Pinocchio. George Washington and the cherry tree. The boy who cried wolf. Many stories exist to tell of the perils of lying and the beautiful purity of truth. These tales tend to present Truth as a fairly simple duality—right over wrong, good conquering evil—but as we age, the complexities and conditional aspects of this realm make themselves...Read More
The following piece was written by Kathy Hartsell, a fellow yoga instructor and mind-body practitioner who studies alongside the Mind Body Dancer® community. She writes from Boston, MA.
This past week, trotting through a familiar city path, my eyes parked on a pair of beautifully crafted doors that I had somehow grazed by hundreds of times without noticing. I leaned curiously toward these hearty panels of bronze, and as their presence swallowed my shadow, my attention tumbled through inscriptions spread across the doors' chest that nod to the history of Ceylon tea trade. Upon learning that these Salada Tea Doors have stood there tall in tadasana since 1917, I marveled at the blind spot I had been toting with me, oblivious to doors of beauty in a space I assumed I knew so well.
With one palm, I sheepishly shake hands with the fact that I have countless times floated past what I now perceive as central and defining to this block's landscape. But in the other palm, I gather from this moment deeper respect for attention and its boundaries. I experience directly what the field of cognitive psychology has to say about the things we see and miss at any given moment. I’m reminded that, of course, awareness cannot be wholly and simultaneously available for all things, and that, by design, our brains will filter the world’s stream of stimuli to extract what feels most relevant for survival. This process is a curtsy to our cognitive limits, an expression of our innate energy conservation and an example of how our attention molds our understanding of reality. Such blind spots are undoubtedly useful in numerous ways. They are also humbling in many respects. But mostly, I find them to be a call to action. Knowing that the default brain will grab only the information that seems “essential” to human survival or excessively shiny and entertaining, I’m moved to actively seek mind-spirit nourishment—the mind-stretching, soul-lifting stuff I might just miss otherwise. Exploring life beyond the obvious or expected is always an option, but it requires a continual opening of our senses and nurturing of our awareness.
Attention’s mobile nature can be challenging to sit still with, when its slippery texture and flighty rhythm can feel like the sun streaming in a bit too directly. But this same fluid quality, once stabilized, is also what enables us to choose where we move and hold our attention, whether climbing high onto the right shoulder blade or sinking low into the floor of the pelvis. This mobility is what allows me to fall in love with new things about old relationships, or recognize a habit that I could be tempted to conveniently “not see.” Both cognitive research and everyday experience assert that there is always something we have missed... and therefore, always something new to see, hear, feel, or think. This echoes with truth in all the spaces I frequent, whether walking a familiar block and noticing doors that were always there, or landing in seasoned yoga postures where fresh forms of embodiment always await.
The new year can often be overloaded on the front end with an aggressive assessment of self and life, resulting in a daunting list of expectations and aspirations that weight one’s first steps through January. But, while I’ve always valued the art of reflection and the shaping of intention at any time, I also feel the new year is best left open. Through such openness, we might just discover that in both familiar streets and new territories, there are already doors standing by, inviting awareness in.
Photograph of Salada Tea Doors by Kathy Hartsell
The following post was written by Liz Beres, a NYC-based dancer; dance teacher; and yoga teacher, certified by The Perri Institute for Mind and Body. Liz currently teaches yoga privately and at various gyms, including that of the Federal Reserve Bank of NY through Plus One. She is continually intrigued by and appreciative of the power of mind/body practices, and is grateful for the chance to share her musings on MindBodyBrew’s digital platform.
"Life is not inherently meaningful. We make meaning happen through the attention and care we express through our actions." - Donna Farhi, from "Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit: A Return to Wholeness"
That first sentence stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it. I found myself reading it through again, and again, and again, pouring over the words in an effort to gain some hold over them. I couldn’t get beyond the idea that our lives—at their very base—are utterly blank canvases. But as I began to consider the trajectory of a life—from infant to toddler on up—the varied and deep layering of intention and purpose in a life slowly struck me.
Having been dealt a largely fresh slate from the universe after a summer of bold decisions and equally weighted repercussions, I was met this fall with an opportunity to take action in such ways that could renew or redirect the steps along my life story. I knew that I wanted to commit to moving forward with raw candor, and I knew too that I endeavored to make and follow through with choices that lay outside my comfort zone. But to decipher what all this meant—how I could successfully meet my truest self—required much reflection, and through that consideration, an intense stripping down of layers that no longer served me. Our choices so expressively seal our identity, but are those choices ones we want to reinforce, or must they shift to meet us at our present?
For whatever reason, I imagined myself landing at a point where I was clear and streamlined in a certain sense; contradictions would fall away, and I’d be standing there so solidly as this one being. It hasn’t happened. In fact, I’ve realized how unrealistic such a vision is, for we all exist as such complex creatures, full of disparities that are no less valid or true in spite of their variety. I’d walked the earth for years attempting to fully embody my differing roles in whatever environment I found myself in; dancer, teacher, student wasn’t even the tip of it. Was I a contemporary dancer or a musical theater performer? A dance teacher? A yoga teacher? A creator? A collaborator? The web of it all spun out for miles.
I’m discovering that trying to distinguish between all these pieces of ourselves becomes complicated and unnecessary when all these diverse parts of us already coexist; we are blended beings, rich and full of nuance. Our lives are not homogenous events, as Donna Farhi so poignantly notes. Life changes, and we too must adapt and change along with it.
So I’m drawn back to this question, or call to action: if our lives are not meaningful in and of themselves, how will we give them meaning? What meaning do we want to fill our stories with? What meaning do we want to fill our stories with in this present moment?
With so much to tackle and pursue all at once, it seemingly becomes necessary to parse through all that surrounds us in order to choose and follow what is most valuable to our growth at a given time. I would use the word ‘prioritize’ to distinguish this act, but prioritizing sounds too black and white and too logical when such choices to follow certain goals over others emerge, I imagine, most sincerely from intuition and the depths of our souls. And in any case, regardless of what we do choose to pursue, we must recognize that our paths usually are not linear ones. The roads we set out on inevitably wind through experiences we couldn’t have even envisioned, and numerous forks in the road present themselves, or even force themselves, upon us.
One of the ethical principles of Yoga’s eight-limbed path is particularly relevant in considering these matters: aparigraha, or non-attachment. As much as we habitually seek out certainty and security, one unavoidable fact of our human existence is that impermanence permeates our lives. Impermanence serves as our one constant. Trying to hoard what we have only leads to suffering, as those people or objects or ideas will, in time, fade, or in some situations even vanish.
So then, how are we to acquire meaning if such uncertain transience exists as a base of our lives? I would extend the hope that we still plant seeds of growth in whatever arenas we aim to nurture, but perhaps as we harvest those same seeds, we can assess what is honestly in front of us, so as to recognize and interact with the reality that has presented itself to us, rather than the dream that lay in the backs of our minds or hearts. Because while we drive so much of what occurs in our day-to-day lives, there are countless variables that shift our actions and thoughts into unpredictable realms—and with all of that comes, I would suggest, even more meaning than we could have achieved on our own. I believe that it is that stark openness to our communities—those that are tangible and those that are less so—that enables us to transcend what superficial steps we take through our day and fills us with such a sense of connection and comprehension as to where we are in each moment.
Getting the chance to meet so many new people over the course of the summer embedded within me a desire to commune with strangers (in the safest of ways, Mom!). I have attempted to actually look at people I pass by and toss out a soft smile or converse with those who are serving me or surrounding me when it feels appropriate. What has been amazing in this experiment is the sense of intimacy and ease that has suddenly emerged in environments that otherwise had felt cold or purposeless. From this seed that I planted upon my return from time in a smaller town with a tightly bound community of friends and colleagues has come more curiosity and openness on my part, and the potential for even more growth in my interactions with those I don’t know. It has built meaning in my life, and simultaneously expanded my comprehension of the rich interconnectedness of our individual paths. It has reminded me too of how significantly our moods and mindsets can shift from acting upon one outwardly small but specific intention. There are so many choices to be molded, so many possibilities to choose from and subsequently learn from.
Just the other day, a friend of mine suggested that once she leaves New York City, she hopes to live an entirely different life—one set in a rural locale, where she can live not by a clock but by the ever-changing light of day and night, where she can focus less on survival and more on filling the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual potential that lives within her. Such a beautiful vision that I too similarly share. So many other layers of meaning that could come into being, a largely new iteration of a life’s story.
Dreaming of the future is a beautiful practice that serves to inspire and egg us on towards our utter fulfillment, but in light of all these thoughts—and to not get ahead of ourselves—what is it that we, in this very moment, aspire to pursue? What seeds can we plant to set such growth in motion, and how can we then step back, even as we nourish the seeds, to witness what actually emerges? As much as we seek to make meaning out of life, if we could be more present, giving more attention and care to what lives right in front of us, could we derive whole other layers of meaning and depth that we previously could not have conceived possible? Perhaps ‘making meaning’ in our lives need not be such an active endeavor; meaning will materialize effortlessly, if only we are brave and open enough to meet it in its truest forms.
- Liz Beres
The following post was written by Ana Romero, graduate of The Perri Institute for Mind and Body. Ana is a yoga teacher, dancer and graphic designer who continually seeks for different adventures traveling and living abroad.
After a ten hour flight from Mexico, I arrived in Paris. I felt excited and scared. I was on my way to Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, a village in the countryside of southwest France. I was picked up at the train station in a big white van to go to Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery that was founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. This Vietnamese monk and peace activist has shared his teachings through more than one hundred books and dharma talks to a wide array of professionals including U.S. police officers and congress men and women. The scenery from the train station to the monastery was beautiful with all the cute hills, the vineyards, the sunflower fields, and other crops, and I really wanted to enjoy my experience of the view--but the truth is that I was terrified. I was more than 5,700 miles from home, with a severe inflammation all across my lower back that wouldn't even let me pull my carry-on luggage. After half an hour in the white van, I arrived at the Lower Hamlet, where some of the Buddhist nuns and laypeople practice the art of mindful living. As soon as I arrived, I felt the peace I could potentially reconnect with. It was an austere set of cabins surrounded by plum trees with a beautiful bell tower and a big lotus pond where every morning, one could hear the frogs croaking and the birds singing. Did I mention that there wasn't any internet or phone service?
At Plum Village, the wake up call is at
with the sound of a bell. After rolling a little in bed and splashing some water on my face, I started walking towards the meditation hall. Right away, I felt the calmness of the subtle footsteps of the nuns dressed in long, brown robes, some of them wearing a kneaded hat to cover their shaved heads. The first day we experienced a guided meditation which called many aspects of nature related to the human being. Some of the days we would also practice a slow walking meditation in the hall. After that, we had some time to stretch our bodies, practice yoga, or run. At
it was time for breakfast; the meals were silent most of the time in order to really savor and concentrate on the gift of the delicious vegan foods, and the efforts around them. After breakfast it was time for working meditation, but before we began we would gather in a circle for announcements and for chanting pure and beautiful songs. Off we would go to start different chores like cleaning, gardening, painting, preparing food, etc. Each day we would also practice walking meditation amongst the trees or by a creek, connecting with nature, contemplating, but most importantly focusing on the breath, focusing on each step, focusing on the present moment. Another of my favorite moments of the day was arriving at the time of Noble Silence, which would usually start when the sun started its final descent. During that time, a nun would chant and ring a beautiful low-pitched bell to celebrate our big star. It was a time to reflect, a time to write or read, a time to just be.
I'm somewhat of a shy person, so I arrived to the monastery with the idea of really focusing on myself. And I did--but I also found that it was very easy to establish a connection with the other laywomen. There were moments of very loving and deep conversations, and there were other moments of so much laughter that I would have to find a tissue to dry my tears. As a laywoman, it was amazing to observe this community of monastics and experience their lifestyle in a less committed way. Their facial expressions are very pure and genuine, and there was room for hard work and seriousness--but there was also room for joy, for giggles, and for fun. It was really wonderful to feel their joy and their commitment. There were some days that all the monastics and the lay friends, men and women, would gather in one of the hamlets to celebrate the day of mindfulness. During that day, there was usually a Dharma talk, a sharing of a learning experience from one of the monastics. In one of the talks, a U.S. monastic was sharing his experience about living in a community, and how it isn't easy. Their talks were so simple, so honest, and even daring at times. This American monk shared with us about finding a little piece of soap that hardly lasted for his shower, and how those kind of things, on different levels, could be tricky when living with somebody else, and especially when living within a bigger community. But that simple talk was fun and spontaneous, because he suddenly made us aware that he was giving us images of him naked and showering. He made us laugh!
Plum Village is a beautiful place full of nature. It is a great place to practice being with yourself and with a community. The talks were simple and sincere, but at the same time, they left a huge learning experience. It was the ideal place to focus on my breath and just be. As a yoga teacher, I wanted to deepen my meditation practice to then share it with my students, and to incorporate it more into my classes. After all, yoga is a meditation itself, as well as preparing the body to have a meditation practice. Being at Plum Village not only planted the seed to deepen the meditation practice for my classes, but it transformed the way I feel when something is going wrong or difficult in my life. I learned from one of the sisters that instead of denying or pushing away that suffering, it was more effective to acknowledge it and give it love in order for it to heal. In a video talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, he said, "Take your suffering as if it would be a crying baby, you don't know what the newborn needs yet but at least you are holding and giving him/her love." My stay at Plum Village was a huge experience because I was really hurt physically, and yet, I was fine. Slowly, I started to feel that transformation of joy and laughter, and therefore, I started to heal.
Photography by Ana Romero
IMAGINE mountains of volcanic ash. Emerald thermal pools, so pure that their vivid greens and blues reflect the towering mountains above. Spider webs straddling neighboring bushes, their translucent threads so fine yet so magnificently intricate in their weavings. Mud pools bubbling, popping, and plopping, fuming beside bursting geysers. Caves so cavernous your floating tube of a seat in the cold water seems to morph into a pew beneath a cathedral’s towering heights.
All of this I was lucky to witness on my visit to New Zealand a few weeks back. Your traveling bucket list may already include this wondrous country. If not, I suggest you add it. Now.
When I travel, I tend to fill with this overwhelming awe at all that surrounds me. This intense desire to absorb every little bit overcomes me; as I scan as many details of my new environment as possible, I fervently hope that I can tuck those very images and their accompanying sensations into the deepest folds of my core, so as to be able to access their light and smell and temperature whenever I wish. I realize, even at this young age, that memories can lose their vividness as time passes—and yet I attempt again and again to receive and deposit all that I can when I travel, not only because of the marvelous nature of the sights, but also because of the inner experiences that have been birthed out of such travels. My experience in New Zealand was no different. In truth, my craving to soak everything up was probably at its strongest, since I knew that I was halfway around the world.
Upon my return to US soil, I felt as if I’d arrived home from two parallel journeys—a beautifully scenic trip on the one hand, and a vast period of inner growth, abbreviated only by the axis of time, on the other. Something about New Zealand’s terrain and people amplified this secondary journey for me. Perhaps, too, it was the large span of the trip (two weeks), or its timing (its intersection with the New Year), or the act of spending the majority of my waking hours with my family, who reminds me both of where I’ve been and where I am, and then inevitably nudges me towards considering how I’d like to continue to grow. But even in acknowledging all of this, I cannot deny the power that a trip’s sights and sounds and colors have over one’s self-reflective capacity.
I’m always so fascinated by the ways our external environments can shape our internal worlds. Just the other day, actually, I felt this wave of calm wash over me when I was several blocks away from Central Park; despite being surrounded by apartment buildings and shops and New Yorkers bustling to and from the train, the sheer proximity of trees and rocks and grass buoyed my drained spirits. If even the knowledge of a nearby park could bring comfort to a nature lover like me in that moment, how much greater of an effect can a mountain staring you in the face, or a shimmering emerald lake, or a volcano with steam rising from its slopes, have? As I ask this question, I must also present this query: how often do you and a glimmer of your environment take a good look at each other? How active are your eyes? How open is your vision?
In New Zealand, I recognized how constricted my vision has become. Of course I look around at the seas of people who fill the streets and subway platforms; I notice, too, how much further I must walk to reach my door when the bitter cold strikes. But how much more time do I spend with my eyes glued to my phone’s screen and with my eyes not entirely open, as if curtains have been drawn, containing me in a room where I rehash schedules and choices and opportunities and superfluous matters again and again?
Knowing that I may never make it back to New Zealand (though I sincerely hope against that, now that I’ve been), my interactions with the people and land there became intimate, purposeful, and full of presence; this distinctly altered way with the world broke open my senses, particularly my vision. It was as if I could consume the mysterious yet potent energy of the mountains and the wistful character of the trees lining the roads we cruised along. All of this absorbed energy—most especially by way of my eyes—triggered a churning within my mind and heart. Countless questions seeking answers arose and tumbled over each other inside of me. Contradictions between ideas clashed, and confusion struck as I lost track of what was antiquated—having risen out of past experiences and necessitated release—and what was truthfully of me, not composed from some judgment or projection of what ought to be.
My drishti, my gaze in New Zealand seemed purified by the beauty of the country’s natural surroundings and its people’s seemingly simple, grounded, joy-filled way of life. As my eyes drew in such unspoiled sights, my core self began to crave similar clarity and simplicity. This reflective mode, spawned by my adventures abroad and its resulting cravings, has followed me back to my city life; yet with a smattering of goals and fewer answers than I’d hoped, I’ve found myself tossed back into the stream, trying not to be entirely overcome by the current. In spite of the grand propositions I returned with, I’ve fallen largely—but not entirely—back to where I began, because I’ve realized that in trying to find answers, I’ve been seeking a perfect balance, which, rooted in the unreachable notion of perfection, cannot be. Even the way I attempted to soak up all of my trip’s moments seems based in this desire to have it all, in one perfectly wrapped box.
And so, as I sit here, still with missing pieces to answers and with even more questions than when I began, I wonder about our relationship with our vision. In a beautiful restorative yoga class I took this last week, we were encouraged to cover our eyes with eye pillows in Savasana, in an effort to close out all light, all hints that could lead to outward vision and stimulation. There was such power in that, especially in the midst of the quiet of winter. So I wonder, then, if just a simple (but really not so simple) awareness of our eyes’ activity could secure vibrancy in our everyday lives, enhancing our present moments just as much as those mountains and lakes and caves that stole my attention and imagination miles away from where I sit now. Just as our eyes continually launch from one journey to the next, so too does that information from all that we see enter us, churn within us, and propel us forward—forward being a relative term of course. Forward as onwards, past where we are, to the next moment in which we’ll hopefully be present, with open eyes and ears and hearts and minds, where we’ll be ready to be carried to the next moment and the next, probably without answers but with even more questions that can incite curiosity and excitement within us for all that is to come.
- Liz Beres
P.S. A little anecdote that I wanted to share, just because of the sheer serendipity of it all: I sometimes brainstorm for my posts and write pieces of them while in transit. Parts of this post came to be underground, and in one particular moment, in setting aside my notebook to transfer from one train to another, I walked up the steps at Herald Square to hear a Beatles classic, “In My Life”, being played and sung. I couldn’t help but stop and smile, knowing that that very song connected perfectly to what I was learning and hoping to share in my post. So here are the lyrics I walked straight into. More food for thought thanks to John and Paul and George and Ringo!
There are places I remember All my life, though some have changed Some forever not for better Some have gone and some remain All these places had their moments With lovers and friends I still can recall Some are dead and some are living In my life I've loved them all
Photography by Liz Beres.