Tag Archives: life and death

Me and Anne Lamott: Happy Birthday to Me

I officially enter Yoga Cronedom next weekend.  This Ageless Hippie Chick — who was not supposed to see the age of 17 because I tried to kill myself when I was 16 — hits the big 6-0.  What a long, strange trip it’s been, and I’m not even talking about the yoga.  I am grateful for every damn thing that has come my way, good and bad.

When I saw this Anne Lamott quote on someone’s Facebook page, it resonated with me.  Apparently everyone has read Anne Lamott except me so I looked her up.  The blurb on her agent’s page says that “she writes about what most of us don’t like to think about” and that she “tells her stories with honesty, compassion and a pureness of voice.”   I thought, hmmmm…interesting, people used to say that about me and my yoga rants and musings, I should check her out.

So I decided to take some of her lines and do my own spin on my upcoming birthday.

AL: “This is the last Saturday of my fifties. The needle isn’t moving to the left or to the right. I don’t feel or look 60. I don’t feel any age. I have a near-perfect life.  However, I grew up on tennis courts and beaches in California during the sixties, where we put baby oil on our skin to deepen the tan, and we got hundreds of sunburns. So maybe that was not ideal. I drank a lot and took a lot of drugs and smoked two packs of Camels (unfiltered) a day until I was 32….  My heart is not any age. It is a baby, an elder, a dog, a cat, divine.  My feet, however, frequently hurt.”

Next weekend is the last weekend of my fifties.  I also do not look or feel 60 and I certainly don’t move like I am 60.  What is that supposed to look like anymore?  When I grew up in the ’60s when people hit 60 they looked damn old.  Most people don’t know I smoked for 30 years, less than a pack a day, and I gave it up just like that when I became a yoga teacher at 48.  When I was in my early 20s I weighed 200 pounds, another thing that no one believes.  I lost about 60 pounds when I was in my early 20s but I still see a 200 pound face in the mirror.  You want to talk about Yoga and Body Image?  Just ask me.

I also have a near-perfect life considering some of the things I’ve experienced:  child abuse, domestic violence, attempted suicide, sexual assault, a lot of drugs and rock n roll as they say (don’t you wonder who the hell “they” are?)

Like Lamott, my heart is not any age.  Oh yeah, it will stop pumping one of these days.  But I am an energy body and energy is neither created nor destroyed, I will morph into something else somewhere.  And it’s not my feet, but damn, I have a tweaky back sometimes.  

AL: “My great blessing is the capacity for radical silliness and self-care.”

My greatest blessing is surviving and radical self-care.  The older I get, the more powerful I become.  I have not even begun to reach my full potential.  When a lot of people my age are thinking about retirement, I feel like I am just getting started….funny, when I’ve been teaching for a dozen years now.

I always tell my students, “ask yourselves, if not now, when?”  But I’ve known too many women who put themselves last after everything else in their lives, behind husband, partner, children, even in this time of post-Women’s Liberation Movement.  

AL: “I’m pretty spaced out.” 

Over the years I’ve noticed many times how still my mind is, like a still pond.  Many people tell me their minds are rarely quiet in spite of being long time yoga practitioners and practicing meditation.  I catch myself on how often I am not thinking but standing in pure awareness, at least that is what I call it.  Maybe it is my mind observing itself and it sees emptiness, a clarity, and then when it notices the emptiness it yells “hey, where are the thoughts?!” and that’s when I get distracted.  

“The tranquil state of mind when it rests constantly upon the contemplation of the goal after having again and again detached itself from myriad sense objects through a process of continuous observation of their defects, is called Sama.” Vivekachudamani, Adi Shankara, 8th century.

AL: “Mentally, the same old character defects resurface again and again. I thought I’d be all well by now.  Maybe I’m 40% better, calmer, less reactive than I used to be, but the victimized self-righteousness remains strong, and my default response to most problems is still to try and figure out who to blame; whose fault it is, and how to correct his or her behavior, so I can be more comfortable.  …Spiritually, I have the sophistication of a bright ten year old. My motley crew and my pets are my life. They are why I believe so ferociously in God.”

During my last yoga therapy training we discussed the concept of equanimity.  Many believe that when we finally reach the ultimate state of equanimity we become like Ramana Maharshi where we can sit in meditation and allow the ants to bite us without reaction.  I thought about that after our discussion and thought that if I can not feel passion about something or experience compassionate rage then you can keep enlightenment. 

AL: “Forgiveness remains a challenge, as does letting go. When people say cheerfully, “Just let go and let God,” I still want to stab them in the head with a fork, like a baked potato.  This business of being a human being is infinitely more fraught than I was led to believe.”

I learned a long time ago that forgiveness is for me not for the one who treated me badly.  Forgiveness is to relieve my own suffering.

In the last 6 months I received confirmation via three DNA tests that I am Native American with Spanish and Southeastern European thrown in.  I grew up believing I was 50/50 German and Polish.  Surprise!  Not a drop of German and the Polish is iffy.  That is what I was always told.  My life was based on lies and deceptions.  Imagine finding that out when you are thisclose to 60. 

Anyone who can tell me the truth of my birth is dead.  I came up with three possible scenarios:  I was the product of an affair; my sister (who was 19 years older than me) was my mother because she got pregnant with me before she married when I was four and had given me to the people I thought were my parents but were really my grandparents; or, someone gave me away to the people who raised me because in the mid-1950s my parents would have been considered too old (41 and 48) for an official adoption.

Follow?

I had always intuited that I was something other than what I grew up believing.  A friend who also found out she is Native said that Native Americans have blood memory of their heritage — so that’s what that feeling was all these years.

Do you want to talk to me about forgiveness?  When I found out I am Native, I was ecstatic because I have always felt a kinship with anything Native American even as a young girl.  Then I sank into a morass of despair — it explained why I was treated the way I was until I moved out when I was 18.  It explained why my sister wanted nothing to do with me and rarely had any contact with me.  Then I became enraged at the lies and deceptions.  I created scenes in my mind that if I could go back in time to confront the liars and abusers I would destroy them.  But then I said….

JUST STOP.  

What difference does it make now, in this present moment?  Why should I create my own suffering over something that happened 60 years ago?  My life is NOW.  Not in the past, not in the future.  Just this, just here, just now.

I saw my astrologer yesterday and told her the story.  I asked, what if my birthday is not what is on my birth certificate since it was obviously altered.  No problem, I have the same akashic records of my birth that makes me ME.  The akasha is beyond any date on a calendar.

Then I began to think how truly lucky I am.  Because I have the power to create a new Me, at age 60  I shed my past like a snakeskin.  I am a blank slate and how many people can say that at my age?  Because my early life was not about integrity, I can now claim the integrity of my New Consciousness.  I separate myself from the betrayals that went before.  Maybe that is why people have branded me “fiercely authentic” and why my astrologer always told me I can not be anywhere near any thing or person is that is less than true.     

AL: “So we do what we can. Today, I will visit a cherished friend post surgery, and goof around with her kids. I will try to help one person stay clean and sober, just for today.  I will loudly celebrate my own sobriety, and also the fact that my writing has not been a total nightmare lately. I am going to go for a hike on these sore feet, and remember Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Charged, electrical with life’s beauty and light!  Wow.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I have experienced things in 60 years that would have made a weaker person crazy or dead.

I facilitate personal transformations via Yoga and meditation.  I teach people how to breathe to save their lives.  I help them regain mobility or peace of mind.  I will never own a studio and I will never again teach to a large group of people unless someone invites me.  I do not see that happening in the foreseeable future because what I do and how I am is not everyone’s cup of chai.  I am too masala for many.  I am not the modern yoga status quo and I am happy now to stay in my little yoga cave.  But I am honored and humbled to be in a book with some famous yoga teachers….and then there’s me.

I do what I can every day to live the idea of “I will not die an unlived life.”  Or sometimes I do nothing at all.  I have always said that life is a vinyasa. 

I celebrate ME, my surviving, my ups and down of my entire life thus far because every day is a blessing.  I have become so detached from the identity of “yoga teacher” that sometimes it frightens me.  That’s because true freedom can be frightening.  Think about that one.  If I never taught another class I would be happy.

Because I am so much more.  I am everything that is contained in this Universe, good, bad, and indifferent.  I caught a glimpse of that as I did energy work on a student this week.  The Native American shaman that is buried in my DNA is raising her head.  At the risk of sounding foo-foo and woo-woo, those things that I disdain in the New Age scene, we are stardust.   

And I thank the Universe that I am capable of such Joy.

 

dharma teaching from my cat on Buddha’s birthday

Life and Death are but an illusion.
Happy and Sad are just a state of mind.
Love and Compassion alleviates the suffering
Of All sentient Beings – those who have been
our Mothers and our Fathers.
To recognize the interconnectedness of all beings

Is to know peace! ~ a Buddhist Homage.

One of the most significant celebrations in the Buddhist tradition happens every May on the night of the first full moon in May when people celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. It is known as Buddha Day or Buddha’s Birthday and this year it is May 27th.

Buddha Day celebrates the days that Siddhartha Gautama sat under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India over 2500 years ago and attained enlightenment, when he became The Awakened One. On the third day of sitting, Gautama awoke and saw the world for what it was, realized the process to end our suffering (which is so simple but not easy), and began sharing it with others. Well, not immediately because he believed that what he realized was so simple no one would believe him. But he eventually started turning the Wheel of Dharma to teach us how to free ourselves and awaken just like he did.

My cat is dying. He was diagnosed with lymphoma, intestinal cancer, and he is 18 years old. A cat who decided to adopt us when he followed my husband and Sam Dog (who also passed over the Rainbow Bridge) home on a bright Texas morning. A compassionate woman socialized him when he was a kitten living in a pile of bricks with his mother and siblings. We saw her feeding them and petting them the first 6 months of his life. On that sunny Texas morning he followed Sam Dog into the house and never looked back.

But now he is dying. Buddha said there is no escaping old age, sickness, and death…death is certain, the time of it is not.

All these years his karma was never to be sick, unlike Jack the Yogi Cat. His illness came on suddenly, within the last month, teaching me once again that life can change in an instant. Our lives can change for better or worse in the next moment. How can we sit with the suffering of others if we do not know how to sit with our own?

He had his first chemo treatment last week. Some of you might wonder why I would put an 18 year old cat through chemo but I have an excellent vet and discussed all the options with her. Sox is a fighter, he is still strong, and I will not put an animal down merely because their treatment is an inconvenience. Last year my Jack the Yogi Cat died from complications of diabetes at the age of 17 and I gave him insulin shots every day for 10 years; towards the end it was twice a day. Sox is not very active now and his life is spent in the kitchen on a bath mat and towels as Jack did at his end.

His reaction to the first chemo treatment was not good, but he is better now and I will make him as comfortable as I can. I give him prednisone every day and that is how I know he is having a good day, if he fights me. Just like any other cancer patient he will have good days and bad days. If he begins to suffer or no longer has quality of life, then we will make our decision. But for now, he is comfortable and eating.

I shed many tears last week and also examined my own spirituality. I read an elephant journal post on how a Buddhist deals with the death of a animal companion. I am “officially” Buddhist because I took the Five Precepts, one of them being “no killing.” I read about a rimpoche who fed his cat by hand (which I have done) and took his cat to the litter box (which I have done), but I will not allow an animal to suffer. Everything is about intention. My karma is my karma.

There are no absolutes even though religions try to make us believe there are. Buddha told us to question everything including his teachings. Every situation is different. I asked myself about Sox’s euthanasia…do I want to end his suffering or mine? My suffering is watching him deteriorate as I watched my Jackie. My suffering is my attachment to wanting his life not to change even though I know it must. I will always do what I think is best for my animal companions.

Sox is once again teaching me about impermanence and of course, compassion every day. But also about joy. I am grateful for the joy and laughter he brought to our lives. I am grateful that we are in position to afford chemo therapy for a cat. These remembrances of joy and gratitude have eased my suffering about my dying animal friend. If I should be in the situation that my cat is in now, depending on the circumstances, I would probably forego chemo for myself. I want to end my days in India, just burn my body on Ma Ganga, light the candles for me and send me on my way. Hari Om, Jai Ma.

I will know when it is time. And when that time comes I will take his ashes along with those of Sam Dog and Jack the Yogi Cat and bury them together under our statue of St. Francis of Assisi (or St. Frankie as we like to call him, the patron saint of animals) who wears a Hindu mala around his neck. They will be in view of a large Buddha head that the eastern sun shines on and also near a verdigris sculpture representing Native American spirituality. Many roads lead to the top of the mountain.

There is still that 1% Lutheran in me who believes that Sam Dog and Jack the Yogi Cat will run to greet Sox when he crosses the Rainbow Bridge. It is a beautiful picture in my mind anyway, and it is a reincarnation story.

A cat in this life, a buddha in the next.

“Do no harm.
Work toward the benefit of all.
Maintain a pure outlook on all things.

All beings are potential Buddhas, all sounds are sacred as Mantra, all thoughts as clear as wisdom, and all phenomena as whole and full as the Buddha field…

OM MANI PADME HUM

All of the Buddha’s teachings are contained within this mantra.”


(Jack the Yogi Cat, left; Sox, right)

life is a vinyasa

1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

The forever changing images that I see in the mirror each morning remind me of the first of Buddha’s Five Remembrances. Today this soul’s present incarnation has been on this planet for over 50 years.

My photographs are also constant reminders of my mortality. Every birthday reminds me that I now have less time ahead of me than I have behind me. That knowledge makes each day more precious than the last. I will not die an unlived life.

“eat mangoes naked
lick the juice off your arms
discover your own goodness
smile when you feel like it
be delicious
be rare eccentric original
smile when you feel like it
paint your soul”
—SARK

What happened to the 16 year old? What happened to the 20 year old? They are still here but the package has changed, the ribbons are torn and frayed and the wrapping paper yellowed and weakened in spots.

I see these old photos and am reminded that I almost died at my own hand when I was 16. I never thought I would live to be at the party where my friend grabbed me with gusto around the waist. I could have left this earth a long time ago in more ways than one. I tried my damnedest for years to do just that. But I am still here, those girls are still around somewhere inside my head.

Those photos are also a reminder of the me I lost but found again once I got back on the yoga path. Life is a circle.


“The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end. It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished.”

The photos bring home the truth of the Five Remembrances and the truth of impermanence and they remind me to THINK. Birthdays are contemplations on what I would like to plant in this final season of my life.

What will it be?

What do I plan to do with this one wild and precious life?

2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

Every day I wake up with pain. My freaky femurs that Paul Grilley uses as examples of extreme internal hip rotation are beginning to ache. My hair is thinning and I can see my scalp. My eyes have the beginnings of cataracts. But I thank the Universe for my physical yoga practice because without it I probably could barely move.

I thank the Universe for my yoga and meditation practice that allows me to know the truth of Buddha’s Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness: mindfulness of the dharma, of the true nature of reality that nothing is permanent, that each moment is constantly changing. Asana practice offers a great window into impermanence because our practice changes every time we step on the mat, from day to day, moment to moment. Is your practice changing as you change? And if not, why not? Get real.

3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

These remembrances are the hardest lessons to learn. Thoughts of death of those near and dear to us and of our own death strike the most fear in our hearts. It is said that our only fear is the fear of death, all our other fears arise from that primal one.

We know things change but we put so much effort and energy into trying to live life as if that were not so. This is what Patanjali wrote about in chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutra-s: he described the qualities necessary to change the mind effectively and gradually from a state of distraction to one of attention, one of the qualities being avidya which is literally “not seeing.” This willful denial of reality, this willful not seeing the truth of impermanence perpetuates our suffering and misery. We so want things to never change – our hair, our skin, our supple spines, the people in our lives – that clinging to things that are by their very nature impermanent causes our suffering.

The suffering of change is what gives us the most gut wrenching pain in our lives. It is not our physical pain, but the pain of pain.

But when this truth of reality sunk deep into my bones it was liberation. I am not responsible for anyone’s happiness, I am only responsible for my own. No one is responsible for my happiness, I am only responsible for my own.

It’s a law of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. We are energy bodies, filled with chi, prana, Life Force, whatever you want to call it. This body is merely the vessel that will eventually crack open and fall apart like an old terracotta pot. But the essence of me will live on. What is born dies but what is never born can never die. We truly are billion year old carbon.

We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-T.S. Eliot

5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Like everyone else, my life is composed of losses and gains. My losses have been due to neglect, poor judgment, ego, recklessness, selfishness. My gains have been through hard work, grit, determination, and intuition. Other gains have simply come through the blessings of the Universe. Karma. I’ve been graced with a fortunate birth despite going through things back in the day that would have killed a weaker person. I should never have become this old. The cards were stacked against me. Or were they? I truly am a survivor.

The Five Remembrances keep me awake to the human condition. My spirituality has brought me closer to Spirit, have helped open a heart that was closed for so long, and has taught me to have gratitude for whatever comes my way. My dharma wheel is turning and it tells me to embrace the inevitability of life’s changes.

Life is a constant series of movements that change from one form to another — just like asanas. I have reached a deep sentient awareness that nothing is truly lost in the end. We meet who we are meant to meet in this life and people come and go and return again in a constant dance and flow — like a vinyasa. We meet ourselves and each other over and over again in this spanda until we find our way home.

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

remember to live

The deaths of two people I never met inspired this post.

Yesterday a man and his dog were killed by a drunk driver one block away from my house. Not even one block away. I wasn’t home when it happened but I am sure I would have heard the crash and the neighbors’ screams and the police because this is a very quiet neighborhood. The truth is that it could have just as easily been me because I also walk in the morning on the street where he was killed. Yesterday morning I did not.

A 57 year old man was walking his dog around 6:30 AM. A drunk driver was speeding, left the road, struck mailboxes, and then hit the man and his dog. He then went back on the street and hit an SUV, pushing it into a front yard. He got out and tried to run away. He was charged with aggravated driving under the influence, reckless homicide, failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident, driving on a revoked license, and failure to give information or aid.

Today my husband attended the wake of the husband of one of his employees. The man was undergoing chemotherapy after a cancer operation and after leaving the hospital after his treatment, he was walking across the parking lot to his car and literally dropped dead. He was 41 years old. My husband stood in line for 90 minutes at the funeral home because there were so many people waiting to pay their respects.

Incidents such as these always make me question how people live their lives. I always tell my husband to live each day as if it will be his last. I try to follow my own advice and after being on this yogic and spiritual path for quite some time, the little things just don’t bother me anymore. The clothes get folded when they get folded, the dishes get done when they get done. Sometimes even the bigger things just don’t phase me anymore.

People come to my classes totally stressed about one thing or the other and sometimes I throw the question out there: how would you live if you knew you only had one more hour to live? What good does all that attachment to the past and fear of the future do for you now? If you knew you only had one more hour to live I guarantee you that you would start cherishing each moment and each breath. I challenge you: visualize it, really feel it in your bones — what would it be like to know you will be dead at the end of an hour?

Contemplating death is an important aspect of Buddhism, yet fear of death is a major fear for most people. It is said that all our fears in life stem from our fear of death. Buddha said that death is certain but the time of death is uncertain. When we allow this reality to become conscious, it jolts us awake to life’s juiciness and heightens our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of everything.

So why can’t you live as if you were dying? Our delusion is that we live as if we will never die.

It’s a physics fact that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. As a Buddhist I believe that it follows from that fact that what is never born can never die. I heard the Dalai Lama say that “what is never born can never die” in a teaching on dependent origination.

My body will die, but what makes me me will never die — my life energy, my prana, my chi, my soul, my spirit, or whatever you want to call it, will continue on. Fully realizing that was liberation. I no longer fear death or dying. That realization helps me to truly enjoy life, every living, breathing present moment, the good AND the bad. I am as equally grateful for the bad as I am for the good.

It has made me fear-less.

How will you remember to live?


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