Saturday, March 21, 2020

Stepping Into Life

     While chatting with my mom the other day, I mentioned being short on my step count and needing to remedy the situation. She responded with surprise. "I wouldn't have taken you for the step counting type." Probably because I've never been involved in any sports or fitness regimens. I tried doing leg lifts for a couple weeks in 5th grade, but that wasn't fulfilling. Of course there is yoga, which has always felt like a category of its own. Known as a goalless practice, nothing to chart there. So why count steps? Shouldn't they just be enjoyed?

One step at a time!
A few years ago I discovered that my  smartphone had been keeping track of my steps. I was shocked to see that most days had very few charted. Something about this reality check motivated me to find out more about my daily habits. I wanted to see if  I could rack up 10,000 steps on a regular basis. At first I quit whenever I felt like it. The tried-and-true 'listen to your body' wisdom served as my coach. I didn't see it as giving up either. I was happy not to be turning walking into some kind of punishment, like those 5th grade leg lifts.

One captivating day, I had the experience of really stepping into my feet. It happened while I was imagining the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh's suggestion to "kiss the earth with your feet." My pace slowed down and I really felt connected to my movements. It felt like my spiritual heart had moved into my feet! The next day I was back to focusing on my thoughts, which caused a great disconnect in my movements again. This felt so much like meditation and yoga. One moment it all feels so right, and the next moment it's back to the bombardment of the thinking mind.

Stepping into all the seasons.
Each step brings new information and an opportunity to be fully present with it. Bringing somatic yoga principles into a daily walking practice seemed overwhelming at first. It was easier to listen to a podcast about being in my body than creating the conditions to actually be in my body. Sensing and feeling is no easy task, especially if distractions are plentiful, or discomfort is perceived. Yet, allowing all the sensations to be noticed, felt, and eventually let go, has been key to maintaining a transformative walking practice. What started as a fact finding mission (how many steps do I take?) has morphed into an everyday practice of self-acceptance and love.

Switching up the way I walk is important for keeping it interesting. It's true that our mind/bodies crave novel movements. With an endless sense of permission, I change a little something here and there. Maybe I'll lead with my left foot for a while. Noticing the whole time, things like; How do my feet land? Where am I stuck? How are my shoulders moving today? Can there be some contentment in the discomfort? These are just a few of the questions I keep in mind while taking a walk. The work of Esther Gokhale and the return to primal posture gave me some other ideas for keeping it interesting. I listened to Esther's talks and began to experiment with some new (yet ancient) ways of walking. My body responded right away to this method. I noticed some adjustments in my hips, I felt taller. It's intriguing to remember her instructions for a portion of a walk and then return to simply kissing the Earth with my feet.

Of course 10,000 steps is just an arbitrary number. I know someone who aims for 4000 steps a day. Plenty of walkers don't count their steps at all. If I become fixated on the number as the goal, it quickly becomes something to be gotten through instead of something to be savored. 10,000 steps is my yoga, meditation and breathing practice, and not so much a time for catching up with friends. I enjoy walking with friends, but consider it more of a treat than a necessity. Much like meditation, it feels supportive to be with others who are engaged in the same practice at the same time, though ultimately this is inner work and a solo journey. There are definitely days when I struggle to prioritize my walks, and it sure is nice to have a supportive friend to help me get outside and start walking. Thankfully on most days walking is a joy, a highlight, a non-negotiable necessity.

For those who are unable to walk, focusing on the breath instead of steps is a wonderful alternative. Vipassana meditation encourages practitioners to have a one-hour sitting practice, twice a day. As someone who likes to question tradition, why one hour? Certainly 15 minutes of meditation is much better than none. It's the same with walking. However, these time frames are really designed for our mind/body organisms to get the full experience of mindfulness practice. The level of refreshment I feel after one hour of meditation is generally much higher than after 15 minutes. Still, I adjust practice times as needed, knowing it's all worthwhile. Even a short walk does wonders for stress reduction. Longer practice times feel like a substantial investment in physical, mental and emotional health. However many steps (or minutes of meditation), bringing an intention to mind such as; "I'm planting seeds of peace," helps with remembering the bigger picture and real purpose. On a more challenging day it might take 9, 999 steps before a sense of peace is felt. A longer walk or meditation provides the time it may take to really land in the present moment. The side effects of a longer practice include better breathing, establishing more functional movement patterns, and a extended window for healing to take place. One of my favorite perks about this practice is that it's available now. Nothing to sign up for, no gym to join. Appointments are available anytime. In fact, I feel one calling now.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Non-Violence for Dinner?

Love All Beings instead of Meat?
     Assuming I was already doing my best to be a decent human, what would be the point of overdoing it? I mean, why would I choose to eat carrot loaf while others dine on grass-fed burgers? Those were the types of thoughts I had about veganism two years ago.

Up until that point it didn't seem consequential enough to consider veganism. Besides, my taste buds would probably rebel like a child not getting enough sugar. The world's problems were clearly so much bigger than my personal eating habits. Passing the buck and burying my head in the sand had been working for this long, why change now?

As long as I was trying to do the organic, free-range, 'humanely slaughtered' thing, I felt cleared from further consideration of my food choices. Shouldn't we all be focusing on more important issues like racism, women's rights, domestic violence, child trafficking, deforestation, clean water access, protecting endangered species, climate change, and all the rest? Saying no to animal agriculture was not high on my priority list. Plus, like most everyone else I knew, I envisioned myself as not consuming that many animal products. The rationale of 'not that much' is a strategic phrase, helping us to feel unaffliliated with even our own choices.

Most restaurants and family dinners are supporters (knowingly and unknowingly) of  CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Even though I am against the cruel and mechanistic treatment of animals, I didn't feel like I could do anything about it. Except maybe go to the Birchwood Cafe, where the animals live happily before their demise. So called sustainably harvested animals were much more expensive, but if I didn't consume 'that much,' it seemed like the way to go. Unless of course you were to question the ethics of killing any animal (happy or not), or the actual unsustainability of the grass-fed fantasy. Either way, the number of 'happy' animals it would take to feed us all, does not compute. The rainforests are already being destroyed for our outdated eating habits. It's easy to see that there isn't enough land in the world to support the animals that feed the humans.

Compassion Begins On Your Plate.
Once the light bulb of awareness went on, it kept flashing. 'Stop ignoring your contribution to the cycle of violence,' it seemed to say.  I hadn't even begun to consider the beingness of animals, or that their sole purpose for existence was not to become organic cream in my coffee. We are raised in a society that overlooks the suffering of animals. The 'everybody does it,' mob mentality had taken over my ability to think for myself. If self proclaimed animal lovers and environmentalists supported our dependence on animal exploitation, why should I rock the meat and dairy boat? Evading my responsibility seemed easier than opening my eyes, until one day it didn't. Listening to the 45th president speak with cruelty helped me to reflect on my own. Where did I support cruelty? I had to look no further than my plate and my shoes. If I had time to criticize politicians for their greed and brutality, I had time to be the change I wished to see.

Now that I've quit making excuses for my long lingering denial, I've gained a new capacity for thought. My worldview has changed, raising even more radical questions. I wonder about the physical, emotional and energetic consequences of ingesting suffering and violence? I wonder what would happen if children and adults were taught to truly respect animals? I wonder why it's considered normal to torture others? Has society as a whole become addicts of the meat and dairy industry?  Why do humans feel superior to other beings? Why do some humans feel superior to other humans? What about those who refer to women as 'pieces of meat,' does that have anything to do with the rates in which women are hunted, raped and killed? What would it be like to live in a world where people did not presume power over others? Why do we need advertisements reminding us to continue harming animals for food? There was only one answer I had to all of those questions. I could step outside of my conditioning and stop supporting the madness.

Facts about animal agriculture which I'd previously noted, vaguely acknowledged, but never taken into active consideration, have my full attention now. The ritual of looking away, or pulling the spiritual bypassing card no longer works, and I couldn't be happier about it. Giving thanks for the abundance of dead animals on the table does not erase the horrors of how they got there. Calling it ceremonial, medicinal, traditional or nourishing, usually only serves as a well meaning cover up.

The lifestyle practices of yoga & meditation are based on compassion. The ethical guidelines of yoga include ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), aparigraha (non-greed) and brahmacharya (non-excess). It's often said that if you can only focus on one, practice ahimsa (non-violence). All the rest will fall into place. May we all find the courage to digest the truth about animal agriculture and help to create a more consciously connected world. We are not free until others are free. That's the real deal. It is the deepest meditation that all beings should be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. While we're hopefully all busy taking down the framework that produced the patriarchy and white supremacy, how about we dismantle speciesism while we're at it? Many injustices can be true all at once, and there is no doubt that they are all connected.

"As long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields." -Leo Tolstoy




Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Pop-up Wellness Respite

   
Massage Camp
     A friend and I were able to touch in after the disaster in Puerto Rico this past month with a mobile massage offering. Our pop-up beach spa focused on volunteers, health care workers, teachers and organizers. At times we went off the beach and into the communities with hopeful hands. Thankfully, it wasn't difficult to find willing massage participants. I feel so enriched by those who reflected their open hearts and minds right back at us. The healing power of loving presence was so clear and permeating, we were often brought to tears. Sharing intentions of healing energy and holding space for even short periods of time was truly meaningful and worthwhile for all involved.

Now to bring those loving intentions and actions into daily life where it's often easy to get side-tracked with unhelpful mind states. The homework I've assigned for myself is to keep a softer lens on my day-to-day encounters. Knowing that any action can be healing when done with love, why bother with any other motivator? I'm inspired to explore more ways to generate and serve it up in 2018. I believe we are all being called to uplift the collective consciousness. It feels like an energetic emergency! Just think of all the ways there are to acknowledge our infinitely interconnected selves.

One Love
I suspect that January's blue moon was partially responsible for the ease in feeling the cosmic alignment that's always in play? Or maybe it was the ocean salt soaks, barefoot sand walks, and fires at night while communing with the stars. The sounds of the cicadas, coquis, crashing waves, and the occasional booming surround-sound systems all resonated with my own natural rhythms. Even the bug bites reminded me of our unavoidable connectedness.

To top it off, which we did regularly, thanks to a remarkable invention by Moses West! His super amazing Atmospheric Water Generator kept us very happily hydrated all month long. Drinking atmospheric water was transformative to my whole being. Every cell in my body seemed to dance when I drank it. Guzzling our finely filtered surroundings also added a whole new meaning to becoming one with nature. I hope his brilliant solution for harvesting clean water and making it available to all, catches on fast! Especially since we all know WATER IS LIFE.

Moses West and his Atmospheric Water Generator
Paired with the purest water I've ever ingested, it was also my first time traveling with vegan intentions. For the most part, I felt victorious and found my way around animal agriculture just fine. Especially (and mainly) because we quickly took meals into our own hands. Our first few rounds of shopping opened my eyes to sparsity and long lines. I became concerned that I'd end up eating nothing but processed chemicals to survive. The kid in me was secretly hoping I'd be 'forced' into buying those enormous canisters of Keebler Elf soda crackers featured in every aisle. Instead, my travel companion and I sought out real food at the farmer's market. Twice per week a truck pulled into town with fruits, vegetables and nuts. We were able to keep a cooler maintained for continuous salad making. Fresh, pungent turmeric (acquired from a local garden) went on everything, along with apple cider vinegar and olive oil. Consequently, we ended up thriving rather than just surviving.

Teacher massage day in Vieques
Knowing that everything and all of us are connected, how can we contribute to collective healing today? There's little doubt of the collective disturbance and discord in us (as individuals, and as a society). Thankfully, we all have direct access to the healing power of loving presence as the anecdote for much of our suffering. Confrontations with fear, skepticism and doubt seem to be scattered all over the place, but serve as great reminders to simply trust in the supreme power of love.

I am seeing that to give is to receive and in receiving we allow others to have the gift of giving. In this way, how could we possibly identify as the givers or the helpers? Who would be helping who? Perhaps there are no others and we're all in this together? Instead of applauding each other for helping, why not recognize that we are also simultaneously the helped? On that note, here are some clarifying words from the Aboriginal Activists Groups (Queensland, 1970s):

"If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Karma Cooks

Chop, Chop!
      Grandma loved to cook. She also spent much of her time thinking, talking and reading about cooking. When we went out to restaurants she had the habit of asking people at neighboring tables about their selection, "That looks delicious; what is it?" She had an undeniable way of equating loving care with food. Consistent with her sense of hospitality she supported her family as a career waitress. When she wasn't out serving food at a bustling restaurant she could be found in her own kitchen, feeding her family, and a regular crew of drop-ins. Browsing through her well used Betty Crocker cookbook (which I feel fortunate to have inherited) I recall her nurturing ways.
 
Unlike both of my grandmothers I did not have a household of mouths to feed, nor did I live through the Great Depression. I've never followed a recipe from Betty Crocker, and wouldn't know what to do with a frozen chicken. Contrastingly, my interest in cooking grew from working in beautiful yoga focused settings, emphasizing the path of karma yoga. Karma yoga is also known as "seva" or selfless service. The idea is to serve from the heart which is accomplished by tending to the present moment with compassion for all. It's one of the branches of yoga that seeks to develop habits of mindfulness during ordinary tasks. Whether working in a kitchen or just feeding yourself everyday, food preparation is one of the many practical ways to practice yoga.

Garden to Table
My first experience with karma yoga was at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. During the 3.5 month commitment at the center I had a rather tumultuous relationship with my kitchen shifts. I was often fixated on experiencing the more pleasant parts of the day. Yoga classes, lectures, outdoor time and freedom were all waiting for me. If only I could check the mundane, time consuming, kitchen chores off my list. Despite the advice we received about doing our work with love and presence, my mind was often watching the clock. "Cut up one more bag of potatoes and then I'll start enjoying this place."

In addition to not getting the point of karma yoga, I was content in assuming the best about the origins of my food. My emphasis on being healthy had little regard for the planet. Yet, there would always be someone initiating a food reflection. The reflections acknowledged everything and everyone involved in making the meal possible. Just another thing I muddled through,"Yes, the food had to go through a lot to get here, let's eat already!" Looking back at my tender young self gives me a sense of compassion for those who may feel similarly today. During my karma yoga experiences, I always enjoyed participating in a vegetarian lifestyle, but inevitably resumed an all-inclusive cuisine once I returned to the "real world."

Cookbook Revolution
I did not anticipate transitioning to a vegan diet at the age of 45. However, the realities of animal agriculture, climate change and land misuse became suddenly unpalatable to me. If animal agriculture is the main cause of deforestation, why was I supporting it? Factory farming practices were not getting any less  cruel, corrupt or unsustainable. My strategy of eating only grass-fed burgers (which provides a better life for the cow) failed to address the misuse of the resources needed to create a happier cow. Although my taste buds were a bit worried at first, my craving and addiction for meat and dairy products has subsided. To my surprise, I have even developed a distaste for animal products.

One of the big reasons I participated in the animal food chain for so long was to avoid offending or inconveniencing others. The idea of seeming ungrateful was unthinkable to me. Now that I see how the meat and dairy industry harms people, animals and the planet, I'm no longer concerned about being overly polite or unnecessarily accommodating. If a simple, "no thank you" offends someone, perhaps the examination of good manners falls on them. It may sound picky or precious to abstain from certain "foods," but personal freedom is something I feel very fortunate to exercise and celebrate.

Karma yoga planted some mindfulness seeds that have finally taken over my kitchen. It's not a stretch to expand concepts of nourishment to include: caring about the health of farmers, the land and water, needless suffering of animals, and the elimination of harmful chemicals in our food systems.

Even though I won't be following any recipes from my grandma's cookbook, I will be using her nurturing intentions. She was a karma cook of another generation. Access to organic food, resources and information allow me to continue her legacy, by turning up the heat on love, the main ingredient in all of her dishes.

~May all beings be free from suffering~