Powerlessness

A Yogi’s Lent: Week 1

I woke up to the sound of the captain’s voice saying something about an initial decent and preparing the cabin for landing with seat-trays and seatbacks in their full upright and locked position.  On a smaller plane with just two persons in each row, I pressed the spring-loaded armchair button as I smiled at my seatmate before opening the window shade expecting to the see snow covered mountains.  My final destination was Bend, Oregon.

To my surprise, what awaited me below was a bright-sunny February day and the Oregon coastline.  With an eerie feeling that was tempered by disbelief, I quickly turned back to the friendly stranger and asked, “Are we landing in Bend, Oregon,” to which she replied, “North Bend, Oregon.”  “But I thought Bend was located in the mountains,” I rebutted.  “It is,” she said.  Then seeing the confused and perplexed mental computation that was raging on between my ears, she clarified, “This is North Bend, Oregon; Coos Bay; we’re on the coast.” “Are you on the wrong flight?”, she asked?  Sinking back, a wave of powerlessness washed over me as I reluctantly answered, “It appears, I am.”

A mindful center elicits a new perspective, a renewed purpose, an inspired patience, and a pervasive peace.

What took place next was an interesting array of internal emotions, as I wrestled with blame, irony, embarrassment, frustration, disappointment, and finally (and reluctantly) acceptance.  There was nothing I could do; I was landing in Coos Bay whether I liked it, or not.  Then, after a moment, the thought emerged that though I might be powerless to change my situation, I do have control over how I will respond to the situation.  I might not be able to redirect the flight to Bend, but I can redirect my emotions and respond to the situation with a sense of calm and clarity.

Ash Wednesday, and the first day of Lent, marks the greatest powerlessness that every human being will encounter, i.e. mortality.  Though Lent focuses on physical death and the afterlife, it is emblematic of all the ways that we are confronted with powerlessness and situations beyond our control.  It is the stark reality that our lives are ever-unfolding narratives; sometimes we write chapters, sometimes we partner with others to write chapters, and sometimes chapters are written for us without our input, or consent.  The spiritual task of mature people lies in the alchemy of those latter moments, the moments when each human being unmasks the myth of powerlessness by choosing how to respond to that powerlessness.  You might not be able to change your situational position, but you can change your mental posture.

All is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

 In the Yoga Sutras – a 400 BCE document describing the art of meditation and yoga – Patanjali reminds his readers that the mental stillness required for overcoming fears and the sufferings of everyday life begins by bringing the body, the mind, and the senses into balance; a mindful center that elicits, a new perspective, a renewed purpose, an inspired patience, and a pervasive peace.

Biologically we understand this shift-process as moving from the sympathetic nervous system – that trigger which governs the body’s flight, fight or freeze response – to the parasympathetic nervous system – that trigger which slows the body into rest and digest.  Thus, meditation and mindfulness of the moment settles us into our surroundings so that we can see clearly and aides in our ability to digest fully what is taking place.

Christians have understood this practice as the art of contemplative prayer, with the end goal leaving the pilgrim rooted and grounded in a trust that “all is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Though cultivating this inner stillness amidst the powerlessness of daily tragedies and situations requires practice, it can be learned by a few simple and easy steps.

As you start your 40-day Lenten journey, begin by physically and mentally creating the sacred space needed for mindfulness to emerge.  Don’t let the myth of powerlessness rob you of the capacity for choice.  Don’t react, choose how you will respond.

Week One: Yoga Pose & Meditation

Yoga Pose: Sukhasana (Easy Pose)

Easy Pose: Step-by-Step Instructions by Yoga Journal

Step 1: Fold a thick blanket or two into a firm support about six inches high. Sit close to one edge of this support and stretch your legs out in front of your torso on the floor in Dandasana (Staff Pose).

Step 2: Cross your shins, widen your knees, and slip each foot beneath the opposite knee as you bend your knees and fold the legs in toward your torso.

Watch a video demonstration of this pose

Step 3: Relax the feet so their outer edges rest comfortably on the floor and the inner arches settle just below the opposite shin. You’ll know you have the basic leg fold of Sukhasana when you look down and see a triangle, its three sides formed by the two thighs and the crossed shins. Don’t confuse this position with that of other classic seated postures in which the ankles are tucked in close to the sitting bones. In Sukhasana, there should be a comfortable gap between the feet and the pelvis.

Step 4: As always, you should sit with your pelvis in a relatively neutral position. To find neutral, press your hands against the floor and lift your sitting bones slightly off the support. As you hang there for a few breaths, make your thigh bones heavy, then slowly lower your sit bones lightly back to the support. Try to balance your pubic bone and tail bone so they’re equidistant from the floor.

Step 5: Either stack your hands in your lap, palms up, or lay your hands on your knees, palms down. Lengthen your tail bone toward the floor, firm your shoulder blades against your back to your upper torso, but don’t over arch your lower back and poke your lower front ribs forward.

Step 6: You can sit in this position for any length of time, but if you practice this pose regularly, be sure to alternate the cross of the legs. A good rule of thumb: On even-numbered days, cross the right shin in front of the left, and on odd-numbered days, do the opposite. Alternately, you can divide the practice time in half, and spend the first half with your right leg forward, and the second half with the left leg forward.

Meditation:

Step 1: Gently close your eyes and draw your attention to your body and the physical space that you are inhabiting.

Step 2:  Scan your body looking for places to soften or disengage your muscles – beginning at the crown of your head; slowly making your way down, across your forehead, eyes, jaw, neckline, shoulders, torso, etc. making your way to the soles of your feet.

Step 3: Focus your attention on your breath; noticing as your belly and chest rise with each inhale and release with each exhale.  As you breathe in through your nostrils, breathe out through the mouth by ever-slightly constricting your lips (e.g. like your blowing out a candle on a birthday cake).  Establish this slow and rhythmic breath, deepening your breath with each inhale and lengthening your breath with each exhale.

Step 4:  Now, draw your attention to the mind.  We often buy into the lie that we can be in two places at once, we cannot.  We can only inhabit the here and now; the gift of the present moment.  Therefore, any thoughts that would seek to draw you away from the present moment, allow them to pass by.  And any thought that would help facilitate your awareness of the present moment, hold onto lightly.  When it no longer serves you, allow it to fade as well.

Step 5:  Now with a calm body, a rhythmic breath, and a still mind, begin your meditation by setting an intention, a prayer.  The suggestion for this meditation is the phrase quoted earlier, “All is well, and all manner of things shall be well” (the famous phrase from the 12c-English Christian mystic, St. Julian of Norwich).  Repeat slowly this phrase, matching the phrase with your breath (e.g. “All is well” on the inhale breath, and “all manner of things shall be well” on the exhale breath).  Repeat intention/prayer for several minutes.

Step 6:  To exit practice, return to natural breath and softly open your eyes.  Next, take a moment to journal your experience.

Images and Article by Mark Carter and originally published on February 26, 2020 by MC Photography.

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