Everyday Gods and Goddesses

Things are a little crazy down here in New Orleans.

We are hosting one of the biggest parties in the U.S. just a week before Mardi Gras, the other biggest party in the U.S.  Everything is a little out of control.  And now the tourists are coming.

And this party is here to watch two teams of grown men aggress each other for three hours over an oblong ball, which is also crazy.  It doesn’t even bounce.  And there are so many rules!  I have to admit, I’ve become quite the Saints fan in the past 10 years, and I know the difference between a flea flicker and play-action, but really?  Really?

And on top of that, our society idolizes these men.  It worships them.  They become role models for upper-classes and poor kids alike.  Their physical prowess is amazing, certainly. Their training and dedication is inspirational.  But god-like?

How often have we seen these players fall and fail and be human? Their humanity has expressed itself in scope from Michael Vick’s tremendous ethical lapse to our dear Steve Gleason who suffers with ALS.  We put these athletes on pedestals, leaving them that much further to fall.  It’s a delicate business.

So we must be cautious who we honor, worship, and devote our lives to.  (Mom will hate that sentence-ending preposition.) We must be thoughtful.  Here’s the thing: we can idolize anyone.  We get to choose in whom we put that faith. (Welcome, mom.) (She’s a grammar goddess, y’all.)  We can bequeath any person superhuman powers if we believe what they do is MORE than we think humans can do.  What if you decided to put that faith in yourself?

Just for today: how do you idolize yourself? What do you do that’s MORE than humans do? How can you live your life in devotion to yourself? What’s your superhuman power?

If it’s surviving traffic and crowds and patience, you’re in luck.  Because I think these next couple weeks are gonna be crazy.

Mantra:  Om Nama Shivaya

We honor Shiva, and the divine power inside us that transforms and transcends.

Playlist forthcoming.

Sankalpa

So after a month of teaching, I’m going to finally offer an explanation of Sankalpa — feel free to comment below where I err.

Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Original Spiritual Gangster

My teacher wears an array of clever yoga t-shirts.  One says Spiritual Gangster.  I’ve often wondered what that actually means. Does he intimidate with his vast spirituality?  Takes karma as payment for not yoga-ing you to death? Or that being spiritual doesn’t automatically mean being well-behaved?

In the frame of Sankalpa, I have been meditating today on Rev. King and the work he did.  Sankalpa is a deep intention – if your dharma could talk, it would be a sankalpa.  If you’re a yoga nerd, that may make sense to you; but how many yoga nerds are really out there?

Each of us has a deep seated belief about who we are and what we are here to do.  It’s specific and unique to each of us, although on the surface it may seem similar.  Sometimes it’s possible to ferret out that purpose (or dharma), and to explain it in words.  Sometimes it’s so deep that we cannot find a way to express it verbally, and it only comes out in our actions and our values and the decisions we make.

One of the things that made MLK so very special was his ability to simply yet eloquently express his Sankalpa: “I have a dream.”  His dream, his belief, of black children and white children playing together with no knowledge of race was so important and so central to his own existence that he pursued it mercilessly.  

Marianne Williamson says, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”  Dr. King was liberated.  He was liberated from any fear by this deep desire, this deep intention, his Sankalpa.  And by simply living, he liberated each of us — he inspires us to follow the deep knowledge we have about what is right and what is just.

 

So today, in his honor, ask yourself: What do I believe so deeply?  What is this deep desire that is so central to my existence?  And how can I use it to liberate myself from the fear of pursuing it?

Starting Again

How many of us set the same resolution year after year?  How many years have you made a commitment to lose 10 pounds or get back to the gym?  How many times have you promised yourself you really WOULD start sticking to that budget?  How often do you recommit to starting again?

You may not think of this way, but when you practice yoga, you start over ever week.  Every time you walk into the studio, come to your mat, sit in Sukhasana and chant that opening Om – you start again.

At the beginning of this year, I have found myself in a similar position that I have found myself in other years: 15 or 20 pounds heavier than I would like to be, not doing exactly what I want to be doing at work, single.  I have been struggling lately with the fact that this is not the first time I have found myself here.  The committee in my head tells me I’m a failure because I have faced this same struggles, similar challenges, over and over again – if not my whole life.  There must be something “wrong” with me if I haven’t figured this out by now, right?

What I’ve just given myself is an excuse to feel lousy, feel sorry for myself, and give up before I’ve even started.  I don’t know about you, but I’m an expert at this.  As one of my yoga teachers says: you get good at what you show up for.

But my asana practice offers me an alternative.  How often have I come to a mat, knowing that the practice wouldn’t be “perfect?”  How many times have I tried to hop up into handstand and failed?  And fallen from Bakasana right onto my face?

Every time you start your practice, you do the same thing over again.  Your Sun Salutations are exactly the same every single time.  You follow the same ritual every time and find something new.  Perhaps your practice has evolved over time; you’ve tried inhaling in different or opposite poses.  Your practice is just that.  An experiment.  A constant rehearsal, with no final performance.  And yet it doesn’t seem anti-climactic, does it?

Today, use your practice as the standard for your life off the mat.  Use your yoga as a mirror.  Come to this life –  with all its challenges, frustrations, setbacks, repeated failures – with the same childlike enthusiasm that you bring to your practice.

After 10+ years, I still can’t hop into handstand. That doesn’t mean I stop trying with the same enthusiasm, light-heartedness, and spirit of “practice not perfection.”  Why don’t I approach these 15 pounds the same way?

Desire

In the beginning of things – a new year, a new job, a new relationship – we find ourselves anticipating the middle and the end.  We crave an outcome, and develop expectations, hopes and desires for those results.  We begin to live in next week, next month, next year.

So often we are told by “self-help” media: stay in the moment. Release expectation. That’s easier said than done – I often experience the exact opposite of this when I try to “let go.” My mind instead focuses on “what am I holding onto?”

So perhaps, in the beginning of this new year — with all its hopes, expectations and desires — you can begin to cherish that hope and desire. Nurture this deep craving, not for outside things to come to you, but for what happens when you bring your inside out to meet them.

Instead of holding on so tightly to this desired outcome, cling to the desire itself — swim in it. Bathe yourself in this deep longing. In the anusara tradition, it is believed the universe created itself out deep desire for its own delight and wonder. If pure creation is the result of deep desire, how can we tell ourselves that desire is bad?

The attachment to the object of desire is where the downward spiral begins — we focus then on what we are missing. Instead, dive deep into this feeling of wanting, and let it enliven you, empassion you, and empower you.

 

“Just as a desire leaps up,
And you perceive the flash, the sparkle,
Quit from its play,
And maintain awareness
In that clear and shining place
From which all desire springs.”

– 73. The Radiance Sutras
A new translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra by Lorin Roche.

The Challenge of a yogi

Nearly a year ago, almost to the day, I started my yoga teacher training. “Soul School” at Wild Lotus Yoga, in New Orleans.

Yes, it’s really called Soul School.  I’m not making that up.  Yes, you’re allowed to make fun of me.

I make fun of me, and laugh a lot about being “woo-woo,” and am self-conscious and self-aware, and simultaneously feel the pressure of being an evolved spiritual being.  Twice a week (or more, if I’m lucky) a handful of trusting folks sit in a room with me while I tell them to contort their bodies into odd shapes, and try to inspire them to live their lives in ways that make them the most fulfilled.

No pressure.

The past year has been the best and hardest and most inspiring year of my life.  But let me begin at the beginning:

I’m a smart cookie.  As a kid, I realized that if I couldn’t be pretty I could be smart.  As I got older, I hid behind “smart” — using it as protection from relationships, vulnerability, and other parts of life.  The trick about “smart” is that spirituality and smart don’t really go well together.  It’s tough to think about god, you can’t reason your way into faith.  God isn’t logical.  Faith doesn’t make sense.

I was a militant atheist in high school.  My lack of faith was a point of pride.  Nothing annoyed me more than the smug self-confidence of Believers.

In college, I found my depression.  Two years of sitting on the couch watching reruns of Law & Order when I wasn’t in class or at work finally sent me to therapy.  I had always been happy, cheerful, loved life.  Depression is an illness that strips away your joy — but that’s another topic of another entry.

I lucked out and found an amazing therapist who trained at the Jung Institute.  Over five years, I had the joy of being guided through reconnecting with all the aspects of myself — discovering that I didn’t have to be just “smart.”

About the same time, I started practicing yoga.  First, it was just “exercise.”  It was a good way to sweat, and I had a knack for it — I was naturally flexible, expressive, and introspective.  I was not interested in all the woo-woo Atman nonsense.

And then The Thing happened.  Everything I had believed about the way things work (governments, families, disasters, life…) was undermined in one fell swoop when the levees breached and my city flooded.  Faith is mandatory in situations like that.  Faith is what’s left when your beliefs are stripped away.

My practice continued.  I began hearing my teachers talk about things like “non-violence” and “lovingkindness.”  I learned sanskrit mantras and sang at kirtans.  My practice continued.  And after some length of time, I realized my practice was stalled.  I was stuck.  I knew I needed a boost, and I hoped that Soul School would do it.

Over eight months, I learned about my physical practice, I learned about my breathing, but I also learned about grace.  I learned some pretty simple ways to engage with my own spiritual side.  I learned about my faith.

I didn’t know what faith looked like, for me.  I still don’t know what god is, to me.  But now, I get to explore it, for myself, for the rest of my life.

Yoga means “to yoke.” It’s connection. Relationship.

Soul School taught me to yoke myself to faith, and to discover my spirituality.  It asked me questions about what’s really important, what brought me joy, where my power was.

This is not an essay about how you should go take a yoga class, or why God is good.  This is an essay about self-discovery.  And learning about yourself is the hardest and most inspiring thing you get to do in your life.  The best part?  You get to do it for the rest of your life.

Katrina + 6

It’s been a quiet week here in New Orleans, my home town…

That’s all I could think today, driving home from yoga.  “It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon, my home town…” I grew up listening to Garrison Keillor.  I grew up falling asleep to tapes of A Prairie Home Companion.  If you didn’t already realize I was raised by liberal recovering-hippies, well… now you know.

It’s been a quiet week.  And today just happened.  Again.  Six years ago there was The Thing that happened. On the Fifth Anniversary everybody still talked about it and did their mourning and mooning and moaning about how people should stop talking about the The Thing.  But today, on the Sixth Anniversary, nothing happened.

It’s been a quiet week in New Orleans, my home town… the girls and I got together on Saturday, with late brunch drinks (Champagne + Blueberry-Pomegranate is just as delightful as it sounds) and watched My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (which is actually far more disturbing than it sounds), and I got day drunk and fell asleep at 8pm.  Sunday I made groceries and went to the grand opening of the New Orleans Healing Center.

This morning, I woke up, stopped by the coffee shop, and went to work.  The air’s a little smoky, but other than that it was just another day.  Just another Monday.  It wasn’t even manic.  Our staff meeting was practically calm.

It’s been a quiet week.

And yet, today still feels like the beginning of a new year.  It’s been (whatever 365 times 6 is… 1900 or so) days since Katrina hit and then the levees and all that.  I wonder: will it always be like this?  Will today always be a sacred day, no matter what?  Is this what it feels like when you lose a child or a spouse and their death-day passes and you get mad at everybody who doesn’t remember? And will I always feel guilty about being angry about that?

When will I start measuring years again from January 1?  Or at least from my birthday? Will that ever happen?  My life is still divided into BK and AK.

As I drove to work this morning, I realized 80% of the people I work with didn’t live here during The Thing.  There’s one kid who was in college at the time… But otherwise, it’s a bunch of folks who all lived out of harm’s way who work there.  Even the handful that lived in New Orleans didn’t live *in it*.  I hate that I care about that.  I am on my way to becoming that 70 year-old lady who talks about The Big One, and how none of y’all kids really understand.

But in reality, they don’t really understand.

It was a quiet week in New Orleans, my home town… I suppose I should be thankful for that.

What I learned about life from… Acting Class

My undergraduate degree is in Theatre.

Yeah, that’s right, “theatre,” with an “re.”  Just so you know how pretentious I am. Which, ironically, is not that much; I’m just a slave to the right word. Theater is a place. Theatre is the transformative artistic experience of interpreted literature that elicits an emotional transcendence. (I had to reinforce the pretentious thing. Couldn’t help it).

I was trained as a professional actress. Five days a week for three years, I started my day the same way: with the same 20-something 20somethings. We all wanted to learn how to Act. At some point we all had dreams of being the next Sarah Bernhardt or Tom Cruise. We all did our Animal Work, resulting in a literal and proverbial zoo. (If I remember correctly Ebs Burnough’s snake ended up cornering my tamarind monkey underneath a chair. It was, actually, pretty traumatizing). We used metaphors to work on Chekhov; my Masha was “a runaway train.” We had our fair share of Meisner repetitions, which is especially amusing during understated Pinter dialogue. (“Would you like some tea?” “Would I like some tea?” “Would you like some tea?” “Would I like some tea?” “Would you LIKE some TEA?” and so forth..)

The reality of the 21st century is your undergraduate degree is pretty irrelevant. With few exceptions, your BA or BS (or BSSP in my case) is simply a necessity – you will not be considered for most well paid positions without finishing college, but that’s about it. It is now simply a hurdle, no longer a certification.  The first day of our program, my acting teacher – who was also the department chair – reminded us that theatre is actually an excellent training for almost anything. And he’s right. I often tell people I have a degree in collaboration, communication, and executing projects on time and under budget. That’s pretty relevant in any position.  (He also told us not to sleep with each other.  I find that’s still a pretty good tidbit.)

I often don’t get into the nitty-gritty of what an acting class is really like, because it perpetuates a certain stereotype that all actors are crazy and dumb and self-indulgent. Which we are. But who needs to reinforce that?

But my acting teacher taught me countless lessons about far more than “just” acting – about work, and about life. These are just a few.

1. “There are three parts of your life: your work, your primary relationship, and your home. If two outta three are good, you will be happy.”

This was part of a series of lectures our senior year designed to prepare us (aka: frighten us) for the reality of being a working actor. “Your first years out of school your working life will not be fulfilling – so find a great apartment and a lover because otherwise you’ll be miserable.” I have often returned to this advice over the years because it’s accurate no matter what your profession. Work sucks? Make your house a refuge and go on a date. Love life sucks? Pour yourself into work and repaint your bedroom. It’s a simple triad, but its true — and more importantly, it works.

2. “What do you know about this?”

I heard my teacher repeat this phrase a thousand times. A successful actor simply presents a mirror to the audience – and shows them themselves. In order to do that, as an actor, you have to recognize yourself in a role. You must be human. You must reveal yourself in the most vulnerable, honest, sometimes ugly ways. (It’s no wonder that so many actors and artists are alcoholics and drug addicts – the simultaneous pressure and fear of this can be unbelievable destructive.)

Now, in my day-to-day life, when I approach something somehow foreign, something scary, possibly insurmountable, I am able to stop and ask: “What do I know about this?” What part of this is familiar? Where can I find a toehold in this seemingly unscalable mountain? Because there is always a toehold. And once you find one, you find another. And before you know it, you’re halfway up.

3. “Let it land.”

This is a hard lesson to learn, especially when you repeat the same lines over and over, night after night. You already know the realization the audience should have – you have had it with other audiences a hundred times already. But each and every audience is different, new, and you take them on that journey for the first time. When you deliver an especially key line – Let it land. This is so true in everyday life I cannot emphasize it enough. In my current profession (fundraising) it is an invaluable lesson. If you can present to someone all of the information, with just enough of a hint, and you can restrain yourself enough to Let it Land – they will come to the conclusion on their own to support you. You have not convinced them, you have helped them convince themselves. This is vitally important, because once you go away – they are still convinced. And, possibly more important, they are now in the position to convince others.

4. “Work in the High Thin Branches.”

This is just as scary in real life as it is on stage. It’s so easy in a role to “phone it in;” to play at an emotion instead of playing it.  The metaphor here is this: when you’re climbing a tree, the safe place to stop is in the first fork in the trunk.  The branches are thick as your torso, and there to support you and if you do fall, it’ll only be four or five feet and you’re likely to not break any bones.  The higher you get, the more flimsy your support, the more careful you must be – because one misstep and suddenly you’re plummeting to your death.  So why on earth would anyone climb to the treetops?  First, because of the view.  It’s amazing what you can see from up there.  And, possibly more importantly, the exhilaration.  As an actor, it’s amazing what you can see and experience in the “high, thin branches.”  It’s amazing how you feel.
The same is true in life.   The greater the risk, the great the return.  If you always stick to what you know, and where you feel safe, you will not grow, you will not develop, and you will not accomplish great things.  There are thousands of adages that encourage this (‘leap and the net will appear’ and all that) – and I think there are so many because it is so very difficult to do.  The fact of the matter is, working in the “high, thin branches” can be exhausting – always watching your step, getting vertigo from looking down – but it can also be the most fulfilling place to work.

5. Don’t be a professional artist unless you have to be.

Our summer reading before our acting class started, we were assigned Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke.  This is not an easy read, for so many reasons.  The core of the first letter is: Do not do this because you want to do it.  Do it because you have to do it.  I’m pretty convinced that half of my acting teacher’s job was to weed out the weak ones and convince the rest of us that acting was the worst profession.  In reality, it’s the best lesson he could have taught me.  There is no romance in constant instability.  There is no pleasure in auditions (a good ratio: 100 auditions to 1 callback.  Imagine if that were a dating scenario, or any other job search). Acting is brutal.  And somewhere in those three years, I realized I simply was not cut out to be a professional actor.  There were other things that were too important to me.

The next thing he taught me, though, was just as important and is still core to my sense of self now: You will always be an actress.  Getting paid for it is a silly way to judge whether you are something or not.  And frankly, the most important things to me, those most core to who I am, are things I will never be paid to do.  That’s okay.  Your job is just a part of your life’s work.

6.  Do not put anything in an email you wouldn’t want the world to read.

Alas, this was not a lesson he was trying to teach, but it was taught all the same.  The year after I graduated, and two years before his impending retirement, my acting teacher sent an email to one of his students.  I cannot say I know the full details – nor do I feel comfortable repeating any, rumor mill being what it is, and all – but he sent an inappropriate email to a student.  You can only imagine the ensuing drama, but needless to say he went on a year-long sabbatical and then retired and I have no idea what happened to his pension or anything…   And honestly, I have learned this lesson myself once or twice.  We all make mistakes.

And that, perhaps, is the best lesson my teacher ever taught me.  For three years, I think he brought us on a personal and spiritual journey about learning who we were, and what we were capable of.  Nearly ten years later, I still draw on the things I learned from him almost every day.  And yet, he made one bad decision that ended his career.  Do I choose to remember him by that?  No.  I don’t.  But instead, I choose to remember him as a human being.  All his flaws, all his idiosyncrasies, but also all the joy he brought us, and challenges he made, the lectures and the encouragement and the love.