I do not want to allow challenges from the past to negatively define how I envision my potential moving forward. I want to utilize the perspective and wisdom I learn through all my experiences to inspire me to be adaptive and resilient, to inform me of ways I can continue to grow with discernment, empathy and grace.
How we perceive things is greatly dependent upon the frame we see it through.
Every experience relevant, a springboard for the alchemy of transformation.
Planting seeds, observing how they grow, refining as I go.
One of my favorite physical aspects of practicing yoga is that there is nowhere on my back I cannot scratch (I am not suggesting this is true for everyone who practices yoga :-) ). One of my favorite mental aspects is the possibility that even when I feel an itch, I can feel it and not have to scratch.
I can, but I don’t have to.
This becomes more true all the time.
I have a potted plant living in my living room that is at least 30 years old. It belonged to my mother-in-law Mary Atala and to her mother Atala Mary before her. It came to me when my son was around two, so about 11 years ago.
When I lived in Salisbury, New Hampshire, it sat in a big window overlooking forests, mountains, fields and the Blackwater River, where we would swim in the summer and build extreme snow tube tracks and cross country ski in the winter. In front of this plant and this window is where I practiced yoga passionately and dedicatedly as often as possible when I first started teaching. The plant grew a really long tendril that spanned the length of the window that ran the length of the long room that used to be the top level of a chicken coop barn at some point in its incarnation.
The tendril across my window in Salisbury
When we moved from that room and that valley into Concord, I repotted the plant and it became huge, several tendrils winding their way across three of the four yellow walls that are my current living room.
In this video, the second long tendril winds across the backdrop…
Not too long ago, most of the leaves along the original tendril from Salisbury began to yellow and wither and die. All except the leaves at the very end. I pulled the dead leaves off, which left an empty tendril all across the main wall of the room where my son Philip and I hang out together, and where I practice and teach yoga now. I wanted to cut it and put the living end in a jar of water to grow new roots, and then replant it so the part that was alive could still grow. Yet I was having trouble letting go of the stem, and that the leaves that looked like they were still living beautifully graced the bay window of the room. So there it sat, dying stem plastered across my wall, me too attached to let go of it.
Philip likes to play indoor mini basketball in this room, and yesterday while he was playing I heard an, “Uh oh” and then silence. I called from my bedroom, “Are you okay?” And he responded, “I broke the plant.” I could hear he was sorry, and afraid I was going to be angry. For a brief second I was. And then I felt a rush of such relief.
He said, “The ball hit the stem and it was like a dried branch. Mom, it was already dead. It just broke off.”
Which was true. By not letting go of this that was obviously passing, the part that was still alive and hanging in my front window looking vibrant and beautiful was slowly dying too. I just hadn’t noticed it yet ~ because I didn’t want to. Partially because I was afraid of the change. And so the vine was inadvertently severed for me.
We cut the rest loose, untangled the dead stem and made it into a cat toy. I put the part that was still living into a jar of water where it will make new roots, and twisted the tip of the tendril that was left across the doorway where it currently hangs. For now.
I love just watching it grow, witnessing what might happen next.
Mahamrityunjaya mantra, a prayer of protection and surrender, to remind us when we are trying to hold onto something that is passing…
What it means to me…may we be released from our attachments, when we are ready, like the cucumber is released from the vine, without scar, when it is ripe.
The protection – may we be held by what nourishes us until it is our time to be let go.
The surrender – once we are let go there is no reattaching. When it is our time, may we have the grace and courage to let go.
One thing transforms into the next.
I took a botany class a long time ago, and a class on growing orchids. I loved the classes and was doing well. The orchids lived under grow lights in my living room and were beautiful. I pampered them constantly. I fancied myself an aspiring botanist.
There was a local scholarship contest, and everyone in the class wrote proposals on what we would do with the money if we won. Looking back, I have no idea what I wrote. But I won. Then those of us who were chosen had to go before a committee to speak about our ideas, and the committee would decide how much each of us would receive.
I was super nervous. I could write but I was scared of people. That they wouldn’t like me. What I had written was authentically me, yet when I went before the committee I tried to be what I thought they wanted. I wore makeup and a skirt from my mom. I wore small heels which I never wore and probably walked funny. For a botany scholarship in San Francisco. None of these women were like that, they were more like me. Yet I bumbled and was awkward. And was not awarded any scholarship funds.
I felt humiliated. The orchids became covered in spiderwebs. I quit botany. Just like that. I felt it was obvious that this was not meant to be.
This past Mother’s Day, last year, I was gifted an orchid in full bloom. It was beautiful and I was grateful. It reminded me of that girl who loved orchids, and botany. Yet I was busy and forgot to water it for the most part. Even so, the flowers stayed for a long time. I never pruned the stems after the flowers passed, which I think I was supposed to do. It has been sitting in my windowsill, and I water it from time to time. I figured it wouldn’t make it.
The other day, when I remembered to water my oh-so-resilient plants, I noticed there was a small bud on one of the orchid stems. I wondered if it was left over from before and I hadn’t noticed it? I watered it by taking it out of its pot and letting warmish water run through the roots. Then put it back on the windowsill.
This morning I happened to look over at the orchid…
Don’t give up. Seeds are being planted your whole life through. Sometimes it takes awhile for them to grow. And often they unfold differently than you imagined, and at the most unsuspecting of times.
गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा
gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
What it means to me ~ gone, gone beyond, gone beyond the beyond to the other shore, we encounter underlying peace that is always there, and this peace emanates through us. We attune each other.
This is the essence of the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya, or Heart Sutra ~ the heart of the teachings ~ of which the mantra above is a part. It has been said that this mantra can’t be completely translated, that its resonance expresses an experience beyond just words. The all inclusive silence, beyond and including manifest sound.
One of my teachers, Parvathi Nanda Nath Saraswati, suggest that if we are graced with coming in contact with the teachings, it becomes our responsibility, and our gift, to allow them to evolve inside of us. And continuously evolve us.
The teachings are not static, something to be memorized and passed on rote; they are living traditions that grow through us. Always adapting and current. The specifics of the practices not as important in themselves as what they access. What evolves through each of us is what we have to offer one another.
Which illustrates the vow of the Bodhisattva ~ to awaken in order to help all beings awaken. And the action of the 12th Step, service. As you get it, pass it on. The more you share it, the more you “get” it. And keep going. Practicing these principles in all our affairs.
As we go beyond, whichever layer we are currently going beyond, as our obscurations are liberated, as we awaken from illusions, as we recognize we are not separate yet parts of the same whole, we share our perspective and help everyone else awaken too. Not to be righteous, just because that is what we do. We go beyond where we were, and then we come back and share this with each other. As for any of us to awaken, we all have to awaken.
It doesn’t make you more or less special or better or worse when you start to wake up, its just your time. We are all in this together.
I was initially introduced to Simonne Guillerm Allen in order to teach her pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques. This was recommended by her doctors in France as a way to develop core strength and support her deteriorating back.
Simonne is an 87 year old French woman who grew up in Vietnam and spent her adult life between France and the United States, making her career as a university French language teacher. She moved from Brittany, France to New Hampshire to live with her son about a year ago.
At first we met once a week. Over time, the breathing exercises evolved into a meditation practice. Then we started integrating yoga and movement adapted to her physical condition, accompanied by some of her favorite French music from the internet. We discussed the transition into both her new living situation and the changes in her body and independent mobility. We contemplated Yogic and Buddhist psychology and philosophy to help her adapt and find a way to access her best quality of life with things exactly as they were. It was during these meetings that she began sharing tales from her life story. I became fascinated and she became more comfortable. Her seated posture, range of motion, mood and energy level improved significantly as we continued to meet. I currently see her four to five times a week, and there is always more to do than we have time.
The first spark that led to our current project came as we were dancing to Charles Trenet videos on YouTube. We had begun dancing together, she holding my arms for balance, in order to make range of movement exercises more interesting and invigorating. While scrolling through the videos, I happened upon Trenet’s version of the poem Chanson d’automne by Paul Verlaine put to music. Simonne freestyle translated the words as we listened to the song so I could understand what what he was singing. We were both inspired by this, so we started looking through French poetry on the internet.
Simonne mentioned that she had memorized some poetry throughout her life, which gave me an idea. Although her recall of past events is often extremely precise, her ability to imprint new memory is waning. I recalled hearing that some people find “passage meditation” in the tradition of Eknath Eswaren improves memory. Passage mediation utilizes a memorized passage silently recited internally as a focus point for the mind, the way we often use the breath as a point of concentration in meditation. Although this style of meditation typically employs spiritual writings from a wide range of traditions, I knew it would be difficult for Simonne to memorize a new passage. I asked if she remembered any poetry enough to try it. She said yes, and immediately recited aloud Harmonie du Soir by Charles Baudelaire. In full, en francais.
We each brought our head, neck and spine into alignment so that our posture felt somewhat weightless and stable, and sat for awhile. She in her chair and I on the floor, she internally reciting the poem and I the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra – a Shaivite predecessor of sorts in meaning to the Serenity Prayer. It went well. I asked her to translate the poem so I could understand, and so she did, aloud, as I typed it into the computer. Our excitement was palpable. I left her with a copy of the translation to edit, and another poem to translate while I was gone.
She has been at it ever since. She direct translates first and then plays with it to make it sound clear in English, while staying as close to the original text as possible. We look at other English translations sometimes for inspiration and as a dictionary of sorts, and yet her versions are often unique and I typically prefer them to what we find in books and online.
And the poetry is beautiful; Baudelaire, Verlaine and Victor Hugo are our favorites so far. She recently translated a Verlaine, En Sourdine, which I discovered was the inspiration for a song composed by Debussy – one of my favorite composers, who we had been listening to while doing slow range of movement yoga in her chair. Looking further, I realized that poetry was often a muse for Debussy, which has led us into an interesting inquiry into the social history of the time period in which these artists were creating, gleaned from their personal histories and the medium of their art. Clair de lune, one of Debussy’s most famous compositions, is also a musical interpretation of a Verlaine poem. This translation is less distinct than many of her other efforts, as the original French is more straightforward than some of the other poems she has worked with, most notably Mallarmé, another muse of Debussy. Yet it is one of our favorites.
Enjoy! We sure do.
Moonlight translated by Simonne Guillerm Allen
Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masqueraders and jesters go Playing the lute, and dancing, and almost Sad beneath their fanciful disguises
All sing in a minor key
of victorious love and the opportune life
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.
Clair de lune de Paul Verlaine
Votre âme est un paysage choisi Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.
aum mani padme hum
ॐ मणि पद्मे हूं
I have heard different meanings for this mantra, and also that its meaning is beyond translation into words in any language. That its meaning is experienced in the resonance of the sounds.
When I first heard this mantra many years ago it was translated something to the effect of ~ the jewel is in the lotus of the heart. Which means to me ~ all that we are seeking is already inside of us.
Like the lotus flower, growing up from the composting muck of the pond floor of our past experiences, held buoyant by the clarifying water of our current life lessons and experiential wisdom, emerging from our depths through the surface of our being, awaiting the sunlight of our awareness to blossom.
A definition of yoga could be the continuum that spans and contains both extremes simultaneously, balancing at the center. The equal and opposite polarities complementing and defining each other rather than canceling each other out.
We experience this with physical hatha yoga asana…finding the place where the pairs of opposites come into balance ~ left and right, front and back, grounding down to find leverage to lift up with ease, expanding out from and holding strength at the center, strength and flexibility, inhale and exhale…each pair two sides of the same thing. In this balance, the posture becomes self supporting and active effort can relax. And as the yoga sutras and other teachings suggest, when we bring ourselves into this balance, spontaneous presence, effortless awareness, a meditative state, pure consciousness, a deep underlying silence, spaciousness, insight, arises.
The events of my life often embody this principle, equal and opposite extremes balancing each other. Either side alone feels almost overwhelming, yet together they make a balance that brings insight. Perhaps this is life, and sometimes it is more obvious than others.
These pinnacle times, like physical yoga, give us the experience of the potential of this balance. All sides of the spectrum, simultaneous, defining rather than canceling each other out.
We are the synthesis, the balance that holds all extremes.
During sunset and sunrise, the transition times, when one thing is ending and transforming into the next, everything is accentuated. Illuminated. So alive I can taste it. The colors race across the sky in one last vibrant flash, imprinting upon us the resonance of their existence as they dissipate into the future they were heralding.
Fascinating to be present in this moment, the blending of past and future so obvious, the path that led us here so clear. What is coming gradually unveiling.