Softening Our Shells

“You already have everything you need to be happy.”

Bingo! All of us experience moments of insight that pop up out of nowhere. Maybe it was a matter of time and practice…drip, drip, drip, the bucket fills. Or maybe something more ordinary like boredom or exhaustion or jet lag slows us down long enough to notice.

What I wanted had been there all along, but I was too busy creating my own dukha to notice it. I see that tendency in my students too. They might be sitting nicely in a pose but the space between their eyebrows has a deep crease that tells me they are in pain. When I ask them about it, it’s almost like I woke them up out of a nap. A typical reply might be, “Oh yeah, this position always kills me. It’s been like that for years. I just don’t have good shoulders.”

When I suggest that they loosen their grasp and use a yoga belt to allow the position to be held with less stress on their shoulders, it comes as a huge revelation! What a good idea. Here’s a way to do the same thing without struggling and I could have been doing it that way all along. And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with your shoulders!

That day, in a snap of a finger, I saw that I had gotten it wrong all those years! I was always getting mad at my body but, in fact, my body has been fine. It’s my relationship to my body that is hurting me, and my mind is the real troublemaker.

 ~ Cyndi Lee, May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind ~

 super_domo_kun

 

before i came to Japan, i felt like i needed to do something exceptional to prepare for this journey. the year or so leading up to this adventure included my thesis year in grad school, a perhaps overly intense summer of intensive Japanese school, and a Fall that was largely spent healing my relationships with myself and my loved ones. despite months of preparation, i didn’t feel particularly centered or ready for what laid ahead.

so i went on a yoga retreat.

i know it may sound hippy-dippy, but really, what better way is there to gain clarity and ease during really difficult times? i haven’t found anything quite like yoga and meditation, but i am open to suggestions if you have any.

and it just so happened that Cyndi Lee was teaching a workshop right outside of Washington D.C., which is where i was flying from. (this was because shortly before my trip, American Airlines “discontinued” my original flight from NY, but that’s a whole other story.) Cyndi Lee founded OM Yoga in NYC and is known as the first female Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism into practice and teaching. despite being from NYC, i had never studied with her there. instead, i first met Cyndi through my computer, which was the device i played her DVD on for nearly 8 years, almost daily. when i found her yoga DVD on my former roommate Marisa’s bookshelf, it changed my life in a very profound way.

so when i discovered Cyndi’s workshop, i jumped at the opportunity. and i couldn’t be more happy that i did. it not only deepened and clarified my yoga and meditation practice, it actually felt good practicing with others. for much of my life i had pushed outward; yoga became my inner sanctuary that could do quietly at home. but meeting Cyndi in person was a total joy—she is as sassy and honest and caring and intelligent and articulate and witty as i had imagined that she would be based on her DVD persona, and maybe even more so. she fills her classroom with such a balance of rigor and gentleness that i walked out of that workshop feeling light and centered and ready to face the world.

and then, like most great plans, when i actually arrived in Tokyo everything went out the window. the first couple of weeks here, I was stun-gunned by my own fears and insecurities. i spent most of my time sitting in my room. it seems crazy, right? here i am, on one of the great adventures of my lifetime, and i couldn’t leave the apartment. but i was paralyzed by my inability to understand any Japanese. if i hadn’t studied for a year and especially if i hadn’t spoken it exclusively for 2 months (at Middlebury’s summer language program), i probably wouldn’t have been so shocked. but all the signs and menus were written in Kanji that i couldn’t read, people were talking so fast and i was so tired, and i couldn’t remember the words for anything. and then it started snowing. people were saying Tokyo hadn’t seen that much snow in 100 years. i couldn’t even see where i was going, let alone read a sign if i could. and every time someone spoke to me i couldn’t turn on my Japanese brain and so i would immediately panic and my whole system would shut down. so i mostly stayed in my small, temporary apartment in 四谷 (Yotsuya) and breathed. it turns out that you can do that in any language.

: 漢字のプリクラ (Kanji Photo Booth) created by John Jannone (ジョン・ジャノン) of The Night Bears

: 漢字のプリクラ (Kanji Photo Booth) created by John Jannone (ジョン・ジャノン) of The Night Bears

during my new life as a hermit, i started to draw my feelings and that allowed me to start writing again in Japanese.

happyCat

and slowly i made my way out into the wackiness that is Tokyo. for me, the strangest part is that it doesn’t feel that foreign. i have lots of Japanese friends that i met mostly during my days as an actor. but i’ve also made new friends and met friends of friends. it feels very friendly. most everyone that i’ve met here is so absurdly nice. for example, if you ask someone for directions, they will likely walk you all the way there—and possibly even go out for lunch with you after. i’ve experienced this extreme kindness in a variety of ways and after living in NYC for 10 years, it feels kind of like landing on an alien planet. i started working with Tokyo Space Dance right away and it’s been fun and refreshing. we sometimes dance in parks and i’ve found ways to be okay with strangers watching our process. and most people think i’m Japanese. this is really fun until i open my mouth. then, everyone gets confused. this is probably the hardest part to deal with.

my mother was born in Osaka, you see. her birth records were lost and/or destroyed in the Korean War, but she claims she is 100% Korean. we may never truly know how old she is or what her ethnic make-up is (unless someone wants to sponsor me in getting a DNA Ancestry Kit from National Geographic’s Genographic Project???) but for a long time now, i’ve had a secret theory that she may be half-Japanese, half-Korean. she has half-siblings on her mom’s side from a marriage previous to her father, so the lineage is already questionable. (mind you, this was in the 1940’s and things were really different than today.) her parents both died when she was about 16 years old, so what she knows was told to her when she was really young. i understand that my personal theory about my ethnic heritage is largely based on my feelings. but then again, my mom’s theory is too. hers is also based on memories, but depending on what we want to believe, even those can be just as reliable.

: still from Robot Immigrants' My Heart is a Traveler. image by Keith Jenson / Brainwomb.

: still from Robot Immigrants’ My Heart is a Traveler. image by Keith Jenson / Brainwomb.

so it’s been hard for me to experience an increased amount of confusion when i interact with people. i’ve gotten it for most of my life, but never so much as in Japan. i’ve had young girls that work in cafés or shops act really weird and sassy when i can’t understand what they are saying. and after a month and a half, i’ve had countless bonding experiences with people in 居酒屋 (izakayas are Japanese-style pubs) or taxicabs or yoga classes where i stumble along a very complicated explanation in Japanese about where i’m from and what exactly i am doing here.

at first, i let this frustrate and paralyze me. and then, in my head, i heard Cyndi Lee quoting Pema Chödrön and then both of these amazingly spiritual women were telling me, “It’s no big deal.” and i thought, “Hey, you know what, they’re right!”

so i tried to relax a little about everything. i stopped trying to study so hard because that was another strange side-effect of my insecurity. i thought, “If i study really hard, then i’ll have more vocabulary and when people speak to me, i’ll know what they are saying and i won’t feel so bad.” but it didn’t seem like that was working in practice. so i started to reminisce about when i studied abroad in Florence, Italy. i realized that the reason i could speak Italian at the end of 5 months was because i made Italian friends who didn’t speak English. so i had to speak it and make mistakes and not understand people sometimes. we went out together with total openness and lived life with a sense of vivaciousness and discovery (as opposed to struggle and pain). and i realized that the way that i learned the most was by connecting words to feelings and experiences—not the kind of stuff i can learn when i am sitting alone in my room refusing to interact with the world.

so i started to focus on doing things that made me happy—i met with my friends, started doing yoga again regularly, went to see some art, ate a lot of unbelievably delicious food, and made frequent trips to ダイソー. (Daiso is possibly the best “dollar store” in the world, 100円 to be precise.) i don’t regret the time i spent inside. i did some really important soul-searching and gently worked through a problem, rather than pushing through it or ignoring it. i meditated a lot, sometimes hours per day. finding ways to sit with these very complicated feelings opened up a whole new world of possibility. out of this time, i found a big, beautiful (and relatively inexpensive) apartment in the quirky neighborhood of 赤羽. Akabane means “Red Wings.” and really, does a Lobsterbird belong anywhere more than a place named “Red Wings???”

fish kiss

i am happy to report that i am really happy here. everything just seems to be fitting into place. and i, too, am finding where I fit into all of this—even if it means that i don’t. (or maybe i am simply here on a mission to confuse everyone, including myself.) and i’m communicating in Japanese! i can understand and articulate a lot more than i thought i could. so i have made a choice to sit with whatever feelings arise and just watch what happens, see if anything changes.

then I hear Cyndi say, “That’s right. Because that’s all that feelings do, is change.”

castle in the sky

 Everyone experiences discomfort. Even when you are just sitting still, doing nothing, you may still feel aches and pains. And even if you don’t, if everything is fine right now, you may still recall past slights and get stuck in a bad memory, or find yourself experiencing fear of the future. When we relive the past and worry about the future, we miss out on our life.

~ Gelek Rimpoche from Cyndi Lee’s May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind. her memoir became my survival handbook this first month of living in Tokyo. thank you, Cyndi! ~

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Written by lobsterbird