Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Om Out of Range

Meet Baba Orum. Not his real name. In fact, I have no clue who this guy is, but I've taken enough yoga clases to tell you that he is floating on a lotus blossom. India's version of the waterlily, the lotus is a swamp flower and a symbol of purity and transcendence. Note that Baba is draped in orange, the color of enlightenment. Why Baba has racing stripes on his forehead, I do not know. What I do know is if I am to ever start meditating, it can't be under the tutelage of someone who would photoshop himself onto a flower, like a big old bearded bumble bee.

I need to start meditating. I have an unquiet mind, a truckload of guilt and an unlimited capacity for worrying. A person like me should meditate or she will drive herself and others insane. But I am a die-hard Western rationalist and I require the right class. I ruled out doing the David Lynch Transcendental thing because the franchise aspect creeps me out (as does David Lynch). I also decided against the "immersions" held at several of the yoga studios I frequent because they were too steeped in Hinduism and I am not about to start worshiping the elephant god. Finally, I lucked into the perfect teacher for me. One of my yoga instructors, a gentleman with a doctorate in psychology from an Ivy League School, who studied under Jonathan Kabat-Zinn. In addition to the impeccable credentials, he has a calm voice and a pleasant yogic demeanor. And while I'm not in the market and he's not on my team, he is easy on the eyes.

Class is every Wednesday evening. There are a dozen other students. Two are seekers, building on a yogic or Buddhist base. One woman is clinically depressed. Two more are stay-at-home moms for whom a candle-lit bubble bath is no longer sufficient sanctuary. Others are looking for a mind-over-matter approach to chronic physical pain, or simply a way to deal with life's constant barrage of tsuris*. We do an hour of meditation and or yoga and then we have a 15 minute break with thoughtfully provided snacks and water, followed by another hour of discussion.

Now here I will reveal how far I am from achieving enlightenment. Or even equanimity, which may be the same thing.

There is a lady in the class who consistently interferes with my mindfulness. She suffers from depression and likes to talk about it, in rushed, anxious sentences that trail off because she's already off on another tangent that will fizzle out the same way. She is also, poor thing, a relentless Debbie Downer. At break time, she found out another student was from New York and went straight to "Where were you on 911?" Turns out the other lady was a block away and had to run for her life, a story she may not have wanted to revisit in meditation class. But as 911 Lady gamely started telling her story, and we all respectfully turned to listen, Annoying Woman interrupted to tell us how SHE was on 45th street watching it on TV and everything felt so distant it was like it wasn't happening. (Apparently she's both depressed and a narcissist – if it's not happening to HER, it's just not happening). End of break, Thank God.

The second half of class, our teacher started to get all scientific and neurological. The subject was stress, and he was explaining how the stress hormone cortisol destroys the brain five ways. (As a boomer, I am finding it really hard not to make a Wonder Bread joke here.) I was silently calculating who, between me and my husband, has more stress-induced holes in their grey matter when Annoying Woman jumped in with both feet. She had a thought about the cerebral cortex she simply must share. Her own cerebral cortex took more twists and turns than a roller coaster as she shared for the duration of the class. The teacher demonstrated compassion and yogic tolerance and let her ramble while I tried really, really hard to get my loving kindness on.

I emailed our guru a few days later:

I am really enjoying your class, and am ambivalent about writing this email. However, I was frustrated by the way the lady with depression took over the second half of class last week. Stress is THE reason I am in your class, and I was enjoying your presentation - especially since I am one of those nerdy Western types you mentioned who appreciate scientific explanations. It felt like she hijacked the class, and frankly, I know she means well and is a vulnerable person, but half the time I have no idea what she is talking about, and I'm not sure she does either. Ironically, I was finding myself getting stressed out by the fact that she wouldn't stop talking, and I wanted to get back to what YOU had to say.

I realize some of this is me. I am a fast-talking, high strung, impatient, cut-to-the-chase East Coast person and I am working on that. And I know complaining about this lady is not a manifestation of tolerance and empathy. I also understand that some student participation is nurturing and productive in the context of your class. But I wonder if there is a way you might reign her in gently next time she goes off on one of her tangents.

Looking forward to your next class.

Here is his response:

Thank you for sharing your feedback. It can be stressful to feel things not going as we anticipate or desire them to go. (Duh). The main message of the class is to practice acceptance. This is just how things are going right now. Can I release my need for them to be other than they are. Can I detach my happiness wagon from them being somehow different, and be content and at peace with how they are. (OK, I get that. I'm working on it. I just have to FIND my happiness wagon first. I'm not sure where I parked it). Hearing people speak more than you'd prefer or on topics that seem out of context is a great opportunity for you to apply to the mindfulness tool of acceptance. (True, but I would rather hear the person I paid $450 to for meditation classes). I'm glad you are enjoying the class and finding benefit in the neuroscience studies described. (No, dude, because I didn't get to hear you describe them). Hope your home practice is going well. As a way of extending the topic of this email, notice this week other places where you are feeling stressed out by people talking out of turn or generally things not going as you expect or want. (Actually, I'd be more likely to notice if the stress suddenly stopped). Practice playing your acceptance card in those situations. (My new mantra: it is what it is). And notice if it helps alleviate the stress you are experiencing. It's a practice. Old habits die hard. Be patient, and just practice with it. It gets easier over time.

He is right, of course. My bitching goes against the purpose of the class, and my lack of tolerance is borderline intolerable. Ultimately, it worked out. There were three sessions left - Annoying Woman missed the next one and was uncharacteristically subdued during the final class. I was looking forward to the grand finale, a full-day silent retreat including meditation, yoga and a walk in the woods. Alas, it was not to be. I had a heinous cold and couldn't stop coughing. Down dog and shivasana are potentially plegm-producing activities that would have kept me hacking all day, which would have meant no silent retreat for anyone. So of course, I did not go. I get to make it up at the end of our teacher's next series.

In the meantime, I have been practicing mindfulness, the beginner's way, lying on my back and focusing on my body and breath. I think it must be helping because my husband now reminds me, on a daily basis, that it's time to go meditate.

I'm trying not to take it personally.

*Tsuris - yiddish for problems great and small.

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