equanimity

To Everything There is a Season

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“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; A time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (King James Version)

Every time we attempt to keep something that makes us feel good, it somehow slips through our fingers. The feeling we used to have when we’d meet our sales quota no longer gives us the same jolt. Likewise, as we attempt to ward off unpleasant experiences, we get caught in an array of patterns and behaviors that limit us. If we experience panic whenever we are called on to speak at a meeting, we avoid meetings altogether. These are extreme examples of some things that we subtly do all the time. We’re trying to maintain an eternal state of happiness, peace, joy, ease, power, prestige, etc. And, at the same time, we are trying to ward off fatigue, depression, irritation, anger, anxiety, doubt, etc.

Unfortunately, the universe does not function the way we’d like it to. Life has more of a cyclical nature. The Buddha made this a central part of his teaching. He called this law of change, Impermanence, and pointed out that all conditions are highly unstable and in constant flux. All things change, disappear, and eventually no longer satisfy us. All things are born, live for a while, and eventually pass away. This is reflected everywhere: in the life of planets, the human body, a rose; in the rise and fall of conquering nations; in the condensation of water from the ocean into clouds, from clouds to rain, from rain to rivers and lakes, and then back to the ocean again.

We all experience cycles of success (when things come relatively easily to us and we thrive), cycles of failure (when nothing seems to go right), and disintegration (when we have to learn to let go in order to make room for something new to happen). The compulsion to derive a sense of self worth and identity from our achievements makes it hard—if not impossible—to accept the cycles when we are not productive. We cannot always function at high levels. Sometimes we are creative and generative, and sometimes we are not. There are no magic bullets or tricks we learn that will ever make us fire on all cylinders all the time. We experience periods of creativity, but we also experience stagnation, too. A down cycle can last for moments, hours, or even years.

We forget that, at some point, sometimes sooner and at other times later, all experiences fade. Instead, we agonize about things that are completely out of our control. Of course, when we can influence something, we can actually help to shape an outcome, but much of life is beyond the sway of our will. The Buddha’s approach to working with that which is beyond our control is called upekkha. Upekkha translates as equanimity, a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in the insight that all things are unstable, that nothing is constant, and this unpredictability is impersonal.

The Taoist tradition tells the story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

The story above can be a little deceiving. On first glance, it may look as if the farmer is apathetic, but upekkha is not an emotional emptiness, a sort of lack of enthusiasm. Instead, it is non-reactivity, non-judgment. The old farmer’s equanimity was formed out of the presence of his mind, the willingness not to get lost in the habitual interpretation of what is good or bad, right or wrong, but, instead, to remain open to the unfolding and mysterious nature of life.

The point of upekkha isn't to turn away from life. Instead, it's about avoiding being trapped in clinging to what feels good and attempting to avoid what doesn't. When wanted things happen, we get to enjoy them, to relish in them, but we also recognize that they're temporary. They won't be here forever, so we do not lose the balance of our mind as they fade or change. The same is true of those moments and periods where we are not well, when we experience pain, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. Whatever the experience, we recognize that, “This too shall pass.”

From the standpoint of impermanence, we should not ask why bad and good things happen to us. Wanted and unwanted events do not point to either a beatific or malefic influence beyond us. Change, from the Buddha’s standpoint, is a basic law of the world—not unlike gravity or relativity—and, thus, is impersonal. From this neutral standpoint, the question to ask is not, “Why is this happening to me?” but rather, “How do I work with it skillfully?”

For all of us, life can be a roller-coaster ride. We do not always have a say over its vicissitudes. One method of holding onto our sanity is learning how to ride the horse in the direction it’s going. The more we understand the fallacy and implausibility of eternal pleasure, ease, strength, clarity, power, etc. on an experiential level, the more peace and acceptance we develop around discomfort and the less grabby we get when these qualities slip through our fingers. In short, paying attention to pleasant and painful sensations and everything in between both polarities in a non-reactive way makes us suffer a lot less.

A Passionate Life

There are three yogis in a cave. They’ve been there, practicing meditation for the last 10 years. Around the tenth year, something moves by the mouth of the cave. One yogi murmurs, “I think that was a rabbit." A year later, another yogi whispers, “No, I think that was a squirrel.”

Six months later, the third one blurts, “If the two of you don’t stop fighting, I’m going to have to leave this cave."

There’s a misperception that to be mindful means to be a detached navel-gazer in a cave, that being present and aware is devoid of creativity and passion. Mindfulness, in fact, highlights our passions.

By bringing us fully into the experience of the here-and-now, we are more aware, allowing us to appreciate each moment with far greater subtlety: a bursting feeling in the heart when we realize we are in love; the uplifting quality of a new and creative idea; the power when we sense our connection to a cause that aligns with our deepest values.

Because our senses are more enhanced, we can grasp more clearly what is actually calling us among the myriad, transitory complications of our modern lives. We can also see who we are with less judgment and more acceptance. Sometimes even more importantly, we see the inauthentic roles we have been playing out, those roles that do not reflect who we are essentially.

When we stop wanting to be someone else, we can finally recognize our unique gifts, talents and passions and what we want to do with our “one wild and precious life.” We can let go of playing by everyone else’s rules—our parents, our bosses, our partner’s, society— and start to ask the question, “What matters to me?”

Make Your Life Your Message

When asked for his message for the world, Gandhi responded with the now famous line, “My life is my message.” Is your life a reflection of your message? To live such a life, is to live passionately, as Gandhi did.

Webster dictionary defines passion as, “a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.” At its core, passion is an interior force, a sort of current that drives and energizes us to understand and merge with the object of our passion. It can be an activity, a quality of mind, a path and, of course, it can be another person or animal. When we are not living in accordance or in harmony with our passions, our lives feel discordant, lifeless, flat and hollow.

In contrast, when we live with passion, we are compelled and fueled with enthusiastic emotion. Whatever the object of our passion, it connects us to a greater sense of purpose, the feeling that we are part of some greater whole. It also leads us to a greater understanding of what makes us unique; whatever the object of our passion, it is our very own.

It is not something to be found somewhere other than where we are. It is already inside of us, yet for most of us, passion is ill-defined. Instead, it is a lived experience that emerges in subtle inklings. It can show up at the birth of a child, a sunset, the completion of an arduous journey or the beginning of a new one. Our passions often can be discovered in the activities where we completely lose ourselves, be it a sport, a hobby or a particular kind of problem solving.

We are not always aware of our passions because we are so busy with our to-do lists. It also does not help that many of us were told that our passions were not practical, that if we followed them, we likely would not succeed or we would not make enough money to get by. We learned to turn a blind eye to the glimmer of a calling. Regardless of the cause, for most of us, our passions are hidden.

Obsession and Clinging

Our passions can also blind us. When our passions control us, they can lead toward obsessions. When overdone, passion can completely undo our lives. Just think of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, lechery and sloth. In Buddhism, each sin is considered a form of grasping or clinging. When we obsessively clinging to the pleasant feelings that passion can fuel, we forget that like all things, even passion is impermanent: it comes; stays for awhile; and eventually passes away.

We are all vulnerable to obsessive passion. We all get lost in it sometimes. Wealth, power and fame can be alluring for each of us at times. Mindfulness practices are not moralistic. Because we meditate does not mean that we should not abstain from enjoying the things we have or pursue success.

Instead, our practices have the potential to show us our embodied response of when passion has overtaken us and when we have become attached. We can be sure that we are working with clinging when we find ourselves on the hunt for increasingly greater thresholds of success and, at the same time, are despondent at its loss or evading quality.

Mindfulness practice helps us maintain an even quality of mind. It helps us to see that whatever success we have attained in following our passion, it does not define us, nor is our happiness dependent on it. The practice itself helps us remain discerning. We use the practice to distinguish wisdom from delusion, to make choices that are life enhancing not only to ourselves but others, as well.

So enjoy what lights you up. Explore all the varieties of California Pinots. Protest race inequality. Make music that delights you. Sweat your prayers. Make love with abandon. And bring your mindfulness practice to each experience: breathing with it, sensing it and ride the wave all the way until the end. And when it is over, let it go.

Five Element Series Part 5: Air Element

The air element is the source of all mobility. It feels light and clear.  It is the place of spirit and of spirituality, the place where the yogis and saints reach for.  It is also the place of unconditional love, unconditional compassion, unconditional friendliness, equanimity, and well-being.   It is the place we get to when we can finally take a breath of fresh air.  It can feel like coming out of hibernation to something fresh, clean, bright, and alive.  It is also the place of humor because humor acts like a breath of fresh air within the space or ether.  People who know how to move space, know how to breathe light and life into it.

Exercise

In a moment, I am going to ask you to stand up and away from your computer.  You're going to click on this link: Air Element Music.  Allow your body to move to the sounds that you hear while simultaneously noticing what you feel.

What did you notice in your body?  What was the movement like? This is the air element, mobile, cool, subtle, flowing, of a higher plane of consciousness.

Diagnosing the Air Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Air is the element representative of the movement, change, and shifting we experience in our body, mind, and spirit.  We feel the air element in our bodies when we sense things moving.  The air element has multiple directions. In hatha yoga, we're primarily concerned with the ascending quality of the air element in the upper body that allows us to breathe and expand, called prana vayu and the descending quality, apana vayu, that allows us to root and stabilize.   The air element is present when we describe the things of life as: "buoyant," "uplifting," "inspiring," and "exhilarating."

The Personality of the Fire Element

People with a lot of air element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • Funny
  • Light
  • Mentally Agile
  • Intellectual
  • Logical
  • Objective
  • Spiritual
  • Godly

 

 

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • Unemotional
  • Heady
  • Impractical
  • Ungrounded
  • Untrustworthy
  • Ditzy
  • Floaty

Examples of people who exude the positive qualities of the fire element include: Shirley MacLean,  Lucille Ball, Goldie Hawn, Chris Rock, Bob Marley, Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, George Harrison, Joan Baez, Spok (Star Trek), Richard Freeman.

What Air Element Feels Like in the Body: Deficiency and Excess

A deficiency of air element produces sluggishness and dullness in the body. When the air element is deficient, we tend to feel like everything is stagnant, stuck, and not moving.  This lack of movement can be extremely frustrating, so we also feel gloomy and experience frequent mood swings and irritability, sometimes even chronic depression.  Because things aren't moving properly and are staying stuck, we also experience pain in the body.  Either the pain moves from place to place or, if the air element is really deficient, the pain can be boring, fixed, and stabbing.

When the air element is deficient, we feel:

  • pain that moves from place to place
  • mental depression
  • gloomy feelings
  • frequent mood swings
  • frequent sighing

When the air element is extremely deficient we can feel:

  • pain that is fixed in location
  • pain that is boring and stabbing
  • abdominal masses that do no move
  • chronic depression

When the air element is excessive, we experience a quality of nervousness, hyper-excitability, and agitation in our bodies.  It's like our nervous system is always turned on.  In those moments, when the air element is excessive, we can feel ungrounded, nervous, agitated, and sometimes even frightened.

When the air element is in excess, we feel:

  • dizziness
  • fidgeting
  • uneasiness
  • vague anxiety
  • twitching
  • spasming
  • tremors

Antidote for Deficient Air Element in Yoga Practice

  1. Increase the ratio of inhale to exhale in ujayi pranayama as well and/or take an inhale retention.  Inhalations are expansive, while exhalations create contraction.  Air element is all about expansion, movement, and mobility.  Creating space through breath increases the air element and gets things moving, again.
  2. Emphasize sukha over sthira, the pleasant nature of the asana over its firmness.  Patanjali describes two qualities of asanas in 2.46 of The Yoga Sutras: sthira sukham asanam.  Sthira means firm, fixed, or steady.  Sukham is happiness and delight.  In Ashtanga, we tend to emphasize the firmness of the posture through contracting various muscles within it. So, for example, in forward bends, we tend to contract the biceps, the quadriceps, and the pelvic floor (mula bandha).  By deemphasizing the engagement of these muscles, we back off of postures, creating more space and spaciousness within them.
  3. Find a fluidity of movement, both in and out of the poses that feels light, buoyant, and airy.  Try a full-vinyasa practice.
  4. Emphasize uddiyana bandha, which means upward flying.  It tends to send the life force (prana) upward, creating a sense of buoyancy within the movement.
  5. Increase the amount of time spent in backbends.  Backbends expand and open the fronts of the chest and increase our lung capacity. Backbends that increase the air element include: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), Dhanurasana (bow pose),  Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose).
  6. While in forward bends, emphasize lengthening of the spine out of the pelvic girdle...
  7. ...rather than contracting and laying down on the outstretched leg(s).  Lengthening the spine out of the pelvic girdle creates a quality of openness, extroversion and expansion, while contracting tends to do just the opposite.
  8. Put yourself in contact with people, places, and things that revive and inspire you.  It can help to have books by your mat that you can return to that remind you of what's encouraging, positive and uplifting.  It can also help to keep a journal there, too, so you can write down any insights that inspire you as your practicing.
  9. It can be helpful to reduce certain foods that obstruct movement, foods high in saturated fats (lard, mammal meats, cream, cheese, and eggs), hydrogenated and poor quality fats (such as shortening, margarine, refined and rancid oils), excess nuts and seeds, chemicals in food and water, prescription drugs, all intoxicants, and highly processed, refined foods.  And, instead, increase foods and spices which stimulate movement:
  • beets
  • strawberry
  • peach
  • cherry
  • vegetables of the Brassica genus: cabbage, turnip root, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussel sprouts
  • mustard greens
  • turmeric
  • basil
  • cardamom
  • cumin
  • fennel
  • ginger
  • rosemary
  • mint

Antidote for Excess Air Element in Yoga Practice

  1. Emphasize grounding by keeping the awareness at the mula dhara chakra and performing mula bandha, since the muladhara chakra is the residence of the earth element.  Placing our attention here has the tendency to root us.  It also allows us to connect to our physical seat, which grounds and centers us.
  2. In standing poses, place the awareness at the soles of the feet by grounding the base of the big toe, the base of the small toe and the inner and outer edges of the heel.  This grounding is called pada bandha and creates stability in the body and mind.
  3. In arm balances, chaturanga dandasana, jump backs, jump throughs, and any time you have your hands on the floor, place the awareness at the contact the four corners of the hand—the bases of the index and small fingers, the base of the thumb, as well as the heel of the palm—make with the ground.
  4. Increase the ratio of exhaling compared to inhaling.  Try a 1:2 ratio; so, for example, you might inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 10.  Or maybe that's too time consuming, so you inhale for 4 and exhale for 8.  When we increase the ratio of exhale to inhale, we have the capacity to calm our nervous system.  If, for example, you notice you're agitated, take time aside from your asana practice to just try the 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale, and you'll notice that your mind will naturally find more stability.  Additionally, you'll notice that at the end of an exhalation, you naturally engage mula bandha. In other words the pelvic floor naturally contracts; thus, exhaling is a natural way to engage mula bandha.
  5. Put an exhale retention into the breath sequence.  By doing so, you will be emphasizing the exhalation and its capacity to calm and stabilize the nervous system.
  6. Increase the time you spend in forward bends over back bends.  Forward bends have a more sedating effect on the nervous system than backbends.  That's one reason why primary series is so powerful when us Westerners first learn it.  We're so used to being amped up that when we take all of those forward bends, we start to find an access point toward introversion.
  7. Aasnas that decrease the air element include: Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose), Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, & D (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Marichyasana A & B (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi), Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
  8. While in forward bends emphasize the bend at the waist rather than the extension  out  of the pelvic girdle. By emphasizing flexion rather than extension, we create more introversion, grounding and sedation.
  9. In forward bends, bring some awareness and a slight increase in effort on the exhalation and relax on the inhalation.
  10. Do less asanas.  Excessive movement can agitate the air element more.  Don’t feel obligated to do the complete series of postures you've been taught each.  Know when enough is enough.  It might be beneficial not to jump back or jump through between asanas or sides of asanas.
  11. When we're hyper-exitable with excess air element, it can be helpful to get out of our heads, to get into our bodies, and to create some action rather than analysis.
  12. It can help to decrease the time we spend in front of the computer and television; and to eat nourishing foods, especially root vegetables and whole grains.
  13. Foods which treat excess air element include:
  • millet
  • barley
  • tofu
  • most beans: black, mung, and kidney
  • watermelon and other melons
  • seaweeds
  • algae: spiraluna, chlorella
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • warm milk

Avoid

  • coffee
  • alcohol
  • chocolate
  • sugar