Keith Eubanks II

A Rush to Stillness

In Androids, Dreams on February 15, 2013 at 7:40 pm

And so she woke up
Woke up from where she was
Lying still
Said I gotta do something
About where we’re going

She’s running to stand . . . Still.

-U2 “Running to Stand Still

the_art_of_prayer__s_hands_by_otaru23-d4lpcg2I wrote a story two years ago about yoga and cancer and anger. A lot of people read it. Manduka, a company that manufactures yoga mats, tweeted an excerpt and link to thousands of people under the caption “The Angry Yoga Guy Catches a Blessing.” The Blog saw a few days of  traffic, and then it was just me again, working on drafts I couldn’t finish. That story came out of my rage -and my wife’s rage- and the serenity and peace I found practicing yoga.

I have had nothing to say since.

I am not as angry now as I was when I wrote that story, which was originally titled, “The Angry Yoga Guy and What Happened Next.”   I  liked the title, but the story wasn’t really about anger, it was about finding some balance in the midst of chaos. So one day I changed it. “Between Rage and Serenity”  is the way I read the story today.

And the way I remember it.

That title – those four words- are all I have had to offer in two years. Sometimes I check the blog, just to see that it is still there. I feel some pressure to come up with something new-I want to- but the words don’t come.

This, too, is part of my yoga practice. I’m not rushing anything. The words will come when it is time for words. Billy, my yoga instructor, often says, “Don’t force anything. Let your practice come to you.”

I’m not sure Billy realizes the impact he has had on my thinking. How these little comments expand in my awareness, my life, my practice.

My wife’s cancer -and the fear and disfunction it brought- focused my yoga practice that first year. It motivated me and I was energized, but in the wrong way. Looking back, I realize I was panicked. A basic fight or flight reflex. I was afraid I was losing my wife, and I channeled that fear. I turned it into physical energy. I wanted to be present in my children’s lives for a long, long time, but that was a focus on the future. I needed to find myself in the present, first. I like to say that there is no time travel on a yoga mat.

Atha yoga anushasanam. “Now this is yoga as I have perceived it in the natural world.”


Yoga keeps me in the present.

My practice began as exercise and little more, but it very quickly renewed me spiritually. I was praying and seeking God. I prayed in ways I had never prayed before. Looked for God in places I had never looked before. The anniversary of my first year on the mat felt like a great accomplishment, and my wife was getting better, the chemotherapy finished, and a sense of normalcy had returned all us all to routines safe and familiar.

And then I lost my voice – figuratively.

I quit looking at the blog and the titles of unfinished drafts for which I had no more words.

The yoga practice continued, the fear of cancer retreating, but never really gone.  I lost my focus. Sometimes, I told myself I didn’t really need this. That I never stuck too long with anything, and yoga would be no different. I didn’t feel like I had the physical strength, the flexibility, or the discipline to keep this up – especially as a daily practice. I told myself that I was too old. The mind . . . it can be harsh, critical, and filled with contempt.

And none of it was real.

My instructors, Billy and Shosh, Barb, they were guiding us into a deeper, more disciplined practice.  The classes were demanding. The poses, intermediate to advanced. The mat below me covered in sweat. At least that hadn’t changed.

And the voice in my head said, “I can’t.” And sometimes I believed it. I spent so much time in my head I couldn’t focus on what was happening on the mat.

And time moved so slowly.

My watch and phone were in my yoga bag, pushed against a wall of the studio not three feet away, and every day I stood on that mat I was tempted to check the time, count the minutes, though I never did. It seemed sometimes like practice would never end. I imagined myself driving home, taking a shower. I thought about dinner.  I thought about work. Ideas and thoughts bounced around in my head like someone dumped a basket of ping pong balls on a floor.

It wasn’t until I started meditating that I realized all of this was natural. It is called “the monkey mind.” Yoga is a moving, breathing meditation, and the mind has to learn to settle down, work through the noise.  Let go.

It sounds easy.

It isn’t.

Thoughts come rushing into my mind, some demanding. Some float gently, tempting. The ether of dreams and the past forgotten. There are worries, anxiety, doubt. The mind struggles, demands.

The Self observes.

I learned a form of meditation at the Chopra Center in Southern California called primordial sound meditation. Mantras are sound vibrations that can help divert the mind from the  incessant barrage of thoughts that come before the stillness. Mantras help us focus . . . and more.  Sutras are mantras with meanings and those meanings can be simple or complex. In the book, The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, Deepak Chopra explains that “every time a mantra or sutra is used, it helps increase the probability that a similar outcome will result from a later use of the same mantra or sutra . . . every time a [sound] wave particle collapses as a particular wave pattern, it increases the likelihood that it will collapse as that same pattern of wave again in the future. Sutras are actually intentions that increase the statistical likelihood of the collapse of a wave function along predictable probability amplitudes. This means that the more a sutra is used, the greater the likelihood that its chosen intention will be fulfilled. Therefore, it is better to use an old, well-used sutra than a new sutra.”

These sutras – these prayers – they are imbued with power through centuries of mindful intention and repetition.


I am reminded of a particularly powerful sutra. It begins with the words . . .

“Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”

I realize now that my practice that first year was almost entirely physical, though I did enjoy many insights and benefits. I also realize that my true practice didn’t really begin until that second year, when the chaos let loose in my mind.

That’s when I became a yogi.

And I am sitting on my mat, legs crossed, knees resting on the floor. When I began my practice, I couldn’t sit cross-legged. Now I am in half lotus, one foot resting on top of my thigh. My posture has improved and I am sitting tall. Billy is talking, a quiet, peaceful voice in the stillness of this beautiful yoga studio. “Yoga,” he says, “is a guided meditation. Settle in. Observe your breathing. You know how to do this. Sometimes it takes half an hour to find that place. Sometimes . . . three breaths is all it takes and you’re there.”

Tonight, I am there.

Our hands are pressed together in the prayer position –namaskar- and we begin with a single chant of OM.

The air is vibrating with energy.

It is now well over two years since I first entered this studio.

We stretch, arms up to the ceiling, palms come together, and back down to heart center, breathing, hands pressed in prayer position. This is a posture, a practice itself. Once more and the left hand lowers, arm straight, and finds the floor, the right arm curved gracefully over the head, stretching the length of the right side body. Billy is talking, “Breathe into this posture. Maybe the elbow is available.” And after two years of dedicated practice, it is today available. I look up to the ceiling, past the curving arch of my arm. Finding new depth in a pose changes every aspect of my practice. It renews it. The body has changed, the mind has changed, and the energy moves differently, aligned through chakras and the sacred architecture of the body. There is a subtle change in alignment, orientation, that is mental, spiritual, and physical. The balance between the elbow and sit bones is new, and feels good.

The universe is open for business.

Shosh tells me one day after class that yoga doesn’t give us anything, it simply reveals what is already there. I have been learning this for myself. My first year of practice, I was surprised at how inflexible my body was. I was frustrated at my lack of balance, falling out of postures or never really finding my way into them. But I was inflexible in other ways, and my life was far out of balance. What was happening on my mat was just a reflection of what was happening in my life. I lacked humility, so I had to learn to bend. To kneel. It has taken two years for my body and mind to find their way into humble warrior pose, and I think about this every time I lower myself down, and still struggle a little with that second elbow. That pose still isn’t where it should be, and I am mindful of this every time I kneel down, and I am mindful of it in my work, in my home, and every other aspect of my life.

Practice humility. You will see the light, the Spirit, in others.

I remind myself that ego has no place here. That all these things we think we are, they are transient. Illusion. None of it remains when we pass into the next life so what, then, are we?

That’s the big question, and I think it is one we naturally seek to answer in a number of ways, some of them misdirected, though well intended.

Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It is an early lesson on the importance of self-reflection. And Shakespeare wrote, “This above all else: To thine own self be true,” which more than implies that we must know the Self in order to be true to it. This is no small thing, and there are too many that never find it. They mistake the mind, for the Self. Desires for actual needs.

How do I know this?

I see people working in jobs and following paths that are not suited to them. They are in relationships that are not healthy for them. The divorce rate is above fifty percent. There are wars, and rumors of wars. People are unhealthy mentally, physically, and spiritually – buying and eating and drinking and demanding more in order to fill needs that remain unfulfilled.

They don’t know what those needs are because they don’t know who they are. For this reason, they don’t know what they want, or what their true purpose is – their dharma.

They are running to stand still.

A year ago we had another cancer scare. There was a PET scan, and a growth on a bone, and we were in a storm that came so suddenly there was no time to prepare. Brooke and I lost our way for a time. She had radiation treatments, her medication was changed, and we kept it pretty quiet.

We never did tell the kids.

I sat on my mat wondering if somebody up there was trying to tell me something.

And I remembered a story from the Bible. Jesus is with his disciples -his friends- in a small boat out on the water. He has been teaching all day and is sleeping on the boat, and a storm comes from out of nowhere.

That’s the way they always come.

This is no small storm, though. It is a tempest, and the boat is taking on water. It is on the verge of sinking, and the men aboard are panicked. Except Jesus. Desperate, they wake him up and ask, “Don’t you care that we are sinking?”

He gets up, and speaking to the storm says, “Be still.”

And the storm is no more.

As an English Professor, it is difficult not to read this as a metaphor. The storm that comes so quickly, put your own name on it. Bankruptcy, death, infidelity . . . cancer. And the panic? We know that all too well.

I like to think that after Jesus says, “Be still,” he gives a quick look at his frightened friends on the boat. A nod and a wink. Watch and learn.

We can calm storms, too. And in much the same way.

Be still.

And see the path before you.

Be still.

And know your heart’s desire.

Be still.

And find your Self – your dharma – your purpose.

And I am standing on my mat – around me a storm is raging, beyond this space, these walls, this life.

And I am at the center, untouched, balanced on one leg, my arm stretched out toward the mirror, the other gripping my other foot, pulling, the leg bent in a graceful arch – Dancing Shiva, or Standing Bow Pose.

I feel light – almost weightless.

Over these past months, I have found my balance, both inside and outside the studio. Shosh walks by and says, “steadiness and grace.” I am beginning to understand this word, samadhi – a state of perfected concentration. And yoga? It is a union of those things that were never separated in the first place. A union of breath, body, mind and movement. It’s written right across the door – at Yoga Deva.

Samadhi is the realization of who we are – at the deepest level.

And we are not fear. We are born of light and promise. We are steadiness and grace.

“Yoga,” Billy says, “is just a rush to stillness.”

And tonight, I am there.

My practice is three years old.

And it has been three years since Brooke’s original diagnosis. There have been two more PET scans since the last scare – both of them clear.

I have no sense of time passing. And I do not dwell on the past, nor do I worry about the future.

There will be other storms, no doubt.

Yoga doesn’t give us anything. It simply reveals what is already there.

And I am sitting on my mat . . . still.

Billy enters the room and says, “Everyone is here, that’s supposed to be here.”

I take three breaths, and settle in.

And today, I am 51 years old. It is my birthday, and I am good with that.

Everyone is here that is supposed to be here.

I am here. Present, in this moment.

Atha yoga.

Somewhere, a bell chimes three times.

Om shanti shanti shanti Om

It is an invocation of peace.

Om shanti shanti shanti Om

On Earth as it is in Heaven . . .

Be still.


Between Rage and Serenity

In Dreams on March 4, 2012 at 9:19 am

“Six o’clock in the morning, you’re the last to hear the warning, you’ve been tryin’ to throw your arms around the world.” – U2

It has been months now since I have written a word.

I am siting on the floor in a small yoga studio, my body bent double over my right leg, arms stretched out, hands gripping my foot. My forehead is only an inch from my knee and I am willing it lower. It has taken months to get here. Sweat is dripping off my brow and onto the mat beneath me, forming a small puddle. My instructor this evening, Shosh, is on the ground talking to me. “Look at you,” she says softly. “Remember your first day? You’re getting better.”

I think about this. Am I better? I came here in desperation. I had asked a question of the Universe -of God- but could not hear the answer. There was a noise in my head – a constant, chaotic drumming that was poisoning my mind, stealing my breath, and I was afraid.

The future I had once seen so vividly was now hidden, obscured in a new reality. It had come like a dark, shifty shadow from beyond my dreams.

Her dreams.

These things, we say, happen to other people – not to us.

But it happened.

To us.

My wife, Brooke, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and each test brought worse news. Finally, the verdict came and it was every bad thing that we had hoped to avoid. Mastectomy. Chemotherapy. Radiation. A future of endless doctor’s appointments, each a reminder that this might not be finished – might never be finished.

There is a kind of fear  particular to life and death situations. You feel it the body. It makes your mouth go dry.

Insanity in our home. A living nightmare of running but going nowhere. I kept saying to her, to myself, “I thought things like this brought people closer together. Made them stronger.”

But we were coming undone.

And I was angry. Angry at this intrusion so ill-timed, unwanted, unnecessary, unfair. Angry at her for getting sick.  It isn’t right, but it’s true.   And I was angry at my sudden dependence on people I never wanted to know for her health and well-being.

I couldn’t sleep – for weeks. I sat in my office with the blinds closed, avoiding friends and colleagues. My lectures became simple recitations. I had said it all before and I grew tired of the sound of my own voice. At night I stared into the dark trying to pray. I knelt by the bed, trying to pray. I lay face down on the ground . . . trying to pray.

Eventually, I ran out of things to say. I have said them all before. Forgive me. Help me. Are you really out there?

I don’t know what I expected. That everything would be better tomorrow? A voice in the heavy darkness? A white light?

Inner peace.

I don’t know.

So I start at the beginning. I breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. “If you get lost,” Billy says, “you can always come back to your breathing.” I have taken many classes from Billy over the months and when I think about yoga, and what I have learned from my practice, it is his voice I hear. I take a deep breath and try to add some intention – some awareness- to this most basic reflex.

And it’s about time. I have been holding my breath – for a long time now.

I just didn’t know it.

I am standing in mountain pose. My feet are planted firmly into the ground beneath me. My hands extend a short distance beside my hips, hands open, palms facing forward, forming a triangle from the top of my head down the length of my arms. Billy says this is a powerful pose – a receiving pose. The universe is open for business.

And I am trying to catch a blessing.

But first I have to catch my breath. These simple poses – they aren’t so simple. About forty-five minutes into my first class I nearly fall down onto the floor laughing at my lack of conditioning and discipline. I have learned that this is a common response. People laugh when they’ve had enough, and it occurs to me as I write these words that this reflex is really the correct response to so many of our problems. Ideally, we should meet the end of our lives with laughter. But it is early in my practice and I haven’t learned this lesson yet, and there is no humor in this laugh. It is some other version of me laughing, mocking my own inadequacy. I try to shut it down but I am so tired. Dripping sweat, struggling to breathe, I begin to doubt all of this – my being here. Yoga. And I haven’t moved my body further than the dimensions of my yoga mat – twelve square feet.

But I stay.

“Honor your practice,” Shosh says early one Sunday morning and I try, but my ego is with me on that mat, and there is very little room left for me. I want everything to be perfect and frustration creeps in. In the studio around me are beautiful girls with lithe yoga physiques moving through the asanas with such grace and focus that I feel big and inflexible. Sometimes I cheat, bending a knee, sliping down to the ground for a moment of rest. Sometimes I stand on my mat with my hands on my hips and shake my head, trying to breathe. The voice in my head says I’ll never be able to do this. It isn’t what I want to hear. This isn’t the answer I was looking for.

But I stay. I don’t know why. I just do.

When I first walked into Yoga Deva I felt an intuitive connection to the place – like finding a sacred space I had once visited in a dream and then found again a world away. The place seemed to say, Welcome back. What took you so long? And I knew I would explore this empty space in my heart and my mind in this place that seemed like it had been prepared for me.

I can breathe here.

Preparing for practice on a beautiful Fall evening, two girls walk into the studio chatting. One is a member and she has brought her friend. They roll their mats onto the floor indifferently as they continue their conversation – a he said she said recitation of some date that didn’t seem to go to well. They finally sit on their mats as Billy enters the room. The blonde girl sitting closest to me has placed her iPhone on a folded towel next to her. She tells Billy, “I just want you to know,” pointing to the phone, “I don’t plan on answering it. It’s just . . . my kids are with the babysitter.”

Billy smiles and says quietly, “We built this place so you wouldn’t have to worry about those,” indicating the phone, and begins practice.

And my feet are planted under me, wider than my hips, heels out, toes in. My hands are gripping my ankles and I am pulling myself into a deep forward fold, my head between my knees. I release the grip and we rise up, as a class, backs straight and stop halfway in a table top position, arms stretched out like the wings of an airplane. We hold this position and Billy is talking about a song he heard this morning. It has been with him all day. “It’s six o’clock in the morning, you’re the last to hear the warning, you’ve been tryin’ to throw your arms around the world.”

Achtung Baby. I love this music.

“Reach out with your arms,” he says. Extend. “Past Pecos Road and Chandler Boulevard. Extend. Past the 202. Try and throw your arms around the world.”

And I reach. I stretch. I think about my wife and my kids. I think about this life we have. And I try in that moment to embrace it all for what it is right now.

I came here because I was afraid I was going to lose Brooke. That’s the truth. I imagined waking up with these young girls -my children- and she wouldn’t be there. I was over-weight. My blood pressure was creeping up. My face was red.

“Have you been in the sun?” people would ask of my ruddy complexion.

I hadn’t.

So I thought I better get healthy. I felt, for the first time, that it might all come down to me – alone. My neighbor kept talking about this yoga studio where she had practiced so I walked across the street and asked her, “What was the name of the place you told me about? That yoga studio?”

I had reached a tipping point.

Those physical changes I wanted came, but something else happened, too. The practice became something else, very quickly. I was working for the yoga body. What I found was the yoga mind.

I started with a nine dollar mat from Target. This was to appease my wife, since the classes were significantly more expensive than the twenty dollars I was currently paying for the gym I wasn’t using. I cut the sleeves off a t-shirt and wore a pair of old sweat pants that hadn’t seen much sweat. My round stomach protruded under my shirt and I think I looked like a middle-aged guy that would use his twenty-nine dollar two week introductory lessons, never to return.

But I stayed. I think the psychological trauma I was experiencing in every other part of my life was balanced by the physical practice. It made sense in a way. Billy would remind the class to leave everything at the door.

I left everything on the mat.

“If you are too much in the mind,” Billy says, “pay more attention to the body. If you are too much in the body, bring more awareness to the mind.”

And two weeks turned to twelve and before I knew it, I was developing a disciplined yoga practice.

I am sitting in the the studio, my legs crossed, listening to the sound of my own breathing. When I began this practice, I could barely sit this way. Now, my knees are an inch from the floor. My eyes are closed, my arms resting on my thighs, and Billy is talking. These are the moments we take to center ourselves before we begin the asanas, the movement or flow of yoga poses. Billy says, “If you take one step towards a disciplined yoga practice, that yoga practice takes ten steps towards you.”

The nine dollar mat got me this far, but even my wife can see that I am serious about this. I buy a new mat. I research and read reviews and finally decide on a Manduka mat and a mat bag. I trade the baggy sweats and old t-shirts for some workout clothes that are more suited to the practice. I feel like I have earned these things.

The mat is a sacred space. A platform that allows me to temporarily stop traveling to the past or some unrealized future. There is no time traveling on a yoga mat. It’s all about the present.

And I am drenched in sweat. “Bring your hands to heart-center,” Billy says, “In honor of your standing series.” I press the palms of my hands together and bow my head. “Now shake that out,” he says. “Whatever happened, or didn’t happen. No judgements. Let it go. It’s in the past.”

My wife’s hair has fallen out from the chemotherapy. I sit with her for every treatment. There are lots of needles, and I see what all of this is doing to her. I am watching her carefully. Every moment. Nothing is lost. I keep much to myself. I am holding her in my mind. I am covering her in light.

And I pray – but not at home. And not in church.

I pray in the yoga studio. The serenity of the place quiets my mind and I begin, in this place, to hear the answers to the questions I asked, and I realize they are all within me. But it takes a quiet mind to hear them. It is the small still voice I have heard so much about – no thunder, no flashes of cosmic light- and hearing it requires patience and practice.

Everything is practice, and in yoga I found a metaphor for all of it.

My body is straining, my clothes wet from the exertion, and Billy reminds me to set an intention for “someone going through a difficult time or illness.” He knows the story. So when my arms are shaking or my mind starts to wander I think of Brooke. I think of needles and toxic chemicals. I think of the scars and the fears and the incredible beauty that shines through all of it. I think of how privileged I am to be her witness. To sit with her, to pray for her.

And I breathe.

My left knee is bent into a deep lunge and the palm of my left hand is pressed into the mat, close to the arch of my foot. My right arm is stretching straight up to the ceiling. Billy is talking. “Press that hand into the mat. Push. Everything that doesn’t serve you. Push it away.”

And I am suddenly surrounded in a ball of white light radiating out from the palm of my hand, pressed into the floor, to the tips of my fingers stretching upward. For a moment, my mind is clear and I feel light radiating from within and around me.

And for a moment, I feel safe.

The universe is open for business.

When we got the cancer diagnosis Brooke put a few holes in the walls of our home. She was upstairs – raging. In truth, I didn’t think our marriage was ready for this. She didn’t either. What I have learned over the past several months of practice is that our marriage needed this.


We had come to a place where we both needed to grow. It sounds good – but the journey is a real bitch. We turned on each other and for a while we both thought cancer would be the thing to break us. We were facing our worst fears and we had those conversations. Brooke, by her own admission, had been arrogant in her health and physical ability. I was afraid of doctors and despised the impersonal intrusions and violations of the medical practice.

So Brooke lost what she prized most, and I faced what I feared most.

One afternoon, after a fight that might have been a deal-breaker for our marriage, I called my cousin, David. I said, “I thought these kinds of things brought people closer together.”

“Cindy and I have some experience with this sort of thing,” he replied, “and I can tell you that it doesn’t feel that way when it is happening.”

So this, too, is a disciplined practice.

While I was working it out in the yoga studio, Brooke was fueling her rage. She needed it. She was channeling it – with intention. She was angry about the cancer. She was going to fight it, and she is a fighter. Her anger was a form of energy channeled -barely- toward the cancer.

And I was raging too. Unpredictably.

Early one morning I am driving to work listening to Buddist Lamas chanting in my headphones over a soundtrack of rhythmic, spacial sounds. The sun is about to rise and I am lost in thought. But something slowly brings my awareness back to the car. The truck ahead of me is driving at least ten miles under the speed limit. There is oncoming traffic and I can’t get around him. He has many chances to pull over, but he doesn’t and I am now close to him, moving my car into the next lane and back again, signally that I am trying to pass. He knows I am there. He sees me. Another place to move aside – he should move aside- and he doesn’t. Finally, there is a break in the traffic and I pull up next to him pressing my middle finger into the glass of the passenger window. He sees me and I look pointedly into his eyes as I press the gas pedal to the floor. And as I pass the car, indulging in all of these angry and triumphant feelings I remember that I am not driving my car. I am in my wife’s car, and there is a sticker on the back window of Jesus, a crown of thorns on his head. It was there when we bought the car and it was left there in silent agreement – a superstitious impulse about God and cancer.

I took a deep breath and realized instantly that all of this had been a test, and I had failed it miserably. I thought of the driver I had just passed, probably wondering why Jesus had just flipped him off, and I laughed out loud. “Let that all go,” I heard Billy say. “What happened or didn’t happen. It’s all in the past.”

I’d like to say that these are isolated outbursts, but they aren’t.  Brooke calls me the “angry yoga guy.” I am trying to find balance, but I am living in moments that are all extremes. And just when I think I am beginning to master my impulses I fail. Mary, another instructor at Yoga Deva, reminds me that our practice doesn’t only happen on the mat. In fact, we need to find ways to take it off the mat – with intention. Two days after Thanksgiving I had an accident riding my bike and seriously sprained my hand. I couldn’t practice for two weeks and had to change the way I did things when I could practice. I was frustrated – and angry. “That’s your practice.” Mary told me, smiling. She seemed happy for me. In her Yin class nothing is forced. The body finds its way over time, and it is a slow process that requires patience, but builds incredible strength. We find our way – over time.

And that’s your practice.

I am standing on one leg, trying to find my balance. Shosh sits on the floor, her back against a wall of mirrors, watching a timer as we try to hold this pose for at least a minute. I am reaching back and holding onto my left foot, which is pushing back against the pull of my hand. My leg is bent like a bow. I am leaning forward, by body parallel to the floor, my right arm reaching straight out in front of me like I am flying. I am looking for a dristi – a focal point that will center the awareness and help me find balance. I do find balance, and for a moment I begin to think that I can hold this pose for that minute. And then I fall. You can’t over think it. My leg drops to the floor reflexively and I stand there, head down, my hands on my hips, catching my breath.

“If you fall,” Shosh says, “good for you. It’s called yoga practice, not yoga perfect.”

She seems happy for me, too.

One evening I took Brooke to the movies. She was having Chemo treatments, so we went to a weeknight show where there would be fewer people around. Her immune system was seriously compromised. We were watching X-Men: First Class. In the middle of the film, Xavier is trying to teach Eric how to channel his powers. Eric can telepathically move anything that is metal with his mind, but Eric has had a hard life – and he is angry.

Eric can stop a bullet with his mind, but Xavier wants him to really test himself. He wants Eric to move a radar dish that is easily five miles away, something Eric does not believe he can do. He tries, looking strained both physically and mentally, but the dish is unmoved.

I know exactly how he feels.

But Xavier isn’t ready to quit. He says, very calmly, “I find that true focus lies somewhere between rage, and serenity.”

I knew the truth of it immediately. I had gone to the yoga studio seeking serenity in the midst of chaos. And Brooke was fighting breast cancer with her rage.

Even in this struggle, we are balanced between the yin and yang of peace and chaos, and balance is a finite point between them. I realized that despite everything, we are balanced, the two of us, in a struggle that is moving us forward. Bringing us closer.

But it doesn’t feel that way when it is happening.

I am standing in my warrior pose, my dristi  is over the tips of my fingers. There is a series of warrior poses, elegant and physically demanding. The body reaches, stretches, strong in both sides, balanced.  My knee is in a lunge, and right over my ankle. My right leg stretched straight out behind me, pressing into the outer edge of my foot. There is energy in this room. It’s a slow hum, and you can feel it. This space is where I fight against the rage that could easily take me, and this battle is intensely personal.

I am a warrior.

And while I have never been much good at mastering myself, I have noticed that things are changing. I am changing.

And Billy is sitting on his mat, legs crossed, the back of his hands are resting on his knees. He is talking, and I can sense frustration in him. He is telling a story. Billy is a carpenter by trade, and he is telling the class about a conversation that happened over lunch earlier that day. He was talking to some coworkers and Billy shared that he was also a yoga instructor. “Yoga?” they asked? “Yoga? What has yoga ever done for you?” I could hear their distain creep into his voice. I could feel it.

“If you know anything about guys that work in construction,” Billy says, “they can be kind of rough around the edges.” I know this. I worked for a while in cement when I was much younger.

I think it was the disrespect that was bothering him, but I think he was also troubled because he didn’t have a ready answer for them.

“What has yoga ever done for you?” he repeated.

Billy is an intuitive teacher. I see it in him. He uses what’s  real -the everyday experience- to illustrate his lessons, and this is one of the reasons I connected with him. It’s how I know I came to the right place. I’m an intuitive teacher, too.

I wanted to help him. To tell him to just look around. “What has yoga done for you?”

“Me,” I wanted to say. “Me – and everyone else that is sitting in this room. That’s what yoga has done for you.”

It’s an incredible gift, being a teacher. But you never really fully know the effect you have had on your students, or where those lessons will take them. You aren’t always meant to know.

And that’s your practice.

It is a Wednesday evening and I am sitting comfortably on my mat, my legs crossed and eyes closed, listening as the instructor, Barb, relates a parable to the class. She is an energetic woman with short, yellow-blonde hair. She speaks in a fast, rhythmic cadence, but the effect is calming and almost hypnotic. Ordinary people do amazing things in Barb’s class.

Tonight she is talking about a man looking for God.

I can relate.

He has climbed a high mountain in search of a Holy man, and when he reaches the small house at the mountaintop he is greeted at the door by a man who, after hearing the purpose of the journey, invites the traveller into the house and then quickly out the backdoor. Confused,the traveler tries to explain again why he has come. “You don’t understand,” he says. “I have journeyed all this way to see the Holy man.”

“And you have just met him,” the man replies, closing the door.

Barb explains the lesson saying, “If you cannot see the face of God in the next person you meet, stop looking.”

And we begin to practice.

That weekend I am buying tires at a small shop in Chandler, Arizona. The place is full of noisy, masculine energy. I have been coming  here for years, and the owner, Jose, is now my friend. The previous owner sold the business to Jose, who still works in his shop as the only mechanic. He greets all of his customers like old friends. He calls me “rich man” because I am there so much getting my old cars fixed on a teacher’s salary. He likes this joke. I found him by accident, which is often how we find the best things.

The universe is open for business.

This day I am watching a man try to hustle a deal on some tires. He bought a used pair from the previous owner and he is trying to tell Jose that the tires weren’t any good. That he got a bad deal. He is clearly waiting for Jose to offer him something, but Jose has his head under the hood of a car trying to ignore him. Everyone is trying to ignore him. I am reading the sign on the wall behind the man which states in big red letters that there is no warranty on used tires. I think about pointing this out to the man, who is clearly bothering Jose. I look at him thinking I will catch his eye – that I can give a knowing nod to the sign hanging almost over his head.

The cool morning light is filling the station and I am pleased with myself. I am not here to hustle tires, I have real business. And then I look at the man again, and I begin to see him. He is short with black, wavy hair, unkempt. His hands are pushed deep into the pockets of his pants that seem to have no color of their own. His clothes are worn, shabby. He is smiling uncomfortably, used to going unnoticed, to being ignored. And somehow I know that it isn’t really the tires that brought him here. He is looking for someone to acknowledge him – to see him- to hear his storyThe man catches my eye and I save the clever nod towards the sign that I had practiced in my mind. I smile back and the noisy clanking of metal and machinery seem to fade away and I can see the motes of dust in the air hanging between the two of us. I see him and nothing else, and I catch my breath, amazed. I hear Barb saying, “If you cannot see God in the face of the next person you meet, stop looking.”

I am standing in a used tire shop trying not to be noticed. There are tears welling up in my eyes and I look away, ashamed. I see myself in this man. I am this man, and I am wondering if anyone will ever see God in me.

And finally I am able to understand and embrace this word that ends our yoga practice – namaste. It means I see and acknowledge the light – the Spirit- within you.

We begin and end our practice with a chant of Om. It is the sound of the universe. You can hear it under the tumult that drowns out the simple awareness that we are spiritual beings in a world that is not material, but an expansive act of creation manifested first in the mind of God. I believe that when He first breathed life into man, the sound of that first breath was Om. And we have been breathing ever since, each breath flowing divinely from the first.

Yoga is breathing. Every movement flows from the mindful inhalation and expulsion of breath.

And I have been holding mine for a long time.

But not today.

Billy is talking, inviting us. “Yoga is a guided meditation.”

And my practice is one year old.

One year.

I look different. I feel different. And though I still lose my temper, I am not ever completely lost in it. I am always aware, at the very least, that I am failing a test, missing an opportunity. That I am still the angry yoga guy, but this, too, is only a transition into something else.

And I am in mountain pose – not asking this time, but counting blessings. Brooke is getting better. I see the old strength in her returning. Her PET Scan is clear. And while her cancer will always be a part of my practice – the place it all began- it no longer defines it. My son, who I haven’t spoken to in years sends me a letter through Facebook -an amazing gesture- and we begin to talk. My beautiful daughters are growing and changing before me and they fill my life with Hope. I was there at the birth of each of my children and saw each of them take their first breath – and the sound was a resonant Om.

I am seated on my mat, a sacred space, legs crossed, palms pressed to heart-center in prayer. My shirt is wet from sweat. The lights are lowered and Billy is talking.

“Together we can sit at the top of the mountain, until only the mountain remains.”

And I am breathing.

I pray here, in this time and space. I thank God for my life. For my family. My practice. I pray a blessing for Billy and Shosh, that this place will prosper.

The universe is open for business.

And in my mind I am stretching my arms across the room, past Williams Field Road, past Pecos Road and the 202.

Trying to throw my arms around the world.

Looking for God, in the next face I see.

Balanced between rage . . . and Serenity.

And that is my practice.


In the Farmer’s Garden

In Dreams on April 8, 2011 at 4:08 am

“The best place to seek God is in a garden.  You can dig for him there.”  ~George Bernard Shaw

I like pulling weeds. I like to get my hands close to the earth and work the roots out of the ground. My knees creak and complain and my back stiffens. But this isn’t pain. It’s discomfort – and there is a difference. The mind can move beyond discomfort, and if it does, it can achieve a focused state of awareness – a lightness of being. It is a metaphor for life.

The mind wants this – but it fights it.

I focus, not on the number of weeds that seem to have invaded my backyard, but on the one in front of me. And then the next – and the next. Each one becomes, for a moment, the focus of  my intent. My body complains as I shift my weight to the other knee. I work through the discomfort. Discomfort is noise. Distraction. It says, “Enough already. You don’t really have to do this. Not now. You can always do it tomorrow.”

But there is no tomorrow.  And I don’t like the noise. So I push through it.

I smell the dirt and feel it under the nails of my hands. The weeds smell bright and fecund. The sun warms my skin, and the sweat on the back of my neck cools me.  I am for a long time alone, and the pile of weeds I have pulled grows larger.

And then my daughter, Madeline, joins me.

“What are you doing, Dad?” she asks, though what I am doing is obvious. It is a child’s way of beginning a conversation. They state the obvious. We lose the ability to do this over time. We even avoid it.

“Pulling weeds,” I say as I pull another  from the hard ground.

“Can I help?”

I show her how to grab the stem of the weed and gently test its depth. She twists and tugs and there is an audible pop as the roots come out of the ground.

“Very good, Maddy. That’s it. Perfect.”

And we pull the weeds in silence.

After a time she stands, stretching her body. “That’s hard work,” she says. I nod my head and laugh.

And I am back in Tranquillity, on my grandfather’s farm. We are standing in a cotton field in front of the house – perfect rows of young cotton plants stretch across the fertile farmland.  I am a boy, not much older than Maddy is now. The sun is about to set. There is a burnt and golden rim of color working its way across the wisps of cloud overhead. A beautiful painting on a magnificent stretch of canvas. I am holding a hoe in my hand, its handle polished smooth from years of use. I press my hand into my lower back and stretch.

“This is back breaking work,” I say.  My parents and grandparents laugh. We are glowing, all of us, in the evening light. I have been chopping cotton, my grandfather teaching me how to use the garden hoe to move the earth beneath the roots of the weeds, and pull them from the ground. I had worked my way down a row and back, my body bent uncomfortably as I worked the hoe into the ground. My grandfather had made it look easy – effortless. I was enthusiastic. There was money to be made, and as I made my way down the row I began to think of how I might spend it. As I made my way back up the other side the novelty had worn off.

It was back-breaking work.

Painful blisters were already forming on my soft hands. My grandfather looks at them intently, mildly amused. They will harden into callouses, he tells me. And then he shows me his hands. They are like thick tanned saddle leather, smooth and strong and hard. I have never seen hands like them since, and when I think of him, I see his hands first, then his broad nose set firmly into his sun weathered face.

I look at my daughter, who has now occupied herself with a short shovel she found leaning against the wall. She thinks she has found a better, easier way to take the weeds down, but I stop her.

“You have to get them by the roots,” I tell her. “If you don’t, they’ll grow back.”  She doesn’t seem interested in the weeds anymore and I don’t blame her. Not one bit. But she wants to help, so I tell her she can use the shovel to refill a hole she dug in the ground a few weeks earlier. This is more to her liking and she begins to shove dry earth into the hole.

I watch her for a moment, intent in her work. I think my grandfather would have really liked her.

I worked that field in front of my grandfather’s house, earning some money as I cleared the weeds row by row. The blisters on my hands broke and dried, forming the promised callouses. I was proud of them. And my grandfather was proud of me. I could see his approval in the way he looked at me, talked with me, but it was my grandmother that told me how he had bragged about the work I was doing. I had surprised him, I think.

I didn’t finish the field, though, and I guess it still bothers me. I made it around the backside, near the fort my uncle built in a large tree at the edge of the canal bank. I remember that it was time to run the water and it was my uncle that finished the field. Something of my accomplishment, I think, was tarnished – at least in my mind.

My other daughters have joined me in the backyard now. Abby is almost five years old and Katie is almost three. Maddy is pulling weeds again and the little girls are helping – pulling the leafy tops off  with their little hands and throwing them into the pile that is growing larger still. They have found the shovel and are trying to dig a hole, without much success. Some sparrows fly onto the fence, curious.They move to the roof  of the house, and finally into the air. The girls love the birds. They point and call out to me, needing me to share this wonder with them.

And I do.

But I am a hunter on a great adventure. My air rifle is loose in my hands as I move slowly down the length of fence that covers our approach to the apricot tree. My cousin, Greg, is leading the way. He is a hunter, too. And he shoots with deadly accuracy. We are paid by my grandmother to keep the sparrows and blackbirds out of her fruit trees – especially the apricot tree. She makes the best pies and cobblers from these apricots, but the birds are relentless. Greg and I kneel in the dirt and pump our guns. We peer down the sights of the gun barrels, looking.

But there is nothing. Either we have killed every bird in Tranquillity, or they are feeding off someone else’s trees. We move across the farm, checking each tree, each fence post.


And then close to the house a sound. There is a large tree in the center of a garden near the house and in this tree there is a bird. One bird.

A mockingbird.

There is a pause, a hesitation. We had been told by our grandmother that we could kill any bird on the farm, but not the mockingbird. She loved them. I can still hear her singing, “Hush little baby, don’t you cry, Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don’t fly . . . ”

The summer sun was bright and hot and heavy. Our guns potent in our hands. And there was competition, and a desire to kill. The bird moved from branch to branch, singing. We both aimed our guns and we both fired, and after a short pause, the mockingbird fell from the tree.  Dead. We both called the shot, we both fired our guns. And I’m pretty sure Greg still thinks, to this day, that he killed that bird. I was just as certain that I had killed it.

But it doesn’t matter. The intent was plain and it was in us both.

The bird was there on the ground, its song silenced. And there was the realization that we had gone too far.

There was a garden, and in that garden there was a tree. And in that tree, the only thing forbidden to us. And we had taken it, of our own free will. So we hid our sin, burying it deep in the ditch beneath the tree house where it could never be found.

It is an old and familiar story.

And the days passed by, and with each day it seemed that we had hidden well enough this thing we had done.

We walked and hunted and played in the farmer’s garden.

One afternoon he found me alone with my gun, sitting on a low fence. I hadn’t heard him approach and his strong leathery hand on my shoulder frightened me.  He asked me about the mockingbird – what had happened to it- as if I were its keeper.

How could he know, I wondered? Who is this man that knows the number of every bird that falls in his garden?

And at first I lied, as if I had never seen a mockingbird.  But he obviously knew the truth. I might even have blamed Greg, freely giving him the credit he had once demanded. My grandfather looked at me, not unkindly, but in a very direct way, and said, “I won’t tell your grandmother -it would break her heart- but don’t you boys ever kill another mockingbird.”

And he walked away.

I asked him, some time later -long after my grandmother had passed away- how he had known. And he told me, with a gleam in his eye how they had flooded the canals to irrigate the cotton and the bird, perhaps not buried as well as we had hoped, floated to the top of the water. Like a witness to the crime against it, the bird and become entangled in the brush along the edge of the canal where it was eventually discovered – its wound an obvious, though silent, indictment.

I pull the weeds and the girls watch the birds and dig holes in the ground. I don’t kill the birds anymore. I like to watch them. There’s one bird that sings to me every morning, and it is this song that brings me to consciousness as the sky slowly lightens. It is the same song every morning, but it makes me happy. It reminds me that I am a part of nature, and that we all have something important to do.

This bird? He gets to sing. I get to teach.

My hands are getting sore, but I keep pulling. There is cold beer in the refrigerator. I start to think about how it will taste. How easy it would be to just call it a day.  But the temptation reminds me of a story my grandmother told me. It has become “the family story” for me.

A story of origin. Mythology.

There once was, in my grandparents home, a formal portrait hanging in the hallway. They are both seated and smiling in front of a pale blue background, my grandmother’s hair puffed up tall on top of her head in the style that older ladies seem to favor. I don’t know why it is that picture, that image, that I see when I think of them. It is so contrived. The picture, in many ways, could be of anyone’s grandparents.

Maybe the picture is stuck there in my mind because it is so far removed from the people I really knew.

It was my grandmother that told me that she and my grandfather had eloped. I remember being surprised, even as a young boy. This was the woman that gave me Lifesavers in church to keep me awake, or when I could no longer keep my eyes open, she would rub my head gently in her hands. My grandmother would not tolerate foul language and rewarded my cousins and me with money for accurately quoting scripture from the Bible. Even the simplest verses like – “Jesus wept,” the shortest verse in the Bible – was good for some pocket change, though that verse usually indicated that we had exhausted our reservoir of scripture.

But she did elope.

She ran off one day with Alex Eubanks and didn’t return home for two days. When she finally came back she told her mother in way of explanation, “Momma, I got married.”

“Well, you better have, staying out all night with that man,” her mother replied. And that was the humor I came to know so well  in my grandmother’s house.

They didn’t actually live together for a while, my grandfather working at various jobs on a number of farms. I have heard stories of him cooking beans over a fire and eating them right out of the can.

Sometime later, they were working together at a roadside gas station and diner. I don’t remember where, but it was probably Texas. They didn’t have a lot of money and they had no car. Most of the family had already made their way to California. One day a couple of traveling salesmen stopped at the diner. They were on their way to California and my grandmother had an idea. “Al,” she said later that night, “go ask those salesmen if we can get a ride with them to El Centro.”

The salesman said yes.

So they quit their jobs and left that next day for California taking only what they could carry with them.  I think of my grandparents and those two traveling salesmen like they are characters out of a Steinbeck novel-  chasing the dream and promise of a state where ripe fruit falls from over-laden trees.

A land of milk and honey.

My grandmother told me that Pabst beer was popular back then and that “every time those salesmen passed a billboard that said ‘Time for a Pabst’ they would stop and have a beer. It’s a wonder we made it to California.”

So it was a leap of faith and two traveling salesmen  that brought my grandparents -and all of us that would follow- to El Centro, California. My grandfather picked fruit, plowed fields, and worked until he could one day buy his own place, which he found in Tranquillity – a small farming community in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

I know he loved my grandmother – more so now that I am a man looking back on them as they once were. We had frequent family dinners at my grandmother’s house, and my grandfather -usually out on the tractor- was often late since he worked through the last light of the day.

Grandpa would come through the door like John Wayne – bigger than life – his face covered in dirt. I remember him grabbing my grandmother and forcing his kisses on her as she struggled, laughing, trying to keep the dirt off her face. There were stories and laughter, and I can’t remember a single argument at that table.

But I do remember tears.

I was there, sitting at that same table with my father as grandpa signed the papers that leased his land to another farmer. He couldn’t do it anymore, and after he signed those papers I saw him wipe the tears out of his eyes. He still looked the same to me, but he wasn’t. My grandmother’s death had aged him, and made him sentimental in a way particular to old men.

My own marriage -my first marriage- was unravelling around me. I remember sitting on the couch in his living room with my first wife as my grandfather talked about the many wonderful years he had shared with my grandmother. He hoped the same for us, he said, but I knew that was never going to happen. That kind of marriage requires certain qualities neither of us had.

He died returning from an elk hunting trip in Montana. Even at his age he had managed to kill an elk. My grandfather had a heart attack in a parking lot in Salt Lake City as he was leaving a grocery store. I came to the hospital and sat with him. I told him what he meant to me, I prayed for him, kissed his forehead, and I don’t know if he heard a word I said, but he squeezed my hand. His were still strong and smooth as tanned leather. I wept at his funeral. My father, sitting in front of me, reached his hand back and patted my leg.

“This isn’t a tragedy,” I told my sisters, trying to lend some kind of perspective to our grief. He had a long life, and died doing exactly what he wanted to be doing. Grandpa loved those hunting trips and I admired him for that last elk. But the man in box, at the center of all this attention, that wasn’t him. Not the way I remembered him, and I saw the entire funeral as a last and final indignity.

That is why I cried.

I would have rather seen him atop a large funeral pyre, his body consumed by fire. His ashes forever a part of the land he so lovingly worked. I imagined a tall sentinel of smoke rising into the sky far above the San Joaquin Valley – anouncing the death of a great man. Truly, one of the last of his kind.

He talked to me about farming once. He said, “there is no greater life.” But he also said that the industry had changed, and the small farm was dying. He was nostalgic, and a little sad. But I keep thinking about what he said. For him, there was no greater life. That’s how he appraised his time here and that is how he lived it.

And he lived it.

My daughter, Abby, is telling me she is dirty and that she needs a bath. I could use a shower myself. I stand up and stretch my back and remember an old feeling I haven’t felt in a long while – the pleasure of physical work. A happy kind of exhaustion.

The kids are running around the yard. Abby is dancing to a song only she can hear, and Katie is adding sticks and rocks to the pile of weeds happy in her work. And my grandfather is standing there in the middle of all of this looking at me.

“I like pulling weeds,” I say out loud.

And I hear him say, “you can take the boy away from the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.”

Madeline grabs my hand looking at the large pile of weeds we have pulled together. “Is it enough, Dad?” she asks.

I look at my grandfather. He is smiling.

Yeah, Maddy,” I say, “it’s enough.”

And it is.

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