Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Monica's post about renunciation over on Buddhist in Nebraska got me thinking about the different ways that notions and the experience of renunciation work in my life. This evening, I ran across the following, about how commitment to truth requires a profound degree of renunciation, from Ram Dass' marvelous book, Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita

Ours is not a culture that has much appreciation for any path of renunication. Ours is a culture built on the idea that more gratification, sooner, is better. Gandhi said, "The essence of civilization consists not in the multiplication of wants but in their deliberate and voluntary renunciation." That's certainly a hard sell here in the West, where everything keeps fanning the flames of our desires. ...

By Gandhi's yardstick, my own country with all its affluence, is not yet very civilized. If we look at what people do with their great wealth in America, we find that they mostly use it to try and create more and more sensual gratification for thmselves. And then when they're totally jaded with it all, and they begin to feel the inevitable falling away of their desires, they don't know where to turn. It's a dead-end street, because it all passes, it's all transient.

Once we see that, we're motivated to turn the process around. But as we start to do that, our minds sometimes get ahead of the rest of us, and we start giving things up in order to be "good," and not because we see that they're a hindrance and we're finished with them. We try to jump the gun on the process.

I've had my own experience of the difference between those two motivations in connection with the practice of fasting, which is a form of renunciation (we renounce satisfying our desire for food). Fasting was an interesting one for me, because I have always had an intense relationship with food. I learned from my mother to equate food with love, so by the time I was ten I was wearing pants in size double Z, with balloon seats. I was definitely deep into the oral trip.

Then it was 1967, and I was at the temple in India. I noticed that everybody there fasted a lot, so one day I said to my teacher, "Hari Dass, can I fast?" (Actually, I didn't say it -- I wrote it on the slate I carried, because were were maun, silent, at that time.) Hari Dass answered, "If you'd like." I asked, "How long should I
fast?" He said, "Four days would be good." So I asked him, "How long do you fast?" He wrote, "Nine days, on every new moon." I thought, "Well, if he can do it, I can do it." So I wrote, "I will fast for nine days." And I looked very holy.

The time came, and I started the fast. And then I proceeded to spend the entire nine days thinking about nothing but food. I thought of the Thanksgiving dinners I'd had as a child; I visualized the roast turkey....

I did complete the fast. I made it through all nine days. But the interesting question was, while I was so busy fasting, what was it I was feeding?

Three months later, when I did my next nine-day fast, I was getting much better. ("Better" -- a new ego trip!) Now I spent the whole time thinking only about foods I could eat as a yogi. So I thought about spinach with lemon on it, and steaming bowls of rice ....

Time passed, and then a few years afterward, I was back in India again. Some friends and I were staying at a little village, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do another long fast. But this time, except for the fact that at noon, lemon and water or ginger tea was brought instead of food, I never even noticed I was fasting. I was just busy doing other things instead of eating. About halfway through, I thought, Oh, this is what fasting is about. Far out!" It's not about renouncing food -- it's about renouncing hunger! I hadn't even known what it was all about before, because I was so busy thinking that the ego-tripping I was doing was tapasya, that it was an austerity of some sort.

I've come to recognize that the real tapasya happens when we are so ripe to do it that we just do it. We do it joyfully, with a feeling of "Yeah -- of course. That's what happens now." We do it with a feeling of "Whew! Now I can be rid of that one." It's a
release, not self-denial. Ramana Maharshi said, "I didn't eat, and they said I was fasting." Right there in that statement is the essence of tapasya. As long as we think we're doing the austerity -- "Look at me! I'm giving this up!" -- it's just another ego trip. Whatever we may think we're renouncing, we're just stuffing our egos with both hands.

pp. 134-136

A few pages later, he describes a personal crisis point he reached as he tried to implement Maharajji's two instructions to him: "Ram Dass, tell the truth," and "Ram Dass, give up anger." In trying to live consistent with those instructions, Dass insults and rejects the people around him, throwing a plate of food into the face of a man who serves it to him. He writes:

Across the way, Maharajji was watching. "Ram Dass!"

I went over and sat down in front of him. He said to me, "Something troubling you?"

I said, "Yeah. I can't stand adharma. I can't stand that in all of us which takes us deeper into the illusion. I can't stand it in them -- they're all so impure! I can't stand it in myself. In fact I hate everybody in the world -- except you." And with that I started to cry -- not just to cry, but to really weep and wail. Maharajji tried to comfort me; he patted me on the head, he sent for milk and fed it to me. He was crying, and I was wailing and wailing. And when I got all finished with my wailing, he said to me, "I thought I told you not to get angry."

I said, "Yeah -- but you also told me to tell the truth, and the truth is that I'm angry."

Then he leaned toward me, until he was nose to nose and eye to eye, and he said, "Give up anger, and tell the truth."

I started to say, "But..." -- and then, right at that moment, I saw my predicament. See, what I was going to say to him was "But that isn't who I am." And in that instant, I saw in front of me the image of a coffin, and in the coffin was an image of who I thought myself to be. And what Maharajji was saying to me was "I'm telling you who you're going to be, after you're finished being who you think you are."

Then I looked at all those people, all of whom I detested, and I saw that one layer down, one tiny flick of the lens, I loved them all incredibly. I suddenly saw that the only reason I was angry with them was because I had a model of how I thought it ought to be, which was other than the way it was. How can you get angry at somebody for being what they are? You're trying to outguess God. ... The next time you get angry, look closely at what you're angry about. You'll see that you're angry because God didn't make the world the way you think it should have been made. ...

So the practice of satya requires that in all our doings -- in our dealings with other people, in steering our spiritual course, whatever -- we stay as close to the truth as we possibly can. Maharajji said to me, "Truth is the most difficult tapasya." It's the hardest austerity, the toughest one to do. He said, "People will hate you for telling the truth." And sometimes they do. "People will laugh at you and taunt you, they may even kill you," he said, "but you've got to tell the truth."

The trouble is, we can only tell the truth when we cease to identify with the part of ourselves we think we have to protect. If we're afraid of being laughed at or taunted or killed, we can't tell the truth; we can't tell the truth if we're busy guarding some
position. It's only when we realize that we're not as vulnerable as we fear we are that we can afford to tell the truth. ... I can never be straight with you if I need something from you. So in order to tell the truth to you, I have to give up whatever that need is inside myself. That's why satya is a practice of renunciation; what we're required to renounce are the attachments that keep us from speaking the truth.

pp. 146-47

I have lived my life trying to get people to like me. Oh, I've been reasonably successful at approaching and approximating truth at times, but I've often resisted telling it straight, rather than slant, for fear of harming others.

Or so I told myself.

But in the past few weeks, in particular, I've begun to notice how much of my fear of harming others might be a cloak for my fear of de-friending myself -- a fear of losing what I so strongly want -- connection, love, validation.

Am I ready to give up that desire? Not completely. Not yet. But I am, with the ideas of Monica and Ram Dass, beginning to see that my attachment to such relationships is not entirely benign, and that it may, curiously, be harmful.

Monday, February 26, 2007


This morning, I sat in meditation.

My morning practice usually begins with a half hour on an elliptical trainer we have in our finished basement. I tend to start the day slowly, so the slow warming into a few minutes of cardio helps me wake up. Sometimes on the machine, I work through a lovingkindness meditation. Other days, I read. This morning, it was reading -- I'm mostly finished with Stephen Batchelor's book, Living with the Devil: A meditation on good and evil (lots of interesting ideas for later posts).

When I finish with the cardio, I turn off the lights and move into yoga. The yoga is on a mat I put facing a glass doorway out to a sunken patio. If I start the whole process early enough, I often start the practice in the darkness, with the morning sky beginning to lighten. The yoga starts in samastithi, hands together at the heart. I recite the anusara invocation, then start the asana practice. Sometimes it's as simple as a few minutes in downdog or child's pose. Sometimes it's 30 minutes of vinyasa, but at an introspective, rather than heart-thumping, pace. Today, it was brief. Enough to transition me from cardio and book thoughts to meditation.

Once I've yoga-ed my way to meditation, I roll up an old blanket as a cushion, place it on the mat, and I sit/wiggle for a minute to get my sitting bones comfortably seated on the rolled blanket. I usually sit in siddhasana, easy pose. Then I wrap my legs in an afghan my wife made several years ago. I do that because it's usually cool enough in my basement to chill me if I sit for very long, but maybe also because I'm following the practice of Manorama, who taught me a lot about meditation and yoga in a workshop last year.

Then I close my eyes, recite inside my head the second verse of the Yoga Sutra, and move from there into vipassana meditation practice.

So what arises then? Awareness of the ways that the space where I practice is really not adequate for yoga and meditation, followed by an elaborate process of thinking about what a really good space to practice meditation and yoga would be, the implication being that if I were in That space, my meditation practice would really be better.


Meditation indeed.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Yoga Nidra, Lucid Dreaming, and Paying Attention to Wacky Buddhist Teachings

As a child, when I'd have nightmares, I'd get up in the middle of the night, wake my mother, and tell her about my dream. She and I, together, would imagine a pleasanter ending to the dream, and she'd send me back to bed with the instruction to dream the dream that way.

Sometimes it worked, and I learned to develop a little bit of lucidity in my dreamstate.

As I grew up, I lost that ability, and was interested in recent years to find the practice referred to in yogic and Buddhist texts. In the past week or so, I've rediscovered the exercise.

Its resurfacing started several weeks ago. I was talking with one of my yoga students about why I include savasana (corpse pose) practice at the end of every practice. I made a veiled reference to the interesting mind states that can arise in the practice, and he responded by describing the odd dream/wakeful state that he experienced. After doing some reading of others' experiences with approximately the same experience, I've come to refer to that condition as "yoga nidra." I tend not to discuss it with students or fellow practitioners as learning of it can easily lead to grasping and seeking, two states that tend to work against its occurrence. In my experience, it occurs when we engage in withdrawal of senses, moving inside our minds. It can produce visions, sometimes impenetrable imagaic states, sometimes incredibly meaningful and moving ones. There is, in yoga nidra experiences, sometimes a little volition, sometimes a lot, but engaging the normal controlling state of mind that we usually consider a part of daily consciousness seems to dispel the entire experience. So I've learned to watch and perceive, rather than to try to control or steer the experience.

Anyway, when my student mentioned his experience with yoga nidra (though he called it "weird half-sleep"), it reminded me that I hadn't engaged in it for many months. When I've practiced it in recent weeks since then, I've rediscovered the potential in yoga nidra for simultaneous dream-state and lucidity and consciousness.

That, in turn, seems to have dribbled into my otherwise normal sleep conditions, and several times in the past week, I've found myself drifting off into sleep and dream, while retaining some degree of consciousness. From that condition, it's very easy to release the consciousness and to move completely into the subconscious dream state. The first time this happened, I was napping one Sunday afternoon in a room where other family was still moving around and talking, so I had a stimulus to keep me from going completely out. But a couple 0f days ago, it happened as I was going to sleep one night, and it occurred again, yesterday, while I was in the hospital, following a shoulder surgery.

I remember reading a Buddhist teacher (I forget which one) encouraging a student to be aware of his mindstate, and when the student responded that he was generally aware, the teacher asked him to describe exactly what his mind was doing when he fell asleep. When I read that, I thought that the teacher was just playing with the student -- asking the impossible to keep the self-assured (and maybe overly self-confident) student working hard. Recalling these experiences, I can remember exactly what my mind was doing when it transitioned from wakefulness to lucid dreaming to dream state.

Now I wonder at what other teachings I've missed because I didn't take them as seriously as I should have.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Not Trying

Today: the counterpose to yesterday's thought


Do or do not. There is no try.
Last Saturday, a teacher called Handstand, saw the class full of non-handstands, and stopped to teach us a mechanical point: to move into handstand, the starting point is to draw the navel toward the spine, and then, from there, to draw the abdominal muscles up toward, and into the space of the rib cage. In yoga-speak, this abdominal maneuver is called "uddiyana bandha." I didn't have the shoulder stamina left at the time to really commit to handstand, but I tried the abdominal lock and made a half-hearted attempt to move into handstand. As with any half-hearted effort, I didn't move into handstand. But I did feel a completely unexpected stability that I had never imagined.

So this morning, I thought I'd better give the new approach to handstand a try (as tomorrow I get more shoulder surgery, and any effort at handstand will be out of bounds for a while). I positioned my hands about 20" from the wall, and I tried to engage uddiyana bandha. And my mind freaked on me. I got nervous. Worried. Unclear. Weird. I couldn't bring myself to repeat the structure of the pose that I perceived on Saturday. So I flipped up into my usual version of Handstand, that relies on the wall to keep me from flipping all the way over.

In meditation following practice, I found my mind moving into ego thoughts -- "what I do makes me a model yogi"; "I'm a good father"; "I'm trying Handstand -- that's a good thing, even if I don't do it right"; the posts I make on line are pretty good." I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I. All projection and aspiration. No doing or not doing. Maybe I'm getting Yoda's point, after all.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Everywhere, all the time

This morning’s meditation: I started with a lovingkindness practice. When that was done, I shifted into regular vipassana meditation. I noticed that the practice was easier and quieter than usual. The standard naming practice wasn’t needed, as I could simply watch the memories and thoughts arise without engaging with them. While I sat in the relaxed quiet, I perceived simultaneously both the deeper mind conditions that I usually can only explore through pratyahara practices as well as the more focused attention mind conditions that occur in vipassana meditation.

That perception was the essential experience.

From there, my mind elaborated on the recognition: I tend to experience the world in discrete and segmented ways. As I enter a meditation, I tend to close the door to non-meditation life behind me. As I move from seated meditation, which requires the involvement of my senses to maintain my vertical posture, to reclining meditation, which allows me to withdraw my awareness from my external senses entirely, I engage in another shift of mind geography. When I lie down at night to sleep, I shift my mind into sleep mode, excluding even the remote awareness of reclining meditation. Exploring each of those mind modes separately has allowed me to encounter aspects of mind that I had not perceived so clearly without the exercise of the specific disciplines that allow me to access them. So I have continued in those practices in varying degrees for the past several years. This morning’s meditation, though, suggested to me that while the distinctions and separations may be a useful didactic tool, just as isolating an exercise for biceps and another one for hamstrings can be useful, there is a fuller state of integration possible, where simultaneous engagement of each segment allows for exploration of things impossible in single-mode exercise.

Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidental that in yoga practice last night, I found myself in a pose sequence that, without the specific and separate muscle group work I’ve been performing for the past couple of years, I’d never have imagined possible. The sequence (that I did badly, but recognizably, despite my incompetence) is a flow of poses (from top to bottom, above) from twisting prayer, to side crow, to scissored side crow, to hurdle, to scorpion. Without the hours and months of devotion to isolated strength work on abdominal muscle groups, spinal muscle groups, and shoulders, and on hip flexibility, the sequence would scarcely have been imaginable, let alone possible (albeit clumsily) last night. But with those isolated exercises, I found last night a tiny glimpse of the integration of dance that is enabled by the work.

So back to this morning’s meditation… At odd moments during the day, I’m reminded that all levels of my perception and mind are available at any moment. That feels a bit like the sense I’ve had since the day I perceived that prana is continually flowing into each of us. It’s a little bit vertiginous, but liberating. It feels a bit like the fulsome connectedness of intense spiritual experiences – a flowing of all levels of mind/body/spirit into present focused awareness.
And the all-levels-at-once experience suggests to me potentials for mindfulness that are analogous to the perception of one pose flowing into another suggests the potential for vinyasa.

Monday, February 05, 2007

More than worth a click

Click this for an hour's worth of Ram Dass at his best -- warm, funny, wise, perceptive, open, and the curious amalgam of Eastern and Western that feels most natural to me. The link is to the first half of remarks he made recently in Santa Barbara. More to come.

Waking Up

This morning I woke up.

Several times, in fact, before I stopped going back to sleep.

So what? This: for reasons I haven't sorted out, I noticed exactly when I woke up, of the change from dream to awakening to awake.

It happened three times. Narrative dream, creating and exploring a story. Awareness of the dream-ness of the dream. Awareness of the awareness of being awake and conscious. And awareness of the empty simplicity of the transition between them, umarked by thought, desire, aversion, self, or Self. Just experience, transformed consciousness, and awareness.