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This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.
And then our dying—releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself
into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
Dearest monks and artists,
Over ten years ago, while living in the San Francisco bay area and going to graduate school, I loved to swim. I swam sometimes in the San Francisco bay, but more often in pools. I attended swim clinics to improve my swim stroke. Some friends even called me “Angelfish” as a way of honoring my love of swimming and the work I do.
When I moved to Seattle I never quite found the right pool. “Right” for me meant something I could walk to, and where there was a down-to-earth feeling about the place. For whatever reason, swimming receded into the background of my life. I forgot how much I loved it.
This past week, living by the sea again, inspired me to find a pool. My first day back in the water, I lowered mysel in and swam my first lap of freestyle in many years. I was overcome by a sense of ease and grace. I felt like I was dancing. Even after so many years gone from the practice I was able to return. When I got to the end of my lane, a woman next to me said “you have a lovely stroke, your arms looked so graceful.” I have never had anyone say anything like that about my swimming before, and I was so grateful to her for her spontaneously being a mirror for me that day, a witness to reflect the ease I discovered in that moment which was also outwardly visible.
I feel a sense of joy in the water. I love the way it supports my body. I have always been a lover of water, of oceans, of being by the sea and feeling the rhythm of tides move through me. And yet, I had denied myself this pleasure for so many years. I could give you all kinds of reasons, that sound very, well, reasonable. And I am not interested in feeling guilty about this distancing, but curious about it.
I have been praying lectio divina with texts from St. Hildegard of Bingen as part of my own Lenten practice and in support of writing materials for our current online Lenten retreat. Last week, in one of the texts, the word “refuse” shimmered for me and I pondered all the ways I refuse – life, joy, beauty, God. On some level I refused myself the gift of swimming and the ease it brings for too long.
On Ash Wednesday the first reading begins with the words: “Return to me with your whole heart.” And so I have been praying with all my patterns of refusal, and this call to return, again and again. Our refusal of life is never the last word on things. The invitation is always there, ready to welcome us back.
Jon Kabat-Zinn in his wonderful book Wherever You Go There You Are writes that doing yoga and not doing yoga are the same. What he means is that sometimes the return to our practice after having left it for several days (or weeks, months, years) we often have a deeper appreciation for what we have lost than if we continued. We fall away, we lose perseverance for so many reasons. The problem is not with the waning of our inner fire and perseverance, but with not returning again at all. When we realize we have not meditated in days and so our minds become hard with judgment and criticism and we find ourselves even further from the peace we might experience than if we had simply returned to practice without commentary.
Since moving to Galway, swans have been shimmering for me. There is a group of at least twelve that congregate in the harbor or on the canal outside our window. Whenever I catch sight of one swimming or gliding through the air, my breath catches at the beauty of it. One of my favorite poses in the practice of yin yoga is swan (which is essentially a long-held version of pigeon) and sometimes when I teach yoga I will read the Rilke poem above while students hold the pose as a meditation on the places of their own ease and the ways they refuse this gift.
Just like the swan on land, we so often move awkwardly through our lives. We try to live through the expectations, hopes, and dreams of others. We lose touch with who we really are and can so easily become like the landed swan, lumbering and waddling awkwardly across the ground, and through our lives. Forcing ourselves to live a life that is not ours, where we are out of our element.
The swan doesn’t fix her awkwardness by beating herself up, or going even faster, or trying to organize her life in better and more efficient ways. The swan slides back into the water where she belongs. Surrendering to this flow which is her element, she is suddenly filled with presence. We are called back to ease each moment. The question is will we refuse? Or will we return and receive the grace offered. It may take us years, but we can always return.
In what ways do you cling to the ground that makes you feel awkward and out of step with yourself? What is the place of ease and delight and why do you resist?
We have just ONE space left in a double room for our Springtime in Vienna: Writing and Photography Retreat (April 6-13, 2013). If journeying to this beautiful place with kindred souls feels like an invitation to return to a place of ease, delight, and grace within your own heart, please email me for more details. We will need to close registration by the end of the week. It is going to be an amazing and wondrous week of remembering what you love about life – gorgeous architecture, stunning art and sculptures, wondrous music, delicious food, a slow pace of life.
In addition, if you want to join me for Awakening the Creative Spirit (September 29-October 4, 2013 in the Pacific Northwest) – our experiential intensive in the expressive arts for soul care practitioners, know that our fall dates are already half full. This program always fills early!
With great and growing love. . .