World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. -- Louis Macneice
At the beginning of August, when the leaves held the deepest hues of green, the leaves satiate with chlorophyll, engorged with chlorophyll, with all those hours of light, you walked to the creek. And there at the creek, you sat with your shoes off as water poured from one hollowed drum to another, the whole creek percussive and flowing, the flowing never ending, never ending and you beside this eternal flow, lying back and listening. How many years had passed since you'd known such solitude, such aloneness? All the while creek waters rose and kept rising, fell and kept falling, through seasons, all the while flowing and carving the shape of sandstone.
You lie back on the sandstone and the creek flows, a tempered drum, a low flow that comes at deepest summer. You lie back, the sun not yet above the alders but behind the toppest leaves, the leaves shuddering alive and awake to the warm wind and the warm wind spinning them. The sun flashes between leaves, alive itself and the whole world alive to the sun. And then, in the space between trees and sun, a galaxy of fireweed floats. This constellation, this universe of seed, blows and shifts on the current of winds, above all your knowing. They are specks, like we are all specks, knowing nothing but flight and height and movement beneath the sun. It is all there at once for you, this world incorrigibly plural and various: the galaxy and wind, the percussive creek and all the green deepening. Everything opens in this moment of generosity, everything so wide and eternal you can only rest in it and weep. Your heart is in this world, on the edge of a creek at summer's middle mark. And all this moment is a moment in time that passes away with all of time. But it seems to you a generous thing, this aliveness of the creek and the leaves in the wind. A generous thing to breathe this galaxy in as your heart beats and beats, to breathe it out as the percussive creek flows eternally down. And here, now, your heart's edges soften and the whole world, as it is, pours in.
My New Year’s resolution this year isn’t all that new. I adopted it sometime last summer when I noticed my mind whirring in a panic of discontent around all the books I hadn’t read that would surely, once I’d read them, make me a better writer.
On the corner of my desk I caught a glimpse of another stack of books that promised improved self-awareness, spiritual growth and all around better-ness. My abdomen tightened at the thought of the time I had allotted to read and the chunks of reading I’d assigned myself. Plus I had undertaken a variety of different practices, including asana, to improve one aspect of my life or another.
Even my relationships emulated this earnest trying. A kind of wanting to please, to make everyone happy or to like me. And in one brief moment, I realized the impossibility of it all. I couldn’t sustain a practice of should-do-mores and try-harders. What I needed was to un-try. To catch myself in the throes of self-improvement and let go of striving.
At first I thought this would help my breathing and my state of mind. But a deeper unravelling began to happen in my life. Things I did to “keep it together” no longer worked in my un-trying. Truths about myself arose in ways that were less than comfortable and I realized all this trying covers up our deep anxieties and insecurities, it keeps us from knowing ourselves as we really are.
One of the self-observances of yoga, one of the niyamas, is santosa -- which translates as contentment. Some translate it as acceptance. A few years ago, I heard someone say that spiritual practice was basically this: radical self-acceptance. Accepting yourself as you truly are. The more I examine this, the more difficult it seems. In our nit-picky culture of comparison and judgment, self-acceptance would appear to be a set up for failure.
Now, in this fresh start season of January, I wonder if it is as elusive as I believe.
This winter, after many winters of talking about it, I have finally taken up cross-country skiing. I love being outside, love the quiet of forests and mountain trails, love the steady rhythm of moving my body. Yesterday, my husband and I set out on a nine-kilometre track under a stack of quietly flaking cloud. My gear came from a used sports store, it’s old and unpretentious, it eats blisters into my heels, but it works.
My husband glided well-ahead of me and sometimes I felt the pull to keep up, or the belief that I wasn’t a good enough skier. Then I brought my awareness back into my body, to relax my hands around the poles and to the undulating movement of my sacrum which helped the gliding push of my legs. I realized that I loved being there, that my body was happy just to move like this and that I never needed to get better at it and I could set my own pace and continue to enjoy it.
And this seemed to me a breakthrough in understanding santosa and my ongoing practice of un-trying. That the paradox of self-improvement isn’t by adding more layers of goals and striving, but to remove layers and offer the body and mind spacious moments of contentment where joy can seep through and overtake you.