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Cultivate Calm with Ujjayi Breathing

Woodlake Nature Center, Walking Meditation Way Opening Workshops 2022

Maia Writes:

We need a repertoire of tricks to help ease stress.  Especially stress that is ambient and unrelenting- war, poverty and inflation, climate crisis, an unrelenting pandemic, racial inequality.  It all adds up into a communal equation of strain.

People are talking about the ujjayi breath, also called the “Darth Vader breath.”  Kimberly Wilson – cake baker extraordinaire on the Great British Bakeoff- and simultaneously a psychologist- is an author who writes about this and inspired me to try it. She says that this kind of breath of nasal breathing activates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is super cool!  Apparently, it is an “information highway” between the brain and the gut, running through all our internal organs. It releases a hormone called acytecolene which is calming for the body, and which is especially activated by constricted throat breathing like ujjayi.

So here is how you do it- it is simple. Constrict the back of the throat when you exhale (like you are fogging up your bathroom mirror)- only, exhale through the nose for a count of four, and inhale through the nose for a count of four, and then hold your breath at the top for a count of four- Repeat.  This pattern stimulates the vagus nerve, and honestly- I can feel immediate effect in my body when I practice this. Studies show that two minutes of this allows your blood pressure to drop and inflammation to decrease.

Obvious Disclaimer- this breath will not change the conditions around you- there will still be climate change. There will still be racial inequity. Inflation – also still real. And my kitchen is messy, my lawn is drying up, and my dogs need walking. But with this calm activation in the body, we are all more able to be a change agent in the world. Better equipped to express faith and values in the lives we live. A byproduct of this calm brings more awareness of divine guidance, and more openness to its leading. May it be so, for you- your loved ones- and your family Earth.

Source: How to Build a Healthy Brain by Kimberly Wilson

Falcon 9 Rocket Scrub

It took such planning,

Such precision, the

Certainty that something stationery could become airborne,

Effort encompassing good intention, good effort.

Good money.

Just that all the hope and vision in the world can

Bend toward something unforeseen:

Hope diverging from strategy, its

Position firmly in the realm of 

Universal beneficence, guiding

Tikkun olom toward global resonance and

Quiet restoration of the common canopy under which

We live, move, and have our being.

Maia Twedt, poet

Tikkun olam (Hebrew: תִּיקּוּן עוֹלָם, lit. ’repair of the world’) is a concept in Judaism, which refers to various forms of action intended to repair and improve the world.

The overturning (of Roe v Wade)

Barriers, photo by Maia Twedt

When we learned of it we became lost

In our hometown. Landmarks repositioned themselves like

Building blocks, some disappearing altogether into the

Quicksand of patriarchy. On dark streetcorners

Women stood in fear for their lives as always, shining of both

Terror and triumph. And if you look back now-

You may see them hardened into pillars of salt.

If instead you avert your gaze, negligence

Will encroach upon the future, spreading

Malignant tentacles over your children and theirs, in

This very body, this very home, this holy space

Shared one with another.

Maia Twedt, permission to repost granted

I am who I am

Infinity Room by Yayoi Kusama, exhibit at Hirschorn Museum in Washington DC

Maia Writes:

This is the season of graduations, and I have a Beloved one who graduates from high school in a couple of weeks. I am noticing the questions that are asked of young people at this stage. Queries range from “where have you been and what have you done?” to “where are you going and what will you do?”

It draws me back to the concept of the Hebraic God, Yahweh, who was given the name YHWH because this god was “the one who cannot be named.” This god made the response “I am who I am” when the people’s curiosity got the best of them. This god felt no compunction to offer a litany of references, nor to reply with all their godly qualities that proved fitness for the task ahead.

Instead this great “I am who I am” appears on the scene at random times, often unbidden, to show the people how more fully be who they are meant to be. YHWH leads them out of slavery. Guides them to new land. Invites them into communal life.

There is so much pressure to be a certain kind of a person, to aspire to a particular job or earn a good reputation. The “I am who I am” is the faithful reminder that I am who I am not because of successes or failures, or because of where I come from, or because of what I am becoming. I am loved simply by virtue of being human… being who I am. What a great relief and gift to be accepted in this way.

Note: This photo was taken by Maia in an experiential exhibit of artist Yayoi Kusama. Kusama is a Japanese artist who struggled mightily with mental illness, born in 1929, and just recently become popular. Her work utilizes the viewer as an instrument to express the concept of infinity, and she has created a series of Infinity Rooms. This is a visual reminder that we embody a fragment of infinity by an artist who is fully who they are, without apology or explanation.

Walking into a new perspective

Maia writes:

Infectious disease director Michael Osterhold said in the middle of the pandemic: “Every morning, I scrape five inches of mud off my crystal ball.  Any effort to predict a future course beyond 30 days relies on pixie dust for its basis.”

I find this statement both exhilarating and horrifying these past years.  I am a planner, and I like to know what lies ahead.  The allure of certainty is seductive and can be distracting at certain junctures..  Enter the experience of meditative walking: Walking is truly an exercise in befriending uncertainty.  Sometimes we choose a path, and sometimes we settle on a path.  Either way, the true work is to appreciate not only what lies ahead but also what exists underfoot.  

Thich Naht Hanh popularized the concept of walking meditations, and has so much wisdom about tending to the body and mind as one walks.  He says:

Take my hand. We will walk. We will enjoy our walk without thinking of arriving anywhere. Walk peacefully. Walk happily.
Our walk is a peace walk. Our walk is a happiness walk.

Of course, a path does not always feel “happy.”  In walking an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain, The Camino de Santiago, I was grieving a deep loss.  Climbing up at the close of one day to the monastery at Roncesvalles, I was tired and angry.  I wanted to eat, and then cover my head with a sheet.  Instead I was greeted by an exuberant monk who forcefully cajoled us to stay for a blessing..  As he sprinkled holy water over us with a pine branch and intoned Spanish liturgy, I thought about all the steps upward I had taken to this place.  About how I did not necessarily choose to be in this place of grief, and yet here I landed.  Suddenly though, as I lifted my face to the sprinkles of water, it felt right to be at the top of the Pyrenees Mountains in this place and in this time.  The past, present, and future felt synchronized and embodied.  Roncesvalles became a turning point, a healing place, a refuge.

Come walk with us at Way Opening Workshops this summer.

Pacifism and pain

~Anne
I am, at my core, a pacifist. As a Quaker and a human connected to other humans, I do not believe that violence can solve a problem, whether violent words or full-scale war. Like others, I have been watching in horror at the invasion of Ukraine -the heartbreaking stories told by those who’ve fled, the images of families in shelters and buildings in rubble. It’s difficult to know how to respond and I’ve marveled at the creative ways people are getting money and medical supplies to those in need. I believe that the holy is found in those moments of generosity and inventive ways of addressing conflict and need. That God calls us to engage creatively in the world to heal each other’s wounds. I endeavor to do this in my work and my life. 

I took a cab the other day and my cab driver was from Mali and listening to the news in French. When I commented, he unleashed a torrent of words and pain as he drove. He is outraged at the Americans and all the talk about the war and refugees. I assumed he meant because the media is paying more attention to these white, urban refugees wearing jeans and T-shirts than it does to brown and black refugees, something others have commented on as well. But no, he went on to share that for all the years the French colonized his country, the U.S did nothing. He described being forced to learn and speak French; what it feels like to have one’s country robbed of its gold and other precious metals, the pain of being ruled by another country that is so different from one’s own. He went on to say that the only people that helped were the Russians. And that is why he is in such conflict now. He cannot condemn the Russian invasion because they were the only country to come to the aid of his home country. The phrase, “only the Russians helped us” was repeated in English and in French. 

It was humbling to hear his story and while I would have argued with most anyone else about the Russians being “good guys” in this war, I didn’t feel I could contradict, or even, suggest an alternative viewpoint to this man. Certainly not when he was so visibly upset. I do not know what it is to live under colonial rule. I do not know what it is to feel subjected to the will of another people, nor the sense of gratitude to a country willing to give you weapons to free your country. I do know I have a visceral reaction to the idea that the people who give you weapons are your allies.
I also acknowledge that I live in a culture that venerates power more than peace. And so I sit with this knowledge -this deep knowing and the not-knowing. I don’t feel creative. I am at a loss as to how to engage in this trauma, this pain, in any meaningful way. I have to trust that prayer makes a difference; that way will open when I listen for how I am led to respond. I need to not become complacent just because the situation is complicated and overwhelming and far away. But I also cannot respond from a reactionary place because that’s not helpful either, and might shut down another’s story that needs to be voiced. So I live in the messy middle of demonstrating and voicing concerns and sending money, and knowing that I may be asked to do more at some point. I just don’t know what that will look like. But I trust that prayer will help guide me. And so I turn to the poetry of John O’Donohue,
In these times when anger
Is turned to anxiety 
And someone has stolen
the horizons and mountains…
May we have the courage 
To turn aside from it all
And come to kneel down before the poor,
To discover what we must do,
How to turn anxiety 
Back into anger,
How to find our way home. 

Getting Unstuck

I am reminded these days as pandemic fatigue drags on of a practice that philosopher William Irvine calls negative visualization. In short, it is the act of imagining things which are blessings in your life, and then to pause and imagine them gone. Doing this practice has helped me feel less stuck and more grateful. It reminded me of ways I really do care about certain people and certain elements of my life- even my annoying little barky dog Evie.

There is a danger in this practice of gaslighting- dismissing the true depths that people find themselves in. But at the same time it offers some tools for how to choose to respond to things. It helped me learn a new way of practicing gratitude.

I really appreciated this podcast from Hidden Brain (link below)- which uses the seasonally relevant movie Groundhog’s day to illustrate how to move out of being stuck. Actor Bill Murray is a weather forecaster that gets trapped in a bad day over and over, and desperately wants a way out. The podcast talks about using negative visualization to accept some things, reject others, and move forward.

If you would like a longer explanation about negative visualization, I truly enjoyed Irvine’s book called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

And the podcast below is a short look into this practice and a reminder about how Bill Murray finds his way out of a repetitive loop. A repetitive loop is what I feel in these depths of February, at this stage of Omicron, and as a health care provider, wishing things to be different and new again.

-Maia

Winter Wisdom

It’s 7:05 pm and I’m ready for bed. It’s been dark for hours and it’s very cold here in the upper midwest. Chipmunks and black bears are hunkered down; honey bees are doing a well-choreographed dance – a constant movement toward the center of the hive to stay warm. 
It’s my understanding that hibernation isn’t really about long periods of sleep but of slowing the body down enough that the heartbeat and breathing can also slow. For animals, instinct, daylight and temperature dictate the timing of hibernation. I am clearly influenced by the lack of daylight and cold in my desire to turn in by 7; but I have to be a bit more intentional than other animals about slowing my pace. It can be difficult to make time for slowing and simply being; for resting in the present. Being in the now allows feelings to surface and sometimes overwhelm. When I’m busy, I can maintain enough motion to notice the feelings but not really tend to them. 

My work closes down the last week of December and with a pandemic still raging, I was able to slow down and be for 10 days. I had no plans and no routine. Like many, I’ve dealt with a lot of loss this past year.  Spending time intentionally doing nothing brought up grief and tiredness and tenderness. Giving myself time to pay attention to where I feel these emotions in my body and the space to wallow in the sadness feels both indulgent and vital. The constriction I feel in my chest moves me to tears when I let it. I recognize grief and give myself over to it. I am not overwhelmed or exhausted by it. Rather, I sense a loosening. Like I’ve given myself enough time to be sad that I can let some of it go. In recognizing and staying in the darkness, some of the pain is washed away.*

What would it be to give ourselves time to hibernate each winter? Time to slow down enough that our breathing was affected? For more than an hour yoga class or a 20-minute meditation? If your initial response is like mine, it’s something like, “well I could get laundry done,” or “maybe I’ll catch up on email.” Getting tasks done may be necessary but chores don’t slow your heart rate.  What would it be to truly slow down that much? Is that even sustainable? 

Now that I’m going back to work, I know I will move back into the daily rhythm of life and lose the feeling of this odd spaciousness of time. My energy will be more focused, and I know it will be easy to notice that I’m grieving, but not actually give myself over to that sadness. 

This time off with nothing to do was a gift. It was a sacred time. I’ve so appreciated it, I almost want to schedule “hibernation time” into my week. But I know that’s not the same. I do want to remember this time, honor it and make space for it again. Doing so means being willing to be present to myself. Not just how capable or strong I am, but also present to the broken pieces, the sharp edges. There is wisdom there. I just need to slow down enough to learn. Learn from my own inner wisdom, learn from silence, learn from the dark. 

~Anne

*it feels important to acknowledge that for those living with depression, darkness can overwhelm and crush. Pain isn’t washed away but can become more debilitating. My experience is of grief, not depression.

Acknowledging the One God

Recently I was asked to preach on a biblical text which is called the Greatest Commandment (Christian) and the Shema (Jewish). It is recorded in Mark: 12:29 and Deuteronomy 6:4. From the Inclusive Bible it reads: ‘Hear, O Israel: God, our God,  is one.   Love the Most High God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:29)

I know that I do not live this commandment fully.  There is a part of me that doubts, that clings to my own sense of knowledge independent of a deity.  But what if, what if I did align my perspective to this commandment?  What would change?  How would my own values, my ethics, my day to day decisions shift?  Would it require a remaking of my relationship with the One God?

I talk with people every day in my professional life who firmly believe that there is no organizing power beyond the earth’s scientific majesty, no Ultimate Being who has a connection to Creation.  This is such a common perspective that it now seems countercultural to orient a life around the call to love  God with all heart, soul, and mind, and even further to be guided by the person who is Jesus, the Christ.

It is pretty popular these days to eschew the concept of God.  In some spiritual circles, I have noticed it raises hackles to talk too much about God.  It creates a rift between the theists and nontheists, terms that I don’t find so helpful because of their absolute distinction from each other.  They are terms that are black and white, and often divisive.

In my own life, my relationship with this One God shifts, changes, grows, fades, redefinines.  I wish that it was always oriented around the great commandment to love with all my heart, soul, and mind.  I wonder to myself about how to deepen that orientation, and I think it may involve some significant paradigm shifts. 

Probably my deepest encounter recently of the One God happened when I was in a religious setting totally foreign to me. I had been invited to a friend’s mosque, and this poem is an effort to convey the depth of experience I had there. To explain a couple of Muslim terms:

Muezzin is a Muslim leader who calls the community to prayer

Adhan is the call to listen to God, or Allah

Here is my poem:

The muezzin sounds its prayer, it is

A loud plaintive cry- invitational, pleading, a clear message

To turn toward the One God, intoning

“God listens to the one who praises God,” and I

Lower down to kneel,

Arms stretched forward in petition like

A reach for something just out of grasp.

Forehead touches the Turkish patterned rug in a simple room, 

My makeshift head scarf, my jacket, sweeps across the floor with each undulation.

I lean into this, praying with Shukri, mimicking movements

Feeling it as a cosmic dance, shoulder to shoulder.

The women pray loudly, a cacophony of voices in supplication:

God is great.  To God belongs all praise.

We women, we stick together, we are

Intent on the televised room where men pray, this

Notion of division that tests my ethic, striving to

Trust in a rationale beyond my own understanding.

I pray in my own way too, my personal sense of

God as I know God imminent in space we make sacred together

Calling to this one God known in so many ways,

Over and over falling to our knees,

Face to the ground,

Like a wave, like a plea, like awe.

I think about the many things that pull me away from acknowledging the One God: my own sense of purpose, other’s demands, politics, conflict with people. I think of the many ways that my belief in the person of Jesus makes conflict with a wider human community.

Would it be helpful if like the Muslim community, the muezzin called out the adhan the call to prayer five times a day, for the whole community to be alerted to the structured time to pray?  

I remember when my neighborhood in Minneapolis allowed the mosque to chant the call to prayer across loudspeakers the community for Friday prayers during Ramadan in 2021.  The comments ranged from the grateful to the outraged. Those who were outraged were basically offended that their right to peace and quiet was disturbed. Any infiltration of control was seen as an affront to one’s own personal freedom.

For me, I believe that if the culture of prayer was more embedded in my surroundings, I may be able to be immersed more in the acts of the Greatest Commandment, the call to love and serve and listen.

Radical Uncertainty: Creating out of Chaos

In so many ways, I desire things to be predictable.  I like to know their order.  When I was 20 I traveled to a retreat where the main activity was to create a 25 year life plan.  Carefully and thoughtfully we tried to divine the future.  What I learned in the decades following is more like the sign which hangs in my sister’s hallway: “the mark of God is that you will be led where you did not plan to go.”  Needless to say I am pretty much through the 25 year span that I so carefully planned that week, and much of my life did not happen as I had expected.

In those following years I learned to be more flexible and spontaneous- a teaching that lassoed me fervently and demanded it.  But nothing could have prepared me or any of us for this time in our world that requires flexibility beyond capacity, and creativity broader than individual imagination.

Roshi Joan Halifax spoke recently, and shared her concept of Radical Uncertainty.  When I first heard this concept, I thought about all the unfortunate current circumstances.  Yet as Roshi Halifax shared, I was drawn to her instinct toward communal creativity as healing balm for Radical Uncertainty.  Although Radical Uncertainty creates a tension of being suspended between two possibilities, there is yet space for freedom of vision and practice.  Like the poet David Whyte says: “You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in.”  Radical Uncertainty does not inhibit us from freedom, and in some cases it sets us free.As we let go of a false sense of Certainty, there may be new opportunities to discover what lies on the other side of certainty.  I am still trying to discern in these times what that means.  A part of me feels there is no choice but to trust in this process which may mean letting go of unhelpful patterns like Expectation, Expediency, and Excess.

What are you letting go of this season?  How will you cultivate the support that you need to be in this inevitable new season that is approaching?

Anne Supplee and Maia Twedt (Quaker chaplains) invite you to join in a workshop offered by Way Opening Workshops:

Letting Go: Embracing a New Season

October 20 7 PM Central Time, on Zoom, suggested cost is $20.00.

Please email way.opening.workshops@gmail.com for a Zoomlink.

https://www.upaya.org/2020/11/halifax-practicing-radical-uncertainty-world-turmoil-upaya

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