Be the puzzle: Reflections on life, learning, and yoga with Jaye Martin

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with the public transit system in Brussels. I love how easy and affordable it is to get around the city. I don’t like waiting outside on freezing cold winter mornings (though I did wind up investing in a super long, warm down coat this past winter, which is basically like walking around in my own personal down sleeping bag/cocoon. I think that the length is meant to go to just below the knees, but since I can wear capris as regular length pants that don’t need to be hemmed, this jacket keeps me warm nearly to my ankles! Sweet!).
Navigating the transit system has been what my husband refers to as an opportunity for practicing your yoga and meditation.


I remember feeling completely overwhelmed when I first arrived in Brussels. My husband would patiently look up directions for me (bless his heart) and then respond to my frantic texts with calm, grounding words of encouragement when I would inevitably freak out.


It will all feel easier once it becomes more familiar, he would write in response to my panic.


As with most of the wisdom that comes from cooling energy that seems to hover around my dear beloved, he was right.


Allow me to digress for a moment to explain that the panic I seem to experience when encountering unfamiliar situations in foreign places sometimes comes as a surprise to me. I have traveled and live in many places where the culture and climate were uncomfortable and completely foreign to me, and I have learned that I can survive (and dare I say it, thrive) in challenging environs. It is therefore both interesting and somewhat surprising how quickly I fall back into learned habits of instantly panicking instead of pausing to evaluate a situation and determine how best to proceed in a rational, reasonable way.


In college, I decided that I wanted to study French in a French-speaking country, but I didn’t want to go to Europe because it would be too easy. I chose Mali, a country in West Africa, which met this desire with fervent enthusiasm. I hadn’t even left the airport when I threw out my back trying to lift my very heavy suitcase instead of accepting help from the many very strong individuals around me.


Let me tell you right now that Africa is a challenging place to be if you are suffering from extreme back pain. Everywhere I sat was uncomfortable. The public transit in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, consisted of ancient Volkswagen buses that had been gutted of comfortable seating. The replacement seating consisted of flat boards of wood that hugged the inside walls of each van in a kind of U shape with sharp corners. When you got on board, you looked around, saw people packed tighter than sardines, and thought, there is no way in hell there is room for one more person on this bus. Then, you walked to a corner, nodded to the people sitting there, and began slowly inserting one side of your body into the teaming mass of bodies. With patience and persistence, the waters eventually parted to let you in. Of course, fitting in meant a sort of sideways position in a kind of public transit sandwich. When the bus was approaching your stop, you just yelled out, Plac-y-la, Plant-y-ké (I have not idea how to spell this). The guy who controlled the opening and closing of the door would stand in the open doorway where a sliding door used to be. When he heard someone yell these words, he would slap the top of the van to let the driver know to stop.


Sound a bit crazy? It was a bit nutty, but it worked.


In Mali, I was in so much pain from my back that I had to constantly shift my position. People would comment on my strange behavior, noting how odd it was that I could never sit still. They had backs of steel in comparison to us softies in the West.


These days, my back is in better shape, but I still seem to shift every few minutes. My husband says that it is my inner squirrel that keeps me moving, but in Africa it was just pain, pure and simple.


Allow me to digress a bit further here to say that there are some philosophies (particularly those from the East) where it is believed that we choose our life path, our parents, and our family even before we are born based on the work we wish to do. This is work that perhaps we began in a previous life and intend to continue.


It is becoming ever clearer to me that I chose a path that would help me learn patience in times of uncertainty and upheaval and that my pre-this life self wished to learn to create feelings of ease and acceptance in times of discomfort.


Thanks, former self! A heads up would have been nice. Just a simple, hey, by the way, this round is going to be one hell of a bumpy ride.


I don’t know if there is a rulebook for these transitions from one life to the next. Is there a pre-transition orientation that happens where the previous self passes information on to the next version? Do they share notes, insights, etc.? Is there a debrief at the end before the next transition takes place?


If any of this does occur, perhaps they use something akin to the little doohickey they used in the movie Men in Black for erasing people’s memories to allow for a completely clean slate at the beginning of the subsequent life. I don’t remember my previous lives, but I often wish I could call up some memories that might help me make sense of my experiences in this life.


I have heard that there are ways for a person to call up some of these memories – hypnosis or past life regression therapy, for example – but I have never tried it.


I imagine part of the process (at least for a person like my self) is to uncover information on our own.


But I digress from my digression.


Living in Africa was uncomfortable and challenging. Physically, my body hurt and it was super hot. I lived there at the end of the rainy, cooler season. As the months progressed, it became swelteringly hot and increasingly humid. I left just before the cooling rains began.


Most of the city was comprised of open markets with all kinds of smells. The smell of dried fish was particularly noxious. There was dust and dirt everywhere and piles of trash, which I documented for one of my class assignments. Historically, throwing refuse out was not a big deal because it would decompose. The introduction of plastics from western influence (go, us), however, created a serious problem.


For me, there was very little about life there that was particularly easeful. Everything I wished to do, including sitting, presented a challenge.


One might go to the bank to change money, only to find that the teller had gone home sick.


Will they be back tomorrow? The others student and I would ask.


Maybe, the teller’s coworker would respond.


We would go back for several days in a row without finding the teller back at their station. Then finally, we would give up and cash our traveler’s check in the street.


Herein lies a trick I learn in Mali. Do not expect things to be easeful, and you will not be disappointed when things do not go as you anticipated.


My fellow students and I created a phrase that we repeated often, as it was more often than not that we had to shift our expectations for how events would unfold on any given day for any given task we had set out to complete.


C’est le Mali, we would repeat and laugh. It’s Mali.


We laughed a lot!


It just didn’t matter if the bank teller never reappeared. We found other alternate solutions.


It was excruciatingly hot, and the van was packed? No matter. Everyone else was uncomfortable, too, and the ride was only temporary. Of course, I had the immense privilege that my discomfort was only temporary. I lived in Mali for a mere six months and had a much desired return ticket to the United States. I received many marriage proposals from Malian men hoping to take advantage of my status as an American woman.


You can be my second wife, they would tell me and the other female students in my cohort.


I’m already married, I would tell them. It wasn’t true, but it did seem to help a little.


Slowly but surely, I became more comfortable with discomfort. My initial terror at having to haggle to purchase anything anywhere because most of the city was a big, open market eventually gave way to a thrill at seeing how low I could argue a seller down in price. They would tell me the price, which was inevitably many times higher than they would charge a local, nonwhite person.


I would inhale in horror and offer an insanely low counter price.


This would go back and forth, often with a lot of laughter. They would call me a Senegalese for being so cheap. I would claim that I was a poor student.


Finally, I would throw my hands up and leave. Then, the seller would call after me and accept my lower price.


At some point, I would realize that we were literally haggling over pennies in US dollars, but what I learned while I was there was that it was important to haggle for the lower price to maintain the tenuous balance in the purchasing economy. For example, there was an artisan market in Bamako where locals could no longer afford to shop because the artisans, knowing that tourists would pay top dollar without haggling. Top dollar in Mali was still very inexpensive for tourists traveling from western countries. These tourists believe they were doing a favor to the artisans by paying extra money. They were not doing a favor for the locals, who could no longer afford to shop in these places.


So, I haggled.


I not only became more comfortable with discomfort, but I discovered that when I let go of expectation I gave life a chance to pleasantly surprise me. I met kind, generous souls. I made friends. I thrived. I ate so well that my Malian family started calling me a fatty, which was meant as a compliment because they would send me back to my American family healthy and rotund.


I also learned a great deal about my own privilege and how I could deal with discomfort. When I left Mali and returned to the United States, I was overwhelmed by the emptiness of my own culture. I had a huge bedroom all to my self, which felt very empty and lonely in the absence of sharing a room with my four Malian host sisters. I have a vivid memory of my first trip to the grocery store. A staff person had built a pyramid of large, plastic bottles of Coca-Cola, and I remember feeling such shock at the decadence of this gesture.


When people asked me about my experience, I would begin sharing my revelations, but it didn’t really seem that they wanted to hear anything beyond a surficial, it was great, response.


Eventually (and far too quickly), I assimilated back into my western culture. For me, Mali was a time of discovery and learning. It was temporary. For people born there, it was a life sentence. Many people wanted a reprieve from this sentence, a chance for a more easeful life in the west. There were professors and other highly educated members of society who would seek jobs as taxi drivers in western countries and send money home to their families and community members in communities that were fall apart at the economic seams as a result of years of rippling effects of colonialism, globalization, and climate change.


It is a huge privilege to be born into a country where the likelihood is quite small that you will die as a result of a doctor leaving a pair of scissors in your body after being operated on to remove an appendix, which is exactly what happened to a member of a student’s host family the semester before I arrived in Mali. My intestines will not be ravaged from a life of eating foods that are difficult to digest and hard on the body’s system. Healthcare in the United States may be expensive and not equitably accessible by all, but it is available and of high quality nonetheless.


I will never forget my experience in Mali, however brief. It was life changing. My zone of awareness was broadened tremendously, and I had experiences I began to access in times of need. Those experiences have served as small reminders when I find myself in uncomfortable situations in my life.


Remember Mali, I think, when I feel my temper rising over something insignificant.


Coming back to public transit and my experience thus far in Belgium, I think this awareness and ability to access a rational, grounded corner of my psyche is the key for shifting my perspective in any situation to create ease in the face of discomfort.


I have been through a lot of therapy, divorce, and difficult jobs with abusive bosses. I have traveled the world and lived in foreign countries. I have completed a PhD in self-sustainability, and I have been studying meditation and yoga for several years. All of these experiences amount to a heightened awareness of how the events unfolding all around me at all times impact my own sensitive system.


If I were a superhero, I would be Super Sensitive Girl to the rescue, bringing my hyper empathy to people in need around the world.


The more aware I become of my own inner self, however, the more I feel bombarded and vulnerable to different energies that come at me from all directions. I am conscious and very much awake, but I have not yet developed a plan for how to create ease and balance in response to this trend. My current method is to take everything in like a sponge, the kind without a rough solid edge on one side for protection.


Most of the time, I feel like I am living in a pinball machine being played by a capricious leprechaun, my physical and spiritual selves being flicked around by the will of another being.


Would that I were being played by Tommy, the Who, but that was not the path I chose for this life’s work. There is no wizard (at least, not one that I am aware of) studying all of the possible paths I can follow and carefully laying out a master plan.


I am the one who must navigate how to respond to each new experience I am thrust into, and it is I alone who must determine how I feel in different situations and how I can create ease in the face of discomfort.


Let me say right now that I am a slow learner. It has taken me at least six months of moving through extreme panic every time I try to get to a new place in Brussels at a pre-determined time while negotiating a foreign transit system to finally realize that maybe I should ask for help instead of diving into a situation that I know will place great stress on my system.


There was the time I planned to pick my dad up from the airport. My husband looked up one possible route for me to take, and I left early so I would have ample time to get there. The trip began with promise of ease until I reached the bus stop to find the entire area had been completely raised for construction and all of the bus routes from this stop had been cancelled until the end of September.


Instead of calmly reassessing my options, I succumbed to extreme panic. I walked around, frantically trying to find the bus stop that had to have just been moved to another area. I checked my transit app and watched the minutes pass until I had missed said bus. I swore. I wept. I texted and tried to call my husband, leaving panic-induced messages on his voicemail.


Then, I bucked up. It was like a little light had come on inside, shedding insight into alternative options. I didn’t’ need to stand there suffering. I could simply find another path to the airport, which I was totally capable of doing. So, this is what I did. It did not feel easeful, but it did feel possible.


Now, I know that I need to have backup plans for when plan A cannot be realized due to circumstances that are beyond my control. I know that I have only to calmly request assistance, and the universe will provide. I also realize that there is just no need to panic. If I get somewhere late, it’s fine. If I don’t get there at all, the world will not implode.


Remember Mali.


After a recent stressful bout with public transit when trying to get to a yoga workshop in the midst of roads and trams being shut down for a marathon, my husband insisted that he sign me up for a villo bike (bikes you can check out like library books to ride around the city).


On the way back from the yoga workshop (I did make it after nearly two hours of anxiety-filled effort), I realized that I would just miss the 94 tram once again by mere seconds. This has always driven me batty. I texted my husband that I was going to take the villo bike, 94 be damned.


Take that, 94! he texted back.


Yeah! I’ll show the 94. I’ll show ALL the trams.


I hopped on the bike and headed off on the easeful path that had been created to run in a wide median between the two directions of travel for the main road. With a great big basked on the front of the bike and a design that had me sitting perfectly upright, I felt like the wicked witch in the wizard of oz. I could even hear her music playing as my own personal soundtrack.
As with so many experiences in life, I have had to expand my aura of awareness with regard to public transit. I don’t have a car that I can just get into and go whenever I feel the urge. I have to look at maps and connections and timetables for tram, metro, bus, and sometimes train.
This can get overwhelming, particularly when I don’t know how long it will take me to get to a destination and even more so when it’s a place I am going to for the first time. Regardless, I think it’s important, especially in the midst of a subtle line of complaint, to take a moment to recognize how much ease and privilege I have in my life thanks to the many people with foresight and dedication who worked diligently and likely determinedly to make it possible for me to travel for a pittance all over the city of Brussels. Thank you, nameless heroes of mine!


Now, as I travel, I make note of villo bike stations, metro, bus, and tram stops, and all of the little details that comprise my current and ever-expanding (as I grow slowly but surely bolder) zone of existence.


Sometimes, I still miss my car. I loved my Toyota Prius. We traveled together to many corners of the United States, from Alaska to Arizona to Massachusetts and beyond. We laughed and explored together. Sometimes, we cried together. I experienced heartbreak when someone hurt my dear car and will never forget the moment I went to get in and noticed the back window was gone. It took me a moment to realize that everything inside was also missing. The world has not always been kind to my car. In addition to the break in, someone knocked off the driver’s side view mirror. No sooner did I have it repaired but huge branches from a fell and broke the mirror and destroyed the roof of my car during an exceedingly powerful nor’easter.


Living in Arizona, I nearly took the rear bumper off of my car when it got tangled with the run my husband had set up for his husky, Blue. Another time, I dented the side of my car trying to pull into parking spot and hugging a solid, unforgiving cement block a little too tightly on the right side. Then, husky Blue’s run got tangled in the roof rack and nearly took off the top of my car.
Suffice it to say that our decision to move to Belgium marked a definitive end to our time with my Prius but likely has saved us quite a bit of money.


I can say that it was an enormous relief when I sold my car. It was such a burden lifted that I swore I would never buy a car again. I tend to recommend erring on the side of caution when it comes to making extreme vows, and there are definitely times when I wish I could experience the ease of having a car here in Brussels. It would be so nice to just be able to get in, turn the key in the ignition, and go. Perhaps, it is part of an innate desire for manifest destiny that comes from being born in the United States, where the rite of passage for young people is to get into a car and drive across the country to a new place and a new life that awaits them on the other side of a distant mountain range.
Speaking of extreme pledges, I seem to continue making them, despite everything I have learned in my life about operating from a place of moderation.


We may have to buy this place, I told my husband last night at the end of a long day of moving our modest collection of possessions in five trips back and forth in a Zipcar the 1.3km from our old apartment to a new house.


I am never getting off this couch!


Please keep in mind that I have also sworn off ever buying a house again. I lived in the first (and ostensibly the last) house I bought soon after moving to Alaska for a permanent job with the national park service in the fall of 2010. When I left for a new job a year and a half later, I started a weary process (that I swear is the main reason for all of my silver hair) of intermittently renting and trying to sell my beautiful house, an endeavor that continues to this day.


As an aside, if you are out there thinking about possibly renting your own home, I strongly advise you to reconsider. See my recent posts on this subject:

Oh, don’t ask why?

Stuck in the middle with you

Battle of the bulge


Maybe it is karma, but my husband and I have experienced the darker side of renting our homes. Come to think of it, our experience as renters ourselves has not been entirely easeful, but we haven’t given up hope for the surrender and release that comes after intense effort.


I do think there is something to say for paying attention to how we effort. As Jaye Martin told us at his workshop, It’s pranayama, not trauma-yama. I am trying to pay closer attention to how I effort in my yoga practice and in my life. It can take a while sometimes, but I am practicing noticing when I am having trouble breathing and/or experiencing intense suffering and anxiety. When I notice, I can pause and reevaluate my next steps. I can consider what actions I can take to reduce suffering and relieve tension. Sometimes, non-action is called for because I have been trying too hard to make something happen that just is not going to happen the way I want it to.


Jaye told us many stories in the workshop. One story that spoke to this idea of creating our reality with intention, awareness, consciousness, and humility was about his mother, who loves to go to garage sales (he is British and called them boot sales because people would sell things out of the boot, or trunk, of their car) in search of large puzzles she can piece together.


At one boot sale, she found a stack of puzzles and bought them all. As she was getting ready to pay, she found an additional puzzle. The image of the puzzle had been removed from the lid at some point. When she asked the owner about it, the owner said she could have it for free. (I chuckled, thinking about how this would be a celebration for Jews everywhere, who love a bargain.)


Jaye’s mother works on the puzzle, often for days at a time. When she finds she is not making progress, she takes a break, has a cup of tea, and returns refreshed and ready to work again.


As with most stories, there were layers of meaning to this one.


The puzzle is a metaphor within a metaphor (shocking, I know). There is the metaphor of piecing the puzzle together, one piece at a time. While some pieces fit together with ease, others do not, and you can’t force them together (well, you can, but you will not create the intended image).


Yoga can be a puzzle, Jaye told us. Each one of us is like a puzzle with no picture. Because we are alive, our puzzle is never really finished, but yoga teaches us that we are already complete as we are. Our puzzle box is full, but we don’t know what the picture will be. Your practice is to create a picture that honors the deepest longing of your heart.


I have learned a great deal about my self and the world from the few decades I have spent wandering this planet, and I know enough to recognize how easy it can be to over effort, how difficult it can be to pause, and the even greater challenge of believing that I am complete already just as I am.

My challenge now is to figure out how to funnel all of this information into my every day in order to do what Jaye told us in Savasana: invite conscious, easeful movement into the body.


It is easy to make life far more difficult than it needs to be. We have only to shift our perspective, to exhale, and release tension to create a life with more ease than effort.


This is why there is such great wisdom and simplicity in the puzzle metaphor.


And as Jaye suggested, you don’t have to know the picture of the puzzle. You just have to keep doing the puzzle.


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