Wake Up, Human 009: Meditation as Medicine

Meditation as Medicine with Shannon Wills


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There’s more to life than what we ‘think.’

Wake Up, Human

In this episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast, I’m going it solo. Rather than post an interview, I’ve decided to spend some time talking about a single topic, one that’s been foundational to my own development, and one of my favorite tools for waking up: meditation.

My intention here is not to teach meditation or promote any particular practice (though I’ll list some resources and favorites below). Rather, my intention is to unpack a specific theme around meditation: meditation as medicine.

I’ll review the concept of “separation sickness,” (from Episode 2) the ailment of separation from nature and wholeness that so many people suffer in our fast-paced, technological society. I’ll offer my take on meditation as a medicine, or a “reconnection remedy,” for separation sickness. I’ll give a short overview of meditation, share some personal stories from my journey, and provide some practical tips along the way.

I offer this episode, not as an expert or master meditator, but as a longtime student, still on the journey toward self-mastery in relationship to the mind. I hope there’ll be something here of benefit to both experienced meditators and beginners alike.

I hope you’ll join me for this personal (and somewhat philosophical) episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast.


*Shout out to Naturalist Jon Young, from whom I borrowed the terms “separation sickness” + “epidemic of disconnection” referred to in this episode.


Episode at a glance: topics we’ll explore

  • Why is meditation an excellent tool for waking up to our essential nature?
  • Why do I call meditation a “medicine,” and what is it a medicine for?
  • I share the story of my first meditation experience, and how it blew my mind.
  • What do I mean by meditation? I offer a basic explanation of meditation practice.
  • I discuss gaining sovereignty and self-mastery over our thoughts, and why it matters.
  • I share a daily practice for making space between our thoughts and our beliefs.
  • Why meditation is not a cure-all — and some of the other things we need to thrive.

Suggested Resources for Meditation:

Meditation Centers/Teachers:

  • Eknath Easwaran and Blue Mountain Center for Meditation: I recommend Easwaran’s books, videos, and the community/courses offered at BMCM.
  • Shambhala meditation centers: The lineage is Tibetan Buddhism, teachings are highly practical and modern.
  • Transcendental Meditation: a simple meditation practice similar to what’s discussed during this episode. You can find a teacher and take classes. But for background, I would honestly start by just searching YouTube and watching a few videos on TM from personalities who interest you.
  • Vipassana Meditation: For those ready to go deeper, I highly recommend the 10-day meditation experience of Vipassana meditation in the tradition of S.N. Goenka.

Recommended Books:

Extra: “Meditation as a Lab”

“There’s a lab for this class. It’s called meditation.”

Michael Nagler

If you were intrigued by the episode segment about meditation being a “practice lab” for Peace and Conflict Studies class, check out the link below. Michael Nagler’s Metta Center hosts a recording of his 2-part PACS course at University of California at Berkeley, recorded before he retired in 2007.

In the right sidebar are links to an updated set of recordings Prof. Nagler has produced since retiring, followed by a note on the Meditation Lab, including instructional videos and a short e-book on “Meditation for Peacemakers.”

Peace and Conflict Studies & Meditation Lab for Self-Study, Metta Center for Nonviolence

May it be of benefit.


When we’re quiet, receptive, listening…there’s a universe of experience waiting to open our eyes to the mystery and wholeness of life.

Wake Up, Human


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Birds and Dogs. {poem}

Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

I face the bathroom mirror…

I face the bathroom mirror
Standing silent
Listening to the sounds outside my window.
Birds chirping, dogs barking
Breaking through the peace
That hangs heavy in the summer air.

Meanwhile, somewhere far away
On the other side of the world
Bombs are dropping.
Someone like me faces her bathroom mirror
As explosions shatter the peace
Outside her window.

She will scream
And grab her children
And run.

Meanwhile, 
I twist my hair into ringlets
Wondering what if
Instead of lazy summer sounds
I heard bombs 
Exploding outside my window?

I try to imagine the horror
But I cannot.

I can imagine wild horses' hooves
Pounding over dry mud.

I can imagine the roar of a great dying tree
Split open by the wind.

I can imagine the cry of the eaglet in the nest
Unable to fly, falling to his death.

I can imagine many things 
I’ve never heard or seen.

But I can’t imagine 
The horror
Of the bombs.

You may say I can’t imagine it
Because it’s never happened to me. 

But maybe I can't imagine it
Because it's something that should never be.

How fortunate I am, I think,
To hear only birds and dogs.

*


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Rest is Radical.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.

Lao Tzu

In the month of July we enter into the time of Idir Ait, the in-between, according to the Irish-Celtic tradition. At the summer solstice, the sun stands still on high. The days are long, and life slowly ripens, in this midway time between spring planting and fall harvest. July saunters in lazily and falls across our laps with a popsicle in her hand. Work has been done. Work can wait.

My mother’s family of Nebraska farmers takes advantage of this time, to take a breath. They park the tractor and combine in the shed, and get out on their fishing boats. They shine their hot rods and drive into town, pay visits to neighbors, chat away long evenings over glasses of iced tea and lemonade.

I ask myself how I can find such rest amidst the traffic and sirens and over-scheduled bustle of my city life. Then a goldfinch lands on my fence and sings to me. Work has been done. Work can wait.

Rest, like herbal tea or cool water, can be a medicine for this season. In the space between the wild unfurling of spring and the ripe urgency of fall, midsummer invites us to make like the sun, and rest.

Our culture might try to convince us to disregard rest as a privilege, or a luxury. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this society that depends upon our constant movement to keep its machine running—and rewards us for it—rest is a radical act.

Nature allows herself to rest when the sun is high; we can follow her lead. Everyone has a right to rest. Work has been done. Work can wait.

Wake Up, Human 008: The Wisdom of Yoga-Vedanta

Yoga is Union: the Wisdom of Yoga-Vedanta with Gajananam


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When you want to dig a well, and you dig down one or two yards, and dig down another yard somewhere else, and somewhere else…you’ll get a lot of holes, but you won’t get to water. Where if you dig one, you’ll go deep. You’ll get to something.

Gajananam

In this episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast, I talk with Gajananam, a long-time student and teacher of the ancient Indian wisdom tradition of yoga. Gajananam is the founder and director of the Vishnu-devananda Yoga Vedanta Center in Fremont, California. He’s a direct disciple of Swami Vishnu-devananda, one of the early pioneering yogis who brought the practice of yoga to the US from India in the mid-twentieth century.

My conversation with Gajananam explores some basic definitions of yoga and Vedanta, as well as the misconception of yoga as “just” physical exercise. We discuss the benefits of learning yoga directly from a teacher, and the importance of deep and focused study on the spiritual path.

We dig into some tools for study, exploring Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, and the Bhagavad Gita, one of the key scriptures of the tradition. We explore some ways the practice of yoga manifests differently in the US and India. We’ll even trade a couple of dream stories with each other.

Join me for this thoughtful conversation, in this episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast.

To learn more about Gajananam or get in touch with him, visit his website at http://www.vishnuyoga.org.


Episode at a glance: topics we’ll explore

  • What is yoga, and why do we practice it?
  • If Yoga means “union” (and it does), when we practice yoga, what is being unified with what?
  • What is Vedanta, and how does it relate to yoga?
  • Yoga is sometimes thought of as physical exercise, or “stretching.” Of course, it is more than that. But what part does physical exercise play in the traditional practice of yoga?
  • We address potential concerns about the cultural appropriation of yoga. Knowing the tradition of yoga has roots in Indian culture, how can non-Indian students proceed with respect for that culture and still reap the benefits of the practice?
  • What is the importance of studying yoga as an oral tradition with a teacher, rather than on our own?
  • How do we know when we’ve “won the battle of life?”
  • What is one most important question Gajananam suggests that we ask ourselves now, before it’s too late?

Links and resources mentioned in the episode:


“What you gain from yoga is not something that’s cultural. What you gain from it is balance of mind, health, greater understanding of peace, of unity. That’s something totally universal.”

Gajananam


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Dandelion Seeds. {Poem}





Dandelion.

She catches my eye
Poised quietly among the irises,
A tall and spindly star of seeds.
Wild among the cultivars,
She’s a quivering silver sphere
Among the docile lavender blooms.

I bend down and pluck her,
Gentle, careful not to shake her
Lest her seeds come loose
And cascade onto the lawn.

But something in this feels wrong.

I look at dandelion,
And she looks at me,
And I consider my choice.

When I was a child I would have
Blown this little flower to smithereens
—in a good way—
Without even thinking twice.

Rushing to sweep her off her feet
I’d wave her wildly in the wind,
Smiling eyes to the sky
Watching her seeds take flight
On the breath of the day
Off to far-flung reaches and unknown seedbeds
Where she could take root and grow.

But now, all grown up, I hesitate.

“But, this is a dandelion!” I think to myself.
“If I blow it, seeds will spread all over the place, and next year
the whole yard will be full of hundreds of little yellow flowers!”

She hears my thoughts and whispers back,
“Isn’t that the point?”

Dandelion waits,
The breeze tickling her seeds,
Wondering what I’ll do.

Who taught me to think this way?
I didn’t come with these instructions.
Where did I learn
That a perfect plot of manicured grass
Is more worthy of protection
Than the lavish, wild diversity
Of nature’s aliveness?

What is more important…
A lush and radiant lawn,
Or a lush and radiant life?

I breathe in, and blow.

Dandelion opens her wings
And farewells herself upon my breath,
Tumbling into her destiny.

Inside me, a little girl smiles.
She’s the one who once ran ahead
To spread the seeds.
No one had to teach her
That lips are made for blowing,
And dandelion seeds
Are made to fly on the wind.

And the funny thing
About all this is,
I don’t even care about lawns.

*

Photo by Sarah Mak on Unsplash



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Wake Up, Human 007: Living a Life of No Regrets

Living a Life of No Regrets: Jeffrey S. Cramer on the life and legacy of Henry David Thoreau


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If I am not I, who will be?

Henry David Thoreau

In this episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast, I talk with author and editor Jeffrey S. Cramer, Curator of Collections at the Thoreau Institute Library of the Walden Woods Project. Jeffrey is perhaps the foremost living authority on the life and works of one of my earliest and greatest heroes, Henry David Thoreau.

My conversation with Jeffrey weaves through discussions on Thoreau the writer, naturalist, and social reformer. We’ll touch on themes of his two most famous works, Walden and Civil Disobedience, and discuss what those writings have to offer us for today’s activism and social justice work, and for navigating the craziness of the modern world. We explore how small, personal acts of kindness can be a powerful means of social reform. And Jeffrey and I will each share a couple Thoreau geek stories from our own lives along the way.

If you’re a fan of Thoreau, you’ll likely learn some things you never knew before. If you’re not familiar with him, you’ll get a primer on topics as diverse as transcendentalism, the power of the moral compass for making decisions in our lives, and the art of living deliberately in a distracted world. We’ll even randomly discuss what eating strawberries can teach us about waking up to our place in society and the world. Join me for this rich and fascinating conversation, in this episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast.

To learn more about Jeffrey, visit his website at http://www.jeffreyscramer.com. You can learn more about the Walden Woods Project at http://www.walden.org.


Episode at a glance: topics we’ll explore

  • Who was Henry David Thoreau, and why are people interested in keeping his work and his legacy alive?
  • Why Thoreau’s Walden is not really a book about a man living in the woods, and why his essay Civil Disobedience has nothing to do with civility.
  • What is the one shared message that all the world’s sacred texts boil down to, according to Thoreau?
  • What is the absolute litmus test for deciding what is right and wrong, concerning our actions in the world, according to him?
  • We discuss the difficulty of “doing what’s right” in a divisive world. How do we stand up for what we believe is right, against someone with an opposing view who is equally convinced they are right?
  • Jeffrey shares his key takeaway from Walden, which he calls “the Thoreauvian question.”
  • What is Jeffrey’s favorite his favorite quotation by Thoreau, and why? (And why he wishes every school in the country would have this emblazoned over the front door so every student could read it every day.)

Links and resources mentioned in the episode:


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau


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Tomboys: Don’t be just another Archetype of the Patriarchy.

Photo by NOTAVANDAL on Unsplash

Our world doesn’t need more girls trying to be boys, or women trying to be men. The world has enough men already. What we need is the archetype of the strong woman.


“Is that an upside-down cross you’re wearing?”

I looked up from my instrument as I prepared for first period band class. A girl I’d never met from one grade down stood above me, curiously studying the silver pendant hanging from my neck.

I shrugged. “Yes, that’s what it is.”

We were both stating the obvious. There was no mistaking the symbol suspended from a thick rope chain over the center of my chest. A sharp-angled, inverted cross at least three inches long flashed defiantly over the black backdrop of my heavy metal t-shirt.

“Why do you ask?”

She smiled. An open, genuine kind of smile I didn’t see often back in those days.

“I’ve just never seen anyone wear one of those before. It tells me you must have a different point of view, that maybe you think deeply about things.”

She tilted her head, waiting for my reply.

And she captured my attention then. Her flowing, multicolored skirt sweeping the floor, just high enough in front to reveal her Birkenstock sandals, long auburn hair flowing over a floral, woven top. In one hand she held a clarinet. With the other she reached out to me.

“Hi, I’m Jen.”

I smiled back and shook her hand. She felt open, not closed like me. She felt light and warm. Not cool like me: cool on the surface but screaming hot on the inside.

I wondered where a girl like her came from.

*

As a young girl I emerged early, much to my mother’s dismay, as a tomboy. Despite her tireless efforts to dress me in flowered jumpers and tights, I preferred bare feet and shorts. She enrolled me in ballet lessons and gifted me barbies; I rejected them in favor of model cars and construction sets.

I writhed in annoyance on the couch at night while my mom yanked my hair into curls and pinched them to my scalp with bobby pins. In the day I learned to cook and bake, plant a garden and fold the laundry, all the little things that helped our household run smoothly.

My younger brother was held to no such standards. He was perfectly happy—and allowed—to spend his free time climbing trees, making mud pies and setting things on fire.

I was well aware of the patriarchal double standard that restrains girls and rewards boys in our culture. I’d heard women on TV talk shows complaining that while they felt diminished by society as they grew older, men their age were considered distinguished. I learned, via sitcoms and ladies’ coffee-table conversations, how our culture shames women for living fully into our sexuality, yet celebrates men for doing the same.

I saw my mom get up early to make breakfast, take us kids to school, work all day, come home just in time to make dinner and put us to bed before crashing into her own mattress, late and exhausted.

I saw my dad come home from work, crack open a beer and watch TV until the credits rolled on the Johnny Carson show.

In a culture that pitted men and women against each other in a social hierarchy of power, it was clear to me who was winning.

*

In fourth grade my mom finally gave up fighting my fashion sense and allowed me to choose my own clothes. I dropped the dresses for corduroy pants and polo shirts. I bought myself a BMX bike with my paper route money and never looked back.

No one told me to do these things. I wasn’t trying to please anyone or be anyone. It was my natural way.

But I quickly found that my “natural way” carried with it some excellent perks.

In response to my outward changes, grown-ups and even some other children now started kidding me, “You’re such a tomboy!”

On their faces were smiles of quiet approval.

When I grew my hair out over my face, eyes barely visible behind stringy bangs, people now smiled and shrugged their shoulders. When I asked for a skateboard instead of a manicure set, my request was obliged with a wink.

I realized that the tomboy in me not only felt more natural, she earned me a reprieve from the pin curls, the dancing lessons, and the boring barbie doll play sessions with the neighbor girls. She gave me railroad tracks and toolboxes and fishing for water skippers on my belly by the ditch. In contrast to the constraints of girlhood, my tomboy gave me freedom.

It didn’t take me long to heed the cultural signs and lean hard on the tomboy for the benefits she gave me.

What had been merely a preference for pants became a strict mandate of no dresses. My simple delight for dirt over dolls morphed into a self-imposed requirement to avoid anything girly. No pink. No purple. No painted fingernails. And Absolutely. No. Crying.

I saw my classmates insulted for throwing like a girl, and I took it upon myself to learn to throw “like a boy”—harder, faster, longer.

When I realized I didn’t have a good throwing arm, I just stopped playing.

I adored singing, and auditioned for the school choir. When I was accepted to the chorus, I was thrilled. When I learned I’d been assigned to the girls chorus, I promptly dropped out.

My masculine had taken over as a self-reinforcing identity, locking out the feminine from my life like an annoying little sister.

At the time, I suppose, I was fighting to be free.

But in the process, I was quitting things, dropping things, and shrinking my sense of self. I was becoming not only less free, but less me.

*

By the time I met my new friend Jen in high school band class, I was fully ensconced in the patriarchal worldview of masculine power supremacy.

There was no fearless maiden archetype in my world, no warrior goddess, no wise crone to inspire me toward a higher vision of the feminine. No heroine but perhaps Wonder Woman, who fought bad guys with long fingernails and large breasts and wore a swimsuit to work. That would not be me.

But when I started spending time with Jen and other girls like her, my eyes opened to another side of power. Free spirits confident in their femininity, those young women were just as strong as me in body, mind, and spirit. But unlike me, they had not learned to prop up their power on the masculine.

Those girls, even the boldest ones, weren’t afraid to cry. They could throw the ball however they wanted, and enjoy it. They could wear pants or dresses. They could be tough, or kind, or both. And any way they did it, they were fine.

Jen was right about me when she met me. I did think deeply about things. I’d begun to witness the sorrows of our world, and they hurt me deeply. I had a poet’s heart, an activist consciousness, and a voracious appetite for questioning the status quo.

I was aware of the sociocultural power structures limiting the freedom of me and my peers. I knew our ability to live free lives would depend on resisting the suffocating directives of religious, state, and corporate power.

The upside-down cross that had caught Jen’s attention was a symbol of that resistance. It wasn’t meant to be satanic. It was meant to question authority.

I refused to be owned by organized religion, to have my values and choices defined by an archaic, hierarchical power structure. I refused to be controlled by “the man.”

But what I had not seen is that by empowering myself solely with the masculine, I had let myself be owned by another archaic and just-as-dangerous hierarchy: the patriarchy.

Now I saw it.

I saw that the unchecked masculine energy I’d cloaked myself in for my own freedom was the very impulse making the world around me so unfree. Military and war. Aggression and cold logic. Objectification and commodification of nature, beauty, and life itself.

I saw that by feeding the masculine and starving out the feminine in my world, I’d not only become controlled by the man, I’d become part of him.

I was pissed.

I wanted my feminine back.

But the damage had already been done. Because after so many years of practice, even when I wanted to cry, I couldn’t.

When I wanted to sing, I couldn’t.

When I wanted to jump in and play ball, good throwing arm or no, I couldn’t.

And even still, I hadn’t learned my lesson.

*

The next year I fell in with a group of boys whose masculine power was enticing enough to eclipse my newfound curiosity with the feminine.

These boys were tough, uncompromising, and competitive. They did what they wanted and took what they wanted. They pushed themselves, and each other, to a high standard of cool. I couldn’t resist.

It wasn’t hard for me to befriend them. All I had to do was offer rides in my car and take them where they wanted to go. I knew how to show just the sides of me that were tough. But the boys weren’t convinced. They let me into their circle of friends, but from time to time one of them would ask me quizzically, “You’re a girl. Why are you hanging out with us all the time? Don’t you have something better to do?”

I did.

But I’d fed my self-worth with my masculine for so long, I couldn’t break myself away.

So I tagged along, fishing (I abhor fishing), jumping off the highest objects we could find (not at all interesting to me), or dangerously drag racing our cars on the highway (actually, pretty interesting).

But the boys never stopped trying to push my buttons. They didn’t want me to forget I was a girl. They were jumping higher and fighting harder, not only for their own sakes, but for mine. They’d say, “Let’s see if Shannon can make this one.” And I would.

I subconsciously knew those games were coming from a place of disrespect. But instead of walking away with my dignity, the tomboy within me just tried harder.

Until one day after school, the boys and I set out to explore the remains of an abandoned warehouse in the canyon west of town, and my cover was blown.

Walking through an old gravel pit along the river we found the building, a sentinel reminder of a more industrious time gone by. A cavernous skeleton of rusty metal and broken windows, the sagging structure stood in stark relief against the quiet landscape of lava rock walls and sagebrush at its back.

From inside the building we heard the echoing coos and calls of hundreds of nesting pigeons who’d taken up residence in the rafters. The birds circled in and out of the jagged windows, swirling peacefully above our heads. Oblivious to our presence, they rose and dove between nest and sky on the warm, heavy air.

The boys’ first instinct, not surprisingly, was to throw something.

Without saying a word and seemingly in unison, they began scooping up handfuls of gravel and hurling it at the walls of the building. Rocks pelted off the metal siding like buckshot, exploding into the silence. Alarmed birds shot from the building in haphazard confusion, trying to escape a threat that must have seemed to be coming from everywhere.

As the boys laughed in their childish play, every protective instinct in my body caught fire. I began to scream.

“Stop it! Leave them alone! Don’t hurt them!”

The boys stopped their antics mid-toss and turned to look at me, arms half-cocked with hands full of gravel.

Sparks flashed in their eyes.

“Aww, look at that.”

“Shannon doesn’t want us to hurt the birds.”

“She loves them.”

“She thinks they’re beautiful.”

“Maybe we should get a couple down here so she can take ‘em home as pets.”

With that they sneered and pelted a fresh hail of rocks at the building, setting off an avalanche of breaking glass and terrified pigeons. My heart leapt in terror as rock after rock barely missed the fleeing birds. I screamed furiously, trying to grab the boys’ arms and peel the rocks from their fists. “No!” “Assholes!” “Leave them alone!” They just laughed harder.

After a minute or so the boys got bored with their game, and we moved on, thankfully with no birds injured or killed in the process. Adrenaline rushing through my veins, I felt like I’d just outrun a freight train. But the boys walked with a calm swagger ahead of me, wry smiles of satisfaction on their faces.

They’d finally found my “weak” spot.

And they didn’t let me forget it. For weeks, every time we saw a bird, there’d be rocks and sticks and threats and taunts. One of the boys started carrying a slingshot and they passed it around in front of me to uproarious laughter.

Yet, I stayed.

Until one afternoon a month or so later, when they got me.

We’d all planned to meet after school at the “living room,” the hidden partying place we’d constructed below the canyon rim at the edge of town. A cave-like depression in the rock to the north framed by tall scrubby trees and brush on the south, the living room was a secluded respite from adults, school, and the boredom of small-town nothingness.

Stepping down the last of the jagged lava rock steps that afternoon, turning the corner to the living room, I was surprised to find it empty. I was the only one of our group with any after-school activities and I usually got there last. I wondered why I was the first to arrive.

Until I turned southward to look out over the canyon, and gasped at what I saw.

Suspended from the juniper and olive trees above me, strung upside-down from high above my head, hung the bodies of dozens of lifeless pigeons.

Each bird was hung by its feet, tied with twine to an overhanging branch, swaying silently in the spring breeze that whispered through the canyon. Twisting, bobbing, peaceful. Dead.

I stood for the longest time, staring blankly out into the sky.

Then I did the only thing I could think to do. One by one, I cut down each bird with my pocketknife, loosened the twine around its feet, and tossed it into the canyon.

The last bird down, I sat down on the rocks, and cried.

*

Our world doesn’t need more girls trying to be boys, or women trying to be men. The world has enough men already.

We don’t need more competition, aggression, or masculine warrior energy.

What we do need is the archetype of the strong woman.

The earth goddess and the protective mother. The fierce warrioress and the wise grandmother. The torch lighter, the well keeper, and the fearless truth teller. Maiden, mother, and crone.

The world needs whole, wild, unapologetic women. Women strong enough to be independent, yet smart enough to know we can’t do it alone. Women strong enough to fight, yet wise enough to know what’s worth fighting for. Women strong enough to push back against the patriarchy without becoming part of it.

A strong woman understands that tears cleanse the window of the heart and clarify our vision.

She understands that the power of jumping higher or throwing farther is nothing compared to the power of standing our ground.

She knows that kindness is strength and violence is weakness. She knows how to respond to suffering and pain without creating more of it.

And she knows that the way to be free as a woman is to reclaim the feminine—to embrace and uplift her—in a culture that has bullied our mothers, daughters, and sisters for millennia.

The masculine is not the enemy. And men are not the enemy.

All of us, of every gender, contain both masculine and feminine within.

The trouble comes when the masculine is allowed to be a parasite, feeding on the feminine, considering her at best a weakness to be devoured, and at worst, an enemy to be destroyed.

When this happens, all of us—of every gender, race, and species—are the victims.

And we get what we have now: a world rife with people who’ve lost touch with their hearts, pursuing personal profit and short-term gain over the welfare of all. A world of suffering and destruction that’s imploding upon itself. A world of people who can’t cry.

*

I have to admit, the tragedy of the birds was not my last disastrous run-in with masculine power. Embracing and owning the feminine power within myself is still a work in progress.

But that day I sat down on the rocks and cried for the birds, something broke free in me. I stood up and walked away from that place, and I never went back.

It turns out there was something those boys could do that I couldn’t. They could be cruel and heartless. That was something I was not willing to be.

And I could do something they couldn’t, at least not yet. I could take a stand for the sacredness of life.

To this day I still consider myself a tomboy. I still love bugs and dirt more than dresses and pin curls. (Who wouldn’t?)

But I’m second guessing whether I even want to use that word “tomboy” anymore.

Because if there’s any chance that calling a girl a tomboy will estrange her from her feminine power… well, I don’t wanna be that gal.

So I say, by all means, let’s play in the mud. Let’s climb trees. Let’s definitely set things on fire. And let’s wear our symbols of resistance with pride.

Let’s just remember what we’re resisting, and why.

And let’s celebrate every little girl for the fullness of who she is: masculine, feminine, and everything in-between. If we see a girl who’s lost her sense of her own power (or a woman, for that matter), let’s reach out a hand to her and help her rise. Let’s offer her a smile, and a warm and open hello.

Warm and open—and strong.

(Thanks, Jen.)

*

Wake Up, Human 006: Your Body is Your Own Business

Your body is your own business | Janis Isaman

In this episode I talk with movement specialist Janis Isaman on the theme of body awareness: shifting our attention from outward appearance to the inward experience of our bodies that is our birthright—and our empowerment. Join us.


Listen here…

…or check it out wherever you enjoy podcasts:


What our bodies look like
is nobody’s business but our own.

Janis Isaman

In this episode, meet Janis Isaman, a movement specialist who has helped hundreds of people to rid themselves of physical pain and remember what it feels like to be at ease in their own bodies.

Janis is the founder of My Body Couture, a one-on-one private fitness studio that provides customized movement and nutrition coaching. She’s also a passionate advocate for healthy body awareness, pushing back against damaging norms around body image and cultural stereotypes of beauty.

My conversation with Janis centers on the theme of body awareness: shifting our focus of attention from the external world to the internal, felt experience of our bodies. We discuss some of the reasons we’re often uncomfortable in our bodies, and explore a several practices for returning to ease. We also spend time unpacking cultural narratives that often lead women and girls, in particular, to judge ourselves based on outer appearance versus inner experience. (Though, this discussion may certainly be of interest to members of other genders, as well.) Finally, we touch on the healing wisdom of learning to live according to our own definitions of beauty.

Join us for conversation on these topics and more in this episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast.


Episode at a glance: what you’ll learn by listening

  • What are the two principal reasons many of us fall into pain and/or discomfort in our physical bodies as we age?
  • What can we learn from a 10-year-old child about being more at home in our bodies? What might we learn from our grandparents?
  • How can we discern the difference between working on our bodies for our own benefit, and working on our bodies for others’ approval? (Hint: it’s simpler than you think.)
  • What’s the most helpful thing not to have in your workout or movement space?
  • What social norms around physical appearance does Janis refer to as “cultural terrorism,” and why?
  • What is the one tool Janis would first offer to girls and young women for cultivating empowered body awareness?
  • What we wish we knew when we were 12 years old, and what we would love to share with 12 year old girls right now.

Links and resources mentioned in the episode:


Find Janis on the Web:

Website: mybodycouture.com
Facebook: Facebook.com/mybodycouture
Instagram: Instagram.com/mybodycouture
Twitter: twitter.com/mybodycouture
Elephant Journal: https://www.elephantjournal.com/profile/janis_isaman/
LinkedIn: https://ca.linkedin.com/in/jisaman
YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/user/janisisaman
Clubhouse: @janis


It’s almost a human right, to be able to move the body freely.

Janis Isaman


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What if Nothing had a Name? A Practice in Connection without Words.

Photo by Shahzin Shajid on Unsplash

Dear reader, this includes practical exercises for reconnecting to our native powers of being and knowing. No time or desire to read the whole article? Jump down to the practices at the bottom of the page to get to the practical stuff. And may it of benefit.


The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Tao Te Ching

I find an open spot on the gymnasium floor and roll out my blanket. Arranging myself silently among a room full of fellow students, I sit up straight in respectful attention as the teacher takes his seat.

I’ve come to learn from this respected yogi and mystic, a wise elder who has spent a lifetime in devotion to the ancient yogic path. I’m fortunate to sit at his feet, even for just a morning.

We’ve gathered in the echoing hall of a sports gymnasium converted to a classroom for today’s lecture. Surrounded by bins of balls and nets, tumbling mats stacked aside rows of empty bleachers, every slightest sound bounces in sharp relief from the walls and rafters.

The master speaks.

“Why are you here?” His voice rings through the air like a bell.

“Have you come here today because you want to wake up? Because you want to know the truth?

Maybe you expect to receive a mystical insight, words of wisdom that will open your eyes and give you the answers you seek.

He smiles and raises his eyebrows.

“I tell you now, there will never be any words that can give those things to you. Because truth is something that no word—from me or anyone else—can express.

He lifts his eyes and surveys the room with receptive awareness. Resting his gaze on the wall behind us, he gently raises his hand, and points.

“What is that?”

We students shuffle about, unhinging our crossed legs and cranking our necks to look behind us for the object of his attention.

I follow the pointing finger to a spot high on the brick wall behind me, and there I see it.

“Basketball hoop,” I whisper to myself.

Others speak the words aloud. “It’s a basketball hoop,” “Basketball hoop.” “It’s a hoop, man,” someone offers, in a voice warm with amusement.

“Yes,” the teacher nods. “In English we call that a basketball hoop. That is the word we use to label it. Now. What is it, really?”

No one makes a sound.

*

When we are just babies, our consciousness newly awakened to the world, our parents begin teaching us the words for things.

Red. Blue. Dog. Cat. Sun and Moon. Mommy and Daddy.

This is all great fun for everyone. We humans have a proclivity for naming things. It’s one of our natural ways of learning the world. Our childhood brains soak up words like dry land drinks in the rain, and the world unfurls its magic before us as we begin to know its names.

We learn a word—red—and the fiery color of blood and roses blooms into life all around us. The tiny child points and bounces on her toes with delight as she spies her newly christened color, perhaps in a box of crayons or woven into the winter parka of a passerby. “Red!” she exclaims with joy. “Doggie!” “Moon!”

Naming the world organizes our lives, makes sense of things, and brings us joy.

But what if nothing had a name?

I recently interviewed Taoist teacher Solala Towler for the Wake Up, Human podcast. We talked about about words, and names, and whether human language can ever fully reveal the true nature of things.

As Solala reminded me, shamans say that in long-ago times, we humans could talk to the animals, and the animals could speak back, in a language we both understood. They say we could talk to the plants and rocks and streams, learn their stories and their songs. They say we lived in communion with all life, with no need for the likes of human words.

If this is true—if there is a language deeper than words, one that connects our soul to nature’s song—where has it gone? How did we modern humans lose this native power of communication, the unspoken language of life we once knew by heart?

It happened, the sages say, when we started naming things.

In the Tao Te Ching, the foremost book of Taoism written some 2500 years ago, the author-sage Lao Tzu addresses the folly of naming.

The very first line of his timeless work on the Tao, or the Way of the Sage states the impossibility of expressing truth through words:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The story goes (as Solala reminds me again) that Lao Tzu didn’t want to write his teachings down in the first place. He was connected with the lineage of the Wu—the shamans, women, and storytellers of ancient China, who would have passed their knowledge orally from teacher to student, and never through written words. He likely believed, as did the modern shamans who admonished early western anthropologists for insisting on taking notes about everything: “No, don’t write the stories down! If you write them down you imprison them.” But he was prevailed upon so he did write the Tao Te Ching. But he was careful to begin his work, in the very first lines, with the reminder not to take the words for the truth.

The Buddha expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “My teachings are but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t mistake the finger for the moon.”

Are our words just fingers pointing to a greater truth? Have we forgotten that there is a difference?

*

I once read a book by the white South African author and explorer Laurens van der Post, in which he recounted stories of his time living among the Kalahari Bushmen in Southern Africa during the 1950s. In one memorable story, Laurens told of sitting around a nighttime fire with a group of Bushmen, under a vast expanse of star-filled night sky.

As they chatted and shared tales of their day’s adventures, one of the Bushmen casually remarked how beautiful the stars sounded that night. The others nodded in agreement. “Yes, yes. The music of the stars is beautiful tonight.”

The modern and civilized Laurens chuckled at the comments, thinking the Bushmen were making a joke to trick him.

He responded with something the likes of, “That’s very funny, pretending to hear music of the stars. Of course, the stars don’t make a sound, yet you are trying to convince me otherwise. But I will not be fooled.”

The Bushmen laughed as well. They in turn thought that Laurens was was playing a joke on them. For the deeply-connected Bushman, living in full immersion with nature, that the stars could sing was a given, a fact of life. The very idea of stars without music was ludicrous to them.

After some back and forth and no small amount of confusion, Laurens and the Bushmen together realized something shocking. The Bushmen really could hear the music of the stars. Laurens really could not.

In that moment all the men in the circle fell into sadness. The Bushmen felt sorry for Laurens because he couldn’t hear the sound of the stars. And Laurens felt sorry for himself, because he understood that something precious had been lost. He was devastated.

I share that sense of devastation. I have never heard the stars. Yet I sense that we have the capacity to hear them, and so much more. I believe the shamans who say we have the ability to speak the language of the animals and the trees, to understand the primordial language of life. I believe that life sings to us, whether we can hear it or not.

I ponder my own loss of hearing, and I wonder, if we do have this capacity, is it truly lost? Or is it still alive and latent within us, biding its time, waiting for us to remember?”

During my conversation with Solala, it occurs to me that understanding the power of naming might be key.

I wonder, if it’s true that we separate ourselves from other things by naming them, what if we could separate ourselves from naming?

I decide to try it.

*

Experiments: the Practice of Not-Naming

The sages say that by naming things, we lose some of our connection to them. By building boxes with words to describe things, we separate them from other things; we separate them from ourselves.

So what if we were to try not naming? Might we, in the absence of names, find a doorway back to our original self—the self that knows things as they are, and not how we have labeled them to be? Might we hear, see, or sense something new? Or something old, remembered again?

Below are some experiments for remembering.

*

Practice 1: See it before you say it.

Practice connecting before the words come in.

Sit in front of the object you’d like to comprehend, aim your gaze toward it, and close your eyes. Sit silently for a few moments, and focus on your breath, or perhaps the sounds or sensations around you; just get present in the moment. When your mind feels quiet and your vision empty, open your eyes, and focus on the object before you. What do you notice the very moment the object enters your awareness? What is there before words come in to label it?

There may not be any earth-shattering message in this. There does not need to be. What we’re looking to practice is just the instant of connection, the flash of recognition before the name. See if you can experience it.

Practice 2: Forget what you know.

While going through the passes of daily life, practice contemplating things you’re familiar with, but pretending you don’t know their “names.”

Consider the flame of the candle. The pot in the sink. The shoes, as you tie them to your feet. Look, listen, as though you are seeing them for the first time. Pretend you don’t know what they are. You only know that they are.

Instead of “brushing your teeth,” there may be only movement. Instead of “music on the radio” there may be only sound. This does not need to be hard, or forced. It is just a practice of getting to know things without the words we’ve superimposed upon them.

Practice 3: Encounter the new without a name.

Though we know the names for many things, there will always be new things that come into our lives, things we haven’t yet experienced. We can use such fresh experiences as an opportunity to engage without words.

When encountering something new for the first time, approach it without asking what it is. Maybe it’s a flower you’ve never seen before, or a bird you’ve never heard. A new model of car that drives by. Or a cloud in a formation you’ve never noticed. Resist the temptation to ask, “What flower/bird/car is that?”

Instead, simply drink in the experience of newness, without asking the name. You may be taught something even better, which you would never have thought to ask.

Practice 4: Your name is just a name.

I have an old friend who used to introduce himself, “My family calls me Pancho…nice to meet you.” I appreciated this reminder, every time I heard it, of what he meant to express with his choice of language: his being was not to be equated with his name. Our identity does not depend on words.

I’ve tried Pancho’s strategy, but find I can’t say “My family calls me Shannon” without chuckling, or at least feeling compelled to explain my choice of words. So I go for a softer approach. When I introduce myself, instead of defaulting to, “Hi, I’m Shannon,” I go for, “Hi, my name is Shannon.” That’s all the reminder I need to touch in with the part of me that has no name.

Try it. This exercise may or may not make a difference to the person you’ve just met, but it can make a big difference to your consciousness.

Practice 5: Rest your mind on things that don’t have words.

Our world is so full of words that it can be hard to get away from them. How can we expect to practice connection without words, if words are everywhere we look?

Practice getting away from it all. Get away from the word, written or spoken, and into a place where only the language of the unspoken is known. This does not require a vacation to the mountains or the beach, or a silent retreat. It does require removing our attention from words, and making an effort to be present to that which does not require them in order to be known.

Lift your eyes from the page or the screen. Look around your everyday space and give long, loving glances to anything that has no words on it. Perhaps consider a blank wall with nothing on it. Better yet, witness your own starry sky. Listen to music without words. Touch the items close to you and feel their quiet textures. Open to receive the kindnesses that can only be bestowed upon us by a word-silent world.

*

Back in the gymnasium, the master breathes deep into his belly, lowers his hand to his lap, and continues.

“We must never confuse the name of something with the truth. We must ask ourselves in every moment, with everything we experience, what is this thing, when answering only to itself?

“For everything has a life, a truth of its own, before we apply a name to it. Nothing depends on human words for existence. What we happen to name a thing is never what it really is.”

“When we understand this this, only then will insight come. Only then will our consciousness open. Only then will truth transform us.”

The master nods his head in the direction of the wall.

“Now, I want you to look at that basketball hoop again. But before you do, you’ll need to close your eyes and clear your mind.

“Turn in the direction of the object, such that your eyes, when opened, will fall upon the object with fresh awareness.

“Now, close your eyes. When you open them again you’ll notice that there is a moment, a fleeting instant, of apprehension without words. A flash of recognition where the consciousness sees the object before the mind catches up. For consciousness is faster than the mind.

“In that instant, that thing has no name. In that moment there is no “I” and no “thou.” There is only consciousness, experiencing itself.

In that moment, when there is no word to describe, in English or any other language, you may understand.

He tips his head back and laughs heartily. “And then the mind will arrive and tell you it’s a basketball hoop, and the practice will be over for today.”

“Remember,” he winks. “Naming is not the same as knowing.”

I turn my body toward the wall and aim my gaze toward the hoop. I close my eyes and clear my mind in meditation for several minutes, until my thoughts are as empty as they’re going to be. I open my eyes, no expectation. There is a flash. And for only an instant, I see it.

A split second later the intellect steps in dutifully. “Basketball hoop,” it instructs me, surely trying to be helpful. But it is too late. I’ve already seen it. I’ve already made the connection.

The yogi was right.



There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting. If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

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Wake Up, Human 005: The Magic of Breathwork

The Magic of Breathwork with Travis Steffens


Listen here…

…or check it out wherever you enjoy podcasts:


Believe it—and then you’ll see it.
That’s when you step into the infinite.

Travis Steffens

In this episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast, I talk with Travis Steffens, a teacher and practitioner of breathwork: breathing exercises and techniques that employ conscious control of the breath in order to improve physical, mental, and spiritual well being.

My conversation with Travis explores breathwork as a portal to transforming both body and spirit. We’ll weave through discussions on the science behind breathwork, the mechanics of breathing practices, and the gifts that breathwork offers to the mystic and the spiritual seeker. Travis will even introduce us to two of the most powerful breathwork practices in his repertoire: Wim Hoff breathing and the DMT breath.

Watch for practices from Travis to be included in the upcoming breathwork app, Breathspace. You can learn more about him on his company website at www.Rinvestments.net.


Episode at a glance: what you’ll learn by listening

  • “What exactly is breathwork, and what can the experience of breathwork open up in us that otherwise might not be so available to us?
  • Why has our physical body been referred to as “the greatest pharmacy in the universe?”
  • What’s the difference between breathwork and “just breathing” as we do all the time?
  • Travis mentions he’s seen breathwork heal people from chronic illness. How is this possible?
  • Why is visualization important to the success of a breathwork practice?
  • Who is Wim Hoff, and why do we love him?
  • What is the DMT breath, and why might it be “the closest thing to an ayahuasca experience without the ayahuasca”?
  • What’s the most foundational reason for practicing breathwork? (Hint: It’s not to become superhuman, heal from illness, or to become enlightened.)

Links and resources mentioned in the episode:


Knowledge is a book on a bookshelf. Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge. And the only way to connect the two of them is through experience.

Travis Steffens


There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting. If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

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