Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why do I do this?

A photographer gets people to pose for him. A yoga instructor gets people to pose for themselves. ~T. Guillemets

I am often amused to note how teachings often come at me from all sides, again and again until I notice them. It is comforting to feel that I will continue to have opportunities to learn until I get it right. For example, I stumbled across the above quote this morning, and I also read this blog entry, and suddenly my mind was off, making connections between recent events and thinking about motivation in teaching.

Sometimes it is hard to take the ego out of teaching. In my day job, I manage a staff of ESL teachers. I believe that a teacher is there to motivate, support and empower students to learn for themselves, whether it be yoga, English, math, or patience that is being taught. A good teacher acts completely in service of something much greater than herself. However, I suspect that a lot of teachers, myself included, are guilty of teaching for themselves, at least some of the time. Sometimes I observe a teacher, and I see ego holding forth in front of a captive audience, enjoying the attention. Sometimes I step back and look at myself and see the same thing. Sometimes we forget the students are even there, except to admire me, me, me. Their successes are there to make us feel good, their failures plunge us into the depths of self-loathing.

Sometimes students say things like, "You are the best teacher I've ever had," and we get that warm feeling inside. There we go again, attaching that comment to our image of ourselves, attaching to that image. Positive feedback is like junk food - once you've had a little, there's that craving eating away at you again. You get one compliment, and then you look for more reinforcement ~ how many students are coming to class, for instance, how do they react when you speak to them? Suddenly, you're teaching just to get more of that, and not for your students at all.

The same thing can happen just in asana practice. Have you ever had someone compliment you on a pose? Then suddenly, you are practicing for the compliment. Suddenly, instead of being in the pose noticing how you feel, you are standing outside trying to see how cool you look.

Or blogging, for instance. Why am I doing this? I am documenting my learning, sure, trying to assimilate teachings I receive from everywhere... but I could do that in a private journal, so why here? Why in a public forum? I am amused to observe how discouraged I become when I don't receive any comments. Suddenly, the little girl in me is stamping her foot, screaming, "Nobody listens to me!" Conversely, when I do receive feedback, I get that glowing feeling. When I see that email in my inbox ___ has commented on your post I feel like a child opening a present.

Hello ego!

Of course, it is not all ego. In this public forum, I have the opportunity to inspire others (as the quote and blog I opened with inspired me) to take a new step in their own journeys. And of course, I have witnesses ~ which helps me to stay the path rather than forgetting about my own realizations.

It turns out that teaching, like everything else, is an opportunity to practice. No surprise here. This article is a great opening discussion about the delicate balance of the ego in yoga teaching. I think the concepts here can be extended to other types of teaching, and even beyond into everything we do.

Why am I doing this? This question is worth considering from time to time. Also, one of my teachers always uses the phrase Where can you let go? throughout her classes. In every pose, in every moment, there is something that does not serve us that can be released, there is something that can be given and something that can be given up.

There is of course much, much more that can be said about ego. Swami Krishnananda takes a stab at it here. I particularly like this part:
The ego is trying to practise yoga. Oh, what a pity! The ego cannot practise yoga, because the ego is to be destroyed in yoga. So how can it practise yoga? Here we have a strange difficulty, and it has to be overcome with a strange technique; that is yoga itself. Yogena yogo jñātavya yogo yogātpravartate (Y.B. III.6), says the Yoga Bhashya. Yoga is achieved by yoga itself; there is no other means. This is what yoga tells us.

Ahhhh, you've got me, Swami Krishnananda. What a pity! And back to the practice I go.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

-- Rumi

Staying Grounded

Here is the Daily Om again from February 13. (Sometimes I send these things to myself and then forget about them for a few days until they surface again in my inbox, delicious!)

Staying Grounded in a Big City or Busy World

1. Live simply and live deliberately. By choosing not to get caught up in the details of this fast-paced world, you are doing your part to slow down. You will also discover that you have more time to enjoy being alive.

2. Stay in touch with yourself. Soul searching, meditation, and journaling are just a few of the many activities you can take part in to stay aware and learn as much as you can about your emotions, reactions, likes, dislikes, dreams, and fears. Having a solid sense of self gives you a firm foundation for living in this world.

3. Support or teach others as often as you can. This can help you form connections with people while also giving you an opportunity to make the world a better place.

4. Consciously choose what you will allow into your being. The media bombards us
with visions of hate, war, and pain. Be judicious about what you read, watch, and listen to.

5. Acknowledge the beauty that resides around you. Whether you live in a sprawling metropolis or a stereotypical suburb, there are natural and man-made wonders just waiting to be discovered by you.

6. Nurture your ties to your tribe. If you don’t have one, create a community that you can belong to. Modern life can be isolating. When you have a tribe, you have a circle that you are a part of. Its members – loved ones, friends, or neighbors - can be a source of support, caring, guidance, and companionship.

7. See the larger picture. Remember that the way that you choose to live is not the only way to live. Widen your perspective by exploring other modes of being through research, travel, and discussion.

8. Embrace the challenges that life presents to you, and challenge yourself often. After a time, even the most exciting jobs or lifestyles can seem routine. Never stop assimilating new knowledge about whatever you are doing, and your life will never seem dull.

9. Move your body. In this busy world, it can be easy to live a sedentary life. Movement reacquaints us with our bodies and connects us to the earth in a visceral way. It also restores our vitality.

10. Make time for stillness, silence, and solitude. The world can be noisy, and we are subject to all kinds of noises nearly every waking hour. We are also often "on the go" and unable to relax. Being alone in a peaceful place and making time for quiet can help you stay in touch with yourself.

I came back from my last trip a month ago feeling incredibly grounded, but it didn't take long for me to start feeling disconnected and uneasy again. I have lived in the city for years now and I kind of like it ~ until I spend some time away and I realize how insane the pace is. These ideas for staying grounded are important. The blog helps. The yoga practice helps. The meditation helps.

But somehow, so often, I feel that most of the day passes me by, in a blur. I like living in the city, or at least I have come to like it. But recently I feel like the city might be stealing my soul. It doesn't help that most of my tribe has departed in the past couple of years. Perhaps it is time for me too to depart, to seek new surroundings. But this too, I want to do slowly and deliberately and right.

I don't have any answers, not today, just many questions. And a list of practices that could be helpful, if I can find the dedication to follow them.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Anything is possible

If you don't know ODE Magazine, I highly recommend it as a source of positive, inspiring news. Last night I was looking through the January/February 2009 issue and I saw this article. The quote accompanying the story reminded me of my last post. "Without impermanence, nothing is possible." "When you have nothing, anything is possible." Hmmmm. This makes me think of my recent stay in a poor Panamanian village, where the people had very little in the way of money or possessions but were rich in joy and community. What does it mean to be happy, to be free?

Monday, February 16, 2009


If we are not empty, we become a block of matter. We cannot breathe, we cannot think. To be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and to breathe out. We cannot be alive if we are not empty. Emptiness is impermanence, it is change. We should not complain about impermanence, because without impermanence, nothing is possible.
-- Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha's Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Oddly enough, watching Planet Earth makes me think about impermanence. The life that animals live on this earth can be brutal, and yet they seem peaceful. For us humans, living so close to death is terrifying. We spend our lives trying to deny change, illness and death. For many animals, brushes with death are a daily occurrence and yet they seem to accept them in a way we have not. Perhaps in distancing ourselves from death, we have done the human race a disservice. I'm not sure. It is difficult to judge without being able to get inside an animal's head somehow.

Talking with a friend recently about the death of someone she knew, I thought of the five remembrances (above). We spend much of our time putting these five things out of our mind. This is the root of all of our grief, the realization that our illusion of permanence is just that, an illusion, a mere fairy tale. I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to come to terms with these five things. This is heavy stuff. You can't just snap your fingers and be OK with it.

Shortly after my long-term relationship ended last fall, I took a workshop with Laura Tyree at the Ojai Yoga Crib. The theme of last year's Crib was the Queen of Hearts "GROW". How appropriate for me. The Crib is always appropriate, always exactly what I need. The universe is an amazing place.

Laura asked me two questions about my break-up: (1) What good has come of it, what have I learned from it? It has deepened my practice, and (2) What do I fear? Loneliness. Then she said, "When you feel that loneliness, turn into it. It is a divine loneliness. We are all seeking God."

Hmmm... I take "God" in a non-denominational way here to mean universality, the interconnectedness of all beings in this universe. And indeed, perhaps this is what we are all seeking. I have been thinking about Laura's words a lot, about how if you sink into the loneliness and stay present in it, you might find what it is that connects all of us. You might find the essence of what it means to be truly alive.

As I am making my way towards the other side of grief, it occurs to me that Thich Nhat Hanh is right (as usual), in his gently humorous way. I love this line: "We should not complain about impermanence, because without impermanence, nothing is possible." Without old age, illness, death, loss and change, nothing is possible. I am trying to sit with this knowledge, over and over. I am considering seeking out the loneliness and dancing with it, just to see what happens.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


I had breakfast with a friend this morning and we were discussing our yoga practices and how we have both been practicing less than we would like. This is something that happens to me again and again. The asana practice, and also the other limbs of yoga, contribute positively to my life; I feel well in every way when I am practicing regularly. And yet... And yet, over and over in my life, there are times when I fall out of practice, when I stop practicing asana and meditation and pranayama, when I stop living consciously in the world.

The outcome of this lack of practice is always negative, not only for myself but for those around me. Frankly, when I am not practicing, I don't much like the person I become. I am haunted by ghosts of depression, anger and impatience. I treat others without compassion. I treat myself without compassion. I lack energy and joy in my daily life.

So the big question is: why, if I understand that my life is better in every way when I practice, do I ever stop?! My friend had some different insights into why this is the case in her life. In my case, I think it is most simply defined as sloth. My use of this term in the context of yoga practice is borrowed from Donna Farhi's
Bringing Yoga to Life. She describes this problem as follows:

The sloth is a bearlike creature giving to hanging upside down and moving so slowly that algae gives its brown coat a green tinge. [see image] Of the nine obstacles to the yogic path listed in the Yoga-Sutra, four can be attributed in some way to the effects of dullness, laziness, and inertia. Sloth makes it almost impossible to establish a firm ground for practice, and even if we are able to do so, sloth may prevent us from sustaining any ground we have gained. Most of us have a sense of what's good for us. This knowledge of the medicine we need bypasses the central dilemma: How are we going to get to the medicine cabinet? (pg. 163)
Of course, spiritual seekers of many faiths have been aware of the danger of sloth for a very long time. It is one of the seven deadly sins; Thomas Aquinas described it as "sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good... [it] is evil in its effect, if it so oppresses man as to draw him away entirely from good deeds." What is this sense of inertia that causes us to spend our energy unwisely and keeps us from pursuing a path of joy and good deeds? And how do we combat it?

Farhi suggests that a common solution in many traditions is the
contemplation of death. Awareness that our lives could end at any moment can help to open the heart and connect with life fully. It is the lack of awareness of our interconnectedness that allows us to live our lives carelessly and without attention to the practice. If we can realize that all this will one day pass, every moment becomes a opportunity to connect with what is eternal and precious. If we can honestly consider the reality of our own death, we will be forced to consider what is truly important, what gives meaning to our lives here on earth, and what leads us to happiness.

This practice sounds deceptively easy. It isn't. For whatever reason, I persist over and over in cutting myself off from joy. It is very easy to sit here in front of my computer and type these words of commitment, very hard to interrupt my habitual numbness and teach myself to be present. Having a community helps, and this is why I spend the money to go to yoga class or attend conferences, to find this inspiration. And this is why I am writing this blog.

In the yoga sutras, Patanjali says that "The wise see suffering in all experience... But suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented. The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness and what it regards" (2.15- 2.17). This is good news: future suffering can be prevented, and there is a way to do this, there are specific practices we can follow (yoga!). We can detach ourselves from our suffering and from the material world, realize that all of that is not who we are, and abide in pure awareness.

And yet here I go again, journeying through the world, grasping so fiercely at everything and perpetuating my own suffering - and when I suffer, I contribute to the suffering of others. Trying to find a path that will allow me to maintain awareness, so that I can let the world go with each exhale. Beginning this practice, again and again. I don't think I have the answers to the question of what causes sloth and how to overcome it, but I am willing to listen to any suggestions I can find.

Farhi has some parting words of wisdom:

When inertia and joylessness is our primary coloring, it is helpful to envisage some moment in our life when we felt infused with vitality and happiness, even if all we can conjure up is a single instant... Vividly contemplate the details of this experience... Then, as you consider your present situation, allow a creative solution to suggest itself to you.

Yoga teaches us that the way to joy is through joy. When we get a taste of this delightful state of equanimity, there is really nothing left to choose. When we are wedded to life it will seem ridiculous to use our energies for anything but strengthening that marriage. When we make a commitment to this inner relationship, life chooses us and we become instruments for fulfilling its purpose. (pg. 174)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Man up a tree

Recently, I discovered this blog, in which there has been a lot recently about a zen koan about a man up a tree. The Dalai Grandma outlines the story like this:

The basic idea is, You are hanging from a tree by your mouth. You can't reach a branch with your hands or feet. Someone comes by and asks you to tell him about Zen. You have a dilemma: if you speak, you fall and die. If you don't, you are abandoning your responsibility to others. What do you do?
The man's dilemma spoke to me too, so I have been following the blog carefully. The Dalai Grandma's final post on the koan is here. The part that caught my attention was this in particular:

The thought came as an image while I was carefully steering through the parking lot at the health club, where people seemed likely today to get in wrecks. I visualized a man hanging from a tree, hanging by his mouth, remember, in his dilemma, and then I saw the grass just a few inches under him. Aha, I thought. The koan cleverly omits to say how high in the tree he is. So, no problem. Just let go and fall out of the dilemma. Land on the nice soft grass. Sometimes we make our dilemma so convoluted that this is the only way to handle it.

She also makes reference to a John Burroughs quote: leap and the net will appear.

In addition to the obvious, the leap of faith I talked about in a
previous post, this whole recurring theme has really made me think about how I tend to complicate everything, trying to make everything mean something. Sometimes I get so caught up in it all that it takes the mental equivalent of a slap in the face to wake me up.

Buddhist teacher
Pema Chodron talks about this in her book Start Where You Are.

...interruptions themselves - surprises, unexpected events, bolts out of the blue - can awaken us to the experience of both absolute and relative bodhichitta, to the open, spacious quality of our minds and the warmth of our hearts.

This is the slogan about surprises as gifts. These surprises can be pleasant or unpleasant; the main point is that they can stop our minds. You're walking along and a snowball hits you on the side of your head. It stops your mind. (p. 78)

The surprise that can wake you up can be something very small. For example, recently I was carrying on at length about something in my own mind when a friend said to me, "Look the situation is very simple" and proceeded to summarize my situation in a couple of sentences. His words stopped me like that snowball in the side of my head. At first, I was offended by the logic. No, my situation is not simple, I protested to myself. But the honest truth was that my situation was simple, I just didn't want to see it. Like in the Dalai Grandma's interpretation of the Man in the Tree koan, I could just let go of the branch and fall to the ground.

Sometimes we need friends who can wake us up like this. People who see the world in different terms and are able to shake you out of your habitual way of seeing. This week I am trying to see the world as simple and logical. To accept things as they are, and not to make things mean more than they do. I am also trying to find the patience to sit with my dilemmas, as one sits with a koan. And to embrace the surprises, even the unpleasant ones.

And to trust that the universe will give me what I need. Including, when I'm ready to leap, a net.