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: 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

The Great Procrastination Elixir

I have so many papers to grade.  Christmas vacation is four days away, but I can’t see that far ahead because a large stack of ungraded papers is obstructing my view.  Next Monday, I’m flying to Medellin, in Colombia, but it feels like next Monday is next year because I am measuring time by the mass of ungraded papers between the moment when I first walk on South American soil and this moment that I am living right now.

I experience procrastination as a sort of fighting dance between the different impulses that drive my behavior.  My different motivations, fears, responsibilities, wills, and work ethics pirouette and caper around the stage that is my mind.   The music sounds like this.  When I procrastinate, I search out articles that point to the benefits of procrastination.  As long as the procrastination ballet is going on in my head, these articles have the virtue of presenting me with a convenient version of reality.  Other articles exist, articles that proclaim procrastination as the root of all the evil in the world.  I don’t read those articles.

My favorite argument used to justify procrastination asserts that procrastinators actually get more done in those eternal moments when they are casting about for something to do, anything to do, as long as it’s not the thing they must do.

Today, I wrote a couple of pages of thinking about a business matter, and I sent an email related to the same business matter.  The email was 1/10th the length of the first stream of consciousness draft of thinking.  I renewed overdue library books, then I went to the library to return already-read books.  I laughed at this little McSweeney’s gem.   I leafed through a couple more chapters of The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, a book I bought about 15 years ago when I was in high school.  Turns out, the man has some illuminating points to make about sentence structure.  And I started writing a blog entry about procrastination.

I have only one final task, a task to bridge the distance between the not-doing and the doing.  I will make hot chocolate in hopes that the chocolate will soothe the angry battling dancers and put an end to the twisting war raging inside me.

Like oranges, bread, and wine, chocolate is one of those foods that have gathered so many cultural associations that the food itself has become a mythological archetype.   Drinking chocolate is a thirty-eight century old ritual, a ritual that once belonged only to the gods and the warriors.  We don’t know the name of the civilization that gave us the complex process we use to turn cacao pods into chocolate.  The Europeans inherited chocolate from the Aztecs, the Aztecs inherited from the Mayans, the Mayans inherited it from the Olmecs, and the Olmecs learned the process from an unknown people.

Chocolate includes two important alkaloids, two different substances that affect our experience of the world:  caffeine and theobromine.  Caffeine is a stimulant, and theobromine we don’t understand at all.  Some articles that I like to read say that theobromine has a “positive effect on the mood and alertness.”  Other articles say that theobromine has no effect on the mood, but I don’t read those articles.   “Theobromine” translates as “the drink of the gods.”  In Ancient Aztec culture, a cacao pod was symbolic for the human heart, possibly because both held precious liquids:  chocolate and blood.



Hot Chocolate Procrastination Elixir

You will need:

  • unsweetened cocoa powder
  • a few grindings of black pepper
  • a few swigs of vanilla extract
  • sugar to taste
  • milk

I don’t really have a recipe for this.  I heat up the milk over the range and whisk the cocoa powder in.  Sometimes I use cayenne powder, cinnamon, or nutmeg.  This time around, I used one Demerara sugar cube per cup.  Sometimes I use more, sometimes I use less.


If you are interested in learning more about the ancient symbolic origins of chocolate, I strongly recommend The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe.  Sophie, the author, was a scholar and a lover of research who scoured the papal libraries and museums of Rome for texts that mentioned chocolate.  She died of cancer before she published her book,  Michael, her widower, finished up the text and saw the book through publication.  Tastes of Paradise by Wolfgang Schivelbusch also has some good commentary on the culture of drinking chocolate in European.

Time to drink the chocolate and face the ungraded papers.