The art and science of surrender (car accident edition)


Look at that photo. It’s something else, isn’t it? Somehow, I managed to step right up out of the driver-side door without so much as a cut. I’m saving this photo to my phone and my work desktop as an inspiring memento of three instructive reminders from yesterday’s rollover:

1. While an accident can pin you down, it’s the kindness of strangers that will really floor you.

A woman whom I’ll just call V. hugged me — hugged me tight, wrapping my entire short frame in her radiant maternal embrace — as soon as I stepped out of the car. She hugged me and asked if I was OK for quite some time as other kind strangers offered other ways of help, starting with the cool guy who opened up the car door that allowed me to get out the first place.

I accepted a ride to the hospital for tests because I was most concerned that I felt fine but could have a hairline fracture. I just kept thinking about the angle I stepped out of the car from, and about how many times I had rolled over. (Surprisingly, the air bags did not deploy.) Anyway, the paramedic and his crew? Fantastic in every way. The trauma team that ran a battery of tests to make sure there wasn’t deeper damage? Awesome. (They also thought they were comedians, which I appreciated. They said that had I been wearing Lululemon, they would have spared cutting my clothes. Luckily, I have other panopticon-branded AY:A2 tanks.)

This tank would have been spared the shears in the trauma room 3 if only they had been Lululemon. ;-)

This tank would have been spared the shears in trauma room 3 if only they’d been Lululemon. ;-)

The police officer who showed up? Sweet — down to accommodating my request that when the tow truck show up, he rescue not only my mobile and wallet, but also my Mysore rug (what can I say — it’s a security blanket). He totally came through.

2. You never know.

Really, you never know. So you might as well not sweat the small stuff. (More on this in a bit.)

We all tell ourselves this and I’m convinced we all believe it, deep down. But we tend to believe it most when Big Life Events happen — not during the day-to-day. This helped me recommit big-time to keeping my eyes on the prize as moments as possible every day, not just on days like this.

3. Relaxing, rather than resisting, helps in any kind of situation.

Anyone who has struggled to learn how to go up into a yoga headstand has probably at one time or another heard the instruction to relax while falling out of it.

Let me be clear: I think I wasn’t harmed because of my guardian angels, pure and simple. But, more than 24 hours later, I am still stunned that I walked away untouched, and it was a reminder that the tremendous relaxation you can feel when in something like a multiple-roll spill like this comes in handy. Had I tensed up and locked my arms on the steering wheel, for instance, who knows what might have happened.

As meditation teacher Shinzen Young formulates it:

Pain x Resistance = Suffering

Post-accident, I’m going to take this to heart and not let myself get freaked out about the expense — especially given that it’s coming just ahead of when I’m looking at taking four weeks of unpaid leave to go study in Mysore. I could do the math, or I could look back at the rollover photo and shake my head again at how I was not hurt and no one else was either.

Shinzen offers this related formulation too:

Taste of Purification = Pain x Equanimity

Trying to avoid suffering is one thing. Can I reach this level? That’s a tall order but I think it’s possibly within reach, if it stare at the rollover photo enough. And if that doesn’t work, I can look at my tiny little rental, which somehow makes me laugh. I think my huge Saka cargo mat bag fits in the trunk . . .

Fiat rental

Back to sweating the small stuff

For anyone willing to read past the list portion of this post, I’ll say that the feeling I had yesterday was similar to the feeling I had during the accident I experienced maybe a decade ago now, when a guard rail saved me from going over a mountainside in northern Vermont after I had skid on black ice. The same time-slows-incredibly-dooooown phenomenon happened yesterday when I couldn’t correct out of the median: I quite calmly observed what was happening and figured that one of two things — both out of my control — would happen. I would either die or be severely injured, or I would be protected and would be fine.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t on some level want to work on not sweating the things that don’t matter. To different degrees, we all want to stay out of the fray when it comes to getting worked up over things we know — we know! — just don’t matter in the end. But dammit if the small things just have a tremendous capacity to gnaw, goad, get under the skin. For me, the most recent big little problem that I got truly pissed over just happened this past Friday — and this is at a time in my life when I have learned to surrender more than I ever have.

Equanimity via different paths

In my world informed by the discipline of ashtanga yoga and by meditative technologies, it seems to me that there are three pretty reliable ways to make progress on keeping it together in the face of life’s really annoying agitations:

1. Go through a tough experience.  

This year has been an interesting one. I witnessed my husband in more pain than I had ever seen him, as I watched helplessly in the ER as he tried to pass a kidney stone. I was back in the same hospital’s operating room (OR) not too long after that for my D & C after my miscarriage. I was back yesterday in the ER — with the same nurse who helped my husband! — for the tests to make sure I wasn’t hurt.

2. Get on your mat six days a week to practice a series that at first seems impossible, then seems doable, then eventually seems impossible again, and so on.

As OvO has so eloquently put it, put yourself on the mat to undertake a systemic series of constraints on the ego.

During the ambulance ride to get the tests that would confirm that I am indeed OK, despite what my mental images of the accident scene would have me believe, I was talking to a paramedic-in-training who said, “I’m just not flexible enough to do yoga.” It was a little awkward to talk to this student, with my neck in a restraint and my body secured to a long spine board per standard operating procedures when being taken to a trauma unit (with a rollover at 70 miles per hour, which is what the speed limit is in Michigan, an accident like this one is considered a trauma, even if you can talk and walk and attest you feel fine).

I started to try to explain that that isn’t what yoga is all about, but instead it out something like, “You don’t need to be flexible to start yoga. You gain that flexibility as you go.” Finally, realizing my words were being garbled by the fact that I couldn’t really move my jaw too much, I said, “You should give yoga another shot.”

It wasn’t my most persuasive elevator pitch for yoga, which last year I decided might go along these lines: “Using the body to get beyond the body, a 6-day-a-week Ashtanga practice rewires us to experience life without filters created by illusion.” Aka neuroplasticity ftw!

3. Get on a meditation cushion every day

I’m going to give embarrassingly short shrift to this one because I technically should be getting back to dealing with my insurance company. But I’ve been truly amazed at the results this past year of keeping at meditation.

Why meditate?

And a fourth?

In any case, having tried these three paths, I’ve found that each contributes a different type of instruction/reminder, and the lasting effects vary. It does seem like the synergistic effects are most powerful when all three are experienced together.

Interestingly, I had spent the earlier part of yesterday afternoon engaged in fun conversations with other area yogis are planning on studying at the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India, and the theme that kept coming up again and again was: To truly experience Mysore, you have to surrender to the experience.

So by the end of the month when I travel to Mysore, perhaps I’ll understand first-hand that I can add another sure-fire way of learning to surrender? That one would be labeled as: Make the sacrifices you need to make to get to the shala in Mysore. 


© and Rose Tantraphol, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Equanimity is like . . .


Ready for some formulas? Shinzen Young, the meditation teacher I blogged about earlier this week, offers some physical analogies for equanimity in his Five Ways to Know Yourself manual. It’s a comparison I find very compelling, because if you’re having trouble achieving this state emotionally or physically (and who doesn’t?), it can be helpful to look at similar processes in other models.

Developing equanimity is analogous to:

• reducing friction in a mechanical system (Equanimity =1/F);
• reducing viscosity in a hydrodynamic system (Equanimity =1/µ);
• reducing resistance in a DC circuit (Equanimity =1/R);
• reducing impedance in an AC circuit (Equanimity =1/Z);
• reducing stiffness in a spring (Equanimity =1/k); and
• A solution being thixotropic as opposed to rheopectic. (Thixotropic substances, such as paint, thin out when they get stirred. By way of contrast, rheopectic substances, such as corn starch, thicken up when they get stirred.)

Extending these metaphors, perfect equanimity would be analogous to “superconductivity” within all your sensory circuits. [p. 16-17]

I love that image of stirring a paint can.

What exactly is it, though? Shinzen explores it this way: “Equanimity is a fundamental skill for self-exploration and emotional intelligence. It is a deep and subtle concept that is frequently misunderstood and easily confused with suppression of feeling, apathy, or inexpressiveness.”

And here’s more:

In the physical world we say a person has lost balance if they fall to one side or another. In the same way, a person loses internal balance if they fall into one or the other of the following contrasting reactions:

• Suppression – A state of thought/feeling arises and we attempt to cope with it by stuffing it down, denying it, tightening around it, etc.

• Identification – A state of thought/feeling arises and we fixate on it, hold onto it inappropriately, not letting it arise, spread, and pass according to its natural rhythm.

Between suppression on one side and identification on the other lies a third possibility, the balanced state of non-self interference, namely, equanimity.

And if you read the Three Questions with Angela Jamison post, you’re hip to the idea of equanimity with an edge:

So what did equanimity look like for me this week? I had so many chances to work on this skill set:

  • When my tax preparer, who has had my files for a couple weeks now, bailed on me on Monday — the morning taxes are due — and totally upended my already packed day (all this while I was in the middle of this Ayurvedic cleanse, which made it a bit more energetically challenging for me).
  • When I found out that someone else has also used my social security number (!) to file their taxes, causing me to be unable to e-file. I am hoping this is an honest mistake and not identity theft.
  • When I wanted to write this post Monday night but ran out of both time and energy.
  • This morning, when I had some hideously bad cramps that had me KO’ed on the bathroom floor.

How has your week been? Any chances to work on equanimity?

I can’t say I was perfect this week, but I handled most things — especially the tax bail — much better than I might have otherwise. Rose circa 2009 would have lost it. Rose circa 2011 would have been really frustrated and pretty angry. Don’t get me wrong: Rose in April 2013 was deeply frustrated. I had to scramble to get a sub for my evening yoga class so that I could go to another tax preparer at the eleventh hour. But angry? I didn’t feel that internal heat of anger. In short, faced with a big obstacle, I acted — making calls, finding backups — far more than I reacted. Rose circa 2009 would have acted the same way, but would have reacted with as much, if not more, force, and would have dwelled on the unpleasantness of the situation.

Thinking last year about how to be motivated to have a solid, daily meditation practice — motivated on the level that my yoga practice motivates me, which is a high bar — I knew that what I needed to see would be concrete changes. In yoga, I have no end of moments I can point to and say, “I would have reacted this way/done things this way were it not for my yoga practice.” I needed the same thing in meditation.

I have plenty of examples these days. It’s not that my yoga practice hasn’t made me far less reactive overall — it has done wonders for me. But so far, meditation has helped make certain things — like the very conscious process of trying to not get wound up about frustrating matters in life — less effortful.

Now, about this morning’s post-castor-oil-purgation cramps, which had me on my bathroom floor for some time (I was trying to leave the bathroom to get back to bed to lie down, but I couldn’t make the seven steps to the bed). I tried to stay present and identify the sensations I was feeling, but that gave way to me just lying there, my mind wandering as I breathed with no strategy in mind at all. Shinzen has produced a lot of training materials about managing pain, and I’m curious about the techniques he teaches. Of the many changes I had at finding equanimity this week, I think I was most challenged by this one.

Don’t let this scare you away from an Ayurvedic cleanse, by the way. Everyone experiences the cleanse differently. The rest of the cleanse felt sparkling and light, and the effects are worth all the trouble of sticking to the regiment of a cleanse. I’d write more about this spring cleanse, but due to my work demands, time has not been my own since returning from Xinalani — and, as you can guess, I’ve been trying to maintain equanimity about that.

© and Rose Tantraphol, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to with appropriate and specific direction to the original content