Sunday, May 27, 2007

Meditation Anywhere

Monica's recent post at Buddhist in Nebraska crystallized this:

Sitting in church today, beside my family, an in-breath snagged my attention.

I followed it in, watched the exhale.

With the lights back on, I could see my hunched-over posture, and straightened. Heard the complex sounds of the speakers’ words.

Saw the next inhale begin.

What a curious thing to be aware in the midst of life!

A cushion in a quiet room? Yes. Of course. One thing at a time.

But outside, everywhere, all the time?


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Off the Mat -- Satya

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

Last week I noted that ahimsa is easy to practice on our mats with respect to ourselves, but harder off the mat. This week’s yama, satya or “truth,” may be the other way around. We’re all pretty well-versed in what it means to tell the truth when we interact with others. Most of us are generally aware of when we lie to others.

But from the perspective of the yoga mat, it can be harder to see how truthfulness works.

Years ago – in fact eight years ago, at the same conference where I was first introduced to the practice of yoga – one of the conference coordinators and I were talking separately after one of the conference sessions. The conference session had raised the question of whether in all the various roles each of us fulfilled, we were living “authentically.” I remarked to the coordinator that I hadn’t any idea what she meant by that term. I related to her that I played roles, variously, of husband, lawyer, brother, leader, friend, subordinate, executive, son, and father, but that I didn’t have any sense that any of those roles was the “real” me. When I was a lawyer, I was a lawyer. When I was a son, I was a son. When I was an executive, I was an executive. Two days later, as the conference was concluding, the coordinator re-raised the same question as a topic of exploration for the conferees, in a slightly different format. We penned our thoughts in response to the question of “under what circumstances do you feel most complete and honest?” At the time, I had made a couple of canoe trips down the Green River, which runs through the desolate and desert canyonlands of eastern Utah. The overriding experience of those trips had been solitude and quiet – my companion and I had gone days without seeing other people. And so I wrote in my conference materials, “I am more at one with the river than I am in any other setting in life.”

As sometimes happens, that one statement resonated long after the conference was concluded. As I reflected on it and on the earlier conversation with the coordinator, I realized that the two questions were exploring different facets of the same issue. Even though I didn’t understand the term “authenticity” as applied to myself, and even though I didn’t have any sense of which, if any, of the roles I played was the real “me,” in fact, a part of me knew, because it understood that it had been most present and aligned in the desolation of the wilderness, facing an empty river.

There is something inside each of us that knows truth.

As to communications and interactions with others, that sense inside knows not only when I speak to someone else and convey a false impression – whether I speak actual falsehoods, or whether I simply contrive my statements so that, although truthful, they convey a misleading impression. Awareness to that situation is a practice of satya.

But that which knows truth inside of us knows truth not only in our interactions with others – it knows the truth of ourselves, as well. It perceives when we live falsely, suppressing our understanding of truth in preference for a falsehood, whether it is a falsehood that allows us to harm others, or whether it is a falsehood that allows us to cling to something we crave or avoid something we fear. Some falsehoods arise originally from our own ignorance, and re-aligning ourselves to truth is simply a matter of consciously seeing our mistakes and stepping out of the well worn rut that we developed when we didn’t know any better. Whatever the origin of the falsehood, be it ignorance, ego or the things that ego creates – pride, fear, clinging, aversion, greed – once we build it into our foundations, it takes real effort just to see it clearly, let alone to change from falsehood to truth.

Still, there is real meaning to the term “true self,” and yoga asks us to seek it.

When you move into a pose on the mat this week, notice whether you perceive some value to the question of whether you are doing so truthfully. Is the pose a structure for exploring your experience or is it a way of presenting or maintaining a front, whether to yourself or to those around you?

When you work off the mat this week, notice when and how your communications are truthful. Notice when and how they are not.

And with either of those practices, when you find a situation in which you feel you have not been fully truthful, notice the experience of that non-truth – notice what gave rise to it, notice how it feels, and to the extent you can, notice how it affects the world around you. Does it draw you closer to reality, to those around you, to your true self? Or does it create or maintain a distance from those things?

A note to my yoga class


I've received some good feedback regarding our yoga class. I spoke about it last Friday, but I'd like to share it with those of you who weren't able to attend that day, as I think it's an important reminder for all of us.

As many of you have heard me say on one occasion or another, what sets yoga apart from just good exercise is the connection between the mind and the body. One way to keep the mind engaged is to work at the edge of our abilities. Some poses challenge our ability for balance, others challenge our strength, flexibility, or coordination. But whatever the particular "edge" may be for each of us in a particular pose, one thing is almost certain: the "edge" will be in a different place for every person.

For some of us, Downward facing Dog presents a huge challenge to our shoulder strength; for others, it's a real test of hamstring flexibility; and for yet others, the real challenge of the pose is the coordination of keeping the spine long while still moving the heels toward the floor. The more we practice a pose, particularly working at our "edges," the more we will wear away those "edges." Shoulders will get stronger. Hamstrings will lengthen. Greater awareness will increase our coordination.

On one level, those developments seem entirely like a good thing. We all want to be stronger, more flexible, and more coordinated. But on the level of Yoga -- the connection between the body and the mind -- those developments are decidedly mixed blessings.

Why? Because as we increase our strength, flexibility and coordination, the Downward facing Dog pose that previously presented lots of different mental and physical "edges" becomes too easy for us. When that happens, the pose loses some of its value as an "edge," and our minds get free to drift. We lose the mind-body connection of Yoga. Fortunately, there is no such thing as "the final" Downward facing Dog pose. So when one pose starts to lose its "edge" qualities, we can always modify the pose to re-find those working edges.

Sometimes in the past, I've coached classes to try a more difficult version of a familiar pose, or to try a more difficult pose. On reflection and particularly with the benefit of recent feedback, I've concluded that I haven't emphasized enough that such modifications are only useful if you've gotten so comfortable in the pose without modifications that it's hard to find and work those "edges." I want to emphasize here that Yoga isn't really an exercise in stupid human tricks, though on occasion I've referred to various more exotic poses that way. What I'd most like to avoid is any situation that could lead to injury, which can happen when we attempt poses that our bodies or our minds aren't ready to try.

In the future, I expect that I'll continue to suggest modifications to basic poses, both to enable you to develop beyond a pose that has gotten too comfortable for you, as well as to keep you mindful of the amazing down-the-road capacities of each of you. But I can only do that responsibly if I'm certain that you understand that those complex-i-fying modifications are only useful if they help you to re-find your edge in the basic pose that you might have lost because you've gotten too strong, flexible, coordinated, or balanced. Sounds funny to say it that way, but it's really true.

And, as I try to emphasize every week, even if you've lost your edge in a particular pose, if I suggest a modification to a pose that you believe wouldn't be good for your body or yourself on a given day, please, please don't try it out. If it bugs you to not try out a modification even if you don't think it might be good for you, rather than trying the modification, just notice your mind and whatever it is that bugs you about not trying the modification. That is, in itself, a kind of "edge" you can explore. Your continued well being is more important than any particular pose modification.

In the end, it may be worth keeping in mind that there is no odd Sanksrit word for The Final Yoga Pose. There is only the body and the mind and the connections we create and perceive between them. Any yoga pose, no matter which, is only useful if it enables us to see those two elements and their relationship more clearly. When we engage in poses that do not meet our current needs and abilities, we inflict harm on ourselves, whether mental or physical. And I can attest that that leads away from the body-mind connection we're working for, not towards it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Off the Mat -- Ahimsa

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

The first of the yamas (or self-restraints/self-disciplines) to discuss is ahimsa—non-harming. My students have heard me say lots and lots of times, “If I ask you to try something on your mat that hurts or that you know won’t work for your body, then don’t do it.” Following that instruction is applying ahimsa to ourselves. But as useful as it may be when applied to ourselves, ahimsa is mostly a practice that addresses our relationships with other beings. It poses the basic challenge: can we interact with others without causing harm?

Every person – surely including each of us – has lots and lots of stories about the ways that other people have harmed us, hurt us, offended us, caused us in one manner or another to suffer. Most of us could probably come up with a quite a list of those offenses. Some of us have become extraordinarily good at cataloging such events in our lives, cross-indexing each item, running statistical models and probability studies about future events, etc. We are minutely aware of the harms others do to us. That can be a good thing, so long as we don’t freeze the awareness at that stage. Ahimsa challenges us to become aware not only of how we are harmed, but how we harm others. Then, it goes one step further, and asks us to see what the nature of harm is, and how it affects the way we interact with the world.

So during the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to be, literally, “non-harming” in my relationships with others, so I could properly tell you something about the practice from my own recent experience. As you probably noticed from my last post, it proved harder than I expected.

I think I’ve figured out why.

Despite my efforts, so far as I can tell, I did not do appreciably less harm to others during the times that I was actively trying to practice non-harming than I did before. I might have withheld a snide reply or two that came to my tongue in response to a son who was acting badly, but that’s about all I can point to in terms of changes to my conduct.

And I had such noble ideas about it! But as things turned out, I got frustrated. I got annoyed. I sat in meditation, noticing only my mind churning, my muscles aching, and I got more annoyed.

But a couple of nights ago, it occurred to me that even though my actions didn’t show much, there was at least one real difference that resulted from actively focusing on and practicing ahimsa: I noticed the times when I caused harm a lot more than I’d noticed them before. I usually didn’t notice them until after the actions were all done and over, but I noticed nonetheless.

Seeing a more clearly the harm I was doing to others made me uncomfortable – especially given how miserable I proved to be at actually changing my actions. Maybe so uncomfortable that my mind tries to find ways not to notice or see those things in ordinary life.

And that thought plopped me right back on my mat. My mat has already taught me what to do when my brain wants to avoid thinking about something – pay really close attention. The most interesting things I can observe about my mind occur when it starts to get weirdly evasive. When I paid attention, I saw two different, but related patterns: they would both start with something happening that didn’t fit what I wanted. Then, I would either react immediately out of unhappiness, and say or do something that – at least in a little way – retaliated against the person I perceived to be causing the situation, or I would let the situation settle in, putting me in a contracted, constricted kind of mood. In the cases where I reacted immediately, I often found that my reaction was both unjustified and ill-designed. Unjustified, because in many of the situations, I was simply taking offense where none was intended – I’d just misunderstood the other’s actions or statements. Those situations made my knee-jerk reactions look pretty bad. Ill-designed, because often the reaction just made the situation worse – it not only didn’t solve the first problem, but it also created a second one that needed to be solved. In the cases where I didn’t react immediately, but let the situation put me in a bad mood, that mind condition then led to me inflicting my bad mood on others who were totally unrelated to the situation.

Grimmer and grimmer. So is there an upside?

Perhaps this: what I found while trying to practice ahimsa was that prior to trying, I was largely oblivious of situations in which I was causing harm. I won’t say totally oblivious because always tugging at the very edges of my heart-consciousness was the suspicion that my actions were causing harm, even when I didn’t allow my mind to acknowledge it directly. And those heart-consciousness perceptions are exactly the sorts of things that yoga makes easier to perceive, as we open and connect our hearts and minds. There is a kind of emotional and intuitive intelligence that is available to us when our hearts and minds are open and connected. I’ve come to think that maintaining a separation between those two – by avoiding letting my mind know what my heart was telling me – made me a bit more emotionally ignorant, a bit less intuitively intelligent.

And this: the first step to change is perceiving the need for change. “…[O]ne must first know one is in prison in order to work intelligently to escape.” Even if all I can do today is notice my own reactions to my own reactions, it’s still a place to start.

Failures are often our best teachers on the mat. I don’t learn much from standing comfortably in tadasana/Mountain pose, but I learn something every time I fall out of the balance pose I’m currently working on. I know many, many ways not to do it successfully. So starting from the fall out of the pose, I bring my attention to what was going on immediately before I fell, to see if I can change something there. And the next time I go into the pose, I try to focus on that stage, and I work my way back until I find something that needs fixing, something that if I change it just a little, lets me balance where before I’d fall.

What I’ve found in working the ahimsa “pose” is this: I fall out of it a lot. The few occasions when I’ve managed to stay in it, I’ve found my heart and my mind more open to one another, and that connection has changed quite markedly the way that I interact with others in life. Those experiences have given me confidence to keep working on the parts of the “pose” that I’m still not particularly good at.

The Yoga-Sutra includes this statement: Yoga ends the patterning of consciousness. In this context, for me, the “patterning of consciousness” includes the automatic knee-jerk responses I make to situations that “get” to me. My yoga, today, is to see those patterns a little more clearly, even if I can only see them, today, after the harm is already done. Tomorrow, I’ll work to see the patterning of consciousness a little bit earlier in the pattern, perhaps seeing it at a point when I can actively choose to follow or to change the pattern.

Mindfulness, one step at a time.

* * *

Questions for discussion or further thought:

1. Are there things that you intentionally avoid knowing? Does avoiding knowing something affect different parts of your life?
2. How does harming someone affect you? How does it affect your relationship to the other person?
3. Do you think it is really possible to live without harming some sentient being?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Remarkable Dharma Talk

Very much worth a click.

Off the Mat (under construction)

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

I haven't forgotten the idea of a weekly topic for further exploration -- I'm just stuck right now. I'm supposed to be talking to you about ahimsa -- or "non-harming." But I find myself instead, thinking about a famous story about Gandhi:

In India at the time of the story, Gandhi had become a famous and prominent person, but one who still remained very accessible to others. One day a woman visited him with her young son. She told Gandhi that her son was constantly eating candies, and that the candies were harming his teeth. She said that her son respected Gandhi, and she wanted Gandhi to tell her son to stop eating candies.

Gandhi told the woman to bring her son back in a week. The woman looked perplexed at him, but agreed.

A week later she returned, and Gandhi told her son, "You should stop eating candies."

The woman thanked Gandhi, and then asked why she had to return after a week to have him tell her son something Gandhi could have said the first time.

Gandhi replied, "A week ago, I was still eating candies myself."

Every time I try to write something useful about ahimsa, I realize how deficient my own practice of it is, and I wind up writing things that lack authenticity and strike me as hollow when I read them back to myself.

So I'll borrow Gandhi's instruction: "check back in a week." ;-)