The Quality of Mercy

It was my mum’s 91st birthday this week, or it would have been, if she’d still been alive. I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness recently, and it always brings to mind one of her favourite quotes, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…

Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

I always hear it in my head when I experience or witness an act of kindness and for a moment, I see the gentle rain, and realise why I quite like it falling on me from time to time. It’s beautiful.

It fell on me recently and unexpectedly when I was on a hiking weekend in the South Downs with friends. Uncharacteristically, I hadn’t brought a waterproof jacket with me because the weather forecast hadn’t predicted any rain at all. And here it was, going from gentle to persistent downfall in a matter of minutes. I spoke to Sue, the manager of the Eastbourne YHA we were staying in to see if she had a bin bag I could fashion into a poncho. “Just a minute,” she said, disappearing into the office. She came out holding her own waterproof jacket, “Just post it back to me when you’re done. Here’s a jiffy bag with the address on it.”

I was utterly amazed that someone would offer such a thing and thanked Sue for her kindness. “Well you’d do the same for someone, wouldn’t you?” she replied. No, I’m not sure that I would, actually. And a straw poll of my friends revealed they probably wouldn’t either. I wished I was more like Sue. We all did.

I felt a warm glow for the rest of that day, especially as the rain dissipated after an hour or so and the sun came out. I remembered the last time this had happened – the woman who bought me a coffee when I didn’t have any cash in my local coffee shop and their card reader was broken. “I’ll buy you one!” she’d said brightly, stunning me, the staff and everyone around her with this random act. I felt that warm glow all day.

Why are these moments so rare and so surprising? Maybe it’s because I live in London and everyone is surprised by someone even talking to a stranger. One of the many benefits of my recent yoga teacher training is that it introduces and reinforces the idea that we are all connected – human, animal, plant, elements – in one vast totality that is the universe. When you look in someone’s (or something’s) eyes you witness a ‘divine light’ that resides in all of us.

In our first week of training we took part in a partner yoga session that had us all moving slowly from one person to another, holding their hands and looking into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. That’s all it takes. You look, you see, you connect. Most of us cried our eyes out for a reason we couldn’t quite articulate. It seemed to me that we rarely look at each other in the eye, especially in London. Truly seeing someone or being seen is to be vulnerable. I know, because it took me a week to be able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye. Maybe I was worried about what he would see…

I turned up at the training desperate to impress. Surely, with my track record of professional presentations and ballet teaching I will shine at this. Then Sudhir started to talk about how we are all plugged in to a life-force (prana) in the totality and how we express its energy differently. If we imagine it as electricity, then we can express it as a lightbulb or a fan, even a fridge or a hairdryer. The important thing to know is that we are all unique expressions of the same thing and we are all connected by it.

I asked Sudhir why I was so desperate to shine, even to outshine others. I didn’t want to be a regular lightbulb, I wanted to be the biggest, best, shiniest Christmas light and I was exhausted by trying to achieve it. He looked down and smiled, “You have to realise that you are enough already. What are you trying to prove? And to whom? It is done.”

I didn’t have an answer to that. It was literally a lightbulb moment. I realised that I didn’t have anything left to prove, to others or myself. I could just be. I could just be a lightbulb who shares its energy with all the other bulbs around it, who could shine alongside them and be happy. There is no need to outshine anyone else or even my own achievements (I have always found my biggest competitor is myself and I’ve asked her to retire gracefully.)

I have found that the really good yoga teachers always have the ability to look into your soul. They don’t shy away from a direct gaze and there is an indefinable openness to their faces (I call it ‘yoga face’). While I was training I realised that one or two teachers I’d had back home were not kind or merciful and in fact, they were edging towards bullying. They didn’t seek any connection with their students either before or after class, and in fact, only bestowed their gaze on a few chosen ones. It felt like a cult. On my return I sought out the opposite and I have found two teachers, one in particular, who sees me. The lightbulb is shining clear and bright within her and now I see it, it’s obvious that it was there from the start, and very much missing in others.

Once you truly see people (and animals…and inside yourself) you can’t go back to averting your eyes from them. They’re there, connected to you, urging you to be a better person. Not better than them, but better because you share something with them. The Sues, the coffee-shop ladies and the good yoga teachers of the world remind you that they’re right there next to you the whole time – when you’re being jostled on a busy tube or in the supermarket checkout queue.

Or even in the gentle rain falling on you on the South Downs.

Photo credit: Mohammed Salik 2019

You’re the Voice

I’ve been doing a three-week 200-hour yoga teacher training course in Goa and it’s coming to an end tomorrow. I can scarcely believe that this is my life but somehow I’ve been directed to Agonda, this beyond-special place, to study at Sampoorna Yoga School for Mind and Body. And it is a body- and mind-altering experience.

I can also scarcely believe that the one note I’ve been given from the start about my teaching is that my voice could be louder and more confident. What?? This is me!! The person who regularly chairs and appears on panels in the publishing world, who has presented to large, industry audiences, who loves to talk confidently in front of her teams, her colleagues and her peers. It’s my thing, if you will.

And yet here, in this jungle behind the beach, my voice was diminished. I knew when I was asking questions of the teachers that they couldn’t quite hear me and were screwing up their faces in that way that people do when they’re trying to hear someone. In my head, my voice sounded sonorous but clearly it wasn’t. On my first teaching assignment, I thought I was projecting loud and clear, but no – I’d done well but the one comment was that my voice needed to be louder. This came back in the feedback from my fellow students. Of all of the things I thought I’d need to think about, this was not it.

I thought about it during our breathing and mantra meditations. I heard my voice omming and repeating the Sanskrit mantras and I knew the feedback was right – there was something tentative and weak in my voice. My throat felt a little choked like there was something trying to get out. This was new. I always felt like I had a voice. It was the one thing I ‘did’ have.

Last night at dinner a group of us were talking about the way the world celebrates extroversion over introversion and how many of us loved our Silent Day because we love to be quiet, and with ourselves alone. I told them that I’d arrived in London as a quiet, introverted young woman and I’d had to work hard to adopt the extrovert practices of the people around me in publishing. Introversion appeared to be frowned on and only extroverts got promoted. I did two lots of training in one job where we did the Myers Briggs personality colour test twice. In the first year I did it, I was a quiet, calm, harmonious green. After working within an extroverted management team for a few years, the chart showed that I was now leading with my red leadership side. I was proud of that transition and of saying that I wasn’t the woman who arrived in London all those years ago. Who wanted to be green when you could be red?

The aim of yoga is to unite the mind, the body and the self, but more specifically, its goal is to unite the self with one’s true nature, which is unconditional joy. How beautiful is that? Over the last eighteen months where I’ve been practising it, I have found myself returning to a person I was years ago, when I was still in Wales and not working in London. In a previous blog post about giving up alcohol nearly five months ago, I refer to feeling like I’ve had a ‘factory reset’. I now realise that yoga (and a very good therapist) has led me to this place and giving up alcohol was just part of the journey.

Here, in Agonda, I have started to find a voice again, beyond the words I’ve written in my book and in this blog. I realised that my voice had been internalised over the past few years and I was swimming around in the noise I was making inside, some of it spilling out into this blog. It is a different thing, to stand in front of people and speak as your true self, no microphone to amplify you, no industry framework to prop you up. You are just you, standing there, trying to communicate with your students in the clearest, simplest way possible. I couldn’t believe, at first, that aside from my volume issues, the one thing I found most difficult about the teaching was finding the words to guide people into asanas (poses). I can talk very fluently about children’s illustrated books, but suddenly I found myself unable to find the words to guide someone who’d never done downward dog before into the pose. The simplicity was the problem.

Slowly, slowly, I have started to find the words, and the clarity and the volume needed to communicate effectively. I almost feel like I’ve had to learn to speak again. I’ve had to learn to look people in the eye again and talk to them from the heart. These have been the hardest things. I caught myself not being able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye when I first asked him a question in my weedy voice. I was horrified. This isn’t me! I thought. I wanted to sound strong and competent and clever and I just sounded like a woman trying to ask a question and not finding the right words or volume.

In the final week of training I noticed that my voice had changed in the chants and in the teaching. It felt easier to think of the words I needed and to find the voice to communicate them. Yoga practice is a humbling experience, especially the ashtanga we’ve been studying, and I’ve examined my need to be the strong, competent, clever one and realised that this needs to be laid aside (not least because Sudhir told me this ‘intense craving’ is one of the Bhagavad-Gita’s three gateways to hell).

I am simply a woman trying to ask a question and finding the right words and volume.