A Time to Reflect

Today is Ash Wednesday. The first day of the forty days (not including Sundays) of Lent. Lent is a time to reflect on the days that led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. We fast. We refrain from meat on both Ash Wednesday and Fridays. Fish isn’t considered meat. Only flesh from warm-blooded animals are off-limits. Sorry tuna but you don’t get a reprieve, in fact, your death rate probably spikes during this time. It’s true. Baked tuna casserole with crumbled potato chips on top will always make me think of Fridays during Lent.

Catholics are also required to give up something they really, really like because this isn’t a time to be festive. It’s a time to reflect on suffering. It is a somber time. Fast food, diet coke, potato chips, alcohol, candy, porn, whatever your guilty pleasure, you give it up. Except on Sundays. All bets are off on Sundays because Sundays are festive days. Sundays are the Lord’s day and we celebrate the Lord. Every Sunday. No matter what. Even during Lent. Meat may be eaten, as well as that favorite thing we gave up.

Truly. The rules aren’t so hard when we consider Jesus had nails driven through his hands and feet on a cross he would later die. All for our sins, AFTER he was brutally, nearly whipped to death, yet still, some idiot will complain about that ONE day during the week he or she can’t put pepperoni on their pizza or eat bacon with their eggs.

Hey, idiot, try some tuna instead.

Having said all this, I didn’t get my ashes today. I haven’t gotten ashes in over a decade because I don’t go to church. Aside from Baptisms, Communions, Weddings, and Funerals, I haven’t attended a regular mass in close to fifteen years…not even on Christmas. Even though I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school, my family wasn’t “strict” Catholics by any means.

Still, weekly church attendance was expected when I was a child and Christmas mornings were the worst. I’d beg and plead to stay home in my pajamas and play with my new toys. But that never happened. We attempted Midnight Mass one year to forgo the morning chaos, but there was so much singing and I was way too tired for all of that. I fell asleep against my grandmother’s snugly arm.

I’m not sure the exact moment I decided to stop going to church, but I do remember the Sunday morning when I listened to a priest preach the Homily. This was around 1998. A young man named Mathew Shepard had recently been beaten and left to die in a field, presumably, because he was gay. The priest condemned the act because the Church did not condone violence, and then he told the people sitting before him that if they knew someone who was gay to not hurt them, but instead, help them. Yes. Help them find their way because gay people were clearly lost souls. A little direction was all they needed. A compass, if you will.

The town I grew up in was home to about 18,000 people. We had two Catholic schools and two Catholic churches. Divide up two churches of the same religion in a not-so-big town, and that isn’t a lot of people attending each church, especially given not everyone in town was Catholic. This meant you prayed among a lot of familiar faces during Sunday mass. After the priest instructed his congregation to lead gay people from the everlasting damnation that was surely awaiting them, I looked around me. With those familiar faces came a lot of knowledge of who these people were and I was mostly unimpressed. Small towns talk and it scared the $hit out of me that my salvation depended on those @ssholes.

No way.

I had only been out a couple years to select friends and family. I was young, twenty, and very nervous about who knew I was a lesbian, so I did nothing as the priest spoke his words. I obediently sat still in my place in the pew and listened. But if that would happen today, I’d stand up and leave through the side door, (not the back) and let the door slam behind me so the entire congregation, including the priest…wait...especially the priest, knew somebody had just left. And that somebody didn’t agree with the bull$hit he was spewing.

But I wasn’t so bold back then.

This is the first Lent in years that I am taking part in. For a long time, I would intentionally eat meat on those forbidden days. Disobeying the rules made me feel good. I held a grudge against a religion I called my own for a long time. I know now that I wasn’t holding a grudge against God, but a grudge against the people who worshiped Him, because they hardly ever practiced what He preached. But through all the time neglecting His service, I never stopped believing in Him and had always felt (still do) that a higher power was watching me.

This keeps my conscience on high-alert.

By nature I’m a spiritual person. I recently started meditating twice a day. I sit still, cross-legged, on my bedroom floor. I close my eyes and repeat mantras over and over in my head. I do this while fingering yoga beads in my hands. The first time I did this I felt guilty because the beads reminded me of the Rosary. I can’t honestly remember the last time I prayed to the Rosary. I apologized to God that night while assuring Him that He wasn’t being replaced.

This is just something I need to do.I hope the clarity I gain through meditation will help strengthen the absent connection I’ve had with my former religion.

I’ve asked God to give me time. I’m still alive. So I think He’s okay with it.

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Photo Courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

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Yoga and Life

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At the start of the New Year, I resolved to practicing daily yoga and meditation. I’ve been doing yoga off and on for about four years. But if you’re off for two months and then on for three, and then off for another two, it is impossible to attain any of the life-changing benefits yoga offers. This past year I was disciplined enough to not go months without doing yoga and I have seen amazing results, but this year I will be better.

The first thing yoga taught me was to breathe. You may be thinking “who the heck needs to be taught how to breathe?” I know. I know. Breathing is the first thing we do when we enter this world. We take a breath via a cry, or a scream. What’s so hard about doing something every living being must do to survive? Well, everything and I was doing it wrong.

Through yoga I learned Ujjayi Pranayama. Ujjayi breathing is a technique of the breath which can be referred to as “the ocean breath.” Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that means “extension of the breath.” Prana means “life force” and Ayama means “to draw out.” Ujjayi Pranayama is usually associated with asana practice, the practice of sitting down (or any posture that helps with flexibility). Sitting still while restoring one’s mind is one of the tremendous benefits of yoga. Being able to stretch and attain certain positions brings peace to both body and mind.

But starting yoga is hard, especially if you aren’t flexible. I wasn’t flexible at all when I first stepped onto my mat. I couldn’t touch my toes without bending my knees, but every day I practiced, I got closer and the breath is what kept me from giving up. On the mat I learned to breathe through uncomfortable positions – not scattered breath – but long, deep breathing. A yogi or yogini takes what he or she learns on the mat into their daily life. I carried this technique with me throughout my day by not holding my breath in stressful situations. Breathing keeps the mind calm.

I touch my toes comfortably now and all forward bends (sitting and standing) are my favorite asanas. We hold past relationships in our hips so forward bends are a great way to release negative energies lingering from former lovers. The pose I once loathed has become an integral part of my practice. Such is the way with yoga? (Maybe one day I’ll be able to say that about the head stand, which I refuse to even attempt.)

After consistent practice, a yogi/yogini discovers what kind of diet works better with his/her practice. I have switched to a vegetarian diet because I have found it it works really well with the asanas. A vegetarian diet doesn’t interfere with all the bending and twisting positions in my practice. I feel this way of eating enhances my ability to perform each asana and because there’s a lot of self-reflection in yoga/mediation, it is beneficial to adhere to a compassionate diet.

A few days ago, I committed to doing two daily twenty-minute meditations for forty days as a way to clear my mind and begin a positive habit that I hope transforms into a life-long practice because meditation reminds me to live in the moment. I can’t change the past nor can I predict the future, but I can appreciate the now. My favorite mantra that I use in my mediation is “In this moment, all is well.”

In meditation I listen and am mindful. I’m not perfect in carrying this into my daily life, but I work at it.

“Listen more, talk less.” – Buddha.

Namaste.

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Photos courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

Credit to Wikepedia for the exact definitions I used.