40 Days: Centering

“That man is happiest

who lives from day to day and asks no more,

garnering the simple goodness of a life.”

-Euripides, 425 B.C

The best metaphors help us use something we know to understand something that we don’t know. Metaphors are not just for studying literature.  English teachers certainly love their metaphors, but so do scientists.

Photo Credit: Jitze Couperus, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jitze1942/3114723951/

Trees are the original metaphor for understanding brains. The word for the branching out of a neuron, “dendrite,” means “treelike” in the original Greek.  As a teacher, I like to remember that as students make connections between concepts and make meaning out of the world around them, on a physiological level their neurons are mimicking them by forming new connections and synapses in their brains. I’m in the business of growing brains.

Photo from Wired Magazine article. https://www.wired.com/2012/03/connectome-brain-map/

The metaphor of the tree is also helpful when it comes to understanding how our brains recycle resources to strengthen what needs strengthening and shut down what needs to be shut down. Neuroscientists call this process “synaptic pruning.”

Birdcatcher, a mixed piece by Judith Kindler, 2012. http://www.judithkindlerart.com/rubberwork

This week, the fifth week of the 40 days of yoga, is the week of centering. Centering is yet another abstract concept, and I find myself using the metaphor of the tree to understand what in the world centering could possibly be.  I have come to understand centering as a different kind of mental pruning: a pruning of time, priorities, and space.

Centering our attention means bringing it to the essential, and pruning away the inessential.  It means spending the the currency of your life, your time, with the people who you love the most, and strengthening what needs to be strengthened.  It means pruning out what’s trivial.

“I am rooted, but I flow,”

-Virginia Woolf, The Waves

In yoga, there is a tree pose.  It is a balancing posture, where you balance on one leg, and place the foot of your other leg on your thigh, your calf, or your ankle.  In this pose, like in all balancing poses, finding your center is essential.  If you lose your center, which usually happens when you start worrying about falling out of the pose, you fall out of the pose.  Balancing poses are about a weird negotiation between your mind and your body, and the figuring out of what is possible for a short period of time versus what is possible for a longer period of time.

Photo Credit: Pawel Klarecki. https://pawelklarecki.blogspot.ro/

Now, at the end of the post, is the time where I tell you that I have failed once again at 40 days.  I went to Mississippi this past weekend with family, and skipped Saturday.  Then, on Sunday, I did some crowded hotel room sun salutations.  On Monday and Tuesday, I slept after work.  On Wednesday, I did a ten minute youtube video.  And today, Thursday, I plan on going back to the studio to a proper yoga class.

In a recent conversation with a friend, he mentioned how not everyone would be down to make a commitment like the 40 days of yoga or Nanowrimo. Most people don’t want to break their commitments to themselves, he said. So most people are afraid of the possibility of failure? I asked.  No, it’s not the fear of failure…  Well, I guess maybe it is, he said.

Thank goodness it’s not the perfection of the thing that I’m into, this time around, at least.  I’m more interested in changing the texture of my daily life to make way for more types of movement. I’m more interested in the growing the part of me that went back to yoga on Wednesday and Thursday, despite the failure of my commitment, than I am in punishing the part of me that failed on Monday and Tuesday.  I am more interested in centering.

40 Days: Restoration

True learning is remembering.

-Socrates

Painting by Amy Judd.

There is a story that is told to demonstrate the abstract idea of wabi sabi to Westerners like myself who have the most tentative of grasps of the abstract concept.  Wabi sabi is finding beauty in nature, which I understand.  Wabi sabi is also finding beauty in age and use and imperfection and transience, which overturns everything I’ve ever had written into my mind by the culture that grew me.  The story goes like this:  there is a clay, handmade bowl that is a part of a person’s daily ritual of life.  The bowl breaks.  The person doesn’t throw the bowl away.  Instead, the person uses molten gold to mend the crack, and the bowl becomes even more beautiful in the eyes of person than it ever was before.

 

Microscopic section of one year old ash wood by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, 1632-1723.

 

Restoration is my favorite week of the 40 days, and not just because I’ve never made it this far before.  Restoration is my favorite because it is wabi sabi, it is the idea of taking something old and used and caring for it, not in spite of the use, but because of the use.  Restoration is to burnish and care for an old thing.  Something like a wooden floor, or painted dome ceiling, or a brick smokehouse, or yourself.

Photo by Sophie Munns. Recycled metal sculpture by Julie Tremblay.

Restoration allows us to see past the limitations of time.  Instead of being limited by a thing in the time frame of the present, restoration allows for a person to imagine all the layers of time and all the faces of the thing that have existed to make up the thing as it is today.  Restoration gives another dimension to reality because restoration acknowledges that the past played a role in the present.

 

“The past is never dead.  It isn’t even past.”

-good, old William Faulkner

 

The restoration of Aya Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

I remembered something from my own past that I’m pretty sure led to this whole blog, writing about food in literature thing in myself.  It was this book, The Secret Garden Cookbook by Amy Cotler.  Reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel in middle school was formative enough, but creating the Victorian English recipes brought the book and the historical setting alive in a way that apparently changed me forever.

Flowers opening timelapse from David de los Santos Gil on Vimeo.

It must have been my junior or senior year of high school, circa 2002 or so, because I made the meal from this cookbook for my sister, my mom, and my future stepfather.  So it was after my mom kicked my dad out of the house and before I moved away to college.  I made the garden peas and fresh mint and the “sausage cakes” with fresh sage.  Surely, this meal was one of my very first experiences cooking with fresh herbs of any kind.  I also made the tattie broth.  The recipe called for butter or bacon grease to saute the onions in, and I remember using both, despite intense trepidation that accompanied walking off the path of the recipe instructions.  And I remember my warm satisfaction when I tasted richness of the tattie broth.

40 Days: Equanimity

“To bear all naked truths,

And to envisage all circumstances, all calm,

That is the top of sovereignty.”

-John Keats, “Hyperion”

When I started teaching in an inner Houston city school, I suddenly needed large amounts of a different kind of strength.  I needed to be able to hear a student call me puta and tell me to chinga mi madre and not allow my reaction to be influenced by the anger and whatever other emotions came rising up.  I watched a custodian wipe the blood of two 6th graders off my floor with a mop, I listened as a student explained how a knife held by someone else’s hand left the scab on his neck, and I decoded gang symbols that a student had carved on his own arm in the back of my classroom.

Perspective and equanimity. A linocut by Evelyne Bouchard.

From the beginning, I’ve always been into yoga for the equanimity.  Yoga redefined strength for me.  Before, I thought strength meant being able to lift heavy things, and the strongest person was the person who could lift the heaviest things. Yelling the loudest in a classroom solves nothing.  It was through practicing yoga and teaching broken children from broken homes in a broken system that I began to understand strength as the ability to stay still for a long period of time. To stay still in a challenging yoga pose despite how much your muscles are shaking, or to stay still in a classroom when a student tells you to go fuck yourself.

A conversation with a cardiologist over Christmas break gave me a new physiological framework for this kind of strength.  He confirmed that no, yoga isn’t a cardio exercise, so it doesn’t strengthen your heart by raising your heart rate.  However, practicing yoga can increase a person’s heart rate variability.

Heart rate variability measures how quickly your heart rate can change in reaction to your environment.  Heart rates go up in response to stressors in the environment, and then they go back down again when the body understands that all is well.  In other words, if a person has high heart rate variability, and her heart rate goes up when a student threatens to shit in the skull of another student, she can quickly react from a place of logic and calm instead of anger and stress.

“If you want inner peace find it in solitude, not speed, and if you would find yourself, look to the land from which you and to which you go.”

-Stewart L. Udall, The Quiet Crisis

Comfort food is surely the food of equanimity. I believe that comfort food is forged early in a person’s life, and the food that comforts a person is sort of like a unique fingerprint that our early experiences make on us.

List of My Comfort Foods:

  1.  Grapefruit with salt
  2. Chicken and dumplings
  3. Chocolate chip cookies
  4. Homemade bread
  5. Highly sweetened fresh mint tea
  6. Curried chicken salad sandwiches
  7. Country ham and grits and red-eye gravy
  8. Soft-boiled eggs and toast
  9. Eggs Benedict
  10. Pasta with butter and dill
  11. Tattie broth
  12. Oranges
  13. Citrus of any kind, really
  14. Biscuits and tomatoes and sausage gravy
  15. Pasta salad, especially with Israeli couscous
  16. Rosemary and goat cheese
  17. Dark chocolate

40 Days: Vitality

 “Let us live while we live.”

 

-Philip Doddridge (1764)

One of the challenges of the 40 days is the struggle to bring concrete meaning to abstract ideas.  I am in the second week, the week of vitality.  And I’m finding it a little difficult to wrap my mind around what vitality actually is.  I know that the word “vitality” comes from the Latin word for “life.”  When I think of vitality, I think of green first, then I think of many different colors.  Baptiste, the main 40 days instigator, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time actually defining vitality, but he mentions that a person doesn’t have to go on vacation to find vitality within themselves.  And earlier this week, one of my many yoga teachers said that there is vitality in backbends because in backbends we open ourselves up to the world.

 

The vitality of thought is adventure. Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.

 

-Alfred North Whitehead

But none of this is enough for me.  I still am uncertain about what vitality looks like, concretely.  Vitality is energy, and vitality is life.  Life is the blood pumping away in our veins.  Vitality seems such an elusive thing, something fleeting and hard to grab a hold of.  And even though I don’t completely understand what it is, I’m pretty sure I could use some more of it.

Blood vessels in the human body. Photo credit: www.about.biology.com

“What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life.”

 

-Bertrand Russel, The Conquest of Happiness (1930)

 

Here’s a question:

What brings you vitality?  

Here is another question, possibly the same question, but certainly more dangerous than the first:

Why do you wake up in the morning? 

My List of Vitals*

  • coffee
  • hot chocolate
  • lemonade
  • travel
  • seeing something old in a new way
  • memories
  • making meaning from travel and memories
  • writing
  • making cookies
  • researching things I care about
  • dancing
  • learning new things
  •  the way the sun looks on old wood floors at 4:00 in the afternoon
  • words
  • books
  • the way deciduous trees look when they are naked in the winter
  • the way deciduous trees sound when they are full of leaves in the summer
  • the way deciduous leaves smell in the fall
  • bonfires
  • meteor showers
  • hyacinths
  • all things citrus, actually
  • curiosity, and questions of all kinds
  • the books I read when I was little
  • dark chocolate
  • bike rides
  • drinking beer in the sun
  • drinking champagne on the seaside
  • drinking anything with friends
  • the clear color of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea
  • crisp shadows of blades of grass across concrete
  • the way shattered glass looks under a streetlamp
  • the way falling rain and falling snow look under a streetlamp
  • the way sand looks under a microscope
  • farmer’s markets
  • edible leaves
  • salads
  • pomegranate seeds

*This list is a working draft.  I don’t expect it to ever be complete.

Baron Baptiste has a much clearer idea of what vitality means when it comes to food. According to Baptiste, fresh fruits and vegetables have vitality.

Part of vitality may be finding beauty in the ordinary. Maybe.  Photo credit: kimiya-sheklak.mihanblog.com

Baptiste references the produce in Chinatown markets, which I know from experience is definitely worth appreciating.  I’ve taken the liberty of scrolling through my archives and compiling a list of recipes that bring concrete ingredients to the nebulous idea of vitality.

Recipe #1:  Avocado, Peach, and Blackberry Salad

As revealed by my over-enthusiastic use of a filter on the photo, this recipe is from the deep archives, originally published in 2013.  But it is still delicious.  I think, in my older maturity and wisdom, I would rather add thyme as my leaf of choice to add to this fruit salad.  There’s just something about thyme and blackberry together.  Something vital, I guess.

Boqueria Market in Barcelona.

Recipe #2:  Thai Salad

The whole thai basil, mint, mung bean sprouts, lime, sesame seed oil, fish sauce, avocado flavor profile is one that I love to compose on a fresh green leaf canvas.  The only thing that would make this salad even better would be some rice noodles and grilled chicken.  Thai chilies or cracked red pepper could probably create more vitality.  Whatever that means.

 

40 Days: In Defense of Beginners

Do not say “It is morning,” and dismiss it with a name of yesterday. See it for the first time as a new-born child that has no name.

                                          -Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds

 

Quite a few years ago, somebody gave me a book Shunryu Suzuki called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  The book has survived at least three book purges, and it is slated to survive the next one.  I nibble on the concepts in this book from time to time, quite a few of which do not translate at all from Suzuki’s mind into my own.  But I can rally around at least one of Suzuki’s concepts, the importance of the beginner’s mind.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

One of the biggest challenges of being present is seeing the world as it is without the ghost of the past rising up to cloud the present with assumptions, in other words, constantly experiencing life with a beginner’s mind.   Being open-minded and willing to learn from reality as it happens is not easy.  I have noticed that a sense of wonder can cue humility, and all true learning happens when a person understands that not only are there many things that she doesn’t know,  she is also grateful that there are so many things that she doesn’t know.

Neurologically, there truly are many possibilities in the beginner’s mind: infinite possibilities of connections of neurons that can fuse together.  Once the neurons create a pathway, it’s much easier to do certain tasks, but it becomes much harder to wander off the pathway.  Like how, when I’m not paying attention to my actual destination, I will automatically drive myself to work.

“So, the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

I am still in the first week of my 40 days of yoga, the week of presence, so I have been challenging myself to have a beginner’s mind. Here are some ways that I’ve been cultivating my own beginner’s mind.

Asking “how” questions.

When my sense of wonder goes dormant, exploring the answers to how questions wakes it up again.   Some of the things I have been wondering include, but are not limited to:

  • How does movement happen in the body?  
  • How do changes in sentence structure affect the experience of readers?
  • How do people heal from grief?
  • How does learning actually happen in the brain?
  • What are the mechanics of baking bread?

Seeing things in a new way.

I find it easier to learn how to see things in a new way when the object being viewed is constantly changing.  Looking at the sky every morning, for example, and conscientiously noticing the changes.  Or maybe watching a beta fish.

It’s also possible to learn how other people see the world and try to incorporate their eyes into your own perspective.  This is what Alexandra Horowitz did in her book On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation.

Trying to conscientiously taste coffee in the morning.

The yoga teachers are always pontificating about paying attention to the breath because the breath connects the mind to the body.  I would argue that paying attention to the taste of food is as important as paying attention to breath.  And it can be very difficult to pay attention to the taste of food.

A luxurious, idealized cup of coffee, that is so difficult to realize in daily life. Especially on a weekday.

I remember a story I heard about a monk who took one hour to eat a grape in order to experience that grape to the fullest.  Instead of the whole meditation dimension of the 40 days program, I have been challenging myself to take 20 minutes in the morning to taste my coffee and only taste my coffee.  And, tasting coffee with the mind of a beginner is really the most difficult thing.  Even for a person like myself who has been known to go into raptures about coffee drinking and production.  Life happens, and life is never happening as insistently as  on a weekday morning at 6:15.

Beginner ballet mind. Photo credit: http://duduadudua.blogspot.com.es/

Actually Becoming a Beginner

Just because I am no longer a beginner at yoga, doesn’t mean that I can’t be a true beginner at something.  I signed up for an Introduction to Ballet class at a local studio at the beginning of January.  Since my classes overlap with the 40 days of yoga, my Tuesday night ballet class has become part of my 40 days of yoga.  I am definitely a beginner at ballet.  It’s exciting and silly, and it gives me the opportunity to laugh at myself.  And it’s new.  Beginnings are fun because beginners always get to learn the most.

40 Days: Presence

Present: of a person, in a particular place; existing or occurring now

Right now, the streets of Houston are flooded, and the students that actually made it to school are telling me stories of alligator gar breeding in front yards and crazy neighbors coming outside in their swimsuits and breast-stroking down streets past submerged stop signs and almost getting hit by kayakers.    The streets were flooded this morning, and the streets are due to be flooded again in an hour or two.  I am between the floods.

This Saturday, my local yoga studio, YogaOne, will be starting their 40 Days to Personal Revolution Program, like they do every January.   Among other things, it’s a challenge to practice yoga every day for 40 days.  The program came from Baron Baptiste’s book 40 Days to Personal Revolution.  Baptiste adopted the time frame from the Kabbalah, as well as other popular religious belief systems.  Word on the mystical street is that it takes 40 days to reorganize and rewire your neurons effectively enough to create a new habit.

I have attempted the 40 days of yoga before- let’s say four or five times before.  At least.  My best attempts have always dropped off in week three, the week of equanimity.  I have started out multiple Januaries of my life failing this first goal and personal test of commitment.  And, in the face of all these past failures, I’m going to try again this year.

Failure doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.  Teaching has taught me that mistakes and failure are the beginning of all true learning.  As long as the classroom environment is on point, that is, as long as the teacher creates a place where mistakes aren’t punished in some kind of horrifyingly public shaming, every mistake becomes a learning opportunity.   And I now know, if no mistakes are being made and no failure is happening, the classroom itself has failed because no learning is happening.  Learning happens when a person increases her ability to do or understand a thing, and with newness comes failure.

The first week of the 40 days focuses on presence.  Baptiste begins his chapter with an anecdote from the life of Buddha.

Someone once asked the Buddha, “Are you a god?”

“No,” he replied.

“Are you a saint?”

“No.”

“Then what are you?” they asked.

“Awake.”

There are dangers in being awake.  When you are awake, you don’t get to shut out the existence of the person on the other side of your car window begging you for money.  You don’t get to shut off the news when the mangled pictures of Syrian refugee children show up on the screen.  You don’t get to pretend that your t-shirt wasn’t put together by a person.  You don’t get to hide from the horrible existence that a chicken went through before it became a part of your flesh.  And, I’ve read Kate Chopin.  Waking up slowly seems to be the order of the day.

I’m going to start by tasting and eating some radishes.  I’ve known these radishes since they were seeds in a $.33 packet from the Dollar Store.  I planted them in dirt in a terra cotta pot, and they have lived through Houston winter.  The leaves suffered some from the wild swings in the weather, but they are still alive.  And now I will harvest and eat them.

There is a kind of humility that comes with presence, with struggling to realize that you are one person in a vast sea of people alive at one time in a vast universe of time.  And there is a kind of humility that comes with eating radishes.  I will dig up these radishes, and I will clean these radishes, and learn, or remember, that my physical body is sustained by my food, and everything I eat ultimately comes from the dirt and the sun.  And the rain.