Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy ♥ Day!

It’s still VALENTINE'S DAY. Maybe because we’re all so grateful for what we’ve still got, the occasion seems unusually festive this year. I’ve seen men clutching paper cones of flowers, children holding giant red helium balloons, and neon hearts in windows all over the neighborhood. I’ve seen such an unusual number of couples I’m tempted to find them an ark.

I actually like Valentine’s Day, and I’m quite fond of the
symbol. Recently, however, it occurred to me that it doesn’t look a whole lot like a human heart. So where does it come from?

The answer is that nobody knows. There’s some speculation that it’s supposed to look like a woman’s vulva or a cow’s heart, and a more compelling theory that it looks just like the seed of the silphium, a now extinct fennel (related to Queen Anne’s lace) that had a heyday as a Greco-Roman contraceptive.

Ancient silver coin from Cyrene depicting a silphium seed or fruit .

Heart-symbol-vulva-shape hypothesis illustration.

This question actually came up for me while I was sitting in a brief meditation session at the local yoga center, something I try to do two times a week. I used to sit with a man named T., who’s recovering from heart surgery. We rarely talked, but I miss him.

Lately, I sit with whichever of the yoga instructors is teaching the next class. Often this is J. Normally I set my blankets up at a slight angle to hers, which means that I can face her, politely, but also avoid staring at her directly. Ideally, I’ll train my fuzzy gaze on some knot in the floorboard.

The first time I went last week, I unexpectedly wound up sitting with R. I had already settled on my bolsters when she came in. She chose a spot only about eight feet away and faced me head-on! I took a fragmentary look, observed her relaxed and upright posture, noted that she looked both beautiful and blissful, and became completely unnerved.

I decided that this might be the day to meditate with my eyes closed.

It was a lovely morning, a harbinger of spring. Periodically I felt the brightening of the sun through my eyelids. The birds had resumed their chatter in the trees outside. The truck traffic seemed uncommonly low.

I’m usually quite aware of sounds when I sit. For much of the winter, the hissing of the radiators had reminded me of the swelling sounds of danger on a movie soundtrack.

I once heard a meditation instructor explain that you had to give the monkeys in your mind something to do—something other thinking out loud inside your head, that is. Ever since, I’d been stationing them at the sides of my skull, just inside my eardrums. Their job was to listen.

As the house sparrows chirped to the monkey in my right ear, it suddenly dawned on me that all my attention was going to my right or my left. Maybe some days it wandered to the source of a pain, which was likely to be in my back or my shoulders or my legs. It was anywhere but out front.

And that was more or less deliberate, I realized. Lately I’ve been thinking I have no idea what people mean when they talk about the energy among people, and maybe this is an example of why. I might as well have erected a big glass pane between me and my opposite number.

And so entered the heart. Eyes closed, I decided I might as well try to acknowledge that R. was there. I could relax my chest muscles and try to imagine that if there were to be a sense of awareness between us, I wouldn’t block it out. I might even send her a good thought.

Which I did, from the shelter of my closed eyes. My chest began to feel warm and somehow unsettled, as if my flesh were a pot that was being gently stirred. I experienced a rising, swelling sensation: something fierce and vulnerable, pushing outward.

So that was it. When I visualized that feeling that was pushing from somewhere behind my sternum, behind my breasts, and tapering down to my belly, it seemed to be shaped like a big heart—“a Valentine’s heart,” one of the monkeys observed. “Yeah, but that doesn’t look like heart at all,” said the other.

“Thinking,” my meditating self chimed in. “Thinking about hearts.”

Soon enough, the session ended. R. unfolded herself and stretched. “That was really pleasant,” she said. “It barely felt like 45 minutes at all.”

It hadn't hurt me, either.

Intrigued, I tried my opening-the-chest experiment again the next morning, this time with J. It was another pretty day. We often exchange thanks as we finish, but this time she added, “That was nice.”

“I thought so, too,” I said.

“I don’t know why--maybe because there weren’t any jackhammers outside,” J. said.

Who knows?

Happy Valentine's Day.

1 comment:

Joan said...

Without being a particularly good or even consistent student of yoga, and definitely being a terrible cynic, I have learned and found great value in the notion of observing & accepting weird energy patterns during class, usually by seeing my various mental & physical tics as a big wheeling gyroscope tilting my body this way & that. For some reason it's soothing & strengthening. Having said that, I always avoid being seated in front of the instructor, so props to you. ;)