Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Cycle of Breaths: Revealed

I have called upon the cycle three times now, to help us sort through our desires for food, sex, and spirit, so that we can discern what it is these desires are trying to teach us about how to move in ways that will synchronize our health and well being. Each time, I have given an example of how to use it, when to use it, but I have not explained how and why it works.

So why does it work? Why should bending my attention to four measly breaths have any effect at all?

We are so practical. So rational. We want concrete proof before we try a new thing. So we surf for the ratings, the reviews, the consumer reports. We don’t want to be had. We don’t want to waste our time. We want to be informed. We want more.

Me too. So here I am, speaking to the rationalist in me.

The cycle of breaths works. Why?

1. A breather. Most basically, it provides us with a time out. The sheer fact of pulling our attention away from what we are doing for a mere 60 seconds can give us the space we need to reconsider our initial impulses, our emotional habits, our ingrained patterns of sensation and response. Such time and space is crucial—not so that we can attain mastery over ourselves or our desires, but so that we can stay in touch with our freedom. We want to be free to sense and respond in the moment and to the moment in ways that coordinate all of who we are and have been with what is going on now. The cycle of breaths gives us a minute to breathe.

2. A paradigm for problem solving. As a breather, the cycle of breaths is far from unique. Anything that times us out could serve the same function. The cycle of breaths is unique, however, in how it occupies that time. It provides us with a paradigm for problem solving—that is, for solving the kinds of problems that arise with the eruption of a tangled, frustrated, or otherwise very intense sensation of desire.

The cycle of breaths does this by leading us through four different perspectives on whatever it is we are feeling. With each shift in perspective, we find a bit more wiggle room. It is like trying to untie a knot, when you turn it one way and pull, then another and then pull again. It is the shifting from one perspective to another that helps us find our freedom in the moment—not freedom from our desires, but freedom to discern what they are telling us.

This paradigm works something like this. (Earth) Find your ground; steady yourself in the moment. (Air) Open up the feeling, and explore its reach and depth. (Fire) Find where that desire connects with what is most real and true for you; clarify its and your fiery core. (Water) Release that truth, let it flow, and listen for impulses to move. Repeat as needed.

3. Elemental reminders. This paradigm, however, is not your average formula for solving problems. It doesn’t direct us to fixate on an object or a thing or even on a part of ourselves. As we cycle through the breaths, it is the fact of paying attention to a force—a creative, elemental force that is making us who we are—that trips open each perspective.

We are always pushing against and being pushed up by the ground. We are always filling and emptying ourselves with air. We are always simmering in our vital core, and we are always flowing with the fluids passing in and through us. We are these elemental movements whether or not we pay attention to their rhythms. They are who we are. But when we do pay attention to them, we inevitably enhance our experience of them; we can deepen our engagement with them, and we can use these forces as resources for helping us create ourselves anew in the moment.

How? This recreation is subtle but strong. Just remembering that we walk on earth can help us let go of extraneous burdens we may be carrying. Just remembering that we are breathing, can give us a felt sense of the movement in our lives. Just attuning to our fiery core can give us a sense of agency and possibility. Just feeling the flow of our own blood and breath and fire and feelings can help us affirm our capacity to create, to become, and to move in ways that will not recreate whatever discomfort we are feeling.

Practicing this cycle, then, is not about imagining what might be true, or pretending that what we want to be true already is so, or conjuring up visions of spirits and entities from a parallel world to grant us our desires. It is rather about tapping into and releasing the ever present, ongoing, creative potential inherent within our moving bodies.

4. A catalyst for sensory awareness. Of course, as I have been saying all along, the cycle of breaths helps us cultivate a sensory awareness of the movement that is making us. Here I add that it does so because of the three qualities listed above.

Yet there is more here too. For when we allow ourselves to feel our connection to the ground, our breathing, our fiery core, our creative flow, we are drawn into a different experience of ourselves, others, and the worlds. Our whole sense of being in the world shifts, and we find that we are no longer operating out of a mind over body perspective.

This effect is the most powerful, for it carries with it the most radical possibilities. It is also the one that can only be confirmed through practice. With this shift in experience, we have what we need to discern wisdom in our desires. We have the sensory awareness to recognize our desires, the space and time and paradigm for honoring them as containing wisdom, the sense of freedom and creativity that enables us to notice the impulses to move they represent. And at that point, it just happens. We are able to feel and receive impulses to move in ways that will not recreate our dissatisfaction.

At that point, it is a mystery. Just as we never really know why or how an idea pops into our mind, so we can never really grasp why or how an impulse to move does either. What we do know, is that when we cultivate this vulnerability something will happen, and that something will emerge from, as an expression of, the sensory awareness we are cultivating. We will move in love.
At its best, religion works in similar ways. It is not a matter of right belief or doctrine. Religion works and we believe when the movements we make as a member provide us with the breather, the paradigms for problem solving, the elemental reminders, and the sensory awareness that empower us to participate consciously in the rhythms of our own bodily becoming, creating a world we love that loves us.

Next week: More on religion. Or, why, in creating ourselves, we create the world.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cycling through Depression

The drag of depression can come upon us at any time. Nagging at our edges, pulling us down. Often we are not expecting it. Clouds roll slowly in over our heads; or form suddenly, at the slightest provocation, and swarm into a massive thunderhead. The storm may build across years, or crash upon us all at once.

When it does, we can’t move. Things we once enjoyed pale; things we have to do weigh heavily. We may feel as if our life is falling apart, or too tightly wrapped in routine. Something is missing; something is wrong. Sometimes we are clear about what that missing thing is; sometimes everything is grey. Sadness soaks in or a lackluster indifference, perhaps laced with resentment. We don’t want to feel this way.

In such moments, the cycle of breaths (see side bar) can be a life-enabling intervention, for it opens up a sensory space in which we are able to discern this pain as an expression of our desire for spirit—we want more. More vitality, more direction, more belonging. And we can also appreciate the wisdom in these feelings guiding us to move differently, in ways that will support us in becoming who we are and unfolding what we have to give. Really?
When depression grips or anxiety wrings, even if we don’t feel like doing anything, even if we can’t do anything, we can breathe. We are breathing, and we can allow our attention to rest on our breathing.

Earth breath (1/29). We can just let go and release the effort of trying to hold ourselves up. We can let ourselves lie down, sink down, touch down, breathing the length of our body into the floor.

As you breathe your cells toward the earth, notice the earth pressing back up at you. The ground is supporting you, holding you, doing all of the work for you. You can learn into it. You will not fall. You don’t have to do anything. You are breathing.

In such moments, the cycle of breaths opens a small safe place for us to affirm that we are. Who we are. Where we are. This is who I am right now. We stop fighting. I can only begin from where I am. I am here. Am here. Here. The earth, pressing back on us, gives us a sense we are lacking of our solidity, our weight, as we give ourselves to it.

Air breath (2/5). We breathe down into the earth, and breathing again, out through our skin into the air. Attending, we follow the breath in and out. Surfaces dissolve. Skin is porous.

As you breathe yourself light, the tight curl of your pain comes into view. Breathe around it, and slowly breathe through it, inviting it to unfold. As your sensation expands, it may grow large indeed, erupting in a cry of exasperation or despair. Breathing out, soften the jagged edges, and sigh with relief as you allow the sensation to be what it is. Your yearning. You want something you don’t have, but what? Possibilities shuffle before you. Food. Touch. Affirmation. Comfort. Security. Purpose. You feel constraints holding you back. You can’t. You won’t. You don’t have time or money. It is inappropriate. It is wrong.

As we breathe our pain open, our sense of it shifts. The movements I am making are making me. Split. Conflicted. At war with my own self. Out of control. Empty. Helpless. There is nothing I can do. We may realize how tired we are. How buried in work. How dazed by the noise and confusion of our lives. How immured in the walls of our dulled senses. We may also feel impulses to respond that flare with frustration at our weakness. We want to clamp down on ourselves or simply give up.

Breathing again, through the heart, down into the earth, up and out into the sky, let that breathe too. Let yourself breathe. I am here. I am doing this. I am breathing.

Fire breath (2/13). The fire breath sinks a deeper charge. We breathe down into the ground, out into the skin-touched light, and then into the cradle of our bellies. We follow the breath deep into our sensory folds and squeeze—pumping awareness through our flesh. We activate an inner sense of movement.

I am breathing and this pain is telling me that there are movements in me waiting to be made—movements crying out in frustration at being boxed in for so long. There are capacities to give—limbs of myself that are languishing for the relationships that will support their fruit. I can move. I am moving.

Water breath (2/19). As you squeeze and release, energy pulses through your self, up through your vital core. Subtle at first. Ripples then waves. It can be terrifying. For as energy flows, your feelings of depression, anxiety, or despair may grow stronger yet again. Clearer. This is what the movements I am making are killing in me.

So too, along with the terror comes an even stronger sensory awareness. The movements I am making as I breathe are making me into someone who wants to move differently, who can move differently. I am giving birth to myself as someone who is more than this pain. Who can find in this pain an impulse to move.
When we practice the cycle of breaths, the shift in our experience of our pain happens instantly. Always. But sometimes, when the hurt is thick and layered, it can take time for the cycle of breaths to sink through and open up the possibilities for movement that lie within. We learn from our pain and pleasure how to give birth to ourselves as the people we are and want to be. It is the work of a moment, the work of a lifetime. This play is serious.

Next week: How and why the cycle of breaths (and religion) works.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why Religion?

Understanding is overrated.

A Jungian therapist said it to me once. She was referring to my desire to understand my pain. At first I was horrified. I mean, I was a scholar of religion, keen on perfecting my ability to understand everything about everything and everyone, including myself. The comment struck deep, and my edifice of ideas trembled.

So what is the value of understanding? Particularly when it comes to matters of the heart and spirit?
The question brings us to the ghost haunting our discussions of desire for spirit up until now: religion. In western culture, we tend to think of “religion” as referring to a system of beliefs and practices shared by a self-identified community of people. (Thank you, Emile Durkheim, and others.) When we want to know about a person’s religion, we ask, “What do you believe?” The implication is that religion is about people’s beliefs—what they think is true and good and beautiful. The implication is that being a part of a religion is a matter of understanding. It is a matter of deciding to believe that what its authorities and documents and history teach is indeed an accurate representation of what is. Choose it or lose it.

Here lies the trouble. An accurate representation. When religions make claims about what is absolute, infinite, transcendent or just plain true, they are making claims that cannot be proved by standards of scientific reason. Yet, we still operate with a sense that we can and should make rational decisions about participating in our religions based on whether or not they are true. If they are true, we believe, they will work to make us happy. They will satisfy our desire for spirit. We will know who, how, why, and for what we are. We will understand why we suffer.

This situation presents our rational minds with a conundrum. How are we to make a rational choice concerning which picture of what lies beyond reason is the best and truest?
The situation can be unnerving. Not only is so much—if not everything—at stake, but there are so many competing possibilities, all marketing to us their visions of how happy and saved and right we will be if we believe what they do. The sheer bounty of options can provoke despair. It seems easiest simply to stick with what is familiar, dabble in many, or reject all equally. Thus we avoid the problem of having to choose what, in the end, cannot be chosen.

Or can’t it? Perhaps, when it comes to religion, understanding is overrated. Perhaps the reason why religion endures in our hearts and minds and cultures (if we can call religion an “it”) is not that it provides us with explanations for our suffering or for the origins of creation. Perhaps what we choose when we choose religion is not an understanding of the world, but something else.

Perhaps the value of religion—its purpose and efficacy—lies in the way it helps us discover and exercise our human bodily capacity for making and becoming who we are; for bringing into being the world in which we want to live—a world we love that loves us.
Think about the religions you know. Yes, there are beliefs—one god, no god, many gods. Life is now; life will be then. Life as we know it is to be embraced, or then again rejected. There are also practices—physical actions people make with their bodies in prayer and worship, in song, and sometimes dance. There are also communities—groups of people who gather together to share in the same beliefs and perform the same actions.

However, “religion” is not any one of these things. Nor is it a simple sum of the parts. Something more is at stake here and must be to explain its stubborn persistence in human lives, especially given a world that forces it to defend itself constantly.

Religion is about making movement. Religion describes patterns of sensation and response—a complex weave of physical, emotional, intellectual movements that spur us to discover our capacity to make these movements. When we sing out or bow deeply, when we mediate for hours or twist our bodies into novel shapes, we are discovering our capacity to do so. We are feeling the pleasure—or pain—of making movements that make us able to think and feel and act as we do.

And when the movements we find ourselves making are ones that release us into a sense of greater power—when they help us to a sense of ourselves as capable of making them—then that religion works. It succeeds. We believe in it, because we know that we are different because of it. The proof lies in ourselves. In who we are becoming as we make the movements it encourages. We like the world that opens in and around us as we feel like this, sing like this, act like this--and yes, think like this.

In this view, religion is not about a picture, practice, or community, as much as it is a training ground for helping us learn to discern, trust, and move with the wisdom in our desire for spirit.
Religion is a vital and inevitable part of human living. For what we do in religion exercises the creative reach of our bodily becoming as no other dimension of our society. It engages our full sensory range in the act of naming and making real our most remote and intimate horizons. To expect from religion that it provide us with answers is to limit our sense of our own bodily becoming to a matter of understanding. We are much more.

In religion we dream our dreams. We envision the world as it is, would be, could be, and should be. And as we do, we make it so. We participate in creation. And it is when we participate actively, in ways that unfold our potential to do so, that we feel the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that lets us know that life is worth living. Worth loving.
I remember a moment when Jordan was four years old. I was having a difficult moment and just blurted out, “You know, sometimes life is hard. And when it is, you just have to love it. You just have to love life.”

Jordan paused for a moment and replied, ”Yes, you gotta love life, for if you don’t love life, it won’t love you back.”

Next Week: Using the cycle of breaths to discern wisdom in our desire for spirit

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Ends of Life

The Urge to End it All” is the title of an article in New York Times Magazine on suicide this past weekend. The article focuses on the difference between passion and premeditation, arguing that the people who choose the most fatal means—such as jumping or guns—tend to be the most impulsive. They are the least likely to have exhibited signs of mental illness. Rather, they tend to be overwhelmed by some acute blast of inner pain and unable to imagine a way out. If a ready method for ending the pain presents itself in the moment, they choose it. However, if the means is not easily secured, or made less accessible, they are not likely to find another means. They will, instead, find a way through.

One psychiatrist reported, after interviewing nine people who survived leaps from the Golden Gate Bridge: “What was immediately apparent… was that none of them had truly wanted to die. They had wanted their inner pain to stop; they wanted some measure of relief; and this was the only answer they could find. They were in spiritual agony, and they sought a physical solution.”
The article reveals a crucial insight about our desire for spirit: learning to discern its wisdom, just as with our desires nourishment and physical intimacy, involves learning how to sense and respond to our own pain. For these feelings of life-threatening pain are our desires—in this case, expressions of our desires for life, for more life, for the life we want to live. It is because we want so much that we both hurt so much and want the pain to stop so much.

It is a paradox. Because we want more from life, we consider ending it. Without the desire for more, we wouldn’t care. Without the feeling of impossibility, we wouldn’t be willing to end it. Our pain is double—both desire and its impossibility—and in this double nature lies the secret to its wisdom.
In learning to discern that wisdom, as in the case of the other desires, it is helpful to first debunk some myths. The first is that our desire for spirit will be satisfied by some thing—whether it be a promotion or an award, a piece of property or gadget, a second home, enough money, a passionate relationship, or a lean physique. We tend to believe that we will be happy if something happens and happy when something happens, hinging our happiness on that happening.

Happy if. Happy when.

But study after psychological study has shown that once we get what we think we want, our desire simply shifts to something else, and we find ourselves wanting again.

Our tendency then, if we tire of shifting objects, is to blame desire for being so fickle and transient, so restless and unsettling.

Desire is not the problem. The problem is that we make desire the problem.
A second myth to debunk is that all we need to do is find the right answer, the right belief system, the right explanation for our suffering, and then we will be able to live happily. We turn to religious teachings and self-help gurus, to spiritual practices and paths in search of that worldview, the overarching picture of what is, that will enable us to make sense of the pain that dogs us. If we can secure such a meaning, whether political, religious, or scientific, we imagine, then we will be happy.

But there is no indication that true believers, the religious or spiritually inclined, the politically engaged or socially active, are any less prone to mental illness, depression, or suicide than those who are not.

Our desire for spirit wants more. But what?
Before me on the floor is a vast array of blocks and figures—big mega blocks, small mega blocks, wooden blocks, organized in squares, and buildings, populated by tiny animal figures, carefully lined, arranged, settled in their enclosures. Jessica and Kyra have set up a horse farm, in line with their dream of having 150 horses each, mostly thoroughbreds, and being jockeys. Or veterinarians. Jordan has a dairy farm featuring cows of all shapes and sizes.

We live on a farm. My kids play farm. When I had first noticed this, I had chuckled, especially when I had to interrupt their play at farm to get them to do farm. Time to feed the chickens! But I had quickly learned. This play is serious.

For my kids are not merely playing. They are acting out their visions for the future, but not any future. They are creating the world in which they want to live—a world that will provide them with everything they need to unfold their interests, use their skills, and become what and who they want to be. They are creating a world in which they are the ones with the power to name the animals and barns, their values and goals.

I look at the spread before me. Jordan, Jessica, and Kyra, crouched together in the middle, are surrounded with manure bunkers and watering troughs. They are setting up chore schedules and gathering appropriate tools, plowing fields and planting crops. Certainly, they are not “really” doing these things—they are pretending—but don’t tell them so. They feel as if they really are doing these tasks, and in some sense, they are right. For they are practicing the bodily patterns of thinking and feeling, planning and problem solving—the patterns of sensation and response—that they will need in order to be farmers. Their movements are making them into people for whom this desire for a farm is real and possible; they are testing and refining that desire at every turn. They do not want to be interrupted. For anything.
The play of these children offers a clue to what we desire from our lives. They are children, yes, entertaining themselves in an imaginary world. They are also human beings, naming and bringing into being for themselves a world in which they can thrive. Their pleasure is palpable.

Just as our desire for food is a desire for an experience of being nourished; just as our desire for sex is a desire for an experience of giving and receiving a life-enabling touch; so it is time to consider that our desire for spirit is a desire to participate in the acts of naming and making real a world we love that loves us. It is the pleasure of participating in our own process of bodily becoming, creating and becoming the patterns of sensation and respond that will guide us in unfolding what we have to give.

This play is serious.

Next week: How our physio-spiritual pain teaches us to find the play in the moment.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Desire for Spirit

Desire for spirit? Is there such a thing? It is easy to conceive of a desire for food or a desire for sex. Food and sex are so concrete. A substance. An act. “Spirit” is so nebulous. And even then, what would it mean to “desire” it?

Answers arrive when we glance around our culture, and notice patterns of dis-ease surrounding our mental or spiritual health that are remarkably similar to the patterns of dis-ease surrounding our relationships to food and physical intimacy. In all cases, large numbers of people are falling short of ideals that we as a culture seem to share, whether that ideal is physical fitness, life long passionate love, or, in this case, a sense of life as worth living. We are bored, depressed, overwhelmed, and wanting something more.

By all measures, the mental or spiritual health of people living in contemporary society is a concern. As a recent study by a professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School estimates, nearly half of all Americans will suffer a period of mental illness during the course of their lives. Depression, the leading cause of suicide, is at the top of the “Eight Most Common” list, and the ranks of those diagnosed with the disease are growing. Besides depression, the list includes social phobias, attention deficit disorders, and other disorders having to do with conduct, anxiety, oppositional-defiance, and intermittent explosive acts. (Notably, the list excludes substance abuse disorders; and major psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia and psychosis do not even rank.)

Many of these diseases are new—or at least, the names are new. There is disagreement over whether it is only our recognition of them as problems that is new. Even so, there is something troubling here: most citizens of the modern world, it seems, at some time in their lives, have a hard time fitting into the shapes of living that are expected of them.

And we are concerned. We are as riled about mental disorders as we are by expanding waistlines and declining rates of marriage. We want to be happy—we think that we should be happy—living well-adjusted and successful lives. Yet a feeling of lack persists. We lack the vitality or energy that keeps us going; we lack the sense of direction that gives us purpose and meaning; we lack a context within which our actions feel worthwhile.

What do we do?

Here again, the comparison with our desires for food and physical intimacy help to illuminate this desire for spirit. For most of our cultural responses fall far short of the mark as in the case of those desires as well. We have seen how we tend to respond to our sense of dissatisfaction with food and relationship by exercising mind-over-body strategies that perpetuate the problem. The same dynamic holds with our desire for spirit.

Just as we tend to misread “food” and “sex” as material, and feel justified in overriding our hunger and disappointment as we pursue pleasure; so we tend to think of “spirit” as a non-material, and again feel justified in prescribing for our bodies the ideals and practices—the movements they must make—to get the affirmation we seek.

We are likely to respond to our feelings of malaise by advocating more self control (and turning to the vast array of self-help literature), or by relying on medical or religious authorities to provide us with the drugs and therapies—the one true belief, the sure practice, the guaranteed set of operating principles—that will fill our sense of lack.

We may even convince ourselves that we will satisfy our desire for spirit by mastering our desires for food and sex.

From the perspective of bodily becoming however, we saw that mind over body approaches fail to provide us with what it is we really desire, for they overwhelm or numb or otherwise distract us from our sensations of dissatisfaction rather than guiding us to discern their wisdom. As it turns out, our desires for food and intimacy are not as concrete as they seem. It is not the substance or the act that guarantees pleasure.

So too with spirit. We so readily assume that our mental or spiritual health is distinct from our physical health; we are so willing to believe that what we lack in our lives dwells outside of our bodies. We take it for granted that the vitality, direction, and connection we desire will come to us from a higher power living over and against our sensory selves—whether that higher power is a spiritual entity or our own rational mind choosing to follow a prescription for psychotropic drugs. They don't.

Trained as we are to a mind-over-body sense of ourselves, we imagine that we will feel happy when we make the right choices in our lives about which paths and principles to follow, which traditions to uphold. When we can’t seem to choose the right way, we despair.

As I ponder these developments, a sense of danger lurks, familiar from discussions of our desires for food and sex. It is not so easy. If we, as individuals, pursue our desire for spirit by paving over our bodily sensations (including our desires for food and sex), we will lose any wisdom that our patterns of dissatisfaction are offering us. As one researcher warns: it is like treating kids for dysentery without cleaning up the dirty water they are drinking. The “cure” obscures the cause.

As the comparison with food and sex also suggests, our sensations of depression and anxiety—these bodily sensations of wanting more, of not having what we need to thrive—may be precisely what we need to guide us in making decisions about how to live our lives in ways that will satisfy our desire for spirit.

We want more. We want to unfold more, grow more, feel more, give more, be more. And that more has little to do with possessions or money or fame; or even with food and intimacy. Rather that more has to do with a sense that we are getting what we need to unfold who we are, and to give what we have to give.

From this perspective, any sense of dissatisfaction we have is guiding us to create the relationships that will provide us with what we need to unfold what we have to give.

Next week: How so?