At thirty, my changing body was both miraculous and challenging, a home for a growing fetus and a low-level source of worry about the thickness of my thighs, how my body looked in a bathing suit. A benefit of growing older is pulling back from the boundary of skin, muscle and bone, to see that we are something so much more spacious and illuminating than we thought. When we do, our yoga practice evolves to fit this reality.
“As above, so too below,” is a saying that encapsulates a major thread of Tantric philosophy. Just as the universe is always expanding into being, so too are we, giving birth to ideas — even people! — bringing consciousness into manifest, manifest into consciousness.
A few years back I evolved my teaching of asana yoga into the teaching of mindfulness through creativity to older adults in the DC Around Town program. I emphasize the same things I do in an asana class with those in my creativity classes: stay present to what you experience, and focus on the process, rather than a destination or perfection. There is joy here because you are bringing your always flowing and illuminating mind home to serve consciousness. Minutes, hours can fly by when you are nourishing the mind in this way, whether you are moving your whole body or just your paintbrush or pencil.
Our current project in the art class at St. Alban’s is painting old lunch trays with our favorite lunch foods, inspired by the work of Wayne Thiebaud. His penchant for painting the sweets of his youth, his thick application of paint like icing on a cake, are amazing ways to connect once more to the joy of creating with paint or food, the taste and smell of our favorite foods, the feeling we get when we sit down to eat with a friend. As I painted this picture of the foods and of my big belly at my baby shower 28 years ago, I stayed present to all these things and to the beauty of the color of the acrylic, the way the paint flowed on the board.
To find a path to joy, don’t be afraid to make a mark, to lay it on thick, to eat it all up.
What if we were to be able to open our perspective as easily as opening a can of tomatoes? There, instead of the wilted basil leaf, grainy juice and slick flesh, was a new way of seeing?
The inspiration for this piece came from The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron. She speaks about enlarging our perspective through the practice of meditation, of looking deeply and precisely at ourselves with gentleness and then letting go of what comes up. She says this can help us take the black sack off our heads to see that we’re standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. I would like to take the sack off my head and be awake to something as wide and deep as the ocean.
You have to open a lot of cans to be awake in this saucy life. The practice begins with showing up, just as you are, and looking inside. Many times, it will be like an episode of the reality cooking show Chopped – how can you possibly live a life with a syrup of resentment, a jar of cowardice and a sarcasm cake? Those ingredients also contain your empathy, your resilience and your humor. To transform, you have to see and use what you have inside.
This piece sits beside me as I write this, reminding me to open up, to look inside, and stir the bubbling ocean of juiciness.
I wonder what Rumi would have had to say about the unnatural glow of smartphones on our faces?
I painted this self-portrait to capture what my smartphone sees in my searching of its sickly yellow light. I might be googling something like the pain in my elbow or the latest environmental disaster or maybe both simultaneously. I could be engrossed in the latest Buzzfeed list or mindlessly scrolling through a social media feed. It doesn’t matter.
I say I’m not going to look at my phone before bed. I do.
I say I am done with Instagram and Facebook. I’m not.
Rumi tells us
You and your intelligence
Are like the beauty and the precision
of an astrolabe.
Together, you calculate how near
existence is to the sun!
If only we weren’t so pulled to the Pavlovian dings of incoming information, we could know who we are, where we come from, how we’re connected to each other, to the intelligence that created us and the universe.
Thirteenth century Islamic scholar and poet Rumi has the antidote:
Now try, my friend, to describe how near
is the creator of your intellect!
Intellectual searching will not find
the way to that king!
The movement of your finger
is not separate from your finger.
You go to sleep, or you die,
and there’s no intelligent motion.
Then you wake,
and your fingers
fill with meanings.
Think about how we take these sacred meanings and shush them with the endless sliding of finger on the glass in our hands. It isn’t the technology that is the problem, it is how small we make ourselves next to it.
He gently reminds us – keep seeking that connection to your intelligence with all your pulsing energy. There are guides along the way. Use them, he tells us.
Join me in observing the wonders of our intelligence as we move, breathe and meditate this fall. My free Gentle Movement and Guided Meditation class is on Wednesdays from 7 – 8:30 pm, beginning September 22, ending October 27, 2021. It will be delivered on Zoom. Just let me know you are interested by dropping me an email and I’ll send the link. Then, perhaps
Observe the wonders as they occur around you.
Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry
moving through. And be silent.
Though we’ll be on screen together, we’ll soak up the beauty and precision of the intelligence that binds us.
When I learned to draw, one of the techniques I found so helpful to capturing reality was “negative space, ” paying close attention to and drawing the space around an object, rather than the object itself. It helps particularly with complicated objects and with linear perspective.
Hasn’t this past year been a communal exercise in negative space? We traced the space around the objects that we thought defined us and in that space we found the dimensionality of what we once took for granted and a perspective that was so hard to capture.
As a yogi, when I hear “negative space,” I also think of the Sanskrit word, “dukha,” commonly translated as “suffering.” One understanding of the etymology of the Sanskrit can be traced back to the seed words of “duk,” meaning “bad,” and “kha,” meaning “space.” The origins of dukha as suffering refer to the imbalance in the axle of a wheel, which caused discomfort to a traveler. And isn’t that how we feel when we are suffering? In a bad space, bumping down life’s highway.
One of the prompts I offered to my Art and Yoga class at All Soul’s this past spring was to create a piece inspired by negative space. I wrote this piece for the class, but didn’t share it then, so I share it here. The painting above is an old one done years ago from the “In the Garden” series.
As I drove around the corner and was about to pass the elementary school, I saw a toddler trying to climb the curb on the opposite side of the street. There was too much space around this tiny person, dressed in a dirty pink fleece jacket. She was small enough that climbing the curb meant that she bent to touch the cement to lift her foot towards it.
I pulled the car over and unrolled my window. As I did, I could see an Audi rounding the corner and waved for caution. The care stopped. I could see from my rearview mirror that the driver was going through the same thought process I was.
Opening the car door, and leaving it open, I asked, “Where is your Mommy, honey?” as I walked towards her. I looked around. No one on the ball field. No one on the sidewalk in front of the school either.
When I picked her up, she bared her little teeth at me in a halfway smile, or in looking up at my face she grimaced to focus, I couldn’t tell. She was young enough to wear diapers or pull ups. She pointed at me and then at the house beyond the curb.
“I’ll drive up the road to see if there are people looking for her,” the man in the Audi said to me as he drove slowly past us.
“Does your family live here?” I asked too brightly and too loudly. I knocked at the front door of house she had pointed to and waited. She slumped on my hip and rested her head on my shoulder. There was no sound in the house.
The Audi circled back.
“There’s not a soul anywhere.” The only sound was the car’s idle.
“I guess we’ll have to call the police,” I said.
Then: movement at the furthest corner of the ball field, in the woods beyond the school building. A woman ran towards us, her hands outstretched, her long blond hair electric behind her. I began waving, pointing to the child at my chest. As she got close, I could hear her urgent sounds as she ran low to the ground, unaware of the mechanics of her body’s propulsion, so single minded in her focus.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she breathed.
“I found her as I was driving up.”
“Oh my God, oh my God. There. Oh my God! Thank you. Thank you. My lead teacher is there…” she looked to the school. There was still the emptiness of the ball field. No one.
“She was where?! Oh my God. She…we! She’s part of the school. I’m day care. Special ed. I don’t know how. We have an outdoor classroom. She was gone.”
The woman didn’t look strong enough to handle adrenaline pumping in her slight frame. I was thankful she wore a mask, not because of the coronavirus, but because her fear and her guilt would have been too vivid and sorrowful to witness on this beautiful spring morning.
The man in the Audi drove off, waving at us, his calm smile incongruous with the flames of panic that continued to engulf the teacher.
“Thank you. Thank you. I hate to think…” the teacher said as she took the little girl from me. She clutched the child to her chest as she ran back to the school without looking back.
Later someone suggested that I should have followed up with the police anyway. But having worked at an elementary school for a brief time, I knew the teacher would have to file an incident report with the school and notify the little girl’s family. The negative space this child had created on an early spring morning would leave a permanent scar.