Many years ago, my sister presented me with a bracelet. A simple silver bead looped through a string of red leather. Inscribed on the bead was the Chinese character for courage. She knew I needed some. I had wanted to leave a dramatic, exhausting relationship for months, but I could barely get a toe out the door.
You have the strength, she said, fastening the bracelet around my wrist. This can be a reminder.
I loved it and looked at it often and wore it day and night and felt the intention of courage seep into my skin. I felt too my sister’s belief in me, and all of it together gave me great hope that once I acted on my decision to leave, I would be in a better place. A much better place.
And yet. Two years passed before I was out of that relationship with the door closed firmly behind me. Why was it so hard when I knew in every part of my being that I needed to go? When the pain of staying in it was so great? When it wasn’t serving my best self? It baffled my sister. It baffled those who loved me. Most of all, it baffled me.
Now, more than a decade and years of self-study, therapy and maddeningly similar situations under my belt, I realize that I was applying my courage towards the wrong thing. I did not need it to propel me to what awaited on the other side. I needed it to endure what I was experiencing at that moment, on the threshold, in the midst of all the doubt and disappointment. What I was most afraid of was passing through a place of no-place. Not-here and not-there. A place of not-doing, not-engaging, not-reacting, not-knowing.
The Spanish poet Antonio Machado writes,
It seems that down there
In the depths
My boat has struck against a great thing…
I was up against a great thing with my leaving, rallying all of my resources to make it happen, and so was it really too much to ask that I receive more than silence? Couldn't I expect some reward for my courageous act? Some clear feedback, a well-marked road sign, or a thumbs-up signal from God? Then I would know for sure to carry-on through the pain of leaving. Then I would know that soon - preferably immediately - I would find firm ground on the other side of the threshold.
As it turns out, yes. I was asking for too much. And it was due to what Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron calls an “addiction to hope.” Not the easiest concept to digest having grown up with the belief that hope is a fruit of the spirit, a sign that one's heart is in the right place. But Chodron clarifies her term by defining hope as the human tendency to relentlessly - addictively - seek certainty and solidity in a world of impermanence and change. Hopelessness, on the other hand, is the liberated state of becoming “totally fed up” with this cycle of desire and disappointment. Hopelessness renounces the process of releasing one thing only to cling immediately to another. Hopelessness embraces the hovering, threshold experience.
Without giving up hope, Chodron writes in When Things Fall Apart, -that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be - we will never relax with where we are or who we are.
Relaxing with ourselves right where we are? Sounds great! But how to do that when we find ourselves not on solid ground but under the unfamiliar waters of the ocean - no boat, no map, and no idea of what is up or down? How to do that when we are in the depths, as Machado writes, with waves pummeling us and a great formidable silence surrounding us?
Relaxing there sounds as awful as living through April in the Catskills. Not winter, not Spring. Some snow, some rain. Mostly cold, sudden warmth. Generally gray, occasionally sunny. Nothing consistent and nothing predictable except for a deep abiding hope that the "real" Spring will come soon.
It has a hold on us, this clinging to something better, somewhere better than now. Fear of sitting with my own pain and lack of control was what kept me suffering and involved in that relationship all those years ago. I could not seem to release the hope that my leaving would make my life instantly better. I expected to open a door, jump over the threshold of not-here/not-there and land somewhere solid, stable and secure. And when I experienced, instead, air beneath my feet and a relentless sense of free-fall and the incessant chatter of my anxiety and doubt, I leapt back through the door like a cartoon character who has run off the edge of a cliff. Sure, life on that other side was an exhausting cycle of high drama experience, but at least I knew where I stood. At least I could find pleasure in imagining a better place. At least I could savor the illusion of future ease.
Until I found hopelessness. Or rather, after enough time, hopelessness found me. I was physically ill and fed up with the cycle and too tired to keep leaping back into that small, known world. I gave up and in giving up I slowly softened into the process of leaving. It didn't happen in one step, as I originally hoped, so I kept at it -very imperfectly - this daily work of staying put and relaxing with myself. Waking up and going to work, I gritted my teeth through the despair. Wherever and whenever, I sobbed buckets of tears through the waves of grief. With friends and family, I talked my relationship to death through the sharpness of loneliness. I also laughed at myself whenever possible (make sure your friends know how to lighten you up!) and cultivated new practices that nourished me. I began meditating earnestly and tripled the amount of yoga I was doing, sometimes taking two classes a day. (Folks, these upper arm muscles come from moving through heartache!).
And then it seemed to just happen: I found myself somewhere new. I was over the relationship and the guy and the drama and the past and though there was plenty of uncertainty and other threshold realities happening, I was more joyful and present and, most importantly, steadier through the inevitable fluctuations of mind/body/spirit. What a revelation!
Or has everything happened, Machado writes,
And I am standing now
In the new life?
Nothing and everything. Silence and the stirrings of rebirth. Clear action anduncertainty. All of it together, right here and now, the new life being defined every moment with every thought of the mind and action of the body. In the silence. In the emptiness. In the anxiety. In the joy. In the sorrow. In the noise. In the calm. In the disappointment. In the light.
The new life is happening in the honest, direct, and, yes, courageous encounters we have with ourselves - right here, right here, right here.
As miraculous as this constant rebirth can seem, it’s definitely not always fun to stand firm within it. It takes courage to slow down and settle onto our mats when we're busy and distracted. It takes courage to hold plank pose or forearm dog when our bodies feel weak and tight. It takes courage to sit still in meditation when our nervous system feels jumpy, our breath uneven and our minds like an echo chamber of torture. It takes courage to not just grimly endure but to gently encounter the noise of a mind that longs to define and label. And maybe we can even laugh (a handy resource which builds more courage) when we realize that the dreaded threshold situation of groundless silence and space will not actually will give way to something or somewhere better– but that this is it - this very moment is the great thing - and it is part of a perfect unfolding.
Spring feels in full bloom today, and I am rejoicing in the light and warmth and beauty, tempted to again cling to the hope that this is what my days will (should!) feel like from now on. So, I need to dig out that old bracelet again and attune myself to the courage it takes to be fully here, in spite of all that is moving around me and through me. We don’t know what will happen next, but at Catskills Yoga House, we are hovering in this practice together. Come and move, breathe, and be supported - just as you are, wherever you are in your great process.
In the unfolding of the here and now, I am yours in movement,
Upcoming Workshops, Special Classes and Events
New Student Special! Spread the word!
Must be purchased in May.
Yin/Restorative Class for Mothers!
Friday, May 11th * 5:30-7 PM * $5
(Open to all, but special rate only for mothers)
Sacred Sound Ritual with Jessica Caplan and Sean Hoots
Saturday, May 12th * 4-6 PM * 35 (pre-reg) $40 (same day)
Special Memorial Day Class with Aaron Dias
Monday, May 28th * 10-11:30 * $18 or class card
Summer Gong Bath with Ricarda O'Conner
Saturday, July 7th * 4-5:30
$20 Pre-Reg / $25 Same Day
Gentle Community Yoga with Christie Scheele
Sundays * 12-1 PM * $12
Mat/Pilates with Jennifer Kjos
Fridays, 12:30-1:30 * $16 drop-in or class card
THIS AND THAT
Private Classes for Special Events
It's a beautiful time to be here in the Catskills and particularly beautiful here at the studio where our practice space overlooks two lush acres of garden and forest and a wild, rushing creek. Book now for private classes for wedding parties, birthday gatherings, anniversary celebrations and other special events!
Looking for a beautiful, quiet place to practice your healing art, meet with a client, rehearse, have a dance party, give a performance, practice an instrument, host a class or...? Catskills Yoga House is available for hourly rentals! Please write for more details.
Class cards and Private classes make great gifts... for yourself or another!
$80 for 5 classes, $150 for 10 classes, and $280 for 20 classes. $160 for unlimited monthly and $650 for six month unlimited passes. Custom-made and designed gift certificates available. Private or semi-private classes allow students to deepen and customize a practice, work through an injury or limitation, create a home-practice, celebrate a birthday or anniversary or have a beautiful, personal experience with a friend or partner. Please email for more information. Classes in the studio or on site in your home.