Friday, January 28, 2011

The best time to practice is right now

Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are. ~ Jason Crandell

For those wounded by civilization, yoga is the most healing salve. ~ Terri Guillemets

The deeper I go into practice, the more I become aware of how complicated I make life sometimes. There are all these layers of the mind that peel away. It reminds me of the way the experience of the asanas changes on a physical level. For the first few dozen or even hundred downward facing dogs, the experience is pretty much holding your breath and looking forward to coming down. And then suddenly, one day you actually feel what it means to inwardly rotate the thighs and spread the hip bones and all this space opens up in the pose. And it will change your world, that feeling. See if it doesn't.

Like this, too, in the mind. At first, learning to breathe through and experience difficult emotions without acting, I thought I was learning to deal with the present. (Side note: when I say that it sounds as if I have already learned to breathe through and experience difficult emotions without acting. I can assure you, I haven't. That's why they call it "practice.") Anyhow, I'm starting to realize that a strong emotional reaction is almost never about the present. It's a sure sign that I'm holding a past wound up as evidence in a present situation - probably holding it against someone who had nothing to do with the original pain in the first place. Take a close look and see if this isn't true. And it will change your world, that understanding.

I started this post out thinking that I was going to write about breathing through reactions in the present and then boom! Insight. Look out - you never know when it's coming. Originally, I was going to explore my reaction to a harassing comment left here, but now I see I don't have to. That comment, in the present, means nothing. Who knows why people do these things? His problem is not my problem. The pain and uncertainty and anger it triggered - that's old stuff, really old stuff. And the illusion of ego. Right now, in the present, there's just clarity and a sense of compassion.

The content of this post may have evolved, but I can keep the title because the time is now. Peel away all those layers of history, and inside is the jewel. It is all these illusions that are complicated. The present is incredibly simple. I wonder what is behind the next layer?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Protect the state of no-intent

Photo credit: mollyollyoxenfree/Flickr Creative Commons

Yesterday I came across an article called "What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking and Sacred Space". The author, Scott Belsky, writes about how we are losing our moments of isolation and distraction-free thought. We are forgetting how to unplug and connect in with something else: ourselves, our thoughts, our intuition, and our dreams. It's an excellent article and I'll let it speak for itself. What's interesting to me is that Patanjali saw this coming.

There's no arguing with the fact that the phenomenon Belsky addresses in his article is visible all around us. It's interesting that the very word connected has come to refer to being online - a state I would argue is actually in many cases disconnection from what is, from the self and the Self. I, too, am concerned - even frightened - about the changes that are happening in our culture as we become more and more accustomed to being constantly plugged in, available, and awash in "information". 'm certainly not suggesting that we should all unplug everything and go live in an isolated mountain cave for the next ten years. I have already written here about some of the benefits I think can be found on the internet. The trick (as is so often true) is finding the balance.

In his article, Belsky astutely notes that the instincts that lead us to seek "constant connection" have been part of human nature since the beginning. I can see how, in the dark jungle nights, the drive to find and connect with others was a matter of life and death. But now, does our attachment to constant positive feedback on our Facebook posts or having large numbers of blog followers really serve us? Does it serve our community? Does it make us happy? I think the answer to these questions is clearly no.

The Apple i-Tunes site boasts "everything you need to be entertained", and yet like the cravings we had in the old days, this hunger for amusement and distraction never stops. Patanjali certainly did not have any Apple devices beginning with "i", but he did talk about the causes of suffering (the kleshas, sometimes translated as afflictions or obstacles) in the Yoga Sutras. In Chip Hartranft's translation (which I found in Stephen Cope's The Wisdom of Yoga), they are "not seeing things as they are, the sense of 'I,' attachment, aversion, and clinging to life." I plead guilty.

Really, it is a long chain reaction of the kleshas that leads us to give up what Belsky calls "our sacred space." On the surface, this behavior looks most like attachment, raga in Sanskrit, but I think if I had to pick just one klesha that drives me towards a state of constant connection, it would be the flip side of the coin: dvesha, aversion. Belsky saw this too: "Space is scary," he says. What myriad of fears are we fleeing from online? With this constant flow of information, what evils do we plan to avert? What demons do we seek domination over? In our online communities, are we still seeking to drive out our fear of what waits in the dark jungle?

Bless Patanjali (or whoever wrote the Yoga Sutras). With great compassion, he did not just leave us with the knowledge of our afflictions, but with concrete tools to overcome them: the practice of yoga. "Suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented," he tells us. "The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness and what it regards... When the components of yoga are practiced, impurities dwindle; then the light of understanding can shine forth, illuminating the way to discriminative awareness."

Although it's hard to find a definitive statistic, I think it's safe to say that millions of Americans are now taking up yoga. I don't think this is a coincidence. We instinctively know something is missing from our lives, even if we don't know what it is. Whether we know it or not, yoga is providing many of us with avenues to many of Belsky's suggestions for preserving sacred space. Even if you never chant "om" or read the sutras, even if you just go to class to sweat, the truth is that yoga classes everywhere are providing people with sacred space to unplug and perhaps turn off some of those persistent, nagging thoughts and worries, maybe even to become more self-aware... and if we're lucky, to fall into that increasingly elusive "state of no-intent". And perhaps this is one of the things that draws us, almost inexplicably sometimes, back to our mats again and again and again.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


"Each moment is a chance for us to make peace with the world, to make peace possible for the world, to make happiness possible for the world."
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Wedding rings
Photo credit: Lisa Stout (kspsycho83 - Flickr Creative Commons)

I've decided to greet 2011 by making a commitment I've been considering for a long time. (No, I'm not getting married! But I am making a promise that may just change my life.) I'm undertaking Tricycle Magazine's 28-day meditation challenge known as "Commit to Sit." Starting January 17th, for 28 days I'm commiting to the Five Precepts and following Tricycle's meditation program.

There are a lot of paths on the journey of yoga. There are the four paths (or six paths, or even more, depending on how you look at it), and there's the eight-fold path of Patanjali (or the eight limbs of yoga, as they are sometimes called). There are many ways to practice, and different practices appeal to different people - but the more yoga I do, the more convinced I become that the meditation piece is key. At least, for my journey.

So I'm making a commitment. Given, it's kind of a baby commitment - just 28 days - but my commitment to practice is much deeper than that. I practice for life - and because one should never commit to anything without careful thought, I've been considering what it means to "commit to sit". Princeton University's WordNet links these ideas (among others) with the word commit:

  • give, dedicate, consecrate, devote (give entirely to a specific person, activity, or cause)
  • entrust, trust, confide (confer a trust upon)
  • invest (make an investment)
  • practice (engage in or perform)
When I commit to sit, I do all these things. I consistently and fully engage in the practice I've chosen. I make an investment - of my time, of my energy, of my Self. In doing so, I'm putting my trust in the practice - not only that I will benefit but that we will all benefit, that this practice can help bring peace and happiness to our world. I dedicate myself to it completely. I like the word devote here because of its double meaning. Not only devote yourself to practice but practice with devotion.

Devotion. Because in the end, it's all about love.