Sunday, March 04, 2012

Twenty-eight days

I have just completed twenty-eight days of a spiritual practice.

My health insurance plan offers monetary incentives to complete healthy behavior-changing activities. Do stuff, track yourself and you earn points that become money in your account to help cover the deductible on medical expenses. To my own amazement I earned all of my possible points in 2011. So I set out to earn them again this year.

Twenty-eight days of practicing centering prayer or mindful movement was one of the options, presented in a program titled "Slow Down."

I chose mindful movement as my practice--the yoga I've been doing on and off for a dozen years--with a few minutes of meditation (or centering prayer) at the end. The program did not ask for much time--five minutes of movement, working up to ten or more over time; or just a minute of meditation to begin, working up to five minutes or more. That promise that it won't take long gets me off the couch or away from the desk. But once I get going I stay with it for fifteen or twenty minutes, and come away with a quiet, more comfortable body.

I also come away with a mind that is quieter and centered in my breath, in my body, not my head. I'm not sure what I mean by that--something like my brain and all its activity stays focused within me and doesn't go bopping off to fret over things I can't change or to obsess about stuff that doesn't matter anyway. Not that I don't think about those things--thoughts about work and other pesky subjects float through my mind all the time. But in this time, with the work of Triangle Pose or hamstring stretching I can't focus on them. This is a huge relief. It's kinda like not caring, but without the not-caring part. I still care. I just don't have to tie my whole being into knots.

Buddhists, I've read, say to avoid extremes of emotion--extremes of happiness as well as sadness. Those literary or artistic types burning the candle brightly and passionately at both ends, living life to its fullest and fighting every step of the way will not find contentment. Don't be like them. Accept what is enough for today.

One of the things that draws me to yoga is that it's not about how far down you bend or how long you hold the pose. It's about the fine adjustments you make, recognizing that each action has an opposing action, that you can reach higher to the heavens by grounding yourself more firmly in the earth, that you can balance better by opening up. You also move carefully and in good form, so that you don't hurt yourself. You accept your limits. As the instructor on the DVD says, this is your pose for today.

After twenty-eight days of practicing something or another you have to take an online survey to get credit for your experience. The last question was a curious one: do you understand "Slow Down" to be a healthy activity, like healthy eating, exercise, getting enough sleep, etc., or do you understand it to be a faith-based practice. I had to think a bit before answering that. I went with the faith answer, since the material about the program was pretty clear about the spiritual intent and about becoming more aware of God's presence. But I really wanted to check both boxes. Bringing together the spiritual and the physical is what makes this work.

And it did work for me. After seven or eight days I was more calm and this sense of freedom grew over the next week and stays with me. I'm aware of how busy my mind is but if I can't shut it off, I can at least tune it out, like kids in the back seat of the car. I stand up straighter, which makes everything else better.

Will I stay with it? After years of hearing yoga instructors say, it really helps to do something every day, even if it's just twenty minutes, or ten, I finally believe them. I'm going to try.

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