Life and Death and the Art of Presence

By Sarah Halweil, November, 2015

Life is passing too quickly and, frankly, it makes me anxious.

According to Richard Rosen, one of the age-old purposes of yoga, which predates many of the modern shapes that we take in class, was to live longer. No method has yet been proven to extend life. Perhaps, the stress relieving techniques do help, even though we never really know when our lives will end.

The practices of yoga help me discover where my body holds tension and fear, and then I can comb out the physical and emotional tangles. I find space in my body, and my mind calms down. I find courage by getting to know vulnerability, and strength and by discovering what scares me and sitting with it. The practices allow space for the current experience, whatever it may be—whether it is in the category of aversions or attractions. With these practices, I am better at being present, perhaps the only way to not feel like life is zooming by and that I am missing out on something.

Off the mat, a sure way for me to practice presence is to wander in the realm of nature, art, and music – to float in the cool, pristine waters of Lake Tahoe, to run down the sand dunes off of Napeague stretch, to be stopped by the color and composition of a work of art, and be rocked by a perfect song. They give me cause to slow down, look, feel, and pause as I gaze on in awe. I feel less like a processor and errand runner and just way more aware of what I want more moments in my life to be full of.

Here’s one set of techniques I find helpful: I focus my attention on the soles of my feet and spread the weight out more evenly through my feet. I shift my body awareness more to the back plane of my body and soften the front of my body. I practice relaxing the muscles and connective tissues near my forehead, temples, jaw, tongue, and throat. I try not to interrupt. I try to feel mini or maxi pauses throughout the day. These actions seem to be the best remedy for absorbing the world around me. Whether it be a beautiful landscape or a sick patient in the hospital.

Brene Brown, a social worker who gave one of the most popular TED talks, says that you can’t pick and choose the good or the bad stuff. You either numb yourself from it all or you are present for it all. She says to practice gratitude and joy in moments of terror, love, and passion. To be able to stop instead of catastrophizing what might happen, and to be grateful for the feeling of vulnerability because it means that we are alive. And, she says to believe that we are enough because when we work from a place that says “I am enough,” then we stop screaming and start listening. We are kinder and gentler to people around us, and kinder and gentler to ourselves.

When practicing like this, we are also putting our agendas aside. We can feel more pauses all day long. Perhaps every time we stop at a stop sign we feel one cycle of breath (more if there are other cars around). I feel moments of relief when I realize it’s less about getting anywhere and more about experiencing the process and the sensations along the way. More about being, rather than always feeling the need to do something.

A few months ago, I had a difficult conversation with my parents. It contained themes that had been festering for a while – grudges, cultural disagreements, unhealthy habits. I used every tool and technique I had learned from my yoga practice – posturing, pauses, and do-something-different – and it worked (this was no walk it the park, I feel like I had been prepping for this for years!). Gates opened, honestly flowed, connection and understanding ensued, and it continues. It felt like what might take years on a therapist’s couch unraveled in that conversation. I am so relieved that I don’t have to wait until possibly the end to have these conversations with my parents. The most challenging experiences can be so profound.

I recently heard a wise, brave woman in our community who had a recent loss say “we are all just helping each other home.”

Aren’t most of us afraid to die and can the knowledge that it is inevitable inform the way we live each day? Our yoga practices help us find space inside so that we can find connection to what is around us – and it can work the other way too (see floating in Lake Tahoe). Can we lighten up and find the courage to do what we have chosen well and be present for as much as we can so we feel less anxious at any given time and we are able to serve ourselves and others? I think I can, and I can start now.

Photograph by Lindsay Morris

Sarah Halweil

Sarah Halweil is a graduate of the 2004 Yoga Shanti Teacher Training Program. She graduated from the University of Colorado in Latin American Studies and Environmental Science, and Georgetown University in Nursing. She is also a graduate of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) Program, and is the clinical coordinator for the Urban Zen program at Southampton hospital.

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