Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What do you really want from life?

[The Tao by Kazuaki Tanahashi]
I got to wondering recently just where the path that brought me out of unhappiness began. It was interesting to remember that I had begun to examine my life before everything went wrong; I must have been already feeling the tremors. What I don't recall is just where or why I bought the little paperback - How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, by Alan Lakein. In 1974 it had just come out in paperback.

Leafing through it now, I remember studying the entire book with the same intensity I had brought to academics. There was a lot of important encouragement in this early entry to the self-help program. But what I remember best is doing the exercises in Chapter 5, "What Do You Really Want from Life?" which combined free writing with analysis. Hours of this work eventually got me to my three top priorities at that time. The one I remember was number one, "Learn to relax." It surprised me, actually, though at the time I was on a medication for severe gastric problems.

Almost immediately after I wrote my priorities down on an index card, a friend mentioned to me that there was a yoga class in town. Why did that interest me? That path goes back farther than my recollection. But it did interest me, tapping a dormant spiritual desire even as it was an action I could take toward that priority, and I signed up.

I wish I could find that teacher and tell him how much that winter meant to me. His name was George, Winston or Wilson I think, and he traveled from Columbus to Lancaster once a week to offer this class to a fanatically devoted handful of students in a dark classroom at the branch campus. This was well before yoga and meditation became popularized and watered-down.

I am not at all athletic, and was not a natural yoga student. Since then I have had one of the dozen teachers I tried smirk at my efforts, another totally ignore those of us who couldn't approach a pose, and another push me into a pose in a way that set up a lingering tendonitis. But George, my first teacher, was in yoga heart and soul, as a spiritual practice, and brought plentiful compassion to the work. He had a sort of radiance. It took me 25 years to find another teacher with his qualities.

At the end of each class, we did slow prone stretches and twists, my favorite part. I still do them sometimes, lying on my study rug with the door shut, so Sherlock doesn't attack me. And after each stretch I hear George's mantra, "It feels good to relax."

I did try at least once to do some poses at home, and sit in meditation, as George gently encouraged us to do. And, at his private urging, I attended a weekend retreat with a famous swami, chanted, sat, watched with curiosity the holy man's disciples. Someone made pottery amulets on orange strings for all the participants, and the swami blessed them individually before he put them around our necks. It was part of the later sadness of my life that I found mine broken. It was more than a thing to me, and I wasn't willing to glue it back together. I'm pretty sure I finally threw the pieces away.

All that drifted down the stream. But it remained true that I'd taken those actions: sitting down with myself, thinking about what I needed, taking the yoga class. And before that, there must have been something that drove me to believe happiness was available, and a tendency to persist at looking for the way. Years after I had moved and lost track of George, I kept locking my office door at lunchtime and doing the guided meditations I learned under him. The way you do, I thought they weren't working.

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