G-U-R-U: WISDOM FOR GRADUATES

In the last blog, I offered young Maren the wisdom I wish had been exposed to as I graduated from university all those years ago. My career journey began with vague intentions and no map — I wish I’d known about yoga’s ancient wisdom to help me illuminate the path.

We have covered  the First Limb of Yoga, which offers a guide to universal morality. This offering is based on the Second Limb, the niyamas, which provides a guide to personal conduct.

Purity (saucha):  This precept can be practiced in all kinds of ways: physically, mentally, spiritually and environmentally. I’m suggesting you start with your body, because I happen to know that when you’re the Old Maren, you’re going to wish that you had. Eat pure, healthy whole foods, and keep moderation at the forefront when it comes to things like alcohol and sugar. Seeing your body like the temple it is and taking care of it accordingly will give you daily energy, mental acuity and long-term well-being.

Contentment (santosha): The sooner you recognize contentment is completely a matter of choice, the more established and resilient your equanimity will be. Circumstances will never be something you can control, but the way you choose to face them? That’s all on you. Aim high and put your best efforts into everything you do and then — here is the really tricky part — learn to let go of your attachment to an outcome. Attachment will derail contentment lickety-split.

Discipline (tapas): Change is hard, and learning can cause discomfort— like the friction caused by two sticks rubbing together. Tapas literally means heat — like the fire you get if you persist with the friction. Discover quickly  the importance of delayed gratification, and recognize the rewards of being in it for the long haul. Embracing change— even if it means hanging with pain a bit — fosters personal growth. When you find yourself asking “How will I go through this?” consider rephrasing the question: “How will I grow through this?"

 Your brain on meditation.

Your brain on meditation.

Self-Study (svadhyaya): It’s difficult to develop self-awareness unless you make a commitment to occasionally stepping off life’s treadmill. Create regular opportunities to reflect and turn inward. (Begin a regular meditation practice right now!) You can’t fully develop your potential without awareness — of your faulty assumptions, of your contributions to difficult situations, of the habits that aren’t serving you. Surround yourself with smart, kind, giving people. Ask for their feedback and help — and then accept it.

Surrender (ishvara-pranidhana): As you enter the world of work, you’ll encounter many people who consider this word synonymous with defeat. Be willing to look at it in a different light. Learn to surrender your ego to benefit the good of the whole.  Setting ego aside will set the stage for uniting with your higher, better self and generate clarity, compassion for others and freedom. In our competitive world, this one is hard to practice, but it’s so worth the effort.

Finally, understand what guru really means by saying the letters that comprise the word out loud: G-U-R-U.  Learn to be still enough to hear your own inner wisdom. Stay present to your life. Don’t get stuck in the memories of a past you can’t change or the projections of a future you can’t predict. As you begin your career, try to internalize the words the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa wrote in the fifth century:
“… today, well-lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to
this day.”


 

DON'T WORRY! (But . . .)

When doctors say, “Hmmmmm, I don’t want to worry you but. . .”  it’s pretty much certain that the next thing they say will be worrisome. And when a surgeon said it to me last month, it was.

“I want you to be checked out by a specialist for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” he said.

I said, “ALS?”

“Yes,” he said.

He didn’t want to WORRY ME? What I said next wasn’t pretty.

For the first time in 61 years, a sense of my mortality slugged me directly and squarely in the gut. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has a definite expiration date. And the process to getting there is pretty gruesome — degeneration of the brain’s motor neurons that slowly rob you of movement and speech and life while leaving your brain aware of everything you’re losing. The news didn’t exactly put me in the holiday spirit.

I went home and told Maren. It took all she could muster not to break down (she saved the tears for a more private time.) As we talked about it, we vowed not to let it spoil all the upcoming Festivus activities. But ALS lurked and sometimes loomed large. I was bummed by the possibility and the “not knowing” was almost as bad.

I wish I had a yogic secret to divulge here, some amazing technique that miraculously dissipated the fear and anxiety. I wish I could tell you that my practices kept my head from running to the darkest of places. What I can report is that immediately after my reactive expletives in the doctors office, I instinctively focused on my breath – inhale 1-2-3-4, hold 4, exhale 1-2-3-4. After a few repetitions, at least my head cleared and my heart rate returned to normal.

Over the next few weeks, I used this breathing technique many times to slow my thoughts and regain equanimity. I also was drawn back to a more conscious meditation practice. I have been meditating since 1972, and it had become a bit like breathing – automatic. Now I used the practice with purpose to calm the physical anxiety and quiet my mind.

I have realized yoga is useful on two fronts. Long-term yoga practices create long-term effects — a quieter mind, a peaceful outlook, and physical strength and flexibility. It also can provide a sort of triage process in life’s circumstantial emergencies, such as dealing with a stressful period or coping with unwanted changes.

Three weeks after hearing “ALS,”  I saw the specialist who could confirm that I did not, in fact, have the disease. I thanked him like he gave me a gift — and in a sense he had. But the real gift of the situation was a reconnection to two important aspects of my yoga practice – controlling my breath and meditation.

Now I can get on with trying to avoid neck surgery by hitting physical therapy hard and working with my physical trainer, which suddenly seems a much more manageable set of circumstances with which to deal.

WHAT'S NEW IS GETTING OLD

 
I am not pleading for poverty but praising simplicity.
— Eknath Easwaran
 

Out with the old, and in with the new. What is up with that in our society?

I’ve had plenty of cause to ponder this question in the last few of weeks, which has made me wonder why we hold “old stuff” in such low esteem.

 Too. Much. Stuff.

Too. Much. Stuff.

Apple releases its new iPhone 5s, and people are scrambling to chuck their old versions, even if their current phones are working just fine. We got caught up ourselves, and investigated upgrading from our  iPhone4s because we’d had our old ones for so long — three years(!) But we became so annoyed upon discovering that we would also have to replace all of our cords, including car chargers, that we decided to stick with the old awhile. Why can’t companies design for universal cords? What is up with that?

We have spent the last three years shedding accumulated stuff and simplifying our lives. We’ve twice significantly downsized our living space. This was inspired in part by having to clean out two houses after my parents' deaths that were chockfull of stuff. I'd estimate that 60 percent of it ended up in a landfill.  Last week, we spent part of a day preparing for the installation of organizing systems in our high-rise condo. As we cleared out the closets for what seemed like the gazillionth time in three years, I still came across several things I forgot I had and never use. Scientific research is showing that, once basic needs are met,  acquiring more stuff  doesn’t correlate to more happiness. (We highly recommend the book Affluenza by John DeGraaf, Dave Wann, and Thomas Naylor  or The Story of Stuff if you want to learn more.) Why do I still cling to stuff I have forgotten I have? What is up with that?

 Gene "Wild Man" Marshall, 81, out-dancing everyone.

Gene "Wild Man" Marshall, 81, out-dancing everyone.

Our attitudes toward “old” also often extend to people. At a time when we could most benefit from the wisdom acquired from people’s extensive experience and expertise, we suggest older people  retire and make way for the younger generation. Companies shed long-time workers, often because their salaries are the highest. The amount of institutional knowledge and general wisdom sent out the door is clearly undervalued. I was struck by this — quite forcibly — after meeting at our annual authors retreat a vibrant and connected man whose chronological age is 81. He freely shared his rich life experiences, his insights and his life force. People were eager to engage him in one-on-one conversation (and most of us, with a few exceptions, are hardly spring chickens.)  The entire community was enthralled by his exuberant and indomitable spirit. Then we were completely blown away when he outdanced everyone at our Saturday night festivities. He didn’t take a single break as the DJ played rock, R&B, zydeco and swing tunes for more than two hours. Not one! Yet most people would look at him and just see an “old” man. What is up with that?

I wish I had answers. The question seems relevant to our modern times, and finding the answers seems imperative. But I am encouraged by the Systemic Authenticity initiative of Patagonia, a successful outdoor clothing and gear company. The company launched an advertising campaign that actually encouraging people buy less, or buy used. The company makes products that last three times longer than most of its competitors, and its mission includes deep commitment to sustainability. This company encourages customers to buy less, but still posts healthy profits.

What is up with that? I’m not sure, but I’d love to see more companies and consumers follow Patagonia’s example.