Seeing the forest through the trees


dont-ignore-your-sufferingSuffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural–you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

Life can sometimes feel unfair. Our actions, conscious or not, have the potential to fill us with regret, frustration, helplessness, even anger. Sometimes “bad” things happen to “good” people. It’s not unusual in these instances to wish we could turn back time, or to be fearful about what the future may hold; we may even look up to the heavens and ask why? When a seemingly unfortunate event unfolds, self-inflicted or not, physical or emotional, it is our perception and belief that makes us see it that way. We never really know why things happen as they do or what the result of it will be on our life. When we are dealt one of life’s blows, the only thing we can really control is how we choose to respond.

Whether it is human nature or cultural conditioning, often the first inclination is to assign blame and assume the role of an innocent victim. After all, pointing a finger brings an instant sense of gratification and resolve. Longer term, however, this approach begins to backfire when the ego tries to keep the memory of the event alive by retelling it over and over again rather than letting go of it.  Perhaps it’s because of this that those assuming the role of  ‘victim’  in their lives often end up unhappier than those who find a way to let go of the past and not to fixate on the future; those who find a way to ‘be here now’. When we learn to step back from the immediacy of emotion and become an observer, we diminish the context and drama of the story, and this tends to have a calming affect on the mind. The next step is in learning acceptance; instead of witnessing ourselves and our circumstances with a critical and judging eye, we can simply watch (this is called the sakshi in sanskrit, the silent witness). When we focus solely on our suffering, we miss out on the magic and the celebration that co-exists in the world in equal measure. A panoramic view is only available in its entirety from a distance, and we never truly know the length and purpose of a journey until it is complete.

There is a wonderful story from Satchidananda’s interpretation of the  Bhagavad Gita entitled The Living Gita. The story is about a yogi living in the hills of India with wife and only son. The army comes to the house one day and takes the son away to fight in a battle. The wife is terribly distraught and cries to her husband, ‘isn’t this awful, our only son taken from us!’ The yogi replies, ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’ Months go by, and one day the son returns home, and despite his wounded left, the wife is thrilled beyond belief. When she shares the joyous news to her husband, she says ‘ isn’t this wonderful?!’ The yogi once again responds, ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’ Within the course of a week, another knock at the door brings a messenger from the king’s palace to  inform the boy that since he cannot return to war with a wounded leg, he has been called to be the royal gardener. The palace is a long, long way away. The wife once again is left in despair, and looks for consolation from her husband. She says, ‘we may never see our son again, my heart is broken, isn’t yours?’ Again, he responds ‘I don’t know, we shall see’. Weeks pass, and a knock at the door reveals a messenger who has been sent by the royal palace. It has come to pass that the boy and the king’s daughter have fallen in love, and will wed in the coming days with the king’s blessing. As a result, the yogi and his wife have been invited to move permanently to the royal palace. It goes without saying that the wife is thrilled. She laughs, cries and sings with glee, turning to her husband and saying, ‘Our prayers have been answered! Our life is now happily complete.’ The yogi turns to his wife and says ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’

The practice of mindfulness in whatever form it takes, is one of being present, making space for all the shapes and forms of a magnificent landscape to unfold. We practice being focused and specific on a certain task or posture, yet we hold a larger understanding of the world in our periphery; one that we do not try to control or understand, but rather, one with which we can co-exist. This is not to say that moments of joyful celebration and deep despair are not important or meaningful; these are important points along life’s journey. The moment of understanding that both joyful celebration and deep despair come from the same source is a beautiful moment. Being present and beholding the entirety of a landscape as an observer while interacting, enjoying and participating in its creation — this is our great gift called Life.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

-Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

the blues (reds, oranges and greens)

Being in the hospital going on six weeks can sometimes feel like a marathoner at the twenty-second mile. “The wall”, as it’s called in marathon terminology, turns what for runners was a physical pursuit into a mental discipline, and makes every second of the last four miles feel like an hour.

On Friday, I hit my wall. As luck would have it, I am both an ex-marathon runner and practicing yogi, and know enough about physical ambition and mental focusing to see its relativity to long-term hospital stay. There have been a lot of shifting variables since I have been here at the Royal Free; in fact, nothing, except the facts that I had a liver transplant and am still alive has been pinned down. The two variables that have been identified most recently, my overall health and unending list of medications, are in an elaborate tango, pirouetting around one another in a constant dance of tension and re-balance.

Over the past week my pain medication has been reduced to a sixth of it’s original dose (from 30 to 5 mg). The steriods I’ve been on have been reduced by a half (from 20 to 10mg), and a variety of other medicines, all with side effects of their own, have been introduced and taken away like a change of clothing. My mind and body notice, but it’s my emotions that react.

Friday was the first day I realized something had dramatically shifted in my state of mind. I cried on and off all day, mostly because of what I identified as pain; my arms swollen and black and blue from the cannulas and jabs, my abdomen with a hole in it and a foot long drain running to the back of my liver, my back, sore from the inflatable bed and the collection of bile the drain is tapping behind the liver. But the more I considered the pain and worked with my breath to release all the held tension in my body, the more I realized I was actually deeply sad to still be here in the hospital. I had hit the five week mark on Wednesday night, and something deep in my subconscious was telling me I wouldn’t be here this long; I shouldn’t be here this long. On Saturday the relationship between emotion and medication became increasingly clear as I woke up feeling pain but was relatively happy; an hour later, however, after taking the steroids I became anxious and frustrated. A few more hours went by and I was hit with sadness. As I gazed out over the grey horizon, I asked myself, is this depression? After the lunchtime dose of medicines I was exhausted, but by evening I was grateful and embraced by Love. The array of emotions I experienced in one day startled me, and was augmented further by being asked by doctors, surgeons, nurses and transplant coordinators how I was feeling every hour or so. When I explained I had been having a difficult day, no one was surprised, and they all responded similarly by either encouraging me to keep my chin up and keep going because I was doing so well and almost at the end of the road, or sympathizing, stressing that I had been through an unusual amount of complications and anyone would be expected to have bad days through this process. Not one of them mentioned the impact of the medications on my overall well-being, although when I related the two together, no one denied the strength of the side effects or symptoms of withdrawal.

Today has been a better day, the ward is relatively quiet and I’ve had the room largely to myself with only one other patient in the opposite corner. I also had the benefit of seeing my father, whom I haven’t seen in over two years, as well as my son and husband, which gave me something to look forward to and cheered me up for a good part of the day. Even with all the activity that comes along with special visitors, I have remained acutely aware of the rising and falling levels of pain and emotion in my body.

It is uncertain when I will go home at this point. My donor had a common virus called CMV (cytomegalovirus) that many people have dormant in their bodies but that I did not have. Since I am on the immuno-suppressant medications, the virus was not only given to me but became active, and I have been unlucky with the anti-viral IV fluids; the numbers continue to rise instead of fall, and as a result tomorrow they will assess what to do based on blood tests. To add to the complexity, my arms are so battered that I’m no longer able to withstand a cannula in either arm, meaning they may need to find another location for the cannula in order to get the IV into my blood. The other issue is the drain, which is still working to empty the ‘collection’ of bile and infection that has accumulated from the bile leak. The doctors have maintained that it may take weeks before the drain can be removed, but luckily, as soon as the virus is being managed,  I will be able to go home and manage the drain with the help of local nurses.

Despite the fluctuation of the medicines, emotion and mental state, I continue to feel mainly well and forever blessed by the presence of family and wonderful friends. When I have a blip of the blues, I am able to bring myself back to the big picture, which is to get home to my family and to have a Love-filled, happy existence outside of the confines of the hospital. I am able to acknowledge the reds, oranges and greens of the pills that will eventually go as I stabilize into four magic medicines that I’ve been told I will have to take for the rest of my life; I’m also more acutely aware of the various hues of emotion and their potential origins. This will inevitably continue to be a rich dialogue between my smaller, ego-bound and ego-driven self, and my cosmically-connected. Love-filled and Love-fueled Self, aware of the Oneness all beings.

There are multiple factors in all of our lives that contribute to emotion and mental state. Many aspects of what we put into our bodies and minds are not unlike the hospital drugs I’ve been taking; they are mind-altering. Consider the food you may eat, the media you consume, the messages you tell yourself and the messages you receive from others in your life. Any or all of these sources could act as a drug and have side-effects, addictive potential and withdrawal symptoms. We all have a choice about what we let inside our hearts, minds and bodies, including how we fuel and nurture ourselves. It is well worth it to once in awhile become acutely aware, even for a short period of time, of how these outside elements affect thought and behavior. We may even try eliminating some of the elements identified as ‘toxic’ and see how we react.

To be a ‘sakshi’ is to be a silent witness; one who observes from a distance without judging or feeling without any sensation based on the observations. The sakshi is greater than pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, likes and dislikes; the sakshi is being colorless, self-luminous and unaffected by the color of emotions, unaffected by the rainbow of elements that bring individual suffering into focus. Being a sakshi enables us, even for a moment, to see through all the elements and veils of mental thought and emotion we wear; it enables us to return to our source as Love itself.

Lizzie’s 30 Day Yoga Challenge, Day 26: Grounding

I returned today to Triyoga Primrose Hill to attend Kate Walker (Harrell)’s 12:15-1:45pm class. I have a chance to get to Kate’s class with some regularity, and each time I leave feeling grounded and relaxed, the same way Kate comes across. Her vinyasa-based style is consistent with safe sequencing and instruction; her special gift is making her classes accessible to all levels without oversimplifying the physicality of asana.

The room was full, but despite this, Kate offered discriminating adjustments that addressed the primary point of misalignment without getting to stuck in to one person for the duration of the breath count. She played mellow music throughout, and starting the class with a short meditation allowed those rushing into class to settle down and settle in to their own practice, which Kate framed as being one of observing, or becoming the silent witness (sakshi in sanskrit) to the changing state of the mind.

I would categorize Kate as a teacher with a feminine, ‘soft’ quality, never pushing the student to go the extra mile, but rather, encouraging student to listen to what they need in the present moment. It is refreshing to go to a vinyasa-based class that enables the practitioner to slow down, and Kate is always a delight.

Sakshi, the silent witness

In sanskrit, sakshi is the observer, the aspect within able to watch the body, mind and events without judgement, attachment or analysis. If our lives were a movie, the sakshi would be the one in the audience just simply watching all that is happening without getting caught up in the plot, critiquing the performances, or being preoccupied by whether or not more popcorn or a trip to the toilet is needed. The state of sakshi is one of suspended judgement.

In today’s world of rapid, media-based communication it is easy to forget that we are “watching a movie”. We see and hear people all around us acting up and acting out in response to daily events big and small–even being encouraged to do so by the media and by those around us who have been conditioned to do so–and before long we are joining in. In this sense we become victims; many things are happening to us, being done to us or against us, and we think that by acting out or acting up we will somehow be vindicated. However, the more we react to the events and actions of those around us, the more we’re taken ’round and ’round on the rollercoaster, never in a place for long enough to stay still or to quiet the mind. In this way the fluctuations of the mind are fed and the cycle of samsara continues.

Through the practice of meditation, yoga asana, and pranayama, comes pratyahara, the movement inwards to the dwelling of the sakshi.

For the sakshi, time disappears, the need to decipher events evaporates, as does the desire to speculate on the future. All the events continue to happen, but we remain unaffected. We realize we are not the doers.

I was once told a story of a yogi and his wife. Their son was taken away by the army to serve as a warrior during a time of war. The yogi’s wife was very upset by this and said, “isn’t it horrible, we may never see our son again, he may be killed on the battlefield.” The yogi replied, “I don’t know, we shall see.”

Time went by, and one day the son showed up on the doorstep, wounded from battle, but alive. His mother was ecstatic, delighted to see her son, and happy he wouldn’t be taken away again to serve on the battlefield. “Oh, isn’t it wonderful to have our son back!” she said. The yogi replied,”I don’t know, we shall see.”

After some time, messengers of the king arrived at the door of the yogi’s home and requested the son to leave with them to attend to the king’s garden and remain at the palace. The woman was terribly distraught to think her son would be taken away again, and cried out,”They can’t take my son away a second time, how can they be so cold hearted?” The yogi responded, “I don’t know, we shall see.”

Time went by, and after awhile, the messenger of the king showed up at the yogi’s door again, this time with an empty coach on hand. He informed the yogi and his wife that their son had fallen in love with the princess and they were due to get married. The king requested that the yogi and his wife go with the messenger to take up residence on the palace grounds to reunite with their son and his new wife. The woman was elated. She couldn’t believe her luck and joyously shouted out, “This is the best news I’ve ever heard! Aren’t we fortunate to have this luck!” The yogi replied, “I don’t know, we shall see.”

This is the sakshi, quietly observing, remaining even keeled and unaffected despite the chaos and ups and downs of all that changes so rapidly and uncontrollably in our world today.

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