Sunday, February 23, 2014

Assigned Seating

On a recent flight, I switched seats with someone on the plane. It didn't really matter to me where I sat, and it was a kind gesture on the other person's part to offer... I hesitated, but ultimately accepted, and therefore ended up someplace where I wasn't really supposed to be.

I sat next to a man who, admittedly, I was mildly annoyed by for a variety of reasons. He was loud.  He was on the phone with his wife, speaking to her in a way that I found unacceptable. He was eating a dripping, greasy cheeseburger, the smell of which was offensive to me. He didn't shut down his computer and phone for so long that the flight attendant had to come and get ugly with him about it. He was one of those people that had a snide comment about everything. I popped my headphones in and stuffed my nose in my book to avoid any chit chatting in which, prior to that point, he had tried to engage me.  I settled in like this for almost the entire flight.

As the plane started to descend, though, I put away my music, and he asked me about the book I was reading. It was Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. He had never heard of it, so I explained the central ideas and themes. I'd read it before, it was part of the required reading for my yoga training, but I was rereading it. I'm not sure why, exactly, but I somehow felt the need to explain all of this to him, too. 

"I think my wife needs to read that," he said. Oh boy. My thoughts in that moment were:  so you are going to complain to me about your wife?! Dude. You have no idea where my head is right now. You will regret that choice 'cause I will give you the what fors right here in first class.

"Actually, what I really wish is that my son had read it. He committed suicide on Father's Day." Oh. Oy. Ouch. I opted, at this point, instead, to give myself the what fors. I expressed my condolences and told him I can't imagine the depth of this sort of pain for him, his wife, everyone who held this young man close. I quickly made the connection regarding his comment about his wife and brought up mother's love and mother's guilt and how I could imagine that his wife was feeling as though part of her life's purpose was gone and that the search for new purpose at once with the search for relief from depression and despair must be overwhelming.

"It was our second," he replied. I looked at him for a moment, not clearly understanding what he meant. "Our other son had leukemia and died after a bone marrow transplant." I was stunned, but somehow found the phrase "survivor guilt" in my arsenal and asked him if the other son had suffered from it. And sure enough, the "it should have been me" was at the root of his other son's problems.

"It should not have been him," I said, "because it wasn't his curriculum. Just as it wasn't yours or your wife's. It wasn't your lesson to learn, but having lived through it, you learned what you were supposed to." 

At that moment, the man in front of us, having heard just bits of our conversation, turned and asked me what kind of yoga I practice. The question, in the midst of the discussion of death and survivor guilt, seemed oddly yet perfectly timed. I shared. The man in front then informed me he was "a Bikram guy". We talked briefly about the peace that consistent practice brings and how a lack of practice is noticeable physically, mentally, emotionally.

"Tell me more about that," the man next to me said. And so I did. I encouraged him to try yoga and to seriously consider practicing yoga with his wife if she was open to it, even if it was to go to a studio and rest in child's pose for an hour. An escape. A focus. A place to just be... and just be together. 

Who knows if he did or did not... but at least I know that as he walked off the plane and thanked me profusely for talking to him about life and yoga and the combination thereof, perhaps he had a new option that he might not have otherwise thought of; one more strategy at hand, one more chance to rebuild his body, refocus his mind, and reconnect with that which is most important for us all, and that which does, indeed, die last: hope.

And so, it seems, that even though I wasn't in my assigned seat that day, I was, in fact, exactly where I was supposed to be.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Art of Doing Nothing

The Buddha asked a young monk to go to the river to fetch some water.   When the monk arrived at the river, he found it wildly turbulent, so much so, that he could not even approach the water's edge.  The violent swirling stirred up sediment from the bottom of the river, making the water muddy and undrinkable.  The young monk returned to the Buddha, feeling like a failure.  The Buddha told him to return to the river, sit on the bank, and do nothing,  The monk was confused, but did as he was told.  He sat for hours by the wild river, doing nothing.  Finally, he noticed the water beginning to calm and, eventually, clear.  He filled his buckets and returned, thanking the Buddha for teaching him the art of doing nothing.

I'm sitting by a roaring fire, purring cat curled across the top of my chair, sleeping dogs at my feet, with quiet children scattered throughout the house.  Despite the fact that both local and federal authorities have declared a state of emergency as we await a "catastrophic" ice storm to pummel Atlanta, I'm enveloped in a sense of peace and warmth.  Sure, there is laundry to put away, dishes to do, and classes to plan, but I am making a point of spending some time today doing nothing.

Lao Tzu said, "Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing."  Far too often we busy ourselves with lengthy to do lists, only to find that we were on the go all day long, occupying every moment of our time, but we were not able to put a big enough dent in the list and, therefore, don't feel particularly successful.  One day's tasks then roll into the next day… and then the next day's tasks roll forward… on and on.

So determined are we to fill our spare time that we see doing nothing as a waste of time; we seek to always do something… anything.  To do nothing, and to do it on purpose, feels as though we are unproductive.  However, the opposite is true.  The ability to find stillness is affirming and energizing, even if it's just for a few quiet moments at a time.  Ultimately, giving ourselves time to relax, reset, and reconnect makes us more productive.  The fact that I have been meaning to blog for the last week or so but wasn't able to actually the create time and space to sit down and write until today, when I purposefully spent some time doing "nothing", is not lost on me.

The concept of meditation can be intimidating, but the act of meditation doesn't have to be, and it's a natural way to tap into the art of doing nothing.  Of course, those who have a strong meditation practice might take issue with calling it "nothing"… for it is, indeed, something, and a transformative something at that!  However, the point is that even if we aren't meditating in the purist sense of the word, if we set aside just 5-10 minutes per day where we remove all distractions and find stillness of mind and body, focusing on nothing but our breath, we become more in tune with ourselves, better able to manage stress, and, ultimately, we are more productive.

When was the last time you spent a quiet moment doing nothing at all… no effort, no work, no distraction, just you, your breath and the natural beauty within and around you?  Indulge in the art of doing nothing and you will find, just like the young monk by the river, greater clarity and a stronger sense of accomplishment.

The Art of Doing Nothing Playlist