.
Two hundred years ago most people would have spent much of their waking lives doing simple things such as planting, weeding, tending animals, sewing, baking bread, chopping wood, collecting water and so on. Today we have mostly automated these processes. I am very happy that water now comes out of taps and that I don’t have to make my own clothes, but we have lost something precious in making things so easy. When at our desks, in our cars and in front of our televisions we are rarely able, for long, to remain in a state of relaxed, yet alert, present moment awareness. Instead, our minds are - necessarily - having to move rapidly from subject to subject, from past issues to future planning, figuring out or dealing with the implications of our actions and constantly recalling and learning information.
The restful and healing quality of staying present without all that much to do is, of course, key to the practice of mindfulness. It is key to the great popularity of yoga and chi gung and one of the reasons, alongside the physical, why we feel better after a class. It is also behind the love many have for gardening, running, playing music and the many other activities where you quietly participate in something repetitive, familiar and ultimately very rewarding. And in our hugely busy lives, these moments are invaluable.
So a wonderful thing to do on these autumn days is to spend an hour picking blackberries, elderberries, crabapples or whatever takes your fancy. It’s an effortless meditation practice. And as you put the crumble in the oven, blitz the smoothie in the blender, or put the jam in its jars, congratulate yourself on nourishing not just your body but also your mind.
There are some places that are special to us. As one of my teachers, Lama Lena, once said, they have ‘more place-ness’ to them.
For me, one of these is in the woods where I walk the dogs. On the river bank, leaning out of a stony bank, grew a beech tree. As I passed under its branches, day after day, month after month, year after year it became a place that I paused, appreciated the birdsong and sound of the river, and often sat and meditated for a few minutes.
Two weeks ago I had a lot of internal turmoil going on. As I approached the tree I paused, as usual, and it felt as if it offered a compassionate presence as witness to my suffering. Simply being in this place, under these welcoming branches, transformed my state of mind completely. As I touched its rough bark, covered in ivy, I noted the slant of the trunk and the thought passed through my mind that one day it would topple over. And then, giving thanks for this place and the gift of that moment, I walked on.
I was away for the weekend, and when I returned four days later I found the trunk completely snapped in half. When I saw this I was shocked to the core, it was a huge reminder of the mortality of all things. Invisibly, rot had set in and finally the trunk could not support the weight of the branches. And yet the beauty and grace of the tree, even in its demise, was clearly apparent. So I did all I could, which was to offer my own compassionate presence to honour its passing.
I realised in that moment that the deepest and truest compassion arose in me when I was fully aware of and facing the depths of my own suffering, of the destruction inherent in all creation. It is a deep recognition of the way things are. For us to be birthed, our mother goes through pain. For us to eat, something has to die. I see this expressed in my husband’s paintings, in many great works of art, in many of the most touching pieces of music. They draw something out of us that brings us fully into life with all its joys as well as its sorrows.
Lama Lena is coming to Devon to share teachings on compassion next weekend. The weekend retreat is almost full, and there is also a public talk in Totnes on Sunday 29th June. Do come and join us. More info at www.lamalenadevon.weebly.com
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