Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Break-Up, Divorce and Yoga Sutra 1.1: The Past as Our Wisest Teacher

Written by Patanjali, in or around 400 AD, the Yoga Sutras, is a text that memorializes the ancient philosophy and teachings of yoga.  It is believed that yoga originated 5,000 years ago--just a few years before Madonna appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards, adorned in henna tattoos, singing Hindu-inspired music and attributing her buff physique to her daily, 2 hour yoga routine.  (That was a joke).  

Although henna tattoos do not make one a yogi, indeed, one need not ever assume a Downward Facing Dog or step foot on a yoga mat to truly practice yoga.  Rather, the physical practice is merely a catalyst for understanding and implementing yoga's teachings. 

Loosely translated, the first sutra, "atha yoga anushasanam," means, "now you have reached a stage in your development where you are ready to learn the mystic practice of yoga."  This Sutra teaches that, it is by virtue of one's attraction to yoga that she is deemed prepared to begin its practice, and, it is only through one's collective life experiences that she reached this precise, auspicious moment.  

How incredibly profound that, in our first encounter with it, yoga welcomes us by, essentially, reassuring us that we are exactly where we need to be because our life decisions have led us here.  

When sharing this Sutra with my yoga students, I could not help but draw parallels between what atha yoga anushasanam is, ostensibly, attempting to teach and the individual who chooses to end a relationship.  The yogi searches for inner peace and liberation; the person ending his or her relationship hungers for a more fulfilling life.  Not only does each thirst for personal growth, but both recognize that they deserve better, and, at that precise moment, they make a conscious decision to seek it, terrifying  though the unknown may be.  The Yoga Sutras urge us to extinguish any inkling of doubt, reassuring us that our decision was correct, purely because we arrived at it.  As your experiences have brought you here, here is exactly where you need to be.   

While atha yoga anushasanam places tremendous emphasis on the present--the now--perhaps, what I find most beautiful about this Sutra is its implicit reverence for the past.  In order to shape a more gratifying tomorrow, you must acknowledge your yesterday, as it has molded you into today's seeker.   

The first Yoga Sutra teaches us that, our desire to search is indicative of our readiness to receive.  By this rationale, our desire to leave a hurtful or loveless relationship means we are ready to embrace a fulfilling and loving relationship, something that would have been unattainable had we remained in the relationship we so wisely decided to end.

Ancient Chinese poet and philosopher, Lao Tzu, said "New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings."  The very first word of the very first Sutra is "atha," or "now."  Now is everpresent and eternal.  The ending may have been painful, but it brought you to now.   Now is the new beginning.  Now, you are exactly where you need to be.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Your Divorce was not a "Failure"

For the past 9 years, I have had the immense pleasure of  teaching a private yoga student.  A highly successful businesswoman, she is a perfectionist, with a Type-A personality, determined to "master" even the most challenging postures.  Often, I ask her to try seemingly onerous poses as a vehicle for teaching her self-acceptance and patience. While her need to attain even the impossible assures her success in life, it also carries with it the potential for emotional and physical self-destruction.  

Last week, I instructed her to attempt a challenging pose.  From her yoga mat, she glared up at me.  As she endeavored the pose, her eyes burned with unwavering resolve.  Unwilling to accept "failure"--or at least what she considered "failure"--she became frustrated when she could not "perfectly" execute the posture.  From my perspective (and, yes, I can be a real asshole sometimes), her "failure" was success.  She was being taught that she must love and accept herself through her "failures" just as much as, if not more so than, she loves and accepts herself when she "succeeds," because "failure" is only "failure" if she defines it as such.  

As she huffed and puffed through the pose, I reminded her that, although her conscious mind refused to respect her physical limitations, her unconscious mind and body continued to love her, without any judgment--involuntarily breathing, sustaining her, pumping life through her entire being, and delivering oxygen to her heart, her lungs and her brain.  Her synovial joints produced fluid, cushioning her articular cartilage from friction and the pain that would otherwise result from her movements.  In performing merely one of its myriad life-sustaining functions, her bone marrow manufactured lymphocites, supporting her immune system and protecting her from illness.  Despite the fact that her unconscious body was doing all of this for her, her conscious mind was denigrating her for what she perceived as "failure"--her "inability" to "perfect" a posture.

Among the many beautiful lessons yoga offers, yoga teaches us to practice "Ahimsa," or, non-judgment.  It is with much personal reluctance that I say "perfect" does not exist.  Most of us are familiar with the French Dadaist artist, Marcel Duchamp, who, in 1917, asked the world to accept a urinal as "art."  Duchamp was making a statement:  when the urinal ceases to be associated with its function, it is merely a porcelain sculpture.  Similarly, semantics is a field of linguistics that focuses on the relationship between signifiers--such as words, phrases, signs and symbols--and the meaning we attach to them.  If we did not label those things that fly "birds," the word "bird" would be gibberish.  It is by giving an object a label
that this label, or, signifier, takes on a particular meaning.

So, and I am grossly oversimplifying here, if Dadaists proposed that objects have meaning as a result of the function we attribute to them, and linguists suggest that words have meaning by virtue of of the thing with which we associate them, then, by that rationale, we, as human beings, "fail" exclusively because we have ascribed some arbitrary meaning to the word "fail."  Case in point, I perceived my yoga student's "failure" to "perfect" a pose as a "success."

In their book, "The Fifth Agreement," Don Miguel Ruiz and Don Jose Ruiz so poignantly distinguish the objective truth from subjective virtual reality.  They write:

"All humans are programmed to perceive the truth, and we don't need a language to do this.  But in order to express the truth, we need to use a language, and that expression is our art.  It's no longer the truth because words are symbols, and symbols can only represent or 'symbolize' the truth.  For example, we can see a tree even if we don't know the symbol 'tree.'  Without the symbol, we just see an object.  The object is real, it is truth, and we perceive it.  Once we call it a tree, we are using art to express a point of view.  By using more symbols, we can describe the tree--every leaf, every color.  We can say it's a big tree, a small tree, a beautify tree, an ugly tree, but is it the truth?  No, the tree is still the same tree.  Our interpretation of the tree will depend on our emotional reaction to the tree, and our emotional reaction will depend on the symbols that we use to re-create the tree in our mind.  As you can see, our interpretation of the tree is not exactly the truth.  But our interpretation is a reflection of the truth, and that reflection is what we call the human mind.  The human mind is nothing but a virtual reality.  It isn't real.  What's real is truth.  What's truth is truth for every one.  But the virtual reality is our personal creation; it's our art, and it's only 'truth' for each one of us."

Where am I going with all of this?

When a relationship ends, we dub it a "failure."  Maybe, we did something to contribute to the demise of the relationship--we think, "I messed up."  Maybe, we did not see it coming--we think, "I'm so stupid."  Maybe, our spouse was unfaithful--we think, "I'm unattractive.  I'm unlovable."

However, the only truth is that the relationship has ended.  Any words or reasons we ascribe to the end of the relationship are symbols--a virtual reality our mind has created after reflecting on the truth.  This virtual reality is the catalyst for self-judgment, self-loathing and self-destruction.  Yet, as I reminded my yoga student when she criticized herself for "failing," our bodies continues to involuntarily breathe for us, pump blood for us, produce lymphocites for us, cushion our joints and love us.  That is the truth.  

When your relationship ends, for whatever reason it ends, how do you escape your own virtual reality of which you are a prisoner?

There is no easy answer.  It takes time and determination.  You must begin by understanding that any adjective you use to describe yourself or your experience is not the truth, but your creation--your art.  Next, you must take a step outside of yourself, and discern the objective truth from your subjective virtual reality.  Which adjectives, specifically, do you use to describe yourself and your experience?    

Personally, I find yoga and meditation help me to sieve out the chunks that obstruct reality, and distill my truth.  These practices may not be right for you.  You know yourself best.  Where does your mind race most? Where is your mind at peace?  Observe as you pass judgment on yourself.  Observe which words your mind chooses to describe your experiences, to describe you.  Be in awe of your mind for its ability to write such elaborate fantasy.  Consciously love and support yourself as your unconscious body loves and supports you.

Failure assumes only the meaning you give it, and its meaning weilds only as much power over you as you allow it.  

Perhaps, yours is a mind that refuses to see the truth.  That is perfectly alright.  You are the artist in your virtual reality.  You decide the color of the paint, the length of each brush stroke, the size of the canvas.  Create a new meaning for "failure."  "Failure" is "success."  "Failure" is my "opportunity to learn."  "Failure" is my "teacher."  How very exciting it is to "fail" at something. "Failure" is an invitation to leave behind something broken.  "Failure" is a blank canvas.  

The paintbrush is yours.  

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Moving on After Divorce: How to Overcome Fear, Begin the Healing Process and Open the Heart

When I was 6 years-old, I, inexplicably, made the oh-so-wise decision to touch a hot stove. My tiny finger throbbed, and, almost instantaneously blistered--the pain, an excruciating didactic.  

Fast forward 21 years to 27 year-old Sarah, who, after ending a 10 year-relationship and her marriage was petrified to date, lest she ever again experience such unfathomable pain.

Fast forward 4 years to 31 year-old Sarah, who, having been "burned" by another failed relationship, became all the more unwilling to enter the kitchen, let alone approach the proverbial "stove."   

As children, our fears are relatively minimal.  Pain is our negative reinforcement, counseling us to avoid traumatic experiences.  

A few weeks ago, I took photographs of my elderly grandmother. I dressed her up like a little girl to illustrate that youth is more attributable to one's attitude than to her physical age.  When I shared this sentiment with my grandmother, she responded:  "Yes, but as you get older, you are more afraid to hurt yourself."

One of our most primal instincts, the survival instinct, urges us to elude the "burn"--and, rightfully so.  From the moment we enter the world, we quickly learn that the worse the pain, the more we must avoid its cause.  Instinctively, our body knows that burns may cause neurological and muscular destruction and scarring. One may lose her sense of touch.  Severe burns may damage the bones and joints, and even lead to death.  Our pain response is our body's very rational way of shielding us against a potentially life-threatening injury.    

Emotional pain works in much the same way, except, it, although invisible to the naked eye, may be far more pernicious than a superficial injury, and the residual scar significantly more disfiguring.  With each successive "failed" relationship, the emotional wound is reopened.  Eventually, the wound heals, but the scar grows deeper, reminding us to stay away from anything that may exacerbate it.

So, how very counterintuitive that, when we experience the loss of one relationship, we are, at least, seemingly asked not only to forget the pain we previously endured, but we are expected to ignore our fear--our past, our teacher, our survival instinct.  Again, we are expected to touch a hot stove, and, possibly, subject ourselves to another burn.  We hope that our succeeding relationship may have a more favorable result than the preceding.  At the same time, people tend to repeat patterns, inviting the same result, further reinforcing the existing bases for their fears.  

 Accordingly, a new potential relationship can be likened to the stove in a stranger's kitchen.  It may be hot.  It may be cool.  Who would be so foolish as to touch a stove, knowing there is a 50% chance she may get burned?

Writer and spiritual philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, proposed:  

"Fear is always in relation to something; it does not exist by itself.  There is fear of what happened yesterday in relation to the possibility of its repetition tomorrow; there is always a fixed point from which relationship takes place.  How does fear come into this?  I had pain yesterday; there is that memory of it and I do not want it again tomorrow.  Thinking about the pain of yesterday, thinking which involves the memory of yesterday's pain, projects the fear of having pain again tomorrow.  So it is thought that brings fear.  Thought breeds fear; thought also cultivates pleasure.  To understand fear, you must also understand pleasure--they are interrelated; without understanding one you cannot understand the other.  This means that one cannot say 'I must have pleasure and no fear;' fear is the other side of the coin which is called pleasure.  Thinking with the image of yesterday's pleasure, thought imagines that you may not have that pleasure tomorrow; so thought engenders fear. Thought tries to sustain pleasure and thereby nourishes fear.  Thought has separated itself as the analyzer and the thing to be analyzed; they are both parts of thought playing tricks upon itself.  In doing all that it is refusing to examine the unconscious fears; it brings in time as a means of escaping fear and yet at the same time, sustains fear."

In examining the subconscious process that propagates our fears, ostensibly, Krishnamurti suggests that it is the loss of pleasure that makes us fear pain.

As there is no pleasure to be found in touching a stove--hot or cold--the 50% risk that the stove will be hot is scarcely worth the reward, or absence thereof.  But is a relationship analogous to a stove?  What if falling in love again is actually totally different from touching a hot stove?  What if we are not being taught to completely shy away from relationships, but, instead, we are being guided toward the right relationship?  What if the hurt, in the context of a relationship, only exists to teach us which relationships to avoid, and to shock us into evaluating the dysfunctions that precipitated our selection process?   

6 year-old Sarah did not experience any pleasure in her finger before she touched the hot stove.  She did experience pain after she touched it.  Conversely, 27 year-old Sarah did experience pleasure in her relationship before she lost it.  If there is no pleasure prior to the pain, there is no impetus to repeat the conduct that elicited the pain.  Our desire to rediscover pleasure allows us to reconcile this inherent paradox.  Yes, pain is our guru.  6 year-old Sarah's pain teaches her to never repeat a life-threatening behavior, the result of which will always inevitably be the same. 27 year-old Sarah's pain equips her with the wisdom to make better decisions in the future--the outcome of which will almost always vary.  Choosing the right partner is often accomplished only after first choosing the wrong one.

If the pain of loss is not contrived to prevent us from seeking pleasure, but, rather, to guide us to seek potentially greater pleasure, then how do we muster the fortitude to seek this greater pleasure, when our fears sabotage our efforts?

In Eastern Philosophy, it is believed that the Fourth Chakra--"Anahata"--is related to matters of the heart.  Typically, back bends and chest and shoulder openers awaken energy in the heart center.  They free the accumulated physical stagnation catalyzed by some emotional trauma.  In Chinese medicine, the lungs are thought to be weakened by grief.  With the proximity of the lungs to the heart, and the relationship between the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, this can hardly be seen as a coincidence.

Taken one step further, the physical act of bending backwards often arouses the most fear in yoga students.  For years, one of my students cried every time she came out of a deep back bend.  In the literal sense, we spend a majority of our lives bending forward.  We slouch at our desks, in front of our computers and in our cars.  Most of us sleep in a fetal position.  We see what is in front of us.  Unlike our 3rd grade teacher, we do not have eyes in the backs of our heads.  To ask one's body to bend in a foreign position, is to ask oneself to be uncomfortable.  What is behind us is unknown.  We cannot see.  What if we fall?  Even in popular culture, the image of bending backwards is routinely associated with the demonic.  In "The Exorcist," Linda Blair's character contorts her body in what the Western world perceives as an "unnatural" position.  We are told that this is "horrific."  Anatomically speaking, in most bodies, the erector spinae muscle is generally weak and neglected in comparison to the abdominal muscles.  We prefer to "crunch" forward than to arch back.  It is no wonder back pain is so prevalent. 

Symbolically, what lurks behind us represents our past.  We bend forward with ease, knowing that there is far more promise in the future.  When we look backwards, we are asked to confront the unresolved past--that which will haunt us until we floss away the heaps of emotional plaque congealed to our heartsIndeed, bending backwards can prove cathartic. It also requires tremendous tenacity to endeavor the knowingly uncomfortable, and trust that everything will be alright.   

A catch-22, the more one faces her fears, the less she will fear them--if this was so simple, she would not be afraid.

In her brillaint book, "Eastern Body, Western Mind," Anodea Judith explains:  

"It is important to remember that the point of grief work is to regain connection with the self inside rather than increase our attachment to what was lost...We grieve because a sacred essence within ourselves has been awakened and then compromised.  To grieve that essence is to reclaim it and give it the importance it deserves.  Sometimes a painful situation triggers wounds from previous hurts that were never healed and indeed we may feel like we are reexperiencing every hurt that has ever happened to us.  Grief work helps us clean the wounds so that we reclaim our wholeness.  As we shed the seemingly endless tears of grief, we must remember the hope of the young boy in the stable: 'With this much manure, there's got to be a pony in here somewhere!'"

She goes on to write:

"Unfortunately, when we barricade our heart we also barricade it against receiving, as well as the possibility of healing.  We stay frozen in the past, unable to move forward into the future."

There is little pain greater than a broken heart, but there is also little pain greater than solitude.  If we cower at the possibility of love, using our broken heart as a shield, we remain trapped in inevitable pain and denied the pleasure of giving and receiving love.  Opening the heart does not guarantee a life free from pain.  It does offer the potential for pleasure.  If it is our quest for pleasure that makes us so terrified of pain, then, arguably, our fear of pain is outweighed by our desire for pleasure.  Essentially, without pleasure, we are in pain.  

Love is not a hot stove that will unequivocally burn every time it is touched.  Love may burn, wound and scar.  Love may also offer such immense pleasure that its occasional burn is worth the painful blister--a blister that will heal with time.  We must be willing to be uncomfortable, to bend backwards, to face our pasts, to learn from the hot stoves we have touched, and the burns we have suffered, so that we may truly open our hearts to pleasure and "find the pony in the stable."  

To open the heart is not only to love another and to allow another to love you, but it is to love the self.  If the heart is closed, love can no more go out than it can come in.  Pleasure of any kind becomes impossible.

Entering a new relationship may feel like recklessly touching a hot stove, while expecting a different outcome.  Surely, we are all familiar with Einstein's definition of "insanity"--"doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."  And it is more likely than not that, with little to no time to reflect on one's mistake, one will "burn" herself by jumping into a new relationship upon the demise of the last.  That is not an act motivated by love.  That is an act motivated by fear.  However, it is by giving due reverence to the lessons to be found in the "burn,"  it is by inviting the blisters on our hearts and the scars on our souls to be our teachers, it is by living in the discomfort of a break up, a back bend, the unfamiliar, and it is by learning how to seek pleasure by consciously avoiding the specific cause of yesterday's pain, that one grows to discern the hot stoves from the cool and the safe from the unsafe, to discover tomorrow's pleasure.