Updated: Jul 16
It was the summer of 1980, and I was 7 years old. Reagan was in, school was out, and I was restless and sad. Then I saw it, or rather him, and his come-hither smile on the sun-withered banner. It was American Jesus - and he was inviting me to Vacation Bible School! My little book-wormy heart pounded in my chest as I contemplated if there would be workbooks and fill-in-the-blanks involved. Sign me up! For one whole week - plus a bonus week cuz I begged - I spent my mornings in the cool church basement learning about this great guy-god and the cool-kind stuff he did.
I learned about mountains and miracles, friendships and forgiveness. And I also learned about sin and suffering, often graphically. By the end, I’d blazed through that waxy-paged workbook and listed all my misdeeds in the back for future reference. And although, unfortunately, no grades were given, I must have aced the course because at the end - with a smile and a wink - Pastor Hellen’s wife handed me a certificate with my name on it. Soon thereafter Pastor Hellen himself dunked me in Jackson’s Pond, washed away my wrongdoings, and I officially became a Baptist. They even gave me another certificate to put in my sticky-sheet photo album. Redemption certified - and verified.
Fast forward a few years.
It was the summer of 2013, and I was 40 years old. Obama was in, school was out, and I was restless and sad - and ??? I don’t know what else I was. But I do know one morning in late May, I was scootering around when a voice inside my helmet said clear as a Bend day, “Go to yoga.” It was too quiet to be a thought and too loud to go unnoticed. I hadn’t been to church in years, but the Baptist in me still believed in that kinda stuff, so I pulled into the parking lot at Namaspa, a Baptiste Affiliate Studio. I shit you not. I love a deity with a sense of humor. Checking now, my Mindbody account says I’d been there 27 times over the previous 4 years, but really I didn’t like it all that much. My mind screamed that the classes were too hot and
too hard, and the teachers were too bossy. To say I was resistant would be an understatement.
But something inside me kept drawing me back. What was it? What could it be? I had no idea what was bubbling - festering - under the surface. I never heard myself ask the questions - or answer them.
Could these grueling practices be penance for my vast, undocumented transgressions? Why, yes - yes they could!
Could I repeatedly, willingly torture myself with vinyasa after vinyasa for a shot at redemption? Of course I could try!
Could the 90 degrees of hell be another baptism - this time in a pond of my own sweat? How excruciatingly exciting!
Cuz my little girl list of offenses had grown, and my heart hurt with the guilt. My big girl journal couldn’t contain the pain I felt inside. But when I could wield the whip and self-flagellate some shame away with each Sun Salutation, I somehow felt relieved. How marvelously medieval!
Of course, I was oblivious that I was thinking or doing any of this. I thought the vigor I brought to my practice was a chance to chisel myself a rockin’ middle-aged yoga body from under the extra layers I’d acquired. The whole self-smashing, personal pummeling thing hadn’t yet entered my orb of awareness.
However, I was aware of the fact that if I took the next big step and did the yoga teacher training, there would be a certificate involved. Oh. My. Gosh.
By June, I signed up paid-in-full for YTT. I was all in. I practiced hard all summer. I pushed myself to explore new territory in my body. I stuck crow. I got wheel. I was able to actually rest in downdog. I’d drown myself in salty salvation then scooter to Riverbend Park and double-dunk in the divinity of the Deschutes. I felt cleaner and got stronger. As I readied myself for the heavy artillery of the training, I imagined Suzie bringin’ out the big guns. I didn’t realize it was actually me who was packin’ the heat.
In YTT, we learned about the Baptiste methodology, and I found out it was way more than just the asana. We were encouraged to establish a meditation practice. Over the years I’d grown accustomed to giving the Sweet Baby Jesus regular earfuls, but sitting still and listening in meditation was a different skill set. Committed to earning my A in meditation, I sat. And I sat some more. I started to feel calmer, and my mind got quieter. I began to hear things - new things - I hadn’t noticed before.
We also took on inquiry, or self-study, to look at the places in our lives we were feeling stuck, frustrated, hurt, angry, or sad. I remember when we were asked to journal about this I was like, “I’m not any of these things. I have a great life. I’m so blessed. Other folks have it way worse than me. I have nothing to complain about. I’ll just skip this part, so they have the chance to work out their shit. I’m good over here.” I thought I was being generous. Turns out that’s a great way to get out of having to dig in and do the work.
I listened to my littermates (fellow YTTers) share and get insights around their situations. In one particularly formative exercise, we engaged in a compassionate process of bringing to light one of our earliest hidden assumptions and tracked it back to where we may have acquired that belief. We got to see how the young us made something up - then how we built our lives on it.
This wasn’t therapy. This was good old-fashioned reflection, rumination - and revelation! Sound the trumpets!! In Perfectly Imperfect, Baron Baptiste calls it the ‘Cosmic Joke.’ He says,
At some point in your life - most likely when you were young - you came to believe something about yourself. Someone said something to you or about you, or something happened, and you took it to mean that you were limited in some way, or flawed, or compromised. Without you even realizing it, one small event became a defining theme of your life.
Ready for the joke of it? That belief upon which you based your entire life is not real. You made it up. Or someone said it to you and you took their opinion as absolute fact.
If your first reaction to hearing this is something like, “Wait a minute, Baron. I understand that this might be true for others, and I can see how they make stuff up about themselves, but it's not true for me,” then I invite you to pause here for a moment. Take a deep breath, find your feet, find your seat, and take a deeper look at your life. Look beyond the surface experience and ask yourself if perhaps just maybe, your beliefs have been running the show. We believe life happens to us but so much of it we create by our own hand. How much of what's occurred in your life repeats or has a consistent theme? There is usually the most obvious place to look for how and where the cosmic joke is at play in your life.
You've been a walking reaction to something you made up when you were five, ten, fifteen years old. But you're reacting to ghosts... Stuff that isn't even here today. And that's exhausting. If you're not responding to what's actually happening right here, but rather reacting to your thoughts about what is right here, and you're trapped in it. You keep doing, doing, doing – trying to get someplace new, but you keep landing back in the same place. Nothing gets better in our lives as long as we're trying to outsmart the joke. You'll move the pieces around - change jobs, cities, relationships, even yoga styles. You know the Zen saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
You have the power to make up this limiting belief, and you can use that same power to unmake it. And you see your default in the clear light of day, you're no longer in its grip. You step into the space where you have the freedom of choice, and you can decide to fall back into its grip and get more of the same, or do something new.
Oh shit. (Pause.) Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. (Pause.)
I remembered back to that cold, rainy Sunday. My heart raced, and my stomach churned. I got nauseous as I saw his fluorescent orange hat and the tractor tires spin in the mud. Then the thought…
“I am bad. I destroy things.”
There it was - the Cosmic Joke. But I wasn't laughing. Silent tears poured from my eyes. I knew these tears. They were the hot tears of truth - of relief - that follow a lie exposed.
“But, I am bad. I do destroy things,” I argued to myself. “Look what I did to Thunder, to Eric, to Tom, to Jay, to PG, to…” I scoured my brain for further confirmation. I fought to keep my biases.
“I deserve to be punished.”
In meditation I sat with it - and then reluctantly looked back over my life. Slowly my patterns and coping strategies surfaced. All the productivity and innovative efforts in my classrooms - I was always creating something new - and then working to the point of exhaustion. It was my hallmark. And why? What was actually driving my behavior? The underlying fear that I was actually bad. I created to compensate for destroying. It was a nuclear silo of shame that all my efforts could never disarm.
And yes, Baron, I was exhausted. I was too exhausted to resist the Truth anymore. I didn’t have the energy to fight it. What at first seemed so absurd now made sense. I got the damn joke. This time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both at the same time. After all, laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.
And yes, to this day, I still catch myself dropping down into those ruts. I am continually catching myself in this lie, unearthing new jokes and old programming. And that is the practice. Yoga, meditation, and inquiry gave me access to getting present and awakening to my blind spots, to discovering new possibilities, and ultimately connecting to my vitality, power, and freedom.
I’ve realized I don’t need to torture myself anymore. I’ve realized I don’t need to perpetually punish myself to show remorse and grow. I now subscribe to a new, more compassionate definition of sin. Rather than seeing it as an immoral act in violation of divine law, I now believe sin is actually the forgivable act of forgetting our divine nature and connection to God. And when we fail to remember who we really are, we are more likely to engage in ‘sinful’ behaviors. In other words, when I feel deeply rooted in Love, I’m much less likely to act in ways that are Love-less. You’ve probably heard it said that hurt people hurt people. And what could possibly hurt more than being separated from Source - whether we are aware of it or not?
In yoga, we bring our hands together and bow to others and say, “Namaste.” It means “reverence to you.” It is a reminder to all that after all the toil, trial, and tribulation, we are all the beautiful, beloved children of The God of Our Understanding.
This much I know is true. Yoga has helped me remember what the 7-year-old me already knew. That no matter what lapses of love we might have listed in the back of our workbooks, we are all worthy of self-forgiveness and the sacrament of baptism - come from whom or what it may - and that the true me - and the TRUE U - lives most fully in the space of kindness, not cruelty.
No certificate required.