Welp. I’m turning 51 next-week. I’ve always really loved my birthday. I don’t care so much about parties or presents or anything like that it’s more that I love the feeling of a day that I get to honor myself in a particularly conscious way.
I’m that person who will stand in front of a cashier grinning, finally bursting out, “It’s my birthday!” and delight in the response. I get to feel special for no special reason, really. I take the day off, not something I do often, and do something for myself or by myself. I think about my life in general, the year past and the year to come. I celebrate myself and another turn around the sun before going back to all the other days of the year.
This birthday feels a little different. Maybe it’s because turning 50 seemed so monumental that turning 51 seems banal by comparison. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in transition for so long it’s hard for me to remember what “all the other days” even feel like and what makes my birthday any different. Maybe it’s because this has been a rough year in many ways, from my sister’s illness to the exhausting journey through menopause, to the election and the sense of aloneness I felt following, to my own existential crises and questioning of who I am and what I am doing. I’ve landed solidly in a midlife crisis, exacerbated by leaving the home, the community, the support, the sense of identity and relevance I had come to rely on, to sort my life out in relative isolation down here in Mexico.
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” ~ Dorothy Day
People often ask me if I love living in Mexico. The answer is yes. And no. I mean, I love spending hours and hours by myself, lost in the computer, or my practice, or the animals, or cooking, or the pool. I love swimming in the ocean, almost as much as I love floating in the ocean, disappearing into the vastness and at the same time, wholly alive and complete. I love spending time in open contemplation, and I love reading, and I love thinking about what I would like to teach and how I could do it best. I love the space around me and the space inside me.
“Stillness is the altar of spirit.” ~ Paramahansa Yogananda
But there is also something profoundly disconnecting in my “spiritual solitude.” Even as I’m writing this, sitting on a balcony overlooking the plaza, I hear someone call my name. I look down below me and see a couple of kids waving frantically, their mothers smiling at their exuberance. Moments later, another young boy calls my name and waves up at me as he stops to buy himself a tejuino on his way home from catechism. I’m sitting on the balcony, enjoying the view of the town and the ocean, about to trade my computer screen for a glass of wine and lively conversation with friends, and yet still, I experience a sense of separation. I miss both the comfort and the challenge of community based on shared values and vision.
So do I love living in Mexico? The response is both/and: I thrive in the personal, the private, the inward experience that lends itself to spiritual inquiry and connection to Divine presence, and I long for the foundational support and energizing call to action that comes with intentional community.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead
Considering the value of personal practice, of fellowship and social responsibility, the “yoga community at large” should prove a low hanging fruit. And yet, even a cursory look at how the word yoga is used to denote a variety of practices reveals the frequent disconnect between the practice of yoga as something you “do” or something you “teach” or “offer” and the deep, personal dedication to the spiritual practice itself – ostensibly the very groundwork for the fruits that we might seek to share in service.
While we may hear a lot about the value of personal practice, I am not always sure what that actually means, and to what degree that personal practice is truly translating out into the world. I think many of us struggle between the ideas of spiritual bypass, hyper-individualism, social justice and harmonious community, and I think that is largely because we are lacking depth and focus in both aspects – of both personal practice, and of dedication to spiritual community.
With two yoga teachers in training for every working yoga teacher, and yoga as a first and foremost a spiritual practice, we might think that people are being trained in both personal development and community engagement. However, with our collective fear of spiritual community as something cultish, or our misunderstanding of spiritual community as the occasional potluck or trance dance at our local studio, and our limited exposure to contemplative practices through our yoga trainings, most American yoga students are bereft of the opportunity to go further with their practice, to use their yoga practice as truly a practice of liberation.
In my experience leading yoga teacher trainings over the past fifteen years, I have found that the majority of yoga students have only the most basic understanding of breath and meditation practices, and for the most part use them as just another tool in their teaching toolbox, something to tack on to the end of a class or to round out a flow with a bit of alternate nostril breathing or five minutes of “meditation.” The value of satsang, or spiritual fellowship, is limited to friends made through teacher training, or through studio involvement, but not typically communities based on thoughtfully defined shared values, or a common, practical and well-integrated psycho-spiritual vocabulary. This, compounded in the yoga world with the illusion that we have both – committed personal practices and true spiritual communities – results in a lack of truly examining or building either one.
Next month I will be embarking on a two-year program with the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Living School. One of the center’s Core Principles is:
“We do not think ourselves into a new way of living, but we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”
I am reminded that, in those moments where I feel like I am losing focus, where I am flailing around in my isolated practices or falling deeper into navel gazing, that I can choose to live differently, rather than simply think differently. And when I consider what that way of living might look like, the vision emerges of a renewed commitment to both my inner spiritual work and to the conscious creation of community.
Perhaps this is my gift to myself. This is the midlife opportunity: the reminder of the power in balancing the personal with the collective. My mid-life crisis appeased by a renewed focus on building, stewarding and growing the spiritual community that has already been well planted in Samarya.
Yoga is a practice of liberation. Social Justice is a practice of liberation. Contemplation is a practice of liberation. Personal spiritual discipline is a practice of liberation. And yes, living well in community is a practice of liberation. We can bring these things together through intentionality and commitment.
The value base of the Samarya community has always been reflected in our mission statement: fostering individual transformation as a means to radical social change. The focus on healing self first has always been its very foundation. This is an open invitation – there are lots of ways to connect with this community, whether through social media, workshops, retreats, or simple gatherings of fellowship. The best thing about this community is that you don’t have to do anything special to be a part of it. You don’t have to show up any certain amount of times, or pay any money or pledge allegiance. You can live in Mexico, or Germany, or Australia, or Israel or New York City, as members of our community do. We are a community of the heart, in which an organizing principle is the courage to examine both our gifts and our limitations, and the desire to stay the course so that we might elevate the idea of radical inclusion, and enjoy positive, loving resolution to conflict at personal, communal and systemic levels.
“If faith in ourselves had been more extensively taught and practiced, I am sure a very large portion of the evils and miseries that we have would have vanished. ~ Swami Vivekananda
In the west’s collective effort to secularize yoga, we have often missed the opportunity for true connection to Divine presence, the very foundation for reflection and relationship through yoga. As my gift to you, wherever you may be, I offer a simple practice for contemplation. While this practice comes from the Christian contemplative tradition, it can be used by anyone wishing to create space in their life for the “still small voice of God.”
I am including here the basics of the practice of Lectio Divina, as well as the poems that were used in the recent Seattle Lectio Divina workshop. I encourage you to dig deeper, learn more, make this practice work for you. May you find a deeper connection to yourself, and to those around you, through a deeper connection to the Divine. Every day is an opportunity for rebirth and renewal. Happy rebirthday to you.
Lectio Divina basics – this is the most basic description. Please refer to the links above for more detailed background and instructions.
Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit where you will be free from distraction. Spend several moments listening to your breath, stilling the mind, and opening the heart.
- Lectio (Read) Read the poem, piece, or scripture slowly and intently. See if there are any words or phrases or images that jump out at you.
- Meditatio (reflect): How does that word or phrase or image relate to your life? Why does that feel relevant to you right now?
- Oratio (respond): Open the heart, invite the experience of “sitting near” – the very basis of the Upanishads – in which we allow ourselves to unselfconsciously connect with the teaching through creative response – this might be journaling, singing, dancing, moving, praying, remembering, imagining.
- Contemplatio (rest): Sit in open contemplation. Not “doing” anything, not “meditating on it,” but simply being open to the presence of God.
Some possible passages to contemplate:
The 23rd psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
I Will Be Satisfied –Mohja Kahf
I will never be satisfied Until you flood me like the Nile floods the plain Until your arms become Babylonian lions and devour me raw Until you scale me like the Temple of the Feathered Serpent And I will never be satisfied Until you cast yourself into the fire And its flames are cool and safe for you because of me Until you break the chains of impossibility And slay the beast of doubt like oxen sacrifice At the altar of the Holiest of Holies Until I see my face in all your writings Until my name enters all your words And you adorn and crown yourself with me Love me—love me—love me—love me— And I will be satisfied ~ From Mohja Kahf’s unpublished love poetry manuscript written in 1999.
Kaddish – Marge Piercy
Look around us, search above us, below, behind.
We stand in a great web of being joined together.
Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us in the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let’s say amen.
Time flows through us like water.
The past and the dead speak through us.
We breathe out our children’s children, blessing.
Blessed is the earth from which we grow,
Blessed the life we are lent,
blessed the ones who teach us,
blessed the ones we teach,
blessed is the word that cannot say the glory
that shines through us and remains to shine
flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.
Let’s say amen.
Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,
but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let’s say amen.
Peace that bears joy into the world,
peace that enables love, peace over Israel
everywhere, blessed and holy is peace, let’s say amen.
I am mad with Love – mirabai
I am mad with love
And no one understands my plight.
Only the wounded
Understand the agonies of the wounded,
When the fire rages in the heart.
Only the jeweller knows the value of the jewel,
Not the one who lets it go.
In pain I wander from door to door,
But could not find a doctor.
Says Mira: Harken, my Master,
Mira’s pain will subside
When Shyam comes as the doctor.
The Peace of Wild Things – Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.