The “Big Picture”: Insights from the New Moon, Ecopsychology, and Poetics

The Lunar New Year of the Rat and the New Moon in Aquarius. Time to think of the bigger picture. To find solutions through untried ways. To form community alliances to achieve strategic goals. To use guile to be the first animal across the river to win a place in the Chinese Zodiac. To observe nature and pour out insights which the poets and the painters and the visionaries will quaff.

What does this “big picture” (an infuriatingly obscure phrase, in my opinion) really look like? Do we assume a broad, aerial perspective of the terrain of our lives, and suspend sympathies with those who walk the roads whose trajectories we see from high above?

Is there just one big picture, one view from godlike transcendence?

Does the big picture denote the objective view? Or does it stretch the heart’s capacities for loving awareness (to use a Ram Dass-ism)?

One complicated “big picture” book

I’ve been reading Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, The Overstory, a great opus made up of small tales, all of which carry a distinct feature of transformation involving human relationships with trees. It is Ovid’s Metamorphoses meets contemporary ecocriticism. It is a narrative ekstasis, in that it somehow stands far beyond its subjects and still looks closely at individual lives in a series of distinct moments of tender and painful intimacy. It is difficult for me to understand when I am looking at the bigger picture and when what I think is the broad view turns out to be just a lick of paint in a mural without end. I am not even a quarter of the way through, because I read and pause and digest and dream. I read before I sleep, and I dream of Nature pressing against the walls until she plunges inside. I dream about mountain lions coming in through an unresolvable gap in the sliding glass door, before they brush against me and groom themselves in the living room as if I was one of their own.

One of the stories focuses on the experiences of a man who went from playing the role of a prisoner in Zimbardo’s ill-fated Stanford Prison Experiment to serving in Nam, and then working as a ranch hand in Idaho, before drifting aimlessly westward. Aimlessly, until he found out about the clear-cutting in the national forests through which he was driving. He paid a pilot to fly him over the forest, and saw innumerable bald patches marring the green plains of Douglas Firs. His incredulity, anger, and despair transformed into a resolve that he would plant trees in those very patches of scarred earth, and trust that the new saplings would grow never to be felled, that they would survive human deforestation. That they would survive humans.

The subterranean “big picture” from Nature

Earlier this week I attended a lecture on ecopsychology, wherein my colleague giving the lecture elucidated the ways in which trees communicate with one another about environmental threats and changes. They share defense signals, even with their competitor species.

I learned about the work of University of British Columbia biologist Suzanne Simard, whose research is apparently addressed somewhere in The Overstory beyond my current place in the book. In her TEDx Talk inspired by her research published in Nature about the communications between trees, she explains that old “mother trees” share carbon and nutrients with the younger trees in a forest, and they send extra resources to younger trees that are nutrient-poor.

“Forests are built on relationships”, Simard declares from the TED stage, claiming that complex adaptive systems such as these sophisticated communication lines are the source of resilience. These systems model mutual respect. We might wish to draw cues for human behavior from the trees, which teach that there is collective well being in the conscious sharing of information, that it is in keeping with nature to make it known when we experience stress, rather than to keep silent.

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A view of the landscape at the Vedanta Temple, where the Mother trees loom large

One personal Overstory: When Nature stretched open my heart

Undoubtedly it was this recent series of insights that culminated in my experience of brightened vision of nature yesterday afternoon. I was driving, thinking about things embarrassingly petty, when I saw a large carpet of wild mustard on the hillside. My whole demeanor shifted from vaguely irritated and apathetic to gobsmacked. I could not believe how beautiful the color was. And then as I continued to drive I saw deep purple, rusty red, clean and bright green, in numerous textures and arrangements of plant life, and it all converged to overwhelm me and, like a curtain drawn open I could feel the fringes of my heart stretch wide open with a kind of love that was fulfilled and unreturned at the same time.

It reminded me of the day when, at five years old, I opened my eyes after having them closed for a week following a surgery, and I noticed first the colors that seemed to crowd in and vie for my attention. My eyes were new and all the living things of the world seemed more full of life than they had ever been.

And so yesterday I caught myself, perhaps for the second time in my life, knowing the world in a loving way first and foremost.

The bigger picture revealed to me then that nothing is beyond the domain of the heart, even the material of rational objectivity which I would otherwise ascribe to the mind. This five-minute reverie when my eyes swept along the colorful vista out my car window plunged me into a continuum of what I can only call impassioned consciousness.

Omniscience and empathy in poetic beloveds, Whitman and Tempest

Whenever I read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), I watch all the people he saw in the world revolve before my mind’s eye: the farmer and the soldier and the young bride and the enslaved person and the artist and the body of the drowned man and the infant at the mother’s breast and the cat prowling back gardens. All nameless, everyday archetypes for the time. All my heart’s threshing floor, the place to harvest words and sort through meanings.

In one segment, “The Sleepers”, Whitman offers a catalogue of normally socially differentiated people whose experience of sleep endows them with a shared human experience that transcends their differing levels of privilege, age, freedom and suffering:

I swear they are all beautiful,

Every one that sleeps is beautiful, everything in the dim light is beautiful,

The wildest and bloodiest is over, and all is peace.

Sleep, the blanket experience of peace and grave vulnerability, is mundane and intimate here.

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My battered copy gifted by a dear friend

Kate Tempest’s poem, “Lionmouth Doorknocker” in her album Let Them Eat Chaos (2016) hands the listener off to a series of one-lined vignettes of people in the city in the daytime:

The workers watch the clocks

Fiddle with their Parker pens

While the grandmothers

Haggle with the market men

Then she plunges us into the intimate acquaintance of those few people who are awake in the depths of early morning, and are not the beautiful ones at peace, as in Whitman’s world.

It’s 04:18 AM

At this very moment, on this very street

Seven different people in seven different flats

Are wide awake, they can’t sleep

Now, of all these people, in all these houses

Only these seven are awake

And they shiver in the middle of the night

Counting their sheepish mistakes

Is anybody else awake?

Will it ever be day again?

Are these people more wretched because they are at the mercy of their thoughts, or because they cannot see that their experience is shared? Because they do not know about the networks of roots that run from tree to tree, from person to person, when we share pain and share the resources to cope? Because they do not see the big picture?

The pictures the Sleepers (don’t) see

Do the peaceful dreamers see the bigger picture of their own waking circumstances, and find peace therein?

Not here will I attempt to defend the validity of reporting dreams, and ascribing truth to them. But undeniably dreams do offer a different kind of vision, from which we create story, association, and meaning, as we do in waking life. And in the following example from my own catalogue of recent dreams, there is an aspect of seeing, or failing to see, which I feel is somehow related to the issue of perspective addressed in this blog entry: And yes, there is self-indulgence in dream-telling, but also in blog-writing and painting and playwrighting and any creative work.

I had an appointment with someone wise, and to visit this person I went up a marble staircase, which ended at a landing with corridors leading to the right and left, where stood, respectively, statues of a man in 18th-century Anglo-American dress (long coat, buckled shoes, stockings, breeches, and a cravat) and a woman who looked like an image of Venus, with her draped clothing gathered around her hips. Her hair was loose and tumbled wildly over her shoulders and her breasts, and a snake slithered up her torso, its tail pointing down between her hip bones and its head lost somewhere in her hair. I took the path to the right, past the statue of the man, because those were the instructions I had been given. At the end of the corridor I reached an empty gallery, in what I knew to be the British Museum. A huge crowd of people was milling around, pausing at intervals to look at the bare walls, as if there were fascinating exhibits there. I could see nothing, and this terrified me. Then a harried old man in an orange suit shuffled toward me, telling me he had been waiting for me, that I must come with him. His speech was rapid and pressured, and I feared him. He was not the one I had come to meet. I ran back down the stairs and he ran after me. I got to the bottom of the staircase and he could go no further.

Somehow I cannot content myself simply to appreciate the paradox, the irresolvable complexity between the bigger picture and the small, tender lives it encapsulates. To watch myself and others, dreaming or waking, attempt to see a broader, impartial view, and come up against the occupation hazard of having a body, and immediate circumstances that intrude upon this enlightened perspective.

But I do not say this with cynicism. For me, the ecstasy of jet-setting subjectivity is endlessly fascinating.

Aquarius takes the aerial, broad, outside-of-the-box view, and at the New Moon, grand schemes are birthed out of the known metrical workings of the world. But Aquarius is also a fixed air sign. To look out from behind the eyes of the individual is not the habit of Aquarius, but Leo, its counterpoint and opposite sign, which also fixes itself in habitual perspectives.

But to integrate the poles of this opposition, and to honor the different modes of seeing oneself and the outside, to remember that big and small abide in the heart, to recognize visions, dreams, and feelings, and to understand their comings-and-goings within oneself and others, like the wind through the trees –  that might be the best practice I can follow in this Lunar New Year.

Because when I read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, or listen to the first track from Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos, (“Picture a Vacuum”), I know that the broad view makes my heart pummel its cage no less than does the narrow.

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Personal Mythos and the New Year

 

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Last sunset of 2019 behind the redwoods

Behold, we have passed into a new year, and a new decade, and whether or not we have readied ourselves with new intentions/goals/resolutions, many of us (at least on the social media front) see this as an opportune time for memorializing the state of our lives ten years ago, as compared to our lives today.

I was touched by the self-compassion that pervades people’s descriptions of their former selves, especially in the midst of challenges. A wonderful way to start the New Year – to witness the narrative of one’s life compassionately, and to be kind and charitable to oneself.

The New Year carries with it a powerful collective wave of intentionality for manifestation of visionary intentions, and it is a good time for affirmation of one’s current stage(s) of personal journeying.

Mapping my own experience onto the mythological and the archetypal has always been fun and illuminating. It gives daily life a real sense of poetic significance. It reminds me that every person has an extraordinary set of circumstances that comprise their own unique mythos, whether known or unknown to me. This practice, really more an occupational hazard of studying Greco-Roman myth for many years, rarely fails to give me a valuable perspective on life situations, regularly assures me of the universally lived experience of challenges that feel difficult to bear in isolation, and gives me agency in re-casting my own story.

One Model of Personal Mythmaking: The Hero’s Journey

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I work at an institution that prides itself on its collection of artifacts from Joseph Campbell, the famed comparative mythologist who traced the “monomyth” of the hero’s journey that he claimed pervaded mythological and folkloric traditions internationally. In his book Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell structures the hero’s journey around three key stages, paraphrased here:

  • Call to adventure (including meeting a mentor who guides the hero on the initial stages of the quest).
  • Trials of initiation into a new world of challenges, triumphs and failures, a phase which culminates in a journey to the Underworld and meeting a teacher with a prophetic message.
  • Return to the place of origin with divine knowledge gained on the journey, and the process of integration of that knowledge into “normal life”.

When I taught an undergraduate course on Greek heroism, I offered an extra credit project that invited students to map Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey onto one life situation. This assignment yielded extraordinary stories about challenges met and lessons encountered through travel, second language acquisition, health difficulties, lost loves and friendships, authentic expression of self amidst social stigma, new familial and work responsibilities, and other challenges. One student shared with me that he felt a refreshing sense of personal agency as a result of completing the assignment. In my own life similar exercises in personal mythmaking (including the hero’s journey model a la Campbell) had provided helpful perspectives for years, and I was glad to see that this was helpful to others.

Journaling the Personal Mythos

Having read over some of my own journals from the past year, 2019 presented various Campbellian stages of realization: I found a gut-dwelling, steady voice within myself I had not heard in years. I learned the art of critical discernment in the role of student and teacher. I learned to recognize interpersonal cyclical patterns that repeat themselves as dependably as the tides. I learned to speak up for myself clearly and directly. I learned to be accountable for the pain I caused others. I learned to take care of myself in the ways that suited me, including yoga, cooking, writing and performing poetry, singing old Irish songs, and reading short stories. I deepened treasured friendships. I moved back to my hometown. I took steps further in the direction of financial independence.

Keeping a regular journal, especially during the more difficult times of growth, is helpful, because it reveals the learning process, and allows one to look back at the feelings, the insights, and the self-talk that attend the various stages of one’s journey (or whatever you might call your mythic narrative – at present in the Anglo-American consciousness the hero’s journey is widely prevalent, and this is the one I am invoking here, but this is certainly not the only narrative type).

Looking back at these journals can be quite confronting and humiliating, but the lived experience is there, just for the eyes of the experiencer-turned-future-loving-reader. This is very different from writing the story after the close of its lived experience, which is another good exercise (my students’ extra credit assignment).

Personal Mythmaking and New Year’s Intentions

There are many resolutions, calls to adventure, that await. The sheer number of varied New-Year’s- resolution-oriented invitations on social media is overwhelming.

And so the questions come a-hammering:

  • Which pursuit is really for you?
  • Is this a good time to set out on a new path in this particular aspect of your life, or is there something to be finished first?
  • Are you in the trials of initiation? Is there an obstacle you’ve been avoiding that awaits your attention prior to getting on with things?
  • Are you trudging through the depths of the Underworld? Is there some illumination of the next steps awaiting your sight in the deepest part of the trek?
  • Are you back where you started, integrating what you have learned?

The New Year is a good time to acknowledge your present stance, and to start from where you are. At least that is what I tell myself, speaking from what feels like a hammock of indolence on Calypso’s Island (see below)…

And wherever you may find yourself in your journey, in your work, it can be an interesting exercise to look for the attendant archetypal forces, whether they lie within yourself, others, or situations.

The below categories are my play on themes from the story of the Greek hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey homeward to the island of Ithaca from the Trojan War, as told in Homer’s 8th century BCE epic poem, the Odyssey):

  • The mentor / the teacher / the one who keeps you on track (the goddess Athena for Odysseus); also the one you may mistrust or whose guidance you may ignore at times.
  • The Land of the Lotus Eaters / Calypso’s Island – the place where you tend to get distracted, complacent, and drawn away from your work. In Odysseus’ story, Hermes the messenger god goes to Calypso’s island, where Odysseus has been languishing for seven years, to push the hero to continue his journey homeward to Ithaca. So, if you get distracted, be your own messenger and carry on. Or if you are really in the throes of complacency the messenger might just find you…
  • The Cyclops – the person you are liable to demean, take advantage of, and/or dredge of physical or emotional resources, in service of your work; take care to avoid this, or make proper amends if this has already happened. Odysseus blinds the Cyclops after leading his men into the Cyclops’ cave to steal food and livestock, then endeavoring to claim protection under Zeus as a guest when he was caught red-handed. Yes, the Cyclops threatened to eat them, but still, what bad behavior…
  • The sorceress / Circe – the dark feminine, the mistress of nature, who transfigures men into animals – the one you cannot fool or con, the one whose power you must acknowledge with full awe and devotion before she can help you (or else you will turn into a pig, I suppose…)
  • The Underworld – the dark and lonely place where guidance is present but only attainable through faith, right action, and reunion with the departed.
  • The Phaiakians – the generous helpers and benefactors worthy of enduring gratitude and acknowledgement; the ones who gave Odysseus a banquet, gifts, games, a platform for telling his own story of his travels, and safe passage home to Ithaca in the last stage of his journey.
  • Yourself as the storyteller – are you talking about your quest (posting on social media counts) more than doing it? Does your pursuit need a wider audience? If so, when is the right time to share your work, and whom do you aim to reach?
  • Integration and homecoming – roughly half of the Odyssey features Odysseus’ process of reintroducing himself to his homeland, during which he must live as a beggar prior to reclaiming his role as leader of the community. The process of going back home again is consequential, whether that be moving back in with one’s parents, undergoing psychotherapy and grappling with family-of-origin issues, or deciding to root oneself into a brand new space to call home. It takes time, and some patience and willingness to live in obscurity while listening with one’s ear to the ground and learning about the place and how to navigate it.
  • Penelope – the loved one you say you are doing all this for, but whose needs and personal sacrifices you might be ignoring or suppressing as you forge on. Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited 20 years for his return, fending off suitors and putting their son’s life at risk, while he garnered the experiences in war, travel, and sexual exploits worthy of a “hero” only to come back and tell her that he must go away on ANOTHER quest according to a prophecy (how convenient).

And whether or not you encounter any or all of the above in your pursuit of quests, intentions or resolutions of this year, remember that you are likely playing several of these roles in the journeys of others, and remember that going off course sometimes yields a good story in and of itself…

HAPPY NEW YEAR AND NEW DECADE OF ADVENTURING!!

Caveat: For the record, while I find that the journey of Odysseus is a good archetypal model (especially when things do not go as planned in our own pursuit of life goals) I do not commend Odysseus for his violence, xenophobia, misogyny, disrespect for the gods, foolhardiness, fallaciousness, negligence, and hubris. For a good alternative rendering of this story from Penelope’s standpoint, and the standpoint of Penelope’s 12 nameless maids Odysseus murdered upon his arrival back to Ithaca, read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad.

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A thrilling cloudscape on the last day of 2019, spent in a lazy afternoon at the beach. And now for that quest…

On Reflections, and Divided(?) Selfhood in the Wake of the Full Moon in Gemini

 

It is days past the full Moon, and she seems to be waning more slowly than usual in my mind, so she is due a treatment in writing, a love letter apt for her cerebral nature…

At the Full Moon, there is always a disclosure, an illumination. But with the Full Moon in Gemini, there are multiplicities of truths and testimonies. There are variants of the same archetype. There are different characters vying to be trusted. Can they all be trusted?

The Full Moon is the imprecise mirror of the Sun, the doppelganger that can reflect solar light to just an intensity that we can behold without blinding ourselves. The Moon shines her fullest light and reveals a new nocturnal world to us that looks like day in black pearlescence.

But while the Full Moon in astrology represents an opportunity for hidden emotional contours and instinctual patterns to be revealed consciously (not in keeping with polite company sometimes), its recent position has made this process far less than straightforward. The Moon had just come from a square to Neptune in Pisces, which would give any such revelations startling, all-encompassing significance, with the caveat that the great meaning illusory. Venus, Saturn, and Pluto are meanwhile bound up in the sign of Capricorn, where relationships, personal and professional, may struggle to operate with customary ease, amidst still-hidden obstacles. And for at least that evening of the Full Moon, while the communicative Moon in Gemini wanted to facilitate collaborative communication and the open exchange of ideas, Neptune was at the ready to dissolve the clarity of the messages, and the Capricorn stellium was primed to leave the more essential truths under heavy guard.

I’ll leave it to you, constant reader, to reflect upon the manifestations of this dynamic you may have met five evenings ago now (Pacific Time, of course 😉).

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Gemini Full Moon illuminating the ridgetop below.

One interesting manifestation of this Neptunian/Gemini Moon magic 

At the Full Moon I met a friend for tea and cake, and instantaneously the café transformed into a vortex for those whose company I enjoy: I saw my colleague whose office is next to mine, having an early dinner; I saw my yoga teacher reading and annotating an enormous tome prior to being set upon by an enthusiastic student; then arrived two old friends whose daughter was my schoolmate for several years. The space was dreamlike, and I delighted in seeing the little worlds I have inhabited in this city throughout my life comingling there. And though the one I was meeting was the one I knew the least at that point, the whole scenario was made all the more interesting by the array of experiences and interests we shared (all quite Gemini-themed): books, ideas, humor, and realms of study.

(Unanswerable) question time

Kinship with another in some (i.e. not all) aspects makes us Full Lunar aspects of each other. We reflect the other just enough for them to see a part of themselves more clearly (whether more or less favorably), and vice versa. And the countless other aspects of ourselves we keep latent, bound up, awaiting yet another appropriate mirror…

Or so my current musings go, in keeping with the sentiment in Cicero’s treatise on friendship, De Amicitia (Section 23): Anyone who looks upon a true friend is looking at a copy of himself.

But surely one could say the same about the enemy, the beloved, and the stranger, if one believes that we see ourselves wherever we go, because we are all forms of Self, in essence, or by some other explanation.

And then there are the many questions to be posed: do we see ourselves in another moreso when we first meet them, or after we have come to know them? Or is the image of the person more of a representation of our worldview, or of our past conditioning, than of ourselves in the present moment? Is it both – is our view of ourselves, and our view of ourselves in another a microcosm of the ways in which we view the world? If we do not allow space for others to grow and transform themselves, how can we support ourselves in doing the same? Do leopards change their spots, or is there a stasis in the essential elements of a personality that defy projection? Or perhaps the perception of stasis or change in a person reflects the same phenomenon we see in ourselves.

Or perhaps the more essential question:

Can we look with love, upon ourselves and others? Can we give ourselves the space to run and writhe and rest in response to the fluctuating feelings and life situations that pass through our bodies in subtle and quite unsubtle ways?

Can we be gracious towards ourselves, knowing that these fluctuations are human?

I have a feeling that no matter how much yoga I practice or how many teachers I study with (including the long-dead ones), I will still be spinning in the dramas of self/other. So, instead of enlightenment I am going for emotional intelligence; not the absence of knowing these fluctuations, but the ability to recognize these fluctuations and their effects. To steep myself in the effects and acknowledge this, in all its complexities.

And when I sit with another person, or look into a mirror, I reliably alternate between feelings of kinship, otherness, disassociation, kinship again, attraction, repulsion. And it is curious to wonder, as does the protagonist at the beginning of Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, She Came To Stay, does the world around me take shape because I am looking at it? Do I have a face if I cannot see my face, or touch it? Do I exist if no one is looking? Do I always have to be the one looking at myself?

The kinds of cerebral things that plague one in the wake of the one night in a given year when the teacher (Sagittarius Sun) looks himself in the mirror and sees the student (Moon in Gemini)…

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Waning full-ish Moon in Gemini in the morning (same view as above)

Three poems about a mirror, a doppelganger, the self as watcher of the self

I’ll end this post with a digest of poems that have aided the above cogitations, in chronological order of production:

1) Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3: 339-510: The Tale of Narcissus

Narcissus, a young hunter desired by all young men and women refused all his would-be lovers, the last of whom cursed Narcissus. Narcissus stopped one day by a still, clear pool in a clearing in the woods, and fell in love with his reflection he could not embrace, though he tried ceaselessly. Once Narcissus discovered that he was desperately in love with his own reflection, he knew that he would die of heartache, because he could not physically possess his beloved as desired other.

And so he wastes away, and his body transforms into the Narcissus flower. And in the Underworld, his soul stares longingly at its own reflection in the River Styx for eternity.

2) Heinrich Heine, “Der Doppelgänger”

I do not know what possessed me recently to look back at the work of a 19th-century German poet I had not encountered in almost 10 years.

But I felt good to reacquaint myself. Told in first person, “Der Doppelgänger” is about a man who is wandering empty streets at night and arrives in front of the house of his past beloved, who has not lived in that place for a very long time. He sees a man in front of him, wringing his hands in despair. And then the man turns and looks at the poet-narrator, who is shocked to find that he sees himself in the moonlight (“Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt!”).

3)

I received a beautiful unpublished poem in a poetry exchange, a poem whose author I have never met. The poem was a portrayal of the wasting condition of anorexia from the perspective of the mirror, which sings of its own silence, love, and despair.

And there it all was: the sad futility felt by the family members of the person suffering; the body which is a feared adversary, and a hated prison; the body which works by its own will to keep the soul intact; the body which is always waiting to be loved; the body which is part of the self, and not. And the questions remained with me surrounding the narrator’s point of view: who is watching? The inanimate mirror, or the reflected and disowned aspects of the self that know they are feared when they are looked at, the tender pieces needing the love of the only one whose view matters, the one who looks.

 

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And now it is the Earth, seeing herself and being seen in the Sun’s burning gaze…

Throwback to Springtime and a Poem for the Body

It has been six lunar months since I did my final evaluation as part of my yoga teacher training. It was the full moon at the height of spring, and all of the songs on my playlist had to do with things in full bloom, especially roses. This even included such tonally disparate selections as Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, and A Perfect Circle’s “Rose”. [I turned the volume way down, after realizing that I am not my teacher who stitches together all manner of soundscapes until I feel like I’m in a Baz Luhrmann film, as shifting emotional tones overtake the room and pass over my face like masks, until I become acquainted with the awareness that underlies all transitory states of thought and feeling. I turned down the volume because it feels more comfortable for me to teach yoga or anything else when I can take a lot of cues for pacing, pausing, and minor adjustments to the curricular plan from the students – their energetic vibe, areas of curiosity, level of engagement/disengagement].

Back in May I themed my 25-minute evaluation class on the full moon in Scorpio, which can serve as a reminder during the height of the spring season, when all is in bloom and the earth is verdant and colorful, that many underground, unseen processes of decay, death, and regeneration have resulted in the visible beauty of springtime. I translated this into a meditation on the body, on all the hidden rituals of dissolution and reconstitution of resources our organs perform every day, in each moment, by their own will, to sustain our lives. I didn’t have time for it, but was tempted to weave in a mythological theme: each spring the maiden Persephone returns to the home of her mother Demeter, the goddess of growing things, after spending three months, or half the year with her husband Hades, Lord of the Underworld.

And each fall she dies, and her mother takes away the light.

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Today the full moon is in Taurus, and for the past couple of days in the fullness of the season when the light is waning, I chose to honor the visible and the readily available. I chose to hearten myself, to nourish my body, to appreciate those who surround me, in the following ways:

  • Sitting in the foggy morning quiet and foregoing the normal vigorous movement routine.
  • Baking rich autumnal foods: a stilton tart, and spiced butternut squash loaf.
  • Taking the time to appreciate my colleagues for their craft.
  • Eating delicious Sichuan food with old friends and speaking about all manner of trivial and consequential topics.
  • Watching Joni Mitchell performances on Youtube with my dad and talking and laughing about the peculiarities of the artists we know and love.
  • Hanging out with the cat.
  • Writing a poem.

What’s your way of honoring that which is visible and present for you, including perhaps some difficult, previously hidden things which circumstances have dredged up and dragged out into the light?

A poem for the full moon, for the body: In Situ

And finally I’ll share what I wrote today, inspired by exploration of relationships between the body’s outer and inner forms. Because we also have a retrograde Mercury in Scorpio, the inner forms ought to be remembered too…

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In Situ

Her body

spirals itself

in tired steps to fill the invisible scaffolding

of a slim and pointed spire

so that all her cells stand

to emulate the reach of her fingertips

clamoring silently for skies ready

to fall.

 

On her knees

in fragile angularity, like brittle bones

of deer’s knees

meeting wretched ground

her body

forgets its feet

when she tries to make it smaller

and folds herself in half

and avoids looking downward

but anyway, her eyes shift there.

 

Her pupils twist themselves around and pierce

the uncontainable

flesh beneath her navel

swelling like heady summer air

that fills the empty nights

with floating lightning bugs and

breathing honeysuckle.

 

She folds herself up and eats half

And drinks half

And nourishes the half that has been good today,

while the other beckons like the waiting night,

the deep forest beyond the

guardrails edging the road.

 

And still she looks, until her probing pupils widen

and for the moment her world is just her love

for dark entrails wrapped

in skin

and rippling in their watery homes.

 

And when she closes her eyes

They echolocate insights

While she listens and

records their auguries.

Reflections on the Hidden, the Hallowed, and the Harrowing of Scorpio Season

Why not rise early, when it is still dark, to read a few lines of something that cradles, calms, delights, or even perturbs you? Why not write a few lines of your own, and regale yourself with contemplative musings, the beginnings of tales that flicker like firelight in the dark cold potential of the day unbirthed, a potential that seethes unseen, like magma, a day waiting to be born under the waning light of a sun in Scorpio?

These are the questions I ask myself when I want to stay in bed a few more minutes, but know that it will be ultimately more fulfilling to begin the day with some form of movement, contemplation, shifting things around in the shadows.

Scorpio is the purveyor of things hidden, and secret, and clandestine. The wielder of latent powers that churn the depths of the earth and generate new life out of the husks of old.

Here are some recent reflections on how this theme has expressed itself to me of late.

Fall at Pacifica

Astrology’s Scorpionic Renaissance

Despite my record of astrologically themed blog posts, my interest in astrology is something I’ve been ambivalent about sharing since I first began to study it when I was about ten years old, around the same time as I discovered Greco-Roman mythology, my great love and medicine. Astrology was one of those pursuits to study in the pre-sunrise, late night, hidden hours, because I received early messages that it was at worst creepy and demonic, and at best silly and small-minded.

My friends’ mothers, my teachers’ wives, those were the ones whom I was often told were interested in astrology when I was young; all the women about whom I could say, “I know of her, but I do not know her”. Those whose names rang like reference points in my mind well before I met them, after such a long time of mutual friends ensuring that our shared, secret interests would result in an enviable intimacy.

I did meet some of these rare, astrologically-inclined people in passing. Many of them had other primary, but still complementary pursuits: tarot, metalworking, psychoanalysis, painting. And similarly for me, astrology was a longstanding interest I kept close at hand wherever I went. I studied psychological astrology in California, then moved to the UK for graduate school and took a foundational course at the London School of Astrology, a course that combined the more popular techniques of birth chart reading and forecasting with branches as old and esoteric as horary astrology (the one that allows you to find that pair of keys you lost under the floorboards of your ex-wife’s house) and as nascent as astrocartography, which casts a new birth chart for you wherever you find yourself in the world. I have studied, I have read charts for others, and very recently I published my first astrological article, a piece on the astrological evolution of MTV as a network and a cultural entity in a volume, The Book of Music Horoscopes, edited by Frank Clifford, a great mentor of mine.

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One of the first astrology books I worked with as a pre-teen…

Music and Astrology

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now things have evolved, and among young people especially there seems to be a certain expectation of a base level of astrological literacy that stretches from personality profiling to behavioral adaptation on the basis of New Moons and Mercury retrogrades. Popular attitudes toward these two elements in particular expose the very human vacillation between the belief in the capacity of the individual to harness the power of the cosmos and “find the flow” with mere intentionality (expressed by making a vision board, journaling, or shouting into the void “It will be so!”), and the belief that there is nothing to do but surrender to cosmic forces which are more powerful than we are.

A recent New York Times article acknowledged the shift toward astrology, and other pursuits in self-awareness, self-development, and self-actualization (such as various practices associated with the psychedelic renaissance) used as language to communicate human experience, and modes of self-healing. The article centers on the pressures therapists are currently encountering to become fluent in this parlance in order to witness their clients’ experiences, rather than to voice encouragement or discouragement.

The shop where I bought my first astrology books, which used to be minded by older women dressed in voluminous earth-toned draperies is now run by young people, with no apparent predominance of gender expression, whose wardrobe does not clearly read “New-Age”.

So perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but it seems, at least in mainstream Californian culture, astrology no longer inhabits the dubious realm of the “occult”, and voicing one’s impressions of astrological phenomena is not perceived as a sinister deed, or, at its most benign, a wishy-washy practice for gullible and inconsequential minds.

Astrology seems to be doing the true Scorpionic thing of emerging, refortified and reformed out of the shadows.

Astrology is like folklore, an old, non-linear language for understanding humanness that goes in and out of fashion, but always manages to survive social pressures to go into hiding. The archetypal metaphors astrology uses offer (like folklore again) interpretations and aetiologies, points of origin for those goading questions of why, when each subsequent generation is just a bit more knowledgeable of compassion, moral behavior, environmentalism, diversity appreciation, kindness, hospitality, ingenuity, grace, and the arts of living honorably, generously, and conscientiously, we individually and collectively struggle to enact these lessons, and still manage to do ourselves and others harm sometimes.

Scorpio is in the sign of katabasis, the journey to the Underworld for a meeting with a departed mentor, a requisite part of the heroic journey. Scorpio reminds us that the greatest stories bury wisdom in the shadow realms, which for us might look like the painful recognition of shame and guilt and anger and limb-slackening grief and self-betrayal and irrationality and fear of our own irrationality.

But these aspects also help us to contextualize the gifts, the triumphs, the strengths, the redemptive potential that lies beyond the mistakes we are bound to make. The bond into which we entered when our consciousness took human form.

Adventures in Scorpionic healing with (what else?) crystal singing bowls

I went to a yoga class on the night of the New Moon in Scorpio. The class featured a sound bath of crystal singing bowls played by a teacher who invited meditations on death, grief, and regeneration of the decayed in new forms. I do not know whether it was this conceptual set-up that resulted in the following experience, or if it was the singing bowls themselves.

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Detail from photograph of crystal singing bowls from Yoga Journal article, “Why Are Crystal Singing Bowls Everywhere Lately?”

Prior to the sound bath our teacher led us through a slow movement practice. She spoke with a measure of conviction and spiritedness that I somehow found reminiscent of a sea captain leading an exploratory voyage. Yet, for me, there was something disturbingly opaque about where we were headed, the lessons I was supposed to be learning. The greying twilight pressing in on the windows and the rapidly cooling air had me feeling as if we were sailing through a thick fog, with only our breath and our teacher’s clear, bright voice to signal any forward movement.

Near the end of the class, after the light had faded completely, she wound her mallet around the rims of the crystal bowls, and their dull ringing struck eerie, creeping waves in the air that sought my organs and plied them with searching sonic fingers. People in the class started coughing. I could hear doors slamming in the neighboring businesses as the proprietors left. All of the sounds rang violent, far too loud and sudden, a dissonant, erratic jarring against the consistent thrumming of the bowls, whose wavelike intonations I did not quite trust.

Until my teacher sang along, in a low, rich, humming. And then my throat rapidly swelled and threatened to burst and tears filled my eyes. Suddenly I envisioned a lonely, sinuous throbbing thing, a conscious entity without eyes or nose or ears, but keenly sensate, encased in weblike, glistening strands and suspended in the dark, and it might have been my heart. It might have been my life, unseen by anyone but me. Life, simply felt, so intimately and in such solitude that it seems ugly, grotesque, and shameful, but unapologetically so.

She sang, and the beauty of her voice, blended with her crystalline companions in that preternatural harmony, struck me deeply. I found myself clinging to life, to the splendour of hearing, and feeling the sound waves seep into the subdermal parts of myself that felt as distant and as essential as the core of the earth.

I thought crystal bowl sound baths were supposed to be relaxing. But in the foggy, uncharted currents of consciousness which we sailed, our captain had asked us (in words other than the following, by which I am taxing this metaphor beyond its reasonable limits) to scatter to the grey waves the burned-out aspects of ourselves and our external circumstances we could acknowledge had died for us this year, signalling our readiness to release them into the hands of Nature, Venus Genetrix, the resourceful mistress of reformulating the dead into the living.

Crystal bowls are apparently taking the place of Tibetan metal singing bowls in yoga classes. I found a recent Yoga Journal article, wherein makers of crystal bowls claim that these bowls more effectively facilitate the penetration (a word used more than once in this article) of our bodies with sound waves because our bones have a crystalline, as opposed to a metallic structure. Thus, crystal bowls made in Colorado are more healing, more attuned to the human body, than Tibetan prayer bowls. I suspect a case of cultural supersessionism. But maybe this is merely because I could not handle the penetrative healing of the crystal bowls.

Scorpio season: Learning the art of living

Indeed, Scorpio season is a good time to pause in our onward striving, all our work toward future manifestation, to acknowledge the opacity of loss, in terms of the unknown changes it will bring, and the questions, grief, and anxieties it conjures and will never satisfy. The uncanny ways in which loss points to life, goads us with a kind of urgency to live, to attend the wake after the burial.

A year ago I went to a women’s ceremony in celebration of Samhain, the new year in the Celtic tradition, also the time when (as in many other traditions) the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, when we pause to consider the fragility, but the insistent vigor of life as we light candles in the darkness for Samhain, for Día de los Muertos, for Diwali. In a meditation exercise in this ceremony we were invited to consider how we would live if we knew we only has six months. One month. One week.

When the dead leaves seek the earth, it is natural, I suppose, to contemplate these things, to find a space to sit with them in community, to honor their weight without bearing it alone, to find compassion for the uncomfortable, inconsolable depths within us all, to tell stories in the dark that can be cauldrons for all the stewing passions, griefs, and wiles that are big and timeless, and paradoxically, can reside in one body, in one heart.

And to speak in the language of astrology, which continues to rise out of the depths of the “occult”…

At this time of year, I have been rising early, when it is still dark, to move, to feel my muscles stretch and strive and ache, to feel my lungs expand, my toes flatten themselves against the floor, in honor of those who cannot rise in their bodies anymore. To read and to write a little, to delight in my ability to experience thought, mere consciousness, abilities that we have for such precious time as we live.

But in the interest of emotional equilibrium maybe I’ll give the crystal bowls a decent berth…

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Good questions for Scorpio season:

  • What inner processes of transformation am I undergoing?
  • This year, what has come to a natural, or an unnatural close? Can I bear compassionate witness to my experience of this loss, in my body, and in my heart?
  • What sources of wisdom have I encountered in the midst of the toughest challenges I have faced in the past year?
  • Where does my way feel constricted, my view occluded? Can I wait out the uncertainty until the shadows start to shift and some truth, previously unnoticed, is revealed?
  • How can I honor my ancestors? What qualities do I see in them, and in their stories that inspire me deeply?
  • How might I conduct myself differently when I envision myself as an ancestor, a forerunner of future lives?

And on a slightly lighter level…

What are my favorite folktales, myths, or scary stories to tell in the autumnal season? What aspects of them speak to my experience?

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One of my favorites was always The Ghost-Eye Tree, by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, a children’s book whose premise involves a brother and a sister traveling on a last-minute errand to fetch milk for their mother. They must walk to the dairy farmer after dark, and halfway along the road they must pass an old, said-to-be-haunted oak tree, called the Ghost-Eye Tree. The boy narrator of the book tells his reader,

“One dark and windy autumn night when the sun had long gone down, Mama asked my sister and me to take the road to the end of the town to get a bucket of milk. Oooo . . . I dreaded to go . . . I dreaded the tree . . . Why does Mama always choose me when the night is so dark and the mind runs free?”

I love the story because the tree must be suffered, halfway along the path to light and safety, on the way there and back. The boy has a talisman, a hat, which he wears to make him look tough (to himself, really), until the wind takes it and his sister has to run back to find it on the “haunted ground” at the foot of the Ghost Eye Tree. She survives the solo trip for the hat, and chastises her brother for his fearfulness.

When the night is so dark and the mind runs free…

Reminds me of when I was a kid and feared the darkness. I would fall asleep listening to the radio, my talisman of sorts, because I felt comforted by the live broadcast, the knowledge that a DJ was awake and at work, and whose presence over the radio waves could somehow ward off the absorption of the darkness that scared me so much.

I love tales that draw attention to the fearsome stories our minds fashion, stories that illuminate the fragility of the monsters as well as the talismans that ward them off.

Lots to harvest and to steep in contemplative silence this time of year.

Thanks for reading, witnessing, and thinking.

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A few weeks ago I took a photo at the last Full Moon (in Aries) of an autumnal, Ghost-Eye Tree lookalike in my neighborhood.

30 Lessons from Yoga Teacher Training

I had said that I would blog my experiences of my first 200-hour yoga teacher training in California throughout, that I would chronicle in glorious detail the dance with the Dionysian, serpentine parts of myself in real time, as they made themselves known to me during the inevitable threshold-crossings, revelations and openings of the heart that occurred in the course of the training.

And now, six months after that initial promise, I am back in the UK, writing my first little series of reflections on this blog.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The wealth of teachings, conversations, movement workshops, musical rhapsodies, ecstatic silences, beatitudes, and agonies I would encounter every week of the training were a lived experience, my impressions of which often resisted immediate recording in words, or when recorded, felt too fragile to be revealed on a public platform.

The integration of some practices encountered in the training will take considerable time.

Overall, I derived an excellent foundation of the nuts-and-bolts knowledge of alignment, anatomy, sequencing of a yoga class, and the major philosophical schools and history of the practice. Every week I taught fellow trainees, friends, and family members. I took lots of notes, in the teacher training sessions and in yoga classes I would attend outside of those sessions. Minutes after a class I would plant myself in the café around the corner and record as much of the sequence as I could remember, including cues and thematic talking points. Then I would write a report of what worked well, as far as I was concerned, in terms of pacing, sequencing, safety, music, and theme. Some days this process would take hours.

Many of the things I learned constitute a personal curriculum of lessons I fancied sharing here. The following, in haphazard order, are the essentials I have derived from the many teaching techniques, stories, songs, wise one-liners, challenges, and other sources of comforting and confronting lessons I absorbed during the training.  These will no doubt change as my practice evolves, and I am certain that even my recollections of the insights gained in the training will shift as life continues to inform them…

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One April night in the midst of the teacher training, I dreamt that I sat on this bench outside the  studio and waited for my teacher. I waited for an afternoon and an evening. I spent a sleepless night in the cold, struggling to curl myself onto the once beautifully quaint wicker bench that had in the painful hours of darkness become a spiky Procrustean prison. The sky brightened, and it was dawn, and my teacher did not show. 
Then the realization hit: I was awaiting no one, because I was my teacher. 
I rose from the bench and began to walk. With each step I became more curious about and devoted to the teachings of ineffable value I could find within the quiet, spacious parts of myself.

30 Lessons

  1. A forearm balance is called pincha mayurasana in Sanskrit, and shortly after the training ended I managed, with kick after hesitant kick up to the elusive wall in front of me, to integrate that inversion into my practice after thinking of it as a posture “off-limits” to me for my fear of falling on my face.
  2. Proprioception, the perception of the body’s movement in space, is a key area of development in a yoga practice, in addition to strength and flexibility. For instance, sure, you can bring yourself into wheel pose, but can you work the adductors of your pinky toe without moving your other toes? So many adventures in fine motor skills to be had!
  3. The physical and subtle bodies store memories, traumas, remedies, stories, images, and quiet spaciousness, and the practice of yoga joins the practitioner in compassionate relationship with the experience of embodied centers of wisdom.
  4. I can accept that visceral insight and instinctual wisdom will not always satisfy my mind’s definition of what is rational or comprehensible.
  5. The mind, like Hesiod’s Muse he invokes at the beginning of the Theogony, is a brilliant, time-honored teller of truths and untruths. It can be loved and accepted as a part of a person, even with its fabrication of illusions and areas of ignorance and misperception (avidyas).
  6. A commitment to a personal daily yoga practice is essential for a committed teacher to uphold, for continuous work on oneself through a regular process of svadhyaya (self-study) experienced through postural practice, meditation, and breathing exercises will inform one’s teaching holistically.
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Beach, and garudasana

7.  A good teacher will use intelligent sequencing (with modifications and alternative poses for injuries and differently abled bodies), to forge a sequencing path that is sustainable and focuses on specific muscle groups/areas of connective tissue (hip/shoulder/chest/hamstrings) to prepare students for a “peak pose” that succeeds the final preparatory pose in a natural step, not a giant leap, of challenge and focused attention.

8. Though sometimes a good leap of faith – for instance, the momentum for the transition from a high lunge to a warrior 3  – is well-cued in a yoga class.

9. Music (or silence) can be a powerful way to support students’ development of embodied awareness and self-inquiry. But music also consequentially influences mood, and can inhibit students’ organic connection with their emotions and bodily sensations, so care must be taken in compiling a playlist that supports, rather than defines the students’ practice.

10. I love teaching because I love supporting people in their practice, and allowing time for students to explore intuitive movement within postures and make the practice their own.

11. When I become nervous in my yoga teaching, my instinct is to ground myself, and to read the room. I can readily work off-script (away from the written sequence). I can prioritize maintaining a safe container for students in my class to foster their unique experiences of the practice.

12. My fellow trainees, in their courage, integrity, kindness, support, humility, and inspiring consistency in showing up every week for all the challenges with which the training presented us, taught me time and time again that each person’s yoga is his/her/their yoga. Their work. Their struggle. Their experience of union. Their peace.

13. Guru is often translated as “the one who removes darkness”. I find it useful to understand that the guru can come in many forms: a friend; a teacher; a sunset; a painting; an article of clothing discarded on the sidewalk that alerts you to the literal and behavioral costumes you assume and discard from situation to situation, and makes you curious about what is being adorned; the tree branches, the blades of grass, and the strands of your hair that weave themselves into the fabric of the wind and remind you of interconnectedness at the times when you feel the greatest loneliness and separation; when you catch a stranger’s eye and notice the engage of the simple, consequential message “I see you”; the act of grace that sets things in motion just when you were about to give up.

14. The teachers/authors encountered in the training who inspired me include Lal Ded, T.K.V. Desikachar, Ramana Maharshi, Sally Kempton, Byron Katie, Adyashanti, and Neem Karoli Baba (as transmitted by Ram Dass). The ones who got under my skin are Michael Singer and Jed McKenna/whoever he really is (for the paternalistic tone and contempt for the mind I found prominent in their writing, and for the latter’s anonymity, which I know has a spiritual basis but also conveniently releases him from engaging in critical dialogue about his ideas with students, who take to Reddit to make heads, tails, and innumerable other appendages of his writings…).

15. The ethical principles of yoga, the yamas and the niyamas, are rarely introduced comprehensively in contemporary vinyasa flow classes, yet they comprise the first two of the eight limbs of yoga, found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts of yoga philosophy. My teacher Luca taught me by her example the grace of weaving these principles mindfully, humbly, and lovingly into a yoga class, and into the fabric of community. 

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Yoga in the garden with Yoga in Practice (ed. David Gordon White, 2012), a reader from which I find passages from the major yogic philosophical texts (Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, Upanishads, and others) to inspire my daily practice.

16. Physical posture (asana) is only one of the eight limbs of yoga in the Yoga Sutras. Posture work, and the outward appearance of postures we often see on Insta and other repositories of “ideal” – and idolized – “yoga bodies”, is by itself not necessarily an accurate representation of a person’s yoga practice. My anatomy teacher Kendall inspired me to appreciate and respect the diversity of bodies in a yoga class, and my own body. From her I learned that my spine’s flexibility is not “something I need to work on”, but is determined by the inherent positioning of my spinous processes, and can be welcomed and accepted with joy in asana practice and in life.

17. The decision to acknowledge another person’s humanity, and the choice to perceive the luminosity of being that rests in the other person and reflects my own, is called namaste.

18. The unifying practice of namaste is only reinforced by creating clear, mutually understood boundaries in relationship that affirm each person’s safety and psychospiritual integrity.

19. The more of another’s joys, sufferings, grievances, loves, and fears I learn, the less defensive I become, and the more willing I am to surrender my judgements and open my heart to another person.

20. The facilitators and trainees who surrounded me in the teacher training over that four-month period were the very teachers I needed, the ones who could show me how to unbind the parts of myself I had held hostage and starved of value, and how to meet them when they raged.

21. I can accept the periods of loneliness and fellowship, community and isolation that add texture to a practice, to a life.

22. I have a sense of humor, a resourcefulness, an intellect, and a strength of character that are ready to make themselves of service to the world when I choose to value them.

23. In my experience, resistance stretching exercises (contracting the muscle as you stretch it) can do a world of good for relieving sticky connective tissue, excessive mental rumination, and emotional quagmires, and are a delightful gift to share with yourself, or a friend or two.

24. It is a good idea to breathe in the sweet scent of fresh jasmine, or good essential oil blends and let the fragrance open windows in the mind.

25. It is a good idea to breathe and move, in that order.

26. Do “play your edge” in asana (postural) practice, i.e. find the limits of your comfort zone and consciously open yourself to the opportunity for expanding them. This requires staying present amidst boredom, the desire to check out/dissociate, and perhaps intense sensation, but coming out of the posture if there is pain in order to avoid physical injury.

27. Do NOT play your edge in pranayama (breath control) practice. Forcing the breath (especially in breath retention exercises) when there is discomfort can cause physical and psychological injury and trauma. If there is any anxiety or discomfort met in pranayama practice, drop the practice and pick it up again from a relaxed and grounded space. Do right by yourself, if that means releasing the breath when the teacher instructs you to hold it, or abstaining from kapalabhati or other vigorous breathing practices if it feels taxing and unsustainable.

28. Each day, and each shape and breath we take brings the occasion for acknowledging the roses, thorns, buds, and withered petals: the gifts, the wounds, the burgeoning adventures, the bygone things that fall in their natural way. Do not stop the petals from falling, for that is an affront to death; nor cut away the growth before it has had a good chance to thrive, for that is an affront to life.

29. Why do we twist? As my teacher Eddie demonstrated for us, props and all, with his accustomed ebullience in our final session with him, it is easier to drain water from a saturated sponge by wringing it out rather than pressing it in between the hands. Hence, we twist. We move laterally, frontwards, backwards, upside down. We stay still. We harness the breath, we play loud music, we pound the floor with our feet and our fists, we trampoline, we slide across floors and up walls. We draw and journal. We scream. We cry. We ask for help when we need it. We teach in the way we know how. We give the knowledge and resources that are ours to give. We feed each other. We give hugs when they are welcome. We deepen the twist. It is from this place where we can ask the difficult questions of ourselves, and prepare to make the tough decisions, to have the tough conversations. All to wring out what keeps us feeling paralyzed and powerless to connect authentically with ourselves and others. So many associated lessons stemmed from that symbol that we each received a sponge in addition to our training certificate, a talisman for the road ahead.

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A quiet breakfast with the Madonna at the studio before my final evaluation. Sitting on the bench depicted above…

30. Savasana, corpse pose, is “the ultimate peak pose”, as my teacher Cynthia once elucidated with resonant conviction. Indeed, it is the end and the beginning, the pose that teaches yoga in the oldest way, through total relaxation of muscular tension, mental attachments, and conscious control over the breath. Yoga in the oldest way, in the practice of dying to everything that keeps us from resting in the essence of ourselves. In total awareness. In noticing what we notice, as Cynthia would say. In expanding the awareness to claim all the complex, contradictory human pieces that lie within us, that we use to navigate our world until the moment when we don’t. In appreciating the fact that awareness pervades the pose of death, and is thus a celebration of, and a union with life.

Savasana teaches yoga in the oldest way, for, if we take as a reference point the boon of yogic knowledge given to the boy Nachiketa by Yama, Lord of Death in the Katha Upanishad, an early  textual treatment of yoga that far predates the Sutras, the first yoga teacher was Death.

Nachiketa and Yama

 

The Call to Home: Reflections on the New Moon in Cancer this Independence Day

This New Moon in Cancer calls us home.

The first time I travelled to the UK, as a 16-year-old in 2004, it was the 4th of July. Tickets were cheap for that date, as many travellers anticipated another attack, a follow-up to 9/11 on a date significant to Americans, and generally avoided flying to or from the US on Independence Day. I do not remember harboring a tremendous amount of anxiety about this; rather, a secret amusement surrounding the irony that I was spending the anniversary of American independence travelling to the nation from which our ancestors had fought so hard to secure autonomous statehood.

Little did I know that in fewer than ten years following this initial trip I would come to the UK for graduate school and call this country my home for 7+ years.

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The splendors of an Oxford summer

The New Moon in Cancer is born out of the womb of itself, as the Moon is Cancer’s ruling planet. This year, if you happened to be in the South Pacific or parts of South America, you might have seen the New Moon, usually invisible at this stage in its cycle due to its proximity to the sun from our vantage point, directly pass over the sun in a solar eclipse.

This New Moon in eclipse will not be invisible. It will not be ignored. It calls you home, to revisit that place, that community, or that internal set of circumstances that allow you to feel safe, nurtured, valued, rejuvenated, and connected to the ancestors, the roots of your being. To honor the wisdom of your body, the most immediate physical home that contains you.

Whenever I am not feeling very much at home in my external circumstances, I come back to my yoga practice, my mindfulness practice, the practices of dance and song and braiding my hair and walking outside to feel the grass underfoot, the mindful practices of inhabiting my body.

I went back to my hometown in California to do my first 200-hour yoga teacher training, around the time when the New Moon was in Capricorn and it was time for conscious goal-setting, for dedicating myself to the climb, placing myself at the mercy of the rocky wilderness to achieve a goal, the procurement of a qualification of teaching in yoga, in movement that I can use in my working life. And boy, was the trail rocky at times. I found splendour and calm. I found the wickedest parts of myself. I found the teachers I needed. I trusted and mistrusted them and trusted and mistrusted myself time and time again, and vacillated between meekness and assertiveness, and defended some of my crude, uncharitable ways of perceiving myself and others with brutal, unpitying rationality. And then I would release these convictions and breathe into parts of my body from which I had dissociated, and I allowed the problems in my mind, all the contradictions in myself and in the teachings I had been trying to resolve to unstick themselves.

By the end of the training I felt a burgeoning strength within myself, a vigor that I had not felt in years. I felt like I had a place in the community, both at the studio and among friends and family old and new, a place as an adult in the city of my birth. I did home improvement work on the house I grew up in. I resumed my lectureship at the university where I had completed my undergraduate degree, working alongside my former teachers as a colleague. I taught yoga to the graduate students in the department. I supported my mom’s recovery from major surgery. I felt like I was of service from start to finish, within and beyond the training. It felt right and providential.

It felt Hesiodic, like the life of the proverbial farmer in the 8th/7th-century BCE Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days, the farmer who knows the people with whom he shares his village and knows his place within it. It felt like the full spectrum of my humanity could find itself reflected in the experiences of that city and the people and the ocean and the hillsides that I had seen in the past year undergo death and devastation, literal fires and floods, and emerge resilient and self-sustaining. This is the place where I could live and die and decompose and come back as wild mustard.

Bindweed: The roots of ourselves, the roots of our stories

When I returned to the UK, my affect shifted into uncertainty and rootlessness, as the voice of self-talk that I had just taught to draw its material from a deep well of insight began to stammer, and a psychic fog settled in.

But when I do embodied meditations, and when I write, it begins to clear.

This is the place where I have lived, loved, learned, tried and tested myself, met rejection upon rejection and still struck gold, until I didn’t, and then I decided to write a book on women in Greek tragedy, and found that in their company I could no longer hold myself in the combined shape of measured cleverness, poise, and the caricature of Californian hippie sensibilities I had learned to manifest because it was wishy-washy, non-threatening, and cute.

But the tales of tragic women, all their transgressive, violent acts of desperation to reclaim their agency in their lives fly with leathery, infernal wings in the face of cuteness. They demand our awakening to the diminished parts of ourselves that need to be witnessed and integrated, given a voice early enough so that they can use their powers for healing rather than destruction. The tragic women demand you look at the things hiding in the shadows you cast over them. All the stuff that looms bigger the longer it’s left alone.

In the yoga teacher training, it was taken for granted that we had all been relegating tender parts of ourselves to the shadows, had created a hulking repository of psychic stuff. My stuff just intermingled with everyone else’s stuff, and we could grieve and laugh, or do a movement practice and jostle these awkward pieces around inside our bodies that were gracious enough to hold them without judgement. I felt that I could begin to illuminate this stuff, untangle it, make friends with it. I started to talk about this process, and how the tragic women for me, and perhaps for others are the knowers and the keepers of the stuff, and people listened.

Then I went back to the UK, and I stopped talking, because I felt for the container and couldn’t find it. Instead I got caught up with visions of stunted growing things, exposed roots with remnants of dark earth beginning to dry up around them. The day after I returned to Oxford, I was walking into Christ Church Meadows and several people passing commented on the state of an old willow tree. “That willow makes me so sad. Why did they do that to it?” “I know, couldn’t they have left it alone?” And another, wielding typical British sarcasm, “Well, one of the College dons has a better view now – that’s what’s important”.

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The willow

I looked around to view the willow, a quiet witness of those passing from the street into the Meadows. Its upper branches had been cut. I cried, as I did later when my husband began to uproot the ivy in the back garden. I asked him what he wanted to grow instead, and he said, “Wildflowers”. I stayed my mind that chomped at the bit to weave interpretations of the prospect of replacing Dionysus’ plant with those the maiden Persephone was picking before the earth opened up and Death abducted her to be his bride.

We live in a world of meanings and projections, some of which are helpful and some not-so-helpful.

The willow may well have needed cutting due to disease, or circumstances other than the dons’ wishes for a wider view of the meadows. And as my googling has revealed, my husband’s instincts were in keeping with most gardeners’ approaches to what grows in our back garden: not ivy, but bindweed, a form of morning glory that according to the Royal Horticulture Society (“Inspiring everyone to grow”), “Twine[s] around other plant stems, smothering them in the process…These weeds are difficult to eradicate by cultural methods as their roots can extend deep into the soil”. Although the website says that the society does not endorse chemical methods of weed-killing, they tell you exactly how to use chemical weed-killers to get rid of bindweed. Not inspiring everyone to grow, then…

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The bindweed in our garden

Those like me who have a tendency to see the world as a kind of Joseph Campbellesque jungle of story themes and archetypal encounters can catch ourselves in the bindweed of one interpretation that smothers all other readings of a situation. Yet sometimes we receive the guidance, the message we need to hear from these old stories, which have an eerie way of foretelling the cycles of behavior, relationship, and belief we hurtle through over and over again, often unconsciously. We can find truth and liberation in the telling, as well as falsity, just as our friend Hesiod insinuated at the beginning of his Theogony, his account of the genealogy of the gods.

The Muses can tell lies as well as the truth.

So, if we can avoid determinism and look to the New Moon in Cancer as a general thematic inspiration for contemplation of home and what it means for us, we can unleash innumerable, often contradictory associations, all of which strike us hard in the breast. They strike hard and close because they remind us of how we have lived the seasons of our lives and tended to the physical and emotional ground that sustains us.

For example…

Twin Homes: My associations with the New Moon

Before I left California to study at Oxford, back in 2011, I attended a seminar on world astrology with the great Rick Tarnas, and was experiencing the intensity of Pluto in Capricorn crossing over my Saturn/Uranus conjunction, a “vice-grip” (in Rick’s words) of urgent necessity to craft new institutional and cultural structures out of the remains of old, obsolete ones – something everyone born within a couple of years of me was undergoing. I told Rick of the feeling of scarcity (and its reflection in the wake of the Great Recession) that attended this transit through Capricorn, the sign that teaches us the art of resourcefulness, and that it reminded me of Hesiod’s insistence in his Works and Days that the resourcelessness, the amechanie (ἀμηχανίη) (WD, 496) be the farmer’s great teacher in the winter season, the season that is the proof of the efficacy of planning, sowing the seeds, harvesting the crops, storing them away, and shoring up one’s house against the elements.

And now Pluto, still in Capricorn, has passed in opposition over my Moon in Cancer, and propelled me into an arena of self-discovery and reconciliation of internal opposites, inconsistencies, and divisions that fostered me to draw from my well of emotional resources rather than rely on outside influences. And Saturn, the ruler of Capricorn is now opposing the Moon for the remainder of 2019. A call for buttoning down the hatches and waiting out the winter. A call for taking inventory of what I have stored away. A wintry chill in the heat of summer. A need for reckoning, acknowledgement of the consequences of my tendency to plant the seeds on one side of the ocean, and not come back in time to harvest them. The fruit ripened, dropped, and rotted away on the ground, and if I was lucky I could pluck the late ones. The consequences of splitting my energy between continents, of shadow side of the privilege of two beautiful, fulfilling places to call home.

Twin homes, two lives in two places. You can’t ride two horses with one hiny, as my mother would say.

And now for your example…

New Moon in Cancer: An exercise

So what is calling you home? How can you be fed and nurtured? How can you feed and nurture others? If your mind (thinking brain, pre-frontal cortex) is the first one to catapult ideas and stories into your consciousness, see if you can let that run its course before asking for other embodied perspectives in the following meditation.

One of the most valuable tools I learned in the teacher training was that significant wisdom lies in the solar-plexus, the “gut-brain”, containing over 100 million nerve cells. Known widely in popular culture as the seat of intuition and willpower, the scientific community (at Johns Hopkins medicine at least) acknowledges the gut’s significant capacity for intelligence, although the types of intelligence and mechanisms for delivering them are largely unknown and unstudied.

But in meditation practices working with the chakras (energy centers, associated with the Tantric branch of yogic philosophy) that are linked to areas of the body, and certainly in disciplines such as craniosacral therapy, you can look to your gut as well as other body parts, including the heart space, pelvis, throat, hip creases, and bones as places of knowing, and they have their own stories to tell.

But for this exercise I invite you to look to the gut and the heart space, parts of the body close to those associated with the sign of Cancer in the western zodiac,[1] as places of insight into the question, What is calling me home?

  • Find a quiet space and a comfortable seat, where you can settle your sitting bones into the ground or a chair and you can extend your spine and the crown of your head toward the sky, stacking each vertebra on top of the one below.
  • Observe the natural flow of your breath, without altering it, just to arrive. Observe your mental and emotional landscape, as you would observe clouds crossing over the sky, without trying to change them. Maintain this gentle observation for 10 breaths.
  • Breathe into your belly, from the lower abdomen through the solar plexus. You can place your hands on your belly, side ribs, or lower back and feel the breath travel freely through these areas, drawing your awareness further inwards so that you can begin to hear the whispers of this wisdom region. What is calling me home? How can I be fed and nurtured? How can I feed and nurture others?
  • Now breathe into your heart space, your upper chest, placing your fingers at your collarbones and feeling your hands rise and fall with the breath. What is calling me home? How can I be fed and nurtured? How can I feed and nurture others?
  • Be patient and receptive, keep breathing, and wait for the answers to come. Be gentle with yourself, and drop the practice if it feels physically or emotionally untenable or overwhelming.
  • Write down the responses you get. Compare them. Be amazed, grateful, curious, underwhelmed, sad, anxious, inspired, angry – can you allow whatever emotions attend this exercise to be?
  • Then put what you have written aside, take a walk, feel the ground under your feet, listen to the soundscape that surrounds you, to integrate the knowledge gained. And thank all of yourself for navigating some of these hidden, labyrinthine paths to inner guidance.

Remember that this exercise in itself is a form of homecoming.

Or, a suspension of the gripping of the bindweed of interpretations in which we might find ourselves caught through reliance on one knowledge center for guidance.

Or even (pardon the tenuous link here) a “declaration of independence” from the influence of narratives that no longer serve.

Wherever you are called home, near or far, let the knowledge of it serve you well today and this month!

[1] The breasts, pectoral muscles, stomach, and womb are associated with Cancer.