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. 

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. 

Start Now

I am stunned, numbed, outraged, and incredibly sad about the murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police. His death, viewed by millions of people, led to largely peaceful mass protests in 50 cities in the U.S. and in dozens of countries around the world; thousands and thousands of people—black, brown, and white—gathered for nearly two weeks to express their anger and grief at this latest “lynching” of a black man. 

Image from cnn.com

As a privileged white female, the first thing I want to say is “I’m sorry” as meant by the Spanish phrase, “Lo siento.” I feel it. I am filled with sorrow for the pain that my race has inflicted on people of color. When I sit still on the meditation cushion and tune into all the levels of my feelings, sorrow is at the core. I have to acknowledge that first.

As I sit on the cushion, emotions and physical discomfort come and go. Over the years, I’ve sat through sadness, joy, confusion, and anger. At times, I’ve wanted to run screaming from the cushion because of the heart-rending experience of being human. Still I sit. I’ve learned that as those thoughts and feelings subside, clarity arises. From there, should I choose to act, the actions can emerge from clarity and compassion.

How do I take this clarity and compassion into the world when sometimes it feels so fleeting? How can I address what is going on now to help make real progress on racial justice and police reform? What can I do? What can you do to make the world a kinder and more accepting place for all? Each one of us has to decide for ourselves. When I look within, here are some options I’ve found. Perhaps they will resonate with you. 

Notice and stay grounded. With kindness, acknowledge the violence within yourself and toward others. Be honest. Notice how you are in the world. How does racism, in particular, arise in you?

Look deeply at that. Do you live up to your own expectations? If you’ve fallen short, can you accept that and do better next time? Practice kindness and compassion. Start small.

Act in alignment with your highest ideals. Take responsibility. Apologize to yourself and others when you don’t. We are human. Sometimes our old conditioning and beliefs override our kind heart.

Do what you can to work for social justice, civil rights, and equality for all.  Educate yourself about the issues that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and to ideas about changing the role of the police. Be deeply curious about the world of which you’re a part. As a citizen of the world, speak up! If you’re in the company of people who make racist or other prejudiced comments, gently but firmly call them out. Tell them how you feel and why. If you have the means, donate money (small amounts from many of us add up) to support to organizations that work towards a more just society. Join in peaceful protests, if you can do that safely (in a mask, using social distancing). If prayer helps you, go ahead and pray. Exercise your privilege in this democracy by voting. Help others exercise their right to vote. 

This is a time to say what we mean and mean what we say. Start now to find ways to repair the world. 

May we all join together to mend our hearts.


At Home Retreat – Centering Body & Mind: Yoga & the Four Sublime States

I planned to be in residence at Southern Dharma again this year to settle into the meditation hall for yoga and meditation, share silence and delicious, nutritious meals, and enjoy the serene beauty of western North Carolina mountains. I never imagined that a virus would sweep the world, affect so many families and businesses, and require us to creatively alter this plan.

Magnolia by Pascale Parinda

Fortunately, we’re in the world of magic technology that allows us to be together in a different, yet intimate, way. Currently, I teach Zoom yoga classes from my home studio, during which I get to see inside people’s homes, meet their pets and children, and see what kind of practice space they have set up. I’d be honored to be invited into your home, if you choose to participate in this retreat. Likewise, I look forward to welcoming you into my home. There’s a special tenderness of being together in this way at a time when we’re asked to isolate ourselves from others.

The home of the four immeasurables, the limitless ones, is a place of both release and outreach: when we observe ourselves being frightened and reaching for more chocolate, can we notice that behavior with compassion toward ourselves, without judgment? And if we eat the chocolate, well, okay! There’s a pandemic going on…let’s eat chocolate! If we interact with someone who isn’t wearing a mask in the grocery store, can we tap into equanimity for that person who might be afraid in his or her own way?

Let’s be honest. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty. We don’t like not knowing.

Asana practice is a way to release into not knowing. During this time of emotional ups and downs, we have the opportunity to experience yoga as way to support our bodies and minds. We have the opportunity, on-line and at home, to stay embodied, soften our shoulders, and recognize our inter-dependency.

Southern Dharma and I are working together to create this at-home retreat as a way to support and comfort you, as well as to hone your tools of self-awareness.

No matter your personal situation, I’m confident you can find ways to participate in this retreat. It’s an experiment, like life. Just show up and see what happens. There’s no “wrong way” to do this!

Learn more about the retreat HERE. Here’s a detailed schedule.

Clear Seeing

I sit and squint at the blue bird on the budding branch. I can see that the bird is blue. I can’t tell whether it’s an Eastern Bluebird, a Blue Bunting, or a Blue Jay. I realize in that moment that I just can’t see well. Then I remember: months ago I was diagnosed with vitreomacular traction, an eye condition that causes distorted vision.  

The reason I even had a clue that there are different kinds of birds that are blue is that my friend, Jim, surprised me last week with a copy of What It’s Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley. As soon as I received the book, I delved right in. What else am I to do while Staying Home? How many Zoom classes can one take?

Before the bird flew away, I found binoculars and discovered that he was an Eastern Bluebird. To see more clearly, I needed the right tool—in this case, the proper kind of glasses. 

During this challenging crisis, I find I’m spending more time than usual looking inward. What am I not seeing? What tools can I use to help me see more clearly? Are there aspects of personality that aren’t readily clear? Well, yes. I’ve noticed that I’m greedy. Usually, I stay busy enough not to notice. Busy-ness distracts me. Now, greed arises within me for a sit-down meal at a restaurant, or a leisurely afternoon at Malaprops. I even ache for an unmasked trip to the post office. That’s pitiful. At least I keep my sense of humor.

The pandemic has deprived us of many of the activities of daily life that distract us, as well as those that entertain and enrich us. There’s so much I miss! Hugging my grandnephew is high on the list of things I crave… even more than a sit-down meal at Thai Kitchen. 

However, when I use the “right” tools, I have the opportunity, if I so choose, to direct my focus. Then I experience more stable ground beneath my feet, steadiness to my breathing, a lift of my spirits, and connection to myself and others. My tools include a Koan meditation session, a long walk with Jack, FaceTime with a friend, a Zoom yoga class, and sometimes a prayer. What are the tools available to you to help you see more clearly—to help you find clarity? I recognize that I may not “like” what I see. Today, I noticed the dirty grout in the shower. I recognized the gritty greed in my mind. I scoured the grout. I watched the greed. I suspect both will return. I’ll be watching.

Until the “all clear,” I’m working to accept the fact that the hug I’m sending you is “virtual,” but nonetheless, deeply felt. I’m also sending you the strong suggestion that you find ways to “see” more clearly—whether it’s a bluebird on a branch, or a glimpse of your true, authentic, and loving nature.

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A number of you are already enjoying taking private and semi-private classes with me via Zoom. I will continue to offer this way of practicing through May. If you would like to schedule Zoom time with me, please send an email to cdollar53@gmail.com to set this up. 

Workshop: Striking a Pose Toward Inner Freedom

Cindy is teaching a four-session workshop at Sunrise Yoga in Winston-Salem from Friday, Nov. 1 – Sunday, November 3. Striking a Pose Toward Inner Freedom: Yoga and the Four Immeasurables blends hatha yoga asana with teachings on friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In combination, these practices can lead to a path through life of personal growth, awakening, clarity, and freedom.

You can register for all four sessions for $190 (by 10/18), or for $210 thereafter. Individual sessions can be purchased separately. See the Sunrise Yoga Workshop page for more.

The Tranquil Waters of Equanimity

Calm lake with mountains in the background and one pleasure boat.
© Pascale Parinda 2018

I’ve focused my attention the last few months on the practice of equanimity, one of the four Buddhist immeasurables, along with loving-kindness, compassion, and joy. Equanimity in this context means to have a clear-minded tranquil state of mind, striving to avoid being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness, or agitation. It is the ground of wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. Although some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being, beyond like and dislike, without bias and opinion. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.”   

The cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity can open the heart, counter the distortions in our relationships to ourselves, and deepen our relationships to others. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

I’ve explored my relationship with each of these qualities as my thoughts and emotions have bounced around during the move this summer to my new home in Weaverville. I’ve had many opportunities to watch my mind bounce between like and dislike as I chose what to pack and move. The practice of even-mindedness has helped me to stay on track without second guessing the decision—except for maybe a few times as I unloaded box after box. I have collected a lot of yoga books over the years!

“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”

—Satchidananda

Currently, I’m packing yet again. This time I’m traveling to Southern Dharma Retreat Center to teach a 4-day workshop that starts on Wednesday evening, Aug. 14. Don’t worry! The fabulous Lindsay Majer will cover the 6pm class at 191 Murdock Ave so you’ll be in good hands. I’m grateful to Lindsay for being the guest teacher many times this year as I’ve traveled the globe. I’m staying put for a while when I return, and plan to teach workshops closer to home.

I’ve taught a Buddhist study and yoga practice workshop at Southern Dharma for over a decade. Each time I prepare, I deepen my understanding of the practices I will be sharing, while discovering again the myriad ways that Buddhism and yoga support one another. For instance, here are two translations of yoga sutra I-33:

 “Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene, and benevolent.”

—B.K.S. Iyengar

I wish you a calm and serene mind. The practice of equanimity pays off.

Practice is key. Stay steady. Your mind is trainable, no matter what it thinks.

The Heart of Self-Care

As I was sitting in meditation and not thinking, a multitude of thoughts arose about packing—packing for vacation, packing for moving, and packing for life. In a split second, I had loaded my suitcase with a yoga mat, a block, a thin strap, an inflatable zafu, and nine novels. Of course, I hadn’t actually left the zafu I was sitting on! Back to the breath and to being present.

Silhouette of horizon, trees, and flying bird against sunset sky.
Whether we are practicing yoga, sitting in meditation or prayer, watching a bird in flight as the sun sets, or packing for a much-awaited vacation, let’s practice tuning into present moment awareness and finding acceptance of what is.

If I listened and responded to every thought that wafts across my mind, I would be crazy. Literally. My busy mind has a List of Things to Do that never ends. Some part of me believes that if I get everything done, I’ll be happy. And there are plenty of books and online programs available to show me how to be productive and get it ALL done. The truth is that my To-Do List will never be “done” because some part of me keeps adding on to the list. Dust the baseboards. Pull vines off the trees. Walk the dog. Check the list.

Then there’s the Self-Care To Do List: Practice yoga, eat healthy foods, exercise, meditate, read more books about yoga and meditation. I can get very stressed contemplating all the things I need to do to decrease my stress!

What if happiness is an inside job (not a head job at all!) unrelated to the completed to-do list, especially to the one designed to quiet my overactive mind? How does happiness feel? Or contentment? Can you find the visceral experience of happiness in your body right now? Sit still for a moment and conjure up a memory of when you felt happy or content. Let yourself fully feel that throughout your body. Remember how that feels.

Back to me! As I awoke from the trance of thinking on the meditation cushion, I realized that my skin was tight and my jaw clenched in anticipation of “getting everything done.” I softened my jaw and relaxed my eyes, listening and looking inward. I opened to the feeling of contentment that I discovered. Ahh. Can I take that ease into the rest of life? Yes, if I’m attentive to what I’m doing right then and there without being one thought ahead of my actions. Without being caught up in any thoughts.

So whether we are practicing yoga, sitting in meditation or prayer, watching a bird in flight as the sun sets, or packing for a much-awaited vacation, let’s practice tuning into present moment awareness and finding acceptance of what is. Let’s tune into the spaciousness that comes from being fully engaged with life as life unfolds, not as it is in our head. My own experience is that the practice of present moment awareness is at the heart of self-care and it doesn’t require any list at all.

My Journey with Iyengar Yoga

As I look forward to attending the annual IYNAUS convention (Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States) next week in Dallas, Texas, I want to share how I first became involved with this style of yoga and what it means to me. Simply put, the practice of Iyengar Yoga changed my life. I took my first class in 1984 and I continue to be so very grateful I got on that particular mat.

B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga.

Initially, I began yoga as a physical exercise, like running or swimming. Immediately, though, there was something different about how I felt after that first yoga class. I felt settled. That experience stayed with me during my job as a pharmacist. I began to see life from a different perspective, perhaps an effect from those twisting poses or inversions. I slowed down. I became a better listener. I had fun! I hated savasana.

Asana was the way in for me. Paying attention to the physical aspects of my body led me to experience aspects of my body-mind that I couldn’t see, although I could feel them.  Who knew that strength, endurance, and flexibility were more than physical attributes?

I wanted others to feel as good as I did. I wanted to tell strangers on the street that Iyengar Yoga opened doors of understanding to other layers of existence—to the Great Mystery. That didn’t seem like a very smart idea! The compassionate self-discipline of yoga had already taught me to stay put and watch my impulses before acting on them.

The world became my mat. Using blocks and straps on the mat taught me how to use problems and challenges of life as support for growth rather than as obstacles to happiness. I learned that everything changes—the weather, my body, and especially my mind. I learned that I have no control over external circumstances, although I do have at least some control over how I respond to them. I credit this understanding to the ongoing practice of yoga, to the determination of staying put in a difficult pose, like savasana. Who knew that corpse pose entailed dropping the ego as much as dropping the body?

An ongoing practice brings me “from the periphery to the core to the periphery”—to borrow the theme of the 2016 IYNAUS convention.  Although I first attended yoga classes for the exercise, I stayed for the other benefits I received beyond the physical. These benefits are hard to put into words, but I suspect as yoga students that you experience them, too. As a teacher, I witness the changes in energy that flow through students during class. I see the transformation! Students also share with me how yoga off the mat has given them valuable tools for engaging with life’s challenges.

The theme of the IYNAUS convention is “Exploring the Path of Practice,” and that about sums it up. I practice Iyengar Yoga because the practice itself—especially in savasana—is an exploration into uncharted territories of the self.

While I’m away from April 11 to April 18, please explore your practice with the wise and generous instructors who are teaching my classes (see Schedule). I’ll see you when I return, full of new ways to be on the mat together.