Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Rich Life

These days my heart is heavy. It seems as though everything I thought I could count on is fading away. The economy has placed a terrible burden on everyone I know, and has hit publishing especially hard, resulting in the brief [hopefully] suspension of my beloved, little magazine. It’s kept me on the verge of tears for quite a number of weeks – it has been such a big part of how I define myself – and I felt as though it was a little bit like a child. But they say when one door closes another opens, and that doorway has gratefully led to more teaching, including the opportunity to instruct the stress management portion of the Ornish Program for the reversal of heart disease at Stamford Hospital.

Lucky for me that through all of my angst I have been able to pour out my worries and fears to my friend and teacher Sudharma, an 80-year-old Buddhist nun who had recently been living in London. Somehow Sudharma always knew exactly how to snap me out of my pity parties and would often admonish me by saying things like: “Why you worry you no more fancy famous editor? You do mush better work for people who suffer with heart.” When I shared my money concerns she reminded me about what was really important: “Having big house or new car or fancy things not make you rich. What in your heart make you rich. Love make you rich.”

Then last Friday I received the unbelievable news that my dear friend had passed away. She had a heart attack, and then during open-heart surgery, a stroke. She was gone. I can’t find the words to describe how I feel; devastated is a feeble understatement. We had been making so many plans for her visit this summer. She even wanted my daughter to take her surfing. The sadness is incredible.

Sudharma left behind no worldly riches – only her robes and her mala beads – but the richness of her life is evident. She was devoted to helping all those less fortunate, and worked tirelessly in homeless shelters. She spent years raising money for orphanages all around the world. In the last year of her life, she worked endless hours to start a home for girls who had suffered terribly in the sex trafficking trade in her homeland of Burma [Myanmar]. Sudharma had to battle all kinds of obstacles but the determination of her compassionate heart persevered and the home was finally opened. When the news of her passing spread through the Buddhist community, hundreds of nuns and monks sat in an all-night meditation vigil to honor the woman who had been their teacher and their friend.

Susharma lived a life of love and compassion. She loved to laugh and drink jasmne tea. She loved Buddha, her friends and the beach, and the fragrance and beauty of flowers shimmering in the early morning sun. She was the richest woman I ever knew.

I have nearly three hundred emails from my dear friend and someday, when the tears have stopped I will print each of them and keep them with me always. She sent me many Buddhist prayers and offered me such loving guidance. I know her words and her heart will continue to light my path, and when I’m getting a little too caught up in ‘Rita’s World’ I’ll try to remember that being a fancy, famous editor isn’t what defines me . It ‘s the love I hold in my heart.

I love you very much Sudharma. May your heart be at ease. May your heart be at peace.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Take Your Seats

Through a series of events too complicated to explain, I have recently acquired an e-pal. There’s nothing really extraordinary about trading daily e-mails, except that my new friend is a Buddhist nun I’ve never met.

In the beginning, our correspondence centered around my asking a lot of dharma questions, and her reminding me to meditate. Eventually, as our relationship has grown, our communication has become quite detailed and revealing, and I’ve come to appreciate her as a wise and wonderful teacher. I’ve always struggled a bit with Buddhist philosophy but, miraculously, my new friend has somehow gotten through to me. And as I muddle through life’s ups and downs and repeat the prayers she sends me, I try to smile as much as I can and let go of the things I can’t control. When I get stuck (which happens a lot), all I have to do is head for my keyboard.

Lately, though, things have taken a bit of a surprising turn, as my friend has started asking me for advice. Imagine that? You might ask yourself, as I have, what possible answers a middle-aged American woman could offer a 80-year-old Burmese Buddhist nun who has lived in a monastery since she was 10 or 12? But as it turns out, it seems I can offer very good counsel about social situations, woman stuff, and especially yoga: “Yoga good for joint I think. Much relax to take nap.”

It gives me a great sense of self-worth to be able to give someone I look up to and respect so much as a teacher any kind of valuable advice. And it makes me think about how all of us serve as teachers for each other. Each of us has a different life experience to draw from and a unique perspective to express, and sharing these experiences is what helps us to grow and to love without all the judgments. Even someone who is doing or saying terrible things is a teacher, as he or she can serve as a perfect example of what you don’t want to do or be. And though I may not agree with everything you say or believe, listening to you with an open mind and heart can only help me become a more compassionate person. Plus, there’s a very good chance I’ll learn something—about myself, or the world—in the process.

We’re all in this together, and all of us existing in the world at this particular time have some kind of karma to play out. So why not teach each other the very best we have to offer? Whether it’s pumping gas, explaining dharma, or simply offering love with no strings attached, it’s time for each of us to claim our special seat as teacher and to heed the words of my Buddhist teacher and friend: “Much remember to give lotus heart sun light for to grow. Much to open door to room in heart for air and light.” Namaste to that.

Keep the faith,

Be the Change

As I write this letter, the presidential election has not yet been decided. The world is in an obvious state of flux, and I have found myself becoming more passionately political than ever. As with any passion, it can be hard to keep it in check, and I have noticed myself slipping a few remarks into my teaching—nothing too incendiary—just a funny reference here or there, but enough to make my choice clear. I didn’t think much about it at first, not until I began to notice how upset I would get when someone made a casual remark or reference about my candidate.

Then, I read something in a yoga book, where the teacher was explaining about changing people’s minds and the flow of energy. The point was simple: You will never change people’s minds by forcing your opinions or getting angry with them. You may make some headway with logic, but even that tact is likely to fail. The only effective way to cause change is to simply be the change. Living authentically in all your actions can, and does, eventually cause an energetic shift that may provoke change.

Another well-taken yogic point is that if you continually focus on negative aspects or poke fun or make disparaging remarks about a person or event, you are feeding into that person or event. You are giving that person importance by the simple fact that you are bringing attention their way. So, in the end, you will have contributed to their cause.

All of this made me rethink my actions, and I recalled that while many people laughed and shook their heads in agreement with my remarks, not everyone was smiling. There were obviously other opinions in the room, and I had probably made them angry and possibly even ruined their practice. Not a very thoughtful way for a yoga teacher to act.

From that point on, in the classroom, as well as out, I have stepped off my soapbox and kept my opinions to myself. People remain focused on their asanas and any political discussions take place where they belong—in the locker room, the parking lot, or at home. But if I do find myself engaged in a proper political discussion, I stay focused on the good points of my candidate, and try to listen with more compassion to opposing opinions. I’m pretty certain I won’t change my mind, but if I can listen and react with kindness and acceptance, I might be able to, at the very least, cause someone to respond with equal kindness.

And that’s change everyone can believe in.
Congratulations to our new president, let’s hope for better days ahead!


Time Out

So there I was, lying in Savasana after a particularly invigorating yoga practice. Of course, I felt good. At least, I think I did. I was doing yoga, wasn’t I? I’d had a particularly hectic week doing yet another teacher training, going to the office, teaching, commuting, running errands, answering tons of e-mails, and planning the next few issues. As I rested in the pose of relaxation, I realized I was exhausted. But instead of feeling better, the class had actually added to my fatigue. I dragged myself off the mat and shuffled my way to the subway thinking all the while that I was actually too tired to stop and get something to eat. Sound familiar?

I know I’m not the only one who’s stretched too thin these days. The world continues to spin faster than ever as we all struggle to make ends meet, do good deeds, and live a happy life. Every now and then, it has to catch up with you. You know the feeling: You’re crashing into a wall of obstacles, and you simply don’t have the will or enough breath to exhale them all away.

As I plopped on my couch late that summer evening, I felt the weight of the world crushing my usually strong shoulders. So, I did what any good yogi would do. I broke down and cried—and continued to cry for a good while. I was at rock-bottom, and my world was spinning uncontrollably.

After a long, hot shower, I realized I probably didn’t need to check my e-mail for the 100th time and, honestly, the laundry could wait. Also, I could edit those stories over the weekend....and sub my classes...and maybe take tomorrow off. Why not get a massage and maybe even a pedicure, and let go of all those burdens (whether real or imagined)? I decided to call a time-out.

The next couple of days were heaven as I indulged in simply being. I attempted only the simplest tasks and considered an afternoon nap high-priority. Re-entering the world slowly, I joined a restorative class instead of my usual hustled flow. After two days of doing less, I felt myself emerge from the shadows with much more lightness. I was breathing more deeply. And my smile returned as I inhaled the last sweet smells of summer.

This is not to say that my burdens had magically disappeared or that my schedule had miraculously become less hectic. That stuff was still there waiting for me. What had changed was my approach to it all. I had realized that the best way to practice yoga isn’t always by pushing myself into a yoga class. Sometimes, doing yoga is all about creating space for yourself and having the good sense to call for a time-out.

Sweet dreams,