(In late June, I spent 5 days at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. This is another installment in a series of posts documenting the experience.)
My older friend Carrol shared with me the other day that she feels her purpose in life right now is to be in the moment when someone else needs her help, assistance, or general presence. She doesn’t have grand plans to travel to India or Africa to volunteer; in fact, she finds comfort in being of aid in the smaller moments of need.
For instance, she said, she was sitting next to an elderly woman at the farmers market, who, without warning, leaned on Carrol’s shoulder to prop herself up to standing when trying to rise from a chair. Later, a parent left a small child all alone out in the middle of the bustling market, and Carrol gently ushered the child to the shade, in a chair, where the child wouldn’t be in such an open, vulnerable position. When I first met Carrol several years ago, I was impressed when she came to work one day with a giant black-and-blue welt on her arm; she had gotten slammed by a foul ball during a baseball game but said she was happy to take the hit because sitting next to her had been an older woman on one side and a child on the other, both who could have been much more seriously injured had Carrol not been there.
“I just try to live in the moment,” Carrol said, “And by doing so, I feel that I am there when I am needed.”
Our discussion reminded me of the children’s book The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth, an eloquent, watercolor-illustrated, Zen-inspired story about compassion and living in the moment. Throughout the book, the central character, a young boy named Nikolai, continues to ask the three questions for which he so desperately seeks the right answers:
When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?
That morning, as I sat in her living room, Carrol was once again following her philosophy and in a way answering those three questions: The best time was now; I—the person she was with—was the most important one; and the right thing for her to do was that which I needed: listen, hold the space, and offer gentle wisdom…not to mention chocolate avocado muffins and then, later in the day, a few beers. 🙂
While I was away at Kripalu, there were times I got way too lost in thought in an effort to answer those three questions. Sometimes, instead of just allowing myself to sit outside and admire the mountains, I instead became a disengaged analyzer and interpreter, shuffling through the thoughts and words and images stored in my brain and trying to make sense of them, not really being aware of the landscape around me but more so using it as some kind of pretty, two-dimensional backdrop for my mental games.
It’s amazing how hard it really is to live in the moment, even at a place like Kripalu, where being present in the core of the experience!
Despite my fumbles, I did open myself to several moments of pure mindfulness and attention, and I have found those times when I dropped all the effort and just let things be are the ones that I remember most about my experience.
* * *
During a wild, trancey Let Your Yoga Dance (LYYD) class with live drumming, I peel off my saturated shirt and dance in my sports bra. So many smiles! Glow! Unfolding! Celebration! Joy! When I partner up with others, I sense something new emerge from me that I don’t remember possessing when I was here last: Uninhibited connection, a longing to share this experience with others, the drive to make this a mutual experience and not just MY dance. I can feel how I’ve grown, I can feel it in my feet, my hips, my face. My face, I let it shine, I don’t hold back. Sullen eyes don’t attract energy; radiate, shine, and the rest of the world will light up with you.
As the class wraps up, I sit with the large group in a circle, my sweaty calves and thighs plastered to the bamboo floor, the soles of my feet peppered with bits of sand and dirt, remnants from the few minutes we took our dance outdoors and paraded around the parking lot, everyone’s dance quickly becoming a “walking on hot coals” routine as the hot asphalt scorched our skin. Megha guides us in a series of cool-down motions, everyone’s arms floating to the center of the room, then away. Flowing in, flowing out. I think to myself, “This feels like a painting,” and when I turn my head to one side, I happen to notice that the executive director of the LYYD program, Irena, is taking a picture of the group.
After class, I make my way over to see to Megha, who recognizes my name and remembers me and a letter I wrote her in 2006. In that moment, she is the most important one, and the right thing to do is give her a big hug and let her know that her energy and the influence she has on other teachers (Nikki! Suzie!) is omnipresent. We embrace, and our sweat mingles.
* * *
I sit in the dining hall during silent breakfast, refraining from pulling out a book or my BlackBerry because all I really want to do is feel the crunch of my nutty flax cereal in my mouth and watch the way my hard-boiled egg wobbles around my plate any time I move my tray. In silence and without distraction, I am able to witness so much. The slight bow of the attendant’s head as she greets people into the cafeteria. The musical clink and clank of silverware brushing against each other. A couple sitting across from each other, outstretched arms, hands holding, a silent welcoming into their shared meal. A young man pausing before he eats, eyes closed, slight smile stretched across his lips, utmost and sincere appreciation for his food. Shawls, do-rags, Lululemon, Target, sweaters, tank tops, freshly showered, damp with perspiration, so many people to witness.
At my table sits a young girl in a tie-dye shirt and messy dreadlocks in her hair. It is obvious she is part of the yoga teacher training program; her manual is open, notecards spread across the table. I get a sense that today is the final practice teach day. She stands up to return her food tray; I pull an old page out of my notebook and place it atop her materials. It is a letter I wrote when I was last at Kripalu in 2008; also at a time when a YTT was taking place. I remember feeling so honored to be at Kripalu in the middle of YTT, feeling the ebullient energy emanating from their program room, throughout the halls. I had penned the letter as a fellow former YTT student, giving them my well-wishes, respect, and understanding of the monumental experience they were currently going through. But…I never did anything with the note in 2008. It sat in my notebook for four years. So that morning, in 2012, that young girl in the tie-dye shirt was the most important one, and the right thing to do was to pass the letter along to her.
When she returns to her belongings, she looks at the letter with a quizzical expression; I nod, permission for her to take the note. She reads it at the table, her face filling with emotion as the writing unfolds. Her hand comes up to her mouth, her eyes. We exchange word-less namastes, a slight bow of the head, hands on heart. With that, she turns to go about her day. We never once use our voices, but the silent exchange is one of the most profound conversations of the day.
* * *
I am outside, sitting at a picnic table, watching the way the breeze makes the canopy above me flutter, a gentle whooshing sound. The trees lean slightly with each whisper of wind. There is so much green, and above that, so much blue. Tea mug in my hand.
At the table next to me, a chipmunk comes across a left-behind plate and bowl. Jackpot! The chipmunk nibbles on a cantaloupe rind. Pauses. Nibble. Looks around. Contemplating. Plunges its little furry head right into the bowl and drinks up whatever is left.
The chipmunk show causes me to linger. Someone else joins me at the table, a woman named Radiah who has just arrived for a 5-day qi gong program. “I’m so happy to be here!” she exclaims, before we even exchange hellos. She asks what I am there for, and I tell her about the Embodied Meditation program I participated in. I explain how we talked so much about gravity, letting go of the notion to always be “up and at ’em” and instead find time to sink down, find your roots, be OK with directing inhalations downward. Radiah is taking notes; this is what she needed to hear, she says, explaining that she is working with an artist on an installation titled “Gravity and Grace,” and until listening to me had never really understood the use of the word “gravity” in the title.
So, thank you, hungry chipmunk, for allowing me to stay in the moment, for Radiah was the most important one, and the right thing to do was to give her a new perspective on a concept she had been struggling with.
* * *
To close this post, I feel compelled to share something I heard on a podcast I was listening to this morning, before I sat down to write. The program was On Being; the title “Pursuing Happiness.” The following was shared by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:
“The Sabbath is when we celebrate the things that are important, but not urgent. And I remember once taking…an atheist…to see a little Jewish primary school…. She’s fascinated by this Sabbath, which she has never experienced. And she asked one five-year-old boy, ‘What do you like most about the Sabbath?’…or…’What don’t you like?’ And the five-year-old boy, being an Orthodox child, says, ‘You can’t watch television. It’s terrible.’ And then she said, ‘What do you like about the Sabbath?’ and he said, ‘It’s the only time daddy doesn’t have to rush away.’ Sometimes we don’t need to pursue happiness. We just need to pause and let it catch up with us.”