The Pause Between

“When God closes one door, He opens another.”

It’s 5 a.m. I’m wide awake, though I don’t need to be. For the first time in almost 30 years, I don’t have a job. 

Last month, my employer announced it would be making reductions in the workforce, and I knew, in the mental intersection of intuition and logic, that this time my job would be one of the many eliminated. They notified me last Tuesday. After 22 years with this organization, it’s over. Unlike colleagues whose exit from the company included a festive retirement party, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to anyone. 

It’s kind of surreal. I had a month to prepare myself for this outcome, so when I was asked to report to the HR director, I wasn’t surprised. I actually think that was my first comment. The rest of the conversation is a blur. But now, sitting on my sofa in the dark with my sleepy dog Lacy beside me, instead of grief, fear or bitterness I feel a strange sense of disconnection. I’m not sure how to do this. 

Thankfully, this time is very different from other times I’ve found myself between jobs. At almost 58, I’m eligible to start my pension. I know how fortunate I am to have this safety net, although it’s nowhere near enough to live on. Still, I’m grateful for this measure of security while I figure out what comes next.

Press pause

“Mom, know what you need to do?” asked Jared, my youngest son. “Take two weeks off to do nothing. Just be aimless. You’ve never been able to take it easy, ever. You deserve it!”

Two weeks to be aimless? Practical, productive planner that I am, two hours doing nothing sometimes feel frivolous. But my husband Ret strongly encouraged me to take that two-week break. It turned out to be excellent advice.

The first week was fun. Who knew how pleasant the supermarket could be on a Wednesday morning? Scheduling a visit with my doctor, it occurred to me I didn’t have to request the last appointment of the day. I could go any time I wanted and avoid rush-hour traffic. The realization almost made me giddy. All at once I felt a heavy, ill-fitting coat slip off my shoulders and disappear. 

That’s when I made the radical decision to stop wearing a watch for the rest of the two weeks. What a luxury to actually have time and space, to stop cramming every waking moment with a thousand tasks just to keep my little world humming along on its orbit! 

The new reality

So that was Week 1. Week 2 has been a little more challenging. After navigating big, irrevocable decisions about my pension, it’s been a struggle to make less consequential ones, like what to fix for dinner. I don’t miss rushing out the door every morning for work, but I really miss my friends there, dear people who have been a part of my daily life for over 20 years. And when FedEx delivered the legal documents officially severing me from my company, the magnitude of the loss came crashing down.

I guess I really did need this pause, just to catch my breath. 

Third act dreams

What do I do now? My ever-active mind is bursting with ideas, most of them involving yoga. I’ve taught after-work yoga classes and stress management workshops at my company for years and years, and I’m feeling absolutely bereft without them now. Always a labor of love and a joyful hobby, my dream has been that when I retired from my corporate job, I would find a way to teach yoga full-time.

But where? Teaching in a yoga studio doesn’t feel like a good fit for me. My favorite students tend to be the ones who probably wouldn’t set foot in a studio because they believe they’re not flexible/strong/young/fit/healthy enough to do yoga. Guiding them in a slower-paced practice that fits their unique body has always been a kind of calling, especially now that I’m at an age where that’s what I need, too.

Could this be the right time for my dream?

Meditating in a tizzy

Sitting on my meditation bench has been a real challenge lately. I have lots of time to practice, but my monkey mind is in high gear, planning, thinking, worrying:

  • OMG, that was the last paycheck I’ll ever get! How will I pay my bills?
  • I am never going to work in a cubicle again! Time to get rid of that office wardrobe!
  • How do I find a place to teach yoga? Should I teach online? Look for private clients? Forget the whole thing and bag groceries instead?
  • Let’s do something fun today! What about the beach? Or the bookstore? Or a nap?
  • The windows need washing, and look at those giant dust bunnies! No excuses anymore – time to get up and clean this house!

When I find myself in this kind of tizzy, just about the only meditating I can manage is to sit relatively still and watch my breath flow in and out. It’s the first meditation technique I teach my students. When the mind wants to get stuck in the past or the future, you need something to anchor you in the here and now. The breath is an instant connection to the present moment – you can’t breathe next Tuesday’s breath today. There’s only this breath. Then the next one. And the next. One at a time.

Just breathe

Witnessing the breath, I’m focusing less on the inhalation and exhalation, and more on the little pause in between. It’s barely noticeable, just an instant, but it pulses with meaning. Inhale, and there’s a subtle pause at the top when the lungs are full and the body knows it’s time to let go. Exhale, and the pause at the bottom acknowledges the release of what the body no longer needs, ready for the promise of the next breath. It’s almost like the sweetness of dawn and dusk. What came before is past, what’s next has yet to arrive, and the peaceful energy suspended in those brief moments of transition is palpable. 

The next breath is coming. And so is another day. 

A new door opens

A couple days ago, I dropped off Lacy at the doggie salon and spent some time chatting with the owner and her sister. Naturally they wondered what I was doing there at 10:30 in the morning since I usually rush Lacy over for her bath during my lunch hour, hair on fire and no time for small talk.

I told them about my jobless state and my yoga idea. Twenty minutes later, I had a private client lined up! They asked me to bring them some business cards so they can tell other dog-loving clients about me. It’s a beginning.

All my life I’ve been told that when God closes one door, He opens another. And so far, it’s been true for me. Maybe it’s time to have faith and step through the next open door.

Learning to Take It Easy

This is Lacy Larue, my sweet little bichon frise. Don’t let the creampuff looks fool you. She’s all dog.

Right now, Lacy is recovering from ACL surgery so she hasn’t been quite her animated self. How, you may ask, does a ten-pound cutie like Lacy wind up with a football injury? Our veterinarian thinks her being very bowlegged put undue strain on the ligament, but he’s never seen her fly off the sofa in a frenzy to menace the UPS man. So I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s been darned near impossible to keep her still and quiet while her knee heals.

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Hiding Klondike bar wrappers in her bed

Little dog, big personality

Like most small dogs, Lacy’s personality is larger than life. My mom calls her the little cheerleader because of her infectious buoyancy. She’s a few months away from her tenth birthday; while she naps a lot these days, she still embodies the youthful exuberance of her puppyhood. A fluffy white ball of kisses and willfulness, one minute she’s snuggled up next to you to watch TV (she’s a football fan) and the next she’s prancing on hind legs, insisting you share your ice cream. She has an uncanny ability to communicate without words, using little grunts, squeaks and a sound I can only describe as a snort to let you know exactly what she wants, and she’s quick to give you the side-eye if she doesn’t like something you’ve said.

Did I mention that it’s been a challenge to moderate all this craziness? The first few days after her surgery, she was a curled-up, pitiful little thing, but as the days went by and the effects of the anesthesia faded, Lacy regained her happy vigor. She was born with an anomaly called luxating patella, which causes her kneecap to shift out of position at times. Luxating patella is a fairly common problem with small breed dogs and both of Lacy’s back legs are affected. It doesn’t seem to bother her much. She can be happily dashing across the yard, and then suddenly she’ll raise a back leg and continue on without breaking stride. Thanks to a lifetime of three-legged running experience, this knee surgery is just no big deal. She can tear off behind Tanner the border collie in pursuit of a squirrel without a second thought.

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Sweet baby, just home from the hospital

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Biker dog? No! She’s having laser therapy treatment to help heal her little knee.

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The cone of shame…

Except, of course, I can’t allow her do that right now, because sometimes she forgets herself and puts that leg down as she runs. Lacy disregards her knee to jump up and down like a pogo stick when she wants something, like my dinner. And if we’re sitting on the sofa together and the doorbell rings, it’s all I can do to catch her before she launches herself to the floor to bark at the intruder. So it’s my job to protect my little buddy from herself, to somehow contain all this wildness so she doesn’t wreck. Dr. Bink’s good work.

Don’t push too hard

Do you know any people like that? People who push too hard, who rush headlong into every experience? There’s nothing inherently wrong with striving, obviously. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between challenging yourself and abusing yourself.

This tendency to overdo it shows up in so many areas of life, like being consumed with your job to the exclusion of everything else, or depriving your body with a crash diet. Why is moderation so hard for many of us to achieve?

I note this tendency in some of my yoga students, and sometimes myself, right on the mat. Adopting a yoga practice is one of the most nourishing gifts you can give yourself, but as in everything else in life, there’s a balance. The Sanskrit word asana, which is the name for the physical poses in yoga, loosely translated means “steady and comfortable seat.” According to Sri Swami Satchidananda, the goal of Integral Yoga®, the style of yoga I teach, is to develop an easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life. This means practicing the poses with a relaxed body, smooth breath and calm mind. But when you’re panting, straining or otherwise in a state of unease, you may be exercising, but it’s not yoga anymore.

This doesn’t mean we should show up on our sticky mats in sloppy apathy. One of my teachers likes to caution her students to “take it easy, but don’t be lazy.” So muscling your way into an arm balance, a headstand, a deep backbend, etc. when you’re fatigued, injured or new to the practice is not a good idea. However, challenging yourself to hold a pose for a few more breaths, or to attempt something new with caution and full awareness develops greater strength, flexibility and resilience. It’s a balance of effort and ease that fosters growth in our yoga practice — and everywhere else, too. It makes me cringe to see people in a seated forward bend gripping their feet with white-knuckled intensity and clenched teeth instead of allowing their hamstrings to lengthen gradually, safely and naturally. We benefit most when we choose the right action, reach for our limit, and allow the rest to unfold.

Back to Lacy, who is relaxing happily next to me on the sofa as I peck out these closing words. Yes, in her zest for life, she gets carried away sometimes. She doesn’t understand anatomical principles or the healing process, so that’s why she needs me. But she’s always known there’s a time to snuggle and a time to bark. A time to play and a time to rest. And we need to enjoy it all.

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Silver is Golden

“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”  Max Ehrmann, Desiderata.

There’s an age spot on the back of my left hand.

I find it amusing, really. It’s a pale, tiny thing, as if it knows it’s new and is afraid to assert itself. This little speck reminds me of a hand stamp at a festival – you may now enter middle age.

Time changes things

Ever since my 50th birthday a few years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about this phenomenon called aging, taking note of the changes that come with the package. For example, gravity is somehow much more powerful now as everything seems to be sliding downward. I can still hear a pin drop next door but I can’t read a darned thing without my glasses anymore. Body parts that were once maintenance-free are sometimes stiff and cranky for no good reason.

I recently had to see a specialist to evaluate a mysterious pain in my right wrist. At random intervals it literally locks up on me, sending a stream of fire down to my fingers and rendering my wrist immobile. It is unbelievably painful. The first time this happened I thought it was dislocated. My primary care physician thought it was a nerve disorder. After an EMG performed by Dr. Frankenstein, I learned it is not a nerve problem.

It’s arthritis.

At first I was really happy to get a diagnosis. After all, I’d been struggling with this malady for years and had no idea what caused it. And then it hit me: OMG! I have arthritis. Old people get arthritis. How could this happen to me?

Yoga over 50

When I’m on my yoga mat in the privacy of my home, I feel strong, flexible and balanced. My body sings. I stretch and breathe, feeling vital and alive. This is how I always want to feel, completely at home in my body.

However, when I am on this very same mat in a sea of other people in a yoga class, I feel differently. While I’m not normally the oldest student in the class, I’m never the youngest, and it’s hard not to make comparisons. My back doesn’t bend as much as it once did. Women two decades my junior are dressed in tiny yoga pants and skimpy tanks that I’d love to wear if they could contain my, um, femininity. There was a time when I jumped around in a vinyasa class, but I just don’t have that energy level anymore, and besides, it’s hard on my joints.

It took some time for me to understand this new reality and find a sense of acceptance, and even appreciation. Because I really don’t want to sweat my way through a vigorous yoga class anymore. I want to allow stretches to unfold gently. I want to hold challenging poses a little longer and notice how my body and mind react. I want to slow down and savor every pose.

I want to slow down and savor my life.

Celebrate every birthday

Some people say they dread having birthdays. I’ve never understood that. No birthdays means you’re dead! I’m grateful for every single birthday I get and I plan to celebrate them all with candles that set off the smoke alarms. I’m happy to be 54. I’d never trade the wisdom I’ve gained for the 25-year-old body I’ve lost.

My dark brown hair is sprinkled with silvery strands, and as weird as this sounds, I kind of like them. Each is hard-won. The laugh lines around my eyes and mouth stay there when I stop laughing, and I don’t really mind. They mean I’ve laughed a lot over the years.

Life leaves its marks on all of us. The most important ones can’t be seen. My mind has opened as I’ve come to understand how very much I still don’t know. My heart is softer and more expansive with every dear one I gather into it. It’s been broken many times, but miraculously hasn’t lost its capacity to love again.

My soul is free. And it never grows old.

A Resolution Worth Keeping

The parking lot at my local YMCA was jam-packed this evening when I drove past it on my way home from work. It’s like this every January, as swarms of the well intentioned seek fulfillment by weight loss. By Valentine’s Day, most of them will be in their recliners watching TV.

I really can’t criticize them; I’ve done the same thing so many times. For me it’s always been a bit demoralizing to set sky-high goals and feel worthless when I can’t meet them in a week or two. Dramatic change is certainly possible, especially when ushered in by dramatic circumstances – a heart attack, for example, can turn many die-hard couch potatoes into health nuts. But for most mere mortals, long-lasting change takes a long time.

Why do we do this to ourselves? We look into our fun house mirrors every morning and see a distorted image. We’re too fat, too short, too broke, too tired, too something. Whatever we are, we need to fix it. Right now. Deep in our hearts we believe we aren’t good enough. Movies, TV and magazines prove this to us over and over. The beautiful people in the media looking back at us are talented, wealthy, fit, well dressed and enviably successful. And if our self-esteem still has a shred left, a quick browse through Facebook will take care of that. In this sanitized, storybook land, everyone is having a better time than you. They’re vacationing in the Caribbean and cooking fabulous meals with organic produce. They’re in passionate relationships with stunning partners or proudly attending their child’s graduation from medical school. No one on Facebook ever posts their status from the checkout line at Walmart or lets you see their children in their natural state, throwing food at each other.

Sometimes I need a vacation from these plastic images so I can like myself.

I am fortunate to have a really nice life: wonderful family and friends, good health, a successful career and a comfortable home. I recognize how much I’ve been blessed and I’m deeply grateful. But years of hard work have helped build this life, too. My dad always said hard work never killed anyone. I don’t know about that, but a work ethic is a wonderful thing. The desire to succeed, to set goals and achieve them, is vitally necessary in any society. It becomes a problem when relentless striving turns into unfulfilling perfectionism. Too bad we don’t always recognize it.

What if, instead of an oppressive list of resolutions to face in 2016, we change the game altogether? What if we choose to pursue that which feeds our souls?

Can you transform that inner taskmaster into a nurturing parent?

Instead of a weight loss goal, seek to truly nourish your body.

Instead of finding a way to acquire more, find real gratitude in what you already have.

Instead of getting in shape, stretch and move and live joyfully in your body. 

Instead of pursuing achievements, pursue stronger relationships with the people who matter most.

Maybe the rest will take care of itself.

 

Taking Care – Of You

Patrick (not his real name) is a student in my Monday after-work yoga class. He’s an earnest guy, hardworking and devoted to his family, just a genuinely nice man with a humble demeanor and ready smile. He’s always expressed great interest in all elements of yoga; he wants to learn about meditation, the chakras, the Yoga Sutras, everything. His curiosity and willingness to try new things inspire me to be a better teacher.

This class is for fellow employees of the corporation where I spend a large chunk of my waking life. It’s an intense, demanding environment, and because of the product we manufacture, perfection is considered a completely reasonable expectation. My goal for this particular group of students is to undo what the workday does to them – they arrive barely breathing with their shoulders tucked under their ears. I know how it is; I work there, too. So, before we begin, I always ask whether anyone has any aches, pains or psychoses we should address in class.

Pushing through pain

Patrick, like so many other people, struggles with back pain, but at first he didn’t talk about it. When he first joined the class, he refused to let his back get in the way of his practice. He embraced every asana, determined to master them. When we sat on the floor for meditation, his tight hips troubled him, but he assumed the cross-legged position anyway. However, after a while I noticed a change: Patrick began to practically limp into class, wincing with pain. In true overachiever fashion, he would soldier through class anyway, always gung-ho to do the most challenging poses possible.

Ardha Chandrasana - Half Moon Pose
Ardha Chandrasana – Half Moon Pose

Once when my back was turned he kicked his leg up into Half Moon Pose, a challenging asana that involves balancing on one leg and bending sideways to place a hand on the floor while lifting the opposite leg parallel to the floor. It’s a really fun pose that makes you feel like you can leap tall buildings, and I teach modifications to make it more accessible to my students. Patrick chose to perform the more difficult variation, which was very bad news for his back. His drive, so essential in his work, was detrimental to his wellbeing.

This event caused Patrick to confess that he had been working tirelessly on renovations to his home to make it ready for his elderly mother who was coming to live with him. Her advanced age and declining health had made it too difficult for her to continue to live alone, so Patrick had been spending his weekends moving furniture, painting, building, improving – and this strenuous work had taken its toll on his back, especially when the Mr. Fix-It weekend was followed by ten hours sitting at a desk the next day. He agreed to my suggestions for modifications in yoga but was resolute about his home improvement projects. And so, no matter how gentle or therapeutic Monday’s yoga class may be, it is not enough to counter the abuse inflicted the weekend before. At least I can keep an eye on him during class to make sure he doesn’t overdo it on my watch.

I need some TLC too

I think a lot of us are just like Patrick. At least, I know I am. I woke up yesterday morning with a whopping migraine, the kind that amplifies every sound, nauseates me and distorts my view of the world – everything is too bright and a little bit blurry. There was a time when I had these nightmare headaches for days on end, week after week, but mercifully it’s been much better lately. Now I only get one every month or so, with much less severity. Until yesterday.

I might have seen it coming. My job has been hectic and exhausting lately. Travel always wears me out, and over the last three months I’ve visited eight cities. My sleep schedule and normally healthy diet have gone out the window, and my usually regular yoga practice has spent some time out the window, too. And of course, the holiday rush has added its own dimension to the insanity. Yoga teacher that I am, you might expect me to know exactly how to nurture myself when I am fatigued to this degree.

You would be wrong. Well, not exactly wrong; I know how to take care of myself. The problem is that I, like my friend Patrick, don’t always do it. I’ll admit that when I am feeling depleted, I often choose to run on fumes rather than refuel. After all, the whole world would implode if I took a day off.

Some nights I crawl through my front door, drop my bag and collapse on the sofa, swimming in fatigue so heavy that even my hair is tired. But five minutes later, I’m in the kitchen throwing dinner together, feeding the dogs, opening the mail and running a load of laundry at the same time.

Don’t be impressed. This characteristic is not a good thing.

I’m not sure how I became such a martyr, except that I come from an impressive line of long-suffering Sicilian women. Plus most of my schoolteachers were nuns. In any case, I find it easy to talk to my students about self-care but hard to practice it myself. Our driven, competitive, achievement-oriented society seems to reward this kind of behavior, and it isn’t doing us any good.

Think about it. Most people would never treat a friend the way they treat their own bodies. You’re tired? You’re hungry? Too bad – we have work to do! Say that to a friend and you won’t have that friend for long. But we do it to ourselves all the time.

Well, I’m learning that my body won’t stand for that nonsense too long. It rebels. If I ignore the signals it gives me by pushing through headaches, working when I’m sick, etc., my body retaliates by shutting down and forcing me to rest. That’s what happened yesterday with the monster migraine. I was pretty much down for the count and had no choice but to give in. Not surprisingly, I feel better today.

Ahimsa means don’t hurt anybody, including you

And here’s the yoga lesson for today. Ahimsa is the first of the five principles of yama, which are yoga’s ethical precepts. It’s a Sanskrit word that means non-violence. I am continually fascinated by the similarities in the world’s religions. Right living is the same in any language and whatever your conception of God.

Anyway, the concept of ahimsa is often a new yogi’s introduction to this side of yoga. It sometimes comes up when discussing vegetarianism, as many yoga practitioners choose to abstain from meat for compassionate reasons, but diet is not the only ahimsa application. It’s choosing kindness toward all beings, even the ones that get on your nerves. It’s treating things gently – slamming doors is not a demonstration of ahimsa.

Beating yourself up, physically or emotionally, is violence toward oneself. If we cannot treat ourselves with kindness, how can we extend it to anyone else?

Mini-meditation

Whatever you might be tackling right now, whether it’s housework, studying, shopping or anything else that feels like work – pause. Bring your full awareness to your breath. Breathe deeply and notice the way cool air flows into your nostrils and warm air flows out. Allow your abdomen to expand with each inhale, and as you exhale, try to exhale a little more slowly, more completely. Imagine that every inhale fills your body with soft healing light, and every exhale sweeps away all tension, pain and worry. Continue this breath for a few minutes and notice the immediate response of your nervous system.

Slow down. Close your eyes and allow your shoulders to lower and your shoulder blades to slide down your back. Feel happy to be alive, right now, in this moment. Soften your jaw and that little line between your eyebrows and think about what you could do for yourself that would bring you peace. Maybe it’s indulging in a long soak in the tub, lighting candles or listening to soft music – or all three. (That’s what I’m going to do.) Add this pleasurable activity to your to-do list and do it today. It is every bit as important as all those other tasks on your list, possibly more important. You are not a machine. And even if you were, all machines need maintenance sometimes.

Know that by taking care of yourself, you take care of everyone else in your life because you have more to give. Find the peace within and it always radiates outward. It can’t be contained.

OM Shanthi. Peace.

 

 

 

The Story of Penny

Sometimes selfishness comes gift-wrapped.

— Ret Taylor

You may have surmised, based on my previous posts, that I’m an unapologetic dog lover. Perhaps because I was deprived of pets as a child (except for a short-lived relationship with a miniature Schnauzer – the original Greta), I’ve had at least one dog under my roof most of my adult life. Currently my husband and I share our home with an eight-year-old bichon frisé named Lacy, and Tanner, the crazy border collie mix who surprised us by doubling his weight in the first six months after we rescued him from the pound two years ago.

The story of Tanner is best told in a separate post, but I’ll admit that I become embarrassingly emotional in animal shelters. I cry the whole time and contemplate ways I could free all those poor, unwanted dogs and bring them with me to a magical meadow somewhere so they can frolic, eat and be loved all the days of their lives. The magnitude of the world’s suffering is more than my heart can contain, but there’s a special, fragile place there for homeless dogs.

This is the story of Penny.

I’ll spare you the long version, but a few weeks ago, at my urgent insistence, my husband and I adopted an adorable, seven-year-old Pomeranian mix (older dogs steal my heart) that had been pulled from the animal shelter. With a pointy little face and equally pointy ears, she looked like a miniature fox. The sweet little thing was in a loving foster home recovering from bladder surgery.

This was thIMG_1768e most affectionate dog I’ve ever met. Even though she’d been very ill and almost died, little Penny was more emotionally resilient than most people I know. You’d think an animal that had been neglected and allowed to suffer like this would never trust a human again, but time and again I meet dogs that are eager to give away their hearts one more time, hoping to have their love returned.

Confident that my two dogs would welcome this new little addition to the pack, we scheduled a meet-and-greet to allow the pups to get acquainted. While there were a few skirmishes, there was no outright aggression, and Lacy actually seemed to enjoy walking through the neighborhood with Penny by her side. The signs were good that Penny would be a nice fit in our family.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Penny was a well-behaved dog with the most charming habit of executing ballet steps after doing her business in the grass. She was friendly, smart and completely lovable, but she hadn’t fully recovered from her surgery and was having some difficulty. She needed to be taken outside to potty every couple of hours or she would have an accident. I live just a few minutes away from my job, so I’m fortunate enough to be able to come home at midday to let the dogs out and share my lunch with Louie the parrot. Still, leaving Penny alone for four or five hours at a time was just too long. Her bedding was always wet and this was causing skin problems on top of everything else. Her lower abdomen was painful. She needed more care than I was able to provide.

The worst part, though, was the reaction of my two dogs. Initially they seemed to be mixing well, but after a few days, it became clear: Lacy and Tanner didn’t want to accept Penny into our pack. Following the butt-sniffing protocol, they would simply walk away from her. It was especially heartbreaking to me because little Penny wanted so much to be included. She tried to romp with Lacy, but Lacy’s reaction was to stop romping. If Lacy were napping on the sofa, Penny would lie down as close as Lacy would allow, but if Lacy noticed the intrusion, she moved to another piece of furniture.

 

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I don’t know if my dogs sensed that Penny was sick and thus kept their distance from her, as dogs sometimes do. But after a week of this, Penny’s health situation seemed to be getting worse, not better. Maybe she was suffering because she felt their rejection. Maybe she missed her foster mom, the angel who nursed her back to health when she was so very ill.

I didn’t want to do the right thing. There’s a part of me that has always sided with the underdog and feels compelled to rescue the lost. I learned a long time ago, in the most painful way possible, that most people just don’t want to be rescued. But dogs do. They tell you with their eyes. I’d grown to love this funny little fox-dog and desperately wanted to keep her with me.

But that was selfish.

Penny had been enjoying a good recovery in her foster home. Her foster family included three small dogs that were friendly to her. Although I loved her and lavished her with affection and attention, I couldn’t give her what her foster family provided. And so Ret, my husband, gently led me to the realization that it was wrong to keep Penny – wrong for Penny and wrong for our two dogs. And so tearfully, I returned Penny to the woman who’d really been her mommy. I pray that she will adopt Penny and give her a secure, forever home.

There’s always a yoga lesson waiting for me, and this time is no exception. The one that springs to my mind here is aparigraha, which is the fifth principle of yama, yoga’s ethical foundation. Aparigraha is usually translated as not coveting or non-greed, a concept that can be expanded to include cultivating gratitude for what one already has and to cease grasping for what one does not have. I’ve heard this all my Catholic girl life: Thou shall not covet.

What began as a desire to make the world a better place for another sentient being became a struggle as I attempted to force a situation that wasn’t right. All the signs were there, beginning with the urgency I felt to adopt another pet when, for many reasons, it was not the best time for us to do so. Add to that the restless feeling that comes from that small place inside that tells me I’m not doing enough, I don’t have enough, I don’t belong. By rescuing someone else, I must be OK.

Ouch. That was hard to say.

Another principle for me to remember is non-attachment. The Bhagavad Gita, a classic scripture of the East, discusses doing one’s duty without concern for what others may say or what reward one may receive, to perform the work joyfully, for its own sake and with no expectation. I struggle with this. I want my good deeds to be recognized and appreciated. I think we all do, at least to some degree.

As it happened, I received not one, but two, rewards for my actions. Little Penny reacted joyfully to the sight of her foster mom, running to her and showering her with puppy kisses – what a comfort that was to me! Upon returning home without Penny, I was greeted with another happy sight. During the time that Penny lived with us, Lacy and Tanner had lost their usual zest and became strangely moody and withdrawn. Now, for the first time in days, they were jumping up and down and barking excitedly, unable to contain themselves. Why did I think they weren’t enough? I am so lucky to be surrounded by all this furry love.

I’ll sign off for now. My dogs want to go for a walk.

Life Lessons from my Herb Garden

Here’s what my herb garden looked like this morning, after a long summer of perfect herb-growing weather and no gardener. I was feeling ambitious in March as I selected all these plants in their tiny biodegradable pots. The reality is that my poor garden has been on its own for the past four months.

Herb gardening can be fun. For a minimal investment of time, money and space, you get fragrant, interesting plants that attract bees and butterflies to the garden and make you look like a chef on the Food Network. The rosemary plant is a favorite. My Sicilian heritage predisposes me to a great passion for cooking, plus I love rubbing my hands on this plant and then inhaling the piney fragrance on my palms. The plant itself has grown into an impressive shrub and taken over just about half the space in my tiny garden. What I didn’t know until I got started this morning was that this beautiful specimen, growing unchecked, obliterated the stevia, the marigolds, and something else I don’t recognize anymore.

Beyond the rosemary monster is the basil. Back in the spring, I got carried away at the garden center and bought three plants. I really like pesto! The basil plants did not disappoint. They basked in the Savannah sun, smiled up at our afternoon thunderstorms and thrived. Then they trampled on the sweet English lavender plant I foolishly established as their neighbor.

How often have you heard, “You reap what you sow?” Gardens often serve as a metaphor for life, and no wonder. It’s an easy comparison to make. Lives, like gardens, need careful cultivation to produce the best fruit. As long as we are diligently pulling the weeds of vice, our garden can thrive. Let those weeds take over and they choke out your virtuous flowers. You can even look in the Bible for a garden metaphor. In one of his parables, Jesus likened his followers to different kinds of soil with varying levels of receptivity to the seed of his teachings.

Back to my herb garden: I spent the better part of my day pulling weeds and harvesting a mountain of basil and rosemary. All the while, I wondered what on earth I was going to do with all this bounty and reflected on what this particular plot says about its slack gardener.

Maybe the overgrown mess represents the issues in my life I try to ignore. Every single morning when I opened the back door to let my dogs out I saw this jungle in the making, and every single day I thought, I need to harvest some of that basil and pull those weeds. But I didn’t. It occurred to me that I’ve been neglecting a couple of other matters in remarkably similar fashion. Not surprisingly, they’re growing a little wild, too, like that paperwork I haven’t felt like addressing or the phone calls I need to make. Worrying over my procrastination is starting to wear the edges of my conscience a little thin.

The real lesson could be in what’s left of the lavender plant. Lavender is my favorite smell in the whole world, especially in its natural state. So if the lavender was important to me, why was I so careless with it? Why, when it started to cower in the presence of the basil bully, didn’t I come to its rescue and either cut that basil down to size and eat it, or move the lavender plant to a more hospitable location? How many times in my day-to-day life am I careless with important matters because I just can’t find the motivation to act?

Hmm. Actually, this little patch of green bears a strong resemblance to the inner workings of my mind.

One of the first exercises when learning to meditate is called witnessing the mind. You sit comfortably with a tall spine, close your eyes, gently focus attention on the breath and just watch the mind’s antics. It doesn’t take long for a distracting thought to pop up. In this practice, you observe this thought in a detached manner without getting involved in it so that it can pass across the sky of your mind like a cloud on a breezy day. For example, if the thought that jumps into your awareness is “Pizza!” you let the pizza fade from your consciousness rather than allow the mind to start choosing toppings. Once the first thought clears out, another follows. This happens over and over. With continued practice, the sweet, silent spaces between distracting thoughts grow longer and longer.

You also gain an awareness of just how much nonsense takes up space in your head every day. Left to its own devices, my mind has a mind of its own; it latches onto random, usually useless, ideas and won’t let go. These thoughts get bigger and bigger, kind of like my basil plants, until they demand that I act on them. They drown out other, worthier thoughts. They multiply and run around my brain like a Jack Russell terrier. Clearly, someone has to be the grown-up here and bring order to this chaos.

This is why it’s called the monkey mind. The purpose of yoga is to train the mind, this powerful, willful child between our ears, so that we can experience real peace in all situations. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It’s the practice of a lifetime.

Herb Harden After

Here’s an evening update: My garden is tidy, the overgrowth has been removed and I have about two pints of pesto in my freezer, ready to enliven my culinary efforts with a spicy burst of summer flavor any time I want. It’s only September so I probably have one more mini-harvest before my garden goes to sleep for the winter. If only it were this easy to pull all those weeds from the border of my mind.

Namaste

In yoga circles, the word namaste is used as a greeting, an acknowledgement and a farewell. Expressed while bowing slightly and joining the palms together at the heart with the fingers pointing toward heaven, namaste is a Sanskrit word that means “I bow to you,” or, depending on who you ask, “I bow to the Divine in you.”

We don’t bow much in America, to the Divine or otherwise. Maybe we should.

It’s easy to get caught up in our own plans and needs, and forget that other beings have souls too. When I am focused on something, like getting to a destination or finding the brown rice on the supermarket shelf, I sometimes develop a strange tunnel vision that discounts the other people who are, like me, focused on reaching their destination or selecting a grain. If I’m in a hurry, which is almost always, I drive my CR-V (or my shopping cart) like I’m the only one on the road. Recently I realized that it’s my ego doing the driving. Everyone has a right to be here, even the guy puttering along in the left lane.

It’s all about me, part 1

My husband and I were on the highway traveling to visit my parents in Louisiana when this truth came home to me. We were at a rest stop and I was in a hurry to find the ladies’ room. I walked briskly past several people on my way, not making eye contact with any of them. Upon finding the restroom, I noticed a middle-aged man dressed in a custodian’s uniform standing near the door. He was wearing a ball cap and eyeglasses with thick lenses, and he looked up at me and inclined his head when I walked by. I ignored him altogether and entered the restroom.

Almost immediately, I began to wonder why I did that. This was a fellow human being extending a polite gesture and I didn’t give him a second glance. It was like he didn’t exist. I reflected on how many other times I’ve done this: probably hundreds. Of course, there are times when it’s safer not to make eye contact with strangers, but this really wasn’t one of those times. It was a bright summer afternoon and people were everywhere.

When I emerged from the ladies’ room, the custodian was still nearby, so I nodded and smiled at him and went on my way. I’m sure it wasn’t the high point of his day, but it made me feel better.

It’s all about me, part 2

But it was not to last. Soon after, I was at the ophthalmologist’s office for a minor surgical procedure. I was standing outside the ladies’ room (is this a pattern?) waiting for my turn for what became an increasingly long time. I was okay with waiting at first, but after a while I started to get impatient. I could hear movement behind the door, but minutes passed without the person making an exit. Shifting my weight from one foot to another, the little self in my head started complaining. What on earth was she doing in there? How long does it take to use the bathroom? Things like that.

Finally, to my great relief, the door opened. Slowly. Then an elderly gentleman started backing out of the room, guiding the wheelchair occupied by his frail, white-haired wife.

Feeling ashamed, I smiled at the couple and moved so the man could navigate the wheelchair past me. Ducking into the bathroom, I uttered a quick prayer of gratitude to God that I am healthy and ambulatory. It was no big deal for me to wait a few minutes. I had time.

Spiritual goals

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize just how much work I still have to do on myself. My meditation teacher encouraged us to challenge ourselves by setting spiritual goals and including consequences when we don’t meet them.

For example, one of my goals is to drive courteously and observe the speed limit, and if I fail – if I drive too fast or call other drivers unflattering names – my punishment fits the crime: I am not allowed to pass anyone else for the rest of the day, no matter how snail-like their driving. It’s been an educational experience for me.

You know, I’m starting to like the right lane.