January 30, 2010

A divine lunar lesson unfolds

Without the dense clouds that hovered over Indianapolis, I would have seen a full moon on my way home from dinner last night. Never mind the overcast skies. I still felt its brilliance. As sure as the moon needs the sun’s light in order to shine, last night the Creator of all that’s good gave me a not-so-subtle reminder that life is one continuous strand of unmerited blessings and favors, most of which we can’t fully appreciate until much later. I took it as a nudge to acknowledge my dependence on divine gifts, to remember that I am always right where I should be, and to know with certainty that the Almighty is in charge of everything. Here’s evidence to wit.

I ventured out in an arctic blast last night to attend a yoga class that will count as a requirement toward my eventual certification as a yoga instructor. When I arrived for class, I discovered that the instructor I hoped to observe was detained by work. Swallowing my disappointment, I spread my mat and met his substitute, a lovely woman who welcomed me and asked if I’m a regular in the class. I introduced myself, sat down, and waited for class to start.

The woman next to me overheard our conversation and quietly asked, “What did you say your name is?”

“Crystal,” I answered.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked.

She looked familiar. But I’ve moved around a lot and I'm always meeting people who remind me of someone I once knew. I began sorting through a mental database of friends and co-workers. There was a flash of recognition, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around the possibility of it. “I’m Brenda,” she said. In just a heartbeat, I felt as if the doors of my life were flung wide open and I could see down a long corridor that led right back to the start.

Who is Brenda and why does she matter to me? Let me count the ways: 1) I might be a college dropout today if it weren't for Brenda. 2) She loaned me a bed from her guest room when I moved into my first apartment with nothing more than clothes and a few pieces of silverware. 3) She opened a window on a world so vast that I began to trust life might hold more possibility than my 19-year-old imagination could fathom.

Brenda was responsible for guiding me toward a major when I had no idea what to do with my life. As a confused college sophomore, I had briefly considered dropping out of school. At the time, all I could see was the money my parents were wasting while I muddled through, trying to figure out who I was and what I could be. She was just a few years older than I, but Brenda was legions wiser and she used that wisdom to mentor me, convincing me that I could write. She showed me how I could make a living at that.

Brenda was responsible for helping me get a job as an undergraduate assistant when I had no qualifications or skills. How could she see any potential in someone who was so incompetent and naïve? Where did she find the patience to train me? The money I earned provided pocket change when tuition, books, and room and board were semester by semester miracles for my middle-class family.

During my sophomore year, she used her influence as a graduate assistant to send me and another student to a speech contest in Laguna Beach, California. Accompanied by Brenda, Dennis and I saw the Pacific Ocean, tasted really good coffee and dined on fine cuisine, all for the first time. Before that trip, neither Dennis nor I had ever ventured beyond our small-town, mid-western existence. He was demonstrably unimpressed by California. To me, the trip was far more than a speech competition. It was a breathtaking window on a world full of promise.

After last night’s class, Brenda invited me to join her and a group of her yoga buddies for dinner. It’s been almost three decades since I lost track of her, but I have never forgotten her wit, sense of humor, wisdom, and kindness, all of which are still very much in tact.

She was there last night only because her friend was the class substitute teacher. I was there only because my husband was out of town and I thought it was a good opportunity to catch a class. The gift of our reunion last night was no fluke. It was an affirmation that we can never know how much our life may matter to another person.

Here was the divine lunar lesson delivered for my edification and yours:
  • When someone in your life is confused, share your wisdom.
  • When someone in your life has lost faith in self, believe in them.
  • When someone in your life will benefit from it, use your influence.
  • When someone in your life has need, share your resources and material possessions. 
  • And finally, when you have the chance, be totally grateful for all the people in your life who have bestowed those things on you.
Thank you, Brenda, for making a huge difference in my life.

January 20, 2010

Choose the next blogger for the Indianapolis Museum of Art! Maybe Moi!

Today the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced five finalists in its blog contest. For the next five Wednesdays, they’ll be posting an entry from one finalist. Readers get a chance to choose the IMA blogger of choice by voting on March 3.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that this post is truly shameless self-promotion because I am one of the five finalists. (I hope that didn’t surprise you too much!) If you’d like to participate in the voting, check out the IMA blog for the next five Wednesdays and be sure to vote on March 3. Without a doubt, you'll see some great posts. Of course, one of those posts could ace me out of the crown promised to the winner. With all sincerity, I say, "May the best blogger win!" ––despite the fact that I've never had a crown. (Unless you count the one I got to wear when I was the Eldorado Springs, Missouri Walnut Festival Queen in 1977. No hard feelings, but they made me return that crown when I didn't win a regional competition.)

Okay, friends, family, fellow bloggers and subscribers, this part of my post is for you: I know this makes me look like a pathetic, middle-aged woman whose life is so dull that even small things seem significant. That said, it’s been a long time since I’ve been this overjoyed and I need your help to make my joy complete.

The big call to action is March 3, when I need all my friends, colleagues, relatives to visit the IMA blog and vote for my entry. I don’t expect to become rich or famous if I win. In fact, you can see the sum total of the perks when you read the IMA announcement. Nevertheless, winning will make me a happy camper, which will automatically improve Jim’s quality of life. (Really just being a finalist is pretty nice.) So, even if you care nothing for the entry, please help Jim out by voting for my entry on March 3.

I apologize in advance for this post, but this is the era of shameless self-promotion!

January 14, 2010

A book blogger's reason for being

Anyone who doubts the future of reading should digest what author John Green has to say on the subject in the January issue of School Library Journal. Although this periodical is written for public and school librarians, book bloggers might want to take note. Green says librarians (and I say book bloggers) have a wonderfully important role in the future of reading, especially for children’s books. 

For starters, the very definition of book has changed now that video and three-dimensional rendering can be woven through an electronic book. In fact, some very fine authors have stopped working with major publishing houses because they can work with print-on-demand outlets and sell their works online, Green says. Not a fan of electronic books and reading devices? Okay, let’s just deal with print for the remainder of this discussion. 

In the amazing new landscape of publishing, we have a world of opposites: big box stores like WalMart that stock lots and lots of a few blockbusters versus Amazon which offers the world and everything adjacent to it. This covers the vast and sometimes confusing sphere of works that originate from small niche and self-publishers: the good, the bad, and the ugly. A few books get millions of readers. Millions of books get a few readers.

No one has to figure out what a blockbuster is. Kids and adults can easily find their way to these books without our help. But in the rich/diverse/all-things-are-equal realm, librarians and book bloggers will have a growing role to play. We (not the great publishing giants) become the great sifters. Book bloggers and librarians become the authorities who help people find their way through what Green calls “the sea of crap.” We’ll be needed more than ever because there are LOTS of stories to read. When people get confused by choices, they turn to authorities. That, my book blogging friends, is us. That, my fellow readers, is why you might want to latch on and subscribe to a blogger who covers your taste in books.

January 9, 2010

The gift of your physical afflictions

A wave of understanding washes over you when you realize for the first time that something in your body is broken and probably can’t be fixed. Repaired, remodeled, or medicated maybe, but not fixed. At least not in a way that puts it back as it once was.

Over the past few months, I’ve been fully bathed in this realization. I go to bed at night, hoping that the catch in my knee will be better in the morning after a night’s rest, wondering whether the boots I’ve been wearing are causing the problem. Or regretting my decision to clean the fireplace mantle by moving the mirror that hangs there, resting its flat part on top of my head. The method and urgency of a clean mantle seem sort of stupid, especially now that my neck is ouchy. I’m starting to see that it could stay that way. Like permanently. Maybe it won’t be like the afflictions of my youth: I spend a few days in bed or resting and I'm all better.

Having near perfect health for almost half a century, it took me a while to catch on to the notion that, blessed as I am, body parts will wear out, no matter how fortunate and careful I am. It’s a shame I didn’t come to this realization sooner because what follows is a better place for anyone to be.

How can this be considered progress? Let me answer this three ways:
  1. Physical afflictions build gratitude and awareness. When you realize things are not perfect but they could/eventually may be so much worse, you start to understand what living in the moment really means. The way your body is all designed to work together today? It’s nothing short of miraculous. The many days of your life that you have operated totally free from physical pain? It’s worth more than money in the bank. The way you can use your body as is, afflictions and all? A way to redeem yourself for not fully-appreciating all that good health. You’ll probably take better care of it, notice it, and make better choices now that you see what a blessing it has been. 
  2. Physical afflictions build spiritual tenacity. When you realize the temporary nature of your own body, you will naturally incline your ear more toward the spirit. When my body was strong in every way, I couldn’t really grasp my mortality. I owned health. And I had no real need for a newly minted body to house my spirit. More and more, I see how all the good stuff I get while living in my physical body has been a complete gift. And I feel a debt to my Creator for giving me all that good stuff. Shoot, even the afflictions I have are gifts because they’ve helped me grow to this realization. In this life, we get mountains and valleys, ups and downs, one right after the other. In the next, all joy inside a brand new body that doesn’t wear out. It’s not all that hard to see that a life leading to this kind of permanence is all that really matters. Every day and every possibility is more precious. Less about me and more about using my gifts.
  3. Physical afflictions build compassion for others. (Especially for those who are older or more afflicted than you are.) You start to understand the grumpy old lady who is always ready to bite your head off for no reason at all. One day of achy knees isn’t quite like a whole future filled with achy (or excruciating) knees, or the secondary afflictions that set in when you can’t walk properly. Once again, you see how connected the body is, how difficult it is to adjust, find and do things that will make you feel better. You realize that you can’t judge a person by what you see or hear from them. You might even make a quiet resolution about the sort of person you want to be if your body, despite all good care, should lose the portion of strength and health that you have always had.

Of course, it would be so much better if we could be abundantly grateful, aware, compassionate, and spiritually tenacious without affliction. As you read this, I hope you’re blessed with all these traits and a life free from all unnecessary suffering.

Later this week: Two great books for kids who may benefit from seeing another kid triumph over adversity, plus two books for adults—one on marriage, the other on meditation.

January 2, 2010

Yoga Medicine for Your New Year’s Resolution Hangover

Are you suffering from a New Year’s resolution hangover? After binge-writing a list of the many and assorted improvements and experiences I want in 2010, I do feel your pain. For self-improvement junkies like me, the prospect of mapping out a life that will be perfect at some future point in time is like cocaine to a crack-head. I realize this, yet I still engage in the insanity.

Here’s how we think: After I give up sugar, grow my own vegetables, purge and organize every closet in my house, make slipcovers for my office furniture, limit the amount of time I spend online, quit judging other people, make cases for my yoga mats, make eye pillows for my students and classmates, read several books each week, play golf this summer, commit 30 minutes a day to prayer and meditation, make a purse out of some old neckties, clean the laundry room and garage, make roman shades for my patio doors, e-mail at least one friend a day and see at least two lifeline friends each month, make 15 minutes a day to pick up the house, make 10 minutes a day to file incoming paperwork, do at least one thing each day in service to others, deepen my knowledge of online marketing, take a class on teaching yoga for kids, finish the taxes by February 15, organize all my loose recipes into notebooks, purge and label all the files in our file cabinets, do a little housework at least two evening a week, continue my fitness schedule of four workouts each week—AFTER I do all this (while holding down two—no wait a minute—three part-time jobs) my life will, of course be perfect, worthwhile, satisfying. I’ll be 95-years-old. But I’ll be—well—satisfied. You get the drift.

Stephen Cope’s book, The Wisdom of Yoga, sheds yogic light on this crazy cycle. It involves three afflictions of the human mind that are the source of nearly all suffering.

  1. Cravings. Our tendency to lean forward into the next fantasized moment in the future is called rãga (clinging, attachment, attraction, hunger, ambition).
  2. Aversions. Some resolutions are about stopping things we know are bad for us. Yoga masters might have classified this as dvesha —aversion to the experience. This is what tells us to stop, leave, or look backward to a previous state of comfort.
  3. Delusions. Finally, we may completely disappear from the moment by creating a delusion, a mind state known as moha. We do this by creating a false picture of reality based on how life should be (which is always different than the way it actually is) or through complete avoidance. (e.g. Don’t make me look!)

Cope’s book is drawn from the Yoga Sutras, a brilliant piece of writing that explores man’s spiritual and psychological nature. He says we crave accomplishments and experiences (rãga), run away from things (dvesha), or create delusions for ourselves (moha) because we don’t fully experience our lives as they already are (avidyã).

Is all longing afflicted? All aversion afflicted? All delusion afflicted? Of course not! There are times that these things serve us well. Cope’s book maps the territory between the healthy and the afflicted state of mind. What makes a mindset afflictive?

  1. Afflicted mindsets are disturbing. We feel uncomfortable and unbalanced in our very being.
  2. Afflicted mindsets are obscuring.  This state makes things worse or better than they really are. Either way, our perceptions aren’t true or accurate. We overrate some things. Or we fail to notice the bad effects of others.
  3. Afflicted mindsets are separative. Something is separating us from our happiness—love, material things, success, achievements. Once we have those things, we’ll feel complete. This is reflected in the life of King Solomon who pursued pleasure, success, love, purity, peace, wisdom--everything known to man. In the end, he said the whole purpose of man was to keep God’s commandments—to commune with God.

Yogis believe that we penetrate these layers of afflicted mindsets through meditation. In meditation, we access a more luminous part of our mind that is already acquainted with happiness as a natural state. Having freed ourselves from these afflictions, we make truly conscious choices—not patterned ones that are made less out of choice than conditioning.

Although this blog does not usually cover matters of religion, as a practicing Christian, I feel duty bound to say this much: If you want a book that teaches you how to live a more peaceful life on earth, study the Yoga Sutras. If you want a book that teaches you how to live a more peaceful life on earth and for all eternity, study the Bible.

In my opinion, the Yoga Sutras echo God’s wisdom in many ways, but you might find a few errors and omissions when it comes to peace that leads to heaven. To the Christian, happiness on earth is far less important than eternal peace with God. Christians believe that meditation, prayer, and godly actions give everyone a shot at the real prize--eternal peace.

If there’s a comparison to be made between the two books, here’s my best (but oversimplified) shot at it: the Bible tells us exactly what God wants us to do to be truly at peace with Him—not just at peace with ourselves. (We’ve already acknowledged that the latter isn’t quite enough because we sometimes lie to ourselves.) The Yoga Sutras reveal some manmade techniques we can use to work our way through some of the more difficult aspects of living to that standard.

If you binged on making resolutions for 2010, Cope’s book might encourage you to look more realistically at your aspirations as insight about yourself. The real value of New Year’s resolutions may be what they reveal about our motivations and our state of mind. The Wisdom of Yoga provides an accessible way to see the Sutras applied in everyday life.