How do you find the Big Thing of your life when you’re stuck in a small community?
This was my conundrum in 1998.
The spring of that year my artist-husband and I had gotten off the career rollercoaster and quit the Big Apple where I’m from and where we had been living the downtown bohemian lifestyle. With nothing to lose we chucked everything for a bucolic backdoor town in northeast Florida. We had taken an opportunity through a contact to rent a somewhat affordable house so we could live in paradise wearing t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. We could lower the stressometer so my husband could finish making the paintings for his big solo exhibition coming up in Boca Raton. My role was to lend moral support and keep him going with endless cups of tea, which I was glad to do.
Sweet little scenario, only a big piece was missing. It wasn’t the money piece. That was already missing anyway.
I was clueless about how to configure my future.
At the crux of mid-life I only knew that it would involve some major repackaging of my professional identity into something dharmic, i.e. heart-centered and on-purpose. A truer reflection of my inner life and interests. With natural wellness, yoga and writing topping the list, I sought that New Age Holy Grail called right livelihood. That Big Thing I would love to do and the money would follow.
The yogi is content with what comes unbidden.
So said a great meditation master from India who had headed the lineage I had been practicing under for nearly ten years. Contentment is a daily challenge in New York City, given that New Yorkers are prone to wanting the next Big Thing to happen constantly. The next promotion. The next raise. The next apartment. The next lover.
The master’s words looped in my head like a mantra. My original exit strategy from NYC had the (next) Big Thing happening in Santa Fe or Boulder. This little Florida burg may never have figured into my fantasies but it had certainly come unbidden. “Be careful what you wish for,” as they say. “You just might get it.”
Now it was up to me to a) not only be content with that but b) in being content to allow the future to unfold—moment by moment.
Would I be able to do that? Or would it feel like Chinese water torture?
Worse yet, being born and raised on the upper west side of Manhattan, I didn’t know how to drive. Since my husband did, I was now completely dependent upon this highly time-sensitive man to take me food shopping. To keep him on track with his painting deadline we’d be in and out of the supermarket so fast there was no time to read the labels.
I spent a good deal of time in the backyard doing yoga or sitting on a stone bench in half-lotus, meditating in the sun. I felt extraordinarily blessed. Surrounded by the moss-covered oaks that bordered our property, I’d be joined by our tabby cat. (He meditated, too.) It was serene there. It was primeval. It drew me inward. I began to see my situation differently, from the perspective of Hindu teachings on the dharmas or right actions for the stages life, as they applied to middle age. They said:
Mid-life is the stage of existence when you stop being a householder and go to live in the forest, to fully contemplate death.
I wasn’t up for the forest full time yet, but meanwhile I could contemplate a form of my death. The death of my illusions and desires. I considered that I was taking root in this community for a purpose, one that in time would be clear to me. Surrendering to that understanding brought me comfort and an inner shift. The frustration melted. I could live this way. Mostly.
The question was, would the signs be big enough for me to see that purpose when it showed up?
In my heart, I asked the lineage’s masters past and present to help me keep my eyes open.
Eventually I saw the answer lay virtually around the corner.
Flash forward to the 21st century. It’s Y2K and I’m finally driving. I have a part-time job, helping out homebound seniors. I’m feeling a resurgence of adolescent bliss, like Kevin Spacey’s character in “American Beauty” when he’s working at the fast-food joint.
I have joined the local YMCA, just three minutes from my door, where there are Yoga classes. Friends had told me about the teacher, that he was really good and that he was French, an alluring combination to say the least.
But if that was the buzz, the first time I walked into his class I got a hit of something far greater.
First, there was the bhajan or devotional song that Didier played in a loop on the stereo. It sounded enticingly familiar, if out of context. I was sure it was one performed regularly at the ashram in upstate New York I had attended for nearly ten years.
Then, after leading us through some intense breath work and before we stood up to practice, Didier said what he would say at the start of every class:
“Whatever is going on, give it one hundred and ten percent!”
The way it sounded with his accent was: “No matter what eez going on, geeve it wahn hundred and ten percent!” This made it even more of a mandate. A mission. A metaphor. You couldn’t give less in Didier’s classes, which were unlike any I’d experienced up north. And yet I felt remarkably at home.
We’d begin with Sun Salutations that Didier would have us perform endlessly, until “somebody breaks a sweat!”
With a luminous smile and a head of buoyant curls, Didier led the vinyasas with effortless grace, steadily beaming encouragement to the group. “You the man!” he’d shout-out to someone when they got it together in Balancing Half Moon or some other challenging posture.
The energy in the room was an alchemical mixture of joyfulness, attentiveness and transcendence.
Along with guiding us through the postures Didier would toss in bits of non-dual philosophy, which in essence says that there is no separation between the Supreme Self and the individual self. He shared stories about his beloved meditation teacher. Though Didier never mentioned his name, he sounded exactly like the one who had spoken of the yogi and contentment. When I asked, after that first class, Didier confirmed for me that it was. Moreover, he also knew the master’s successor, from whom I had received spiritual initiation. Yesss.
Take refuge in the master, the dharma and the sangham.
A sign of the Big Thing had flashed brilliantly on. I studied with Didier for the next 18 months, taking his classes and workshops—and workshops by the guest teachers he hosted—at the Y and elsewhere in the area. Everything added up to a sangham, a community of seekers, taking refuge in the master’s teachings, in Yoga, in each other.
What Didier ultimately gave me was an understanding that Yoga was more fun, more uplifting, more deepening than I ever thought possible—provided I give it one hundred and ten percent every time. But the cake was yet to be iced.
“When are you going to become a Yoga teacher?”
I had been describing my experiences to a New York friend on the phone. “What?” “I said. He repeated it slowly. “When are you going to become a Yoga teacher?”
There it was. The Big Thing. It was ready for me. Was I ready for it?
Many of Didier’s students had been asking him to offer another teacher training, and when he did, I signed up. For the rest of my life, I will never forget the date the training started. Because in the days to follow it would demand that hundred and ten percent—and more—of me and my buddies in the class than any of us would ever have imagined.
September 10, 2001.
To be continued…
Valerie’s photo by Stan Wakefield ©2011
Valerie Carruthers recently posted “21 Dharmas for New Yoga Teachers,” which made ele’s Top 10 Blog Posts of the Week. Valerie is a maverick yogini who loves teaching and practicing Yoga and meditation as well as writing for magazines and the Web, not always in the same order or on the same day. She first practiced Yoga in New York City, back when there were mainly “Hatha” classes and no soundtracks. When performing an asana had absolutely nothing to do with toning one’s ass. Based in east central Florida, she has taught classes to diverse populations for the past decade. Valerie is currently focusing on teaching workshops that combine Yoga and art-making for all levels. When wearing her freelancer’s hat, Valerie writes about a) how to devolve from the world and evolve spiritually and b) whatever fascinates her about the social face of Yoga in its rapidly shifting manifestations merges into the cosmic face of Yoga in all its blazing glory.