साधना

a retreat poem

साधना
(sādhanā: practice)

ah such storied selves
conceived
between 2am and birdcall
starved there

like wolves known
could guide
or sheltered, embrace
and heard may keen

while the hungry one
will outrun
and sisters outflank

just as sol outshines the lamps

Not sure if this is a thing or not

Is this actually a thing? Or am I just stating the obvious?

*I do apologise if you’re sight-impaired and using a screen reader because the image will be completely inscrutable. This is a beta post, and if it graduates to a production release I will render it as a table. Believe me I did try, but it was going to take me an hour with this silly theme I’m using.

**It probably also is somehow illegible on some mobiles. Soz.

 

Qualduple

Outside, in
the warm west wind
hills rise, eclipse
the sun.

Lift and fall
from trees – each a shaken
counterpart to Eliot’s flowers –
brindle autumn leaves.

Left-handed bloom a red
gash on the side table
petals agape
falling in that silent withering way.

A lens winnowing all
to that, there, then;
here is no beginning
and no end.

Lift and fall the hills
turn towards and away
the endless night and never
the always and only one day.


This is about how we always see things from our own perspective, and from our current moment in time, as if it was somehow more important than the others. I tried to write the whole thing in present tense to convey a sense of eternality.

Eros Unfettered

The city so quiet. Earlier, I heard a freight truck carrying supplies from Lyttelton, now nothing. A cash-buzz junky detox programme.

We are in danger but by that we are relieved. There is no expectation other than to be alone. To be still. Outside, birds question away like younger brothers and sisters, but cannot quite distract us from the silence of the shouldering hills. Nothing moves. No wind speaks.

Could I command some genie to grant us any wish, I would not settle for happiness. I would not deliver us bliss. It would not be understanding, or the end of anything.

I cannot, but it would be this, just this: all passion, all art, all beauty, all love, all duty; eternally a reverant mind welcoming insemination by each desirous moment.

This short prose is dedicated to dharmacarya Rob Burbea.

Julius Caesar’s 2,000 Year Old Tale Of Bravery

With the fighting at its height, Pullo cried: “Why do you hesitate, Vorenus? What better opportunity to prove your courage? Today shall decide between us.”

As surprising as it may sound, Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of conquering Gaul (what is now modern day France) is a thrilling read. 1

Caesar captures not just the cunning strategies he devised for conquering the Gallic tribes, but describes moments of individual heroism among his troops — and those of his enemies, to be fair.

The huge majority of Roman citizens entered military service; while for some this was no doubt due to a calling for soldiery, for most this was out of a fear of social sanction. In those times, one’s career would rarely progress far without having demonstrated courage on the field of battle.

Caesar’s relish as he relates the minutiae of war indicates how warrior-ship and selfless bravery were considered essential qualities of a Roman citizen. That he glosses over the reality of suffering makes his work an early piece of political propaganda, no doubt convenient for fuelling support for his war in the Roman senate back home.

It is 54 B.C.E. An encamped legion of six-thousand Roman soldiers are surrounded and besieged by the Nervii, a fearsome tribe of Gauls who have learned tactics from the Romans themselves and built a rampart ten feet high and a trench fifteen feet wide about the entire Roman camp, preventing entry or exit.

Caesar’s Account

On the seventh day of the siege a great gale sprang up, and the Gauls began slinging moulded bullets of red-hot clay and hurling incendiary darts at the huts in the camp, which, as is usual in Gaul, were thatched. The huts quickly caught fire, and the strong wind spread the flames throughout the camp. The enemy raised a loud cheer, as if victory were now a certainty …

[But] the Roman soldiers showed the greatest courage and coolness. They were surrounded by scorching heat and pelted with a hail of missiles, and they knew that their baggage and everything they possessed was being burned … the Gauls were crowded in a tightly packed mass at the very foot of the Roman fortifications.

In the legion were two very brave centurions named Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, both of them nearly qualified for the first grade. They were always disputing which was the better soldier, and every year the competition for promotion set them quarrelling. When the fighting at the entrenchment was at its height, Pullo cried: “Why hesitate, Vorenus? What better opportunity do you want to prove your courage? Today shall decide between us.”

With these words he advanced outside the fortification, and rushed in to the thickest place he could see in the enemy’s line. This brought Vorenus too over the rampart, hastening after his rival for fear of what everyone would think if he lagged behind. Pullo stopped a short way from the Gauls, hurled his spear, and transfixed one of them who was running forward from the ranks. The man fainted from the wound, and his comrades covered him with their shields, at the same time showering missiles upon Pullo and preventing him from advancing further. His shield was pierced by a javelin, which stuck in his sword-belt; and as the blow knocked his scabbard out of place, he could not get his hand quickly to his sword when he tried to draw it, and was surrounded by the enemy while unable to defend himself.

Image shows a reproduction of a page from Caesar’s work. Dated 1469 AD. Unknown Illustrator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His rival Vorenus ran up to rescue him in his distress, and all the Gauls immediately left Pullo, who they thought mortally wounded by the javelin, and turned upon Vorenus. Vorenus drew his sword, and fighting hand to hand killed one of his assailants and drove the rest back a little; but pressing on too eagerly he stumbled down a steep slope and fell. It was now his turn to be surrounded.

But Pullo came to his aid; both of them escaped unhurt, and after killing a number of the enemy returned to camp covered with glory. Thus Fortune played with them in their struggle for pre-eminence: bitter rivals though they were, each helped and saved the other, so that it could not be decided which was more deserving of the prize of valour.

Who knew that Caesar was not only a military genius, a cunning politician and orator but also a gifted author?


  1. I have the Penguin Classics 1951 translation from the Latin, now out of print, but you can get the 1983 edition at Amazon

Kia Kaha Does Not Cut It After 15,000 Earthquakes

Next time you are on a break, give this breathing practice a try (follow-up with optional beer). You will feel calm within three minutes. You can do it anywhere. You can do it dozens of times a day.

Do not be one of those people who melts down after six months like I did.

This post started life as a letter to those of us in the central South Island of New Zealand who suffered yet another major earthquake last week. I suppose it could be applicable to anyone else in the situation of an ongoing disaster, natural or otherwise.

An Open Letter

Dear fellow earthquake survivors,

Last Monday’s huge earthquake was a traumatic event. I do not use that word lightly. Trauma is a thing, and today I am going to write a bit about the challenges of earthquake trauma in particular. I have tried to keep it brief but that has not been easy, so please read the whole thing before you react.

Towards the end you will find an example of the sort of habit that will help you get through — long-term. It is how I eventually learned to find some calm during a time when it seemed impossible: the Christchurch earthquake sequence that started in September 2010.

This is not a comprehensive guide to coping with trauma. The knowledge in here will not be relevant to everyone.

I wish I could offer more, but I was unable to avoid becoming overwhelmed myself. All I have is what I learned by trial and error. This post is offered so that you may not have to repeat my mistakes. Read on.

Responding to Threats

The first thing you learn in the aftermath of a large earthquake is that they are not a one-off thing. By now you will know this. Aftershocks go on for months or years, and can be as bad or worse than the first event. With every new rumble from the earth comes the inevitable thought: “is this one going to get worse?” There is an ongoing situation where your life could be threatened at any moment, even while you are asleep.

Common wisdom goes: the less we buy into this threat, the more we will be able to respond to it without losing our shit judgement. This strategy often works. Unless you have suffered medical shock (a whole different ball-game), you have probably come through the last few days feeling more alert, more able, and more resilient than you do in normal life.

I’ve been there. For the first few weeks after our big one, I biked around Christchurch (the roads were impassable for cars) with a backpack full of hand tools. I checked on friends, family and neighbours. I helped make roofs weather-tight, shoveled liquefaction, and took too many photos. I kept my mum company. I visited churches and monasteries of all religions. This was all over town. I biked twenty to fifty kilometres every day. I felt strong and able-bodied.

Your body has a natural response that gives you a survival advantage through hormonal changes. This response is known as fight-or-flight, and you have probably heard of it. It makes you feel wired, ready to attack the nearest problem, or run away from danger, or both (hence the name).

Handy? Totes — for the short-term.

Living With Ongoing Threat

But the aftershocks grind on. The roofs leak less for a while, but they spring open again next time the ground shakes. People are still afraid. Although the frantic pace of repair-work eases back just a little, you start to realise how much has been lost.

My mind raced all day until late at night. In the mornings, I woke bone tired, but by evening I was so hyped that I could not sleep.

I started getting ill a lot, colds and flu in summer time, which interfered with my building apprenticeship. I found it harder to concentrate when working my other job. And despite still biking twenty ks every day, I started gaining weight.

While hyped up after a big aftershock, I would say “let’s do something to take our minds off it. Let’s have a BBQ”. And I would call up my mates.

What I had yet to learn was that insomnia, immune system slowdown, low libido, digestive problems, memory and concentration problems, and weight gain are all textbook features of ongoing chronic trauma. These are things you do not want.123

When February the 22nd came along, I was in the CBD, near the CTV building. I assisted for a while but had to leave and run to my son’s school, where they were trapped on the fourth floor. Too many needy causes. Once he was safely evacuated, my son and I abandoned the Kombi in a carpark due to gridlock, and walked out of town. That evening, I broke down in tears. My son was asleep and didn’t have to see it, thankfully.

I took time away from my jobs and we both headed for Golden Bay. Eventually this led to me being unemployed for a few months.

What went wrong?

In the months following the first 7.1 quake, the bumper-stickers read “Kia Kaha Christchurch” and “We’ll be back!”. This seems like a good sentiment for recovery; to make a stand, despite what had happened. Unfortunately, it did not take into account what was still happening. It assumed the threat had passed and it was time to pick up the pieces. That was naive.

In our case, the threat had not passed: large earthquakes are not a one-off event. I told myself that the probability of another large one decreased with each passing day. But as each pulse of shaking thrummed through my living room, or kicked me where I lay jacking up piles, I could not help the fear: will this one get worse? The familiar rush of energy would catch fire in my belly and burn into my chest. Big ones left my lungs bursting, my face flushed, my hands trembling.

Kia kaha did not cut it in the face of this ongoing threat to my life and loved ones. In fact, it had stopped working long before I realised.

I interpreted “kia kaha” to mean staying committed to my job, having goals, finding ways to have fun despite what had happened, and being a support to others. But when I left work for the day, what my nervous system actually wanted was safety and familiarity, not another social outing or support call to struggling family. I needed to put something back in my own tank.

Soothing

“Soothing”. It is not a word we associate with being resilient. If you are like me, there will be a kind of namby-pamby sound to it in your ears. That is a shame, because unless you vacate the region, you are in this for the long haul. It will be a busy time. Yes, you will need to keep your friends and family close; they will need your support and you will need theirs. Yes, you will need the odd blow-out from time to time. But your chances of coping will be much better if you add something that soothes your nerves, not pushes them further. You need to balance out your body’s crisis reaction.

Here in Christchurch it is six years later and finally there is a glimmer of rebirth in the CBD. You might be able to kia kaha without stopping for six years, but I could not. I barely lasted six months.

So What To Do, Then?

Most importantly, look for symptoms of fatigue in yourself and others. This is the best thing you can do to support your loved ones and neighbours. Signs to watch out for are trouble finishing sentences; tremor, tics and shaking; cravings to smoke, drink, or eat takeouts; losing hair, going grey or gaining wrinkles in the course of a few weeks; behaviour like repeatedly snapping at people or crying if that’s out of character. Thoughts interrupting one-another. Trouble sleeping, even when you’re exhausted.4

You may notice one or many of these in yourself or others over the coming weeks and months. The earlier you catch them, the easier they will be to shift. When they mount up for months like in my case, they become integrated into one’s neurology and harder to unravel.

They can indicate emotional, intellectual or physical exhaustion. Maybe all of them; it doesn’t matter. The important thing is what you do about it.

Stop on a dime

You need a practical way to unwind at the drop of a hat. In my case the most useful habits did not turn out to be the hour-long+ yoga and T’ai Chi classes that I attended. Those were an important part of my learning, and if something along those lines interests you, then I recommend adding them to your routine. But amidst a sequence of natural disasters, they were ultimately of limited practical use outside the studio or training hall.

I needed something I could roll into my days, so I could stop whenever I had a chance during daily life, take five and regroup. Something quick and reliable that I could use in the middle of endless roadworks, that wouldn’t take years to master.

The best example I have found is the simple breathing practice below. This for me was key.

A Simple Breathing Practice: Lengthening the Exhale

Next time you are on a break, before reaching for your smartphone, or a beer, give the below practice a try (and then have a beer). It is so simple, you will wonder what the point is — more on that soon. But partly because it is so quick and simple, it is also surprisingly effective.

You will feel calm within three minutes. You can do it anywhere. You can do it dozens of times a day.

  1. If preferred, find a private place (eg., bathroom, bedroom, or your car) so you do not feel self-conscious
  2. Make your exhales long — twice, three times or four times longer than your inhale:
    • Do this by blowing out between pursed lips like you would blow out a candle — slowly, in a thin stream of breath, without force.
    • At the end of each exhale, hold your breath out for a few moments. No air in your lungs.
  3. Do this for three to five breaths, or keep it up for a few minutes.

This practice will not unwind the entire stress of a shitty situation back to zero; but hey, nothing is perfect. It might still be the difference between making rational decisions or losing the plot at someone.

Do not be one of those people who melts down after six months of stoic endurance like I did.

There is a cumulative benefit from doing it frequently. Once every few days will not be enough. Aim for every couple of hours. That will make a difference.

How it Works: The Vagus Nerve

Lengthening your exhale like this reduces the urgency of your next inhale. More specifically, it increases the tone of your vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is part of your body’s involuntary (or “autonomic”) nervous system. The involuntary system is separated into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system controls your body’s fight-or-flight response, while the para-sympathetic nervous system provides a natural counter-balance.

Your vagus nerve forms the main part of the para-sympathetic side of things. It is also the largest nerve of the whole autonomic nervous system, either branch. It runs from your brain down your neck and through your diaphragm. It communicates with all the major organs and glands in your torso — your heart, intestines, kidneys, liver, stomach, spleen, you name it; with one exception. It does not influence your adrenal glands. They are a tool of the sympathetic nervous system alone. 5

Lengthening the exhale in this way is a gentler form of the Valsalva manoeuvre, which stimulates the vagus nerve 6. This promotes three main neurological states that counterbalance the trauma response:

  • “rest and digest” (creates gentler breathing, slower heart rhythm, effective food breakdown and greater nutrient absorption)
  • “feed and breed” (fosters a healthy appetite in more ways than one)
  • “tend and befriend” (instincts around looking after friends and making new friendships)

These are the neural opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Without them, all that busy activity in the next few months will come at a high cost.

Good tone of the vagus nerve is also linked to heart-rate variability, which is an important marker for health and stress levels 7.

Practices that promote “rest and digest” down-regulate production of stress hormones, giving your body a break and the chance to find a new equilibrium.

Repeated often enough, it will make a lasting change on how you are able to bear up. Consider it an investment.

Final Tips

  • Don’t wait until a quiet time for this, or let’s face it you’ll never get there. Tell those nearby “I’m going to take three minutes” and just go for it. They’ll soon be copying you.
  • It’s better if you can sit or lie down; setting aside even just three minutes to unwind is part of the benefit. But you can also do it while moving around if resting is not an option (e.g. in the shower, while working). You might not notice the effect so much but it’ll still be there. And every little bit helps.
  • Have a glass of water afterwards (and chase it down with a beer if you want 🙂 ).
  • Repeat often! (Familiar theme yet?)
  • I just found a similar take on this technique at Mind Body Green 8. There isn’t much new there that I haven’t already covered but you can go ahead and use it for fact-checking if you want.

  1. Textbook of Functional Medicine. The Institute of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, WA. 2010.

  2. Cortisol (Wikipedia)

  3. Chronic Stress (Mayo Clinic)

  4. I KNOW!

  5. Vagus Nerve (Wikipedia)

  6. Valsalva Manouevre (Wikipedia)

  7. Measuring Compassion in the Body (Berkeley University of California, 2015)

  8. A Simple Breathing Exercise (Dr. Robin Berzin for Mind Body Green, 2012)

Thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s A Thousand Kisses Deep

My paternal grandparents promised to love and cherish one another until death.

Confined to sex
We pressed against
The limits of the sea
I saw there were
No oceans left
For scavengers like me
I made it to
The forward deck
I blessed the rambling fleet
And then consented
To be wrecked
A thousand kisses deep
from A Thousand Kisses Deep by Leonard Cohen

I hope they took the spirit of the full vow, because after fifty years my grandfather passed away, leaving Grandma alone.

The phrase “until death us do part” is one of the few times in Christian ritual where death is acknowledged without recourse to eternity. There is no talk of being reunited in Heaven. And although there was plenty of that at Granddad’s funeral, I hope that Grandma was beyond wanting a gauzy veil by the time he left. I don’t picture her holding Geoffrey in her mind as as an angel reborn, but as the frail, vulnerable man overtaken by death as we all are due to be.

These days we know the certainty of death, and yet a cultural imperative has arisen to say “forever”. Walt Disney and the pop music industry have a lot to answer for in my book, because we can only ever mean “for now”.

We sail beyond sight of land to the deep, blue water, with only memory as a compass, and we swim together for a while … and then we sink into our own death or we drift apart. Neither outcome need be so shocking, except we were raised with modern images of “happily ever after”.1 It’s self-indulgent and dishonest.

Granddad’s final dissolution, premature as it could only ever be, was in the eyes of pop music a betrayal. His death was, of course, an abandonment. But it was also a tender illustration of the humanity that we all loved about him in life.

Thankfully the 20th Century also gave us Leonard Cohen, poet and mystic.

I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat
You see, I’m just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second hand physique
With all he is and all he was
A thousand kisses deep

I hear their voices in the wine
That sometimes did me seek
The band is playing Auld Lang Syne
But the heart will not retreat
There’s no forsaking what you love
No existential leap
As witnessed here in time and blood
A thousand kisses deep

He rethrones contradiction as the very heart of love; he tenderises adoration’s inevitable betrayal. Rejecting smugness, he edifies the paradox of giving ourselves to a person, to love, to duty, and to the world, knowing that one day it must all be lost beyond the horizon. In doing so, he restores love to its true grandeur, beyond the sickly packaging of a Broadway song and expresses the fatal human yearning to both experience all of life and yet to escape its ending.

And now he has led the way in death, as he did in life.

In Memoriam
Leonard Cohen
1934 — 2016
~ you win a while and then it’s done, your little winning streak ~

Note: The poetic content of A Thousand Kisses Deep has changed numerous times. This video differs from the one on the album.


  1. Authentic Russian and European fairy tales end with “happily until their deaths” or “and they lived long and happily”.

Neuroplastics for Persistent Pain: Realistic Recovery

Three months ago, I did a thirty day challenge of writing daily blog posts about my experience using neuroplastic techniques to come out of persistent pain. At the time I had no definable cause for the pain. In the subsequent two months I’ve had scans that confirm whiplash-associated arthritis where my head joins my spine.

Despite the lack of updates in that time, I have mostly kept up the pace with visualisation. My routine is a thirty minute sit (visualisation not meditation) before anything else each morning, another sit after breakfast and one more before bed. These are scaffolding. They keep the imagery fresh enough in my mind that I can recall it as needed while going about my daily tasks for the rest of the day.

Yes, the pain spikes still happen. I still have damage to my neck. I use a subjective scale of pain from one to ten, one being pain free and ten being dropped in boiling oil. And the pain spikes are still at the 6/10 that they were before starting the visualisation.

(Of course, comparing levels of pain is where a subjective scale becomes unreliable but it has to suffice, given that pain is a perception. There can be no objective measure of pain.)

That’s where the similarities end, however. In other ways, the most astounding changes have occurred:

  1. I can get the pain to stop. If I’m diligent and prepared to prioritise visualisation whenever a pain spike hits (any time of day or night, even if this means sacrificing the task or timeline I’m running with) then I can get rid of it. There are exceptions, but generally the pain recedes. After a ten minute break, I can carry on with my day. (Major flare ups are a whole ‘nother ball game that still require me to drop everything for a day or two. I have other tactics in place to avoid them, see below).
  2. Two-hours pain free is now a daily occurrence. I can now be pretty much guaranteed of a period in the afternoon where I can work, move around, talk etc without needing to stop and visualise or take breaks. It’s like I’m back to my old self for those couple of hours.

Note that both these effects are occurring while completely free of painkillers 🙂 No paracetamol (aka acetaminophen for my US readers). No ibuprofen. No codeine and definitely no tramadol.

To me, this is worth any amount of slow-down, drop-everything-and-visualise type behaviour that I need to undertake for the rest of the day in order to attain the pain free states.

That’s the good news.

Major Pain Triggers

Six months ago I had to limit my activities to avoid what I’m calling “major flare ups”. Usually lasting two days, but sometimes up to four, even visualisation brings no relief during these periods. Restorative yoga and sleep is about the only thing for me.

Those limitations persist — that’s the bad news. Unfortunately for me (and my erstwhile yoga students) they include actions that are commonplace in many asana. Downward dog or plank pose shoot whole body pain and headache into my eyes, confusion, nausea, visual field like a broken mirror, tiredness. Shortness of breath. Ringing in my ears. So I’m still not back on the regular teaching circuit. I don’t know if I ever will be, now that we’ve discovered the arthritis.

My physio gave me an ingenious set of exercises. Attach a laser pointer to your glasses frame, and use it to draw around door frames etc from a distance of three metres. This is to retrain the tiny muscles at the base of your skull. If you have a laser pointer, try it! But they’re no good for me. It’s great training for those muscles, but the actions flare up the actual joint itself so I’m in bed the next day. For a couple days.

I’ve also had to limit or eliminate heavy lifting and hammering (so no DIY for me), computer use for more than half an hour without a break to move around, driving for long periods. Even just being in a hurry can start me on a spiral that can lead a strong burst of long-lived pain. So I’ve had to slow down my life a lot just in general.

Realistic Recovery

Speaking loosely, I wouldn’t call it “normal life” yet, but it’s heading that way. I can approach each day with more optimism, just knowing that each afternoon I will get a period of relief. And knowing that, if I am sensible and realistic about my activities through the day, then I’ll be able to head off pain spikes as they occur. It feels manageable.

It’s tricky to remain realistic with those activity goals after so long being on tenterhooks. Staying realistic without stifling the optimism — that’s the next phase of this recovery journey.

I’m fumbling my way a bit. In the past I relied on my gung-ho attitude to get me through just about any confusing situation (“fake it till you make it”). That won’t cut it here. I need to develop the patience, persistence and self-awareness to chip away at tasks without going into hyperfocus mode on them. An hour here, an hour there and plenty of walks and breaks in between.

If you have any tips to share with me about realistic recovery please share them in the comments. I’m particularly looking to learn more about my warning signs when I’ve overdone it, ways to structure a day so I can get the most out of them while remaining true to my capacity. Useful activity worksheets, for people in recovery. Forums or blogs to follow … I’ll collect any suggestions, plus what I learn from my own experience and research, and put them into a future post to follow soon.

Don’t forget to comment! 🙂

Farewell

I wish that these words
were emeralds

I wish that these words
were emeralds
not penned between points
en route to Delhi but

camel carried from broken lands
to Istanbul
where your wailing

song beats
the cool white brick

the warm blue tile.

That Bosporus saline etch
where East and West mingle
take myrrh and sprinkle it, let
flaccid sails unfurl

thrum taut; groaning
embrace the salted gulf
between us

your many-dreamed return
on worrying wind

from Istanbul.

dscf2253

Unsprung Technik

I’ve not been idle. It’s going to be a grand adventure! See you on the interwebs soon!

Dear friends,

Although I’ve not updated this blog for some two months now, I’ve not been idle with either yoga (both teaching and practice), meditation, my quest for effective treatments for persistent pain, or with writing. It’s all coming together! I hope to share more frequent updates with you in the coming weeks. For now, be well and stay tuned for more tidbits of

  • Yoga practice tips
  • Upcoming new Gentle Classes
  • Thoughts and philosophical stuff
  • Miscellaneous creative hacks, stories and poems
  • Pain breakthrough techniques

It’s going to be a grand adventure! See you on the interwebs soon!