Ahimsa in a Hard World

“Mama, I know you used to ride the bus. Riding the bus and it’s hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy and more than anything in the world you want to get off and the only reason in the world you don’t get off is it’s still 50 blocks from where you’re going? Well I can get off right now if I want to, because even if I ride 50 more years and get off then, it’s the same place when I step down to it. Whenever I feel like it, I can get off. As soon as I’ve had enough, it’s my stop. I’ve had enough.”

-Jessie, ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman

This past semester, I sat in on a Modern Drama class at the university where I teach, and ‘Night, Mother was one of the last plays we read. The synopsis is that Jessie, a forty-something divorced woman, lives with her mother in a rural area. Jessie has epilepsy and cannot work, her son is a criminal, and she’s finally decided she has had enough. On this particular night, Jessie tells Mama that in a few hours, she will be killing herself. Her mother argues, begs, pleads, denies, bargains, basically going through the stages of grief as Jessie calmly insists this is what will happen. And at the end of the play, it does. Jessie explains herself a little more, but what it comes down to is this: Jessie is not having a good time, and has no reason to believe it will ever get better.

A former student of mine ended his life this week. I didn’t know him well, and in some ways this makes it worse, because I had him in two classes one year apart, enough time to know him better. What I do know is this: he was alternately quiet and outspoken, moody and jovial, hard-working and seemingly apathetic, depending on the assignment and the day of the week. What didn’t change–he was always intelligent and thoughtful.

When I heard via a Facebook post of his death, I searched the internet for information. I found the articles he’d written for the local newspaper and campus newspaper, as well as his personal blog. Re-reading them, I pieced together some of the difficulties of his last few semesters as well as things I already knew–his intelligence and dedication to getting the story right. As of last December, he was wrapping up his senior project on the health care law changes coming to Grant County, reporting on how the two local evangelical universities were suing the federal government over contraceptive requirements.

As I’ve written before one, of the first principles of yoga is ahimsa, or nonviolence, both to ourselves and others. Before, when I’ve written or thought about nonviolence to myself, it’s been in the realm of daily life–not beating myself up mentally when things go wrong, not ignoring my health, not, in the worst case scenarios, literally hurting myself as a way to deal with stress. Until now, I haven’t thought about ahimsa in terms of whether or not to end one’s own life. Now I am, and am coming up short when confronted with how so many of those among us feel that life is doing a terrible job of not hurting us.

When Robin Williams committed suicide last summer, the only things I could say were simple, one-step-at-a-time things. Talk to someone. If you’re on medications, keep taking them. Find a counselor. Find a friend.  It gets better. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.

And that’s all I can say now. Another student of mine asked me earlier tonight what the point is. Intelligence won’t save us, and life is hard. Why keep trying? I wish I had better answers. In our semester of hard plays, we read several on suicide, all of which confirmed to me that I do not understand the mind of a suicide. I have been depressed, but never to that point. I wish I knew the way through the darkness and back out again, but my life has only been grayish at times, with enough light to see forward. For those of you in something darker, my heart goes out to you. You are loved.

At the end of ‘Night, Mother,  Mama pounds on Jessie’s bedroom door in a desperate attempt to keep Jessie from pulling the trigger. “I was here with you all the time,” she screams. “How could I know you were so alone?” I wish I could ask the same of my student, but the truth is I did. The only question I really wish I could ask him is what I could do–present tense, before it was too late– to help him make his life better.

Life often feels senseless. The only thing I know is that somehow, our lives, and the lives of others matter. They are worth paying attention to. Tim, I wish I had paid more attention to yours. Rest in peace.

How to Kapha

Four weeks ago (during the busiest week of the semester) my favorite person and I decided to plan a wedding. Two weeks ago we tied the knot, and now we’re both trying to get on a summer writing schedule. Since the weather has been hot-cold, and the last two weeks have been a blur of over-sleeping, hiking, gardening, moving, and de-cluttering as my new Kapha husband and I try to combine our houses, I thought I’d write about the Kapha dosha and dealing with Kapha season (late winter-spring) today.

To illustrate, I welcome back Copernicus. 

reclined copernicusHe’s a mix of Golden Retriever and something else, possibly Great Pyrenees, maybe yellow Lab. He loves being with us, especially if we’re sitting on the couch or taking a walk, but he even gets enthusiastic about joining for a run–for a few minutes. Then he waddles the rest of the way. His two favorite things are swimming and eating.

He’s a good representative for the Kapha dosha, a mix of the elements of air and water, with a solid, abundantly furry body.  Kaphas are abundant in most things–water, body mass (they tend to have solid, strong bodies but can become overweight when imbalanced), hair, mucus, and love. Kaphas love well–other people, food, things, security– and sometimes they love everything, to the point of jealousy and hoarding if imbalanced. However, in balance they are reliable, nurturing, strong, and capable of great endurance–once they get off the couch. (Take the dosha quiz here).

Kapha season, which tends to be cool and wet, is known for its mud and pollen. Whether or not you’re a Kapha, this season will affect you too. Our bodies have different needs at different times of year, and the earth provides different foods to help us manage these changes.  Most of the crops available now are dark, leafy green vegetables. Most of us have also probably tackled some spring cleaning and gardening lately. It isn’t a coincidence that vegetables that “spring clean” our bodies show up the same times we start spring cleaning everything else. Now is a great time to eat salads and raw food (something Ayurveda doesn’t usually recommend because cooked foods digest more easily), and now is also a great time to de-clutter, to donate clothes and dust all the nooks and crannies of your living space. Now is also a great time to exercise, and vigorously, especially if you’re a Kapha who tends towards lethargy. Running, biking, kickboxing, Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga, and walking are all great exercise options for Kaphas.

Ayurveda also believes our daily schedules have a dosha, and Kapha time is 6:00-10:00 a.m., and 6:00-10:00 p.m. Ayurveda practicioners stress the importance of getting out of bed before Kapha time starts, because if you wake up during Kapha time, you’ll be heavy and lethargic. That was certainly true for me this week, as I often slept in until 8 or 9 and then couldn’t move and didn’t care (until later when I was panicking over work to finish). However, if you’re up before Kapha time, and can start your work, you’ll have the benefit of the calm, muscular endurance of Kapha to get your hardest work done (it’s also cooler in the morning, a benefit to those who work out in the morning and those who do manual labor, like farming, construction, and gardening). In the evening Kapha time, notice that you might start to feel tired around 9:00 or 10:00. Go to bed then–just .

Here’s some tips for Kapha season:

  • Get up before or with the sun (6:00 a.m.). Make up for sleep by going to bed before 10:00 p.m. (yikes, still working on it). Go easy on naps.
  • Eat a small breakfast and evening meal. Have your biggest meal at noon.
  • Get some vigorous exercise every day. Walking and yoga are good for all the doshas; gardening and yardwork are also great options this time of year.
  • Avoid sugary, fatty foods, salty foods and go easy on dairy, meat, and grains. Opt for vegetables (raw or lightly steamed), astringent fruits like apples, pears, cranberries, and pomegranates, and legumes.  Feel free to add plenty of pungent spices (pepper, ginger, galic, cumin, etc) to your food.
  • Work on de-cluttering your life by giving away or selling things you no longer need or use. This is a great time of year to clear some space.

Whether or not you consider yourself a Kapha, I hope some of these tips make the rest of your spring season a healthy and dynamic one. If you are a Kapha, know that you are in a group of some of my favorite people and the world is better because of you.