What are you looking for?

Beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

Last week a new student shared with me that she felt a bit silly. It was not from looking like a newbie in class, it was about how she had answered a question on her intake form: What are you looking to gain from your practice? She had written, Peace. “Does anyone else answer like that?” she asked. I had indeed noted her response at the time and now assured her about 95% of people answer that question this same way. In fact, over the past 25 years of teaching, this is more and more its singular reply – outweighing answers such as pain relief, arthritis, balance. Given the general polarized state of our country right, the continued horrific incidents of gun violence and our tense election cycle, I decided to concentrate the classes this week on how we can use our practices to find equanimity in our bodies, minds and hearts. How to approach this “peace.”

So how do we use these practices to achieve a sense of serenity? There are several techniques – breathing diaphragmatically, slowing down and concentrating on our inner body’s flow of blood and energy, the feel of our muscles supporting us. Applying the principle of “fang song” – lengthening and loosening our tendons throughout our movements. Opening our joint spaces. Elongating our extensions, softening our contractions. We concentrate our thoughts not on the next social media post but on what we are learning. We turn our attention to feeling our feet, ground our mental energy into the earth. There are many interesting ‘serenity skills,’ as it were, embedded in the principles and techniques of our practices, no matter what form or style you choose to learn.

Practicing serenity, peace, equanimity however is more than just learning a technique or a skill. It is developing a more conscious relationship with our very complex nervous system. Indeed our practices are known for their capacity to “relax” us. “Breathe!” “Calm down!” I have lost count the number of time these cues have make me want to scream! I just wanted to DO something. It has taken me a long time to penetrate the meaning of “doing” the techniques and following cues in a way they could be useful for me and not just something to “achieve” in the “hope” they would lead me to an illusive result.

In the process I have come to understand tension is not a bad thing, nor is stress. It is not something to banish from myself so I can relax and find peace and equanimity. These aspects of our nervous system are deeply embedded in all of us. They kept us going on the evolutionary path and keep us going now. This is a good thing! I am no longer afraid of them. I see them as natural. The issue then, I have come to realize, it is not stress or tension per se, it is habituating our tension and stress beyond where they are useful for us. Our “on” switch gets stuck. This is when we go awry physically, mentally and emotionally.

Somewhere we have to widen our spectrum. Look to nature - everything is a cycle. Too much sun and heat eventually harms the flowers, too much dark and wet eventually rots the bulb. In the case of being human, with so much stimulation, expectation, information, it is easy to get overwhelmed and stuck – either with too much activity or too much self-absorption. We can flame out or rot! Our practices help us to widen our spectrum. They give us very pragmatic methods to help us to remember, look for and actively cultivate and support all the varied and compelling cycles within us. The flower thrives with the right weather. That weather is varied and sometimes unpredictable. Somehow the flower adapts. Our techniques are ways to more conscious, intentional relationships with ourselves. Like the flower, we learn to draw on our natural resiliency, to adapt, and in our humanity, to try out different thoughts and actions. In short, we learn to recall and activate the deeply embedded and evolutionarily apt part of our nervous system where everything is flexible, even right with the world, not just the part where we go on unconsciously living feeling tigers are going to eat us.

I’m remembering a lovely Zen/Taoist saying, “between the opposites lies the path.”

When I get frustrated with my own progress, when I get stuck running from tigers and forget to sit in the lodge by the fire with my friends, it helps me to remember the challenges to this territory are not just now, in 2018 with the world as insane as it is. For millennium humans have been actively finding ways to deal with themselves and to understand cycles around them; we have been practicing meditation, yoga, qigong, and so on for a very long time. It seems to me finding and cultivating practices to have a useful relationship with our nervous system, to find health and skill but moreover to find peace and equanimity, is very much a part of our human legacy.

I always want to remember that any technique  I learn is simply a method for connecting to something bigger than myself. If I learn how to breathe more deeply to balance my nervous system, that is one thing, and a useful thing, but if in that balance I can then become aware of my larger place in the world, and all that I am connected with, the huge cycles of the Tao, this is something much more interesting. Compassion, understanding, listening all emerge naturally. I have a better relationship with my nervous system and in doing so with how I engage with my world. What do we want from our practices? Peace. To set this down as a conscious intention is very powerful.

There is a lot going on right now. Find refuge in your practice. Cultivate your connection to and your relationships with something bigger. Remember everything changes. Cycles go far beyond right and wrong, far beyond righteousness and vilification.