Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More from the archives: Softening.

(Originally posted to myspace Friday, February 03, 2006)
Current mood:  tired
Category: Religion and Philosophy

We try so hard to hang on to the teachings and "get it," but actually the truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn't seem to happen by trying to get it or capture it. It happens by letting go; it happens by relaxing your mind, and it happens by the aspiration and the longing to want to communicate with yourself and others. Each of us finds our own way.

--Pema Chödrön, Start Where You Are
I have been learning the truth of this in my yoga practice.  I often find that the best way to reach my mind is through my body.  I have been doing a "gentle yoga" practice, which, on the surface may seem "easier" than a basic yoga practice, but what I have come to really enjoy about it is the depth of the practice.  I have been learning to let go.  To trust my body to do its job and hold me up.  The bizarre irony is that when I let go of my muscles, stop trying to control everything, gravity and bone are there to hold me, their presence revealed as though someone abruptly pulled back a curtain.

When my muscles are grabbing they are not working.  They are tense, rigid, imbalanced, unfocused.  My legs and arms shake, fear enters.  But then, with the gentle guidance of my teacher, I learned to direct energy through my legs, engaging the muscles without causing them to grab.  Directing my weight through my bones and into the ground.  Grounded.  Stable.  Strong.  Fearless--even though falling is still certainly an option.

This doesn't happen all the time, but the "a-ha!" moments have started to come more often, and some difficult poses have become more relaxed.

More importantly, what I have gotten out of this class is the ability to begin with the body that I have, as it is, with gratitude for its strength and compassion for that which is does not do so well.  Learning this has been the greatest gift to my soul.  The ability to sit and be where I am--no expectations, no judgments.  Those who know me know my critical mind--it is exactly what you want when editing a paper, but it is a formidable enemy when turned inward.  A sentence can have perfect grammar, but not a human life.

Finding balance in Warrior poses, figuring out how to "engage my arms" in Bridge pose--"use your arms for support"--letting go of my lower back and trusting my legs to hold me--learning in a tangible way that I am supported.  Even with all its imperfections, my body holds me up.  Bends and reaches as best it can when I ask it.  Treating it with gentleness and compassion has begun to soften it.

And so the triceps and quadriceps teach the mind to soften, to let go, to ask nicely--to let the rain sink in, slow and deep.

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Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.