One chilly February day in 1997, I was rushing to a meeting with the founder of the soon-to-be-opened Cancer Wellness House. About three blocks from my appointment, I was happy to be greeted by a green light at a major intersection. As I entered the intersection, BAM! Suddenly, my car was turned sideways in the middle of the intersection and I was completely dazed and confused. A witness told police that another car T-boned mine while running the red light.
Although I was wearing my seat belt, my head hit the driver’s side window. I needed seven stitches. But that wasn’t the most life-altering injury. I also had a concussion. In a single moment my life changed, probably forever in some ways.
For the first three weeks, I couldn’t read. I could read individual words, but my brain couldn’t connect them into sentences. Forward bends and inversions caused my head to pound wildly. Since I was working as an editor and yoga teacher, my life was way up in the air. Over time, the ability to read returned and I was able to resume forward bending, but I still can’t tilt my head back very far without experiencing instant nausea. The experience taught me how quickly everything I took for granted can be obliterated.
Anything Can Happen Anytime
I spent most of July in a silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in beautiful Marin County. Half the retreat was focused on metta (lovingkindness) practice, and during the other half, we practiced mindfulness. I returned barely a week ago. As always the retreat was challenging in some ways but always inspiring and worthwhile in every respect.
One of my challenges was that I had to deal with a cat crisis at home during the retreat. A few days before I left, Lucy, one of the feral cats I trapped, spayed and returned to my yard 13 years ago sustained serious fractures of her tibia and fibula. I already felt uneasy leaving a feral cat in the house with my other three cats for 18 days without me there to referee. Then five days into the retreat I received a message to call my cat sitter immediately. My little feral friend appeared to be trying to die.
The teachers on the retreat gave me good advice on dealing with the crisis:
- • Use this opportunity to integrate the practice into this life challenge.
- • Don’t overthink it. Once you’ve done the thinking that needs to be done to remedy the situation, move on. There’s no need to mull over the same thoughts again and again.
- • This is a great time to focus on practicing equanimity, one of the practices associated with metta.
- • Remember this mantra: Anything can happen anytime.
The mantra comes from Joseph Goldstein. Having heard hundreds of hours of his dharma talks over the years, I’d heard it before, but this time it resonated at a deeper level. In the midst of a crisis that was changing all the time, it was somehow comforting to remember this, and it pointed to the importance of being present.
When the Buddha was asked to sum up the meaning of his teachings in just a few words he said, “Everything changes.” It’s pretty hard to argue with this. Not one of us is living in the body we were in 10 years ago, or even 10 days ago. Most of us see our preferences—the things we find important and the things we eschew—change countless times over our lifetimes. Experiences that were completely compelling, anguishing or joyous, even just last week, are mostly gone. We’re on to something else now.
In mindfulness practice, we observe the continuous flow of change, moment to moment, not just as a concept, but as an ongoing reality. Not only does the past continue to recede, even the present moment drops away as soon as we are aware of it.
My partner, Phillip, who also attended the retreat, walked in the hills as part of his practice. Each day he passed by a bench inscribed with a quote by poet laureate Mark Strand: Each moment is a place you’ve never been. I tell this to my students all the time. No matter how many times you’ve practiced Dog Pose or Triangle, each time you do it the pose is brand new. Each time, your body and mind are just a little, or maybe a lot, different from previous times. Each breath is new. Each sensation is new. You only get to observe this though if you set aside the mind that thinks it knows what Dog Pose and Triangle are in favor of the curious, beginner’s mind. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Shunryu Suzuki: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.
You don’t have to experience something as dramatic as a traumatic brain injury or a family crisis to understand this. Yoga practice is the perfect opportunity. Next time you practice Dog Pose, take a moment, before rushing into the selfie-worthy version of Dog Pose to settle into your body. While on your hands and knees, feel what’s actually happening in your body’s points of contact. What is the feeling of pressure through the hands and feet? Then: What is the energy of the intention to push back into Dog Pose? What do your hands and feet have to do in order to start the process? What is the feeling of the body rising off the floor? No asana is meant to be static. Stay in the process of expanding into Dog Pose. What is the body’s process of finding alignment continuity? How does the breath move your body? What is the moment-to-moment relationship between breath and the physical body? What is the energy of the intention to release Dog Pose? What sensations attend the process of moving back to hands and knees? How has your body/mind changed since you last settled onto your hands and knees?
I like to think an asana begins with our intention to practice it and continues to unfold even after we release it. There’s no moment of any asana that’s any more or less important than any other. Try practicing from this perspective. How does it change your practice?
You cannot, no matter how hard you try, repeat the Dog Pose you did yesterday. Enjoy each moment of your yoga practice, and your life practice. Anything can happen anytime. You don’t want to miss it.
BTW, my feral friend, Lucy, is hanging in there. She has a few health issues, but she gets around quite well on her splinted leg, and the life-threatening issues she suffered while I was on retreat are in check for now. Everything changes.