Having a Heart - A tip for compassionate living

When the weather changes from moderate to cold a mouses thoughts evidently turn to going indoors for the winter.  I know this because I have live trapped hundreds of the little critters in the last ten years, most in the  few weeks between Fall and Winter, when frost is first thick on the morning grass.

Frost on Grass fall autumn

     As you might imagine, in all this time I've learned a thing or two about catching mice and helping them to survive the experience.  Sometimes, though, I still screw up and inadvertently hurt one of my temporary guests.

     The biggest boon to their health and survival is something I realized last year. Since I have these small furry visitors so often I can sometimes be casual about releasing them.  For the program of live trapping to be effective, I have to take the mice miles from my home before letting them go and sometimes I have caught as many as 3 or 4 in a day.  To keep this from disrupting my life, I hold them captive here till I am going somewhere for some other reason, like work, shopping or visiting a friend.  Sometimes, especially on weekends that could be 36 hours or more after the mouse is caught.  They often enter a state of high anxiety and excitement because they are trapped.  This leads them to exert themselves trying to escape and waste a lot of energy and water.   Long time visitors were often listless when released.  A few have even died awaiting their freedom.

Have a heart trap

     That is ironic and sad.  Here I was going to so much trouble to keep from harming them and I ended up torturing the mice for long periods before releasing them in such a depleted condition that they had little chance for survival.  Then sometime last year I got a big idea.  To keep them both fed and hydrated while they are in my care, I slip apple slices into the cage.  This is an amazing aid to them.  They settle in and don't try to escape as much, so evidently the apple slices are somehow soothing.  Now, I can keep them for days if necessary since when given daily apple slices the mice are uniformly vigorous at their time of release. Every one leaves the trap in good spirits.

     This last part astounded me.  Living in the country for a long time I have caught all manner of animal.  Woodchucks, raccoons, squirrels, even a skunk once or twice and it is not surprising that these larger animals will be so flipped out when they are caught that they don't even eat the bait food that attracted them in the first place.  They go on a stress induced hunger strike.  Not so with mice.  Either apples are so intoxicating for mice that they universally cannot resist them, or they just have very sturdy appetites, but for whatever reason, I have never had a captive mouse who did not eat all the apple I cared to share with him.  Not one.

    This week I did make a costly mistake, though.  When I got home from working late on Wednesday night, there was a mouse in a trap in the kitchen.  Since I had been gone for 14 hours there is no telling how long he had been here and it would be another 10 hours till I left again, so I cut the rotten part off a couple of bruised apples and fed my little charge.  I also set out another trap.  This is key to eradicating the problem of an infestation.  Laying out traps till there are no comers for 3 or 4 days.  Mice are pack animals and follow each others trails.  Usually the first one or two caught will be the larger adults.  Ensuing captives are smaller.  I guess babies looking for Mom and Dad. 

    Sometime in the wee hours a baby entered the second trap and was caught.  I didn't find him till morning.  Knowing I'd be leaving in three or four hours I didn't bother giving him anything and that was my mistake.  Hours later when I released my two little friends the adult who had received apple and was with me for about 28 hours was in fine form, scampering away when released.  The baby who had only been with me at most 11 hours and most likely much less, was listless and disoriented, when I opened his trap.  He was so dispirited that he didn't run away at all, so I picked him up and carried him to what looked to me to be a good spot near water and shelter.  I feared for his survival.

     So now I have a new rule.  Everyone will get an apple slice or two while staying at Chateau Ray regardless of whether their release is imminent or far off.  I guess it is just good manners on my part to offer guests something, but now I realize it may actually save their lives!

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Warehouse Revery

This blog sprang out of sharing I've been doing at the bottom of my monthly sales flyer for my business Yoga Life Style Yoga Supply.  In this months edition I told about how, as the holidays approach, I start doing the post office run in the afternoon so my warehouse manager Ed can keep packing orders.  I actually like this.  It makes me a part of the process of fulfilling the orders.  I get to be one of Santas elves.  I know our Postmistress and I generally announce myself with a hearty "Ho, ho, ho!" when I arrive.  I have fun with it.

     This year the volume of orders has been overwhelming and Ed could not be expected to keep up with the flow, even with me going to the PO, so last week, I put in a couple of 3 to 4 hours shifts picking and packing orders after we closed.  This week I'm doing that on 4 nights and as much time as I can during the day as well.  This is a lot more than I usually do to help in the warehouse and I'm enjoying it for the most part.
     My favorite moment came during the day today when I picked up our hefty yellow box cutter and it was cold.  Somehow the coolness brought me out of thinking and into sensation.  I noticed the weight of the tool and marveled at how easily and smoothly it sliced through the tape I was cutting, careful not to cut too deep so as not to damage what was in the box.  From there my focus on what I was doing was acute.  I was 100% picking and packing with no distracting thoughts, I was in a world of texture, temperature, color and task at hand.  The past and future dropped away and I was simply experiencing what I was doing and doing it completely.  I made some lovely packages in a relaxed way.
     I realized what was happening and had to consciously decide not to think about it but to stay with first order sensation and after awhile I dropped back out and into thinking, "Wow, that was cool, I ought to blog about it," or "Damn, my arm hurts, I hope I'm going to be able to get through this." or some other mundane mental chatter.  I think today I may try the Buddhist practice of labeling but with only two labels, "awareness" and "thinking" and try to keep recalling my mind to awareness and drop the thinking as much as possible.  Big smile on my face, warmth in my cheeks and lips.  Opening mouth, rising chest on the inhalation, shoulders separating, "Ho, ho, ho!"  Vibration filling my mouth and flowing out....

Transcendence at 13

     When I think of my tweens and early teen years, there is little continuity to my memory.  I remember instants and episodes.  Special moments that meant something more than average, so they are stamped more indelibly on my brain than whatever came before or after them.  Vexingly, they are shuffled in my mind, so I am not sure in all cases what came before what.  Now, I'm trying to order them more or less chronologically based on clues contained in each memory.

     Here's what I know for sure.  My middle sister Bea introduced me to yoga when I was 10 or 11 and I liked it.  I don't remember how often we practiced or what we did.  We moved out of the house I grew up in when I was twelve and I have a very specific yoga memory from that home so it must have been when I was 11.

     Finding a comfortable place to practice was a problem.  We lived in a split level, so our den and my sister's bedrooms were on a concrete slab with linoleum tiling.  Those locations were not ideal for practice.  I preferred the upstairs living room which had wood floors covered with a thin rug.   The main problem there, was that it was the center of activity in the house so everyone could watch me practice and my Mom, in particular, could try to discourage me.  I know I tried to use the space when she was not around or busy in another room and I learned to be real quiet. 

      One day in particular stands out from that period.  It was after my father had moved out and Mom was openly dating Tony, the man who would become my stepfather.  He was a quiet guy who encouraged anything athletic that I would do.  One day, while Mom was upstairs putting her face on, I hung out with Tony in the living room.  At some point I told him I thought I could stand on my head for an hour.  He thought it was impossible.  So I set out to prove him wrong, right in the middle of the floor there.  When my Mom saw this, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes into my attempt she flipped.  She told me to come down right away saying that what I was doing was dangerous.  But I now had an ally and once he explained what we were up to, I was miraculously allowed to continue.   This was perhaps the first bonding experience I had with Tony.  His protection meant a lot to me.  My yoga now had a sponsor who could keep my Mom from stopping me.

     I'm not sure how much yoga I was doing between ages 11 and 13 but it was enough that I gravitated to a yoga class the first chance I got, when I was 13.  I know I was 13 because the memory includes my first girlfriend who I had in the eighth grade.

     Each summer from the time I was seven or eight years old, I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks which were a few hundred miles north of our home in lower Westchester County, NY.  It was a cool place run by teachers from the New York  City area and staffed by college students from around the country and the world.  There were lots of activities that were organized by bunk and also elective activities each day.  During these elective periods I worked on the camp newspaper, learned how to row, canoe and sail, got my junior and senior life saving certificates and became a fairly accurate archer.  When Sparrow Densmore began offering yoga at Camp Manitoba I was encouraged to develop my practice.

     Sparrow showed us a lot of cool postures in the middle of a grassy field.  It accustomed me to practicing outside which I love to this day.  She also introduced this little group of young yogis to esoteric practices like pranayama, self massage and guided relaxations.  Here began my somewhat ambiguous relationship to yogic  metaphysical ideas.  One posture she showed us she assured us that her teacher had said, doing it for 1/2 an hour each day could replace 3 hours of sleep.  I wasn't sure I bought all of it, but I liked the class and the teacher and I was eager to try everything.   I learned a lot of headstand variations that I was proud to show off for Mom and Tony, over my Mom's objections, of course, when they came to visit on parents weekend.  There was much in the class that influenced my later practice as I was first developing my yoga repertoire.

     Perhaps the most significant thing that happened though was on the metaphysical side.  One beautiful sunny day a group of 5 or 6 of us were assembled in a circle on the grass.  Sparrow lead us in a self hug.  Crossing our arms in front of ourselves and reaching our right hands around our left sides and left hands around the right we were told to enjoy the warmth of self connection and nurturing with our eyes closed.  In the midst of this practice I was transported.  It was as if I was suddenly back home with Denise, my girlfriend, who I'd left behind for camp.  I felt very much like I was in her arms and kissing her in the woods near where we lived.  It was powerful, delightful and astonishing to me.  Many, many years later I began slowing down enough to reach such states on a regular basis, but this early experience showed me there was something more to yoga than just being bendy and it informed my desire to keep practicing.

     This was a delicious time that included the early shoots of my yoga practice, which I continued to nurture after that summer.  But there were other much darker things going on with me as well.  The next blog post in this story arc will detail my shadow life which eventually lead to me to a decision to quit yoga entirely.

The Trauma of My Tween Years

Before I get into this, I want you to know that I do not do this lightly.  For most of my life I have been a very private person.  No one, not even my therapist, my ex-wife or my current girlfriend, know much of what I am about to share.  So why now and why here?  Because I'm tired.  I'm tired of being ashamed of what I lived through, of where I'm from.  Because I need to own it and move on.  Yes, it has informed my emotional life and No, it does not define who I am.  Not by a long shot.

     And here's more good reasons for this uncharacteristic sharing.  I have experienced something phenomenal as I have revealed more and more of what is really going on with me.  I have been amazed at people's capacity to receive me and to accept me even when it has been hard for me to accept myself.  Today my expectation is the reverse of what it had been for most of my life.  Today I expect people to understand me and to treat me well if I can just be emotionally real with them.  I've seen it again and again and it has been very healing for me and for the people I have been involved with.  What better reason could I have for venting my spleen?

      So, I have compelling personal and altruistic rationales for conveying my story.  I also think my story will fill a gap.  I have found that the kind of sharing I hope to do is not seen a lot of in the yoga world.  Most really good teachers of yoga revert to a remote place to teach from.  It is a place of safe distance.  It is an impersonal place.  Great concepts can be shared and some of the best teacher's can help you get in touch with what is real inside you.  It is rare that teacher's share much of what is real inside them, however.  I always wonder if that teacher who overcame illness or injury through yoga also overcame anger at a random world, depression about their isolation, fear of their own fragility and so on?   I wonder why teachers who advocate looking completely at things and accepting what they find don't share fully about where a lot of the real work is done and obstacles encountered, the realm of emotions?

     This reserve displayed by yoga teachers leads to a common mis-impression.  Yoga leads to a cessation of the fluctuations of the emotional life.  I don't think this is what Patanjali meant when he wrote in his Yoga Sutras, "citta vritti narodhaha" or translated: through yoga  "perturbations of the mind cease."  Yogis do not become feeling-less automatons nor do they strive to.  I think what Patanjali meant was that we become identified with the witness state inside of us.  That more and more we have access to this calm place that watches everything we do, feel and say.  This person is us but it is not our personality.  It is not the place where we feel our pain, our desire or our joys.  But it is the place that watches all these things.  We still greet the world with reactivity.  We will always have ups and downs.  And as we gain greater access to the observer state we can feel safer giving full expression to our emotional life.  This is complex and ironic, like many of the most profound truths.

     Now that you know where I am coming from with this, let me tell you where and who I've been.

     For a couple of years say between the ages of 9 and 11, I witnessed a drawn out drama of escalating tensions and outright fighting that lead to my parents divorce.  There were tense dinners where the conflict was so palpable it was hard to keep chewing and swallowing.  There was a big fight that scared me and my sisters so much that we all huddled together in the little bathroom downstairs and hid and speculated about what might happen.  It was there that I first learned about the possibility of divorce.  Only that merciful ending did not come for some time.  Before then there were dramatic scenes where a big clunky old fashioned telephone was pulled out of the wall and flung across the room and another where a sink full of  dishes were broken, smashed on the floor.  It was so disturbing that my eldest sister Lisa, seven years my senior but still a teenager, moved out of our modest but comfortable suburban home and into a 3rd floor walk up, cold water flat, with her boyfriend, to escape the mayhem.

      There was no escape for me however, except to retreat inside myself.  My Mom told me not to pay attention to the quarrels.  She said they had nothing to do with me and that my job was to keep my chin up and to do well in school.  My Dad told me before he moved out that he would always love me even if he wasn't around.  So I determinedly focused on my schoolwork and I acted as if I was loved, though I did not feel it much.

      To do this, I basically cauterized my emotional life.  After a particularly horrendous scene, I had no one to cry to, no one to tell how I felt.  Having no ability to share it, I stifled my suffering by going numb.  I had a deep sense that no one cared about what was happening in my heart and I acted as if I did not mind.  Eventually, I more or less forgot how to speak about what was real for me.

     I was lucky in some ways, though.  I knew my Mom was concerned about me being well fed and wanted me to continue doing well in school which is more than many kids ever get.  There was breakfast every morning, a lunch to take to school and dinner every night. And I'm guessing that she was in so much pain herself that she could not have handled hearing about how I was suffering.  As a child I had been taught to have a fairly distrustful worldview and to keep things that happened in the home private.  My sisters had been trained similarly, so we really didn't know how to share, even with each other.  The result of all this was that I was left alone with a boatload of hurt, confusion, pain and anger.  For all this, yoga was a soothing balm.  The focus on physical sensation during asana practice, grounded as it was in the here and now, somehow eased my mind away from fears about the future and painful dwelling on recent past incidents and toward a joyful part of my interior life.

     There is a beautiful quote in the Bhagavad Gita about the 4 things someone might offer the Lord.  "He who offereth to Me with devotion a leaf,  a flower, a fruit, water, that I accept from the striving self, offered as it is with devotion."  I came to yoga without the slightest clue that I was doing what millions of seekers had done before me.  I was offering the dried out leaf of my stoicised self to the Lord for redemption.  It would take many, many years for me to moisten and soften to compost and then more time to fertilize the flower of an opening heart.  It would take longer still to bear the fruit of deep connection with myself and others.  I am clearly still in this process of becoming.  I doubt that I will ever be able to offer the clear purity of water beyond all yearning and nourish everything I touch, but it is a lovely goal, worthy of continued striving.  The first step for me was out of misery toward peace and I've continued in that direction with plenty of missteps along the way, ever since.


Tools for a Power Nap

About 4 years ago I injured my back so badly I could not walk.  There was radiating pain down my left leg.  The first night it felt like there was a swarm of angry hornets attacking my knee and lower leg for hours on end.  The pain persisted and was so bad that I did not go to work for two weeks.  When I finally felt OK enough to resume my job, after a few hours the pain would start to come back so I worked half days for awhile.  When I wanted to expand how much I was working, I found that taking a nap after lunch really helped me to extend the amount I could work in the afternoon.

Now, a few years later, my back health is very much improved.  I do things like moving furniture, carrying kids on my shoulders and filling in for my warehouse man when he is off, that most people with bad backs would shy away from.  I returned to seriously improved back health, by listening to my body and giving it what felt supportive.  One of those things is the after lunch nap.  I think being prone for half an hour in the afternoon is deeply restorative and makes the rest of the day go much better.
One recent day after napping, while lying there in a drowse, before returning to work, it occurred to me that these items I sell for support and comfort while practicing yoga are really great aids to my afternoon break. I personally use a mat, a round bolster and a Tadpole while napping and realized others might like the eye pillow, timer, CDs and blanket, so the package below was born.
Of all the items I find the round bolster under my knees the most important.  This wasn't always true but I went through a period where the nap was actually inflaming my back and when I started using the support to bend my legs, tilt my pelvis and flatten my spine it made a huge difference.  Now I often bend my knees when I'm lying on the floor and I always do when I nap in the office.
There is much more info on the the benefits of napping here on my website  Tools for a Power Nap
Plus on that page you can purchase any of the items you see below...