Saturday, August 19, 2006

Moment of clarity

A couple of weeks ago:

I’m trembling, both hands flat on the mat beneath me, my left thigh resting on my right elbow, that leg extended forward and to the right, the right leg extended into the air behind me. My face is four inches from the floor. I look forward and see the right foot of the person next to me, eight inches away from me. The toes are spread wide, toe nails painted red and a little chipped. Stretching back from the toes, the leg is perfectly straight all the way to the hip. She, too, is balanced on her palms, looking forward and away from me. My vision is crystal clear. The moment is imbued with energies extending in all directions. We are practicing revolved, scissored side Crow, balanced on hands, arms bent at the elbow, with right thigh on left elbow, left leg extended back. Sweat drips from my brow.

In the midst of intense physical exertion, balance and breath, there is absolute stillness.

In a recent practice, the teacher called us from samasthiti to twine our legs into garudasana, Eagle pose, while keeping our arms untwined, palms pressed together at the heart. The pose embodies two different kinds of opposition, two different ways to experience the union of duality. The classic Eagle pose ( twines both legs and arms. The twining creating helicies of energy, right thigh pressing down on left, left pressing up on right, right knee pressing the left knee to the right, left knee pressing right to the left, left calf pressing back into the right that is wrapped behind it, right calf pressing forward into left, right ankle pressing the left ankle to the right, the left pressing the right leftward, the energy of the legs grounded firmly and completely in the sole of the left foot. In the variation last night, arms unwrapped, with palms drawn into prayer position at the heart, I felt the heat of each palm pressed against the other as a single heat; each fingerprint pressing its opposite, a single pressure.

One way to engage opposing forces is directly, maintaining poise between equal and opposing pressures. This is the classic model of my profession. We train and practice to oppose, argue evidence, principles of law, construe and assemble disparate facts into conflicting stories. Palm pressed to opposing palm, finger to opposing finger, the pressure and heat of the opposition experienced at the plane of interaction. But the legs of the modified garudasana – that was the part of the pose that opened my mind. The legs were engaged in even greater exertion, twining, roping themselves. But rather than creating equipoise through exact balance of equal and opposing forces, the legs twine, each leg presses left and right and left and right as it wraps around and into its counterpart – an entirely different way of engaging with opposing forces, one that creates one – One – from two.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Wrong, wrong, wrong

A typical set of instructions:

Interlace your fingers, extend your index fingers, and raise your arms over your head. Bend to the right, extending your left hip. Hold here for five breaths. Come back to center. Release your hands and shift your fingers to place the opposite thumb on the outside. Interlace your fingers again, feeling the difference in your fingers. Bend to the left, extending your right hip. Hold here for five breaths. Come back to center.

Why change the interlacing of fingers? Try it right now, and see. Interlace your fingers the “normal” way. Unlace your fingers, and try it with the other thumb on the outside. All of us at some point interlace our fingers the “wrong” way. I did it before I took up the practice of yoga. But in doing so, I understood it to be the wrong way. Unnatural. Out of order. The first time I received this instruction in a yoga class, I had no clear idea of what it was supposed to do. But because the teacher called for it, I did it. It poked the “wrong” part of my brain. And, in the full light of awareness, the wrongness was obviously … well … wrong. It makes no sense that one hand grip should be wrong, another right. But that’s what my brain had concluded, with or without my conscious consent.

The same teacher, a couple of years later, elaborated the point while we were in a resting pose. “This week,” she said, “do something the wrong way – anything – put on your pants starting with the ‘wrong’ leg; answer the telephone with your ‘wrong’ hand; thread your belt through the beltloops of your pants the opposite way that you usually do. Become aware.” So that week, I put my belt on backwards, threading it through starting on right-hand side instead of the left. For some reason, that felt more “wrong” than interlacing my fingers. When I went to take the belt off at the end of the day, I started off wrongly, expecting the tail of the belt to be where it always had been. Unsettling.

Mindfulness – awareness of the operation of one’s own mind – is unsettling.

One day I was exploring a canyon in the slickrock sandstone formations of eastern Utah. It was August, midday, and blazing hot. I followed the dry streambed up the canyon. After a couple of miles, I came across a plunge pool formed where the stream poured over an eight-foot drop, gouging out the sandstone at the base of the waterfall. While in flood, it was probably a torrent, in the midday sun of a dry week of a pretty dry month, all that remained was sun-warmed water, clear and transparent at the shallow edges of the pool, a darkening bottle green as it deepened toward the base of the overhanging wall. Stepping into the water was marvelous. Even warmed by the sun, it refreshed toes and legs and mind, a stark change from the heat and rock and sweat and sand of the prior miles. But the deeper I moved into the pool, the more muck I churned up. The water went from crystalline to puffs of brown muck to a swirling, opaque tangle of stirred-up silt.

Mindfulness is like that. It upsets the settled sediment of a mind.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Memory Error

How much of me isn’t me without memories?

Perhaps like other middle-aged people, I find myself in the middle of a conversation wondering whether I’ve told a particular story to a particular person.

What would life look like if I let go of my stories accumulated to date?

On some occasions, I’d be missing out on the chance to convey a point in a particularly effective manner – fact is, stories make things more memorable and make ideas more credible. So there is that. And if I truly let go of and forget the prior accumulation of stories, perhaps I’ll lose the opportunity to link today to yesterday. But is that really so much of a loss?

What’s to gain? If I really let go of old stories, perhaps I’ll be open to new ones – to seeing things that are currently stuck in ossified categories in new, less ossified, ways.

In an expert’s mind, there are few alternatives; in a beginner’s, many.

So I may forego telling old stories for the next several months, just to see what happens.

New wine; old bottles.