I am writing to support you and myself, as we keep taking steps forward in our lives. If you’re reading this now, you likely have a safe home, food and income. You may not fear authorities, you might have robust health and maybe you have access to mental and physical health care in your community. If any of this is not happening for you right now, please, take care. For the rest of us, congratulations! We made it! We may have the luxury to take a few minutes and read an email.
Many do not have homes and they won’t get to read along with you now. It’s such a stretch for me to remember times when my housing was insecure, because it’s so uncomfortable. While traveling, I often stayed in youth hostels, where everybody must be out in the morning and can only return in the evening. I had to either carry my stuff on my back all day, or risk leaving it in a locker. If I was tired or ill, I had to find some place to hang out and try to rest. Some cities have parks that are friendly and safe for a little nap in the shelter of a broad tree canopy. Otherwise, it means paying to be somewhere, like a restaurant or museum or the Colosseum. Of course this was all in the context of a vacation, a luxurious choice, when I could always bail out and go all the way home, to a house or apartment where I would be welcomed. I had big-picture security, but I still felt vulnerable, sheepish, “less-than”, and my nervous system was mostly up-regulated as I continuously scanned for danger, trying to decipher signs in another language, and sus out the well-armed guys in uniform.
Why do I try to remember the feelings of short-term homelessness? Because I am so conflicted by this problem, especially in my community, as it’s playing out today. It is so painful for me to feel in my body the sensations of long term stress and I believe that anyone living on the streets is living this misery, 100-fold, every day. It is compounded by the dangers, shame and uncertainty that are compiling all the time. The unresolved stories each person carries need to be heard, to be witnessed, and most of the time this just sounds too hard! Listening to these stories, I believe that my heart would break, again and again, and I want to fix things! I want to get this problem solved and move on to my cushy life, in my warm, safe home. I want all of this luxury for everyone. I know this is not going to happen today or maybe ever and that is also hard to face. The very best I can do is stay present and practice compassion. Remember that compassion means “to suffer with”, and this is the stretching. Can I keep stretching, turning towards, keep opening my eyes, and face what is true?
Strength through yoga
We need to also cultivate strength and resilience for this compassion practice. Suffering with another being doesn’t mean that I also suffer, so I’m not going to sleep outside tonight to show that I care about my neighbor without a home. It means that I stay with them in my mind and heart. I choose to remember them, even when it makes me uncomfortable. We need to build resilience and tolerance for being uncomfortable in this way. Compassionately showing up could mean sitting by the bed of someone in my bubble who is sick, or bringing hot soup to acknowledge hunger in the camping community, or just not turning my heart away. It takes strength to do any of these things, to show up. We might need reminders that so many are suffering now, and the camp at Bellingham’s city hall certainly woke us up, as a community. How can I show up and not just incinerate? Cultivating strength can come in many forms. I like to practice yoga poses: standing poses, inversions and anything that makes my arms shake! I have taken to focusing my mind in a specific way while I work to make my body strong: I tell myself that I want to be able to show up in ways I don’t yet know, so I get my body ready! I also enjoy dedicating my effort to someone who doesn’t have what I have right now. This could be the privilege of a home, a computer, and a cranking furnace, or it could be my access to teachings, or my discipline and will to practice. I can do this for them. It gives my practice meaning and takes the focus off me. “Perfecting” myself is an intoxicating distraction that can derail compassion completely, and is not the purpose of yoga.
Resting and letting go
As we continue to grow and strive to become who we want to be, we have to rest as well. Even those dedicated riders of the Tour de France take rest days, and those days off improve their performance. We need to have permission to turn away from the hardness of the world some days as well. We get to enjoy our warm cups of tea, comfy sofa, maybe petting the cat while looking out the window. Enjoying life is part of the practice, without clinging to your cat in the belief that she can save you from the sorrows that still live among us.
Breath and body
Breathing is a way to experience both strength and surrender, moment to moment. The inhalation is a time to feel prana, life force, coming in to feed your muscles, blood and lungs. Accept this gift and let it remind you of your strength, even if you don’t feel strong right now. Then feel how the exhalation is a natural letting go – you can’t hold on to that breath. We can’t make anything happen and stay. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball under the water – eventually it escapes, so why not just let it go? We can practice letting go on purpose, staying present, and compassionate, as we do so.
You can work with your body to make this a holistic practice. Stand or sit with your feet touching the floor. As you inhale, press down into your feet. Let it go when you exhale. Feel the strength in your legs! Feel how the earth pushes back to meet your effort. If you want more, you can also lengthen up your spine as you inhale and relax as you let that breath out. You can reach up through the crown of your head, lengthening the back of your neck. You can play with arm positions that feel strong – reach out, up, make fists, flex your biceps. Feel the weaving together of these two aspects of breath and of life. Notice how they compliment and uphold one another.
Make time every day
Create a small space in your life to attend to these two ideas of strength and letting go. On its own, strength can turn into rigidity, anxiousness and judgement. If we only practice letting go we become dull, numb and depressed. We need both, like two oars on a boat, to make it through the waters of each day.
I hope this is helpful to you.
I am offering a sweet Partner Yoga workshop on February 13, through 3 Oms. No yoga experience is necessary and you can attend with a friend, your child or parent or anyone else who is in your bubble! It is a delightful practice.