Sunday, December 23, 2007

Solstice and darkness and shadows

Meditation sometimes leads to the quiet still point of mind watching consciousness watching mind watching the waves and troughs of mind itself -- Patanajali calls this dhyana.

But not usually, and not recently. Recently, it’s been a cycling sequence of distraction and a strongly a coerced concentration I can muster. When the mind quiets, I release the straitjacket and off the mind goes, less like a puppy than a rhinoceros. And when it tires of rhino behavior, a persistent cramp in my right rhomboid creates enough affliction that I find myself corkscrewing my spine to stretch the cramp before I even perceive the intention to move. Once the Kripalu-experience-borne depth and peace subsided after my return, this has been my meditation practice.

The cramp, itself, has become something of a story, but one that is terribly bland and normal. The relevant point for this post – the acupuncturist I’ve had working on it has diagnosed me with a yin energy deficiency – yin being the female, dark, stable, solid counterpart to yang, which is the male, white, willful, airy energy. Without enough yin, he tells me, your muscles lack the energy to relax and release. Hence the relatively constant cramp.

Final piece to today’s experience – I’ve been conducting the choir and assembling the Christmas program for my congregation’s Christmas service, which we presented earlier today. What is conducting a choir? It is an exercise in maintaining energy, inspiring work, maintaining attention to black dots and lines on pages of music, being in front, in charge and on display.

Knowing that the program is set for the 9:00 a.m. service, I get up early this morning, just before 5:00 a.m., so I can meditate in peace. It’s pitch dark, and I re-remember that it’s still the longest night, not yet morning.

I’m tired enough of straitjacket dharana meditation work. And it occurs to me that perhaps its time to resume a loving-kindness meditation. I begin, as I learned, first for myself. Then I’ll get to a loved one, then a neutral one, then an adversary.

That’s the sequence. I’ve done this before. Sometimes just a repetition or two at each stage, sometimes a week’s worth of repetitions.

I practice the meditation for myself. Then I choose a loved one – a happy child of some friends who likes to be tossed up into the air. Then I choose a neutral one. Then I pause for a moment to allow my mind to draw up an adversary. My mind discards the usual suspects. They don’t seem right, less substantial this morning. Then my mind shifts a bit, consciousness shines in through a crack and I see the adversary.

I have an adversary. But it isn’t another person. It is me. Jung called it the shadow. The straitjacketing-front-and-center-choir-director part of my mind scoffs: You can’t do a lovingkindness meditation for yourself.

But, of course, I can – the meditation starts exactly that way.

I allow consciousness of shadow within me – of darkness, of inertia, of stability, of grounding, of emptiness, of yin. And I extend loving-kindness to it.

On this, the darkest night of all the year.

* * *
Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche, has said that we will continue to despise other people until we come to see within ourselves the despicable.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Two thoughts

Two unrelated items:

1. I read this today:

  • The Dalai Lama was teaching in front of a large audience when he received word that Mao Tse-tung had died. He paused and then started to weep. For most Tibetan people, nobody was more feared than Mao Tse-tung, yet the Dalai Lama's first reaction was to weep....
No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Boddhisattva, Pema Chodron, p. 316

I am moved beyond words by such compassion. It is that compassion that attracted me to Christianity in the first place. It is that which attracts me to Buddhism today.

2. For meditators, an interesting observation.

I've pointed out before Jon Kabat-Zinn's observation that even when the mind is depressed, the part of the mind that observes is not, itself depressed. That insight has provided me with a lot of help during the past months and years. A further elaboration of it: the part which observes my mind thinking as a 45-year-old male mind is similarly free from the construct of 45-year-oldness and the construct of maleness.

Who am I? indeed.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Give me a week (or so); I'll catch on...

A week after returning from Kripalu, a yoga center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I’m still mulling over the experience. But this evening I learned something that was taught to me at Kripalu.

Though I went there for a workshop led by Stephen Cope, the way the place works is that lots of yoga classes at various levels are available to anyone staying there. The Kripalu style of yoga is both slower and more introspective than the practice I’m accustomed to, but the teachers there are completely open to allowing visitors to practice the various postures in the ways that we’re accustomed to doing them. So I found a vigorous flow class and practiced a hybrid of the Kripalu pacing and the posture details I’m used to. One morning, I attended a class led by a teacher named Ranjit (I think). Toward the end of the practice, he called us into Triangle, and I moved into the version I’m accustomed to. I was tiring, and trembling slightly. He moved into position behind me and made a couple of gentle adjustments to my posture, helping with the twist, softening the shoulder of the vertical arm. At the end of practice, he suggested that I might find my yoga improve if I could manage to reduce my effort and strain by about 20 percent. Internally, I shook my head.

This evening, back in Jennifer’s Sunday evening level-2 power yoga class at CorePower Yoga here in Denver, she took us through a challenging and fun sequence of poses. She started the practice, as she usually does, with a short reading. This one talked about ways that we can close off our hearts from the experience of life. And about half-way through the evening’s practice, suddenly, Ranjit’s lesson came home to me. It took a week to sink in, but I realized that there are lots of different ways to close off a heart. My usual pattern for that is to withdraw from a situation or an experience, to close in. But I realized this evening that it’s also entirely possible to go the other way, using exertion and effort to keep the heart silent.

This realization has been mirrored in my meditation practice, as well. Recently, I’ve discovered that there can be too much of a good thing – that with some training and specific technique, mind-concentration practices can be performed to a degree I hadn’t really found previously. The mind tends to still in such concentration practice, and if I understood some of Stephen Cope’s discussions in last week’s workshop, the practice of concentration, itself, tends to reduce the strength of grasping and aversion in other parts of life. But in practicing such tight concentration, it’s possible to keep the mind’s focus so narrow that there is space for nothing else. Just as that kind of effort prevents monkey-mind jabbering, it also seems to prevent the open, aware, neutral witnessing experience from arising, as well.

So half-way through Jennifer’s class this evening, I may have learned some of what Ranjit tried to teach me last week.

Give me a week (or so); I'll catch on...

A week after returning from Kripalu, a yoga center in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I’m still mulling over the experience. But this evening I learned something that was taught to me at Kripalu.

Though I went there for a workshop led by Stephen Cope, the way the place works is that lots of yoga classes at various levels are available to anyone staying there. The Kripalu style of yoga is both slower and more introspective than the practice I’m accustomed to, but the teachers there are completely open to allowing visitors to practice the various postures in the ways that we’re accustomed to doing them. So I found a vigorous flow class and practiced a hybrid of the Kripalu pacing and the posture details I’m used to. One morning, I attended a class led by a teacher named Ranjit (I think). Toward the end of the practice, he called us into Triangle, and I moved into the version I’m accustomed to. I was tiring, and trembling slightly. He moved into position behind me and made a couple of gentle adjustments to my posture, helping with the twist, softening the shoulder of the vertical arm. At the end of practice, he suggested that I might find my yoga improve if I could manage to reduce my effort and strain by about 20 percent. Internally, I shook my head.

This evening, back in Jennifer’s Sunday evening level-2 power yoga class at CorePower Yoga here in Denver, she took us through a challenging and fun sequence of poses. She started the practice, as she usually does, with a short reading. This one talked about ways that we can close off our hearts from the experience of life. And about half-way through the evening’s practice, suddenly, Ranjit’s lesson came home to me. It took a week to sink in, but I realized that there are lots of different ways to close off a heart. My usual pattern for that is to withdraw from a situation or an experience, to close in. But I realized this evening that it’s also entirely possible to go the other way, using exertion and effort to keep the heart silent.

This realization has been mirrored in my meditation practice, as well. Recently, I’ve discovered that there can be too much of a good thing – that with some training and specific technique, mind-concentration practices can be performed to a degree I hadn’t really found previously. The mind tends to still in such concentration practice, and if I understood some of Stephen Cope’s discussions in last week’s workshop, the practice of concentration, itself, tends to reduce the strength of grasping and aversion in other parts of life. But in practicing such tight concentration, it’s possible to keep the mind’s focus so narrow that there is space for nothing else. Just as that kind of effort prevents monkey-mind jabbering, it also seems to prevent the open, aware, neutral witnessing experience from arising, as well.

So half-way through Jennifer’s class this evening, I may have learned some of what Ranjit tried to teach me last week.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Last night I returned from a weekend retreat to Kripalu, a yoga center in western Massachusetts. Eventually, maybe I’ll write up something about my experiences and thoughts from there. Suffice it to say for this post that it was a wonderful blend of yoga, meditation, and instruction based on the Yoga Sutra, and I came home a little bit changed. For reasons not clear to me, the following came out in second person.

* * *

Knowing that you’d be coming back from retreat, you had arranged to take today off from work.

Your wife arranged to have a day off, as well, and you went grocery shopping together after getting the boys off to school. Pushing a cart around the aisles of Sam’s Club, you experienced the most profound and pervasive and clear-seeing of the unsatisfactoriness of existence that you’ve ever had. It was, literally, dis-illusioning.

It is quite startling to walk past pile after pile of devices people use to pursue happiness – triple-bladed razors, and multi-speaker sound systems, and liquor-filled chocolates, and frozen corn dogs, and cases of Coke Zero, and artificial poinsettias, and diamond rings, and economy sized bottles of Rogaine, and barbecued ribs (“whose?” you wondered), and Cuisinarts – and see in all of them strivings and in none of them fulfillment. And the sense was not in any way limited to materialism. It was an equal opportunity perception that applied as much to your job, your lifestyle, your engagement with family, your detachment from family, your community, your writings, your arguments, your accumulations.

What was, perhaps, most remarkable was not the apocalypse of the previously unimagined – it was, instead, a discovery of what has been glaringly obvious all along, but which was covered not by a conspiracy of others, but rather a contrivance of your own mind. Of course, it is all pretentious and vapid and unsuccessful. You knew that all along. But previously, you participated in the courteous and communal lie that it was all just fine, nonetheless. Previously, a prominent part of your mind was more than willing to see the emperor’s clothes.

This morning, that part of your mind seems to have retired, or at least retreated back from the front lines, allowing you to see what was in front of your face.

And not only is it everywhere, it’s grim. Detachment isn’t hard when what you find is a festering mess. But you indulged your sense of aversion as you languished in the repulsiveness of it all. A Buddha could have found, nonetheless, compassion and motivation. So you saw something. Good and fine.

Now keep seeing, but see also your aversion. Feel where it creates sensations. Notice them arise. Watch them as they persist. See them subside. Then see how aversive suffering can be let go of. And see how you can be of use to others.

Remember that the feeling of aversion subsided when you got home. But it wasn’t the getting there – it was the process of cleaning the garage floor, gathering the shards of glass from the bottle of molasses that fell from the torn grocery bag as you unloaded the car. The sense of aversion decreased more as you wiped up the dark syrup, goo-ing up the paper towels with fragrant mess. And it simply dissolved as you sponged clean the residue, leaving at least one spot of the garage floor, really pretty clean.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

OM Circle, week 3

(from a couple of weeks ago, just finished the write up)

OM Circle, week 3

Three regulars, two new participants and me. Six of us, sitting on the floor of a yoga studio’s office/storageroom/teacher-drop-your-stuff-off room. A makeshift altar with a couple of Buddhas, a flower and several pictures of gurus. Someone has placed a food offering before the images.

With brief instructions, we begin chanting OM. Harmonics fluctuate, thirds, minor and major, parallel fourths, but more seconds, the disharmony harmonizing. As I chamber my mouth and throat, sound is created in me. I vibrate. At first, just at my larynx. With a slight shift of my soft palate, the vibration shifts into my chest cavity. A mouth shape change, and the vibration shifts into my mask and skull. As each of my OMs fades into its own silence, it also fades into someone else’s OM – a cycle of death into life that ties us all into one. A person across from me intones a base note, just as I find my voice moving from a groan into a major third. His tone meshes and reshapes my own, inside my throat, and instead of singing one note, both blend at their source, and I cannot distinguish my own sound from his, from ours. After some period of time (I lose track during these exercises), someone taps me on the knee – the signal for me to move to the center of the circle for a time. I sit on a block in virasana. I’m bathed in sounds from others. Briefly, emotional response arises, then, though when I notice it, I half-intend to sustain it, it subsides. The interruption to my chant declines, and I resume. I find for several minutes that the vibration of the chant has moved into my arms and hands. I position them above my thighs, allowing them to vibrate in space. Another tap on the knee, and my time in the center is done. I shift back to the circle, another enters. I shape my sound to bathe her in tone. As different intonations run hoarse, I find another level to work. Then the leader says, softly, “last,” and I exhale the final OM across my larynx, up into my sinues, against the facial skeleton, into the chambers of my throat and mouth, and into the room, into silence.

From the inside, my hands are energy, their fields of perception extending beyond my skin. Unbounded. I rest them on my thighs. My mind strongly shifts to manifest a Ponderosa pine. “A Ponderosa?” I wonder. “Strange familiar.” The wordplay is opaque to me at the time. I think of inhaling the butterscotch scent of a Ponderosa’s bark in the heat of the sun.

Though we call it an OM circle, and though it is structured as an exercise of puja, we are largely engaged in the third, fourth and sixth limbs of the eight-limbed path of yoga: asana or posture, pranayama or breath control, and dharana or concentration. Each practice has its own characteristics that distinguish it from the others. The first night, it was the marked lightness I associated with a high. The second, it was the bright and clear dreams and the carried-through of concentration. Today it is the energy fields around my hands and, evidenced by this write-up, an unexpected energy that seems to have dispelled sleep, for now at any rate.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Off the Mat -- Ishvara Pranidhana

(This is another in a series of dharma talks I've provided to my yoga students.)

The last of the niyamas is ishvara pranidhana. Until I started to prepare this, all the versions I’d read of the Yoga Sutra, and all the teachers I’d had explain this niyama to me translated it as “surrender to the Lord” or “surrender to God,” though they tend to do so without adopting any particular definition of “God” or “the Lord.” For several reasons I’ll get to shortly, “surrender to the Lord” was a pretty empty phrase for me.

Ishvara pranidhana doesn’t only appear in the Yoga Sutra in the recitation of niyamas. As Patanjali outlines the difficult and sometimes demanding steps along the path to liberation, he mentions, almost as an aside – that the same liberation can be reached simply by ishvara pranidhana. As I was preparing for this talk, I thought I’d refresh my memory of that discussion, so I picked up a modern translation of the Yoga Sutrathis one by Chip Hartranft – and looked for the sutras I’d remembered.

But what I found was not the familiar “surrender to the Lord” formulation I’d seen before. Hartranft translates ishvara pranidhana as aligning to the ideal of pure awareness. While that may strike you as even more difficult than “surrender to the Lord,” for me, it opened door after door.

To explain how and why, allow me to tell you a rather more personal story than I’ve done in the past.

At the death of my sister about fourteen years ago, the world that I’d trusted to that point seemed to have died with her. I found the joy the world offered to be only a coat of paint over contrivances. My spiritual life, a life to which I’d devoted much of my life, slowly dried up. Prayer became a mechanical exercise. I lost my faith in life, in my conception of God. It didn’t happen all at once. And as it occurred, it seemed less like a funeral and more like waking up from a night’s dream. I found rational explanations for creation made more sense to me than creation stories. I found coincidence a better explanation than divine intervention. I found mechanical cause-and-effect a more plausible story than magic.

During that process, I searched for meaning to life, finding only the limited meanings that I imposed on my life. I looked for purpose, finding only freedom. I found nothing solid, nothing permanent, nothing non-contingent.

And through it all, I lived a normal life. My wife and I raised our young sons. I worked in an interesting industry, taking on challenging jobs. When I looked away from the core of things, life was great. But when I looked into the center, I found nothing. So I generally looked away. I conducted myself according to my remembered understandings of my faith, according to the commitments I’d made, according to the paths that had provided me with happiness before, despite the emptiness of the forms.

It was in that milieu eight and nine years ago that I encountered this thing called yoga. Yoga presented itself to me through a series of experiences that reignited my spiritual life. It seemed, in a word, magical. Way too much so. I didn’t trust it any more than I trusted anything else at that point. To explain the feelings of calm and peace and equanimity I felt at the end of practice, I told myself rationality stories – objective explanation stories – “it has nothing to do with anything more remarkable than chemical receptors in my brain responding to the chemicals my body releases through exercise.” To explain the strong affinity I felt to the practice, I told myself my feelings were just the usual delusion that “the grass is always greener” where I’m not, than it is where I am. To explain the occasional experiences of oneness, of energy, of vision, of bliss, I reminded myself of the power of suggestion and random thoughts on the human mind. To explain the improvement in my health, I concluded that I was just more careful in avoiding the things that had previously afflicted me. From the outside looking in – my preferred vantage point during those years – it’s always easy to rationalize and intellectualize and objectify the experience of another person. I managed, though a kind of mental gymnastic, to do that to my own experience. I lived at the bottom of a long and seldom uninterrupted depression. My world view was rather like being a marble at the bottom of an empty salad bowl. I could move around the bottom with relative ease, and my yoga practice gave me energy to move a ways up the sides, but as I moved out toward the edges of my experience, the going got harder and harder, and I’d find myself rolling back to the bottom again.

But a few years ago, something changed. A teacher I was working with at the time perceived that my marble was a ways up the side of the bowl, and she gave it a little nudge. And with that extra help, I found myself at the edge of the bowl, with a decision to make.

I had created a relationship to a world that was stable. It was one that enabled me to provide for my family. It was one that I could, at some cost to myself and my heart and my mind and my soul, maintain for years to come. It was one that was logical within its own confines, but not integral with all of the world I experienced. It was one that gave to people I loved what I thought they wanted and needed from me. And it was at the bottom of the familiar bowl.

The alternative – the one I was considering, at any rate – I intuitively knew would change me. And I didn’t know how that would work out, for myself, for my family, for my loved ones, for my stable, functional world view.

But I hoped – I hoped that it would allow me to feel again – to integrate everything I experienced, not just the parts that fit my intellectualized relationship to the world. Balanced on the edge of the bowl, I was suddenly free to choose something different, with all the promise and risk that such a choice entailed.

And here’s what I did: I looked deeply into my own experience – even the parts that I’d set aside because they didn’t fit my narrow, little box of a world. I realized that I was more open and honest and intact and entire – and happy – canoeing down the Green River that runs through the wilderness slickrock desert of eastern Utah than I could ever remember being in the world I’d created for myself. I realized that the times of my life that things worked best were times when I lived as closely to my experience – rather than to my ideas about my experience – as I could.

And realizing that, it dawned on me that I trusted existence – existence that included all of the rational and irrational, existence that acknowledged the silence and dryness that had developed in my organized religious life and the unpredictable and uncontrolled vibrant wetness that I encountered in and through yoga, existence that included my own desires, and the desires of my family and friends and colleagues, existence that included everything. I came to believe that shearing away contrivance and artifice and cloaks and coverings left not nothing, but compassion; not meaninglessness, but love; not nihilism, but something quite real. It wasn’t the God that I’d thought of before, but I realized that it was something – not nothing. And as I let go of even my own intellectual conceptualizing scaffolding, I found there was something more integral and real than anything I could cobble together.

But to get there, I had to let go of my contrived objectivity, always looking in from the outside, even when it came to my own life. I realized that I could trust existence, that I could allow myself to move from the outside objective, rational, intellectual observer of life – including my own – to an engaged, active, subjective, being. From the inside, you never really know what is going to happen next. You’re at personal risk in important ways that you’re not as an observer. I chose to be an actor in the play, rather than a member of the audience, critiquing the performance.

And one of the most important changes enabled by that decision was this: I would not live in a way that separated my heart and my mind. I had boxed up my subjective, feeling-driven, intuitive and compassionate heart for many years, as I allowed myself to rely almost exclusively on intellect and dispassionate observation. Sure, I’d feel things that conflicted with my mind, but I’d ascribe those conflicts, as Scrooge ascribed Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, to “a bit of undigested beef” – just the irrational workings of a physical body. Nothing meaningful. Just a misfiring of a neural pathway in my brain.


After I began to roll out of my comfort zone and into a new world, I felt the same conflicts between heart and mind. But instead of ignoring them, I followed my heart – not to the exclusion of my mind – but rather to a dance of them both.

My heart is connected to all hearts.

My mind is a version of all minds.

My body, an energy pattern knitting together elements born at the heart of stars, is a part of all bodies, also born of star fires.

My breath is a part of all breathing.

And I allowed myself to surrender to those senses. Do they feel irrational at times? Surely. But I don’t leave my doubting-lawyer brain at home. No, I bring it along for the ride. But I do trust existence. I trust the alignment I feel with existence, with compassion. I trust that I am not separated from existence – I feel it from the inside, I live it from the inside. I’ve gone from being a member of the audience to being an actor on the stage to embodying the character of the story. I’ve surrendered to my experience.

When I tried to articulate the change to some friends as concisely as I could, I said, “I feel aligned with the universe.”

So when I encountered Hartranft’s “aligning with the ideal of pure awareness,” I heard something that made real sense to me. Now mind you, I’m far, far from the end of the Yoga path. But my practice of yoga has allowed me to see further down the path than I did at the start, and what I see, so far, is that the universe does, in fact, have an alignment to it, and the more I strip away of my self and my habituated thinking and my clinging and my aversion, the more readily I can perceive the universe’s orientation, and it coincides with the love and kindness and compassion that resonate in me. While I’m not sure exactly how perceiving that alignment and moving gracefully within the context it creates will lead to liberation, I do sense greater ease within it than working against it.

* * *

The experience of ishvara pranidhana is something that we can perceive in a variety of ways, in a variety of contexts. Have you ever experienced a “flow” state when you were acting in a way that seemed perfect, whether on the mat, on a ski slope, or just talking with a friend? How did it feel? How long did it last?

Some people experience such “surrender” or “alignment” when working with a teacher they can trust. Others with a coach. Others feel such connections in nature and wilderness. When do you feel “authentic” or “integral” or “complete”?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Stillness behind, below, between, and inside

Two things, linked:

1. Yesterday, I got around to listening to this podcast at Speaking of Faith. It is an interview of Matthew Sanford, a yoga teacher who has been paraplegic since he was in a car accident at the age of 13. The entire interview is well worth the time needed to listen to it, but one of the points he made in several different ways really resonated with me: that there is, at the core of us, a quality of experience he calls "silence" that he learned to discover, and then to perceive even in the active aspects of his life in the body and mind. I won't try to elaborate on his point, as I wouldn't do it justice. Listen to the interview.

2. Last night, I went to sleep listening to the rain falling on our roof. At some point in the night, I awoke to the sense of absolute silence. Of course, it wasn't really absolute -- I could hear my heart beating, the sound of my breath across my nostrils and through my broncheal tubes, of the shifting of sheets and blankets in the bed. But at some point in the night, the rain had changed to snow, and the snow absorbed all of the sounds that usually form the baseline that my mind has come to accept as "silence" -- traffic from the not-too-distant freeway, that sort of thing.

So this morning, I get up, shower, and decide to do my meditation practice before finishing getting ready for Church.

Usually, my meditation practice starts with about 15 minutes of mind-tennis, as my mind tries to volley with "thought" or "judgment" or "desire" each idea that flies in across the net. Then it settles into a kind of quiet vigilance.

But this time, three or four breaths in, I find this lake of silence. Then, as thoughts or desires or whatever arise, I perceive them clearly against the stillness of the background.

Yoga occurs when a body moves through space aware its interbeing with that same lake of stillness.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ar, the Crone, and the Dragon

With a nod to an old recording of a Jack Kornfield dharma talk, a version of a Scandinavian folk tale:

There once was a princess – Ar – who lived with her parents, the king and queen. The king and queen had overextended themselves, and had for some time relied on loans they obtained from a dragon who lived in the area, dragons having lots of gold and such.

The time came for the king and queen to pay the dragon back, but they didn’t have the money to do it. So they met with the dragon to see what could be worked out. As was the way in those days, they told the dragon that the only thing they had left was their daughter, Ar. The dragon thought about it for a few minutes, and said that he’d accept their offer, would take the princess as his wife, and would become a part of their family.

The daughter was as distressed as you might imagine, but showed more wisdom than her parents. She fled the city to a village on the outskirts of the forest, to a hovel where an old, wise woman lived. She told the old woman of her plight. When she was done with her story, the woman said, “Don’t worry so much. Here’s what you should do…”

Ar listened carefully, and when the old woman finished her instructions, Ar thanked her, and returned home.

Soon enough the wedding day came, with lots of celebrations and toasts and talk and ceremony. Ar was nervous, but dressed for the wedding, as the old woman had instructed her. Ar and the dragon were married. After the dinners and toasts and talk were all done, Ar and the dragon withdrew to their wedding chamber, and Ar said to the dragon, as the old woman had instructed, “Would you like me to undress, so we can consummate our marriage?” The dragon, responded, “Yes!” Ar then said, “One more thing – it would be fitting for you to remove as much as I do. Do you agree?” The dragon, highly motivated, agreed quickly.

Ar then began removing her wedding gown, and the dragon removed such trappings as he’d put on in honor of the occasion. But as Ar removed her gown, there was another gown beneath it. She looked to the dragon, and began to remove her second gown. The dragon, having only put on one layer of clothing for the event, began to peel off its skin. Dragons, like snakes and lizards, sometimes shed their skins, so it wasn’t too painful to do so. But as Ar removed her second gown, there was a third beneath it. The dragon, seeing this, used its claws to carve away its scales. Beneath Ar’s third gown was a fourth, and a fifth, and more – she had followed the old woman’s instructions to put on ten gowns. As she removed each gown, the dragon clawed off more and more.

As she took off her gowns, and as the dragon carved away more and more, Ar saw that his shape began to change. By the time that Ar had removed her tenth gown and stood before the dragon uncovered, the dragon carved away his tenth layer and stood before Ar, now a beautiful young man.

And then, they kissed.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Off the Mat -- Svadhyaya

(Another in my series of dharma talks with my yoga class.)

Try to pronounce that one.

Svadhyaya means “self-study.” It stands for the unremarkable point that if we don’t pay attention to ourselves, we won’t understand ourselves.

The remarkable parts happen when we do pay attention to ourselves – or, rather, when we try to do so. “Self,” it turns out, is a remarkably slippery critter. To get the point, it’s worth trying to spotlight it. So by all means, go ahead. Close your eyes, and use your mind to identify what is “you.” Sometimes, we think of our “self” as an occupant of the position in space defined by the outside of our skin. But once you close your eyes, that spatial relationship mechanism starts to seem pretty artificial. Sit in a silent place, and you’ve lost the audial stimuli. Holding still, you will quickly lose track of most sensory stimuli. So once you get that far, move into your mind.

Are you your name? Well, that’s easy – of course not. You can change your name. Are you a particular set of memories? Are you the same person you remember being last week? Last year? Ten years ago? Thirty? If you’ve changed, what does it mean to talk about yourself during those periods? If you’ve changed over time, are “you” a particular pattern of behaviors and responses? When those change, are you someone other than you are today?

Whether we look at body, memory, behavior, or whatever, while we can see reasons to talk about a “self,” the more carefully we look, the less we seem to find. If you can look at something and think of it as a thing – whether it be a shoe, a fingernail, or a memory – once you see it as a thing, you realize that it doesn’t define you – in fact, it seems very much to be not the “you” that observes it. It’s just a stream of various perceptions.

If you sit in meditation (and meditation is the basic practice of “self study”) even for just a few minutes, you’ll quickly discover lots of thoughts – some are memories, some are fantasies, some are judgments. But whatever they are, they are like pictures that flash up on a movie screen. They aren’t you – you are the one observing them. Sometimes they convey a sense of familiarity – not only do you remember a particular event, you remember remembering the event previously. You can learn to recognize that sense of familiarity. But the fact that a memory is familiar does not make the memory “you.” Memories are other than “you.”

So what’s left? It’s a secret, and you have to find out for yourself. Or your “self’ Or your “Self” or your “SELF” or however you want to think of it.

Really – I’m not trying to hide the ball here. I could tell you what I’ve found when I looked, but if I did, what you would hear (or read) would seem (unremarkably) something that is not “you.”

To some degree, this is all quite sensible. If you first learned of yoga from seeing someone else practice, whether live or in a book or on a video of some kind, see if you can reconstruct what you thought yoga was and would be as you looked at it from the outside, and then compare that with your experience of yoga the first time you stepped onto a mat. And then compare that with your most recent experience on the yoga mat. One teacher I’m familiar with suggested that you perceive about 10% of what’s really going on when you watch someone else practice yoga compared with practicing it yourself. I’d go farther: they’re simply different experiences. One happens from the outside to someone else. The other is your own experience. One is a glove. The other is your living hand feeling the glove around it.

So if “self” is so slippery, what point is there in looking for it? There’s an easy answer and a deeper one. The easy one: realizing what isn’t “me” helps me to let go of ideas and beliefs that no longer serve me. I tend to get attached to things that I like, that provide security, that are familiar. While attachment itself can be a problem, attachment to things as they no longer are can really cause problems. Svadhyaya, self-study, helps bring me back to the present, to things as they are now, while I’m looking at them, rather than as how I remember they once-were-but-no-longer-are. The deeper answer to why not? Self-study, Patanjali’s svadhyaya, enables us to see our prejudices, our habits, our addictions, our self-delusions, our hypocrisies, our self-ish-ness. And seeing them enables us to work more skillfully around and through and past them. But it also allows us to see the warmth of our compassion for other beings, the clarity of our intelligence and perception, and to understand our relationship to – our “inter-being with,” as Thich Nhat Hahn calls it – all of existence. Wisdom.

When you’ve looked, what have you found?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Metta -- Practicing a Lovingkindness Meditation

For PGK, should she stop by.

I like to live intuitively. I like to believe that as I hike up a dry canyon, I'll find a spring of fresh water before I dehydrate too badly; that beauty is spontaneous; that solutions will spring Athena-like fully grown from my mind; that understanding will be revealed like a curtain swept away from a window.

Often enough, that is exactly what happens.

So I was pretty delighted when I heard about the notion of a Buddhist meditation practice, metta, that engendered lovingkindness.

And I was equally dismayed when I learned the mechanics of the practice. (A basic set of instructions can be found here.)

What? I'm supposed to practice by repeating this blather to myself about "May I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be whatever"? How can that help anything? This is just one of those self-delusional New Age indulgences. I don't want contrivance. I want to be filled with divine love.

And so I set metta practice aside for several years, focusing myself on more "important" stuff.

Then, more recently, I ran across Sharon Salzberg's book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1995. Reading it, she provided more context for practicing a lovingkindness meditation, and I was probably more ready for the instruction at that point. As I recall her instruction, she recommended starting the practice by reference to oneself, and sustaining the practice not just for a five minute session, but for a week or a month of daily sessions, before even venturing beyond oneself and applying it to others.

Compromiser that I am, I figured that I spend 20-30 minutes each morning on an elliptical trainer, usually reading something. I could do a week's worth of elliptical trainer time practicing the metta meditation, rather than reading. (Yes, I know. Elegant image. Now lay it aside. ;-)) The first day, the practice felt pointless. The second through fourth days, I started to become aware of the ways that I resisted really allowing myself to feel lovingkindness toward myself, even at the basic level of the meditation. By the end of the week, something inside me had relaxed enough to settle into the practice.

So the next week, I started with myself, then shifted the meditation practice to someone I loved. The instruction I had told me that it was best to choose someone to whom I was not sexually attracted, to avoid confusing the experience with the attachment that can easily arise to supplant lovingkindness. With such an instruction, I knew exactly whom to use: the 18-month-old daughter of a family in my ward. She had a penchant for wandering down the aisles of the chapel during sacrament meeting, finding me, and plopping herself down, either on my lap for a nap, or on the pew beside me for a more elaborate game of giving and taking, usually involving the sketch pencil and kneadable eraser I usually bring to Church for sketching during sermons. It was easy to desire her health, happiness, peace, and clarity. So the second week, I enjoyed the practice of desiring the best for her.

The third week, I was supposed to start with myself, then move to the loved one, then move to a person about whom I felt neutral. Feel neutral? What does that mean? I don't know that I feel neutral toward anyone. I got over the intial confusion, picked out someone whom I didn't know very well, and used him. The meditation wasn't particularly illuminating or easy that week, but it wasn't terribly burdensome, either.

The fourth week, Salzberg's book instructed me to choose someone I disliked -- an enemy. The selection proved to be more of a challenge than the neutral person. I don't have enemies. I get along with everyone. Duh. Finally, I selected a person whom I perpetually seemed to be cross-wise with online. So I started the meditation with myself, shifted to my loved one, my neutral one, and added my antagonist.

So what did I find? Much to my surprise (and with a degree of chagrin, given my preference for Athenian-birth events, rather than deliberation and incremental ones), I found that I was happier that month than I ever expected to be, even though often enough, the happiness didn't seem directly traceable to the meditation practice. But some things were more readily traceable.

By seeing how I resisted allowing myself to feel lovingkindness toward myself, I was able to relent a little, let a little more light, a little more space in. I didn't have any earth-shaking revelations about loving the loved one, though the meditation did lead me to acknowledge explicitly how much I enjoy her company. I found myself paying a little more attention to the person I was so neutral about. In realizing neutrality, I realized that much of it stemmed from just not knowing him very well. The more I noticed, the more I found to value. The antagonist? First, the practice led me to look more carefully at antagonism and adversity. (I am a litigator, after all.) Attending to it more allowed me to see more antagonism, and more subtle ways that I am antagonistic, and more ways that I project antagonism onto others.

It also made me want to test some of the hypotheses I'd developed about my interactions.

Now, more than a year later? I've decided that love is mostly a muscle -- it can be developed with practice, it atrophies with disuse. Most of my life, I've loved what I've loved and I've been perplexed by its absence when I noticed I didn't love someone.

But mostly, I'm happier. My world has expanded a little bit. I'm less inclined to flip people off during freeway commutes. I notice more when I get mad, when I think someone is being intentionally contradictory, when I am about to dismiss someone as irrelevant or boring.

And I've concluded that there really isn't any clear line between loving myself, loving my little sacrament meeting companion, and loving Bin Laden.

A pearl goes up for auction
No one has enough,
so the pearl buys itself.
-- Rumi

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Three Nephites, Nuclear War, and Bodhisattvas

Three stories, one idea. The stories are set, respectively, 2000, 25, and 1300 years ago.

* * *

Mormon scripture recounts that 2000 years ago, after his death in Israel, the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to inhabitants of the Americas. During that visit, he taught the gospel, healed the sick, and called disciples to serve the people following his ascension. As a boon to those disciples, he asked what they desired. All but three asked to serve God until they were 70 years, and then to be accepted into heaven. But the three…

…[Jesus] turned himself unto the three, and said unto them: What will ye that I should do unto you, when I am gone unto the Father? And they sorrowed in their hearts, for they durst not speak unto him the thing which they desired. And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts… …[Y]e shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven…. …[F]or ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. …

And they are as the angels of God, and if they shall pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus they can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good.

3 Nephi, chapter 28, passim, The Book of Mormon

Though they seem to have gone out of vogue in an Internet-linked world, in earlier times of the LDS Church, stories of unexpected and fleeting visits by the Three Nephites, as they were called, providing divine and timely assistance were told, much as angel visitation stories have been told for millennia by Christians. As a youth, I was impressed not so much by the magical aspects of the folktales of the three living (seemingly) forever, but rather by the idea of caring so deeply about the welfare of others that foregoing heaven’s happiness seemed a good trade.

* * *

Fast forward to 1983. I’m a 21-year-old sophomore in college. I’ve returned from serving a mission to teach the gospel to Latin American refugees in the barrios of southern California. America is deeply embroiled in the Cold War. American military planners have developed plans for “battlefield use” of nuclear weapons – the idea was that “low-yield” nuclear weapons could be used in controlled numbers to win battles, without precipitating the kind of mutually assured destruction that had been the baseline assumption about nuclear war during earlier decades. I had grown up with nuclear annihilation as a peculiar commonplace, a kind of low, constant background noise. Though grim, the battlefield-use notion seemed no more delusional than the instructions I grew up with outside Washington, D.C., where government buildings bore “Fallout Shelter” signs, and grade school teachers instructed us, in the event of a nuclear attack, to crawl under the classroom desks for shelter.

In November of 1983, a movie airs on television – The Day After. It shows the story of people living in Kansas when a nuclear war erupts between the US and the Soviet Union. In such detail and horror as could pass FCC muster in the 1980s, the movie tells the story of handfuls of survivors in a post-apocalypse world, assuming, of course, that anyone survived at all. It shows a world of radiation poisoning, people dying for lack of infrastructure that we take for granted – hospitals, food supplies, law and order. It ends on a note of grim suffering and hopelessness. In hindsight, it was a movie designed to show what a “survivable” nuclear war might actually mean, designed to persuade its audience that surviving such an event might be well and truly worse than dying in it. I watch the movie in an apartment that I share with five other roommates. We are all pretty solemn during the movie, though when it ends, they all remark, as the director probably intended, that they’d rather die in the destruction than try to live in its aftermath.

I remain silent for a time, then walk out into the night, devastated. As it happens, the weather is a mix of drizzling rain and snow. At some point, I realize I am barefoot. I climb the sharp hill from my apartment complex to the night-darkened campus of the university. Despite high school teachers who had ridiculed the fallout-training they were supposed to provide (one recommended that if we heard a report that nuclear war had broken out, we should climb up onto the roofs of our homes so we could watch the fireworks before we were vaporized), I’ve never internalized such a thing. The movie drives home to me how awful human existence could be. While I’ve had the usual –perhaps more than the usual – amount of inner-city school kid adversity, I’ve never imagined a situation that I’d rather die than endure. I keep walking aimlessly. As falling snow soaks my shirt through, collects in my hair, I replay the scenes of utter hopelessness. At some point in the night, my heart changes. I realize that stronger than my desire to live the life of comfort and hope that I’ve lived, and stronger than my desire to be with God after death, and stronger than my desire to avoid the horror depicted in the movie, stronger than any of those things is my desire to alleviate others’ suffering. No matter how bad my experience might get, if there are people in need of help, then I’d prefer to stick it out. If a nuclear war leaves me in a world headed toward total death, but doesn’t put us all there all at once, then I choose to live while I can extend compassion to others.

While I keep that realization to myself, even after I walk back through the snow to my apartment, it moves deeply into my mind and heart. And, though I don’t recognize it immediately, that realization is a kind of vow.

* * *

Next, head back to the 8th century, CE. The crown prince of a region that is now in India renounces his position and takes to a spiritual path, living the life of a renunciate. As Pema Chodron recounts the story, he gets to Nalanda University, a large, powerful monastery that attracts students from all over the Buddhist world. At Nalanda he is ordained a monk and takes the name Shantideva, or “God of Peace.”

Contrary to what his later reputation suggests, Shantideva was not well liked at Nalanda. Apparently, he was one of those people who didn’t show up for anything, never studying or coming to practice sessions. His fellow monks said that his three “realizations” were eating, sleeping, and shitting. Finally, in order to teach him a lesson, they invited him to give a talk to the entire university. Only the best students were accorded such an honor. You had to sit on a throne and, of course, have something to say. Since Shantideva was presumed to know nothing, the monks thought he would be shamed and humiliated into leaving the university.

(Pema Chodron, No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala, Boston: 2005, p. xi)

As happens in such stories, Shantideva accepted the invitation and delivered a brilliant discourse that has been recorded and preserved ever since, called The Way of the Bodhisattva. In it, he teaches a path for developing bodhicitta – an “awakened heart” – the desire to alleviate suffering, to free oneself from ignorance and habitual patterns in order to help others to do the same.

Buddhist tradition teaches that we can become enlightened, a state that the Buddha described simply as “awake.” In Buddhist terminology, a bodhisattva is a person who has achieved, herself, enlightenment, yet who remains engaged in life on earth to bring others to the same state. Sometimes a person will adopt that role as the natural result of a conscious recognition of connection to others – one who recognizes that until all beings are brought to enlightenment, no one individual’s attainment of that condition is complete. Sometimes a person adopts that role as the natural extension of a powerful compassion.

As the Buddha discovered, as Christ taught, as Mother Theresa embodied, as Ramakrishna showed, as Rumi and Hafiz and Ranier Marie Rilke and Walt Whitman and Mary Oliver all saw and wrote, at the very core of each of us is a connection to all other beings. To be sure, we can spend our entire lives without discovering it or acknowledging it. It is not forced upon us, any more than stillness is forced upon us. But, like stillness, it is always present, behind and beneath the sounds and engagements of daily life. It is as discoverable as stillness, and it is as foundational as stillness. And it is revealed at the opening of a mind to the messages of the heart.

In Shantideva’s terminology, that path is bodhicitta. He urges us to see the problems and challenges before us not as problems of how to find or preserve a good for ourselves and for those with whom we identify, but rather how to heal the entirety of problem, a perspective that cares as deeply for those causing us pain as for those feeling the pain, that values one’s own pain neither less nor more than any other’s. This was Gandhi’s approach to racism in South Africa and to British dominion in India. It wasn’t enough for Gandhi to force the British to leave India – he wanted them to want to leave India because they would want the best for Indians. It was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to civil rights in the United States, with his “I’ve been to the mountain” vision not of societal gains for African-Americans alone, but rather a world entirely transformed for the benefit of all.

There are many, many ways of labeling bodhicitta. Some simply call it “love.” Others, “the light of Christ.” Some call it “the Dharma.” Some call it the “true self;” others, the “no self.” Some call it “Yoga.” To my way of thinking, the label doesn’t matter much, so long as it provides us with a way to perceive the desire and honor its place, so long as the label doesn’t delude us into thinking that it is only a potential of a few, rather than one of all sentient beings.

Shantideva’s fully envisions the sacrifices entailed by this way of life, prefiguring the sacrifices of Gandhi and Rev. King:

For sentient beings, poor and destitute,
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And lie before them closely in their reach,
A varied source of all that they might need.

My body, thus, and all my goods besides,
And all my merits gained and to be gained,
I give them all away withholding nothing
To bring about the benefit of beings.
(v. 3:10-11)

The desire of a bodhisattva isn’t confined to Shantideva’s discourse 1300 years ago. A friend of mine recently recited Shantideva’s words as she aligned herself to the Way of the bodhisattva. She wrote about the experience here Her commitment led me to read and discover Shantideva.

* * *

And that leads me through these three stories to today.

In the years since I first wondered at (and felt the deep resonance to) the peculiar desire of the Three Nephites so to be of benefit to mankind that they’d forego heaven, in the years since I served as a missionary, in the years since I have stepped quite a distance from beliefs in a particular religion’s view of existence, my recognition on the snowy night in college continues. In my present, I seem to be as belief-deficient when it comes to Buddhist beliefs as I am with respect to Mormon beliefs. Yet my sense and perception of bodhicitta endures as a kind of essential alignment more elemental than belief.

Is a vow a promise or a choice of alignment or simply a recognition?

* * *

And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.
-- The Way of the Bodhisattva, v. 10:55

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Samadhi, a taste

I practiced this evening at a yoga studio in the Castro district of San Francisco – Yoga Flow. Why there, rather than some place closer to the Financial district, where I’m staying? A couple of reasons – first, a couple of teachers who’ve done workshops I’ve attended in Denver teach at that studio – Darren Main and Rusty Wells – and I admire aspects of them both; second, it happened to have a class that fit the particular time slot I had available this evening.

So I get there by cab, climb the stairs to the second floor (all big-city yoga studios are second-floor kind of affairs – street level is too expensive), and introduce myself at the front desk, where the teacher, Kari Zabel, and I talk for just a few moments, but enough to discover that we both took teacher training (her first, my only) with same organization, though in different years, and so we have common backgrounds and some common acquaintances.

She runs a very effective practice – both well grounded in manner and approach, strongly colored by Sharon Gannon and David Life’s Jivamukti style. She leads chants well, confidently adjusts students, and ensures her presence reaches the entirety of the very large practice room. The sequence she calls us through is deliberate, unrushed, and intentional. It culminates in Peacock, then slowly proceeds through denoument to Corpse.

Once practice is over, I change back into business clothes, heading to a dinner with colleagues back downtown. I get advice to look for a cab on Castro, rather than Market. The sun is just down; the sky is clearing; the temperature is about 68. I wander around the block to Castro, and I find myself in an early evening crowd of gay men.

It’s at this point that I experience the perfect integration of the yoga practice and life that happens sometimes – that balance of comfort and enervation and stillness and motion and exhaustion and enlivenment and solitude and company, of perfect equanimity and perfect happiness, of beauty.


I spot a cab a block and a half away, wave to it, confident of nothing rational. It flashes its lights, pulls up, whisks me off to my business dinner. During the drive, I find the refrain of Ziggy Marley’s “Love Is My Religion” echoing in my head. I simply am. I find the restaurant, get to the table, join my colleagues, and slowly, slowly, reenter normal existence.

Monday, September 17, 2007

OM Circle

This evening, something I've wanted began to form itself.

I don't know whether it will survive to maturity or not, but there is more to it than there was before this evening.

Though I have yoga teachers and studios and students and co-practitioners in various settings, I have realized in recent months a lack of a community linked by yoga within which to grow and share and support and provide contrast.

Several weeks ago, one of my teacher/friends and I met for tea. We talked about our respective interests in forming a community that could explore more of Yoga than asana practices alone. Her resolve and my willingness to join the effort resulted in the first meeting this evening of an OM circle. Whatever it may become, this evening, it was small and simple: five people sitting on the floor of a small office above a bustling yoga studio. Heather -- the organizer, Jean -- Heather's mother, and three yogis Heather seemed to have collected from various interactions, myself included. Heather instructed us in the simple process -- we would sit in a comfortable meditation position in a circle, one person in the center, close our eyes, and chant OM, each person ending to take new breath as needed, then resuming. Each of us would take turns sitting in the center for a few minutes at a time.

Heather advised that her guru, whose name I forget, encouraged her to implement this. I tried to suspend my skepticism about all things guru-ic, remembering that I, too, have found important relationships with teachers and mentors at different stages of my life, and that I yet would welcome a teacher to guide my efforts. I managed to keep the mental gymnastics quiet -- I could honor her guru as manifested in the creative and energetic and kind person that she is. She then described various effects that could be anticipated from this exercise, ranging from audible experiences of additional or enhanced sounds, to perceptions of energy movements.

Even without that discussion, I was interested and mildly expectant. We began.

It was, in essence, singing a single syllable. I have sung in many situations and in many combinations of voices throughout my life. So this felt rather natural to me. My attention, as it always does when singing, went first to the breath, then to the intonation, the blend, the harmonies. After a few minutes, I modulated my tones, shifting from a bass register to a more natural baritone. At that level, I was chanting in thirds and fourths to the base tone. Once the harmonies developed, they would constantly change, as each other voice entered or dropped out, and as I chanted to the extent of the breath, and then stopped to inhale.

Dimensionally, the OM-ing crescendoed and softened, intonations droned and sharpened, I could feel the sounds being shaped by my vocal cords, by the lifting of my soft palate. I could feel the vibration of the tones in my belly, my chest, my throat, my facial mask. My mind shifted and drifted, always readily coming back to the present-sense experience of the chant. I was aware when the others' breath shifted, as one person moved out of the center, and another moved in. I noticed when others were running out of breath and sustained my OM until they resumed. At points, I felt that the sound was both a tool I could use, and a thing itself. Singer -- song. Dancer -- dance. It seemed a kind of energy. At other points, I felt slight energy effects in my arms and hands. Once, I felt a shakti kind of surge. The experience at the center of the circle, when my turn came, was not different in kind from the experience at the edge of the circle, though the sense of immersion in sound was more complete. Finally, at Heather's verbal instruction, we concluded the OM-ing.

At the end, we chanted a brief mantra in honor of Shiva and the lineage of instruction to which Heather pertains.

It felt devotional, but I was mildly disappointed that it had seemed quite so familiar -- singing with others always, in my experience, entails connection to and with them, always entails harmonies and, when done well, overtones, always entails intonation and timbre and involvement of the mind and body with the sound and the perception.

Then we opened our eyes. And I realized that we'd been chanting OM for about forty minutes -- I'd lost attention to time after the first few minutes. Eyes open, I also realized that my perceptions were different. It's hard to put a label on exactly how different, but I felt mildly high -- not really hyperventilating high, but mildly euphoric. As we shared our respective experiences, the euphoria gradually subsided. I wondered whether it was a result of the vibration of the chant, the concentration of the mind (once ended, I had realized how strongly focused my mind had been on the chant), the pranayama elements to the practice, or something else.

After a few more minutes, we ended the meeting and departed, agreeing to meet again on Monday evenings in the future for more.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a community.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Off the Mat -- Tapas

(Another in a series of dharma talks with my yoga students)







There is an interesting practice that I recommend you try sometime: svaha. It starts with a fire, so kindle a decent-sized fire in your fireplace or a campfire or, for that matter, your charcoal grill. For the purposes of this discussion and the mind-image, a good-sized campfire will do. You’ve kindled the flame. You respect its intensity, its potential for good or ill. You can now take two different approaches to the fire. By itself, it will die out over the next hour or two. That’s the nature of fire. Alternatively, you can feed it and keep it going.

Let’s suppose that you choose to maintain it. You now have two interesting choices about how to implement that decision. You can see the fire as demanding your attention and maintenance, or you can see the fire as an opportunity to transform what you no longer need into brightness and warmth – or to transform things that you want less than you want the brightness and warmth that will come from giving them up to the fire.

The ritual is to identify what you can put into the fire, and then to do so. While I’m as literal-minded as the next guy, some things just don’t burn too well, so I tend to think of this ritual as more of a way of re-assembling my interests and priorities in life than as a way to reduce no-longer-wanted/needed possessions to ashes. I have, on more than one occasion, written out a word or two on a slip of paper that I’ve tossed into the fire, giving up my attachment to the idea penned there. Perhaps, it’s been a treasured resentment. Maybe an insistence on my own viewpoint. You get the idea.

I like the brightness of fire.

But I’ve practiced a version of this many more times than I’ve built campfires. For many weeks in a row, one of my more wonderful yoga teachers began each class she taught with the simplified ritual of starting us in seated meditation, asking us to think of something we could give up, imagining it cupped in our hands, then raising the hands to the sky, giving it up to the divine fire. That practice worked for me by putting me into a mindset of seeing the obstacles to my yoga practice (both off-the-mat kinds of practice as well as on) as things I could give up.

Now maybe you aren’t as interested in or moved by rituals as I am. If not, there are other ways to practice tapas. The Book of Malachi in the Bible refers to God as the “refiner’s fire.” (Malachi 3:2) In simple terms, a smith would take gold ore, put it into the most intense fires that could be generated at the time, and would burn away everything that was not the gold. I like that verse and image, as it makes clear to us that our core essence is already gold. What is needed is a fire to remove the obstacles. I think that Malachi may have been getting poetically at the same kind of experience as that which Patanjali articulates in the Yoga Sutra, when he writes

For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near.

How near depends on whether the practice is mild, moderate, or intense.

Doesn’t that sound rather like a football coach talking to his players in training camp before the season starts? Football coaches weren’t the first to figure out that intense personal commitment can turn talented players into something altogether different. Tapas is the niyama that speaks easily to our culture. While we may not really feel connected to saucha and we may think that santosha is a bit suspect, we can totally relate to tapas.

In a way, the “how near” question presented in I.22 is asking, essentially, “How badly do you want it?” But it isn’t a tax demanded by a greedy universe that we can pay grudgingly – it’s a transformation of ourselves – indeed, a transformation of our very notions of “self.”

Lama Surya Dass wrote:

Last night across the globe, millions of new parents were awakened by the sound of a crying baby. Around the world, these parents responded by groaning as they stood up and made their way to the baby's crib in order to do what had to be done. All of these parents were renouncing, giving up, or letting go of their much needed sleep because they cared more about the well-being of a little child. The child's needs were more important than their own. Their parental love was stronger than their attachment to their own sleep.

Renunciation, an important and recurring spiritual theme, is not that complicated to understand. Renunciation means sacrificing or giving up something that seems important at that moment in favor of something that we know ultimately has more meaning. Each time we do this, we are making a spiritual choice – a decision to go with the bigger picture. ...

A spiritual journey almost inevitably begins with a decision to renounce a certain way of life. But that decision is less about changing your environment or letting go of people and things than it is about transforming your inner being – learning the inner meaning of letting go and letting be in order to find wise naturalness and authentic simplicity.

(Awakening to the Sacred: Creating a Personal Spiritual Life, Lama Surya Das, Broadway Books: NY, 1999, pp. 31-32)

Along the same lines, Ram Dass wrote in Be Here Now:

You might think of renunciation in terms of some external act like a New Year's resolution, or leaving family and friends to go off to a cave. But renunciation is much more subtle than that – and much harder – and much much more continuing. On the spiritual journey, renunciation means non-attachment.

To become free of attachment means to break the link identifying you with your desires. The desires continue; they are part of the dance of nature. But a renunciate no longer thinks that he is his desires.

(Be Here Now, Ram Dass, Lama Foundation: New Mexico, 1971, p. 9)

So what’s the benefit of tapas – of practicing yoga with deep intensity and commitment? Patanjali promises in language that seems to borrow from Malachi’s refiner’s fire idea that “as intense discipline burns up impurities, the body and its senses become supremely refined.” (II.43)

This is something as yogis we can sink their teeth into – something we can test. As you have committed to your practice, performed even just the on-the-mat work with commitment, managing your life to get you to practice, have you discovered that you have been able to perceive things through your senses and body more clearly?

On a very tangible and physical level, I have. As I’ve mentioned in class before, before I discovered yoga, I had gotten desperate enough to meet with back surgeons to see if they could help me fix the constant pain I was in. Though I started my practice of yoga for entirely different reasons, the more I practiced, and the more attention I paid to exactly what I was experiencing in my body, the more I began to perceive the actions, the postures, the motions I was making and holding that complicated and amplified my back problems. Seeing that, I began to change the ways that I sat, the ways that I moved, the ways that I stood. Doing that lessened the pain. The more I practiced, the more I began to distinguish between muscle groups affecting the positions of my lumbar vertebrae and disks. That led me to discovering that as I strengthened – really strengthened a lot – not only my back muscles, but also my psoas, my abdominals, my obliques – I found that I didn’t have any back pain left at all. Now, I don’t want to mislead – yoga didn’t magically heal my back. It did, however, refine my perceptions. It helped me to discover all those things about my back, and having discovered them, to change them. If I revert to the same behaviors I was pursuing when I was talking to back surgeons, I can make my back hurt again, just as it did before. But it’s been years since I wanted to do that.

Off the mat, commitment to the practice of Yoga has similarly refined my perceptions of my body that affect not only physical conditions, but also matters we more often talk of as related to the heart and mind. There is a radical and elemental connection between minds and hearts, spirits and bodies. The same kinds of refinements of perceptions can allow us to see how our actions cause harm to other beings and to ourselves. They can enable us to perceive the effects the foods we eat have on our bodies and on our minds. They can allow us to understand more clearly how other people see a situation, and how they feel about it.

At its core, Yoga can be understood as a set of practices that applies mindfulness to increasingly refined perceptions of the relationships between ourselves and the beings, the world, and the universe around us.

Everyone’s fire burns at different temperatures at different times. So what can you do to build tapas, if you feel like you’re less motivated, less inspired than you might be at other times?

Here’s what I do, in no particular order:

1. Connect with someone who inspires you. This can be anyone, living or dead, someone you’re close to or someone you’ve never met.

2. Get outside – outside your office, outside your house, outside your normal routine, outside your thoughts, outside your habits.

3. Yoga. For me, at any rate, no matter how grumpy, lethargic, sick, lazy, depressed, or bored I may feel, if I can get myself into a yoga practice, I start to feel better, more interested in practicing. When we practice yoga – especially the vinyasa style that we typically do in class – it gets easy to think of tapas as simply the body heat we generate, but the heating affects much more than just the temperature of our muscles and tendons – tapas affects our minds, as well.

One caution as a parting thought: tapas or intensity does not mean “force,” either on or off the mat. Forcing ourselves into a posture wrecks knees. Forcing ourselves into a thought process performs similar damage to our minds. Yoga tempers tapas with santosha (contentment) and ahimsa (non-harming). Find ways to make tapas compatible with those principles – not an opposition to them.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Off the Mat -- Santosha, Lab Report

(Another in my continuing series of dharma talks with my yoga students)

Though I intended this next piece to be a discussion of my experience with the next niyama, tapas ("fire" or "discipline"), instead, life provided me with an opportunity to practice santosha, and I learned from the experience.

This summer, my family is intact again, my oldest son having returned from college. My wife and I have gotten fully comfortable with kids that go to bed later than we do. But we’re still parents, at heart. So the night before last, we went to bed, as usual, with lights still on in various parts of the house, two kids still up and about, one (the oldest) not home yet.

So I woke up at some point, and realized that the two younger kids had gone to bed, but the lights were still on. I thought, “hm – the oldest must not be home yet,” rolled over, and went back to sleep. Then I woke up again, about an hour later, and this time I looked at the clock.

3 a.m.

I could feel the usual blend of aggravation, worry, and annoyance begin to creep in.

* * *

For many, many years, I strongly resisted using mantras. I'd read about people adopting one mantra or another for various reasons. But repeating the same phrase over and over again always seemed like a kind of mental repression, not openness. Kind of the opposite of what I was seeking. Mind you, I’ve always been just fine with chanting in various languages. Though raised a Mormon, I could sing a Catholic mass in Latin well before I could repeat the Mormon Articles of Faith. So when a yoga teacher changed her routine and began starting each class she taught by chanting the first two verses of the Yoga Sutra in Sanskrit, I promptly took it upon myself to chant along with her. She looked at me curiously, but never objected.

Still, mantra practice, over and over and over again seemed an entirely different sort of thing. But three or four years ago, I began meditating. I tried out various meditation practices, and I found that a minute or two of chanting “OM” over and over and over again, whether aloud or just in my mind, seemed to open me up my mind and heart in ways that just holding still didn’t usually accomplish. At some point in the future, I’ll probably write up something more detailed about OM and mantras generally, but let’s save that for another time. Suffice it to say that it was the first mantra I was comfortable using. It was about mid-way between repetitious prayer and simply invoking the name of God.

Then, a year or two ago, I saw advertised a recording that included one of my favorite Sanskrit teachers, Manorama (“Man-OR-ama,” not “MAN-o-RAMA”). On a whim, I ordered the CD. It was delivered a few days later, and I was surprised to find that it was comprised of six or seven recordings of the same chant, performed by different artists in very different styles. Sometimes I use it to end yoga practices. At any rate, to abbreviate yet another long story, listening to the recording several times was enough to embed in my mind a mantra of a sort. It is really more of a short prayer than a long mantra. By most instruction, mantras are supposed to be as short as one to four syllables. Whatever.

For me, the four-line prayer worked just fine. First, it stuck in my head. With it lodged there, it started to come up at times. I found it helpful in beginning my meditation practice, focused as it is on drawing the heart to the single-point of meditation. I found it comfortingly familiar when I began a yoga practice in a hotel room far from home. Repeating it before stepping onto my mat in various yoga studios, I found it served as a way to dedicate and bring a sharpened mind to the act of beginning my practice.

After I'd done the dog-training exercise of repeating the mantra before and during so many yoga and meditation practices, I started to find that even pausing to repeat it in my mind while driving in rush hour traffic calmed me. And, back to the story from the night before last, I’ve found that it works the same way in the middle of the night, when a worry arises.

* * *

So at 3 a.m., I repeated the mantra in my mind. With late summer in Colorado in our yard, there are crickets that sing through the night. With the windows open to bring in the night coolness, they sing to us all night long. I made it only through the mantra two or three times before I realized that my pacing of its words were blending with the crickets’ song. And the worry about my son retreated, and I went back to sleep. (Yes, I realize that telling a story about a step toward enlightenment by focusing on going to sleep seems a little bit backwards, but bear with me.) I woke a couple of more times during the night and early hours of the morning, saw the house lights were still on, repeated the mantra (or a little bit of it, anyway), connected to the crickets' songs, and went back to sleep.

When dawn came, my wife and I got up, saw the lights still on, the car our son had been driving still not home, and we got decidedly more worried. We called our son’s cell phone, but it rang into voicemail. It was out of batteries or he’d turned it off. It was then, sitting at the kitchen table, that I realized that I had an opportunity to practice santosha. Practicing contentment and equanimity when everything is comfortable and easy is not a very challenging kind of practice. Practicing those things when your child is unexpectedly missing for longer than he's ever before been missing is, for me at least, an entirely different sort of thing.

I paused in the conversation with my wife about where he likely was and what his condition probably was, and I thought to myself, “I am aware of the feelings of worry and concern. I can be mindful of those feelings without diving into them more deeply. And I can practice contentment and equanimity, even now, even if my deepest worries (car accident, injured, dying, etc.) are all true.”

And just that slowing down and decision allowed those feelings to soften – not to go away entirely. They didn’t. But they softened enough that when my son got home an hour later, I was glad to see him and interested in the experience (he reported nothing more interesting than an unannounced sleep-over at a friend’s house -- was that something he should have mentioned?), rather than beside myself and angry, as I’d have been otherwise. And that non-threatening, non-dominating, non-command-and-control response, in turn, allowed him to accept the request that he let us know of such things in the future.

End of story.

Santosha – for me, the practice was two-fold. First, it was being mindful enough even in the middle of the night to recognize that I had a tool that could help me manage my otherwise-automatic-and-very-loud worry reflexes, and it was having developed and entrained my mind to mantra practice enough to have that tool available. Second, with the arising of consciousness and awakening with the dawn, it was recognizing that even my most dire worries did not have to prevent me from practicing santosha.

And the fruits of the santosha practice -- a happy reunion and a non-combative resolution of such situations in the future, seem pretty good to me.

Have you tried out santosha? What has your experience been?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Off the Mat -- Santosha

(Another installment in my series of dharma talks with my yoga students.)

Santosha means “contentment.” When I first ran across this niyama, it bugged me.

Contentment? Didn’t Patanjali get the memo? Contentment is contemptible, we should always be striving, always climbing, always getting more, always unsatisfied with the status quo.

So I believed, and so I lived for many years. That kind of life hasn’t proven to be all it claimed to be. So I’ve begun to explore a different way of being. Taking a step back from the “everything, all the time” mentality has allowed me to discover moments when I have experience contentment. When it has arisen, it has felt like the opposite of suffering, rather like a kind of spaciousness; and it has seemed entirely possible despite poverty or pain, possible in hunger or wealth. On those occasions when it’s arisen, it hasn’t felt dulling or passivity-inspiring, at all – more like a kind of balance, a kind of okay-ness, even when I’m in the midst of a hard-fought court trial or a complicated family problem.

I’ve come to recognize santosha as a function of how I am internally, rather than what the situation is externally.

One teacher described it as a series of contrasts:

…serenity, but not complacency. It is comfort, but not submission; reconciliation, not apathy; acknowledgment, not aloofness. …

Too often we think too small. Some people believe they must close their eyes to the suffering of others in order to maintain their own contentment. They confuse indifference with detachment, passivity with peacefulness, and isolation with equanimity. But hiding one's head in the sand will not guarantee contentment. There is an old saying from India: “You can wake up a sleeping person but you cannot awaken someone who is pretending to sleep.”

That is something I can relate to – a sort of emotional adulthood. You don’t find yourself plunged into despair when something goes wrong, nor wildly elated when something goes right. Cyndi Lee calls it “unconditional happiness.”

On the mat, we continually confront such limitations. In a class I take on Saturdays from an extraordinarily lithe teacher, I’m continually confronted with how much shorter my hamstrings are than hers. I see how deeply her pelvis drops in lunges and I realize that mine will never match hers. When I see her move through a sun salutation with the grace of a cheetah, I’m aware of my own more giraffe-like qualities.

But even when I make those kinds of comparisons, santosha still can come through.

Whenever we perceive the grace of another’s movement, it is not because the other lacks limitations – being embodied is definitionally a limitation – but rather because the other has found a way to move lithely within her or his own body, even in the context of her or his own limitations. Those perceptions of another’s grace can provide us with a seed to plant and cultivate. Perceiving is the first step in consciously becoming. And the grace that we can see in another person is never – never – the result of the other’s perfect ease. It is, rather, the result of the other fully engaging within those limitations, whether they are short hamstrings, sore achilles’ tendons, a stiff neck, a messy divorce, a going-nowhere job, an undeveloped community, a chronic disease, or just bad teeth.

Christopher Reeve embodied grace within the wheelchair of a quadriplegic. Stephen Hawking embodies grace within a body ravaged by Lou Gerig’s disease. A marvelous yoga teacher I know embodies grace within a body formed by severe allergies and celiac disease. Mother Theresa embodied grace within her own despair and doubts.

Practicing santosha doesn’t require us to abandon hopes for or efforts aimed at obtaining freedom from physical restraints, from external oppression, or from illness or aging (though I suspect other things may limit our ability to escape mortality). Instead, it asks us to release the mental suffering we wrap around our experience of those situations. Doing that allows us see the actual problems more clearly and admit that once the current problems are solved, new dilemmas will arise, new intractable and annoying problems will come up.

But in allowing a sense of contentment to enter in, we’re not denying the problems, not refusing to participate, not conceding defeat. Instead, we’re finding a kind of ease in the very practice of being alive, with all of the obstacles, limits, and dilemmas that being alive entails.

In the end, living with santosha is acknowledging that there is no external condition that, when finally obtained or satisfied, will bring an end to our craving, our attachment, our desires, but grace in movement and thought and action are possible, nonetheless.

Practice ideas:

1. On the mat: find a couple of poses that you don’t like and practice them a lot.

Really. Find a pose that just doesn’t work for you, and commit to it for a month – if you practice outside of class sometimes, make sure you include the pose, twice, in each practice. If you’d like me to include the pose in the sequences I plan for JM classes, let me know what it is, and I’ll build it into our practices.

It’s hard to overemphasize how good a mind-conditioning practice it can be to decide to do a pose you hate with santosha, with an attitude of contentment. For me, the pose I hated most for a long time was utkatasana. The santosha practice didn’t change the pose from hard to easy. What really changed was my mind – I stopped focusing on how much I hated the pose, and I started thinking, “yep, I really don’t like this much, but I think I can take the pose deeper.” In thinking that way, I released my need for the pose to be pleasant. It didn’t produce some fairy tale ending – I didn’t suddenly see the light, get wrapped in a brand-new yoga outfit by my fairy godmother, and forever thereafter find utkatasana to be the easiest and pleasantest pose in the catalogue. To this day, I find it hard, challenging, annoying, difficult. But there has been a change – I no longer get into mind-games about how much suffering I’m experiencing in the pose. The absence of that chatter provides a kind of silent space I can move in and hold in utkatasana. That silence and space, in turn, allows me to see into the pose, and then through it and into life.

2. Off the mat: after a month of working with your least favorite yoga pose, find a situation in life that inspires the same kind of discomfort and frustration for you, but one that you’re reasonably certain would be as good for you as your hated yoga pose, if you were to do it. And then, again for one month, actively move into that situation and practice santosha. Give up expecting the situation to magically change and be all butterflies and flowers. Expect it to be what it is. But see if you can release your insistence that it be other than it is, and in so doing, find contentment even within the constraints of the situation or action.

I’d love to hear your experiences with finding contentment within uncomfortable situations, whether on the mat or off, whether individual or interpersonal, whether good or bad.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


"Unsatisfactory Performance" was my elementary school's code for a failing grade. In elementary school, rather than separate subject classes, each student had one teacher, who assigned different grades for various aspects of a student's performance.

In high school, "Unsatsifactory Performance" was dropped in favor of the simpler, "E." (Yes, "E," not "F." I suspect that the "F" has arisen in more recent years because some of the students managed to persuade their parents that "E" stood for "Excellent" rather than "one step below a 'D'".)

College used the "F" motif for the same purpose.

Law school used numbers that ranged (so far as I could tell) from the mid-30s to the mid-80s, probably to confuse recruiters into giving us all jobs, as no one could tell what might or might not have been an "F" -- or an "E" -- or an "Unsatisfactory Progress."

Buddhism and Yoga, I've learned, also have their code-speak for flunking. They call it "dukkha." (Pronounce that like "duke - huh," being sure to make the "h" sound clear following the "k" of "duke-") I've been taught that "dukkha" is a word borrowed from (of course) Sanskrit. It's usually translated as "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness." What is the grade assigned to?


Not that everything is suffering. Only that dukkha permeates existence. Anything pleasurable will not last. Anything constructed will fall down. Anything that is born will also die. Anything aware will become unaware. Dukkha becomes the label for the perception of the failure of existence to fulfill our desires for existence.

The Buddha taught, in his first sermon following his enlightenment:

"Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha."

Even though Pali is a nicely and longly dead language, the etymology exercise doesn't end with defining it as "suffering." Dukkha was a word defined in reference to an ill-crafted wheel axel turning in an ill-crafted hole -- think of a lumpy cart wheel axle turning in a not-round hole. If "dukkha" meant, originally, "lack of space to move," it's opposite, "sukkha," meant "space."

In yoga terms, "lack of space" and "space" are pretty good metaphors for suffering and ease.

For human critters, confinement precipitates mind-states that involve suffering. Openness precipitates mind-states that involve ease. Imprisonment or liberation. In yoga poses, those ideas make a lot of sense.

* * *

So today has been an exercise in dukkha. For one reason or another, when I awoke this morning, I perceived everything as unsatisfactory -- my job was repetitive, my boss was unappreciative, my performance at work was flawed, my vacation was unrelaxing, my family was dysfunctional, my body was deteriorating, my thoughts were banal, my existence was shallow, my efforts were weak and half-hearted, my, my, my, my. The fundamental shabbiness of all existence shone through even the most polished surfaces. Jesus condemned the hypocrites as "whited sepulchres." Today, everything I saw was a whited sepulchre.

Usually, when I experience that sort of thing, I either follow it down into the mire and wind up depressed for days and weeks (prior life) or (more recently) notice it and label it as "depression" and then hold it apart from my perceiving self, implement self-help measures (exercise a lot, reconnect with friends, etc.). But today was a little different. As the more recent pattern for dealing with depression presented itself to my mind, I suddenly became aware of a little bit more than I'd perceived before.

And this time, rather than labeling the experience "depression" and putting it into a specimen container and placing it on a shelf, like a collectible critter, I realized that my routine for dealing with depression is a kind of alienation of the experience, a kind of avoidance of it, aversion to it, just as spiralling down into the depths is a kind of perverse attachment to it.

So today, I just stayed present with it -- practicing, of all things, a kind of contentment with it, neither drawing it in, nor pushing it out.

Doing that allowed the experience to continue for longer than I've usually allowed it. And what I found was a kind of peculiar clarity -- as if there is a kind of light that reveals the dukkha aspects of all things, but it's a kind of light that I haven't been able to -- perhaps haven't been willing to -- let through the lenses I use to see the world.

Strange to think that practicing contentment and equanimity might allow me to see through what is desired to what is. And strange to find that what is, isn't all it's cracked up to be. And even stranger to find that the seeing the unsatisfactoriness clearly wasn't all bad.

In fact, it was strangely liberating. As if sukkha is experienced only when dukkha is allowed to be.

Perhaps there's something to say for Unsatisfactory Performance.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Meditation on Shambhala Mountain Center Retreat

A couple of weeks ago, I arrived at Shambhala Mountain Center for a four-day meditation and yoga retreat.

SMC is about a two hour drive from Denver – freeways to Ft. Collins, a two-to-four lane from Ft. Collins to a winding two-lane up and into the foothills to a dirt road, to an unpretentious faded maroon and yellow sign that marks a bumpy drive through a gap in the fenceline. With me for the drive up is a late-twenties college student who indicated a need for a ride from Boulder to Shambhala. When we met, she thanked me for the ride, we chatted for a bit, and she went quiet, napping in the hot sunshine of the roadtrip. At the gap in the fence, I slow and turn into the gate. There is an interesting sense of arrival, as I’ve much anticipated this, and there is a sense of quiet.

A sign points from the parking lot to a crushed stone path that leads a couple hundred yards to an old two-story cabin that looks like it was built in the 1920s as a ranch house. A sign in front says, “Registration.” We walk to it, my ride-sharer stops and greets some friends. I continue on. The front door is open. I climb the few steps to the front porch and walk in. There’s a table with printed clip-on nametags, alphabetized. I do a quick count – it looks like there will be about sixty of us in the program, maybe a few more, if others have arrived earlier than I. I don’t recognize any names, but I didn’t expect to.

A few paperwork items with a person behind a desk. Only one is unexpected – “rota.” The form I fill out says that “rota” is an essential part of the experience of Shambhala, and provides a place for me to record what “rota” I will be doing. The person behind the desk hands me a sign-up sheet with chores listed out – Sunday breakfast dishes, Friday sweeping Sacred Studies Meditation Room, things like that. Following many of them is a variety of handwriting styles and inks – names of people who’ve already taken on one thing or another. There is an open space beside “Saturday cleaning Sacred Studies Foyer” where I write my name. The person behind the desk hands me a map of the area that, from the looks of it, is a ninth or tenth generation photocopy of the original map. With a pink highlighter, she shows me the tent I’m assigned to, the registration cabin where we are now, the path to “downtown,” the road from registration to the bathhouse my tent is nearest.

I drive the rider to her bathhouse, we drop off her gear, and I then drive to my bathhouse and do the same with my gear, leaving it on the porch, and return the car to the parking lot.

Map in hand, I begin walking through Shambhala. It is a curious mixture of buildings – an old ranch-style cabin used for registration, a few trailers of the sort that construction crews use to house offices on work sites, some one- or two-room cabins that look cobbled together from spare parts from a building supply store, large tented buildings set on wooden platforms, and several nearly new buildings scattered around, the latter all bearing a similar style and design. Tents are grouped around bathhouses – two sets of tents are near the “downtown” area, an area consisting of a kitchen/food prep building (1920s cabin style), a massive dining hall tent, a 1920s cabin style gift-and-sundries shop, a smaller dining area tent, and a new Sacred Studies building. Other tent groups are scattered a quarter- to a half-mile from “downtown.” Mine’s an outlier, though not the farthest.

On the trip through downtown, I’m surrounded by people who are engaged in conversations, grouping here and there at improvised picnic tables. I wonder whether four days apart from my family, pursuing activities and interests they do not share, is going to be a good thing or not.

I find my way back to the bath house, carry my gear to my assigned tent. It’s a single, though there are two platforms, two foam rubber pads, two bookcase/shelves, and two racks. I grab my backpack, dropping the rest of the gear. Suddenly mindful of my non-mindfulness, I stop, unpack everything, and organize the tent before proceeding back to downtown and dinner.

Through the solitude of crowds, I get dinner and then make my way, as instructed by the schedule, to the Sacred Studies building. The entry has large doors defended by Tibetan-style stone lions. They try to look fierce, but their size puts them only slightly larger than the over-fed cat snoozing in the sun by the dining hall tent. The foyer to the building has benches, coat racks and cubbyholes, and a sign that requests we remove our shoes before proceeding through the next set of doors. I comply and push through the inner doors.

There is an entry area, and behind it, another set of double doors, these wide open, to a brightly lighted, bamboo-floored meditation hall. The ceiling is vaulted in the center, lower on the two open wings. On the back wall of the room is an altar, framed by large portraits of two men. I recognize the older one as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the younger one as his son, Sakyang Mipham Rinpoche. There is no furniture in the hall, but there are lots of yoga mats laid out with meditation cushions. About 2/3rds of them are occupied. I enter the hall. Despite the people shifting around, finding places to sit, shuffling odds and ends, it is palpably quiet and still.


The retreat is led by Cyndi Lee, an accomplished yoga teacher, and David Nichtern, a teacher of meditation, trained in Tibetan Buddhism and a student of the lineage that founded SMC. Most of their introductory remarks are not, themselves, remarkable. They outline the retreat’s intended structure and content enough to quiet the “what will happen next?” part of the participants’ monkey minds. They talk about their own experiences and background enough to quiet the “can I trust these people?” part of the participants’ monkey minds. And they talk long enough for us to settle into the physical room, wiggling on yoga mats, shifting on meditation cushions, glancing around the room at other participants, the altar, the lights, the windows.

Two things, though, stick in my mind about the leaders’ initial remarks. In her self-introduction, Cyndi Lee says something along the lines of this: “During the retreat, I will play the role of mother – when I see things that can be done better, I’m going to tell you so, and maybe adjust your poses to get you there. Don’t be offended.”

In his self-introduction David Nichtern says something along these lines: “Most of you probably don’t know anyone else here, so you’re probably a little lonely. In a meditation retreat, being a little lonely is a good thing.”


I signed up for the retreat because it combined both yoga and meditation, two practices that have become central to my life. As it turns out, I find the meditation a lot harder than the yoga.

The retreat is structured in four basic sessions, each one with a headline message which is elaborated through a meditation session (including dharma talk and practice) and a yoga practice. In normal life, I practice yoga between an hour and two hours a day (sometimes three, if you count the time in classes that I teach, too). By contrast, I sit on my meditation cushion about a half hour each day, and I always wind up opening my eyes between the 20 and 25 minute marks, because I can’t really believe that I haven’t been sitting for way more than a half hour by that point.

The first headline message worked through in meditation and a yoga practice is Making Friends With Yourself. Befitting such an innocuous-sounding message, the meditation practices were brief explorations of the mind, noting the thoughts as they arose. The meditation leader introduced us to the shamatha meditation practice of watching the breath. When we notice the mind wandering from that object of concentration, he instructed, just notice the fact of the wandering, and return the attention to the breath.

In my novice-style and inconsistent pranayama practice, I have worked a number of breath patterns, focusing on them closely, so this instruction sounds pretty easy. David says, though, not to try to control the breath – just watch it. And he instructs us to do the meditation with our eyes open, something I’ve never been able to manage very well, as I tend to find visual images endlessly distracting (don’t get me in an art gallery or sculpture garden if you want me to stay focused on anything other than paintings or sculpture).

This is the first time in years that I’ve tried to practice meditation other than alone, either in my closet (it’s a walk-in, with enough space on the floor for a pad), or my basement. Despite Cyndi and David’s efforts in the introductory session to quell monkey-mind responses to the novelty of the situation, my monkey-mind churning consumes almost all of the first session, just getting used to the idea of seeing something while meditating, being aware of other people while meditating. When I meditate alone, there is always a very clear and noticeable mind response when I hear anyone – even my dog –approaching. So meditating in the same room with sixty or seventy other people requires a bit of getting used to. Still, I’m surprised at how effective my mind is at zipping off to the usual storage shed of fantasies, tangents, visual fascination with the floor, distractions, and the like.

The second session headline is Dynamic Equilibrium, a concept I’m pretty comfortable with from yoga practices. There’s no such thing as a perfectly still pose. In every pose, opposing muscles are constantly adjusting their tension against one another. David introduces us to the idea that meditation works the same way – there is no such thing as the perfectly still mind – just stillness as a function of increasingly minute adjustments.

The third segment of the program, Obstacles as Path, gives us an opportunity to see the experience of disruptions and obstacles and interferences to the objective as the object of the meditation or yoga itself. As David and Cyndi introduce it, it sounds unpleasant. As we practice it, it is unpleasant. David remarks, “why should we think meditation is only about light and butterflies?” But the experience is worse than it sounds. David strikes the bell, and we’re into the meditation session. Because my right knee is bugging me a little after the first day, I opt for a vajrasana meditation pose.

Turns out that if obstacles to meditation are the objective, this is a good call. If comfort is the objective, I could have made a better choice. After about 15 minutes, I’m starting to hurt – both ankles, right foot, and a big knot that’s beginning to form under my right shoulder blade. I’ve opted to sit with my eyes closed, as the first day, I never really got to the meditative mind state with them open. After 20 minutes, I’m obsessed with the discomfort, with the pain the back, the pain in the ankles. After about 21 minutes, I’m mad at the teacher – really, really mad, because he didn’t tell us how long he was going to keep us in meditation. At 21:20 minutes, I’m wondering how long we’ve been sitting together. At 21:35 I’m wondering how much wiggling I can get away with. At 21:37, I’m starting to control my breath frequency and depth. At 21:40, I do circles with my neck, only realizing I must have decided to move my neck and head after I finish moving them. The circles stretch the knotted muscles a little bit, and I return to the breath. At 21:44, I’m thinking about the yoga teacher’s assistant who adjusted my downward dog pose the day before. At 21:52, I’m annoyed about how long we’re going to be sitting here. At 22:03, I’m getting really really mad.

You get the picture.

When my pissed-off-ness reaches its fourteenth or fifteenth peak of suffering – “how long is he going to keep us here!?!? He’s just being mean! Why should I sit here just because he told me to? How long—”


Suddenly, I don’t want to open my eyes. I don’t want the meditation to end with me bitching and whining inside myself, mentally yelling for it to end.

But’s that’s exactly what happens.

So instead of feeling like my demands were met, I feel like I childishly wasted the meditation period.

No bliss. No deep insights into impermanence. No sudden understanding of interdependent arising. Barely a few split seconds of even superficial awareness of my own mind.

How long was the sitting? I really haven’t any idea, there are no clocks in the hall, and David doesn’t tell us. In retrospect, I suspect it was about 40-45 minutes, but given the drama yelling match going on in my head, it could have been 15 minutes for all I know. I feel frustrated. A bit stupid. But I come away with this: I’m truly startled by how loud my mind gets and how little space is left for anything but its vociferous suffering as I do nothing more interesting than sit still for a bit.

David leads us through a walking meditation, which is both a relief, and kind of interesting. Whatever the artificial drama of the seated meditation session, the walking session allows me to settle my mind into seeing what comes up. We return to more seated meditation, more of a “normal” experience, more comfortable, more possible. And shorter.

In the yoga practice that follows, holding Warrior 3 for an extended period feels like a blessing.


That evening at dinner, one of the participants in the retreat recommends that I hike up to the top of a nearby (and not-too-tall) peak on a ridge to watch sunrise dawn.


I awaken well before dawn, glance out the tent’s east-facing window, and see only the night lights of Ft. Collins reflected against the clouds in the distance. I roll over. I awaken again a bit later. The east-facing window shows a bit more light in the eastern sky. I realize that it’s getting near time for departure. My mind pokes at memory to guess how long before sunrise. I suspect I should get going. I close my eyes again. I awaken again. After repeating the sequence yet again, I swing my feet to the floor, put on levis and lace up my hiking boots. I have a drink of water and head out of the tent. The sky is lighter than I expected. It’s probably later than I’d planned. Following the rough instructions I remember from last night, I find a trail to the Great Stupa (about which, more later). Every now and again, maybe a half dozen times before I get to the Stupa, the trail is marked by and passes between tall poles, wrapped in vertically long, but horizontally narrow, flags. Empty gates.

I pass by the Stupa itself, navigate around it, and head up a rough and steep dirt road up the mountain. I’m alone and entirely at peace. At the edge of the road, I find tufts of silver sage growing. I pick a few fringed leaves, twisting them in my fingers to release their scent and drop them into my pocket. It blends with the dew-strong scents of morning flowers and pines. The road crests beside a rocky crag. There’s a bench to rest on, but I see a thin trail leading to the rocks themselves, and several ways up from there. The three-peaked crag seems more than 50 feet high, less than a hundred. It’s the sort of crag that any respectable primate can climb. As I go up, I find in sheltered spots beneath overhanging rocks dried masses of what looks like potter’s clay, shaped to the size of a small snowball, pressed into the rock. Clearly human-brought. I haven’t any idea what they are or why they are placed there. I scramble higher. The air temperature is cool, but not overly so. The fleece shirt I’m wearing is damp from sweat, but not wet. As I scramble to the top, I look and my brain goes through the nearly instantaneous adjustment it always does when I think I’m alone and suddenly find that I’m not. I see that there are two people here already, sitting in meditation – a man I’ve seen in the dining tent, and the yoga instructor’s assistant. They smile, I nod, bow, and find a rock to sit on. I realize that I’m probably sitting between them and the bright point on the horizon where the sun will rise in a few seconds. I shift to a lower rock, off to the side, and at the edge of the crag. I sit.

The barest shred of the sun is just above the horizon, burning its edges. We’re high enough that I can see past the foothills, and the horizon is set by the long, flat plains east of Fort Collins. I settle into my seat, focus soft, eyes half-open, and gaze toward the rising sun. Even before the sun is halfway above the horizon, I’ve noticed its north-to-south motion, its summer morning path as it rises into the ecliptic plane. There is a steady breeze pressing gently against my back, sweeping past and through me. The air has a kind of clarity that seems brilliantly present and empty. I inhale, drawing in the breeze, exhale, noticing the breath rejoin the wind. My vision set on the sun rising above the horizon, my attention on my breath, my mind stills.

Arising in my mind, the impermanence of a sun rising over eroding mountains.

Then stillness.

I hear the dopplerizing of bird calls. A dozen or so small birds speed just over our heads, flying eastward and down into the valley below us, faster than the wind.

Arising in my mind, the emptiness of space and air all around the crag, my skin.

Then stillness.

I hear the two people with me at the mountaintop shift and rustle. After a few moments, they enter my line of vision, scrambling diagonally down the rocky crag. I hear their boots crunch gravel as they make their way to the dirt road, and head down mountain. The texture of my breath changes to the shaking of grief. From the inside, I watch it. My body is sobbing. I notice that I am alone again.

Then stillness.

Something clicks in my head. I straighten my spine and bow toward the rising sun. I turn and explore the rest of the top of the crag.

I’m at the highest point on the crag. It is marked with another vertically long, horizontally short flag. There are two other lower crests to the crag, each one marked the same way.

There is, in the niche formed at the base of an overhanging boulder, a Buddha statue. Around the statue are offerings – quarters, a Chapstik, a whistle, a broken clay pipe, a rolled-up dollar bill. I find in my pocket a bit of the silver sage I’d twisted on the path up to the crag. I set it before the Buddha.

Behind the boulder is a flat stone, large enough to stand on, but only barely. I pull off my boots and socks, my shirt, and I begin a sun salutation: standing, hands at heart center. Draw kneecaps up, tightening quads to femurs. Sweep arms wide, then up, alongside ears. Turn gaze straight up. In the morning-brightened sky, directly overhead, I see the last star of the night, still shining. Bend at hip joints, flat back, arms extended to either side, swan-diving forward and down. My gaze rests on the granite beneath my feet. Half lift, to a flat spine, arms still extended earthward; full forward bend, hands grasping calves, face pressed to shins. Then sweeping up to standing, hands at heart center. Then again. And again. And again.

Each motion is practiced, familiar. My mind is embedded in my flesh, in the air of the crag, in the stone at my feet, the star above me, the sun-brightening sky.


As I work my way down the dirt road from the crag, the air cools in spots, warms in others. At the back of the Stupa, I see a path that branches off and upward, more southerly than the eastward path I’m returning from. A sign indicates a Shinto shrine ahead. I follow the path. A couple of hundred yards up the hill, there is an open shelter that includes instructions. I draw the cleansing water from a covered basin, wash my hands, my mouth. I bow, passing through the gateways framing the path, empty space within them, before them, beyond them. I greet the shrine, see the offerings of rice, of salt. I bow, take a grain of salt and place it on my tongue. I clap loudly, twice; bow twice. Then work my way back down the path, through the empty gates.

At the Stupa, I remove my boots, enter. There are others here. I sit and gaze at the towering Buddha figure before me.

I stand and withdraw. Outside, I re-boot, and begin walking down the path to the Stupa. I stop at an offertory that I must have passed on my way up. I don’t remember it. It is elaborately bedraped with mala beads, packets of tea, coins, hair bands, photographs, scribbled notes, bandanas, pebbles. I add another silver sage leaf. At the front of it are half-charred incense sticks in a sand-filled bowl, blown out by the wind. I find a cigarette lighter at the base. Cupping the flame from the constant breeze, I hold it up to the tallest incense stick. It smolders. The wind blows out the lighter. I try again, holding flame to the incense, cupping the incense, the flame, the air with my hand. The incense catches fire, burns steadily. I release the lighter and un-cup my hand. The flame blows out, leaving a breeze-fresh glowing ember, smoking into the morning.