Friday, April 24, 2009

Waiting for a Sign

If you let it, the universe leads you. Sometimes, it's hard to let it ~ not because I don't want to but because I'm clinging on to something futile. And because over the years, I've forgotten how to listen. Like everything else, it takes practice to connect, be still, and wait for the answers to come. Erich Schiffmann calls it "Googling the Internet of Infinite Mind." (Gotta love Erich.)

Because words are so important to me, I think the universe helps me out in times of particular denseness by putting things in plain English. One example of this took place when I was living and teaching English in Japan. I was in the midst of a particularly unpleasant work situation - an unethical and possibly slightly insane boss was making things difficult and my coworkers were quitting rapidly. In spite of my deep commitment to my students and remaining coworkers, I was growing more and more uncomfortable with my boss' behavior and the effect it was having on our work environment and our ability to provide consistent quality classes. I was only 23 and had never encountered a situation like this before.

One day, I was walking from the train station to the school along my usual route, which took me into an underpass under the main road. As I came down the stairs, I could see that the underpass was completely empty. Then a lone male figure entered the underpass from the other side and walked towards me. He was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with large black lettering that said, in English, "QUIT YOUR JOB."

He stopped me in my tracks. The message couldn't have been clearer.

Or another example: last Wednesday was my birthday. Wednesday is not a great day for birthday celebrations anyway, and with everything else going on in my life (and my friends' lives), I ended up celebrating my birthday as I've been spending much of my personal time: alone. I had a divine (pun intended) vegetarian lunch at Jyoti-Bihanga and was feeling rather reflective as I considered all the changes in my life over the past year. I was deep in my past when I heard the voice of another diner ring out, clear as a bell. "Where are you going from here?" she asked. I was so sure that she was talking to me that I turned around.

Where am I going from here? Of course I have no idea. But if I get really still and wait, I'm pretty sure the universe will let me know.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Healing Those Who Are Broken

At the conclusion of this evening's yoga class, my teacher Joshua Graner told us that he has been doing some work with the US military teaching yoga to veterans and soldiers with PTSD. Problems with PTSD and other disorders have reached crisis levels, and the military, not knowing what else to do, is paying for clinical studies using yoga, acupuncture and other treatments from Eastern medical traditions. Click here for a recent article on the subject. While the writer is skeptical about some of the treatments the military is trying (I'm trying not to be offended by his use of the term "wild-sounding" to refer to some of the techniques authorized), he does support yoga for vets. Click here for a Yoga Journal article on yoga as treatment for PTSD. Joshua is a great person to be doing this work. Not only is he an amazing teacher and healer, but he started his career as an army medic. I'm excited to see the military taking these steps to find healing for those who have been traumatized by battle - maybe some day we will actually be teaching peace, love, and mindfulness to prevent war itself.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Virtual Sangha?

To practice right mindfulness we need the right environment, and that environment is our Sangha. Without a Sangha, we are very weak. In a society where everyone is rushing, everyone is being carried away by their habit energies, practice is very difficult. That is why our Sangha is our salvation. The Sangha where everyone is practicing mindful walking, mindful speaking, mindful eating seems to be the only chance for us to succeed in ending the vicious cycle.

And what is the Sangha? The Sangha is a community of people who agree with each other that if we do not practice right mindfulness, we will lose all the beautiful things in our soul and all around us. People in the Sangha standing near us, practicing with us, support us so that we are not pulled away from the present moment."

-- Thich Nhat Hanh, from Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities in A Lifetime of Peace edited by Jennifer Schwamm Willis (p. 280)

It is so important to have a community of people who support your practice. Waking up is painful - changing habits you have followed for your whole life is not easy. I fail more than I succeed; time and time again I lost track of the practice. I often long for more of a community to practice with, especially at work. I have friends who practice yoga and meditation, but few I see regularly. I go to yoga classes for the sense of community support, but don't see the other students outside of class, and most of the people I see during the day do not follow the same practices. I know that there are lots of yogis and meditators in San Diego, and that I can go out and find them. But my life is consumed by my work and my studies, and I have another year to go at least before I obtain my MA. It is all I can do just to get all the work done, but I am concerned by the fact that there will always be excuses like this and I really do feel like the more yoga there is in my life, the better I feel.

I don't think it is for everyone to drop everything and go live in an ashram or other practice community. I want to practice engagement in my work, not leave my work behind. Sometimes, I do question my career choice. I wonder if I shouldn't be teaching yoga. But I'm halfway through an expensive degree - and in fact, I'm excited about what I do. I still hope that International Education can contribute positively to the world.

And besides: I'm worried about the illusion behind the idea that changing my career will make my life better. I hear this too much in the world: If I was just doing something different, if I could just find Mr. Right, if I lived somewhere different, I would be happier. I'm suspicious of it. There's lots of stuff to work with, whatever I'm doing, and I suspect that the path will be much the same, no matter which fork I take.

So there's still the question of community - How do I find one? Do I need to? I'm not sure what the answers are, but I do know that the internet has brought an interesting dimension to this search. I hear a lot about the evils of the internet - and I'll be the first to admit that I spend way too much time on it, I allow the internet to bring me out of the present moment every day, to steal attention from the breath, to lull me out of reality and to dull my attention. But like any tool, the internet is not inherently evil, and one gift it has brought me is a kind of virtual sangha. Through this blog, I have discovered a wide-ranging blogging community of like-minded folks - and I thank you for reading, for commenting, for supporting my practice. I hope that I am supporting yours. In the absence of a warm, human, local community, the virtual sangha may be the next best thing.

Now here's the rub: blogging, reading blogs, and commenting is not really practice. Getting practice ideas from the internet is only useful if you follow it up with the actual practice. Talking about yoga and meditation is not at all the same as doing yoga and meditation. I would hate to quit the internet cold turkey - but I would like to learn how to use the internet more constructively and less as a distraction. I'm grateful for and excited about this community, but I'm curious about ways the internet can be a better tool to support my practice in the real world, to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative influence it brings to my life.

I'm putting it to the commmunity. Any ideas?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Yoga Poems

I've been wanting to write the poetry I find in yoga. I did a quick search to see who else is doing this, and found Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By by Leza Lowitz. Here's a sample:

Virabhadrasana II
Warrior II

Here there is nothing to fight
except willfulness.
Some lean too far
into the past.
Others stretch way out
into the future.
The true warrior
stays in the
burning deeper
into whatever comes,
or sometimes with
even more difficulty,
what doesn't.

It's not earthshattering poetry, but I like it. Might be worth checking out the whole collection. Might be worth starting a collection of my own.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bus meditations

I stubbornly continue to ride public transportation rather than buying a car. I am repeatedly told that it is not possible to survive in Southern California without a car. What people mean when they say this is: It's not easy to live in Southern California without a car. We are so used to hyperbole in our culture, so used to hearing anything that requires the slightest effort or patience referred to as impossible, we have begun to believe it.

It is ABSOLUTELY possibly to live in San Diego without a car. That's not to say it's easy, but I believe that we can only change the world through our own actions. We cannot be responsible for the actions of others, but by acting with integrity ourselves, we can inspire others to follow suit, we can create movements of many individuals acting with integrity. Peace is possible only through enough individuals acting peacefully. We cannot change someone into a peaceful person, we can only change ourselves. The April page of my 2009 Thich Nhat Hanh calendar bears this quote:
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

So I choose not to eat meat most of the time because I do not wish to support financially to the evils of the American meat industry, and I choose not to own a car largely because I see many benefits to choosing public transportation including:
  • Reduced cost to me
  • Reduced cost to the environment
  • Reduced traffic
  • More exercise (I walk a lot)
  • Controlled consumption (I think twice before going to the store and I only buy what I can carry)
  • Opportunities to engage with the realities of my community, to practice yoga on a daily basis out in the world

To be completely honest, there are other factors which speak less to my good moral character such as the fact that I am totally intimidated by the whole car shopping experience.

Call me crazy, but I am getting along fine without a car. Given, the public transportation system in San Diego is appalling and getting worse, carrying on a fine California tradition of overreliance on private motor vehicles. However, if everyone keeps driving cars rather than riding transit, there will be no motivation to change the system - so I have persisted over nearly five years. It does limit where I can live and where I can shop, but not necessarily in a bad way. There are a few things that I regret not being able to do, but every few months I rent a car and take care of a lot of these chores. I rely on friends for rides and sometimes I feel guilty about that.

Anyway, I wanted to address my last point in the above list (opportunities to engage with the realities of my community, to practice yoga on a daily basis out in the world) because I think it's an aspect of riding public transportation which is not usually discussed. A friend recently reminded me about the red light meditation, which got me thinking about bus meditations. For example:

  • The waiting for the bus meditation - see the red light meditation (link above). Unlike the red light meditation, though, the waiting for the bus meditation is tricky because it can go on for a pretty long time and you never know when the bus is going to arrive. By nature, monkey mind wants to go back to thoughts of When is the bus coming? Where is the bus? Why is it late? I'm so hot/ cold/ tired/ bored. My feet hurt. etc. What a gift, to have a built-in exercise of bringing yourself back to the body, the breath, the present moment. (By the way, when will the bus come? When you are ready for it!) I also like to do tadasana and pranayama at the bus stop.

  • Slowing down - In our world, we are always going, going, going nowhere fast. What a gift, to have pauses built into your day! When you are waiting for a bus, there is nothing to do that will make the bus come faster. There is nothing to do but exist at the bus stop. When you are on the bus, there is nothing you can do to arrive at your destination faster. (By the way, there is really nothing you can do when you're driving either - but people usually try and it's usually dangerous!) So you can experience complete freedom to allow things to unfold as they must and there is this amazing opportunity to just sit, open the heart, slow the mind, focus on the breath. You also have an opportunity to just experience how you are feeling going into your day, or in the evening, how your day has affected you. So often we don't give ourselves a chance to connect.

  • Loving kindness meditation and/or compassion - On public transportation, you are in the midst of humanity. You see a lot of suffering. People cry on the bus - I have cried on the bus. People laugh, people sleep, people stare blankly out the window. People hobble in physical pain, they are destitute, they are ill, they are drunk or high. People suffer from mental illness, and people are angry, with or without good reason. People criticize strangers. People are selfish and they are generous. People express sympathy, they reach out to help others for no particular reason other than that it is right. Sometimes, particularly if one is fortunate, there is a tendancy to isolate oneself from those who are less fortunate, from how things are in the world. (Is this, in fact, the reason why many people are so glued to their cars? Avoidance?) On the bus, you see it all. Sometimes, it is all I can do to open my heart to it all and keep breathing. What better place to experience the same-ness of all people, to practice loving the world?

Leave the car at home. What practices do you come up with? Ride the bus. Open your heart.

Friday, April 3, 2009

More on suffering - I get it!

OK, I wrote that last post and I still didn't feel like I was "getting" what I was writing about. I was writing about my pain and what causes it, but I wasn't really understanding how to work with it. I guess I was mostly writing about my faith that the pain was there to help me wake up because lots of yogis say so!

I'm still reading Stephen Cope, and this morning I read something that helped me "get" it.
It is important to understand that in the yogic view, the phenomenal world is not seen in itself as unreal. It is just seen as the tip of the iceburg. Our delusion is not that we think of the gross phenomenal world as real, but that we miss the hidden depths that underlie it. We miss its interiority. And thereby, we reamin oblivious of our deep and subtle connectedness to the whole realm of mind and matter.

... The goal... is not to disengage from the phenomenal world, but to turn to embrace it more and more deeply - to discover its hidden depths. And in order to do that, paradoxicaly, we do not reject the vicissitudes of the embodied life. We do not reject suffering. Rather, we turn and go thorugh the doorway of suffering. We turn to embrace our neuroses, our conflicts, our difficult bodies and minds, and we let them be the bridge to a fuller life. Our task is not to free ourselves from the world, but to fully embrace the world - to embrace the real.

OK, now that is something I can work with. I've experienced this paradox before - when you open yourself to the pain, it diminishes. Over the past couple of weeks, I've actually been admitting to people - and most of all, to myself - that I'm in pain: talking about it, exposing it to the air, experiencing it fully and seeing how it felt. Today, for the first time in ages, I feel like myself again.

Aha! It's interesting to me that I used a phrase at the end of my last post about "the path opening inwards" but I only just realized what I meant. The yoga was there, in my heart, all along.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


He who suffers much will know much.
-- Greek Proverb

The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.
-- Ben Okri

I've been sitting on this blog post for a long time, trying to find my way into it. It's hard to write about suffering, but I've experienced so much loss and change in the past year that it's getting so I can't write about anything else. Yoga philosophy refers to five kleshas, or afflictions that cause our suffering. This article is a discussion of the kleshas in the context of difficult losses, including suggestions for practices that work with the kleshas. In it, Bo Forbes provides the following useful description:

AVIDYA: The inability to see things for what they are; this causes you to mistake transient, ego-related matters for permanent, soul-related ones.
ASMITA: The tendency to overidentify with your ego; this keeps you from connecting with your soul.
RAGA: The flame of desire that causes addiction to pleasure; this discourages you from leaving your comfort zone for more evolved territory.
DVESHA: The aversion to pain; this creates a quicksand-like cycle of misery and self-hatred that sucks you under and suffocates your will to evolve.
ABHINIVESHA: The fear of death or a clinging to life; this dilutes your focus and interferes with your ability to experience the spiritual freedom that is the goal of yoga.

I've been reading Stephen Cope's book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. In it, Cope describes four erroneous beliefs that underlie the delusion of the kleshas (p. 64):

  1. The belief in the permanence of objects
  2. The belief in the ultimate reality of the body
  3. The belief that our state of suffering is really happiness
  4. The belief that our bodies, minds and feelings are our true Self

So here we are again: loss shatters our belief in permanence and forces us to examine our delusions. It awakens us to the nature of our suffering and drives us in the search to realize the full potential of our being. Cope suggests that pain, loss, and disappointment can be key motivators in leading people to release their attachments to past, future and sense of self, and to progress in their spiritual practice.

He also quotes Bhagwan S. Rajneesh's commentary on the Yoga Sutras:

Yoga means that now there is no hope, now there is no future... Total despair is needed... A moment comes to every human being when he feels total hopelessness. Absolute meaninglessness happens to him. When he becomes aware that whatsoever he is doing is useless, wheresoever he is going, he is going to nowhere, all life is meaningless - suddenly hopes drop, future drops, and for the first time you are in tune with the present, for the first time you are face to face with reality... When you are not moving into the future, not moving into the past, then you start moving within yourself - because your being is here and now. You are present here and now.
You can enter this reality.

So with each disappointment, with each departed friend, with the end of love, with each death, I am trying to find my way into yoga, into the here and now. I am suffering, but I feel the path opening inward and I have a lot of faith.