Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Agents of Change

Yesterday was the holiday celebrating one of the greatest leaders of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every year on this holiday I watch video of his inspirational “I Have A Dream” speech.  He was an incredible activist for social change, someone who stood for moral virtue, for freedom, equality and for leaving the world a better place than he found it.

As humans I believe we are all seekers and agents of change. We are naturally curious and want to understand how things work. We want things to be better, easier, happier and healthier. We want to know how to play sports, to be better parents, to learn to read and write or to sing. I believe we are hard-wired to grow and hard-wired to survive. We come to this body and this life and we are met with challenge as well as joy. And whether we seek to understand why we are here or how the engine of a car makes it go, we are all filled with some level of seeking, wanting to understand and the capacity for growth that invites change.

The world is transient. Seasons come and go, our bodies age, our hearts swell with love, and then get broken open. And it is these very challenges that often inspire the most transformation; there is no way around the friction of it.

For more than half of my life my mom battled cancer. We loved each other deeply, and as I watched her fight five different bouts of cancer our lives went to many extremes. From the onset, she refused to think that cancer would be her end, and I do believe this was much of the fighting spirit that had doctors in shock at her survival. And, yet, from my perspective, there was an unwillingness on her part to dig into the reality of what was happening. Even after years of fighting, she left no will, no note, no goodbye and no closure for those of us still on earth.

Watching her denial in the face of such extreme conditions was one of the catalysts that motivated change in my life. I experienced the suffering and ultimately chose to honor the gift of grace that my life is. That response wasn’t immediate, but the end result was my commitment to live a mindful and present life. Her tragedy taught me to honor the temple of my body by loving myself, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and surrounding myself with people who support and nurture me. And it was largely because of this childhood that I became an activist.

For years I turned the word activist around and around in my mind, seeking to relate to it in my life. The word, itself, conjures up angry freedom fighters, motoring a tiny raft before giant whaling ships or marching in Tiananmen Square. But that's not me, I thought, I'm no activist, I'm not risking being arrested or endangering my own life to stand for a cause.

But over time I realized I am an agent of change. I do take a stand on my beliefs. I'm not picketing with signs or throwing molotov cocktails, but I’m still an activist. I'm an activist for radical honesty. I'm an activist for unconditional love, both for myself and others. I'm an activist for living a spiritual life, not just talking about it. Every day I get up committed to loving life even in the face of its friction, even in the face of tragedy.

I recently watched the award-winning documentary The Cove, about the senseless and brutal slaughter of dolphins in Japan. The lead character and agent of change in the film is Ric O'Barry. For the  popular 1960’s TV show “Flipper,” which was all about a dolphin who befriends humans, Ric O’Barry was the head dolphin trainer. He worked with five female dolphins who shared the role of Flipper. He spoke emotionally in The Cove about the suicide of the main dolphin, Kathy. Dolphins have to breathe voluntarily and Ric said that Kathy swam into his arms, took a breath and let it be her last. She died in his arms, then sank to the floor of the tank that had been her prison. The very next day Ric was arrested for trying to free dolphins that were in being held in captivity, rebelling against the very source of his own livelihood.

Just like Ric, none of us plan to be activists. But we are going to be riled to anger, we will be filled with love. We are going to have strong emotional responses to experiences. Life is going to ask us to grow, to change and to evolve. What catalysts have sparked change in you? Have you welcomed those moments of intensity and become an activist of change in your own life? What do you stand for on which you are unwilling to bend? It doesn’t have to be angry, it doesn’t even have to be beyond your back yard. Each of us is an activist of some sort. Whether you save water by turning it off to soap up in the shower or you bring a reusable bag to the grocery store, you stand for something with the choices you make every single moment.

I am grateful for people like Ric O’Barry who when asked, “How many times have you been arrested?” respond, “This year?” And I am grateful for you for standing up for what you believe in, for being an activist and an agent of change.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Art of Listening

I’m a talker; I can’t help it. I love life and it excites me. I want to dissect it, understand it, feel it, dance with it, know it and most of all, share it with others. I get so inspired that words just flow. And sometimes they flow, and flow, and flow. I don’t mean to, but it must be the inner tantrika in me coming out. It is our way to savor all that life has to offer and to then bring that experience back to share it with our community. In the sharing we really develop deeper understanding and the whole group can rise up together on the shared knowledge. Talking is great, but so is listening, and the two definitely need to be in relationship with each other.

Tantra is always about relationship, whether global, communal, interpersonal or with our own self. In tantric philosophy, relationship will always be thought of in threes. You, me and the space in between us. In yoga, we talk about this in-between space as the mid-line, as the place where the God and Goddess—Shiva and Shakti—become one. This in-between space is where the two halves connect and wholeness is remembered. Tantra sees the relationship between things as paramount, because at the core, everything is Shiva-Shakti, and the goal is not only to see the Divine beauty in everything but also to bring the two in balance as one.

The sweet pause between the two halves of the whole is a place of stillness and silence. Think about it as the moment between the exhale and the inhale, between night and day or as the eye to eye and heart to heart connection you share with your beloved right before you kiss. These are quiet moments, indeed. And, yet, we frequently fail to pause and listen long enough to make a connection.

If tantra is about relationship, then yoga is always about connection. To put it simply, when we fail to make a connection we are creating suffering or dukha. When we make strong and deep connections then we create ease or sukha. To create strong and deep connections, listening is essential.

For a talker like me, this skill has been one I’ve had to learn and one I continue to practice regularly. About a year ago I began video taping myself teaching yoga classes. The first couple videos I watched, I was shocked at my talkativeness and kept thinking to myself as I viewed them, “Stop talking already!” By editing what doesn’t really need saying, I’ve learned that fewer words have a much more profound impact. I hear myself breathing with my students now and it gives them the time to reflect in their practice and it also helps me be more present with them. But what has most helped me to be a better listener and less of a talker is having people in my life who actually listen to me.

Funny thing is when I finally felt heard by someone who loves me, I stopped having so much to say! I realized that we all have the power to give this gift to each other. When we listen with an open mind and a courageous heart that is free of judgment we are showing the person speaking that we care about them. We value what they think and what they say by hearing them. We are noticing them and stepping into this middle space of listening that not only creates relationship, but also connection.

So what can we do to practice being better listeners? First, stop talking so much. It sounds easy, but if you get excited about life and want to share like I do, it can take a bit of practice. When you do talk, don’t just talk about yourself. Try to meet the person you are conversing with where they are. Ask them questions about themselves or their day that you have an interest in, then give them the space to answer. And, please, make eye contact. Put down your phone, your ipod, your book, your utensil. Turn the TV off, close your computer and be present. Create the space for connection that could improve your relationship and foster ease, instead of suffering.

At first it may feel uncomfortable. There may be silence that you aren’t used to, but be patient and don’t try to fill it. In the silence there is still much being “said.” In the silence we hear what our own heart is whispering to us. In the silence we pause and experience beauty without labeling it or putting it into some kind of box. In the silence we reconnect with the Highest. In the silence we feel love.