Sunday, January 9, 2011

May the Blessings Be

How are you, NIP?

            I am well. Quite well, in fact. It’s taken me a long time to get here—and I’m still a work in progress—but I’m glad to have this opportunity to keep becoming. Keep breathing. Keep living. With every passing day that I recite my morning gratitude mantra I truly feel more blessed. It’s constantly on my mind how precious life really is because I’m always reminded of the odds. I can’t quite put it into words but I know that it has everything to do with my perceptions of the world at this point in my life—much of which I believe have been nurtured by my grandmother Philomena over the years. While Erin and I were in Rhode Island for the holidays, we spent some time with “Grandma” and as soon as we left Erin and I had remarked what a nice visit it had been. I hadn’t seen her in person for about 3 years, and we all simply sat together in her apartment for three hours, talking and enjoying the snow topped vista of Providence from her 10th floor. When we left Grandma gave me a few short books about meditation and contemplative prayer, one of which I read on the plane ride back to Florida. It had an explanation about a phrase I had read frequently in my correspondence with Grandma, “May the Blessings Be.” I always liked the ring of it, but I never quite comprehended the phrase’s intent. Now that I do I find myself saying it all the time, especially right before I begin my meditation.

            I think much of my dissatisfaction with life before I met Erin had to do with my focus, how I perceived and interpreted my reality. I don’t know what it is about our species that makes us so susceptible to negativity, but if it’s not in our nature then we at least gravitate toward it because of our environment. Especially our consumption based economic environment, which promotes having stuff. This ideal prompts many to believe that “stuff” equates “happiness.” Most of us at some point in our lives uncritically swallow this whole and try to purchase happiness at Best Buy or wherever else we think we can find and pay for it. But I think the quicker we come to realize that this doesn’t and will never work, we abandon the idea and move on to more beneficial worldviews. When I did focus on what I didn’t have, it made me miserable. What was worse is that those two forces were reciprocal—the more miserable I became, the more I focused on what I didn’t have. It was always out there. External. It wasn’t an instantaneous change when I met Erin, but she was definitely the turning point. I started to focus on how she enhanced my life and me personally and it just kept on getting better. Now I just let the blessings be. It’s that simple. I’m grateful for too many things for me to type out here, and it’s all because of my focus now—on what I do have.

            It may not be much in the material sense. I live in a modest home with playful pets and a wonderful wife, but I couldn’t ask for more. What would be the point? All it takes is seeing that what we value is determined only by us, and if what we value is what we have rather than what we don’t our lives are cups bountifully overflowing. In an intangible sense, I consider myself a man of unparalleled wealth. I have so much because I choose to see the riches surrounding me while simply living life. Grandma’s valediction of “May the Blessings Be,” then, is this idea in principle. All it requires is accepting what life offers us. We can’t ask for blessings because it would be about having something specific, which is what causes us to focus on the negative if it is never fulfilled and we’re left wanting. But by focusing on every blessing you receive from life—no matter how insignificant or small—life becomes instantly and constantly enriching. 

             This is an attitude that has to be developed, however, not simply recognized. Candide was right to say that we must cultivate our gardens. We must tirelessly toil on ourselves, specifically our mental dispositions and self-discipline to improve our own lives. It is all within our power, but it begins with letting the blessings be. Be grateful to wake up tomorrow and realize that a new day is the first of many blessings—another chance to improve your life, NIP. Another chance to pursue your passions. Another chance to take a deep breath, ponder how truly infinitesimal the odds of your particular, specific existence are, and realize that you are morally obligated to strive, to become who you are, to do what makes you feel alive and makes the world a better place in the process. I can’t say for certain if I’ll ever get the chance to experience this miracle of life again, so why squander the chance I have now? I can’t get back the time I lost, so why bother with the past? I’ve lived and learned and that’s not only brought me here but it’s given me the wisdom and courage to understand all there is is right here, right now. The more I focus on letting the blessings be, the more I seem to be surrounded by them in every single moment.
            After you’ve read this short letter, NIP, try to focus on the blessings you have in your life. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “blessings in disguise,” but I think more appropriate and important is “blessings in perception.” Life is how we see it. If we are willing to “see” the blessings and realize that they are all beneficial to becoming the best of who we are, we accept them willingly and unconditionally. By doing so you’ll begin a healthy process of reciprocity—whereas not having led to negativity, having (the realized blessings) leads to positivity. This positivity leads to gratitude. The crazy part is the more grateful I become the more blessings I receive! Just trust me and try it. You won’t be disappointed.

May the Blessings Be, NIP.

- Ryan

P.S. – This letter is dedicated to you, Grandma. Know that this letter in particular was written with more heart than head, and that I am grateful for all of your guidance and support over my lifetime. From taking me to see chamber music at a public library during my youth, to reminding me that we must begin from a place of love in any undertaking during our most recent visit, you have nurtured my spirit in innumerable ways. Like a tender gardener who whispers well-wishes while watering, your words and love echo within and have cajoled me to blossom. Ja cie kocham!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Year of Yoga

Happy New Year, NIP!

            Welcome to 2011. I sincerely hope your 2010 was an excellent year for you, NIP. Though we shouldn’t get too hung up on the past, the coming of the new year brings us the opportunity to reflect on our successes over the past year and to also focus on what we’d like to change in the coming one. With all of this in mind, we can deliberate where to next place the chisel for the coming hammer strike. Perhaps we can take a break from one area of our life’s statue to focus on carving out another, or we can rededicate ourselves to an area we feel we’ve neglected or simply need more time to refine the details of our work in that area. The additional focus on a particular attribute or activity doesn’t mean you can ignore the other areas of your life, as we both know life needs to be balanced among many priorities simultaneously. But if there were one single aspect you could work on the most this year, what would it be? Your personal relationships? Your profession? Your passion(s)? While you should choose what will benefit you the most, NIP, I would urge you to work on what you are most passionate about. As I’ve said in previous letters, I truly believe our passions are the key to unlocking our true potential as human beings. By cultivating passion we improve our lives on a much broader spectrum; it affects who we are and ultimately what we are able to accomplish with our limited time in this life. And for 2011, my focus will be yoga.

            A whole year of yoga, in fact. For the last few months, Erin and I have eagerly been anticipating January of 2011. This past late summer/early autumn, we began looking into the possibility of becoming certified yoga teachers, scouring the internet for information and training programs. While we would have loved to go to India or Bali for an entire month long immersion program, it was neither practical nor affordable for us. Our own yoga instructor had recommended a local training program that one of her teachers had attended/completed. We went to an informational meeting and shortly thereafter put down our deposit. And then we waited. We’re still waiting, in fact, but not for much longer. In three weeks, after much anticipation, we will begin. The teacher training consists of a full weekend about every other month (two 8 hour days plus a short session on Friday nights) and then every Wednesday night for two hours. It takes about a year to earn all 200 hours for the initial certification (there’s also a 500 hour level certification that can be earned, but only after 1,000 hours of teaching experience with your 200 hour credentials), which will culminate in December of this year.

            While Erin and I are excited to begin our training, I am looking forward to 2011 with a new resolve for my personal yoga practice. Whether or not Erin and I become teachers is something the future may or may not hold for us; our primary objective in completing the training is to further and deepen our own practice of yoga. By becoming intimately acquainted with this ancient art and its techniques, we know it will contribute to an even better developed sense of well-being. Ever the omnivorous student of life, I can’t wait to learn new ideas/concepts and apply them to my yoga practice specifically and my daily living generally. The incorporation of yoga into my life over the past two years has made a significant impact, but I still feel as if I’ve skimmed the surface with regard to what kind of additional potential within me this training will unlock. And so this year, like no other in years past since I have made this turn around with my life, I will focus solely on yoga.

            To stay in good shape physically, I’ve used a combination of exercise. It all started a couple of years ago when I did P90X. It was challenging and I had great results. Combined with my new eating habits, I not only felt the difference physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. Plus, I had always wanted to try yoga and the P90X program was a great introduction to the practice as it was much more challenging than I thought yoga could ever be. So Erin and I started going to the YMCA in the summer of 2009 to further our yoga studies and branched out from there. Then this past summer I completed Insanity. It was grueling but well worth it. I wasn’t trying to get into better shape, just tackle an exercise regimen that was more cardio based. It turned out to be much more difficult than P90X, but again it was worth every second and drop of sweat because I felt I had accomplished something of value, that I had once again proven to myself that I can do anything I really set my mind (and in reality, all of me) to. And though these exercise programs worked well and garnered fantastic results physically, neither of them make me feel the way that yoga does. Yoga is holistic in that it benefits all three aspects, body, mind, and spirit, which is why this year is going to be the year of yoga.

            It wasn’t until this past school year started that I began to daily integrate yoga as part of my routine. Most of my students think it’s crazy that I wake up at 4:30 in the morning to do a light 30 minute yoga session to begin my day; in doing so I feel not only awake, but energized and poised to take on the day’s events and challenges. This year, however, I want to take that one step further. I still will wake for my mini-sessions in the morning to help me prepare for the day, but I want to also make sure I have at least 3 deep, hour-plus length sessions in the afternoons or on weekends. For most of 2010, I would often work out by popping in a P90X or Insanity routine a couple times a week and then do one quality yoga session for exercise with Erin about mid-week. This year, however, I would like to forego the traditional work out methods. I want to prove not only to myself but to others as well that yoga itself is more than sufficient as an exercise regimen. Some of my family, friends and students still cast a sidelong glance of disbelief when I tell them that I primarily do yoga to stay in shape—so this year will be a testament to the transformative power of yoga. No more P90X, no more Insanity, no more basketball on the weekends, just yoga.

            If you’ve been reading these letters, NIP, you know that I am and have been for some time now a staunch advocate for yoga. And while I do think it’s important for our well being as humans to engage in some type of exercise (and level of difficulty) that is appropriate for you and your needs, I truly believe yoga is the perfect exercise solution because it is literally for everyone. Yesterday Erin and I went to a yoga class that was taught by our favorite teacher, Sharon Summerall. The class had close to 20 participants comprised of both genders ranging in age from early 30s to late 60s. Anyone can do it as yoga is a personal, physical expression of who we are and what we are capable of. Your practice is based solely on your abilities, and the more you practice the better your abilities become.

The other reason I think yoga is the perfect exercise is that it’s complete. Yoga not only engages the physical, but our mental and spiritual aspects as well. Mentally speaking, yoga helps develop our focus and self-discipline, which also translates to success in other endeavors. Having a disciplined mind is crucial to developing our nascent dreams and transforming them into our personal realities. Spiritually speaking, yoga satisfies our creative energies and tendencies. The yoga poses in many ways become an expression of the best of who we are—or at least for me they do. They are the culmination of our beingness insofar as they engage all three aspects of what it means to be alive and a human being. There are moments—though fleeting at best—when I feel completely connected to life and everything that it entails. It is a certain stillness that is fraught with energy, tension, or a subtle vibration. It sounds paradoxical, but it is the only way I can try to convey this feeling with words (which, no matter how much we impregnate them with meaning, can never really capture the essence of what is trying to be explained). As I mentioned in an earlier letter about yoga, the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit term for “yoke,” which implies work in relation to beasts of burden. But the more I practice yoga, however, I see other connotations that are still just as valid, namely “union.” In the deepest moments of my practice, when my mind becomes completely still and every muscle fiber in my body feels engaged, the ineffable part of me—whether you want to label it soul or spirit—soars. I am not one for labels, as I feel they can only make the waters of intuitive, mystical understanding murky, but in these moments I feel a union with what the theologian Rudolf Otto calls the mysterium tremendum. These moments, for me, are the height of expression for what it means to be human, to be alive. I feel as if I have all of the answers and yet none. Words will only continue to betray me at this point, but I think we have all felt this at some point or another in our lives. It could have been a religious experience in the traditional sense, or something that simply took your breath away and left you feeling connected to life in some grand way. However you experienced it, NIP, I’m sure you can still recall that moment.

While I would suggest you try some yoga this year, NIP, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that. For you, it could be running or some other physical exercise that you prefer. Typically if it is an activity in which you feel you “lose yourself” it’s probably beneficial. If you’re passionate about it, it may still produce the same effects as what I have experienced with yoga. The most important thing to keep in mind is that New Year’s is not the only day for new beginnings—any day is. We often use New Year’s Day as a time of reflection on the past and commitments for the future, but in truth any day will do. They are all the same, after all. It’s what you’re willing to do moving forward with your life that truly matters. And if you are the type to make resolutions, don’t get down on yourself when you stumble and fall. We all stumble and fall, NIP. All you have to do is pick yourself back up and begin again. Each new day is another chance to become the best of who we are. It may be achieved through yoga, some other endeavor you’re passionate about, or a combination of multiple undertakings. No matter how you accomplish your personal growth, I hope today is the beginning of something fantastic and wonderful in your life, NIP. You have the power to do anything you want to do, provided you commit yourself to becoming the best of who you are. Remember to take on a little at a time, adding a bit more each day as you grow comfortable with and confident in your personal development. We all have a better version of ourselves locked inside of us. Let’s see if we can’t break it out in 2011.

Namaste, NIP.

- Ryan

P.S. – If you’ve never tried it, please take a yoga class and see how you feel—you won’t regret it, NIP!