Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


Marking Time

Several of my tattoos mark a milestone in my life of some sort, mostly age related. My feet I had done when I finished my first round of Yoga Teacher Training and started practicing Zen. 2009 has seen some really big milestones for me. I finished round two of Yoga Teacher Training (an additional 230 hours). I went to two sesshins. I received Jukai and was given a new name. I started turning my steps towards the truth of myself, even though it hurt both me and others. A big year deserves a big tattoo, a big reminder of my accomplishments.

I have such a difficult time recognizing my accomplishments that maybe it takes a rather large tattoo I can look at every day will help me remember that I owe myself some appreciation & congratulations. It will be my touchstone to reality whenever my Inner Critic says I never finish anything I start.

All that in mind, I had a quite large tattoo started today. It is a little over half done after half a day with the artist. I am exhausted. My right leg aches like it has been burned (normal) and the rest of my body aches from the constant tensing to be still on the point of pain. I'm mostly lying around tonight, leg elevated.

There's interesting practice in tattoos. Really, to be done well, it helps that both the receiver and the giver are present to the art and the bodies. The body receiving, the body giving (which also experiences a specific pain of holding stressful positions and constant vibration starting in the hand). The pain keeps the receiver from straying too far from the present moment and a good artist is focused on the art. The noise both giver and receiver share. Even if you put on noise-cancelling headphones you still hear the noise inside your body. On that point, at varying levels of sharp, insistent pain, the two people stay in complete focus.

Here's what my newest tattoo looks like with all the stencils applied to my leg. In some areas the stencils wouldn't fit right, so the Sanskrit is hand drawn in with a Sharpie. Doing just this part took quite a while because there are three large lines of very straight text. These then must be adjusted to taper down the leg (this was done by Bryan already by means of hand drawing and working with the file on their Mac). Oh, and the lines should have the appearance of being "straight" around the leg. Don't forget - the lower leg is full of flat bits, soft bits, curved bits, hollow bits, bits that stick up, etc. It is not an optimal surface for this kind of stuff.

I took some before shots of my bare leg and some "in progress" shots today. Right now it is wrapped up in day-glo pink compression tape, a large bandage around the ankle particularly, and cling film. I'll take a shot in a day or two once the back starts to clear up a little.

The final product is the first three of the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. Each line will be solid black at the top, fading into blue at the bottom of each line. If you've seen the tattoos on my feet, this work is being done by the same artist.

The Sutras go from 1.1 on the top to 1.2 in the middle and 1.3 around the ankle.

The way I translate these Sutras in my practice:

1.1 - Now begins the practice of Yoga.
1.2 - Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
1.3 - With the mind settled we rest in the Essential Self

That is the beginning of my practice of both Hatha Yoga and Zen Buddhism. First we begin to practice. Practice is the stilling of all the mind-noise. When we experience the stillness of a quiet mind we experience the essential truth of the self, or of the no-self.


Just Sitting

Today I got to do zazen with acupuncture needles in my back. Instead of a bell I would wait for JS to come back, see how the meridian points on my back looked. After the first round of 10 minute intervals he noted that I shouldn't strain my back muscles overly sitting upright as I was, but then observed that I was entirely used to sitting upright, still, quiet for long stretches at a time.

And I was fine. Quiet, doing metta practice for myself. Mostly just breathing. Just sitting. It was a rather intense experience being aware of the room, the needles, the sounds. Certainly the most interesting opportunity for zazen I've had in a long time!

Then the fatigue and headache started. JS had said I could carefully lie down on my right side or stomach, but I felt uncertain about movement with the needles still in my back. I've sat in the zendo while feeling downright ghastly at times, just present and waiting until the bell would ring. So I waited for the bell-like response of the door, staying present to the rising fatigue, so like what I'd felt in sesshin in August.

When he checked on me then JS said I should lie down and I agreed. I was settled onto my side and felt myself drifting slightly. Not spacing out, not exactly sleeping, but hazy. More metta, more feeling the breath, feeling the energy tingle and move across my skin. Many, many more minutes as meridians flared even more strongly before eventually settling down entirely. Over 2 hours would pass before I got up.

I'm very shaky tonight, very drained and depleted. JS said that the energy that's getting flushed out of my system by the acupuncture is deeply chaotic. However, he noted that it was the energy that I've been running on, regardless of how unhealthy it is. Getting this energy out, detoxifying my system from it will feel depleting, exhausting. He said I may even feel a bit like I have a hangover.

My doctor ordered lab work for my vitamin D to be checked. Will have to fit that in. No one, including my Mom, seems to know what my blood type is. CK and I are going to make plans to donate at the local Red Cross. It is a good thing to do, I used to actually do it regularly in college & my early 20s, and it is apparently the quickest, cheapest way to learn your blood type! JS is very curious to know the lab results and the blood type, noting there may be some nutritional things to recommend once he knows that.

I stayed home from the Dharma center tonight and CK stayed with me. We picked up take-out from Pho Jasmine and have been watching episodes of Buffy on DVD. The energy cycles go from depleted to drained entirely, I'm trying to keep drinking lots of water and green tea to help my system flush toxins.



Last night I felt pretty darn good post acupuncture. This morning I woke up feeling less pain than I expected - I'm quite often sore the morning after a yoga class. I'm not pain-free, but there's definitely been some kind of change. I was feeling pretty hopeful as I went downstairs.

Then something about a mis-communication between CK and I really hit me wrong. I found myself feeling emotionally overwhelmed and unable to really control it. We got it sorted out but I was still just feeling wrecked - emotional, weepy and nauseated. I finally went back upstairs and lay down on the bed.

JS mentioned that acupuncture doesn't stop when I leave. This makes sense because the work that I have done in massage therapy or the craniosacral therapy IW does continues well past the actual appointment. CK came upstairs, rubbed my back a little, reminded me that she wasn't angry at my crying, and that like the muscle spasms I'd had during the acupuncture treatment, that perhaps the weepy, overwhelmed feelings were a kind of emotional "spasm".

I had 5 meetings lined up, mostly back-to-back until 1:30 this afternoon. I went ahead and worked from home. The flood of emotion had left me feeling really depleted and my head was ached. Having an emotional outburst, particularly tears, feels really unsafe for me, particularly if there are other people around. It felt reassuring to stay home since in the event I was overcome with the urge to weep again I wouldn't have an audience.

I felt grateful that the shaky emotional space persisted but didn't turn into crying again. I got through all the meetings and tried to focus the rest of the afternoon. Around 5pm I felt hugely fatigued and lay down. It felt like the same kind of exhausted state I experienced during sesshin in August. I wasn't sure I was truly sleeping, but I felt like I was drifting in and out of dreamless sleep and focused attention. When I felt that attention, felt present, I did metta practice for myself and the rest of the time I just let myself drift into something sleep-like. About an hour of this and I felt more wakeful and not terribly groggy.

For a long time my therapist has told me that she doesn't think I rest enough. I am constantly in motion, constantly working on projects, teaching, and judging myself for not getting enough done. She even has suggested I don't rush to replace my teaching nights in the new year, that I just take some time to really rest. I am not sure I really know how to rest.

It occurs to me that I don't know how to really let go and rest because for the vast majority of my life if I really rested, things would fall apart. Granted that things fall apart all the time in life, but in my experience they would fall apart because the people I depend upon to pick up the slack, to be responsible, would fail to do what they promised. Decades of this taught me that I must always be alert and ready to step in to fix things right away or end up being stuck with the mess anyway.

This is part of the anxiety I feel relaxing into my relationship with CK, why having a responsible partner is on some levels traumatizing. I have no skill for letting go and resting, for trusting that the other person really will pick up the slack and take care of the things that need attention. It may take me quite some time to really be able to trust that I can depend upon it.


Random Poetry Recieved

Earlier this month I posted a poem I'd written for a little project. A random poem created out of 15 words taken from a book I was reading. I sent that random poem off on postcards to 3 different people. Yesterday I received the last of the 3 poems sent to me an thought I'd post them here - I've tried to keep true to the alignment & spacing that the authors used.

Words taken from How to Make a Journal of Your Life, poem by Beth Bendickson

As photography is
to years discoveries,
tell! Books, pens -
forget machine.
Totally, forcefully,

Words taken from Spiritual Housekeeping, poem by Judith Alkema

Can you
clutter your honor,
smother your soul,
weary your body,
with all these
half-hearted treasures?
Or is it something else
that you designated
so ultimately important
to your collector's heart
that you can not lt go
and freely as a bird
flies from its nest
let those feathers drift?
Let go.
Let be.

Words from The Shadow of the Wind, poem by Carol Gibson

an order
all watched
a family remembered
beneath comfortable desk
and papers
room with rows.

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I had my first visit with an acupuncturist today. It surprises people that I've not tried acupuncture to help with my back pain, but I have had some resistance to it. I think there's some child-part of me that went through so many medical procedures as a child that I just had a hard time looking into this. It is one of the few things I haven't investigated.

I've been having the muscle spasms more frequently and some stuff seems so stuck. So I finally asked IW for a referral. Her connection apparently has got me on the list of an acupuncturist that's difficult to see as he doesn't usually take new clients. My massage therapist even tried to see him once and couldn't get an appointment! JS specializes in a older school/style of acupuncture, Classical Five Element.

He was very quick to put me at ease and we talked about my back pain as well as touched upon some of the assorted trauma I've been through in my life. He was interested to hear about things I've encountered during sesshin practice as well. We also talked about general medical stuff, like medications, supplements, etc.

CK was there for most of the time spent during the actual procedure. As I've been told, the needles (which really reminded me of the cats' whiskers more than a needle) barely hurt at all. The first session I spent a long time with the seven needles in for quite a long time and my body had some interesting reactions. I was really grateful CK was there. Although I didn't feel the same level of anxiety that I get at a lot of physical exams & some dental appointments, it was still comforting to be present to my body's reactions with her nearby.

I left feeling tired and heavy. Not in a lethargic, mired down kind of way. Just the sensation of the weight of my body parts as I tried to move them. I got home, had some leftovers for lunch and took a couple of calls. JS had suggested that I try to nap or rest some today, especially before teaching tonight, but I felt fairly energized. I worked on some art projects for a little while and eventually lay down for a little bit.

Teaching tonight felt pretty good. The heavy feeling had subsided somewhat and the series of twists and warrior poses I did seemed to shake it off. Afterward I went and steamed at the gym, deciding to add to the energy cleansing quality of the acupuncture and the twists, with the chance to warm up to my core and sweat out any toxins. I felt really energized by the time I had a cool shower.

I'm seeing JS again on Thursday then once a week for a few weeks. I'm using some money from savings to cover the appointments. I think it is really worth trying to get at this energy that seems stuck in my body. CK also mentioned to me that I should let her know if I needed some money from her to make things not as tight this month - which brought up the usual mix of anxiety & guilt, but I gently reminded myself that it really is OK that she helps me when I need her to and that she won't be angry at me for it.

Very curious to see how I'll feel in the morning after the class and the long acupuncture session. I'm supposed to stay away from alcohol (not a big deal) and coffee (a disappointment) for the next little bit. He suggested I have as much green tea as I like, so it will be good for me to switch from my pots of black tea & regular lattes for a little while.


Work Stress/Changes

In March 2002 I was laid off from a company and it took until July 2002 for a company I was a vendor for to clear the red tape and hire me. Pure nepotism, I lucked out and a client offered me a job.

The company I've been working for has been shrinking. There's been layoffs, encouraged retirements and other outright reductions for employees. Since February 2002 I've not been around an environment that doesn't have some kind of downsizing going on. My manager and the director of our team have been trying to get me a promotion, even just in title alone, to recognize the work I've been doing for 4 years. Nothing.

It has been utterly exhausting to be working in this kind of environment. On top of that - a lot of the work I've been doing has become increasingly frustrating, increasingly tiring, and pretty demoralizing. I've been feeling increasingly down about myself and my abilities at work for months now.

And then we get the announcement that our overall department is being dismantled. It is baffling in some ways since we have one of the most highly engaged, award-winning, and revenue-generating teams. Why take us apart!? Our executive retiring. The director of my team retiring. A manager for a team I worked with is leaving. I'm fearful my manager might end up being downsized. There has even been talk of moving my team into IT - where we'd probably end up being downsized from in the first few months of 2010.

I've polished up my resume over the last week or so and have started to look around town at postings. I feel really anxious about it, about even considering leaving all the comforts I have of working from home, liking the people I work with, having lots of flexible time to go to appointments and volunteer. It has reached the point where all those financially intangible things that have made the rest of the stuff bearable aren't helping as much anymore.

In all my disaster planning I'm also trying to hold onto the idea that it might go really well. I might get to stop doing all the programming and systems work to just focus on the stuff I'm both good at and enjoy - writing things like requirements, documentation and test cases. Yeah, maybe I'd still be fighting that uphill battle for the promotion, but the work would at least be more satisfying, less frustrating, than it is now and those intangibles would mean something again.

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Unexpected Remorse

My relationship with my Mom has changed a lot. I didn't want to cut her off entirely, but at times when I'm processing some of the events from my childhood it makes it hard to be around her. Her health has been poor pretty much my whole life and drives so much of her constant state of anxiety & irritation that I make a conscious decision not to confront her about the past. For the same reason I try to nurture the connection between us, knowing how painful for her it would be if I stopped communicating.

To me it has felt the more compassionate choice for both of us to find a way to be present to her while taking care of my boundaries and needs. When angry, frustrated and hurt I try to do Loving-Kindness practice for myself and not feel too guilty for not seeing or talking to her. Hogen suggested that I ignore her behavior when it is hurtful, not compassionate and really make a point to give attention to her when I recognize behavior I know is healthy.

I have worked to accept that I cannot change my Mom or expect her to learn or change. I do have control over the way I learn from my past and how I choose to react to it. I am the one who is in the present moment and I can respond to that. That is how I face that my Mom has consistently minimized, re-framed, and passed off all responsibility for the actions she chose during my childhood.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday my Mom actually admitted that while she thought sometimes she was making a good decision for me, she knew she wasn't. She also said she knew at times she wasn't doing the right thing. Mom particularly noted that she feels remorse for forcing me to respect my aunt and my grandmother, punishing me when I questioned that respect.

For all the present-moment-wasting times I've played out conversations in my head with her she never once admits responsibility. It is so entirely unexpected. I was honestly stunned and just tried to stay open, neutral and present to her when she was talking. Oh, that and safely navigate the car in ugly, suburban traffic.

CK asked me if I acknowledged her for telling me all this, for taking responsibility. We both went back to Hogen's advice. I said I don't think I did, I was too surprised by it. I'm trying to come up with a way to make sure I do bring some mindful appreciation to her action.

I'm still rather stunned by this. I've played out conversations in my head with my Mom so many times. Conversations with people is one of the things my brain does a great deal of the time when I'm avoiding the present moment.

These imaginary conversations have often been painful, sometimes angry, but never has she taken responsibility. I never practiced my response for that in my head.


Resenting Resentment

I feel like I've been sensing those gray edges of depression for a few weeks now. No, I don't feel like I'm sliding deeply into that dark funk, just aware of how it shows up as the growing frustration that seems closer at hand lately. I am so spun up with self-doubt from my Inner Critic that it is causing me to have problems processing what people say to me. Everything I hear comes through the filter of self-doubt and only then seems to confirm the uncertainty I feel or as if I am truly being questioned about my ability.

It is getting tedious.

A suggestion was made to me today - Perhaps I need to actually allow myself to feel the anger I have. To resent the hell out of the things I resent until I'm done resenting them. Yes, I may have acknowledged that I feel it, but I view as if from afar.

Anger feels terrifying to me. This is something not uncommon in abuse survivors. Anger is a signal that things are about to go seriously wrong on some, if not many, levels. Quite often as children we are denied it, punished for it. It is pretty understandable that I really don't have any tools to express it now.

So there it sits. I look at it and go, "eeew, scary anger." Rather like viewing a scary predator at the zoo or aquarium*.

And there I am minding the dirty cup and ignoring the pure wine in it. Again.

Today I was also reminded that the sensation of being broken, that is just the element of suffering we all share. Bad, unfair things happen and each and every one of us is touched in some way by them. We all have some way in which we feel that sensation of brokenness. This is the First Noble Truth.

Leaning into the anger, going through it, is a very sharp point indeed. Practice has taught me that it is possible to relax into grief, to settle into it. I was able to navigate myself, teach myself even in the grip of terrible, ages old fear. But my mind really pulls away from experiencing the anger.

I hear my fearful-mind rationalizing, looking at the anger closely and reminding me of the Ninth Precept. "Oh no," she says, "we cannot give rise to anger."

Yet I know that's another way of keeping that scary predator safely in the tank, behind glass. Viewed, appreciated, acknowledged, but not touched. If anger turned outward is unhealthy for those around us, and anger turned inward is depression, then what is the middle was of experiencing anger in a way that is healthy?

*Just on a side note - I fortunate to see the Great White Shark that was at the Monterey Aquarium a while ago. She was, to borrow inspiration from Umberto Eco, beautiful and terrible, like an army arrayed with banners.

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Nothing But Cranky

I woke feeling tired and stayed in bed doing a couple of hip releases before getting up to go sit zazen. I wrapped myself up warmly and settled into my breath first, then into metta practice.

And then 'My Favorite Things' from The Sound of Music played on and on and on and on and on and...

ding ding


Cats fed, a little yoga to loosen up the hips further, hot shower and into work.

Choppy day of meetings, punctuated by a tedious & frustrating call with Verizon customer service, and going out to lunch with some of my teammates. Wet walk to meet CK and I nearly missed her due to my headphones being on, it being noisy, and my back being turned (I expected her to come from a different direction).

Teaching class tonight lifted the cranky feelings a little. The responsibility of teaching others tends to ground me when I'm feeling off. I got home only to have Puck eat the second pair of headphones of mine in the past couple of weeks. I just replaced the pair I'd had for a couple of years last week.

My fault, I left them out with my iPod. Still... it brought the cranky right back.

I went upstairs and read a little bit before coming back down to heat up some leftover stew for dinner. While we ate we watched an episode of a show (CK has finally persuaded me to watch Buffy with her and I'm finding it to be lighthearted & amusing fun). The combination of simple fun and dinner helped me feel a bit more centered. After feeling put off by the whole day it was comforting to just hang out for a little bit with her.


Dirty Cups

CK bought me two beautiful editions of Rumi's poetry for my birthday. On the flight home from Hawaii I came across the following piece, gorgeously illustrated in The Illuminated Rumi


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.

I read that as CK dozed next to me on the long flight over what appear to be endless water and clouds, then darkness. It really made me sit up and blink. The last line particularly resonated with me.

Don't mind that you've been given a dirty cup.

I tend to see my life, especially the fragile, bruised beginning, as a "dirty cup". This life where my Inner Critic relentlessly condemns my goals, my present actions, my trauma-triggered responses - the whole of me. To that critical voice my life is a dirty cup, unworthy of pure wine being poured by the Beloved.

Greater than the Inner Critic who immediately deems me as unworthy, is that on many levels I mind. I mind ferociously that I experienced abuse, repeatedly. I mind a world where every step I move towards truth alienates and invites insult from much of the society I live in. I mind the very idea of suppressed memories surfacing unannounced and involuntarily pulling me backwards into misery. I mind tremendously that CK was hurt. I mind that my job frustrates me and leaves me feeling unable to accomplish anything.

Alright, so I mind a lot of things. All those things that stack together in an ugly heap, the dirty cups of my life. I mind them. Some of them I downright resent the hell out of. Some I want to pick up and hurl into the wall I mind them so much.

Which would then leave me without a cup for the pure wine.

Leaning into this suffering to feel compassion for myself is hard, excruciatingly difficult. When I do I almost immediately run into either drowning in grief or completely overwhelmed by fear. Sometimes I kind of ping-pong back and forth between the two. There was a whole lot of that back in April during the Loving-Kindness sesshin.

Yet in fighting these realities, in minding the "dirty cup", I'm staying stuck in the fear and grief. I can touch back to moments during the Grasses, Trees & Great Earth sesshin in August where grief came up and I was just able to be there with it. It wasn't that I didn't cry, but I didn't have the overwhelming fear about crying. I just cried some and the moment of grief passed. I even had a pretty awful memory bubble up and I was also able to stay still with it.

I was so stilled by the outright exhaustion that hit me at the start of the sesshin that I lacked the energy to fight. It even felt like my Inner Critic was quieter, minimized due to the soul-deep fatigue. Regardless of why, it was still a taste of just being present to the grief and able to witness & accept the memories.

The knack of doing this is something I need to cultivate in my practice. Waiting until I am utterly exhausted by the tension isn't terribly sustainable. Besides, I am weary of being exhausted by fear.

I'm also taking Bansho's suggestion and considering a suitably non-threatening, perhaps slightly comical name for my Inner Critic.