Sunday, July 16, 2006


In various of my class notes, I’ve posted variations on the story of Shiva’s invention of yoga, following tens of thousands of years of focused meditation on a mountaintop. The classic statute of dancing Shiva shows him holding up a hand in the “stop” position, a jewel embedded in the palm of that hand, symbolizing the action of stopping the endless chatter of the mind through single-pointed concentration, diamond hard and diamond clear.

So is there somewhere in heaven a God in the yogic pantheon perched continually on one leg, the other raised in the dance, four arms akimbo, surrounded by a ring of fire? No. Or at least not one that I’ve encountered. In my way of thinking, Shiva is the embodiment, the essence, the very conception, of single point concentration – the most refined, most concentrated focus imaginable. Perhaps unexpectedly, that tight focus leads to great, infinite – freedom.

In my version of the Hindu pantheon, Shiva is the embodiment of ending, of destruction, of closure, of fire. Not usually the part of life we’re accustomed to celebrating. But through a whole variety of experiences, I’ve come to grasp something of the notion of a god of destruction.

First, there’s the whole “awesome” thing. Quick example to get us started: give a seven-year-old boy a hammer and an alarm clock, and total permission to do whatever he wants, no punishment of any kind, no matter what. Then watch – not just the process, but also, in particular, the boy’s face. There’s something pretty primordial – pretty sublime – to destruction, especially to spectacular destruction. If a car catches fire on the road, what do the other drivers do? They look. Some will even stop to watch.


Several years ago, my family traveled from Denver to a small town in Idaho for the 4th of July. As happens across the country, the town had scheduled a fireworks display to begin shortly after dark. After dinner, but hours before dark, we headed to the park/golf course where the event was scheduled. And as is customary in the western US (we never had such luxuries in the east where I grew up), lots and lots of folk arrived early, laid out their picnics and blankets, and proceeded to shoot off their own bottle rockets, firecrackers, shriekers, smoke bombs, Roman candles and the like.

The town had roped off and set aside space for such collateral antics, in the hopes of keeping the excitement a reasonable distance from picnic blankets, but antinomianism tends to rule the day in this part of Idaho, and bottle rockets were zipping from everywhere to everywhere. One – or maybe it was an errant Roman candle – lodged in a lone pine tree on a fairway. Lodgepole pines only form the straight lodgepoles they’re named after when they grow tightly packed together in forests and thickets. This one, all alone on a fairway, was a big bushy thing. Its needles were at the mid-summer’s highest point of dryness. And with the ignition of an errant firework, it lit up like a torch.

We were situated about two hundred yards from the tree, well out of harm’s way, but with a clear view of events, albeit at a distance. Everyone near the tree backed away to a moderate distance, watching. The handily close fire engine sirened up and headed over. As the flames engulfed the tree, those who had moved back once, moved back some more. And something else was remarkable – things got a lot quieter. The background din of hundreds of picnics and chatting and radio music suddenly became the peculiar sound of the oblivious radios and the hushed tones of hundreds of humans turned to watch the fire.

Once the initial flash burn of outer needles subsided, the fire engine got close enough to spout water over the tree, a process that doused the flames, though much more slowly than I’d expected from my experience of dropping a match into a glass of water.

The tree extinguished, a sense of relief moved through the crowd that generally returned to its pre-show level of din.

My two oldest boys went off to the roped off area to light off the pyrotechnics we’d picked up for the day. The adults talked and chatted as the dusk settled toward darkness.

Beyond the roped off area for personal pyrotechnics was another roped off area for the official fireworks. I saw a man dressed in fire gear holding a torch move to the first set. He ignited a fuse, backed away, and a rocket shot into the sky and began the evening’s intended display. He ignited a second fuse, backed away, and, instead of heading up to the sky, the rocket tipped and shot, as if it were a cartoon, straight into the cluster of yet-to-be-fired fireworks. The man in the fire gear backed away. One after another, a chain reaction of fireworks igniting one another began and grew to an unbelievably large burst of flame and spark and colors and sounds and heat. The experience reminded me that fireworks are designed to explode several hundred feet in the sky, where their heat dissipates. Not so for fireworks on the ground, let alone all of them at once.

Our oldest boys, between us and the fireball, but still far from any real danger, came running straight back to us, silhouetted against the growing fireball. Farther back, the man in fire gear began running away, too.

The huge ball of fire grew for a time, as the heat ignited even those fireworks that hadn’t been directly in line of a spark or flame. It was, literally, awesome. Terrible. Enrapturing. Fearsome.


When I was first taught to chant OM, the teacher explained that it was really composed of three sounds, not two. Instead of “O” and “M,” as one chants it, the sounds run from “Ah” to “U” to “M.” And, my teacher explained, the silence that precedes and follows the OM is as much a part of the OM as the experience of the vibrations that form the sound components. OM is a manifestation of existence: it begins. It sustains vibration for a time. And it ends. The end is as much a part as the beginning.


One last example. Several months ago, during my teacher training, the instructor introduced us to the practice of placing gifts – sacrifices to the gods – onto an altar that is then ignited and burned. Svahah is the phrase for the practice – giving up something to the divine fire. Whether the offering is a measure of flour or a ten-dollar-bill or a no-longer-needed emotion or a practice that no longer serves one or whatever, “svahah” is the phrase for letting it go.

A student comes to a teacher and asks the teacher for wisdom. The teacher lifts a teacup and begins pouring in tea. The cup fills, yet the teacher pours. The tea spills over the sides and to the floor, yet the teacher keeps pouring. The student is alarmed and asks why the teacher would keep pouring tea into an already filled teacup. “Exactly,” says the teacher.

First, svahah.


So what is Shiva, what is a single point meditation? A meditation focus can be the breath, it can be the fluctuations of the mind, it can be other things. It is investing all of my awareness in that focus. I’ve never managed (or even tried) to sit on a meditation cushion (or my feet or a block or whatever) for more than a pretty short period. But even so, the effect of that meditation is not limited to the seconds I’m in meditation.

Is that because I, effectively, am in meditation “off the cushion”? Or is it that the meditation simply affects more than the time in which it occurs?

If so, how is that? Is it through memory? Changes to neural pathways – like a highway construction today can change traffic patterns tomorrow? Left over brain chemicals? Are the effects limited to myself or a function of the way that I interact with others, so that even if I’m not benefiting from yesterday’s practice, others I dealt with “under the influence” have changed in response to that, and continue to interact with me today?

Whatever the mechanism or technology involved, yoga changes things off, as well as on, the mat.
So when I begin a practice chanting “OM namah shivaya,” am I not worshipping a Hindu deity? If you want, ok. But it’s an awfully not-too-anthropomorphic deity – it is god embedded in the operation of consciousness, god-imbued fields and particles dancing, god-like patterns of focus and mindfulness, concentration and expansion, attention and awareness. It is the endlessly expanding, concentric effects of concentration.


Before I step onto my yoga mat, I bring my hands to my heart in the anjali mudra,
, or “prayer position,” to honor the empty space above my mat, into which I will move, and within which I will flow during my practice.

The space is negative, empty, vacant, void.

Yet it is the field without which my consciousness could not move at all.