As 2016 winds down to its last days, social media and conversation is abuzz with how this year has truly been THE annus horribilis, the year that everyone wants to see the back of. It seems like there were more tears in the collective fabric of humanity over the last 12 months than in other years in recent memory. From the deaths of some of our most celebrated artists and musicians to the seemingly relentless terror attacks on freedom and those fortunate enough to live where freedom reigns, from the non-stop sensationalist media frenzy that helped elect he-who-shall-not-be-named to the office of POTUS, to the rising wave of intolerance and xenophobia, 2016 has definitely been chock full of shocks. But instead of looking at all these moments as contributing to a horrible year, I can give you all a few reasons as to why 2016 is one of the most important years in this lifetime of ours.
My year has had some of the most challenging moments I’ve ever been faced with. My teacher of 17 years, Joan Ruvinsky, passed away, my dog got critically ill, I was ill and on antibiotics for over 3 months and my partner and I had a major cancer scare over the last 5 weeks. Serious life events that kept coming like a roll of punches that hit just when you find verticality and can see straight again. And I’m not the only one. Almost every single person I know has had his or her share of challenges in 2016. Financial struggles, serious mental and physical health problems, legal issues, you name it, it’s been occurring in my sphere of awareness. Seen literally, it all amounts to trouble and suffering, both of which anyone with half a functional brain would steer clear of. However, seen spiritually or symbolically, something much more significant than unpleasant moments has occurred in 2016.
We don’t learn anything when things are good. We don’t learn anything about ourselves or about how we operate in the world when the sun is shining, when it’s eternal summer, when we’ve got coin in the bank, when we’re a pound or two below our ideal weight, when we look in the mirror and love what we see, when our relationships and friendships are sailing along smoothly, when we love our work and when we feel like everything is exactly where it should be. And understand this above all else: spiritually speaking, success is not measured by what we own, our accomplishments, the amount of money we have or what we look like. Success, when speaking spiritually, is measured by how much we’ve learned. And we don’t learn anything in times of prosperity and abundance. We learn when we have our asses served to us by what typically gets easily referred to as “the universe.” And whether or not we have liked it, we have gotten more successful in 2016.
I have learned, through all of the challenges that this year has had in store for me, how to really work with my thoughts and stay in positivity, hope, realism and productivity. I have learned what it means to work with fear, with negativity, with pain (emotional and physical), to put into practice everything I have studied and taught over the last chunk of my career. And understand this: I knew, as soon as things got heavy in my life, that I was being presented with the opportunity to respond to and deal with hardship, to make sure that a) I knew what I was talking about when I taught about working with fear, anxiety, negativity and darkness, and b) I could accurately empathize with the suffering of others. My role in this lifetime is to help others navigate their Dark Nights of the Soul. And this year, I was presented with my own, over and over. I was meant to be reminded that sometimes it feels impossible to inhale fully, to inflate the lungs, to really take a deep breath in the face of fear and chaos. I was reminded. And I am a better person, author, teacher, friend, son, mentor, brother, husband, godfather and pet owner because of it.
What have we learned collectively in 2016? That sometimes the unthinkable happens. That sometimes events do not unfold the way we would want them to, that the Hollywood narrative is the Hollywood narrative to keep us entertained and always able to depend on the happy ending. We have learned that we will never agree with each other on some of the most fundamental issues that affect us all, and that that is ok. We’ve learned that the freedoms that we are blessed with on this side of the world are not to be taken for granted, that with the election of certain individuals, those freedoms that others fought and died for could be taken away. We’ve learned that we might need to stand up and speak louder to ensure the freedom of all, not just those that look like us, speak the same language, pray to the same God as we do or align with our political views. We’ve learned that anything can happen to anyone at any time, and that every moment is precious. We’ve learned that when we suffer, we instinctively become more aware of the suffering of others and feel an animalistic need to not inflict further suffering on anyone or anything. We’ve learned that we have a choice as to whether we take care of each other or whether we don’t. We’re still learning that lesson. It will be a long time before we get it. I’m hopeful that we will.
Basically, 2016 was a game-changer for us, on a personal and collective level. And while we may have made our way through the year under low-level pressure and resented having to do so, no one can argue that whatever we’ve learned is essential. We need to be reminded of what matters in life, and for me, that is how I work with my thought patterns. Every single one of us will have an experience of the world that is dependent on what our thoughts are, and I believe that hardship and adversity exist for us to do the mindfulness work, to observe where our thoughts go when circumstances and events get less than ideal. We are meant to look beyond the appearance of it all to find the meaning, the symbolism, and, ultimately, the lessons that are ours specifically to learn.
And so, looking back through a different lens or filter, how does 2016 look to you now? Give it some thought and see what arises.
Happy Holidays to all, and the happiest of New Years. Here’s to 2017!
The past couple of weeks have been interesting for me in that I have found myself practicing yoga more frequently than I typically do. If I can get 2-3 classes in a week, I’m happy, but over the past few weeks I’ve found myself practicing 4-5 times a week, and what it has brought me is beautifully informative. With more practice has come more strength, more awareness as to when in each individual practice I feel my body begin to respond, open and warm up. I have found myself in a new phase of relationship with my practice and my body, and as a result of the observations I’ve made, I have also found myself compelled to pay more attention to what I’m eating, when I’m eating, if I’m eating. The same applies for rest: I find myself resting when I need to, saying no to things that will interrupt that rest, and being active when typically I could just keep on resting. I am in awe of my body, how it works and responds and, ultimately, the relationship I have with it.
Last week I was notified by a friend that an old friend of ours with whom we worked years ago had been hospitalized and was currently in the Intensive Care Unit. Mathieu Leroux is the epitome of an artist: he is an actor, an author, an avid fan of music and has staged his own one-man shows. He is a creator, taking the intangibility of thought and inspiration and making it manifest into his art that he shares with the rest of the world. This man who uses his body, his movement and his words to continue to give to the world has been rendered physically immobile by a syndrome that goes by the name of Guillain-Barré syndrome. Now, I don’t know what brought it on in Mathieu’s case, but at this point it doesn’t matter. What matters is what is, and what is is an almost-total state of paralysis. Guillain-Barré syndrome occurs when the immune system recognizes the cells found in the sheaths surrounding the nerves in the body as threatening, and then targets them. This is a very rare syndrome that, in some cases, occurs after one has recovered from a viral infection. Regardless of what causes it, all I know is that I went to visit Matty in the hospital this past week and found him asleep, intubated and in a state that I want him to recover from quickly. The good news is that he will recover, as the recovery statistics with this ailment are great. But it’s going to be a long road, one full of highs and lows. I know, however, that Matty has what it takes to come back from this and let it inform the rest of his life.
I teach yoga and meditation and write the books I write because I am firmly convinced that we all need more education in mindfulness. We need to have more conversations about what the nature of the mind is by default and how it, in many cases, does us a disservice by honing in on that which is most extreme. If yoga and meditation, in certain traditions, are about deprogramming initial response, then we need to work on being present enough to recognize when the mind is focusing on, obsessing over, something that is not helpful, that is allowing tensions to wriggle their way into the body’s musculature and make themselves at home. One of the key Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (from the Ashtanga Yoga System) is Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam, which translates to “in the presence of negative thoughts, think of opposite ones.” An almost childishly simple piece of advice, but wiser and more effective than you can imagine. The root of this teaching stems from the knowledge that in any given moment, we have a say in what we point our mind to. In the most extreme of circumstances, we have the ability to not fall victim to them and be at their mercy. We have the ability to focus on areas of least or pleasant sensation when there is physical discomfort or pain. We have the ability to point the mind to a hope, a dream, to faith. We have the ability to direct our thoughts to that which is useful and serves us, especially when our thoughts would get pulled into the chaotic and unpleasant, which is usually what happens. We typically spend our time mulling over what brings us pain and suffering, and so in these moments it is our duty to deprogram initial response and re-point our mind to that which allows us to maintain calm, stay in action and not succumb to fear or pain. That is yoga.
Mathieu is currently in a situation where he has two choices: to either succumb to fear, visualizing how all of this could go even more horribly, or he could re-point his mind to healing, to faith in that healing, to the community of family, friends and loved ones who have gathered around him like protective parents, to getting through this and emerging stronger, more informed and more galvanized than ever to bring this experience with him as he continues to spoil us with his art. His situation is an extreme version of what I discuss in my teachings: moments that we wish would pass quicker than they do and what tools to use to navigate the passage of those moments wisely, in action instead of in reaction. We breath deeply when that’s available, but more importantly we take control of what the mind is focusing on and we refocus it. To light. To faith. To healing. This is his yoga practice.
I have spoken to my students this week about what’s going on with Mathieu so we could dedicate our movement, breath and intentions to not only him, but to others in our lives who could use a little infusion of light, of love, of energy, patience and resilience. I hope and pray that a fraction of all that love has landed with those to whom it was directed.
Matty’s recovery will no doubt be longer than any of us would like it to be, and despite his community having banded together over the past week to raise money for him to not have to worry about living expenses as he gradually makes his way out of this moment, any and all donations will not only be appreciated, they’ll be essential. The only thing we want him to expend energy on is coming back to a fully mobile state, and so I’m including the link to the crowdfunding site where all donations are going. Visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/soutenir-mathieu-leroux#/story to donate whatever you can. Think of Mathieu, even if you don’t know him, and send him your thoughts and good energy. Be grateful for that which we typically take for granted in the pursuit of our goals and dreams: these bodies that allow us to make our way through life, these voices that allow us to express ourselves, this community that we are blessed to be a part of.
Think of Matty and join me and all his network support in gunning for his recovery. We love you Mathieu. You will get through this. We will be here to make sure that happens.