Not one of us has here at yogalila has been untouched by what is happening in New Orleans - some more directly than others -having family and friends in the area. Also, our resident wise counsellor, Andrea, has been down in Houston working with the Red Cross doing trauma counselling. I know many of the yogalilans have mentioned that their yoga practice is providing them with some solace during this time when we are so overwhelmed with sorrow for what our fellow beings are going through. And who can forget that today is also the anniversary of the attack on New York City. We have a few members of yogalila who call NYC home, and we know how their lives were changed by that event. With all this in mind, Loretta has compiled another wonderful monthly focus for September - forward bends seem to be the perfect yoga prescription at times like these.
So why have I been sticking with some simple, gentle, heart opening backbends?
Because my heart is broken. And I want it to stay that way.
"Broken heart" is the terminology I was taught to describe this feeling- but as Evelyn notes, that broken heart can be what others refer to as an opening of the heart chakra. In the metaphors of my culture, having a broken heart was an undesirable state, something to get past as quickly as possible. But last time my heart was broken, I noticed that as much as I was swimming in my own emotional pain, I felt this incredible, unbidden, open compassion for those around me. I felt the overwhelming connectedness - the breaking of my heart was the opening of my heart. The irony is that it is because of childhood suffering that we build the walls around our hearts in the first place, but suffering is also the tool to crack it open again, if we can let it. Yoga had brought me to a place of self-compassion where I was able, when my heart cracked open, to let the light in. And I was not only feeling compassion for those it is always easy to feel compassion for - but also those who normally did anything but arouse compassion in me. That was the difference.
In an upcoming article in Harper's magazine, Rebecca Solnit takes a closer look at how disaster can bring about changes in conciousness like this:
In his 1961 study, “Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies,” sociologist Charles Fritz asks an interesting question: “Why do large-scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?” One of the answers is that a disaster shakes us loose of ordinary time. “In everyday life many human problems stem from people's preoccupation with the past and the future, rather than the present,” Fritz wrote. “Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and the future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs.” This shift in awareness, he added, “speeds the process of decision-making” and “facilitates the acceptance of change.
The state of mind Fritz describes resembles those sought in various spiritual traditions. It recalls Buddhism's emphasis on being in the moment, nonattachment, and compassion for all beings, and the Christian monastic tradition's emphasis on awareness of mortality and ephemerality. From this perspective, disaster can be understood as a crash course in consciousness.
The challenge is to maintain that openness. The concious mind tempers the feeling of openness and connectedness so that we can get through our day to day lives. This is necessary. So what happens when the pictures of obvious suffering are no longer in front of us? When the easy compassion fades into the background of everydayness? That is when we must cultivate compassion, so that it does not lie like a dormant seed until the next easy blooming in the sun, but rather stays evergreen through the mundane winter, always growing - growing slowly perhaps, but growing nonetheless.
I've gathered a few resources and thoughts:
Compassion takes practice:
The Rabbi's inspiration was a Talmud passage that calls for everyone to be weighted "on the scales of merit" (zechut, from the Hebrew zach or purity). The meaning of zechut, explains one scholar, is to "intentionally focus on what is most pure in each person--to see their highest and holiest potential." It is a reminder that compassion is not just a gift, but a path
Joseph Goldstein on wisdom and compassion (free audio download)
Metta (lovingkindness) practice with Sharon Salzberg (free audio download)
Waves of Compassion:
As our technology becomes more sophisticated, we perhaps think that our emotional responses need to be more sophisticated as well. But what seems best is simple, direct feeling that is not padded with logic or twisted concepts, such as, “Maybe they deserved it,” or, “I’m glad it’s not me,” or, “They should have known better,” or even, “That’s their karma.” (via Evelyn)
Pema Chodron (a favourite of yogalilan Katie)
Fortunately for us, the soft spot—our innate ability to love and to care about things—is like a crack in these walls we erect. It’s a natural opening in the barriers we create when we’re afraid. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment—love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy—to awaken bodhichitta.
...when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.
For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?
The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.