Self Identify

On Saturday we saw a performance of The Vagina Monologues that featured CK’s Mom performing one of the pieces. It was fantastic, moving, and I feel so privileged to have been there.

At the end the directors asked everyone in attendance to stand if they were the survivor of sexual abuse or domestic violence. It is hard for me at times like this. I feel a little like a traitor because I don’t stand. I feel ashamed…. and then I feel ashamed of my shame.

Ugly. It too is a Practice. Someday it won’t be so terrifying to stand or someday I’ll just be alright with the fact that it terrifies me to self identify as a survivor of abuse, particularly a survivor of sexual abuse.

Powerful Art - Sacramento, California - April 14, 2012

Metta Prayer for All Survivors

May I be
Freed from
The misery
Of shame.

May I
Be released
From the thought
That somehow
It was my fault.

May I
Rest in the
Truth that I
Didn’t
Do anything
Wrong.

May all
Survivors
Be free from
Anxiety and fear.
May we all
Be at ease.

May we all
Be happy.

Unfolding Beauty (and Practice)

I had acupuncture today, a long session to discharge all the chaotic energy I’ve been running on for weeks now. Mostly the only poem I could come up with is:

Too tired
To make
Poetry.

So here’s a great opportunity to practice with the side of me that stokes up that chaotic energy to just tough it out, get through. The side that prods the voice that’s tired and small into producing anyway. Here’s a chance to practice a gentleness that encourages that a haiku “counts” and isn’t slacking off on the 30-poems-in-30-days goal.

New Butterflies, Westminster, Colorado, May 2011

And here it is, a haiku about new butterflies.

Emerging slowly.
Wings wet and still unfurling.
Unfolding beauty.

Health Matters

I’ve gained some weight over the past four busy, stressful, joyful, hard years. The “why” is easy, I know myself and it isn’t hard to figure out. Stress makes me crave carbohydrates, preferably in the form of cake, and fat, in the form of fried potatoes. Portland has a number of awesome bakeries and numerous places to get very tasty potatoes fried in oil. I’ve been able to mostly look at this weight gain with compassion and try not to let my self-criticism over it get the best of me. It is a good time to practice Metta for myself, but then again it is always a good time for me to practice Metta for myself!

Mindful of the weight gain, and my desire to do my very best to be here in good health for those who love me, in the past couple of weeks I’ve committed to being very mindful about food, eating very healthfully, and making a point to exercise some every day, at least 25 minutes. I’m taking inspiration, particularly in regards to food from Eat to Live.

When I was losing a much more serious amount of weight I found tracking calories and exercise really helped me understand more about what I was eating. I used a site called FitDay for quite some time to do this. It worked pretty well, but was less than ideal.

The thing I found the most difficult with FitDay was a limited food database, at least for a vegan. I spent so much time meticulously entering nutrition details and trying to deconstruct what was in my food in order to add it. Doing so was worth it and taught me a lot, but it was tedious and took up a lot of my time.

Fast forward to now and I have a smart phone to add to the mix, so I set out to find out what else was out there for both a web site and an Android application for my phone. I started using a site called MyFitnessPal and am finding the site very easy to use and the Android application is very quick. What’s even better is the database of food!

I stumbled across several brand-name products, like Soy Curls in the food database. Then I started searching and found several recipes from favorite cookbooks and websites I use a lot. What I realized is that each time someone goes to the effort to manually input all these details, it is added to the database for everyone to use! There’s also a community access and I’ve connected to other vegans working on weight loss, fitness and generally focusing on a healthier lifestyle.

And it is working, of course. Since I started tracking things on October 12 I’ve already lost 6.8 pounds. In fact I want to be mindful of not losing too quickly, but things might slow down after this initial kick-start of energy.

When people ask me how I’ve lost 130 (at this point) pounds and I tell them that being vegan in and of itself it is a huge help, but aside from that I watch what I eat and exercise more.  That’s it. No magic formula. No pill. No miracle.

Calories in/Calories out

I’m focusing on the type of calories quite a bit, that’s the influence of Eat to Live, so even more veggies and more beans. I love tofu and tempeh, but am using a little less of it to keep calories down. Even with trying to keep to a fairly specific low-fat diet, it has been easy to mindfully include occasional indulges like a biscuits & gravy brunch, a pint of beer, tofu salad rolls with peanut sauce, and even a few kettle-style potato chips with my lunch today with CK.

I Miss the Disassociation

I learned the art of “checking out” early. I would shift my attention from my body to some small detail of the moment. The vivid colors of cartoons on the television. The quality of the morning sunlight coming in through the north facing windows of my Mother’s bedroom. The pattern of the paint and plaster on a ceiling. Code. Work. Writing ideas.

You get the idea. Something I could make so deeply engrossing that I was no longer connected to my body. I was outside of what was happening to my body. It is a pretty useful defensive tool and it has got me through abuse, doctor’s exams, and dental work.

As a Zen practitioner we work toward being present to the moment. Fully conscious of the whole moment. The sensations of the body. The speeding of the mind. The sounds, textures and entirety of the present moment.

When I first was given the practice of Metta from my teachers it was profoundly difficult for a long time. I could send Metta all the live-long day to people I knew, people I was neutral toward, and even became more comfortable cultivating loving-kindness toward people I found difficult.

Where I got stuck was cultivating loving-kindness toward myself. The idea with Metta is that you start with yourself, filling yourself with so much loving-kindness that it very naturally extends outwards to benefit all living beings. I was right there with the benefits to all living beings, but not myself.

I realized with some shame that when I tried to focus on myself I’d “check out”. Many people have a struggle with their inner critic who finds any number of reasons why they don’t deserve loving-kindness, but I didn’t get that. I just left the scene.

My teachers gave me all kinds of ideas on how to stick with myself. After many months, well over a year, of working with Metta practice, I can finally stick with myself. I built up slowly through the phrases, getting stuck on wishing myself happy for quite some time. Now though I can even find myself truly wishing that I be free from fear and anxiety, may I be peaceful and happy. I also sometimes add an additional loving wish that I be free from shame.

In this case it has felt like a victory to not “check out” (such a gentle way of saying “disassociate”). However, I’ve noticed in the past few months that I don’t really check out anymore. I’m going through a period right now where it doesn’t feel like progress or healing at all. It feels like I’ve lost one of my best allies.

I find myself fully, wholly present to what is happening to my body and mind. While at times it is great and other times tedious (chronic pain is, above all things, tedious), there are other times when it is truly horrifying and awful. I feel utterly defenseless against memories both mental and somatic. At those times I really grieve the loss of my ability to disassociate.

Don’t know when or how it happened, but I feel bereft. I’m sure there’s some combination of Yoga, Zen and EMDR therapy at work in this.

I am assured by both therapists that it is very certainly progress even though it feels like a terrible loss. They’ve also pointed out the progress I’ve made in being my own advocate and asking for what I need. My cognitive therapist even noted that I’ve been able to more clearly articulate events that have happened.

At this point I’m just going to accept that it is progress and stick with things. But I miss it.

Breath. Metta. Rumi.

The past several months has been an interesting journey. This time last year I was making the decision to leave my job of 7-and-a-half years and leap out into uncertainty. The leap was made far easier due in part to a generous severance package and in larger part because my wife was such a huge support.

When I began that journey a Dharma sister encouraged me to think of it as a sabbatical. She’d gone through a somewhat similar period of joblessness and it was how she approached that time. During her sabbatical she dove deeply into Zen practice, attending sesshin monthly.

Given such a powerful example I too used the time to dive deeply into practice, but in a profoundly different way. To the appearance of my community I’ve withdrawn from practice, at least from regularly showing up as part of a community of practitioners. I’ve also been doing a whole lot more therapy around the underlying events and present-day triggers of my PTSD — which is a pretty profound practice to stick with.

The question I came back to again and again these past months is this: what is left when I strip away all the striving?

My profound drive to be A Good Student has really been revealed to me. What I’ve learned about this motivation requires a dedicated post, but it has been very interesting. What I know now is that this powerful urge is helpful, when used wisely, it is also not my practice and shouldn’t drive my practice any longer.

I didn’t last much longer than 2 months into my sabbatical when the reality of no longer having an active title attached to my name, and the potential monetary possibility such a title implies, hit me. I was unemployed. That’s when the big whoosh of uncertainty hit me.

What if I couldn’t find a job? This consumed me. All of the worry around it ending with being left alone, homeless. Real terror at being groundless in many ways.

I was just Sherri. Not Sherri, the Systems Analyst. And not Sherri, the yoga teacher (at least not actively being paid to teach, really I will never stop embodying a yoga teacher). Although I was still striving to be The Good Student.

What is practice now? What is left? Seeing my driving urge to be approved so clearly I stepped back from practice, rather than dive more deeply in.

What is practice? Is it the teacher? Is it zazen (maybe)? Is it sitting in silence for hours on end? Is it sitting and being stripped down to nothing but absolute desolation and terror? Is it the lessons? Is it a place? Is it the cushion or bench you sit on?

What if you can’t find your incense and your Buddha statue is in a box? Mine were for weeks, still are to, as a vast home improvement project began in October. I did make sure I knew where my seiza bench was, but the rest? The important Stuff I associate with my practice? Well, that’s in boxes.

What’s left? What is left away from teachers, places, rituals, schedules, chants, lessons… What is my practice when I strip it all away, pack it up in boxes, and stop trying to attain something.

That was it. I’d chanted *it nearly weekly for over a year.

…no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance.

There I was alone with my striving and what was my practice? What was left when I sat with my desire to be considered The Good Student? What was practice when I haltingly, painfully stopped trying to attain?

It was then I fell back into Yoga, as I learned to do during a truly ghastly night in my life during my first sesshin. Before Zen, before anything, there is Yoga for me. Even when I do not have an active class I am still fully connected to the Lineage of Yoga.

Unlike previous times times in my life I didn’t immerse myself in a demanding course of yoga study, spending most days each week in rigorous practice (and injuring myself). What I fell back into was is for me the absolute foundation of my yoga practice.

Breath is left. Breath is always here and now. Well, until Breath isn’t and then we’re really involved with something aside from The Present Moment.

On my leg is tattooed the first three of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The tattoo takes up my lower right leg and culminates in a lotus on my right foot. It is the constant reminder of the path I walk.

Taken last year by my friend @spinnerin

The first sutra reminds us, “Now begins the practice of Yoga.”

It is very specifically NOW. Now we practice. Now. Now. NOW!

Practice is always now. It is always here, always present. We carry the breath. Really, our breath carries us and we always have it as the guide of practice.

Now is the breath. It is always now, so we are always beginning the practice of Yoga.

The second sutra teaches that, “Yoga is the settling of the fluctuations of the mind.”

Or, as I liked to poetically say to students, “Yoga is the settling of the mind into Silence.”

When I follow the breath, feel it fully in my body, my mind settles. Yes, it is a constant practice because as soon as my mind settles, the thoughts still, and there is just breath… well, soon enough comes along another thought, worry, plan, song, regret, desire… And then Now begins my practice, again and again and again.

The third sutra: “With a settled mind we rest in the essential self.”

I like that the third sutra reminds us that we rest. To me in points back to that words of the Heart Sutra, “…no path, no knowledge, and no attainment.” We drop all of those things and rest. Still, present, breathing and resting.

So the breath, the foundation of Yoga is there. That is very certainly my practice.

What else? Metta is there. Only now it has become a looser, less rigid practice. I do still sit sometimes and mindfully do Metta practice for myself, for others, for all beings. But now I also find that opening my heart and mindfully sending loving energy that another being, or myself, be free of anxiety, fear, and shame. Wanting peacefulness, contentment and happiness in a open and loving way.

My Metta practice now flows in and out. It arises spontaneously as I wait in lines, am stuck in traffic, or find frustration arising. Out of Metta flows deep compassion, deeper connection, and more joy. Like my fixed ideas about how my zazen should look, I stopped trying to attain some idea of the “perfect Metta practice.”

I find that the same small piece of Rumi’s writing that I’ve written about several times here stays lodged in there. A few weeks ago one of my teachers even referred to it as a koan. It just persists, becomes part of my breath and hums along amidst it all. It informs me, when I let it.

It is such a short piece:

Ask!
Step off
proudly into sunlight,
not looking back.

Take sips of this pure wine being poured.
Don’t mind that you’ve been given a dirty cup.

Yet how it informs my life, my practice, can be summed up in even fewer words.

Ask.

Step off proudly.

Don’t mind.

These are all hard lessons for me to learn, but vital: The ability to request what I need in life. The confidence to start new things and take pride in my accomplishments. Not seeing myself as stained by the trauma and abuse I survived.

When I stop trying to attain, stop trying to fit some ideal I have in my head, stop trying to define my practice by who I sit with, where, when and for how long… When there is no path, no knowledge and no attainment there is still practice.

It ebbs and flows for each of us. It changes, it grows, it shrinks, it transforms, and it is part of us. Practice is nothing outside, and is all inside.

I’m not saying I won’t have teachers in my life, but I’ve been able to soften up around the urgency of having a teacher. I often tell my own students that DVDs and books are great, but a real and present teacher will spot subtle, but important points to work on. However, I would consider it equally valuable to know that a student is practicing without me. I guess what I’ve been able to let go of, like the idea that my identity is somehow tied to the job title I have or the income I make, is that I’m defined by the name of my teacher.

What is left behind is my practice. My breath. The flow of Metta. The reminders from Rumi.

These things, aligned with my commitment to the Yamas, Niyamas, and the Buddhist Precepts, are what remain and ultimately what inform and guide my practice.

*The “It” I refer to a couple of times is the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra. As the Ino, or chant-leader, for my Zen community, I would chant this as part of service once a week at our Zen temple.

Cooking Time

I’m feeling better after having spoken with Mom on Friday. It was good to hear her talk about her feelings around not wanting to seek major treatment (chemo, radiation, surgery), but rather to focus on keeping present and enjoying what time she is able to. Any of the traditional treatments would really lessen her ability to experience happiness and may not be successful either. She seemed lighter about the decision, more so than I’ve seen her about most anything.

Despite it having some reassurance this still is very hard and it felt like I was in a funk part of today. While making dinner I was particularly mindful and present. Letting the act of creating our meal be a mediation, letting my attention focus on the simple tasks, so rich in sound and scent, settle my mind. I was gratified that applying myself to cooking this way once more helped me feel grounded.

By 7pm I admitted that my tension headache had been with me since rising from the bed and the pinch on the right side of my neck & shoulder hadn’t loosened up at all. Both were resistant to ibuprofen and revisiting how I felt about the stuff with Mom at at session with GM didn’t help much at all.

I decided to stay home from the women’s Dharma group but was mindful to sit at the same time I’d be sitting with them had I gone. Sitting wasn’t quiet, my mind was all over the place in a familiar fashion. Zazen felt somewhat restful and I was able to be accepting toward the voices. I was eventually able to shift my focus from my breath to doing Metta practice for my Mom.

Cooking Time

Meal meditation,
Simple movements,
Rich with sound, scent.

Water rinsing.
Knife cutting.
Pan heating.
Food cooking.

Nothing more is
Necessary except
Breath,
Attention,
Gratitude.

The Body That Practices

I finally brought my notes together into a rough draft of the workshop on Metta Yoga, “Union with Loving-Kindness”. I’ve been thinking about this for so long and tonight a question from a Dharma Sister wondering if I’d set a date in a few weeks reminded me I needed to not loose focus. I’d brought up to Hogen that I was deeply committed to teaching this workshop, that I see it is so necessary to cultivate love and compassion for the body that practices.

Once I started writing down times and what practice went where I was surprised at how quickly I brought it together. A morning introducing Metta practice before moving into Asana to warm the body and open the hips before resting. Sharing lunch, including some time to just eat, perhaps even 10 minutes of silent eating before people talk. Then gather people back together for discussion about the body, how we view it, how we compare it, and how we stop that cycle in favor of cultivating gratitude and compassion for it. Deep focus on Pranayama after discussion before moving into another hour of Asana practice to open the heart and focus the mind. Time to practice Metta during meditation and then ending in full Savasana.

There it was, a full day of yoga built around Loving-Kindness practice, cultivating love for our body. A part of me feels like a big fake. I have a lot of days where I rush to put my clothes on, even more disappointed with my body after weight loss than I was when I weighed 290 pounds! I certainly have times when I feel entirely unqualified to teach anything and no one wants to hear about my experiences.

And then I’m brought back to center. I become present to my body, that which supports me even on days like today when I don’t feel very good. I’ve become better at recognizing when I need to rely upon the loving support and encouragement from CK, my friends, my Dharma family, and even my Mom. These people are all my Sangha, the good company of people seeking the Way. Like falling backwards into the thousand arms of Avalokiteśvara, I let myself feel the support of all of those hands of my Sangha and through that find belief in the truth they see in me in those moments I am unable to see it myself.

I am grateful for the belief of my Sangha and for my body which supports my practice, the Sagha of me.

Mom’s Pastor, Marriage Rights, and I

Mom was in and now back out of the hospital again over the weekend. Has made for some rather up & down energy for me. I reminded myself, as Hogen has so often reminded me, that at least this is a stress I’m rather adept at dealing with. Mom’s been sick that majority of my life. I’ve been to so many doctor’s appointments and into so many hospitals over the years. It never is comfortable, but the knot of anxiety in my throat is familiar, known.

Sunday night we went up to visit her after having been out at Great Vow all day for service, a Jukai ceremony, lunch, and CK met with DT. It was a very long day and we were a bit tired up at the hospital. Mom’s pastor and his wife showed up to visit her. I am uncomfortable around him, perhaps even more so these days. He represents a stress that is more new, but it brings up old, familiar pain.

During Mom’s wedding ceremony a few years ago her pastor made a point to include his opinion on marriage. As we all stood there, I was Mom’s maid of honor, her pastor went on about the importance of marriage being between a man and a woman. It brought pain to the entire day for me.

Right now with the trail of Proposition 8 in California I feel even more sensitive to this issue. Sitting there on Sunday with the person I love, but am constitutionally barred from marrying, I was aware of anger and dislike arising. These stress emotions take me right back to childhood feelings of not fitting in, not being wanted. Old stress, new triggers.

When I am around this man I try to stay polite, not giving rise to the anger I feel around this man, just watching it inside of me. I also try to focus on the compassion and concern he shows my Mom. In some ways it is more confounding and painful that this compassionate, loving person is so wrapped up in his own fear and judgment that he vehemently denies CK and I the right to the same benefits he enjoys.

I don’t linger too long in my Mom’s decision to stay with this congregation despite knowing how they feel about me and my partner. I know she’s made a point to tell many people, including the pastor, that they are being narrow-minded, yet still some hurt arises for me that she continues to share spiritual practice with these people. I can feel the angry hurt of a child who feels abandoned, betrayed arise in this.

These feelings make this one of those times when I recognize that the most important thing I can do is Metta practice, to offer loving-kindness to myself and to CK. If all I can do is be polite to him and mindful of the need to offer love to the hurt I feel, then that is OK. When it doesn’t hurt quite as keenly I can even try to offer him loving-kindness in hopes that if he is freed from his fear he won’t feel the need to judge and deny couples like CK & I.

Love, Good for Everyone

Self-Care

Metta is the only thing we need Chozen reminded us again and again in April. It is the most vital tool to get one through all that has happened, all that may happen, all the myriad ways of suffering we encounter in our lives. Whenever we are feeling anxious or sad, do Metta practice.

It isn’t just words. We have to mean it, we must cultivate an attitude of loving-kindness for our bodies. Without that love for the very body that moves the concept of “self” around, as well as love for that collection of memories, reactions, and ideas that is the “self”, we cannot sustain ourselves. We easily fall into behaviors that lead to ill health.

If we love others, want to be loving towards others, we must start with the love of the self. The most important thing we can do for our loved-ones is to be here, to be present, and open-hearted from a foundation of loving-kindness. Helping to alleviate the suffering of others means being around to do so.

I had news about MJ today, not very good news. She still isn’t stabilized and could quite easily have another stroke. She has slurred speech and quite a lot of body impairment. She has experienced some cognitive damage as well.

MJ doesn’t recognize her daughter and thinks she’s a nurse. MJ keeps telling the daughter, through very slurred speech and thinking she’s a nurse, that she is so reminded of her daughter. They are considering calling her son to come home from Minnesota where he’s working right now. It is possible that she may not recover much past this point and need assisted care for the rest of her life. There’s a chance she may not even live.

As a kid MJ seemed so much older. When I would visit during the summer, quite often for a month at a time, she would drive me around. She was sweet to me and generally pleasant, but quite often seemed far removed and onto her adult life already. At some point growing up I realized that MJ was not actually that much older than I.

High blood pressure, diabetes, morbid obesity and a stubborn refusal to go to a doctor. Every time I would see MJ these past few years I would think that she really needed to loose some weight. I was concerned for her, it really wasn’t just a few extra pounds, it was a problem.

Kind of a tough note to start sesshin on, although I suppose if not this then something else would pop up. I feel rather shocked and rattled by this news. More than anything it is the double-wammy of this news combined with my friend’s cancer news. I’m also just really struck again at the ways people avoid taking care of themselves. MJ particularly avoided truly taking care of herself, putting it off, not wanting to think about it.

It is just kind of hard to watch sometimes. Sending her Metta, all that can be done.

Unexpected News

CK was feeling gradually worse at the Dharma Center this evening. The cough has been coming back, which is worrisome. I do feel some relief knowing she’s had a chest x-ray that showed no problems. She wasn’t feeling well enough to sit, fighting the coughing, and was going to bicycle home. I decided to drive us both home.

Good thing. Being home early meant I was home to get a phone call from my Mother. My cousin in the hospital, in Seattle. She had two strokes in the left, frontal area of her brain. Mom was talking fast, but I believe she said they were ischemic strokes. The first one Friday, the second probably Saturday. Her husband fought with her a couple of days before getting her to agree to let him take her to urgent care (normal behavior for her).

She also has diabetes they found out at the hospital. She has some paralysis and speech impairment. She doesn’t want to see anyone yet. Her husband is distraught. So is my Mom, she is really close to MJ.

I felt the hard agate of the mala on my wrist. “Do Metta.” I swear I could hear Chozen & Hogen say to me. So I did, just sitting, feeling my breath, feeling the earth in the beads on my wrist and offering loving-kindness to relieve the fear everyone is feeling right now.

I’m glad we ended up at home tonight regardless of the reason.

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