Yoga in the service of life and death

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ellen Fein is dying while very much being alive, and her voice is so important to share.  She is a devoted student of Yoga, and has used some of her time on this Earth to support others as they walk towards death.  I wanted to use this space to testify to the impact she had on my life and my teaching.

In 2009, a friend of mine asked me to support her with Yoga.  For a Yoga teacher, it is pretty normal for friends and family to ask for support, but this time, the request felt heavy.  My friend was living with stage 4 breast cancer, and she was asking for support to manage the pain and stress of living with the treatments to slow a progressive disease.  I felt that I needed help in order to work with her complex situation.

I knew of Ellen because she studied with one of my teachers, Gary Kraftsow, and the community of the American Viniyoga Institute held her in high regard.  She did a lot of work with end of life care and support of cancer patients.  So, I asked for a consultation.

On the phone, Ellen was very kind and listened carefully to the story of my friend and what she was asking.  After I had told her everything, she took a moment and gently said, “Well, your friend is dying.”  And, for a moment, time stopped.  That was the first time anyone spoke this truth.  Up until this point, the only word spoken were of wishful thinking and denial (which many needed for their own sanity).

Ellen did something really important after that, she told me that I was completely qualified and skilled to treat the body with Yoga Asana so she wouldn’t even consult me on that aspect.  However, she gave me insight to what my friend may be experiencing.  The greatest gift that I could offer, she told me, was to hold a space where it was safe to talk about death or the realities of the ‘details of death’ (organizing one’s stuff to help the family left behind).  She helped me realize that my friend had no one with whom she could speak about dying because her beautifully supportive circle were also terrified.

Ellen’s guidance took me back to something my teacher Gary once said about the motivation we have to practice Yoga – “Best case scenario, everyone you know and love will die, and then you will die…. and we are scared.”

Ellen helped me be in a space outside of my own fears in service of my friend.  Until her consultation, I had let my own fears keep me in denial and I could not serve her as a Yoga guide in that mind set.  So, I let death be our unspoken companion in Yoga sessions.  My friend never spoke of death but she she spoke of loneliness.  I started to see that the idea of dying created this sensation in her.  It was vital that she never feel alone, so I created a partner-meditation technique that we would do together because for her to sit alone was for her to sit with death, and she was not ready…. her readiness was my guide.

Ellen helped me realize that approaching Yoga as a teacher meant being in complete service to the moment with the student – it is so simple but requires one to remove their opinion from the equation.  We carry the tools of the tradition in service of life and death.

My friend completed her journey towards death a few years after she first asked me to support her.  She spent the last year of her life living very far from me, and I last spoke with her from a hospital bed about desire to meet my second child who was recently born, and we both held that vision knowing that it would never come to pass.  But, in that moment, my role was to be with her in the beautiful moment of happy meetings that will never come.

After losing my friend, death and I had some conversations.  The fear of death haunted me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before that time.  My friend’s death and knowing that she left behind a young child and husband triggered my greatest fears, and I had to do some deep work for myself to come to a peaceful space about it.  Since that time, and because of Ellen’s guidance, a fearlessness has arisen.  When hearing of a frightening diagnosis, accident, etc, my mind does not jump to fear as easily as it once did.  It goes more to a place of curiosity about what we can do to walk towards death with more peace.

To put it simply, Ellen helped me to consider dying while very much alive.  Please check out her online resources for some beautiful guidance.

Restlessness and Revelation

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Navtej Johar, an amazing dancer, poet, Yoga teacher, once reflected on the inherent conflict between experience and expression – a conflict that is worthy of contemplation during times of global crises like 2020 and 2021.

What you experience is completely personal.  It is a sensory/mind interaction that only you ‘witness.’  However, once you attempt to express what this experience was, the completely personal must come into contact with the history of language, which is inherently external – defined by and given to us by others.

A restlessness arises when there is a disconnect between our experience and how that experience is expressed.  Spending time in this gap between experience and expression drives one to action.  It requires us to reinvent vocabulary or find other ways to embody this restlessness. (paraphrased from my notes on Navtej’s 2020 workshop Taming the Sensory Body).

However, we feel anchored to the words that are externally identified with our experience because they are how we have always connected our inner experiences with the external world – for example, “when I meditate, I experience God.”  Words like ‘meditate’, ‘God’ have been defined for us, but what is it that we are trying to express with this two words? All words are bound to history, culture, etc.  These words are worth examining because by turning to them, our expression of an experience has the capacity to alter the memory of the experience itself.

As we move through challenging times, like the Corona virus pandemic and the significant ramifications of it, one may be aware of this kind of ‘restlessness’….. have you noticed it in your life in the past months? (this being written in February 2021).  Are you finding that certain expressions just to not capture this experience?  I have found that simple questions like “How are you doing?” have become loaded with so much subtext that it feels almost impossible to answer in casual conversation.

Moving towards the Unknown?

I sometimes reflect on the mythologies of spiritual traditions in times of perceived restlessness – Not in search of answers but in search of examples of how others have moved towards the powerful, sacred space of deep not-knowing.

I am reminded of a story of Francis of Assisi, a small Italian town full of spiritual practitioners.  It was the origin of the Franciscan revolution over 800 years ago.  It is a place I return to frequently with my teacher and collaborator Mirka Kraftsow for retreat and reflection.  One of the rolls I serve on our retreats is as storyteller, bringing the myths of Francis alive as we embed ourselves in the historical locations.  I have studied and sat with the details of the life of Francis of Assisi for several years.

As a young man who was the son of a wealthy merchant, Francis intended to serve as a knight in the crusades because that was what ‘success’ looked like for his gender and station at the time.  He failed, miserably at this goal. Captured, tortured, and ill, he returned home, , and he was deeply restless.

In this state of mind, he went to a small chapel called San Damiano outside of the city walls.  The little chapel was in disrepair but quiet and isolated.  In this state of restlessness, he had an experience.  The expression of that experience became a prayer in that tradition that marks the starting point of spiritual awakening:

Most High glorious God,
Cast Your Light into the Darkness of my Heart.
Give me, Lord,
Right Faith,
Firm Hope,
Perfect Charity,
and Profound Humility
With Wisdom and Perception
So that I may carry out
What is truly Your Holy Will.

One version of the mythology of St. Francis was that, in response to this prayer, the crucifix above the alter ‘spoke’ to him and said, “rebuild my church”. (there are other interpretations of this time in his life).

Whatever experience he had, this prayer may have been the beginning of his search for the expression of it. And what followed from this time was the story of his Dharma, of his life’s work.  Sitting with this restlessness drove the action of his life.  He asked for guidance – “cast Your Light into the Darkness of my Heart” – but he did not receive a definitive answer, rather a call to action.  What he misunderstood to be guidance to rebuild a small, decrepit chapel, was a fire lit to shape the Church (the organization as opposed to a structure) into something more accurately expressing his experience of the teachings of Christ.

The rest of the life of Francis was a constant conflict of struggling to express the experience of his own experience of deep faith that ultimately started a revolution of the Church that became more similar to the way that Francis experienced faith himself.

Only Don’t-Know

Francis of Assisi is far from the only person to find refuge in the conflict of not knowing what is deeply experienced – the deep wordlessness of experience.  It is the Heart of Zen teachings and touched upon in all spiritual traditions.  In fact, those who become sources of spiritual inspiration often do so because they actively seek refuge in this restless space of unknowability.

As we move through powerful times like the current pandemic, the deep connection with profound uncertainty puts us all in the realm of the saints.  This ‘don’t-know’ space is a sacred one, it is a natural state in the undefined reality in which we live.  Can we find Peace in that?  Can we find Refuge in that?

I find that Rainer Maria Rilke expressed the joy of this state beautifully (my English translation/interpretation from original German):

Be patient with all that lies unsettled in your own heart and
try to love the Questions themselves,
Like a mysterious mountain cabin, locked up tight, and
like books written in an unknownable language.

For the moment, do not seek the answers,
which you cannot be given because
you would not be able to live them.

Remember, the point is, to live EVERYTHING.

Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will, gradually,
without even noticing it,
live along some distant day
into the answer.

“We are One” ≠ “I am Special”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The foundational teaching of many spiritual/religious traditions begin with some version of “We are One.”  This leads believers to the notion that compassion arises out of a deep awareness of our fundamental connection with other beings.  However, a problematic misinterpretation of this concept can lead some to the delusion that the awareness that “we are One” means “I am special”.

“I am special” thinking comes from the misapplication of the big teachings of faith to our everyday struggles.  When we feel connected to that idea of ‘Oneness’, it can make the ups and downs of life a bit easier to manage.  And some of us begin to see signs of this Oneness all around us (what can be classified as ‘magical thinking’), giving us more comfort.  This kind of thinking, though offering us comfort, can also lead to big problems when we start to consider things like public health policy in a Global Pandemic.

The “Oneness” concept actually aligns well with the physical sciences.  We are, literally, made from the same material as the rest of the stuff in the Universe – we are star dust.  Our biological forms can be analyzed using statistics – statistics is the mathematics of systems, not individuals.  Statistics can predict animal behavior (including humans).  It can predict trends in viral transmissions in the same way it can be used to predict weather patterns.  The efficacy of mathematical modeling of humanity indicates that “We are One” is not a bad model for our species.  Systems based analysis can show us where the system is broken, even if individuals in the system do not perceive it to be.

The trend in many modern spiritual/religious traditions has shifted this systems thinking to individualist thinking.  “I am special” thinking can be very helpful, in the short term, for those who are feeling lost or overwhelmed, but it should be seen only as a tool and never as a goal of spiritual practice.  When we begin to believe “I am special because I know that we are one (or I know God’s mind, etc)“, we create a fundamental contradiction in how we perceive the world.

We can see the potential harm from such thinking in the strong resistance to public health polices being proposed across the world in 2020.  Scientists who analyze the viral behavior (which is intimately connected to human behavior), they see trends and make predictions about what can shift these trends based on a systems analysis.  However, our individual experiences while living with an invisible threat, may be in direct contradiction to the analysis of the systems expert.  If the world in my immediate vicinity seems fine, then why are these ‘experts’ telling me otherwise?  If I have never known someone, personally, who has been gravely ill or died from this invisible threat, why should I believe it will impact me…. After all, I am special.

The problem is, all evidence indicates that we are, in fact, One system – whether or not we perceive it.  So, as a highly contagious virus spreads around the world, it will continue to do what it does, and the only weapon we have against it, for the time being, is to change our socialized behavior (it may feel like instinctual behavior, but it is behavior our society has taught us).

Poor leaders create a false dichotomy – “there is nothing we can do so we must give up changing our lives” or “the only think to do is to lock everyone away until we have a cure/vaccine”.  This dichotomy creates tremendous fear and confusion as people need strong support in behaving in a way that support the whole.  In fact, the reason that the spiritual/religious exist in the first place, is because acting as if “we are One” can be in direct contradiction to our socialized behavior.

Good leaders, on the other hand, recognize that they are asking people to go against their natural inclinations.  Good leader prepare people for the challenges that behavioral changes will create (and also give people less opportunities to act in a way that endangers everyone).  They make a plan based on the systems analysis and risk/benefit analysis.  Good leaders walk people through it, again and again.  The tell tale of a good leader, in this scenario, is that the plan will change with time, and these changes will be communicated in many ways.  A good plan involves action and analysis, then more action and more analysis.  This kind of approach continues in as many iterations as needed until the responsibility of controlling infections is out of the hands of the public.

in 2019, on a flight from Rome to Germany, I was seated next to a young priest who happen to be from a small town close to my home town in Germany.  We had a beautiful conversation on faith and the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi.  As we parted, he gave me a flyer for a community event he was organizing, and on the flyer, was a sentence on the importance of how we live our own lives and its relationship to universality.  It translated to something like, “The example of ones life should inspire the community to follow on the path of Oneness.”

Seeing our lives as and example in our community, how ever small, what kind of example are we? 

Can we expand the universal thinking to the individual life choices of those around us, even if it leads to discomfort or even pain (emotional, financial, physical)?

How are we supporting our community in these times as we move forward together?