40 years of yoga practice have yielded gifts I never expected when I started down the path, much, I suppose, like any long-term relationship one consents to pursue will continue to surprise the heart and spirit if attention is paid and the relationship is bound more by love and flexibility than a rigid repetition of steps learned long ago and in all the years since rarely or never opened to inspiration.
Consider, for example, the wisdom and elegance of counter-posturing, balancing in-breath and out-breath, uniting a backbend with a forward bend, marrying a reaching with a contraction. The unfolding understanding of a counter-posture’s gifts has broadened my ability to remain increasingly present and mindful to my life and its core of mystery, to its blessing and suffering, and to its continual flow of dying and rebirth. Life, at its essence, is an unending exercise in counter-posturing. Over and over, life asks that we disintegrate and reintegrate, from our birth, through the breaths enclosing each succeeding moment until our death. If we can enter our life mindfully, co-creating equanimity and balance, how much lovelier our experience of its gifts can be.
Counter-posturing is inherent to the flow of yoga, as it is to the philosophies and theologies we recognize as our guiding wisdoms. For example, it forms the holistic essence symbolized by the yin and yang’s embrace of both the empirical and transcendent. It is expressed beautifully in the Hebrew Ecclesiastes verses that tell us everything must have its season. It pulses at the heart of every line forming the beautiful Prayer of St. Francis.
It is revealed throughout nature’s perfect balance, offering the rounded whole of existence to guide our spirits towards their own rounded fulfillment: Summer’s outward energy and exuberant volume, winter’s inner withdrawal and soundless stillness, the expansion and retraction of spring and autumn. Every force has its equal and opposite force that, if embraced, creates a perfect marriage of balance.
The universe conspires to teach us the wisdom of counter-posturing, to help us choose paths, practices, and actions that keep us balanced and centered, which is to say authentically healthy and whole. When life is flowing easily, these practices may heighten its joy. When life is overcome by suffering, the ability to counter-posture becomes as necessary to our spiritual survival as oxygen is to our body.
Our first breath is an in-breath; our final an exhalation. Whatever we choose between these, whatever existence offers, life originates and concludes in perfect balance. Our choice to counter-posture—or not—all those moments between our human beginning and end determines the degree of elegance, the trajectory of growth, the depth of meaning, and the awareness of the Sacred that infuses our life.
My beloved brother-in-law died last week.
Days were circumscribed by his rapid decline in health, an accelerated rhythm of swirled energy and emotions, rising hopes and dashed hopes, long vigils and sleepless nights, the gathering and parting of family, the brutal lack of equanimity often offered by the hospital ICU, the sense of everything heightened and held out of time, and moments when reality screamed with unrelenting heart-slamming truths, grounding us in medical minutiae and the process of dying.
By training and inclination, the camera of my perception continually moved in and out, assessing the degree of shock and anxiety within and without each participant, and, of course, myself. When the life of one we love is so suddenly compromised, our emotions, bodies, and spirits are thrown out of coherence. Numbed engagement is often the best that can be managed and also serves to protect us, and so we offer automatic responses that cushion our completely exposed vulnerability from jarring contact with more than this moment, and now this one.
If we can listen deeply during such times of spiritual, emotional, and physical trauma, some inner knowing will tell us that our spirits are trying to catch up with us, and if we can hang on, and intuitively counter-posture each moment’s invitations and assaults, we will again find our way home to our center. Until then, we travel with sails tossed by raw emotions, and if we are blessed, love is the one we allow to carry us through to journey’s end.
Years of accompanying others and their families through such experiences have taught me to seek, support, and encourage the counter-postures that will renew balance for all involved in the drama of dying and loss. As a midwife to the dying, I have witnessed myriad responses to the invitations this final journey offers to the one who is dying and to those who accompany him or her. I have felt and considered them all myself when I have lost someone I loved, as I did last week. Every new wave that crashes against us can either be met with love or rejected and futilely battled in anger, fear, anxiety, and despair.
Here is how it might happen when we surrender to the experience and meet it with intentional equanimity: We can recognize the horror of our individual and collective journey and choose to translate it into sorrow by meeting it with love. We can counter-posture our howling pain by acknowledging that mystery and grace are also our companions. We can embrace our fellow-passengers on this journey of stunning transformation, and through the energy of our words and silence, our actions and stillness, our in-breaths and out-breaths, comfort our own and others’ hearts, subdue the storm, and steady our spirits. We can focus our energy and gratitude upon the one who is departing, on his comfort, his peace, his need to know we will be alright, and that our love will go with him.
These are some of the choices we can make to counter-posture the energy created by such profound storms in our lives, and so guide our spirits back into a substantial presence where they can eventually rest in weary peace.
My brother-in-law was blessed, as he was blessing. His wife and children never once let themselves be unmoored by the ferocity and velocity of invitations to let go into fear, anger, or despair. They embraced each other and all who joined their circle, shining light on their beloved and holding him in love through his final exhalation. They intuited elegant counter-posturing and preserved the fullness and wholeness of this loss and every moment of gratitude and community it offered.
Hallowed life, hallowed death: oh, such gifts we can offer ourselves and others if we choose intentional equanimity and balance.
And as we enter our grief, I am consoled by the beauty of our gatherings to be peacefully present to the death of our beloved one, to his burial and commitment to Love’s turning circle. I’m heartened, too, by the sense that together and alone we’ll dance with our grief, counter-posturing sadness with joy, weariness with rest, sharing with conserving energy, breathing in with breathing out, deepening our recognition and understanding of all the ways our loved one’s death opens his life to our sustenance.
May we continue to honor this great loss and use this great love to create sacred balance in our lives and holy equanimity in the lives of those we love and meet. May we counter the world’s brokenness with our loved one’s example of creativity; may we help heal the world’s hatred with his lessons of love, may we counter the world’s joylessness with his model of enthusiasm, and the world’s sadness with his encompassing delight. May we always hear the invitations to discover and use our gifts, as he did, to bless the world and to assure the Earth, over and over, that she is precious, loved, and worth saving, in all her infinite variety, and work to make it so.
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