Last month I found myself stuck in a drift boat on the Delaware River. Rain poured. Night fell. Temperatures dropped. And while my friend and his fishing buddy were having the time of their lives, I felt miserable. Clad in oversized waders, wool-lined boots, and a down jacket, I was cold, tired, and trapped. No easy shore to escape to and no motor to speed me home.
"How’s it going back there?" My friend asked, eyeing me with gentle amusement.
"Great!" I said. "Totally loving this!"
I flashed a bright smile while he laughed. At ease and totally at home in his reality, he cast his line into the water with an elegant flick while I burrowed further into my hood - tense in the jaw, tight in the shoulders, hard in the mind. What had compelled me to agree to this? Why was I so unprepared? And when would it end, this interminable float? And, by the way, lets discuss the word float. Such a sweet word. Such a dreamy word. But this? This was cold, harsh reality! I tried to harness the energy of my forced smile, to let it shift my interior pout, but it did no good. I was in a boat, trapped on a journey I wanted to escape, and I could not make it any different than it was.
Pema Chodron writes about the concept of samaya in When Things Fall Apart. Samaya refers to our unbreakable tie with reality, our marriage with what is happening right now, at this moment. It is a marriage we are born into - a choice-less union - and so we are left in this lifetime with only one choice: to decide how we will engage with each moment as it comes. With what perspective we will attune our minds. With what attitude we will focus our hearts.
Samaya means not preparing our escape route, she writes, and not looking for alternatives.
Otherwise, she explains, we won't experience life in its fullness. Not as a person awake anyway, but, rather, as a person asleep, numb and disconnected.
It reminds me of what the late poet Larry Fagin, one of my writing instructors, used to assign as homework. "Walk out this door," he’d say, “and engage directly with the world. No camera screens. No secondary sources. No defensive barriers. Just a meeting between you and whatever comes. Then you’ll have something to write about.”
The desire for that kind of direct engagement with reality - for a fully awake experience - was why I was on the river in the first place. I wanted to feel firsthand what I’ve come to understand as fishing-fever, river-love, and trout-attraction– Catskills conditions that hold my friend (and so many others around here) as tightly as a hook holds a fish.
My friend warned me that the day would be long - eight hours at least – and thunderstorms were possible.
"No problem," I said, rising to the note of challenge I sensed in his voice. I reminded him that I had spent every summer of my life in boats at my family’s lake cottage. Row boats, ski boats, and paddle boats. Canoes, kayaks, and pontoons. I’ve driven them, skied them, capsized them, crashed them, bailed them out, and swam them to shore. How different could this be?
"A lake is not a river," my friend reflected. "And once you’re in, there’s no turning back."
"Oh, I'm in," I assured him. "I'm definitely in."
And I was. At first. The river’s beauty captivated me. The wild forest. The gentle current. The blue skies and the eagles - so many eagles! - riding the breeze and resting on tree limbs. I watched as the surface of the water came alive with bugs, and I learned to identify the ring of rising fish feeding on their bodies.
With the day so hot, the conversation easy, the laughter contagious, it was easy to be all in and fully present. We anchored the boat and swam. A fish or two were caught and released. My friend passed around a cheese plate. I sipped a glass of rose out of a metal camping cup. There was nothing to accomplish and nowhere to go but where the river took us. Four hours slid by, time as slippery as a fish in the hand.
I thank you god for most this amazing day, I thought, quoting the ee cummings poem like a prayer, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.
River fever spread through me, and, as predicted, I was in. Definitely in.
But being in when the in is all good is one thing. Being in when the in is challenging is another.
Things, naturally, began to change... as reality tends to. My body temperature dropped from the swim. My teeth chattered. My lips, according to the others, turned blue. I layered on every stitch of clothing I had brought. And just as the feeling came back into my fingers, the sky darkened, thunder sounded, and rain began to fall. I shivered anew, stepping into a pair of gigantic waders, and huddling with the others on a bit of shore. Lightening flashed over the water, other boats joined us, and the fisherman seemed to be in heaven. Their faces were turned to the sky, their hands busy with flasks of tequila, their voices loud with jokes and stories. So many other storms survived. So many fish caught. Wasn’t this amazing! Wasn’t this perfect?! They all agreed, it was.
I wanted to agree, too. I wanted to feel the excitement of this great adventure. I wanted to open my face up to the rain. And so I laughed and smiled and played it cool but internally I scolded myself for my physical exhaustion, my anxiety, my desire to quit. Get it together, Girl, I thought, Didn't you feel the fever? Didn't you say you were in? This is the experience you wanted, so, enjoy it, for crying out loud!
The truth was, however - the reality was - that what I really wanted was to have the ease of the day back. I wanted the storm to pass. I wanted to be warm and cozy. I wanted the beauty of the float, the sweetness of the drift, the lull of the blue true dream. And the more I fought the reality of my discomfort by thinking about what I had lost, the tighter I felt. The tighter I felt, the more miserable I became. The more miserable I became, the more convinced I was that I was a failure – to myself, to my friend, to his buddies. I can’t hack it, I thought. I’m not tough enough. Then, defending myself against my own harshness, I hardened, and since hardening hurts, it caused me only to want to escape more.
The spiritual path is not fun, writes Choygam Trungpa in his book The Myth of Freedom, comparing it to a train you can’t get off. (Or a boat from which you can't disembark). Waking up to samaya, he goes on to say, and choosing to relate honestly with reality is often painful.
Your experiences become too penetrating, too naked, Trungpa writes. Committing to a spiritual path - to waking up - is to see ourselves exactly as we are, and it's not always pretty. We see messiness and tension and incongruities and hubris. We become open and tender and vulnerable. We let ourselves be impacted, moved, and touched. We deconstruct barriers, and allow no screens between our hearts and the world.
And though we may want to escape the hurt of opening ourselves to direct experience, and of speaking the truth about it, we quickly learn that avoidance only brings more pain. That it feels cowardly and cramped after the expansive vibrancy of wakefulness. And this is actually very good news! Because no matter how many times we try to step off the path, get out of the boat, or escape our marriage with reality, we can always step right back in. In fact, the pain we create with our avoidance usually inspires us to return. Our setbacks become part of our creative process. We begin to see the path as an in-the-moment creation, revealing itself to be chaotic, wild, and colorful. It's not about enjoying it all the time. It's also not about toughening up and gritting our teeth through it. Simpler than that, it's about staying put, on the boat, on the path, with as much authenticity and lightness as possible.
Unlike my relationship with reality, I knew my boat ride would end. Waiting for me was heat and a change of clothes and a diner nearby with hamburgers and hot tea. I had no control over when we would arrive or what else might transpire along the route, but I could control the condition of my mind and heart.
As it turned out, I had four more hours to figure that out, and in that time, I cycled through every kind of internal emotional weather one can have. I had flashes of insight and moments of distraction. I touched the sensation of aligned presence and I fell into delusion and fantasy. At some point, when I began to see it all as an opportunity to practice presence, I dropped my tough (unconvincing!) pretense and relaxed with the truth of how I was feeling. Once I gave that up, I could again laugh at myself and feel the wild beauty of the world.
Hours later when I was warm and fed and comfortable, my friend said, "You’ll be telling this story for years to come."
I agreed, thinking of my teacher, thinking how I now had something to write about.
"Not just that," he added. "I bet you’ll want to do this again."
"No way," I said. "I’ve learned something, but I’ve had enough."
Until the following week, that is, when the sun was shining and the sky was a true blue dream and it inspired me towards all that was yes, and all that was infinite, and I thought about the river and I thought about the path and I thought about being all in and the satisfaction of being awake. Suddenly I wanted desperately to be back in that boat again. A little wiser. A little less defended. A little more alive.
Rain, shine, cold and warmth, I’m on the path, married to reality, and committed to staying in the boat. The best part of it all? I’m not alone! And neither are you. Catskills Yoga House is here to support your journey, in whatever state of chaos and color it is in. Join us for weekly classes and weekend workshops. Join us in breath, in movement, in stillness, and in curiosity. Join us in grumpiness, joy, ease and discomfort. We’ll drift and float together in dreams and storms and everything in between.
As always, I am yours in movement - attempting to feel it all, see it all, and tune myself more towards thank you, thank you, thank you.
Upcoming Events & Workshops
Catskills Yoga House 2nd Birthday Celebration
Saturday, September 1st * 10-2 * By Donation
Our official birthday is August 1st, so we'll be peppering the month with specials for students. The birthday month will culminate in a beautiful September 1st slow flow, renew-restore style class from 10-12. Accompanied by a live music soundscape and culminating in 15-30 minutes of chanting and meditation, the class will be both invigorating and restoring. Following the class will be an optional potluck lunch in the studio with creek dipping encouraged!
Space in the the class itself is limited, so please reserve your spot here. All are welcome for the potluck, including extended families and friends who don't practice but are moved to celebrate and support the studio.
Goddess Retreat with Alison Sinatra
Saturday, October 6th * 12:30-6 * $100
The amazing Alison Sinatra is back! Settle into our beautiful studio with spectacular views of ripening, reddening foliage and experience a restorative day of connecting with yourself and other women. Alison, with over fifteen years experience as a yoga teacher and leader of women's circles, is known for her warmth, intelligence, and humor as well as her ability to hold deeply sacred, healing, love-filled space. She will draw on the energy of the earth and sky, the water and the fire, to help us work with the organic and dramatic transition of the fall season. Through asana, ceremony, conversation, meditation, breathwork, sound and song, we’ll be held by the vigorous beauty of Autumn and emerge feeling rested, restored and supported by sacred sisterhood. Expect a delicious, locally foraged, lovingly prepared snack/meal as well! This is a perfect event to attend alone or with a sister, friend, mother or daughter. Beginners welcome! For more about Alison, visit her website.
With space for only 20 women, this event will fill up fast.