I’m a thinker.
I learn and think for a living; a spare moment passes when I am not in my head. By default, my mind always runs full steam ahead and generally I embrace this fury within myself.
Yet I’m keenly aware it can be hard to disconnect—to engage with my heart instead of my mind.
At times, it seems downright impossible.
I often refer to this conundrum as the “Crack in the Ceiling.” The reference began while taking my first yoga class a couple years ago—a bewildering, admittedly uncomfortable experience. The class started with us sitting cross-legged on our mats, progressing to closed eyes and several guttural group “Ohms,” neither of which I participated in. Class ended the same way. In between was filled with partner moves (i.e. touching strangers), and then a brief meditation.
“Close your eyes, let your body drift into the ground…now clear your mind.”
I remember that while they all meditated all I could do was stare at the ceiling examining the crack protruding from it’s core. It had squiggles, curves, jagged lines and after many minutes passed, I was no longer sure who was crazy —them or me.
These classes wouldn’t have continued if not for my philosophy on selective discomfort. It’s unofficial, but I figure if I find an activity in which most everyone else doing it finds joy, and it’s not going to harm me in any way, then I challenge myself to learn what everyone is already appreciating. I like to think it helps me grow. And so I stuck with yoga…begrudgingly.
Over time, I’m happy to say that, even with my sporadic practice, I’ve made some progress. Many of these areas now come slightly more easily, but one in particular continues to elude: a clear mind. I try, but the cogs keep rolling.
I will think (and over-think) almost anything. In fact, I don’t actually understand the concept of a clear mind.
So far I’ve learned this is a very Western way of thinking, that many cultures have focused on clarity of the mind. I’ve also learned that everyone has their own way. Some people reflect for wisdom within. Some seek it from other persons, usually ones seen as good mentors or teachers. And for others, it seems to just comes naturally.
Then there are the people like me—the ones that stare at the crack in the ceiling.
For two years I’ve had no development in this area, and then in an unexpected turn of events, I found my first taste.
On a recent adventure in Northern California, my new backyard, I went to see the Coastal Redwoods for the first time. These are the tallest trees in the world. In particular, I selected one of the oldest growth stands with trees that can reach as much as 30 stories high. I planned a remote hike through deep valleys and waterfalls, about 13 miles in total.
For some reason, as I packed to leave in the morning I decided to take my yoga mat and journal. It was an impromptu move, but it had been a rough week and the solitude and reflection sounded more appealing than usual. Besides, these are some of the oldest trees to ever exist (some have reached as many as 2,000 years old).
Perhaps if wisdom exists it exists here.
The wind hums in these trees.
It rustles through leaves so high up it almost escape my ears. As I walk, I stop to lay a hand on the magnificent features. They are nearly magic with cool, damp exteriors roughed smooth by human interface, the inner layers colored in vibrant hues of burnt auburn. I see some of the largest trees yet.
I lay down my backpack, take out my mat, and stand in my own sacred studio.
I’m not really sure what to do; I’ve never practiced without instruction. I look down. My feet are bare. I curl my toes from the outside in, feeling the mat beneath me. The thin layer provides just enough of a sheath to protect my skin, yet I can still feel every stick, every leaf, every bump. It’s not flat. As I stand tall, chin ahead, I realize I’m tipped slightly back and to the right. I try to remember some of the poses from class, but find I can’t remember anything except the basics.
I bend forward at the hips to release for a moment, and then enter downward facing dog. My hands now feel the Earth, all four limbs fully grounded. It feels nothing like what I’ve done in class. I work through a series of poses, each held to pause and take in my surroundings. I naturally end with “tree pose” as it seems fitting.
After some amount of time, dictated only by the sun and internal desire, I fall back into savasana, a rested, full body supine position. It is both the easiest and hardest I usually find—it’s where I realize I am still staring at the crack in the ceiling. But this time when I gaze up into the canopy a ceiling doesn’t exist. As far as the eye can see there are Redwoods reaching to the blue sky, and beyond sky is only the continuous unknown.
No limits. Everything is bigger than me, bigger than my tiny problems.
These giant elders surround me. They have seen it all. Season after season they usher in new generations, building and rebuilding as they go.
They are silent, but strong. They are still, but move.
It occurs to me I have never known such wisdom and all I need to do is breathe.
I finally come to sitting and remove my mat, placing my shoes back on. I begin to think about our daily experience.
Why is it so dramatically different?
Why am I able to connect here but not at home, not in a yoga class?
I consider the yoga studios I’ve attended, all beautifully pristine, often shiny and new. Stunning, really. But there is no history, no wisdom to derive from the easily constructed walls. In the city, the windows, if there are any, often overlook busy street traffic or more buildings—a life of hustle and bustle.
The Joni Mitchell lyric, “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot” springs to mind. I then think of all the concrete extended over the ground for miles and miles. Everything is big, but even if old, nothing lives. That’s when it hits me:
All day long my feet rarely touch the Earth, if at all, merely pavement and flooring.
No wonder I don’t feel grounded. Even in yoga class I am limited to feeling my mat atop a perfectly smooth floor, many layers above the actual, imperfect ground.
How am I to feel rooted when we’ve built a culture which isolates us from making roots?
We’ve built societies that are largely self contained—their physical location hardly taken into account. One city of skyscrapers is as reasonably similar to the next save a handful of cultural and local influences on building design.
We hardly even know what solitude or silence feels like anymore as it’s nowhere to be found. We’ve taken away nearly all of the natural world in these spaces, and what we don’t take away we manicure to fit our needs.
There is no wild in the city limits.
We stake claim to things inherently unclaimable—my grass, my tree, a city or state park. We regulate the remaining wild—if we don’t we risk losing it entirely. We have to ask people not to destroy the very planet we live on.
My second realization comes. It’s not that I don’t have the ability to connect or clear my mind, it’s that I’m too disconnected to do so. Too little of me touches the very planet of which I am a part, and for me, this is a vital sense of being.
The end of my hike nears, my legs tired but spirit high. Coincidentally, shortly after seeking solace in the trees I found three four-leafed clovers in a row. As my logical brain is on hiatus, I take this as a sign of good things to come—a reward for finally clearing my mind. I place the clovers in my journal for safe keeping and as a reminder.
I feel alive and rejuvenated, though almost a bit disappointed to return to life as usual.
But, I now know that it is possible for me to fill the crack in the ceiling, a lesson I hope will last for some time yet.
With any luck, one day our cities will integrate more with the natural world and I—we—will participate openly.
Until then, as I hurry to yoga class and step onto my mat in a busy downtown yoga studio—one perfectly regulated for floor evenness, temperature, and beautifully new—I will enter my own space calmed with the remembrance of uneven, old growth forest floor growing wisdom beneath my feet.
Author: Trish Zornio
Apprentice Editor: Kim Haas / Editor: Emma Ruffin
Photo: Courtesy of author.
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