I just returned from a new year’s kirtan (devotional singing) and yoga retreat in tropical Costa Rica followed by a very fun wedding with friends (old and new) and it’s got me inspired and thinking about building community.
In Buddhism, the word “sangha” traditionally means “community of monks”, and it comes originally from the Sanskrit or Pali for “coming together”. Although traditionally in Buddhism it denoted a gathering of spiritually attained, ordained Buddhist monks, in contemporary speak, it means more loosely any gathering of community.
The basic principle of the sangha is that coming together in a community with a like-minded group of spiritual practitioners will facilitate each member’s path to enlightenment.
Even in Western cities like San Francisco, there are Buddhist sanghas everywhere. I sometimes drop in on one in the Richmond called Urban Dharma. (It was founded by renowned meditation preacher Noah Levine after the publication of his seminal book Dharma Punx. More info here.) Or, when I’m in Marin I frequent my favorite sangha at Spirit Rock.
With these two Buddhist sanghas, when we gather it generally involves a brief seated meditation, followed by a themed talk on aspects on the path to spiritual awakening in real life.
After my recent retreat and adventures in Costa Rica, I am reminded of a looser definition of sangha that I’d like to share. To me, sangha is any positive-minded community that you consciously create or join with the goal of creating a bridge to your better side.
For instance, a consistent yoga practice at a studio (like IO) can start to take on the aura of a sangha. It’s a place, after all, where like-minded practitioners come together with the goal of clearing their heads, breathing deeply, and finding more peace in their lives.
Another type of sangha might be a book club. Or a women’s group. Or singing in a choir like the one at Glide Memorial here in San Francisco. In other words, any regular gathering where we meet to reclaim our better, more balanced selves.
After all, truth is one, paths are many.
This month at IO we are starting our very own Tuesday morning sangha (called IO Renewal Tuesdays) for our staff members which soon will probably open up to anyone who would like to attend for the IO Sitting Circle, special yoga classes, and fostering community. Stay tuned.
I’ve written in the past about the self-nurturing, wholesome aspect of cooking meals at home. (See “One Thing at a Time“) When cold weather strikes, I really start to embrace the comforting experience of preparing a good meal for myself, and particularly if that meal is soup.
Warm soup on a chilly, damp, foggy day… is there really anything better?
My M.O. is to spend an hour at the farmers market (my favorite urban market is at the Ferry Building in SF) and talk to the farmers about what’s in season and perhaps how they recommend preparing it if I’m needing guidance or inspiration.
On a recent visit, I learned all about heirloom varietals of beans that are only available fresh for a short period every year-like cranberry beans, which shell like English peas, but taste more like a hearty white bean. (Incidentally, they are so beautiful that it’s difficult to get yourself to throw them in the pot.)
I worship all of the aspects of cooking soup, from picking out the ingredients, talking to the farmers, washing the wonderful, mineral-rich, healthy dirt off the vegetables, shelling the beans, chopping and dicing and peeling, sautéing garlic in olive oil, and patiently watching the big pot of soup simmer on my stovetop for an hour, filling my entire home with its warm, rich goodness.
Homemade soup is not just a psychologically comforting phenomenon; it’s truly brilliant for your health, especially when made from farm-fresh organic ingredients. It’s also easy to reheat, lasts for days, and can be frozen for another night when you aren’t so much in the mood to cook which makes it the perfect healthy food for singles and families alike.
Make wonderful soup,
Often, in the western world, Thai massage is watered down into a version of Swedish massage that incorporates a few faux-yogic stretches here and there. I’ve experienced Thai massage in many spas and the mother land as well as other Asian countries, and wanted our IO bodywork program to incorporate the real deal.
At IO, we do our best to offer an authentic variation on the theme. In keeping with tradition, our Thai massage sessions take place on a mat on the floor so more body mobility is possible for both giver and receiver.
Thai massage is a very powerful, therapeutic form of treatment that incorporates breath and bodywork with movement and stretch. It’s a sort of hybrid of yoga and massage. In fact, it’s often called “lazy-man’s yoga”.
Technically, Thai massage works by releasing and manipulating energy along a system of meridians and channels of breath within the body. For this reason, breathing through the treatment is essential to experiencing the full therapeutic effects of the work.
If you’ve never tried Thai massage, you might be surprised at the deep level of relaxation and balancing that it imparts.
If you have an existing yoga practice, this style of bodywork can act as a wonderful bridge between your more active asana routine and the lazy bliss of getting a massage. If you have never done yoga in your life, it can be a nice introduction to the releasing sensation of yogic stretching.
Either way, Thai massage is just one of the many ways that we strive to offer you a full range of balancing, relaxing and health-imparting options at IO.
Think of the last situation that really riled you up. Do you have that moment in mind? Are you mad just thinking about it? Sure. That’s normal. Okay, now imagine you press the rewind button and approach that hair-raising scenario with equanimity.
Equanimity is a calm abiding in a state of unemotional, compassionate and peaceful mind and it’s one of the core principles of Buddhist practice. Of course, it’s impossible for any of us only-partly-awakened folks to be equanimous all the time. This is a practice like any other. So we keep trying.
The point is to keep on keepin’ on. We aim for it, sometimes we fail, we forget, we lose our temper, sometimes we overreact and embarrass the heck out of ourselves… and then we remind ourselves gently and without judgment (on a good day) to come back. We practice this in ‘real time’ and in our ‘real life’, just like we do in meditation, with awareness as the goal.
Aside from our own state of peace and calm, there is an aspect of equanimity that concerns how we deal with other people’s “stuff”. It’s that place where we find an equal balance between being too involved (or even co-dependent) and being too detached.
I’ve found a few trick or treats on the path to equanimity:
1. When a friend comes to me with a problem, I invite my compassion and empathy to the party.
2. I focus on listening instead of giving advice. This one can be hard. But, less is more, here.
3. As Alanis Morissette screamed in her 1990s anthem, “I am NOT the doctor.” So when I am being most skillful, I help my friend talk through their own options. That’s far more empowering for them (although this way I don’t get to hear myself talk. Ha!).
From a yogic perspective, we all have to deal with our own karma. If we try to “fix” someone’s problem for them, we hijack their opportunity to work through their personal karma. Or to put it another way, if we step in to save the day then we know how to solve their issue, but do they? Often not.
And here’s yet another nuance of equanimity, and perhaps the hardest one of all to master: not letting the people who really bug us, bug us. They will likely still trigger us. We all have people who bother us. These preciously annoying creatures and moments are where powerful lessons are learned, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. And even if the lesson is to walk away from that relationship or experience.
If we learn to bring compassion to those extremely challenging (or just slightly annoying) situations and even to those people that trigger us the most, then folks, we’ve made some major progress on our path to equanimity.
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether his is working or playing. To him, he’s always doing both.”
That’s a quote I love, by James Michener. Pretty much covers it, right?
In a nutshell, this message captures how I aspire to treat my own life. Rather than compartmentalizing work versus personal time, I treat the two as extensions of one other. And while it hasn’t always been as clear as that for me, and it continues to be a work in progress, I love to integrate. When I practice taking my yoga “off the mat” and into the world, this integration brings more connection, balance, and breath to my experience.
I know it may be easier for me to set out on this goal of integrated work and play since I co-own a business and intentionally created an environment with more freedom to connect my life. And I know that for many of my friends who choose instead to work a “job” job, it can be a tougher project to stay connected to themselves at their 9-5.
Wise folks say that the key to success in a career (or even a job) is to find a way to get paid for what you already love to do. For myself, founding International Orange, fostering a wellness community, and developing a line of organic skin and hair care products that I truly believe in, has been very energizing and rewarding (although not always a breeze). And the adventure continues.
When we have the guts to seek out our own blessings, the world begins to morph for us and it can actually happen quickly. In the way that the choices we make open up certain doors for us, what we choose, becomes who we are. And we always have choices, as frightening as they may sometimes seem.
But if we still feel we can’t make a shift now, then what do we do? Make one anyway. Okay, but if we still aren’t ready to do that, then what? Then we find the part(s) of our job or situation that do feed us, and focus there. A calm, joyful attitude will open a window in the mind to let the breeze in.
I haven’t completely renounced myself from alcohol. I still like to enjoy a drink now and then. But on the spectrum of attachment and craving, I think most of us, certainly including me, could use a reminder about our relationship with the crutches in our lives.
A local sangha (or community) group called Urban Dharma that I drop into on some Friday nights in SF’s Richmond District, was started by Noah Levine and a group of folks who discovered Buddhism and meditation through their paths in recovery from substance abuse.
Meditation – and particularly in a sangha format – is such a powerful tool for helping us to get past our addictions, whatever they are. Insight meditation, in particular, helps us to connect to the emotions behind our cravings and learn to sit with our feelings, no matter how painful and difficult they may be.
A regular meditation practice helps me to stay grounded and real with myself. Because I sit every day, I am more inclined to pause and notice my behavior ‘off the cushion’, as we say. When I find myself mindlessly reaching for that cup of coffee or that second glass of wine I don’t even want, my witness voice pauses. Even that pause itself is helpful in affirming my personal awareness, regardless of if I choose to have the drink.
Certain friends of mine who really struggle with their addictions have found concrete relief through their participation in sanghas and their exploration of Buddhism. Although I myself have not attended, I’ve heard of a group that meets at the Zen Center every Monday night at 7:30. It’s an alternative to AA if that format or the traditional ‘higher power’ verbiage and philosophy doesn’t compute.
One of the most empowering aspects of meditation, in my mind, is that it encourages us to find the higher power within, or, to put it another way, to surrender to the fact that even if we believe in a higher power, it’s not going to make our decisions for us or walk our path for us. That’s our own job, task or privilege, depending on our perspective.
And cultivating faith within this landscape is wise work. It helps us walk on our own, without the crutches.
Dreamboarding is basically like making a collage, with an intention. It’s a semi-annual activity of mine. Over the year, I collect images I love, things I dream to do, be or manifest and then when there’s time and I have a hankering to get the creative juices flowing, I make a dreamboard. And it becomes a sort of collage-altar for me and my life.
If you take a workshop on dreamboarding, they’ll often kick it off with a visualization meditation to help get you “in the mood” which I have yet to try, but sounds like a helpful idea.
Think of that special something you are seeking. It might be tangible, like a home or a car or a new dress. Maybe you’ve been thinking about getting a pet but haven’t known how to find the right one. Or for a lot of us, it’s a partnership that we envision. Perhaps your dream is more esoteric. World peace? Inner bliss?
Whatever it is (and it can really be anything), you can construct it on paper. All you need is a piece of cardboard backing (the side of a box works fine), some old magazines or catalogs, glue and scissors.
What I love about dreamboarding is that it brings out creativity (the inner artist), and as you may know from past blogs, I’m a firm believer that we all have one. At the same time, it’s a powerful manifestation tool. While the process of making a dreamboard is in itself so empowering, the art that you create through the process can be a tangible visual reminder to yourself to stay on track with your dream-goals, your deepest desires.
I like to hang my dreamboard in a place where I see it each day. Sometimes I feel private about it so I keep it in my bedroom. But sometimes I want to share it and expand the power of it by allowing other people to see it, which I like to imagine might make the manifestation power of the dreamboard exponentially stronger!
Dare to dreamboard,
The Slow Food Movement is one of my favorite new crusades, although it’s not exactly “new”. Our IO Spa Yoga and Shop concept was even inspired by the movement. We wanted to be the Slow Wellness business where products and service offerings reflect sustainability, natural ingredients and care.
Conceptually, the practice of Slow Food has been around since humans first became a civilized people: eating food made with consciousness and care, from only local and seasonal sources. (In essence, it’s the opposite of fast food.) The phrase “Slow Food”, however, is a relatively new one.
In California, we are lucky to have a large variety of local and seasonal fruits and veggies year round. Not to mention the plethora of local organic farmers and vendors who raise their animals ethically for meat and dairy. So it’s not much of a hardship to eat according to the Slow Food rules.
Buddhists call it “Right Eating”.
Unfortunately, unless you have a lot of time on your hands to research what’s in season and organic, it can be intimidating to devote yourself to Right Eating. When was the last time you were at the grocery store and bought okra? Or persimmons?
There are several Bay Area organic vegetable delivery companies that make Right Eating incredibly easy. Getting your groceries delivered to your house sounds pretty lazy and decadent. But it’s actually a great deal.
They literally drop a box of amazing, seasonal, local, organic and actually quite diverse veggies and fruits at your doorstep once a week. You don’t have to do any of the work to figure out what’s in season, and sometimes they even include recipes and suggestions on how to use your produce.
There’s a freedom in not having to decide what to buy, although with some delivery companies, you can manage your orders to detail. Two of the biggest box delivery companies are Planet Organics and Farm Fresh to You. It’s easy to sign up and requires virtually no effort on your part once you get it going.
If you’re interested, there are a lot of great books on the subject, favorites being “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and his new one, “In Defense of Food“.
Slow down and enjoy,
Yes, this is a blog post about finding your Spirit Animal. I love that term. It makes me laugh every time because it sounds a little silly. But humor aside, I am fascinated about exploring my Spirit Animals and opening my awareness to all the creatures of the world.
Recently I blogged about the chakra system and how it can be used as a metaphor for healing the various aspects of ourselves that make us whole, happy human beings.
I also respond learning about the animal totem system employed by native peoples of the world and namely the Native American traditions. Animal totems are an aspect of paganism that ground us in our connection to the natural world.
In the shamanic traditions, animal spirits are considered our “allies” and are aligned with us to guide and lead us through our lives with their intrinsic, intuitive wisdom. One resource I found calls animal totems “imaginary guides on your life journey”.
For instance, if you are going through a phase in your life of feeling overly dependant on others, the cat might be your animal totem for channeling feelings of independence and solitude. The frog is a totem of personal transformation and metamorphosis.
For me, an animal totem that shows up lately is the skunk. Don’t laugh! Shamanic belief is that skunks teach us to assert ourselves and garner the respect that we are due. Skunks are fearless, yet peaceful…. two qualities I strive to attain in harmony with each other.
Not surprisingly, those with a skunk totem are also strong advocates and users of scent in their lives. Being that aromatherapy is a huge part of my business and one of my personal passions, that makes sense.
When I see a skunk, instead of freaking out, I have a much more friendly and inquisitive response. Of course I’m still not going to let her spray me.
The most powerful aspect of the belief in animal totems, in my mind, is the reminder that we are a part of nature. Being more aware of our interactions with the animals in our lives -whether they are house pets, urban pests, or country wildlife – helps to bring us back into harmony with our true nature as natural creatures.
Not every healing system works for everyone. The trick is to find ones that speak to you, that jive, and then use it as a doorway to learn more about yourself. Let these doorways be your Bridge to Your Better Side.
Listening to the animals,
I’m always fascinated by spiritual systems that help us find out more about ourselves. I think a lot of the so-called “esoteric” spiritual practices that we encounter work best in our Western mindset when we think of them metaphorically.
The chakra system is a perfect example of this.
A lot of us are into yoga. We love the physical practice, the calming effect, and even some of the more exotic rituals like chanting and breathing practices. But when teachers start talking about chakras, many of us glaze over.
As Western thinkers, it’s easy to write off the idea of chakras as a hocus-pocus new age idea with no tangible link to our physical beings. But within this ancient Sanskrit belief system, I believe there is a lot to be learned about our present-day relationship to physical, mental and spiritual balance.
In the most basic terms, chakras are energy centers in the body. We have seven of them:
- Muladhara (the root chakra)
- Swadhisthana (the sacral chakra)
- Manipura (the solar plexus chakra)
- Anahata (the heart chakra)
- Vishuddha (the throat chakra)
- Ajna (the third eye chakra)
- Sahasrara (the crown chakra)
Working with our chakras – even as symbols of how we treat ourselves – gives us an opportunity to create real transformation within us. Visualize the connection between your chakras, and you take a step toward Building a Bridge between what may seem like disconnected parts of yourself, but are actually intrinsically linked.
For instance, when the link between your heart and throat chakras is blocked, you will have trouble communicating your feelings and intentions clearly. Yoga asanas or breathing exercises that serve to open up the chakras and connect them together can help you bring attention and awareness to your lines of communication.
The fact that this energy system is typically illustrated with beautiful drawings and vivid colors and symbols shows how the chakras are integral to your own creative nature (and you do have one).