The Meaning of Compassion

The Kuan Yin

She keeps watch in the warm corner of my bedroom, her bearing almost more regal for the rivers of cracks and generous chips that mark her faded turquoise. Her right hand, the deliverer of action, folds into Gyan Mudra, the gesture of consciousness. Preparing to take her picture, I haul myself into the present moment as an honoring of what she is and what she represents.

This statue doesn’t move. Her eyes don’t shift to follow my movements. She is alive nonetheless, imbued with a love deep and rare, a love that springs from her most famed attribute, compassion.

My father gave this Goddess to my mother sometime in the mid seventies. I imagine he was making an effort to support her blooming love of Yoga and meditation. The statue moved out when my mother and I did, after the divorce, and took up residence in the corner of the small apartment. When my mum moved to a different building, Kuan Yin settled into another corner without complaint. This is where my daughter, Bink, first met her.

Bink, my mother’s first granddaughter, was delayed in nearly every aspect of development. She never crawled, and didn’t manage to pull herself up to standing until she was over two years old. During each visit to Grandma’s place, the turquoise Goddess of Compassion was witness to Bink’s ongoing challenges and triumphs. At three feet high and graced with numerous curves that made excellent grab bars, Kuan was a natural assistant during the pull-up -to-stand phase. As the relationship between my mother and my daughter deepened, so did the one between child and Goddess.

Part of the way autism presents in my daughter is her unrelenting adherence to self-made rules and rituals. Each time Bink visited Grandma’s place, she lurched or toddled or otherwise found her way to Kuan Yin in the corner. Bink developed a real attachment to Kuan Yin. She loved to touch the smooth blue-green skin and garments. Perhaps the coolness felt good to her frazzled nervous system. My mum photographed these encounters several times, inadvertently documenting Bink’s physical growth. Though I can’t find any of those old photos now, the memory of them is clear in my mind.

I loved it when my daughter spent time with her grandmother. It gave me a much needed break from a child who didn’t sleep through the night and often wore me out with her intense and unusual needs for…well, almost everything, except perhaps socialization. My mum grew to understand Bink in a way that few others did. She understood the bizarre food preferences, the need for space and the simultaneous obsessive-compulsive need to touch people’s noses. She celebrated my daughter’s triumphs and her quirks almost as much as I did ( and do). Kuan Yin was there to witness much of this.

During one of Bink’s Grandma visits, She grabbed Kuan Yin overzealously and the turquoise wonder toppled to the floor and broke into a multitude of pieces. The statuesque Goddess had the grace to land in a way that caused no injury to my daughter, but there was some devastation nonetheless. What would visits to Grandma be like without the reassuring presence of the dear clay lady in the corner? Luckily, we didn’t have to suffer long enough to find out!

Enter my brother S. He loved model cars and planes when he was a kid, and he still excelled in his ability to visualize solutions to problems and then manifest them. S glued back every little piece of Kuan Yin, and though she bears scars that tell this tale, she stood once again tall and strong in Grandma’s corner.

When my mum had to vacate her apartment to live in an assisted living facility, Kuan Yin came home with me. At twenty five years old, Bink no longer shows an attachment to her. That doesn’t diminish her power one bit in my eyes. The one who symbolizes my favorite attribute will always have a place in my corner, wherever that may be. She is a testament to a deep love that springs from a compassionate heart, the bond between my mother and my daughter.

–Melinda Coppola

 

Fat on Silence

 

I need to write it down. I should do this before true memory fades and is replaced, as it so often is, by a recall that looks like The way I wanted it to be, or The way I think it should have been. This is what we do, being humans of great imagination and great fear. We twist and rearrange the past to suit our current longing or passion or outrage or collection of beliefs.

Here, then, is what’s left of it, the details in no order of significance. If you read it and relate, that is le cerise sur le gateau, French cherry atop French cake. I should tell you, since truth is being honored here, that writers write what first and foremost will save their sanity, which means they write for themselves, whether they tell you so, or not.

For the record, it was surgery on my dominant foot. Neither the largest reconfiguration of bone and cartilage ever, nor a mere removal of some tiny irritant. The Podiatrist called it a Big One, and said the recovery would be the hardest part. A slice was made, and ten years of free floating stuff was vacuumed out, and tattered cartilage was cut away. Bone, grown spurred and convoluted, was planed down, made smooth and then holey, ready to receive adopted titanium parts. A plate and seven screws married foot’s old bone in a ceremony of bright lights and shiny, sterile tools, officiated by a surgeon seasoned in the ways of the human foot.

It was December, and I planned as much as I could for the extended period of no weight bearing. Yes, it hurt. It was hard in all the ways you might expect, and a few you might not consider. While I was able to schedule a break of several months in my Yoga and Yogabilities™ teaching, the rest of the  process was quite complicated by my role as primary caregiver to Bink, my adult daughter with special needs. But it’s the afterwards I concern myself with here.

After the first week or so, I got used to needing assistance with many activities of daily living. Superguy began to adapt to doing the chores and errands and caregiving that typically make up a good chunk of my days. As I stabilized, he felt freer to leave the house for longer periods of time. I had some visitors, but there were lots and lots of spaces in my days, stretches with no people, or very few of them.

I’m an introvert by nature, and the intensity of my care giving experience tends to add extra appreciation for solitude and quiet. I’ve never been one to shy away from being alone. That said, I’d also never had weeks of enforced couch time in a very quiet house. When Bink was at her day program and Superguy was off at work, I had hours and hours of time and space.

I read. I watched the collection of home shows I record on a regular basis. House Hunters International is my only mode of world travel, after all! I did some art, and wrote a bit. After some time I was also able to wheel myself clumsily around the house on my nifty knee scooter, but most of my time was spent sitting.

I resisted it at first, and spent a little time feeling sorry for myself. The magic—and I can’t call it anything less— began to manifest slowly, and only when I allowed myself to surrender into this lifestyle. I required the acceptance that my primary vocation for a while would be healing.

It’s taken me many months to write about this, and I am still struggling for the best words to convey the transcendent experience I had while I was confined to my house for those few months last winter.

In Yoga tradition, we all contain five bodies of life force that nest inside each other. The layers are made of increasingly finer grades of energy. During my couch sitting weeks, it was as if the edges of my energy bodies spread and became more porous. All that activity I was so used to, had been keeping my energy confined to a certain size and shape. When the structure of my life fell away, the collection of energies known as me began to expand, and in the process, I welcomed a deep peace to trickle into my being. It became flood, the landscape altering kind, unlike anything I’ve ever known.

This was a peace that needs a new name, like superpeace or hypercalm. It settled over me like the softest blanket, lightweight but warm enough to melt the frozen places in my heart and soul that hadn’t seen sunlight in years. The hours of silence and solitude were nourishing some bits of my insides that I didn’t even know existed. In circumstances that I thought would drive me nuts, I found a state of deeply serene acceptance, a wild form of being present that went beyond meditation. I didn’t realize the extent of the effect until I was exposed to the outside world again.

After weeks of confinement, the only exception being follow up visits to the foot doctor, my Superguy and I decided I could go out of the house on a little field trip. He helped me into a portable wheelchair we’d acquired to get me to and from the house for said appointments. We went down the street to Panera bread for a cup of tea.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you my senses were bombarded with haphazard grenades of color, light and noise. It was jarring, to put it mildly. I’d lost touch with how loud and chaotic and abrasive the sights and sounds, textures and energies of the cars and clerks and crowds are. I remember actually recoiling at the store signs and the speed with which all those tires on the roads kicked out snow and gravel. And the pace! Frenetic, dizzying. I was exhausted after that first outing.

Subsequent outings had similar but very gradually more muted effects on me. When I was finally able to drive again and I began doing all the things I’d been relieved of for so long, I vowed I would hold on to the peaceful state I’d been gifted through my convalescence. It faded, though. The figurative leap back into the busy swirl of my life demanded my focus and energy. I’m sad to say that I felt myself contract again, fitting back in to the expectations that my life before the big surgery was modeled upon.

I’ve not forgotten my experience, though. I’ll call this somewhat inadequate attempt to convey it to you a victory, because I’ve resisted even trying to explain this for so long.

A few years back, I wrote the following on one of my Yoga Facebook pages:

“There is a quality of fullness in silence, in emptiness, in spaces. Spaces nourish and soothe and spaces can heal. The space between sentences, between breaths. Space between footsteps and activities and thoughts. The space to be, the space to be with, the space to do small things well.”

Today I kneel before the transformational power of experiences we may dread and avoid. I bow to the possibilities that exist within the fullness of emptiness, and I testify to the immense importance of spaces between things.

 

–Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

 

SHE and DOE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a few years ago that I found myself meandering in a quaint little town in western Massachusetts, about two hours east of home. I saw the sign, which read, simply, THRIFT. As a a fervent fan of space and simplicity, I practice de-cluttering my home and head regularly. I’m quite aware of not accumulating more things. Even so, I turned towards the door of the shop, reminding myself that it can be a very good thing to be free of an agenda.  Like many of you, wandering with an unhurried pace is a novelty in my daily life.

I was on a personal retreat for a few days, a very welcome respite from my 24/7 role of caregiver to Bink, my adult daughter with special needs. This big chunk of alone time was (and is) rare and precious in my life circumstances.

The shop was crammed full of everything I could imagine a thrift shop can hold; quilts and vases, books and jewelry, furniture and tools and clothing. Toys, rugs, artwork, decorative tchotchkes, lamps CDs, and vinyl records all vied for space on the haphazardly placed shelves and tables. I made several loops around the store, noticing new things each time. It was on my last lap that I spotted her, spotted them, half hidden behind some dirty old pots and a breadbox.

I was immediately drawn to the creamy ivory color, the smooth texture, and the way the woman was kneeling and offering her hands to the doe with the chipped ear. My heart flooded with peace, and I felt this sculpture to be the perfect symbol of the life I long to embody. The kneeling woman radiated serenity and compassion as she connected to the female deer, who is herself a symbol of gentleness and heart energy. I clearly had to adopt them, the she and the deer, no matter the cost.

I slowly moved the objects that kept this beautiful duo half hidden, and lifted them to my chest and into the light. To my surprise, the price on the bottom of the sculpture read $22.95 I bought it and wrapped it carefully in the blanket which stays in my car for Bink, who uses it for comfort in the passenger seat.

I returned home after my few days away, feeling replenished and calm despite a number of daily phone calls and text messages while I was away. Bink was quite anxious with me gone, despite the competent, loving care of Superguy, her rather amazing stepdad.

I carried the sculpture around the house, trying a few different locations, asking the newly adopted ones where they might feel most comfortable. They ended up on a shelf in my home office, where woman and doe continue to radiate a deep and perfect peace. Each time I look at them,  I am convinced they were sent to me as reminders from Source that all will be well, and I take a wild and hearty comfort there.

What about you, dear reader? Are there a few special items that hold great meaning for you? If you were moving and had to select just a few non essentials, what would they be? I welcome your response here in the comments section of this blog, or via email.

-Melinda Coppola

 

The art that blesses my listening hands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Art with Beach Stones

My home hums with them–—
the smooth and rough,
pale and dark,
striped, speckled,
some with lines,
or bits of mica
mesmerizing the light.

They number
in the thousands by now,
populating table
and bins and buckets,
lining mantels and
perched on shelves,
all holding the sea,

having chosen to be plucked,
over years,
from their temporary,
sandy homes on beaches,
Massachusetts mostly,
with a Rhode Island minority,
a Florida few.

They called to me as I strolled,
or else I spied them first—
glimmering with sea water

having just rolled in
with latest tide,

or perhaps half buried
among their brethren,
co-habitating peacefully
in their transient villages

along a shore dotted
with shells broken and whole;
scallop and clam, oyster
and the thin,
pale yellow jingle shells,
the occasional smooth sea glass,

strewn with the crunchy brown or
slippery green salty seaweeds,

among seagull leavings
and the remnants
of humans at rest and at play—

and I asked the stones permission,
waited for yes,
cradled them
with my work worn hands,

guided them
into my cloth bag or
scratched bucket.

My home hums, perhaps
three thousand stones,
alive
as you or I,
just vibrating slower,

and they answer
as I approach, as I
hold, inquire
with loving intention,

as I invite them into art forms,
cairns,
ancient and new,
stacks and lean-tos,
bridges and
little families
all supporting one another.

We try one side, then another,
collaborate to find
balance

and then,
then we pause
breathe
feel,
and I wait for their final yes
or not this one, not now.

Together we make magic,
my humble hands
aligning each stone,

knowing
with all my six senses,
when I hear

yes. Right there.
We are perfection now.

 

-Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

 

 

NOT ZEN, BUT NOW

Being present is easy when the blue sky moment is trimmed with green grass, when temperate breezes blow your hair back gently from your bright, clean face. You can hop off the worry train quickly in such minutes and hours. You can drop your baggage carelessly to the ground without so much as a glance towards where it lands, and feel your sneakered feet happy on some surface that may or may not be level. You can take the world and yourself exactly as it is, you are.

It’s jumping off in the dark that’s tricky, first opening your chest and reaching in deep for your courage and the faith that you’ll be welcomed by some surface, that you won’t fall and keep falling into some gaping chasm that opened in the earth while you were busy regretting and planning and being all sorts of things except grateful.

When the moment you are living in, the only one you have (which is all any of us have, ever), is a really shitty one by most measures, because you’re watching someone you love deeply (say, your child) suffer, and you can’t fix it, being present doesn’t feel like any gift you want to accept graciously, or at all.

We can know what we know, you and I, about the transient nature of pretty much everything; how all things pass and we are just temporary sculptures made of bits of stars and dust from dinosaur bones and the dreams of our ancestors. We can know all this and still want to do almost anything but be with the most painful parts of our existence.

And yet.

And yet, in time and over days colorful or washed out, through dark, thick nights and between joy sandwiched by crusty miseries, our capacity to sit with it all increases. It might be imperceptible for a long, long time, and then one day you mirror gaze and your jaw drops. There it is, your shiny heart, visible right through your tender skin, and it’s drumbeating and voluptuous, stretched out by all the exercise of crying and breathing and laughing and coping. It’s huge, in fact, and strong enough to hold you and everyone you care about, and even a few you don’t. Right about then you might remember that you’ve made it through absolutely everything so far, and even the thorniest ground doesn’t feel quite like a match for your deceptively tough lower body. Then you sit right there in that moment, and maybe you don’t feel tempted to pretend to be elsewhere at all.

And so.

And so you get up in the morning and pour a hot cup of something like tea. You drop in soy milk that turns the tannic liquid the color of hope. You wake your kid, even if she’s been up ten times in the night, and begin. You begin because it’s the only real choice, and maybe this day you stick around for more of the moments than you did the day before. You don’t zone out as much, or numb yourself as often. You don’t project, or regret, or try to edit what hasn’t even been written yet. You face what arises without censure, because you know and keep knowing you’re strong and wise and sober enough to sit or stand or slow dance with any given moment, be intimate with it, and then let it
let it
let it
go.

–Melinda Coppola

 

Of Two Minds, or Many

What if there’s no such thing as right side up?

 

Of Two Minds, or Many

When Left Brain speaks,
she is right on
about doing it
right or don’t do it
at all, do it
all right, do it
right now,
for all the right reasons.

Left Brain says I’ll whip you
into shape and that would be square,
four equal sides,
no curved lines,
nothing left over and nothing
to spare.

Right brain listens
before she speaks,
and after,
or doesn’t speak at all,
just listens, nods,
listens again.

Right could not care any less
about being true to her name.
She knows what’s left
after all the talking and listening,
after all the reasons and arguments,
what’s left is the raw, moist truth.

Right sings to left body,
coos and coaxes, makes suggestions:
Write with your non-dominant hand.
Pick up the paintbrush, charcoal,
Breathe out a poem before breakfast.

Chakra Theory says there is a meeting place,
a union of two minds,
found deep in the Ajna* forest
of your third eye, where the trees glow
an unearthly shade of indigo
and the birds, when they come,
beak out soundless songs
that make exquisite,
immediate sense.

It’s on my To Go list,
this mercurial destination,
and I know I’ll get there someday,
but right now, my Left says
a unified I
is on the no fly list,
and balance evades,
and all my selves seem content
to wander internal circles,
muttering niceties to each other,
and humming.

 

—Melinda Coppola

* Ajna is the Sanskrit name for the Sixth ( or brow) Chakra, home of inner knowing and intuition, where the energies of Yin and Yang meet

Yogabilities™: Peace as a civil right

Doesn’t everyone deserve to be peaceful?

 

When I tell people that one of my occupations is teaching Yoga, there are some common responses.

Oh, I love Yoga! I take it at the gym/the cool studio in the upscale shopping center down the street
or
I can’t do Yoga, I’m not flexible enough.
                          or, perhaps
I read an article about how many NFL players do Yoga.

When I tell people that one of my specialties is teaching adapted Yoga classes for individuals with special needs, there’s also a common response, variably worded but along the lines of:

               Oh, that is so wonderful that you do that for them.

Translation: you must be a saint. You are so self-sacrificing. That must be so hard.

Insert audible sigh here. I know this territory. As mother of a young woman with special needs, I’ve heard things like it all her life.
1. I don’t know how you do it.
2.
You have the patience of a saint.
3.
God gives special children to special people.

Those are well meaning comments, I know. And sure, it can be really hard, and I do happen to have super-sized patience. I also believe that each incarnated soul is special, and God//Goddess/Universal Life Force has a way of putting the right souls together to help us learn and grow in the ways we most need to. In other words, everyone—parent and child, with or without extra needs— is special, so therefore # 3 applies universally.

When someone would roll out the old “How do you do it?” in the past, I was often too tired to answer, or too taken aback, or too caught up wondering how the hell this person knows what it is I actually do with my kid, given that they maybe just met me.

As my daughter and I grew older, I’d more frequently have the right snappy response, which is “ She’s a blessing.” Short, true, succinct. These days I’ve added on a few new handy lines, also true,” If this were your child you’d do anything you could for her, too. You’d rise to it. You probably have moved a few mountains for your own kids, right?”

So, back to the Yoga teaching. I’ve been teaching my adapted classes, which I call Yogabilities™, for about 11 years now. Like most things in life, I’ve learned as I went along. I’m not a saint, it isn’t a sacrifice, and Yoga is not some special privilege that only belongs to the, umm, …so-called typical folks.

In our times, everyone has stress, most people have anxiety, and I’ll drop and give you twenty push-ups right this minute if you can find someone in your daily life who does not contend with poor sleep patterns, inability to focus, lousy posture, stiffness, or difficulty with balance. Everyone can benefit from Yoga.

Further, people with special needs have more stress than many. Society often treats them like children all their lives, limiting access and choices and self-determination and robbing people of a very basic human right—dignity. So, if anyone is more amazing than anyone else, it is my Yogabilities™ students and their peers. They deal with challenges we can only half imagine, and many do it with humor, patience and grace.

I love working with these particular students because, cliché as it sounds, they teach me as much as I teach them. There is no pretense as we sit together and breathe, practice being present, and share strategies for coping with anxious and unpleasant feelings and situations. We all seem to accept each other rather unconditionally. My experience with my own daughter serves as a constant reminder to release any rigid agenda, meet each person as they are, and go with the flow. Moreover, these students and I seem to co-create an energetic space where each person can feel welcomed and safe. In that container, I’ve seen magic happen.

On those Yogabilities™ afternoons or evenings when I am particularly tired and would like to just stay home and catch up with laundry or check out with an HGTV home show, I cue up a mantra from my daily life and let it nudge me into place: I GET TO, as in

I get to be her mother
I get to go teach Yogabilities™.
I get to spend time with some of the most interesting people I know.

So yeah, I get to share my knowledge of Yoga with people with special needs. Some of them are saintly for putting up with the rest of us. I don’t know how they do it. God must have created the circumstances whereby they can teach me the stuff that really matters. It’s so wonderful that they do this for me.

–Melinda Coppola
www.SpectrumYoga.net

Why Yoga Matters Off the Mat

yoga[1]As I prepare to return to teaching classes next month, I’ve been musing and mulling over new ways to translate the essence of the great big practice that is Yoga. My desire, when I teach, is to reach underneath what you presume Yoga is, or isn’t, and touch your curiosity about your true nature. You know what I come back to again and again, though? There is no real way to explain why your practice changes you. It just has to be experienced.

Yoga is so much more than prescribed body proddery and an opportunity to slow the heck down. The practice is like skin, stretching to adapt to the changes within as we grow and shrink, get taut and then get loose. Mostly, we choose how much we let our Yoga ripple, from that 75 minutes once or twice a week on the mat, outward to encompass moments of intensified awareness: while driving, walking, being with transition to sleep or waking.

We humans can be very good at compartmentalizing, keeping details in their place and honoring divisions between this hour and that, this person and that other one, this insight and that chosen blindness. Yoga practice can weaken the walls that we build to separate ourselves from others and from our own essence. The word Yoga actually means union, to yoke or join.  Body, mind, soul, are not strangers to each other. If we allow, Yoga takes us by the proverbial hand and leads us gently deeper into exploration of what it means to be alive as flesh imbued with something sparkly—call it Spirit or Universal Energy or God or G-d or Goddess.

This – the being alive – is so like a dance. We say yes, then no, we allow ourselves to be led, and dipped and twirled. We hesitate; back into a corner, take a break, decide a different partner will, well, change everything. We’re always dancing with some aspect of ourselves, though, so any coupling or uncoupling just gives us an opportunity to meet ourselves again and again. Yoga as a Way is continually offering up a new window, and the more we peek or study the view the more it begins to look familiar, like a spiral that appears to move outward, yet, when studied, leads in, and in, and in. There is space there, inside. Loads of it. Space and silence and, sometimes, the deepest peace you’ll ever feel.

 

 

 

 

MEDITATION | Meditation, Poetry

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The Sit

When I am asked how to meditate
There are no words the color of presence
No shapes that look like attention

I can only tell you what my senses tell me
Or how I dread and then savor it
And how little I attend to such reaction

Most of all I love the earned silence
The way it drapes over my shoulders and
Fills the hungry belly of my soul.

The deep delight lives,
not in sweeping thought away,
But in having no attachment to mental litter.

The sit asks little, really. Just to
Do it, please, and be with what arises.
Just to be it, please, and not do what arises.

-Melinda Coppola

ON SILENCE | Meditation, Poetry

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Absence of noise

It’s not that I enter into this thing called silence.
I don’t let it in or go out to find it.
Silence is my natural state.
It’s the vast patience of the sky
that clouds take so for granted,
where birds of feather and birds of steel
come and go not noticing!
It’s the space between heartbeats,
between breath, between objects
and objections.
And so I disrobe, peel off layers:
Ego and fears and the marled texture
of judgment that leaves patterns
in the skin of everyone it touches,
And the labels my layers wear—motherdaughter,
sisterwifepoet, teacherartistex-wife.
Even seeker, even that I’ll shed and go on shedding
Until being an I isn’t an option, nor a me or a her.
Until there is just the absence of noise.
There is just the absence of
Just the absence
Just the
.

-Melinda Coppola