Staying Open to Uncertainty

I answered a phone call from my friend, Adam, on Tuesday night. His voice broke as he spoke of leaving the known maximum-security prison for an unknown minimum-security destination. He has been in prison for five years and was being transferred to a new “camp”—as inmates call prison. Would he be bullied? Would he get a job in that camp? As he shared his concerns, he finally said, “I know it is fear of the unknown. I want to stay open.” 

After we hung up, I considered that most of us, if we’re honest, fear the unknown. Although we live with uncertainty every day, this past year has magnified this fear. Will we or a loved one contract Covid? When can those who want the vaccine get it?  As a result of the pandemic, many people are struggling financially, unemployed, or at risk of losing a home. How will they manage? It’s a lot to deal with. The truth is, we don’t know what will happen—now, next week, or a year from now.  Although these fears may be worrisome, worry is not preparation. Anxiety is about the future, not the present. Sometimes, in one moment, we might need to prepare intentionally by planning appropriately for the future. That’s different.

I commend Adam for his willingness to acknowledge his fear and his intention to stay open. He’s not running away from his fear, not checking out. He has used his time in incarceration to read the Bible, meditate, and practice yoga. He quarantined in his room to put his legs up the wall. When the cacophonous voices of other inmates intruded on his solitude, he stopped the narrative by turning his mind to the aspiration of wishing for all beings to be free, in thought, if not in circumstance. He used the tools that he learned, rather than letting them languish in the toolbox. He’s my hero.

Another hero of mine is Betty, an 89-year-old student who recently passed away, a few weeks shy of her 90th birthday. She came to yoga without being able to get up and down off of the floor. She persevered. She used chairs, walls, and the moral support of other students. Betty used the tools that were available. She never said, “I can’t.”  She always, and I mean always, said, “I believe I can.”

You can, too. What tools do you have to help you to stay stable in times of fear and uncertainty? Here are a few reminders and some tools that I rely on:

  • Suspend the fear-based narrative in your head. Track the sensation of anxiety where it lives in your body, and ease it with gentle breaths.
  • Get on the yoga mat, even if all you do is get there. Find a different point of view from there by twisting, getting upside down, or lying down and looking up.
  • Connect with a wise friend by phone or a walk (socially distanced, of course).
  • Read contemplative books for inspiration or a novel for a short escape. 
  • Take an online course of something you’ve been interested in and haven’t yet pursued.
  • Take a walk in nature and listen for birdsong. 
  • Pet your cat. Snuggle with your dog.
Photo by Pascale Parinda

On Sunday I received another call from Adam. He transferred to a facility six hours from where I live, a long way for me to drive to visit him. He lives in a dorm-like situation with 32 other men. He reports that his fears were ungrounded and that the inmates treat each other with kindness and respect. The camp offers courses in diesel mechanics and landscaping, both of which interest him. He remains open to the unknowable future. 

Can we remain steady, kind, respectful, and open to uncertainty?  

I believe we can. 

Season of Light

I write this on December 20th, one day before the winter solstice—the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. I look forward to this time because I know, even if I can’t see it, that the days will become longer and brighter. During these dark days, I appreciate the lights of the season. Candles are lit for eight consecutive nights in the Jewish menorah during Hanukkah. Red, green, and black candles mark Kwanza’s winter celebration. I adore the Moravian star and the bright, multi-colored Christmas lights. Light penetrates the darkness.

Most of us would agree that 2020 has been a dark year. Millions of people around the world have experienced physical, mental, emotional, and financial suffering due to Covid-19. We could (and sometimes do) get overwhelmed with the ongoing death and destitution of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors around the planet.

Yet, the light shines through. A vaccine becomes available. People join their masked neighbors to walk. Friends from opposite sides of the world gather in Zoom happy hours. We are wired for connection. All is not dark. 

However, we will see what we look for, whether light or dark, kind or mean. And, if we honestly look, we will see both. This is a tricky place. How do we recognize the sadness and feel compassion for all who are affected (including ourselves), and simultaneously recognize and feel grateful for the ever-present light of the love of this season? We don’t have to choose between them. Through equanimity we hold space around them both. This on-going practice requires us to expand our awareness so that our mind is not disturbed by the play of opposites. With equanimity, we can be engaged in life and the world without being involved in a storyline about how things should be different. We open our hearts wide enough to include both suffering and joy. 

When I simply observe my thoughts and feelings without believing my judgments and opinions of that experience, my mind becomes less reactive. I see the thoughts wafting through the field of awareness like clouds across the sky. The clear blue sky is always there. The spacious mind is always there. Give this a try. Sit down, focus on your breath, a prayer, or a mantra. Stay steady and see what happens for you. Breath by breath. Don’t believe everything you think, especially if you think you can’t do this. You are training your mind to focus on the light behind the clouds.  

On the yoga mat, we frequently practice the same poses. Each time, we go deeper into understanding their qualities and nuances. And so it is with cultivating the quality of equanimity. With a caring yet non-reactive heart and mind, we all stand a better chance of responding to life’s circumstances in a loving, compassionate, joyful, and equanimous way. The light is within us. We each can choose where we want to focus in any given moment. I’m going to focus on the light because sometimes it’s harder to see. I wish the same for you.

May you be safe.
May you be happy. 
May you be healthy.
May you know ease of wellbeing. 

Coming Home to Ourselves

On our way home…
photo by Pascale Parinda

News about two effective Covid 19 vaccines has been a balm to my unsettled nerves, even as the number of cases skyrockets across most of the world. As we approach Thanksgiving, our health experts are urging us to make difficult decisions about how we celebrate, even advising us to just stay home and share a meal with only our immediate family or “friend bubble.” Although my husband and I long to be with my small family in Greensboro, we have decided to remain in Weaverville. The risks are too great. We consider this a short-term sacrifice for long-term health and future gatherings. What’s your plan? How do you feel right now about the upcoming holidays? And where exactly is home? 

I “borrowed” the title of this essay from the title of Chapter 5 in Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, a recent book by author Sharon Salzberg, a central figure in the field of meditation, and a world-renowned teacher. She writes that “deep in our hearts we all long for a feeling of being at home.” How does “home” feel in your body? When I feel at home, my body relaxes. I feel more comfortable in my skin.

I’m also reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, published in 2016. The author, Douglas Abrams, interviewed His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These wise men suggest we find that home place through practices of prayer, meditation, gratitude, and compassion that cultivate joy. They recommend that we think of others, whether we are joyful or not. For example, when we feel lonely we can consider others who feel lonely. Just like us, they know sadness and despair. We are not alone. In those moments, we can send out a prayer or aspiration that all may be lifted up. If we are at the pharmacy (masked up, of course) consider that others there might be scared. Send out feelings of safety through your smiling eyes. I’ve spoken to several friends in the last 24 hours. Each one has mentioned feeling depressed, anxious, unsettled, angry, uncertain, scared, and scattered. These same people have reported feeling contented, settled, grateful, happy, loved and balanced. These same feelings course through my body at different times. I can’t choose only one. 

To everything there is a season…
Photo by Pascale Parinda

We are human. These are natural emotions that run through us. Which ones do you want to cultivate? I find that if I stop long enough to notice the physical sensations without adding a storyline, the energy will pass through me in a short time. Getting on the yoga mat for even a short while allows me to release the tension and reset my nervous system. A short brisk walk outside frees my constricted mind when I consider the expansiveness of the sky. I send this expanded awareness out to the universe. I don’t know if you all feel it but I feel better. What are you reading, listening to, or watching? How do you want to feel? Pay attention. Go to that physical feeling of happiness, compassion, gratitude, or love. How does it physically feel? Could this be home? 

Here’s my loving advice: when you are unhappy, consider that others feel the same way. Send out aspirations for them (and you) to feel uplifted. Feel that upliftedness in your body/mind.

When you are happy, feel that. Send out aspirations for others to feel that way. Some people are sending those aspirations out to you right now. Consider that. 

If nothing else, this pandemic reminds me of our interconnectedness and interdependence. We are living on this round planet together. What helps one helps all. 

I do not know what this holiday will bring. Will I dance on the porch, take a hike, or read a book? Will my husband play golf or tinker on a boat? Will we sit down to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner? I don’t know and I find a certain amount of freedom in that. I know that I will be at home wherever I find myself. 

I suspect that there will be laughter and loneliness as well as compassion and heartbreak. May you ride the waves of emotion with your heart open to include all that life brings you. 

Zoom Yoga Workshop 2020 with Sunrise Yoga

Friday–Sunday, November 6 – 8 

It’s time for Cindy’s annual weekend workshop combining yoga and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness at Sunrise Yoga. This year, the weekend workshop is brought to you on Zoom. Bringing together the four foundations of mindfulness as a means to awaken the body to still the mind, each session will focus on a specific foundation, using yoga asana, pranayama, and meditation as a means to guide the attention to present moment awareness. 

Friday 11/6 @ 6–8 pm = $45 
Mindfulness of the Body: Standing Poses and Inversions 

Saturday, 11/7 @ 9:30 am – 12:30 pm = $65 
Mindfulness of Body Feelings: Chest Openers and Poses for Pranayama 

Saturday, 11/7 @ 2 – 4 pm = $45 
Mindfulness of the Mind: Forward Extensions to Quiet the Mind for Meditation 

Sunday, 11/8 @ 9:30 AM – 12:30 PM = $65 
Mindfulness of Mental Qualities: Twists to Wring it all Together 

Register online, at SunriseYoga.
Register for all days to save! $190 by 10/23; $210 after. 
Cancellation penalty applies. No refunds after 10/30

Standing Strong and Steady

Every single person I’ve talked with this week has been upset, scared, sad, angry, incredulous, unnerved, worried, and/or flat out frightened about the upcoming election and its implications for the future of our country. At the center is the Administration’s mishandling of Covid-19, with its tragic consequences. Divisions and tensions seem to escalate daily as news arrives about families torn apart at the border, women’s rights in danger, the ever-present effects of racial injustice, the rollback of regulations to protect the environment, the potential loss of health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions, unemployment numbers off the chart, thousands of our fellow citizens standing in food lines, many unable to pay their rent.

These times call for Spiritual Warriors. 

Spiritual warriors are people who long to attain complete spiritual realization so they can help others do the same and in so doing bring an end to all their suffering, and indeed, to all the suffering in this world.

Stay with me, please. Let’s move on to how a Spiritual warrior behaves in the world.

Spiritual warriors have courage. They stand strong and steady, feet planted, heart open, and head up. The yoga warrior poses develop these qualities. Along with bravery, they have compassion. The felt-sense quality of compassion—of suffering with—is fearlessness. Fearless doesn’t mean there is no fear. Fearlessness is the ability to stay present to that fear, whether at the bedside of a dying friend or in any place that seems to have no good outcome in sight. Spiritual warriors hold the ability to step into places where they tremble with compassion for others who suffer. 

Spiritual warriors persist in remaining open hearted, even as they step into the hard places where anger arises. They use the energy of anger to work for peace, rather than against others. They take the high road of integrity and refrain from cruel behavior. Get the picture?

The present times demand Spiritual Warriors to come forward all over the world, not only in the U.S. We urgently need warriors who are willing to stand up for their own rights and those of others who are unable to speak (or vote) for themselves. 

I feel like a Spiritual Warrior as I write this. I feel my heart beating. I’m a little scared, a little fearful. Some may say I’m overstepping a boundary by voicing my opinion. To align myself with the practice of non-harming and truthfulness, I must speak up. My opinion is that dishonesty, cruelty, and criminal behavior have no place in any leader at any level. I’m stepping out and standing strong to say that I’m voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and the entire Democratic ticket. I hope you Spiritual Warriors will join me.

Let the record show that I know that everyone has opinions, that opinions are ego-based. I also believe that we can differ in opinions and continue to hold each other in love and light. As the word Namaste reminds us, “The light within me honors the light within you. In that light of awareness and love we are one.”  We are pure love, beyond the gate of thought and desire. 

Dana-based Zoom Class – Thursday, August 13

You can register at no cost for this class, which Cindy is offering through her Southern Dharma “At Home” retreat here. Once registered, you’ll receive instructions for how to join the Zoom class via email on Thursday.

Cindy greatly appreciates any donation you choose to make.

(PayPal is an easy method that does not require you to create an account. Use this link —Sarah Dollar, that’s her!)

At-Home Retreat with Cindy Dollar—August 12-16

Centering Body & Mind—Yoga & the Four Sublime States
(An offering of Southern Dharma Retreat Center)

One of the many lessons of the pandemic is how interconnected and interdependent we are.

Seated Buddha sculpture in landscape.
Photo by Vertalm, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 (cropped)

The practice of yoga combined with an exploration of the Four Immeasurables can show us how to intentionally connect to ourselves and to others in ways that can reduce suffering and nurture happiness. In this at-home retreat with Cindy, we’ll explore how asana, along with the cultivation of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity can quiet the mind, decrease discontent, and develop clarity and freedom, the benefits of which we can share with others. 

Each day will include periods of silent and guided meditation, mindfulness exercises, and the practice of Hatha yoga postures and breath awareness. Depending on your situation, you can participate in all the sessions (much as you would at a residential retreat) or you can adjust the schedule to work with your “life” activities and responsibilities. For everyone, the intention we set will be to practice self-awareness during our time together and our time away from the group.

For more information and to register, please visit: https://www.southerndharma.org/retreat-schedule/661/at-home-retreat-centering-body-mind-yoga-the-four-sublime-states/

Living Now

In the United States, we are five months into the Stay Home, Stay Safe aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. At my house, we call it “The Covid”—as if it has an actual identity as an unwanted guest who won’t leave. We all want to talk about The Covid; about how our daily lives have changed, how difficult travel has become, and how worried we are about our family members and ourselves. We are swimming in anxiety, restlessness, and worry. How exhausting!

What can we practice to transform or at least limit these fraught conversations and heavy feelings? Surely there are more life-affirming alternatives to Netflix and on-going cocktail hours with friends on Zoom. (Is there any activity that doesn’t involve a screen right now?) 

Woman and toddler playing in a swimming pool.
Cindy & Jack in the pool

During these challenging times, I find it especially helpful to focus on the Four Immeasurables, also known as the Four Limitless Qualities or Heavenly Abodes. I’ve mentioned them before because they are always within us, as the blue sky is always with us, although it may be covered up by clouds. As a reminder, these qualities are loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. 

Does focusing on these make the pandemic go away? No. However, when we uncover and cultivate these  qualities, we can experience life as more peaceful and spacious.

Take a moment:

  • How does your body feel when you feel angry? Really, how does it feel? Light and free? Tense and tight?  
  • How does your body feel when you feel loved? Light and free? Tense and tight?
  • How does your body feel when you feel joyful or playful? 
  • How does your body feel when you drop the storyline of who wears a mask and who doesn’t?
  • How do you want to feel at any given moment? 

If you felt more at ease when focusing on the physical sensations of love, joy, and acceptance, perhaps others would, too. The aspiration practice of metta or loving-kindness prompts us to think beyond our personal difficulties and recognize that all of us are in this situation together. If each one of us loosened our grip on what we think is right, and instead wished for all of us to be more at ease, how would that feel? Maybe we would smile under our masks and wish that all beings be safe and happy, mask or not. Maybe we would send off a prayer that all could be healthy and well.

Let’s give it a try.

Let me be clear: I believe in science. Follow all the rules about wearing a mask where it’s expected and mandated. Wash your hands. Oh, and wear a mask. It’s possible to smile with your eyes.