Forward and Back – The Progress Dance

Many of you know I am a huge podcast fan.  There is no special pattern or theme to the podcasts that make their way into my playlist.  So many things interest me and I find podcasts to be an enjoyable way to learn about different topics and ideas without having to sit in front of a screen or even anchor myself to a chair with a book.  They open up worlds for me that I can later explore in more depth if desired.  Podcasts are an especially welcome treat for me when I’m walking.  Fortunately, I have the amazing luxury of a 100-mile bike trail running through our town so I can walk and listen without having to worry about vehicle traffic.  It gets tricky in the winter when snow clogs the trail, but a few years ago the town paved a portion of the trail which is plowed during the winter.  Most of this section lies in full sun for much of the day so even when the hours of daylight are few, the trail dries out pretty quickly providing an ice-free path which is greatly appreciated.  I feel very fortunate to have this resource.

On my walk this morning I listened to a podcast that originates from Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico called Tonglen for our Times. The main speaker for this talk is teacher and author, Sean Murphy.  Tonglen is a meditation practice where the practitioner breathes in the suffering of the world and breathes out loving-kindness.  The idea is that energy can be transformed from something seemingly negative into something more useful.  There are examples of this throughout nature. One that was cited in the podcast was the transformation that occurs in the process of composting.  A speaker described how she had begun using worms in her compost pile and saw that after a few days there was no evidence at all of what had originally been in the pile.  Even the smell was gone. What we reject as garbage had been transformed into nutrient-rich loam. One person’s trash is another creature’s treasure. Also mentioned was how peacocks can eat what to humans is a poisonous substance and turn it into a source of nutrition that allows them to become such beautiful creatures.  Then there is the process of photosynthesis where plants take the energy from sunlight and create the sugar they need for their own growth and survival. We can all think of other examples of natural transformation of energy.  In fact, one of the laws of physics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It is simply transformed.

One of my favorite podcasters, Caroline Casey, takes this concept a step further.  She suggests that we all carry an imaginary portable composter into which we can throw all negative energy as we feel it.  The composter will then transform that energy and send it out to the universe in a form that will help create things that are useful.

So what has this got to do with progress?  The fact is, we have the power to transform some of our own energies from something that no longer serves us into something that might be useful in another form.  Think of recycling.  Once my husband and I had yard sale in which we sold some old clothes which were no longer useful to us.  Some Haitian women came along and bought them to send back to their home country.  There the clothes would be taken apart and re-made into something useful to others.  Transformation of energy from useless to useful.

In the Upaya podcast Professor Murphy talked about the constant play between opposing forces of energy.  These forces are not “positive” or “negative”.  They just are.  And, in fact, each energy needs the other.  You’ve probably heard it said that we would not appreciate Spring if it weren’t for Winter. Sometimes the difficulties we face are necessary for us to appreciate the benefits we have in our lives or to find the positive energies we can give to others.  There are energies that produce light and dark or exert forces that are relatively strong or weak. Balancing these energies within ourselves takes constant effort and presents many opportunities for practice. Discomfort of all kinds is often the result of too much of one force or not enough of another. Things get out of balance.  The concept of progress, especially in reference to our daily lives, is never one straight forward line.  We move in one direction for a while and then something happens and we find ourselves going in a another direction.  Sometimes this is by choice but more often it is circumstances beyond our control creating the energy that propels us.  And balance is something we never seem to be able to maintain for any length of time. Just when we think we’ve figured it out, the situation changes and we find ourselves starting all over again at the beginning.  This might make us feel discouraged, but that’s also a form of energy.  With practice, we might be able to take that energy and turn it into an opportunity to learn something new.

Experiencing difficult situations that can cause suffering is a fact of life.  We have all experienced pain of one kind or another.  Sometimes that pain can last a long time or even become chronic.  Another example of opposing energies are those of joy and sorrow.  Although none of us can escape sorrow, most of us have also experienced joy.  Even the most tragic lives have had periods of joy.  Sometimes we’re so focussed on the down side that we forget that there have been and will again be up sides also.  It seems to be a human characteristic that we remember all the negatives and forget the positives.  Or maybe we fixate on some time in the past when things seemed to be so much better than they are right.  This can cause us to overlook the good in our current reality and see only what’s missing.  If you recognize yourself in that statement, remember that not only is hindsight 20-20 but memories are faulty.  What seemed idyllic then no doubt had it’s own drawbacks.

Which brings us to two more opposing forces, ability and inability.  If for whatever reason you are unable to accomplish tasks or goals that you set for yourself, you might find yourself sucked into an emotional vortex that sends you spiraling downward.  How can you transform that energy into an opposing force that propels you back upward?  Here are a few ideas:  first, just stop.  Even for a few minutes.  Take some deep breaths.  Find Child’s Pose in your mind.  You don’t need a mat; you can do this in a chair or where ever you are.  Professor Murphy talks about the difficulty of not knowing what to do when faced with suffering you can’t get away from.  His suggestion is to stop struggling and wait until the way becomes clear.  That may not happen within your hoped for time frame.  But chances are it will eventually happen as long as you don’t try to force it and stay open to the possibilities.  Take an honest look at the task in front of you.  Is there a way you can change it so that it doesn’t cause so much discomfort?  Maybe that simply requires a change of attitude.  Or a modification of the method. Remember, too, that nothing lasts forever.  Everything is always changing all the time.  The thing you can’t do today may suddenly become do-able at some point in the future.  Or, better yet, it might become irrelevant as some new priority takes its place.

One more thing Professor Murphy suggests in the podcast:  when you don’t know what to do with inescapable pain, take care of yourself.  If you put self-care in the forefront, you will be in a better position to recognize the way to move forward when it presents itself.  The fact is you are no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself.  This is not being selfish.  It is just common sense.  You can’t give what you haven’t got.  Another suggestion I would add is to ask for help.  We are all interdependent.  When we’re hurting we tend to isolate thinking no one can possibly understand what we are going through.  But everyone has had their own experiences with stress and darkness.  Allies can come from the most surprising places.  Treating yourself with kindness and compassion is always good advice. No matter how desperate and hopeless life may seem, there is always something to be grateful for if you give yourself a chance to find it.

Burn the Negatives; Make Room for the Positives


Burn the Negatives; Make Room for the Positives. Photo: Herb Ryan:

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
January 22, 2017

CUSTER, SD – Winter can feel overwhelming at times.  For example, weather can interfere with the best laid plans.  Maybe you made a New Year’s resolution to walk more.  You start off really well and suddenly the temperatures dive, the sidewalks shine with ice and the trails in the woods are clogged with snow. Even winter sports enthusiasts can be disappointed when there is just enough snow and ice to be a hazard, but not enough to support the fun stuff.  If you decide to go elsewhere to ski or swim, you can find yourself stymied by airline delays or cancellations. Then there is the busyness that comes in January after the long stretch of holiday breaks that characterize November and December.  So much to catch up on – so little time!  Despite solstice the days are still short.  Time seems compressed and suddenly everyone seems to want a piece of yours.  There just never seems to be enough to go around.

Combine all this with Seasonal Affected Disorder and (dare I say it . . .) post-election anxiety and we have the ingredients for a deep dive into depression.  Take heart, though.  Just when you think hope is pointless and the light at the end of the tunnel appears dim or even non-existent, along comes the Burning Beetle Blues Festival in Custer SD.  What a great example of turning negatives into positives.

For the past couple of decades, the forests in western states from Canada to the southwest U.S. have been ravaged by an onslaught of voracious bark beetles.  The plague has had an enormous impact on the Black Hills in general, and Custer in particular.  About 5 years ago, some Custer residents decided to turn the hand-wringing and lamentation into action.  Thus began the Bark Beetle Blues festival.  The first year of the event saw residents drowning their sorrows in music and art.  Sculptures and picture frames were created with the “blue wood” of the dead trees remaining after the beetles had their fill.  The talented musicians of the Black Hills wrote songs and performed them for a delighted audience.  School children danced and sang.  The festival became a much needed and appreciated antidote for cabin fever in the middle of January when most South Dakotans are house-bound and already longing for Spring.  The following year launched what has become a tradition of burning a huge effigy of a beetle.  Since then the festival has grown to include a variety show and fireworks display. Last year a crew from National Geographic turned up to film the event.  (Unfortunately, I could not find an on-line link to the article, but you can probably find a paper copy in a local library.)   Some years have featured bitter cold January weather, but that has not stopped a huge crowd from turning out for these events.

Witnessing this year’s event made me think of the ritual of the fire puja.  Fire is one of the five basic elements including earth, water, air and ether (empty space) that provide the energies of our known universe.  Using the ritual of fire helps us to let go of things that are no longer useful to make room for new ideas and intentions.  Of course we always want to honor the power of fire and treat it appropriately, but with safety taken into consideration, we can all create our own fire ritual.  If you’re feeling stuck, it can be very satisfying to think about the obstacles in your path, write them on paper and cast them in the fire.  Taking some time to recognize the factors in your way can be the first step to finding ways around them.

Many of us can find examples in our own lives where unexpected positives have emerged from even the most dire or sorrowful situations. This is certainly true for me.  Many of the plans I made in my life have not panned out, but other things have happened that I never could have imagined.  This has become a good reminder when I become disappointed over something not going my way.  And – yes – I need to remind myself.  It is a daily practice to remember to take each day as it comes and accept things as they are, proceeding from there instead of wishing things were different and letting negativity cloud my day.

In recent weeks I’ve seen friends of mine turn their fear into activism.  They have been joined by others who share their concerns.  Perhaps they’ve been surprised to learn that so many others felt the same way they did.  It is a confidence-builder to find out you’re not alone.  Taking that first dangerous step into the unknown can feel so solitary and isolating.  But once that leap is made, the results can be surprising.  In the fire ritual, mourning can be a necessary process leading up to the decision to let go.  But at some point it is necessary to let the mourning pass and rejoin the world.  It’s not always easy and it can be a rocky process, but all it really takes is putting one foot in front of the other and being open to the opportunities around you.  That, too, is an opportunity for practice.

So, to borrow from Shakespeare, if now is the winter of your discontent, try moving out of your own way.  Throw those obstacles into the fire and take a chance on something new.  Renew your resolve to do whatever you decided to accomplish in 2017.  And remember – if your New Year’s resolutions are already getting lost in the undertow or if weather has gotten in the way of your movement plans, there is no better time than now to find a new activity.  An exercise class is a great way to start.  Movement will lift your mood and boost your energy.  Also just like my activist friends, you may be surprised to find friendly like-minded souls who will happily help you along on your journey without judgment of any kind.  We are all looking forward to having you to join us.  Our welcome mat is always out!