This is the Meaning of Practice

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

I haven’t seen her in years—a feisty, mama-bear, older woman selling books to tourists in a sleepy Thai town by a river.

Kanchanaburi is not far from Bangkok, famous for its River Kwai and immortalized in the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” inspired by the horrible events surrounding the building of the bridge during WWII.

It’s a serene kind of place to find a hammock and veg out for a few days (or lose track of time entirely), though it can jam up with tourists given its history, proximity to Bangkok, and gorgeous river views.

I used to live in Bangkok, and would make the short trip to Kanchanaburi often, to get away from the screeching city (that I love dearly). It had everything I needed: an airy, if sparsely furnished room dangling over the river; delicious food, and long, winding roads, both along the main drag and along the river—great for ambling walks.

And then there was the bookshop, conveniently located near my guesthouse. You could call this junction where the bookshop met the sprawling guesthouse entrance a “hub” the way a saloon is the hub of a Western movie situated on the frontier to nowhere.

It was perfect.

The books on offer were mostly English, stacked inside and outside the shop like faded jewels in various states of disrepair, and each transported me to a far-off world (including the world of memories), reading many of these same titles back home, which seemed such a great distance away.

The owner also had three ancient computers people used for the Internet. They often broke down, and when she couldn’t fix them, she’d ask her grandson, a boy of about 10 who hung around after school, to get to it. He always triumphed, as long as we could wait for his videogame to end.

She and I would only occasionally chat, notably during one visit soon after being bitten by a rabid dog in Indonesia. I had to get shots monthly for a while, and there was a good hospital nearby. She fussed over my small wound, let me use the computer much longer than I was supposed to, and fed me bananas.

Once, I offered to alphabetize her books, and she happily agreed, plying me with more bananas as I worked.

She was friendly in a no-nonsense kind of way, a tiny wisp of a thing. I never learned how long she’d been running the shop, how she found her way into this business, or how she felt about so many tourists hanging around her town.

One evening, I started out for the bridge later than I was normally out. As I rounded the corner, I saw her outside, taking books off a tall unit of shelves fastened to the wall. I suddenly realized that every single evening, she had to take hundreds of books off their shelves, and store them inside the small shop. Every morning, she had to put them back on the shelves.

Everyday, she was collapsing and rebuilding a significant part of her shop.

I guess I thought she’d merely cover them with tarp, or maybe I didn’t guess anything at all. But I was shocked at this twice-daily task that formed part of her modest business.

This time, I was just back from my first 10-day meditation retreat, a few hours away near the Burmese border. I had spent hours agonizing over how the time would ever pass, and how I would survive day after day doing nothing but follow my breath, which I grew to seriously dislike for at least a few minutes hourly.

I learned that in my raw, unfettered state, I was a person with very little patience; what a thick veneer between my functioning public persona and the caged animal within—that’s how it felt at times, anyway. I feared I would never learn how to treat myself, or others with kindness. Instead, I observed myself constantly wanting to be anywhere other than where I was, even if I didn’t have a clue where.

Now, here I was, watching a woman, for the thousandth time or far more, patiently picking books off shelves—a few at a time—to lock up for the night. She moved methodically, rhythmically, spritely. I don’t want to pretend I know what she was feeling inside or romanticize her life in any way, but to me, it seemed she was embodying a great practice in the art of living.

I was humbled and inspired. What a great teacher to have met.

Sometimes, when I find myself slipping into not wanting to do what I perceive to be tedious or undesirable, I think of this remarkable woman, and remember that patience—which, ultimately, is kindness, compassion, belief and love—can breathe everywhere, if I let it.

Life is our great stage for spiritual practice and growth, and that means that everything in life becomes part of this practice.

How wondrous it can be.


In Search of Life’s Breath. {Yoga}


A Practice Without Breath is Like a Sandwich Without Bread

I settle into my meditation cushion, set the timer, and take a few deep breaths. The first is always a shock to my system. It’s as though my body has been deprived of air for months. There’s actually a physical pain induced by the outer reaches of my lungs heaving and attempting to expand beyond capacity without tearing anything. Lately, as I encourage these deep breaths, I end up in a state of near panic as it dawns on me that the rest of the day will be (or has been) spent completely forgetting to let energy flow through my body. I observe my breath shorten, quicken, and all but disappear. My mind takes off on various joyrides. And when I come back to the breath, I find that there’s precious little to attend to.


So I breathe. But soon my mind spins off into a joyride of thoughts. I spend the next several minutes completely unaware of breathing in and breathing out. My spiraling mind, more often than not brimming with concern for something or other, induces my breath to shorten so that I become dizzy and uncomfortable. This makes me think of all the hidden little corners inside of me brimming with distress, unfulfilled desires, and trauma that I allow to fester and flourish by not breathing into them. I “reset” again, aiming to breathe deeply into my sources of tension. But I’m already off somewhere else by the time the outbreath is releasing. And the cycle continues.

So I breathe. But soon my mind spins off into a joyride of thoughts. I spend the next several minutes completely unaware of breathing in and breathing out.

Once, during an intensive yoga course, I noticed my teacher focused on my belly as I tried to huff and puff my way to a cleansed psyche via kapalabhati, or “skull shining” breath. When we were done, I was informed that I had the process in reverse.

You can breathe backwards? I thought. Evidently, yes! Instead of emitting the air with a quick outbreath, I was shoving the old, toxic air back in with a forceful inbreath. I asked (against all hope) if this was, sort of, okay, and got a gentle indication that this was something I might want to work on. I also learned that, like many, I’m a chest-breather—meaning that I only use a tiny portion of my lung capacity.

I was flummoxed. One of the greatest obstacles I had to mount on my way to a balanced self was breathing? (The very first thing I did when I came into this world?) I felt crushed under the weight of perceived defeat. I wondered how I was still alive and moving relatively well through life, when I should be constantly hungry for the nourishment of a good, full breath. I should be wheezing and panting and raisin-like, shriveled on my journey through this incarnation.

One of the great rewards of intensive yoga courses is that we can put ourselves directly in the path of beautiful teachers who can guide us when we falter, encourage us when we lapse, and remind us of what we habitually forget. Going beyond the help that I received with alignment, meditation techniques, and theory, I was thrilled to have found teachings on a subject I once thought was so unconscious and obvious that I couldn’t imagine needing to be mentored in it. Breathing became my new obsession.

But, after a little while, I started to hate breathing. I resisted doing kapalabhati and activating the bandhas (energy locks), both of which felt like a journey directly into quicksand. Gradually, though, during a period of long travel and daily inspiration, I built my strength, body awareness, and lung capacity—and even began to look forward to pranayama (breathing techniques).

I would start each morning by gazing out the window. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than a view of the world on a new day. (Greeting the day in this way is very easy to do if you’re in the Himalayas, which I was for a time!) I’d consciously take deep breaths and contemplate how lucky I was to be there, right then, to be alive. Then, I’d sit on my mat and try to infuse my practice with a feeling of gratitude, a will to persist, and an attitude of compassion. I’d say, “It’s okay to start slow. Take just a few breaths and do a few locks (bandha activations) with full consciousness, and that’s all. There’s always tomorrow to aim for more.”

I’m not one to always remember to go easy on myself, but the practice became as deeply immersed in self-love and self-acceptance as it did in learning how to fill my body with the expansive flow of energy.

However, over the past couple of years, truth be told, I’ve lapsed. Slowly, imperceptibly even, my practice has often navigated into rote territory—this in direct proportion to time spent earning a living in front of the computer. My busy mind follows me with great skill and precision. And, oddly, the first thing I drop as I step onto the mat is my awareness of breath. Which is like making a sandwich without bread or riding a bicycle without a bicycle. You get my point, right?

True yoga, we know, is not the art of balancing precariously on the cranium while legs splay widely with varying degrees of beauty and grace. Yoga is not the art of feats of flexibility, extreme cleansing practices, or mudra or mantra memorization.

The goal for me now is not to be shocked by the blast of a deep intake of air, but to have each breath be a revelation of the wondrousness of existence.

Yoga can and does involve these things, of course, and we are each gifted with the beautiful challenge of finding a yogic path that works best for us. But without a firmly rooted connection with our own breath, we can only (at the very best) mimic the actions and passions of life.The goal for me now is not to be shocked by the blast of a deep intake of air, but to have each breath be a revelation of the wondrousness of existence. And so I ask of myself: slow down, place hands on belly and chest, invite joy and vibrancy in, let tension and holding patterns out.

And just breathe.

**This article was recently published in Yoga International.

National Poetry Month. Haiku, Day 6.

Poem and Photography by Tammy T. Stone

Poem and Photography by Tammy T. Stone


Happy is Knowing When Enough is Enough. {Quote}


Authors Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph (Joe) Heller are at a party, in a mansion, surrounded by billions in net worth. They’re hanging out, possibly feeling out of place, or maybe just taking it all in with a laugh.

I would have liked to be a fly on that wall!

I came across this anecdote by Kurt Vonnegut via a friend,  and couldn’t resist sharing.

As Kurt Vonnegut relates, Heller makes an extremely incisive point about different kinds of wealth: there is the kind we can accumulate and touch and see, and the other, which comes from a much deeper, more gratifying place.

Sometimes enough is just … enough. This is the goal, isn’t it?

And because he’s Kurt Vonnegut, he tells his tale with precisely the kind of humour and verve we’d expect.

Happy Birthday (November 11), Kurt Vonnegut!


“True story, Word of Honor:

Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer, now dead, and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island.

I said, ‘Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel Catch-22 has earned in its entire history?’

And Joe said, ‘I’ve got something he can never have.’

And I said, ‘What on earth could that be, Joe?’

And Joe said, ‘The knowledge that I’ve got enough.’

Not bad! Rest in peace!”


**I found this amazing quote at Brainpickings, here. For this article and some great Vonnegut YouTube videos, see here!


The World of Away (There’s No War in World)

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone


The World of Away


Walking to yoga class yesterday, we noticed that the horizon had disappeared. There was water and there was sky and no line between, like there had been the day before.

A boat hovered in the distance and the sun was bright but invisible. Both sky and sea were a shade of phosphorescent blue reminding me of four old prints of Old Quebec hanging in my parents’ basement in the home of my adolescence, the one with the large brown circular bar, snooker table and hot tub we never used so that it became filled with stuff, and eventually, my stuff, the remnants of seven years of apartment-living in Toronto.

My parents agreed to take the stuff. They didn’t expect me to leave and not come back (yet). How do I explain to them that one horizon-less day (and quirky, magical things like this happen almost every day – makes years of travel make sense?

Not that I was looking for sense, or magic, even.

I just started by coming away, and I fell in love, and I continued. I always liked being away, though.

Even when I lived in Toronto, I would love to go to new cafes in unknown (to me) neighbourhoods and more or less pretend I was living another life somewhere else. Everything felt better with this filter – I wasn’t trying to get away from myself, I don’t think, anyway. I loved being with myself, in my body, just experiencing the world of Away. I didn’t want to be someone else. I think this is why my wishes came true. Wishes can’t come true for you if you don’t want to, or resist being you, because then who’s left to receive the wishes fulfilled?

I wanted to continue, as me, but I wanted the backdrop to change. I wanted, without knowing it, to be in the position of seeing a horizon-less sky in a Southern island of a country grown so dear from me, so far from my origins.

And to take a ferry to the island that was donated from or sold to Thailand by Japan, who used it in the 80s, with pink and purple round Formica tables, which made me feel I was on the Love Boat – this reminded me about the show; I YouTubed the theme song later and got swept away, again someplace else.

Again as myself.

And when the horizon-less sky disappears it’s only a matter of time before the clouds gather and the rains come, because it’s the season.

I love rain. It brings the world together. So now I’m tucked away on my balcony, writing on a wooden table looking at bamboo trees, and our new cat for the month has squeezed between me and the back of the chair, and suddenly I could be back in Toronto on a rainy day in some new cafe, sipping tea, imagining all the lives yet to come.

In the meantime, I have tomorrow, when the horizon, after the haze, will probably be back.


Haiku: Bow down deep

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone


I close my eyes, touch
It where fright remains, hot, bright:
Bow down deep to sun.


Wisdom & Compassion: Why We Need Both to be Fulfilled.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone


“The human heart is basically very compassionate, but without wisdom, compassion will not work. Wisdom is the openness that lets us see what is essential and most effective.” ~ Venerable Khandro Rinpoche

John Milton, the poet who wrote the epic “Paradise Lost,” famously talked about how we can’t know light without dark, good without any concept of evil.

There are definitely limitations to framing the world through dualities, but it’s also true that as humans, we have a finely honed ability to discriminate between one thing and another, to isolate things out, and this allows us to move around the world with relative ease.

If we come upon something and can’t identify it, we can always get closer to whatever essence it might have by trying to figure out what it is not, because we have evolved to know how to make distinctions.

In an important way, Buddhist teachings can be seen to run along similar lines. Learning who we are is less about scrutinizing the qualities we possess (because anything we possess, obsess over, or cling to is ultimately transient), but by stripping away the layers of who/what we are not.

We are not our conditioning, false beliefs, habit patterns, misguided perceptions. Even our mind! The ability to make this discernment is one of the foundations that can guide us toward wisdom.

Needless to say, this process of disrobing or “dis-arming” is a fragile and challenging one. At every moment, we encounter obstacles as our egos resist—tear, scream, claw at us—as we part with our lifelong, cherished ideas about ourselves. Our very identity markers are on the line, and this is more than little terrifying.

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” ~ Pema Chodron

But we want to know the truth, don’t we? It certainly helps to know something about the direction to which we’re headed. In Buddhism, there are two beautiful qualities we are striving for, the benchmarks of attainment.

These are wisdom and compassion.

We throw these words around a lot, especially in so-called spiritual circles, but it’s actually very difficult to grasp these sought-after characteristics of a realized human, and it’s easy to develop either an oversimplified view of what they are, or a defeatist attitude about achieving them.

What are wisdom and compassion, then, in the Buddhist sense?

Keeping in mind that different schools of Buddhism have somewhat varying perspectives, wisdom involves uncovering what lies within. We don’t have to “get” anything to have it. Rather, we have to peel away the layers that are blocking us from directly observing it. Wisdom, then, is associated with truth and clear seeing, and taking steps toward it create remarkable guidelines for right living.

With this clarity that wisdom brings, what we can understand is something best-described as “emptiness”—which doesn’t mean that nothing exists or that life is meaningless, but that our conventional way of regarding objects as having separate, independent existence is not accurate. Wisdom’s clarity also allows us to not only understand, but experience the impermanence of all things, or the truth of no-self, change and transience.

We tend to assume that wisdom is just like knowledge and intellect, because many of us have been raised to value the kind of smarts that come from amassing information and playing mental gymnastics. But this kind of knowledge can become a great hindrance on the route to wisdom.

True wisdom cannot come directly and solely from learning about concepts, but by arriving at truths through direct experience and observation. Meditation is a key practice here, as is honing the mind and cultivating compassion.

What is compassion, then? We usually relegate compassion to the back doors of the proverbial intellectual classroom. We assume compassion is either easy to call up when needed, or something instinctive, that we’re already, naturally good at. Otherwise we’d be studying it in school, right?

We’re taught to be kind and helpful to others, sure, but at the same time many of us are so frantically caught up in the dramas of passion and romance that we have almost lost an ability to have relationships without attachment. A lot of what passes for compassion, then, really comes from self-interested motivation and ego.

The classic example is how we perceive the idea of “love,” that sweet, torturous and perfect bundle of feelings we usually direct at someone(s) in particular, with expectations of receiving a whole lot in return. This, of course, is attachment – to a person, to outcome, to pleasant feelings—and it’s very conditional. Love, on the other hand, must necessarily be unconditional and universal.

Compassion stems from a profound realization that there is a lot of pain in the world, and wanting more than anything to ease all beings of their suffering. No “self” crops up in this desire, though cultivating our own happiness, really working toward self-love and acceptance, is integral if we want to develop compassion for others.

What’s truly beautiful to me here is that Buddhism highlights both wisdom and compassion—interestingly, wisdom is often depicted as the female half and compassion as a male half of the wisdom/compassion equation, and of course they unite, and there is no distinction.

We can say that  compassion without wisdom leads to suffering, because we have to know how to help others without harming ourselves in the process. We need the very wisdom of discernment we were talking about earlier. We have to understand boundaries and understand how we can best be of benefit to others.

We can also say that wisdom without compassion leads to suffering, because no amount of knowledge or truth-attainment is worth its weight in wisdom-gold if it’s not accompanied by a full, open and giving heart and a genuine desire to ease the suffering of others.

And this is how we come to have two wings of one angel, soaring in the light of our human efforts to be at peace.


*Also published here!