The Bliss of Self-Deprivation

The first time my friend Shane mentioned he wanted me to fast for two days with him, I hoped he would forget about the idea if I never brought it up again. But he persisted, and with a groan I caved in.

Fasting sounded like the least fun thing I could do for the weekend. No food? No snacks? No drinks apart from water and the occasional tea? Obviously I wouldn’t have the energy to go to parties or do any reliable amount of homework. I resigned myself to a weekend of misery.

Here’s the best way I can describe the hunger pangs: It’s like when the electricity is out and you keep walking around the house trying to flip the light switches on. And when you’re bored you think, “Well, because the power is out, I can’t do too much. I could go get online! Oh, wait, I can’t.” When fasting, you go about your day thinking, “Man, when I’m done doing this I can eat some spaghetti. … Oh, nope. Can’t do that.”

For a while, my head just buzzed with, “I want chocolate. I want pizza.” I became irritable at the thought of how much longer I would have to subsist without the satisfaction of getting a meal in my stomach. After a while, though, my growling stomach became a profound and lucid teacher. After I accepted my hunger, it eventually faded into the background, becoming just another bodily function, like a heartbeat. A pure, crystallized peace covered my heart and mind. I had moments of complete clarity where thoughts stopped their typical disconnected meanderings and were completely synced to what I was doing in every moment. Meditation became effortless when fasting, like water running smoothly over rocks. As I detached from food, I more easily detached from the many other trivial worries occupying my mind every day. I felt a peace and stillness rising within me that kept me coming back for more.

Food is such a primal need. We know we must eat three times a day to sustain ourselves, but sometimes we eat to fill voids. Lonely? Munch on brownies. Bored? Bag of chips. Procrastinating? Make a sandwich. Denying yourself food snatches away this safety blanket from beneath your feet, exposing you to everything you’ve been hiding from by constantly eating – possibly the reason Gandhi said, “What eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner.” As I repeatedly denied myself food throughout the day, my reasons for compulsively eating became strikingly apparent. Often, I eat when I’m not even hungry. I take bites to distract myself from homework or to assuage boredom.

Many religious traditions know the power of conscious self-restraint. Yogis have practiced fasting and silence for ages, and Christians commonly practice giving something up for Lent. Pythagoras wouldn’t let his pupils learn his highest teachings unless they underwent a 40-day fast (though I wouldn’t recommend it).

Restraint is a powerful way to expose your weaknesses and cultivate an inner strength of stillness. We all have somewhat unnecessary pleasures we think we could never let go of – snacks, shopping, Facebook, alcohol, sex, television. I find that if one of these habits starts to compulsively control me, then I need to stop for a while. A few weeks ago, I gave up processed sugar for almost a week. After the first two days I stopped craving it, and then I felt liberated. I no longer had to buy sugary snacks to fulfill my cravings. I didn’t have to struggle with whether to indulge. I ate only healthy food, with deep satisfaction. Although I eventually caved in when Easter came around and I ate my entire chocolate bunny in one day, I was still empowered, now knowing the heightened power of my will and self-control.

An occasional day of silence is supposedly another very powerful tool, especially if you talk incessantly or use words venomously. One woman who suffered from a desire to compulsively lie wrote in Stephen Cope’s “The Wisdom of Yoga,” “It’s like a whole new inner world has opened up. As I quiet down the external chatter of my mind, the internal world of chatter comes into focus.” I promise you, there are a thousand reasons why you do the things you know you shouldn’t, and consciously fasting from them brings those lurking demons to light and exposes them for the falsehoods they really are.

If you try this, expect a hard but worthwhile journey. But try not to hate every moment of your hardship. Instead, accept your suffering. Watch it. Watch the thoughts that sprout around it. See where it takes you. Try not to find alternative compulsions to fill the void – like distracting yourself with friends or movies so you don’t have to face your own darkness. Getting a group to fast together provides much needed moral support and inspiration.

Shane and I felt that fasting was so powerful that we now get groups together about once a semester to share the experience through meditations and community. Last weekend, we were on our fourth group fast.

I leave you with the words of Gandhi: “A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free.”

Advertisements

Loss of the Feminine Divine

If you met a goddess-worshipper, would you see her (or him) as odd? I probably would look twice.

We tend to think of those who worship the feminine divine as pagan witches or New Age kooks who are ever-so-slightly off their rockers.

But as I reflect upon my upbringing in the Christian church, I missed the presence of strong females in the stories I heard on Sunday mornings. The Virgin Mary always seemed sweet, but she never had the sass or intrigue of Jesus, and she definitely didn’t wrestle with any angels.

For hundreds of years, men and women in the Western world haven’t had a healthy, independent female divinity to connect with, and perhaps have started to suffer for it. Athena, Aphrodite and Demeter used to rule alongside men, and historical evidence contends that Hera once was more widely worshipped than Zeus. But Western religion has become increasingly patriarchal as female associations subtly moved aside to make room for the heroic males conquering the pages of our holy texts.

Religions do more than provide us with a set of morals. They give us archetypes and role models. Author Tim Ward explored the loss of the divine feminine in his book, “Savage Breast.” He quoted Carl Jung: “Every man carries within him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or that particular woman, but a definite feminine image … an imprint or ‘archetype’ of all the ancestral experiences of the female.” If he’s right, consider what this means. Throughout school we absorb chosen relics of society’s mythology, from “The Odyssey” to Noah’s Ark to “Romeo and Juliet.” If we passively soak up all these depictions of men and women, our definitions of gender roles are going to evolve accordingly.

For example, in “Savage Breast,” Ward suggests that the utterly non-sexual purity of the Virgin Mary gives men and women an unrealistic ideal of purity. The Virgin Mary, from what I understand, is worshipped largely for obedience to her god, while God appears in fiery bushes and Jesus knocks over tables while yelling about society’s wrongs. The Virgin Mary just stays put. I don’t think purity and obedience are negative traits, but I wish the writers of our cultural mythology had provided a few strong female figures to balance out her passive nature, like a warrior, prophet or priestess. (There are a few, but no one tells their stories in Sunday school.)

Some, like Ward, suggest many men idealize purity because of the Virgin Mary archetype. I recall a story I read in Russian literature class – a dashing man falls in love with a girl named Liza. He adores her innocent nature but as soon as he takes her virginity he loses interest in her and leaves her. She consequently commits suicide. Sound vaguely familiar?

For all the reverence our largely Christian country pays to Mary, the very word “passive,” a trait traditionally associated with the feminine, implies negativity and weakness in America. We don’t take too kindly to vulnerability in our society, despite the fact that Jesus – our most prevalent religious figure – claimed in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” To illustrate the dominance of the active over the passive, consider this: When was the last time you were making small talk and couldn’t think of anything to say? Maybe your heart beat a tad faster as your mind raced for words. There’s a certain assumption in our society that if we don’t fill every moment with speech – utilizing the active force – we are inept or weak. I always have wondered whether all humans similarly regarded conversational pauses as “awkward silence” or if Americans were especially antsy about it. Apparently, other cultures like the Maori of New Zealand revere silence within conversations. Long pauses signify reflection and appreciation of what was said rather than self-blame. Perhaps it is a pure coincidence that Maori worship includes both male and female deities, but I wonder if that diversity promotes an embrace of passivity – a “feminine” trait.

Passivity – associated with the yin, or the Taoist feminine energy – is an underutilized treasure in Western society. Sure, Americans work hard, we’re efficient and we’re productive. Those things are not exactly evil, because if no one worked to fulfill their dreams we wouldn’t change a thing. But how would we know what to work toward if we never introspected? What’s the use of efficiency if it costs us our gentleness and temper? When everybody wants to talk instead of listening, then what’s the point of conversing? If you’re all Yang – the male energy – and no Yin, then you’re all action but no substance. Most people consider the ideals of “surrendering” and “giving up” as negative values. But sometimes surrender helps you to lose your own agenda and simply experience the divine, which is basically the point of spirituality.

I do not, by any means, intend to subjugate women by reducing them to gendered descriptions like passivity. However, I realize almost every major world religion associates women with earth, darkness, passivity, receptiveness and nurturing. The male energy typically recalls the sky, activity and aggression. Thus, I object that our society represses a whole set of healthy traits because they are associated with femininity. Maybe once we broaden our religious archetypes to make room for the goddess again, we can let everyone bask in the warmth of the “feminine” gentleness and passivity while offering women the cultural legroom to try on some new roles.

On the seductive illusion of consumerism and happiness

We all know the classic tale of how humanity, with its insatiable greed, destroys Mother Earth. With our lack of foresight and lust for convenience and new gadgets, we have pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that melting ice sheets could raise sea levels by as much as six feet during this century.

Deforestation, disappearing species and our convoluted food system of factory farming and pesticides are all symptoms of our skewed priorities and profit-driven mindset.

You have heard the story a million times by now and I’ll spare you the spiel, because instead of dwelling on the evils of humanity, I’d rather focus on how our less eco-friendly lifestyles affect our psyches. What has our abandonment of an earth-based lifestyle done to us on an emotional and psychological level? When we left the farms for factories and traded in our plows for office computers, did we gain or lose in the end?

I don’t want to use this column to ignorantly romanticize the authenticity of “living off the land.” I realize there were many troubles associated with that lifestyle, including disease, overwork, pests and famine. In many ways technology has improved our standard of living. However, my intuition keeps telling me the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction toward consumerism, modernization and convenience. The weakening state of our earth proves we’re doing something wrong.

I lodge my major complaint against consumerism – the notion that purchasing manufactured goods makes the world go around. For many years I never quite understood why groups like Adbusters treated advertising and product consumption as evils. Then I gradually realized I had grown up learning a lie: that buying more new clothes – ones I usually didn’t really need – would fill a tiny void in my soul. But as soon as a new shirt filled one pocket-sized void, another one would appear. I would need more music, another poster, a new skirt, a cup of coffee, a burrito. The cycles of consumerism kept me coming back for more because eventually those clothes became “outdated,” and I would need to go shopping again.

Soon, I realized that, although I could throw my money and energy at this endless cycle forever, my purchased happiness only provided me with a fickle, temporary contentment that required constant maintenance. My mind was always snooping around for its next fix. Thus, my happiness largely depended on what I owned or how much fun I could purchase. After I uncovered these flaws in the system, I found a deeper and more consistent happiness in simplicity – contentment with less, not more – in appreciating whatever life threw my way, in each moment.

Last semester I visited the Possibility Alliance, a homesteading educational center in La Plata, and this cemented my views. I always had a sense of completeness when hiking through nature that I could never quite grasp when doing homework on my laptop in the library. The homesteaders at the Possibility Alliance use no electricity or other modern conveniences. They bike wherever they have to go and make everything – down to the beeswax candles they use at night. However, founder Ethan Hughes told me, “We don’t go to restaurants or movies, and we certainly don’t go to Aruba for vacation, but we feel like we live like kings and queens. We have a daughter, and we spend time together doing what we care about, and what else is there? If our goal is happiness, then we’re way happier now.”

This comes from a family that lives on $3,000 every year. When I visited there, I could see why. No white noise muddles the air, only the natural sounds of wind and livestock. The air feels warm and peaceful. It’s difficult to explain, but I have a sense when I’m in this place – or any place in nature – that I don’t want or need anything else.

I feel duped by consumerism. It taught me to depend on coffee instead of self-discipline to get schoolwork done, to watch movies when I hung out with my friends instead of interacting with them, to depend on packaged food instead of making homecooked meals and to believe that nature was a novelty to enjoy in my spare time instead of throughout my day-to-day existence. We’ve lost bodies of knowledge about the earth because hardly anyone lives a sustainable, earth-based lifestyle anymore. Considering how little time we spend within an actual ecosystem, it’s no wonder we don’t think twice about harming them.

In addition, the lifestyles we have replaced this one with are not always psychologically healthy. With depression hitting 9.5 percent of Americans according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is it really working for us? Even now, we all spend our weeks chained to our desks. Then by the time Friday comes we have such a strong need to cut loose and communicate with other people instead of our computer screens that we spend all our money at parties and bars. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for the body of knowledge I have acquired at Truman, because it has truly shaped me as a person. But I do feel like my lifestyle is missing something organic and authentic, which is why I hope to someday live “off the grid,” similar to the people at the Possibility Alliance. In the meantime, I can’t mope around about it. I still have a lot of control over my lifestyle, so I am taking little steps toward simplicity whenever I can. I try not to buy anything I don’t need, and I try buying secondhand if I do. I mend my torn clothes instead of tossing them. I save my food scraps for compost and try to buy food from local sources to break down the concrete wall that separates me from where my food comes from. And most importantly, I try to spend a few minutes outside whenever I can.

To build a better world, the environmental movement should consider advocating the benefits of living simply instead of overloading us with tales of our cruelty and greed. Most of us were raised to live a consumerist lifestyle from birth and are taught to buy things to assuage our desires. We need to see that simple living will make us happier, not just ethical.

I leave you with the words of Ethan Hughes: “In the end, we all want to be happy. That’s the simplest summary of the world. We all play really bad means to get it. We’re still going after it, but we think, ‘Oh if I only had another hundred-thousand in the bank I would be happy. If I could only go to two more dance clubs tonight.’ It’s always something in the future.”

For more on the Possibility Alliance, visit:
“Radical Simplicity”
Testimonial from a former resident
My Index article
Ethan Hughes audio interview
The Superheroes (The Alliances serves as headquarters for a volunteer group of bikeriders who ride around the country to do free service)

Emotional storms? Stop fighting and watch it pass…

Feelings are powerful and complex creatures that can easily make or break your day. However, in today’s rational society, we like to believe that we can “think away” emotions, because we assume feelings are unnecessary and fluffy obstructions to achieving our goals.

I once knew a person who swore never to vote for a female president because of a belief that women are inherently more emotional than men and thus would make rash decisions.

Feminist sensibilities aside, I think people who dismiss emotions are missing out on some of the most rewarding aspects of their own lives. After all, why do we do anything in life? Why do we get married, chase dreams or spend time with friends? Because we like these things. They make us feel good. All things considered, we live for emotions.

That said, emotions often guide and inspire us but occasionally can hold us back from our full potential. Haven’t you ever let a negative emotional response influence your actions and ended up suffering for it? If you ever became bashful and tongue-tied when chatting with an attractive member of the opposite gender or if you ever lashed out against someone who didn’t deserve it, then you understand. Sometimes feelings of heartbreak, devastation or hopelessness can shroud everything in despair. Normalcy starts to seem like a faraway illusion.

No matter what you’re dealing with – stress, hopelessness, fear, frustration – I can tell you with certainty there’s a way out, even when it all seems impossible to deal with. Trust me, I’ve been there many times. When you’re in the midst of an overwhelmingly difficult emotion, you have a few choices. You can use some sort of mental trick to bend you out of your negativity, or you can let go of it. Transforming fear into excitement and tracing your emotions back to a source are a couple helpful tactics, but I find that sometimes the effort you use to disentangle yourself will only feed the fire. Once, one of my co-workers was in a ridiculously bad mood. After muttering plenty of insults behind customers’ backs and giving away lots of glares, he started to say to himself, “I really need to calm down. Man, I should really get over this. It’s getting ridiculous.” But he couldn’t quite seem to do it. If anything, he just grew more furious. I told him that he could just be making himself angrier by trying to stop it, that he should just accept the anger so he could forget about it more easily. He nodded and said I was probably right. Let’s think about it for a moment. If you are getting sad that you’re sad, worried about being worried or insecure about being insecure, how on earth is that helping you?

The most lasting method I have learned to deal with overwhelming emotions is by relaxing – by simply accepting whatever is going on inside of you instead of incessantly worrying about fixing it. When I stop worrying about my bad feelings and stop trying to find a way out, they simply fade away. But this gets tricky, because if I tell myself I’m going to relax my feelings away while really I am only telling myself this to see if the feeling disappears, then it won’t work – I’ll just keep worrying! I must accept negativity without pretense or agenda, something completely counter to our “go get ’em” culture. From a spiritual perspective, the suffering you feel actually is teaching you and guiding you. You will eventually turn that pit of despair into an equally affecting glow of happiness when you stop trying to resist it. Let it in, let it do what it has to do and it will fade away instead of continuing to bang obnoxiously at your door.

Observe yourself regularly to measure your success. Emotions are sensations within the body, not just imaginary wisps floating around in your head. Anger appears in a different part of the body than joy or sorrow does. I feel sorrow in my throat and anger more in my chest and forehead, for example. Note the sensations and look at your pain as objectively as you would an aching back. Both of these hurts are trying to tell you that something is wrong, so paying attention to what they tell you is important, unless you can’t control the situation causing your distress. In that case, let go. Let go. Let go. Repeat as needed.

But here, listen to someone much wiser than me explain:

Art of Meditation course

For all you at Truman with me (or for all of you with an Art of Living program near you–find one here), you should take a look at the Art of Meditation course coming up, taught by our own Dr. Lloyd Pflueger.

From the website: “The Art of Meditation course enables effortless transcendence. Participants learn to let go of all tensions and stress, providing the mind with a much needed deep rest. It allows the conscious mind to settle deeply into itself. It is only in the present moment that we find true happiness. As the mind settles down, it centers itself more and more in the present moment and experiences a natural state of joy.

Course Details: In just three sessions of two hours, we learn to tap the depths of our nature. After the course we can use this simple meditation practice to overcome the effects of inevitable stressful situations and make a positive impact on the quality of our lives.”

Class times:
Saturday by appointment (session lasts an hour or two)
Sunday 7-10 p.m.
Monday 7-10 p.m.

Fees and DISCOUNTS will be discussed at the Intro meeting, which takes place in MC 208 THIS Thursday, March 18, at 8 p.m. You can decide whether or not you can take the course when you attend the meeting.

Fore more information visit http://us.artofliving.org/content-art-meditation?center=usa

I took this last semester and the twice-a-day meditation program helped me to concentrate a lot more easily and to calm myself down whenever life dragged on me.

The release of self-forgiveness

Followers of the Jain religion believe the universe is shaped like a human body. Likewise, Taoists think society at large functions the same as a single person. Thus, when you understand yourself, you can supposedly understand the workings of the entire universe.

Similarly, I’ve noticed I reflect my inner state of mind onto the outside world. If I love and accept who I am, other people tend to pick up on my positive, carefree vibes and treat me more benevolently than if I despise myself. Like most others, I go through periods where I am less than happy with who I am. But I’ve realized this isn’t healthy for me or for anyone I come into contact with. Thus, personal growth is no selfish act. When you shine with joy, you contagiously spread beams of radiance while negativity simply dissipates into the air.

Once I worked with someone who made my blood boil a little. Although he was just a server in an average restaurant, he sauntered around the place reeking of arrogance. He wouldn’t do anybody a favor unless it made him look good. I hardly could have a conversation with him without consciously restraining myself because his stories of womanizing offended my feminist sensibilities.

On the flip side, I know my attitude toward him was just as immature as his cockiness. Seething about the guy only made me look down on him, just like he probably looked down on me.

Someone once told me that hate only hurts yourself. So true. When hatred – or any negative emotion – invades, it swiftly immerses me in a little bubble of red-hot fury. I become irrational. My nemesis appears subhuman in my eyes, and I stop treating him with dignity and respect. Anger never solves a thing. Hating him never made him a more compassionate person – it only transformed me into an immature little kid filled with an exaggerated sense of pride and entitlement. This uncontrollable anger always gripped me when I talked to him. A critical, judgmental coldness overtook any natural sense of goodwill.

Intuitively, my conscience says I should stop looking down on him. Countless religious and spiritual seekers have proven that happiness isn’t becoming superior to everyone – it’s letting go of your big, cumbersome ego and embracing a sense of humility.

Truly strong people don’t spend all their time sabotaging others or thinking about how much other people suck because they don’t need such petty compensation for their insecurities. Strength is kindness in the face of cruelty, not domination and superiority. The Dalai Lama said, “If the love within your mind is lost, and you see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education or material comfort you have, only suffering and confusion will ensue.” Any guru or priest probably will tell you the emotional and spiritual benefits of humility and love hugely outweigh the small and selfish satisfactions of hatred. I’ve noticed that when I am filled with love, I physically feel expanded. I am more connected and receptive to other people, and people sense and reflect my positive energy. Suddenly, the little things don’t seem so irritating. I am a lot happier when that screaming little ego isn’t getting in my way.

I’d love to claim that I am one of those untouchably positive souls who emits beams of radiance and loves everyone. But alas, I have a lot of work to do. And I can’t just tell myself, “Start unconditionally loving humanity, dang it!” You can’t just force yourself to love, like you make yourself get out of bed to get to class in the morning. Your efforts at compassion will seem just as groggy and reluctant as your weary face. Love is a strenuous and nearly impossible task when you feel about as compassionate as a block of concrete – when you’re locked in the haze of frustration, fear or defense. We’ve spent our entire lives programmed to look out for No. 1 and that won’t change overnight. The only thing that works for me is simply watching myself without judgment. When I’m angry and critical I watch my responses. Amazingly enough, when I simply observe my actions without constant critique, my flaws don’t seem to bother me as much. Then, these flaws are no longer despicable parts of myself – they are something separate from me that I detachedly observe from a distance, like watching a lion in a zoo cage.

You see, my co-worker embodies such an enormous threat to me only because I deeply fear becoming like him: arrogant, selfish and uninteresting. This guy probably makes me mad because he represents something I dread and repress within myself. Otherwise, he wouldn’t challenge me so much. Sometimes I feel selfish, which makes me so ashamed that I have spent my entire life running in the polar opposite direction, dabbling in spirituality, activism and volunteer work the entire way. Meanwhile, he shamelessly flaunts the very things I’ve spent my life running from. No wonder I can’t stand him. But here’s the irony: When I see him as a selfish bundle of pettiness, don’t I begin to engage in that very same pettiness?

Thus, when I unconditionally accept myself, flaws and all, I suddenly can tolerate my co-worker. Once I am in touch with my darker motives, they instantly loosen their iron grip on my actions. So what if he’s arrogant and rude? It doesn’t have to make my life any worse. And after all, he has good points I overlook when I’m seething mad. He makes conversation with me when I’m bored. He can be funny. He apologizes when he knows he has offended me.

So don’t waste your good intentions by suppressing your darker side. Accept yourself simply and fully because you can’t magically become someone you’re not. Only when we stop giving so much power to our darkest nature can it truly disappear.

Surrender your agenda and breathe peace

Sometimes, the only way to get what you want is by giving up. Every major spiritual strain I know of insists we can only discover true happiness by letting go of our own agendas and handing our lives to forces unknown.

Christians might recognize the concept as surrendering to God. Taoists call it “wu-wei” or non-action. Hindus call it Saranagati, surrendering to the underlying force behind the universe. The word “Islam” means surrender, among other definitions. Look at Jews, Buddhists, Jains. Pick any religious strain, and you probably will discover this universal thread embedded in the system.

Surrender features so prominently within every religious system, and they can’t all be wrong. But why is it so popular – do a few power-hungry leaders use surrender as a religious tool to subordinate the masses? Or does surrender actually help us to grow spiritually?

I believe it’s a seed for growth. Ironically, giving up fills the practitioner with a greater power than one person alone could manage. When you willingly become weak in the face of the Almighty, a divine force supposedly will encompass you. Once you have let go of your own agenda, you become a divine vessel. Your actions and your will no longer belong to you.

Although I recognized the concept of surrender from my Christian upbringing, my Taoism class this semester reintroduced the idea to me as “wu-wei.” The Taoists believe in an underlying force, Tao, within the entire universe that encompasses anyone who lets it guide them. When you surrender, you let the course of nature take you where it will.

The Tao Te Ching states in verse 22, “Surrender brings perfection / The crooked become straight / The empty become full / The worn become new.”

This sounded like a logical idea to me, and I decided to try it. I found going with the flow makes life less stressful, mostly because forcing my own will on what I do never completely works. Let’s say I’m driving during rush hour in the middle of a city. I have a few choices. I could make a fuss about getting home quickly or I could stay in traffic, quietly getting home whenever I arrive. Choosing the former means I watch every moment for a free spot in the next lane. I move over, forcing myself between two cars – blocking both lanes of traffic in the meantime – until I have enough room to move into the lane. I do this repeatedly. I honk my horn. I am spending most of my time stressing out about what to do next, my mind spinning with frustration and plotting my next move while the car continues to stand still.

Meanwhile, I could just keep my place in traffic. Sure, it will be slower, but what do you really have to do that absolutely cannot wait for 20 minutes? You at least will get home relaxed and stress-free. And besides, why worry about something you can’t control?

Whenever someone offends or aggravates me, I find snapping back in a spiteful and defensive manner doesn’t cool the boiling water quite like a humble and empathetic attitude does. I’m sure you can relate. On Sunday morning I was meditating – early, because I had to catch the 7:45 a.m. train back to La Plata – when my dad interrupted me twice to make sure I wasn’t still sleeping. The second time, I barked that I was awake and had plenty of time – in an ironically hostile tone for a meditator, I admit. I felt slightly guilty afterward, and my dad told me later that he was offended by my reaction. If I had quietly told him I was on time and would be out in just a few moments, I wouldn’t have been the cause of all those injured feelings from acting hastily and attempting to bend the situation to my will.

The Taoists would say strong winds will uproot a giant tree rather than the pliant, supple grass, which can withstand just about anything. That’s how surrender brings you power. A Taoist warrior trains for flexibility, because an effective warrior must stay attentive to changes and surprises – inevitable in the battlefield – and react to whatever comes their way. The alternative – planning a stoic strategy and training soldiers rigidly – will fail.

The Tao naturally directs the willing and guides them toward a natural perfection. The Tao Te Ching compares this to water: “Nothing in this world is as soft and yielding as water / Yet for attacking the hard and strong none can triumph so easily / It is weak, yet none can equal it / It is soft, yet none can damage it / It is yielding, yet none can wear it away.”

Christianity, moreover, asserts that when surrendering to Christ you become infused with him. I have heard many Christians talk about its most enthusiastic and loving followers as “shining with Jesus’ light.” The Bible itself states, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple,” Luke 14:33. Although different paths conceptualize different reasons to explain the potentially divine force that replaces the surrendered human will, I see very little difference between them all. I have seen followers of many different faiths who seem to shine from an inner light of joy, which is almost contagious to witness. Their eyes beam with abundant generosity, solid devotion and an eagerness to share their joy with everyone. If such wealth can spring from surrender, then I’ll definitely allow the forces that be to guide my actions rather than go it alone.

Why YOU should take the Art of Living course

When stress or emotions cloud any thread of rationality existing within me, breathing brings me down to earth. As Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said breath is the link between your body, your spirit and your mind. Take a deep breath now and notice what happens. The outside world disappears. Tension releases. Your mind clears. If you keep it up for a few minutes, you might notice your heart slowing and your muscles loosening up. A slow, conscious breath relaxes your mind and body at the same time, thus refreshing your spirit. Ever performed a speech or a piece of music and felt unbearably nerve-shaken beforehand? Next time, try breathing very slowly. This physically slows down your heart rate, soothing your restless worries. There’s a reason for the classic instructions to stop and take a deep breath when you feel angry. The breath frees the mind from the overpowering clouds of frustration and anger. When we take a moment to breathe, we allow the light of perspective to shine through our clouds of insatiable anger or sadness.

We always breathe – every second of every day, as long as we live, but unlike our body’s other automatic functions (like the heartbeat or stomach digestion), we can control the breath. We can take quick, piercing breaths or slow, full breaths. Or we can let our breath fade into the background and do its own thing. But by attending to the breath and manipulating it, we can utilize it to relax our mental and emotional states of mind.

By delving deep into Yogic breathing techniques – also called pranayama – you can actually start to transform yourself over time. Sudarshan Kriya, also known as the “healing breath,” is a technique taught during part of the Art of Living course offered at Truman. Sudarshan Kriya incorporates specific natural breath rhythms, each one corresponding to a different emotion. Used correctly, you can shed negative mental scars and release huge amounts of stress with this technique. You emerge feeling fresh and renewed. Although it’s hard to believe such extraordinary results can stem from sitting and breathing, I speak from experience when I say it works. I always surface from Kriya feeling as if I have shed a few pounds of worry and stress.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Lloyd Pflueger, professor of philosophy and religion, offers the Art of Living course every semester, and the next one is Feb. 19 to 22. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an Indian spiritual leader and activist, founded the Art of Living Foundation in Bangalore in 1981. Shankar has transferred his extensive amount of personal growth knowledge to teachers all across the country who host a variety of transformative courses through the Art of Living foundation. Now, instead of trying to make time to head to an ashram for years to gain knowledge from a guru, you can simply take a weekend out of your life right now and learn some ancient techniques to mentally and physically energize and de-stress while connecting to deep levels of your being. You learn practical knowledge to remove your current stressors and prevent future stress.

The idea is that when you shed stress through the techniques taught in the course, you gain peace and contentment. From my perspective, I found peace and contentment surfaced naturally when I relaxed and let go of my frustrations. This taught me that I don’t always have to stress out ensuring my life circumstances are at optimum happiness potential: impeccably perfect and safe so that, consequently, I could be happy. Happiness is right here, right now, in every moment – if only we slow down and relax long enough to notice it. Contentment doesn’t depend upon the external world. It doesn’t simply expand or contract depending on how much homework you have, how much you think people like you or how broke you are. I quote Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: “Peace and contentment … are our very nature, to be nurtured and encouraged.”

If you are interested in attending the Art of Living course, come to an interest meeting at 7 p.m. today or Feb. 16 in McClain Hall 209. The four sessions in the course are scheduled as follows: 7 to 10 p.m. Feb. 19, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 20 and 21 and 6 to 10 p.m. Feb. 22. I highly recommend you consider attending. The course offers a unique opportunity to uncover culprits like anxiety, frustration, insecurity and weariness. I can pretty much guarantee that you will emerge feeling renewed, energized and peaceful.

You can register for the course at the website: http://us.artofliving.org. If you need discounts, email Lloyd Pflueger at lloyd@truman.edu.

Meditation’s fruits: clarity, peace, relaxation

“You get all that by just sitting there?! I don’t believe you.” That was my dad’s abrupt response when I tried to explain how meditating actually improved my mood and concentration. Somehow, the idea of “just sitting there” seems almost daunting. No text messages, no Internet, nothing to look at and not even music to listen to. It sounds dull at best, frustrating at worst.

Like my dad, I also was skeptical about meditation – until I tried it. One day I couldn’t focus on my homework – my mind was buzzing, and I was flat-out lost in distraction. I was curious to test the lofty claims of meditation, so I went down the hall into an empty lounge and played a guided meditation I found on YouTube. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it so much that when the 10-minute video was done, I kept sitting. I found when I least expected it, a massive wave of peace hit me. I felt completely open, loving and content. I didn’t want anything. When I finally stood up, I found “just sitting there” for a few minutes had left me feeling lighter and more alert. I left feeling the inner glow of true contentment.

You know how you feel when you can’t concentrate – like there’s a cloud of thoughts buzzing around your mind like gnats? Whenever I sit down to work, and my mind is restless and flighty, it’s usually a symptom of some unresolved worry I am subconsciously trying to wrestle with: stress about all of my homework, people in my life, the cold weather or any number of things. Meditation clears away all of that clutter. Somehow, when you “just sit there” for a few minutes, no longer distracted by the endless enticements of the external world, you temporarily surrender control of all those concerns – you are letting go. Ironically, when you sit down to meditate and stop trying to solve everything, you leave feeling more alert, thus more capable of fixing your problems.

Millions of Americans regularly meditate to reap the priceless mental and physical health benefits. Meditators generally have low stress, a relaxed demeanor, a boosted immune system, mental clarity and improved health overall. A huge body of research exists on the benefits of meditation. One study that caught my eye was conducted at University of Madison-Wisconsin. Brain imaging of meditators suggested meditation gradually rewires the brain, conditioning it to react favorably to stressful situations. Instead of the typical fight-or-flight response, regular meditation cultivates an attitude of acceptance, which fosters contentment. A Harvard study found that meditating shuts down the parietal lobe, which integrates sensory perception. This allows the subject to loosen their sensory limits and achieve a feeling of “oneness” and connectivity with the wider world.

A few months ago, I upped my semi-regular meditation practice to twice a day for 20 minutes per session. But those 40 minutes a day bring me astounding results, my favorite being that most days I can sit in a classroom and do something I’ve never done before: effortlessly pay attention. I am absolutely convinced the change was due to meditation. For years, I always had my Adderall prescription on hand so I could focus and work efficiently, but now I easily do without. I tend not to sweat the small things quite so much. As a general rule I’m less irritable, more pleasant and happier.

The point of meditation is not necessarily to clear your mind of all thoughts. That’s nearly impossible, because all your life you have been conditioned to constantly think. If you try to force yourself to stop thinking, it will not work unless you have been meditating heavily for many years. Rather, the point is to let go of the world for a few minutes. If your mind overflows with thought, let it happen. If you think something unpleasant, let it happen. If you feel some emotion, let it happen. If you get bored, let it happen. The only thing you can do wrong in meditation is to try to do it right. As soon as I started grasping for moments of deep contentment during my meditations, they slipped away. The sensation only struck me when I wasn’t looking for it. That’s when I learned that meditation only works if you don’t try to do it right. This gets difficult, because once you experience the joy and lightness that can occur during and after meditation, you naturally want the same effect every time. But as the Buddhist ideal dictates, only by giving up your desire for something – in this case, peace – can you truly find it.

If you’re curious about meditation but would like some help, try a guided meditation hosted by the Art of Living club (for all of you at Truman) at 4:30 p.m. each Wednesday in McClain room 209. All are welcome. You might leave with a clear head, a lighter load and a smile on your face. I leave you with the words of Remez Sasson: “Your mind is your instrument. Learn to be its master and not its slave.”

Zazen meditation instructions
Online Meditation center

Tides of Change

Michelle Martin
Column Three

Life seems slightly grey-tinted during winter. As I ride my bike from class to class I simply endure the wind chill while wishing for spring, when I can cheerfully ride my bike in a skirt and tank top, pleasantly warmed by the sun overhead.

Alas, the overcast sky often leaves me feeling a little overcast as well. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not depressed, but mood swings seem universally prevalent in the winter, as demonstrated by the existence of Seasonal Depressive Disorder. But throughout winter I try to remember that for every miserable day, I will later enjoy a bright day during spring. I remember that the earth must spend a season encased in its frozen tomb before it rejuvenates with the joy and brightness of a new season.

The constantly changing seasons are a powerful metaphor, reminding us that life works in opposites and cycles. The earth gives us both the frigid extreme of winter and its opposite—sweltering summer. Maybe if I patiently endure winter (sipping frequent hot cocoa along the way), then I will value spring that much more when March rolls around. I’ll never miss an opportunity to be outside—and trust me, I usually don’t.

The existence of natural contrasting forces illustrates a fundamental Taoist principle, symbolized by the Yin Yang image. I remember seeing Yin Yang on earrings, posters, pins, and shirts but never knowing what it meant. Now I realize that it embodies two opposing energies which, together in harmony, create the world. The Yang is the active force: bright, pure, and stimulating while the Yin is the receptive force: dark, passive, and tranquil. You need both Yin and Yang to create anything of substance. In Taoist thought, Yin and Yang literally create the Tao, or the underlying force which creates and guides the universe. According to the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, “As the Yang and the Yin displace one another, change and transformation arise.” Although the Chinese philosophers might view notions of good and bad as human constructs, sometimes you have to endure the unpleasant to fully savor the pleasant. As the cliché goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Let us briefly consider an example. I can’t have a genuinely healthy meal unless I take the time to cook it and purchase the right ingredients. This is a balancing act—the benefit of a wholesome, delicious meal requires a sacrifice of equal proportion on my part. However, if I spend money on cheap ingredients, like using canned tomatoes instead of farm fresh tomatoes, then I sacrifice nutrition and taste in order to save money. And often cheap food incorporates questionable production methods, such as factory farming, so someone or something pays for the cheap price tag, while the production shortcuts comes boomerang back to us in the form of lower nutrition and hormone-laced food. In short, if I bring less to the table, I get less in return.

This balance of give and take is the quintessence of Yin and Yang. If imbalances exist, nature will find a way to correct them. If you burn yourself out working on projects (too much Yang), then you will probably crash for the whole weekend afterwards (corrective Yin). Nothing can exist without a “flip side.” Every brilliant idea requires hard work to actualize it. Every Saturday spent partying or relaxing requires a Sunday of homework and meetings. And all money earned requires a proportional amount of your time. If you think you’ve found a way to take a short cut-like taking a diet pill instead of exercising-the balances of the universe will surely catch up with you when you start experiencing the side effects. Verse 36 of the Tao Te Ching (the primary Taoist text) states, “To overthrow someone, first exalt them; To take from someone, first give to them.”

Examine your families’ and friends’ personalities. Each one of them has both pleasant and unpleasant traits. For example, perhaps your friend is tons of fun to hang out with, but she’s flaky. Maybe you have a teacher who is a brilliant thinker but is intimidating, or a kind, friendly coworker who talks your ear off. Every positive trait has a shadow-its complementary opposite. Likeable people can be arrogant, quiet people are often thoughtful, and even cruel people could be intelligent or determined.

Accepting the necessity of opposites creates a sweet sense of tolerance during times of unpleasantness and cultivates the wisdom that we reap what we sow.  When homework overloads us, when friends and parents clash with us, or when the sky is dim with clouds, we can remember that this isn’t the apocalypse. Like the changing seasons, our lives will forever cycle between winter and summer. As the Tao Te Ching states, “It is the flow of nature, an eternal decay and renewal. Accepting this brings enlightenment, ignoring this brings misery.”

« Older entries