Friday, June 29, 2007

Jnana Mudra and Nadis

Yoga teaches that our bodies are filled with (composed of?) energy pathways that yogis call "nadis."

I mentioned in the prior post on pranayama that during parts of the session with Darren Main, I could feel energy moving through my arms and hands. Since that experience, I've used part of my meditation periods to focus more intently on the breath. This morning, at the peak of several inhalations, I again perceive a branching nadi in my right wrist, hand, and fingers. As I continued the practice, I had a lesser, but still perceptible, experience of the same in my left wrist, hand, and fingers. Interesting.

A couple of weeks ago, I began teaching yoga in my home to a group of women from my congregation who have banded together to form a "Healthy Habits" group. They asked me to teach, and I agreed. Most of them are true beginners, without any prior practice. At the end of the session, I took a few minutes to show them a basic sitting pose, and then walked them through a basic breath cycle. Once they settled in, I joined them in meditation for a few minutes. My meditation posture usually includes the jnana mudra, and I moved into it that evening, as well. After the class, one of the participants asked me what the mudra was for. I gave the "standard" answer: it's a way of bringing mindfulness to my hands, giving them something to do, and that some people believe that the mudra connects energy pathways in the thumb and index finger.

I suppose I can answer the question a little more definitely in the future.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Off the Mat -- Aparigraha

Aparigraha – Non-grasping

The fifth and last of the yamas that Patanjali lists as ethical disciplines for interacting with others is aparigraha – non-grasping. Written in positive terms, aparigraha is “letting go.” It’s not always easy for me to consider letting go as a way of interacting with others. To be sure, it’s central to much of yoga, asana practice, and 12-step programs everywhere, but in those contexts, it’s easier to think of as a way of steering ourselves away from self-destructive behaviors rather than a way of interacting with others.

So how can letting go affect interactions with others?

One teacher I practice with regularly likes to repeat the phrase “everything you need is already inside of you.” That belief, I think, is at the center of aparigraha, precisely because grasping and clinging – aka “covetousness” – are fed by a deep sense of lacking. If you watch commercial television for fifteen minutes this evening, you’ll see at least a dozen displays intended to convince you that what you need for happiness is, in fact, not inside you, but can be readily found inside a car dealership, a fat retirement account, a can of beer, a promotion, a lipstick tube, whiter teeth, a Quarter Pounder, or, possibly, a weekend in Las Vegas. Aparigraha teaches us otherwise.

When it comes to material possessions, letting go is the beginning of generosity, and the beginning of the end of the “I don’t have enough to…” or the “all I need is…” thought processes. When I experience those desires, whether they’re conjured by advertising or whether they come from my own desires for something external to change me internally, I’ve noticed a couple of things. First, I tend to contract around the perceived need/want/desire. My attention narrows, my awareness of broader experience dims, and I start to focus, instead, on all the reasons I’m not complete without whatever it is. In short: I start, and then continue, suffering. But the experience doesn’t usually stop there. Next, I start devising ways to solve my problem, whatever it may be. Sometimes the fix is as easy (and dangerous) as heading down to the fridge late at night, or running up a tab on my credit card, or popping a pill to get to sleep. Sometimes it’s as complicated as lying to get someone to think something good about me falsely. At other times, it’s as life-consuming as devoting my life to accumulating a particular amount of money. But whatever the specific application, every one of those cases defines me by what I lack and focuses me on getting something to make myself more complete.

And all of it focuses my attention – and, for that matter, my life, my very being – on “I,” “me,” and “mine.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote this:

The Buddha once said that the core message of all his teachings – he taught continually for 45 years – could be summed up in one sentence. On the off chance that that might be the case, it might not be a bad idea to commit that sentence to memory. You never know when it might come in handy, when it might make sense to you even though in the moment before, it really didn’t. That sentence is:

“Nothing is to be clung to as ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘mine.’”

In other words, no attachments. Especially to fixed ideas of yourself and who you are.

It is a hard message to swallow at first blush because it brings into question everything that we think we are, which for the most part seems to come from what we identify with, our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings, our relationships, our values, our work, our expectations of what is “supposed” to happen and how things are “supposed” to work out for me in order for me to be happy, our stories of where we came from and where we are going and of who we are.

But let’s not react quite so quickly, even though at first blush the Buddha’s counsel may feel more than a little scary or even stupid or irrelevant. For the operative word here is “clinging.”

p. 53, Coming to our Senses, Kabat-Zinn

For a long time, I really resisted this teaching myself. It sounded to me too much like some kind of self-destructive notion, the sort of thing someone with no self-respect or self-worth might accept. But, like a few other teachings I’ve received in my life, this was one that has grown on me with time. In part, because of what Kabat-Zinn points out – the operative instruction is “don’t cling,” not “reject yourself.” Realizing that opened the door a tiny crack, and let in some light.

A dear yoga teacher frequently reminded me during practice, “let go of what you don’t need right now.” And every so often, maybe one time out of fifty that she gave that instruction, I realized that, in fact, I was clinging to something that I really didn’t need at that moment. And when I relaxed that grip, the yoga practice improved. Realizing that nudged the door a bit further, widening the crack. And a little more light came in.

Then I read a book by a sensible author who pointed out that the instruction to not grasp or cling could easily be mistaken for an instruction to reject, to stand apart, to avoid engaging with the world. In fact, he described such an attitude as the “near enemy” of non-grasping – something that looks more than a little bit like the practice, but in fact embodies the exact opposite of it. That idea took me a bit to digest. How was avoiding entanglement with something the opposite of non-grasping? It sure seemed similar.

I think it works like this: grasping/clinging is really rooted in exactly the same internal state as aversion and avoidance. Aversion is simply the way that internal mind state manifests when we experience the opposite of what we cling to. If I cling to the pleasure of a full feeling in my belly, I avoid being hungry and feel an aversion to the experience of hunger. If I cling to a belief that I’m more important than others, I may avoid letting myself perceive ways that other people are important. And I may feel aversion toward the people who threaten my notions of my own importance. If I cling to a belief that no longer serves me, I may feel aversion toward the situations or persons who show me how the belief is incorrect. Each of those situations, and the gazillion more that we could probably come up with if we started listing all of those we’ve experienced ourselves – we’re just clinging to something, whether a feeling, a view of one’s Self, or even something as abstract as a belief. And the clinging manifests as aversion.

When I read that author and realized that aversion and clinging are the same thing, a lot of light suddenly made it through the door. In response, I formulated this as a way to try to live aparigraha in many, many settings:

First Receive.
Then Embrace.
Then Honor.
Then Release.

And the “it” can be almost anything -- whether a feeling, a yoga pose, a headache, a beloved friend, a belief, a thought about myself, a threat to my safety, a work opportunity, a dollar bill.

Refusing to receive something present before me is simply aversion. Allow it in, no matter what it is – good, bad, pleasant, uncomfortable, quiet, loud, delicious, disgusting. And then take it a step further: embrace it, seek to fully engage with it, whatever it may be. Once you have experienced it, honor it: acknowledge its being, exactly as it is. Then, no matter how wonderful it may be, release it. Allow it to be exactly what it may be. Allow it to change in whatever manner it changes. And then apply the same practice to yourself, after you have released whatever “it” might have been.

Aparigraha – non-grasping – absolutely does not mean never to embrace. Rather, it reminds us that we should embrace, and then release. This doesn’t mean that we should bounce from one relationship to another, unstable and flitting. That, itself, can be a kind of grasping/aversion. Applying aparigraha to a long term relationship can be very salutary. Are there ways that we are clutching to a prior version of our companion, one that really isn’t there any more? Fear works against this kind of practice. What might happen if we release the first embrace? Will s/he still care for me? If I cling tightly enough, can’t I prevent that risk from ever arising? Yoga challenges us to live with both our eyes and our arms open. Sometimes, we’ll have the opportunity to embrace a new version of the old person, one that has changed and developed, grown into something more amazing than s/he was before. But sometimes there won’t be such an opportunity. Can we risk it? If I cling tightly enough to what I want so desperately, can I keep it from changing?

* * *

Practicing yoga allows us to perceive the energy that flows through us. The asana and breath practices enable that energy to move more smoothly and freely. That much of the experience of yoga is available to anyone who is willing to practice consistently and with a mind open enough to feel what we feel when we practice. Aparigraha reminds us that if we are willing to open our minds and hearts, to release the various clutches we hold, there are many, many more ways that we can allow energy to move through us as we interact with others.

There is more – so much more – to say about ways to apply the yama of non-grasping in our lives, on and off the yoga mat. But it’s probably best to end here:

I like to think of rivers.

You never see a river clutching the water that flows through it.

Perhaps the river knows that it is the flowing water.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Zennist Gets This Right

It helps, I suppose, that I re-watched one of the Matrix movies last night. And it also helps that I've been been well challenged this week by a clear thinker to articulate the non-dual nature of the glimpses of samadhi that I catch every now and again. He tends to consider them to be moments of nihilism. And it also helps that last weekend provided a view down more than one rabbit hole.

So when I pulled up my blog reader this morning and found this from the Zennist, I was more than ready to find a description of exactly why I practice.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Ok, so this isn’t a well-developed thought, but more of a journal entry.

Saturday afternoon, I attended a pranayama workshop led by Darren Main. What that is and why it matters requires a couple of backtracks.

First, pranayama is one of the eight limbs of the practice of yoga. It means “control of energy.” In most yoga classes in the US, it gets translated as “breath,” and it becomes teachers’ way to keep track of the students’ mindfulness: if the student has lost track of the ujjayi breath pattern (make a Darth Vader-type breath sound, in and out, and you’ll have the basic idea), then the student has also likely lost the mindfulness element of the practice, and the teacher needs to dial back the intensity and re-establish the breath pattern.

But pranayama is more than simply mindful breathing – it’s the practice of using the breath to explore the subtle energy pathways of the body, and it’s learning to harness that energy as desired in life. Second, I recently found a couple of books by Richard Rosen on pranayama, and I was been curious enough to want to explore the practice a bit more deeply. As I read through his first book, I came to realize that developing and exploring a pranayama practice was as demanding and time-consuming as developing and exploring a meditation practice had proven. I was skeptical that I had enough time to devote to it. But I kept reading, anyway, to see what I might glean, whether information or inspiration. I found bits and pieces of what he wrote to be interesting elaborations of my own experiences. Rosen’s writings provided a structure and framework to help make sense of my own experience.

I’d gone so far as to begin to amass the props (sandbag weights, long narrow cushion to support the spine, that sort of thing) that Rosen recommends for beginning the practice, the first box of ordered props arriving, as fate would have it, Saturday. The box arrived while I was at Darren Main’s workshop.

Before the workshop, I’d read a number of yoga and Buddhist authors who write of various meditation practices, and the unusual mind/body experiences that can result. The authors frequently insist that the experiences, as peculiar as they may be, just are, and those who experience them should avoid becoming attached to them. Saturday, I got a glimpse of what they were talking about.

The workshop was presented a studio where I practice periodically – a large heatable room, maybe 50 or so class members. A comfortable number for the room – not jammed mat-to-mat, but close enough to create a sense of togetherness. Darren spent about a half hour talking to us about what to expect of the experience. He described the process (that I’ll describe below), described some of the more unusual aspects of the experience, cautioned us about some of the ways that we might respond to the experiences, and then sent us to our mats and guided us.

He started us in Savasana – Corpse pose. He instructed us on the particular in-and-out breathing pattern he wanted us to follow, and then he coached us through it for five to ten minutes. As he’d previously predicted, the first few minutes, the practice seemed as pointless and foolish as it probably sounds to anyone reading this, compounded, perhaps, by the regret that I’d actually paid for the workshop. Consistent with his forewarning and instruction, I noticed that thought and continued the practice.

After about 15 minutes, I began to experience the increase of tension and energies in my hands and forearms. The best analogy I can provide is that they felt like capacitors charging up. I began to feel energies in them twitching and flexing the muscles. And as I continued to breathe, the energies in them grew. I had a feeling of deep wellness, while at the same time, I felt quite high. Following Darren's instructions, I worked the breath and postures he suggested. Coming out of a pose was accompanied by a sensational release of energy. My spine arched me into Matsyasana -- Fish pose, and I considered momentarily moving into several other poses.

As we resumed the same breath technique, I again felt the generation and localization of energy in my forearms, this time to a greater degree. Again, Darren coached the room on breathing and posture. Again, I moved into the pose he called for, holding the exhalation, this time holding the pose even longer, feeling the energy coursing through my body. When I couldn’t hold the pose any longer, I lowered to the floor, but my back then re-arched, drawing me in to an unsupported Fish pose.

Again, we resumed the technique. As I inhaled the story of Hiranyaksha occurred to me, as I was washed over by waves of joy of physical being. At the top of the inhale, I began laughing, which continued for a time, then subsided. Others in the room were also laughing, and our laughter tended to feed back to one another, and I felt a connection to the others, most of whom were laughing, one or two who were crying.

Again, Darren coached us through breathing, and called for another pose. But as I performed this one, I experienced what felt from the inside like an explosion of unimaginable energy – back arching, limbs trembling violently, and an incredible and otherwise indescribable coursing of energy through my limbs, torso and head. It was not pleasant, but wild and uncontrolled. At that point, my mind was in a mode or condition that was not rational, nor strongly in control of my body. I arched into an unsupported Fish pose, arms extended, the backs of my hands pressed into the floor, like feet are pressed into the floor in Upward Facing Dog pose. Darren must have seen my response, and he came over and placed a hand on my heart, a second on my forehead. Usually, the touch of a teacher has an immediate and profound calming effect on me, energy expressions relax, draining into the teacher’s touch like electricity into a grounded cable. But this time, Darren’s touch, though welcome, felt distant. It took several breath cycles for me to ground myself in his touch and relax the deep, body-contorting spasms.

Again, returning to the breath technique, I lapsed into laughter of a joy that is hard to express. Darren repeated the cycle one more, this time my experience being calmer, but still highly, highly energized, with abundant laughter.

I left the workshop lingering on the question of what it was, exactly, that I’d experienced? Just a result of high levels of oxygenation of the bloodstream? Exploitation or exploration of feedback loops in the wiring of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? A cheap and lawful acid-style trip based on oxygen? Maybe a bit of each.

As I’ve pondered that question, several realizations have come to me in the last three days.

First was a confirmation of the teaching that I’d discovered in less dramatic ways previously: that it is useful and accurate to talk of energy channels that run through the body and that affect the ways that we live, move, and breathe, that those energy pathways are not perfectly open, but rather can be obstructed – hence the capacitor-style accumulation of energy before the release; and that opening those energy channels affects the mind/body.

Second, the experience validates the reality of more subtle experiences with the breath – such as the general sense of well-being associated with a yoga asana practice that is not fully present with other exercise regimes.

Third, it was a validation of the statements in a number of works that advanced pranayama techniques should not be practiced without the presence, facilitation, and protection of a teacher who can serve as ground and guide. The power and extremity of my experience was safe and, despite its wildness, unthreatening, as I knew that Darren was there to aid me in controlling what I could not control myself. I suspect that without that level of protection, the experience could be mentally or emotionally harmful to some.

Fourth, community – practicing in the presence of others – makes a significant difference. At various stages of the practice, I felt strongly the presence of others, and their experiences fed into mine.

Fifth, the energy release I experienced during the third kundalini lock was akin to orgasm in its intensity, but many, many times more powerful and much more wild and unformed.

Sixth, the practice if repeated will, I think, help clear the energy pathways, like flushing water from the bottom of a dam can clear out sandbars that build up in tailwaters. I found myself on several occasions in the days following the experience more aware of clearer, brighter sense perceptions than I’d experienced prior to the workshop. It would be interesting to experiment with that.

Seventh, and finally, as various authors have noted, in the end, interesting energy experiences tend not to be life-transforming, but rather only interesting. The effort to develop and refine ourselves remains after the experience subsides. They can provide inspiration and sometimes can act as useful tools for specific purposes, but they are just experiences.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Off the Mat -- Brahmacharya

Hey – doesn’t “brahmacharya” mean celibacy?!?!?!?

Relax. It’s just another path to explore. ;-)

Brahmacharya (as wikipedia will tell you), is a Sanskrit word/phrase that translates to “approaching ultimate reality.”

In some forms of usage, it refers to the stage of life when one foregoes specifically sexual conduct while drawing near to a teacher or to God. In monastic traditions, it has meant celibacy. In other areas of life, it has meant things like being faithful to one’s spouse, or avoiding sexual misconduct.

But whatever the history, what’s the connection to yoga?

Yoga entails the perception, development, and control of energy. Utkatasana (Chair pose) is impossible without using energy, and the deeper you move into that pose, the more energy must be found, drawn in, and controlled. Sexual expression – or even more commonly, the pursuit of and desire for sexual opportunities – just ties us up into knots. It seems that sexuality can capture our grasping egos and attention like nothing other than physical survival itself. So yoga reminds us to notice those that.

Mindless pursuit of desire in any of its forms – attachment, obsession, or infatuation – reinforces our conceptual senses of “me” and “mine,” and diminishes our ability to see, really see, another being. Sexuality can entail all of that. Sometimes, the attachment itself is so strong that the rest of my mind seems to go dormant when its running its course. It’s only after the feeling begins to recede – after I no longer clutch it so tightly – that I can see it for what it is: a deeply ingrained mind-pattern. Mind you, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s a pretty important deeply ingrained mind-pattern. Without it, it’s easy to imagine that the species wouldn’t have arrived here today. But whatever its origin, in our context, it’s just another opportunity to practice mindfulness. (You knew I was headed to that conclusion, didn’t you?)

In my life, the very strongest lessons about mindfulness have not been those encountered quietly during introspective moments on a meditation cushion, but rather those that occur in the brief flash of mindfulness that can happen when my entire body and emotion are fully engaged or otherwise out of control – when I am most angry, or ambitious, or fearful, or resentful. Or filled with sexual desire. Those are the occasions when energy moves most in me.

But whatever channel it moves through, I’m increasingly convinced that energy is, in the end, just energy.

In writing about interpersonal relationships, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn observed that there is a kind of “suchness” about others and our relationships to them that we can notice. He compares the nature of those relationships to electricity or natural gas that we bring into our homes for power or heat. Either one can be dangerous when not managed attentively, or when used unskillfully. But with a well grounded recognition of the “suchness” of gas or electricity – and the accompanying measures we use to avoid harm – they can be great blessings in life. (Peace Is Every Step, pp. 68-69)

While he wasn’t talking specifically about sexuality, I think the point is largely the same: there is a suchness about sexuality. It has certain characteristics and effects that can be perceived and understood. It channels and consumes much of the energy of our lives. If we pursue it or use it unskillfully, we can cause trouble to ourselves and to others. Conversely, when brought into the realm of mindfulness, it can be a blessing.

But if my experience is any indicator, sexual desire is amazingly adept at avoiding the bright, full light of mindfulness. Who hasn’t had the experience of listening to a friend talk about the friend’s sexual feelings or actions toward another person, without thinking or saying out loud at some point, “Have you lost your mind!?” Sexuality, with its tunnel-vision focus on self and desire and power and energy, is second only to violence in its ability to track us into unconscious and unmindful patterns. Advice columns in newspapers are filled with stories of people who have lost their minds over sex. Television has made an industry of depicting doing exactly that. Curiously, when we are parked in front of the television watching others who have lost their minds, we can easily lose our own, as well.

Sadly, given its profound power, the widespread lack of recognition of the “suchness” of sexuality often leads to more harm than good. When in its pursuit, we dissipate energy, rather than controlling it. We limit our own perceptions. We harm others, even those whom we care about and with whom we are intimate, as we mistake attachment and desire for love and compassion. And when we allow our energy – our thoughts and our actions – to settle into the deeply ingrained ruts of sexual stimulus/response, we only deepen them, making even basic awareness of the ruts themselves more difficult.

So there are lots of good yogic reasons to be interested in how sexuality affects our minds and bodies and spirits. But if you’re interested in practicing brahmacharya, how do you go about it? Some thoughts about explorations:

Notice the next time you feel sexually attracted to another person. Bring all your mindfulness to the experience. Notice what you actually feel, and where in your body you feel it. Notice when those feelings are strongest, and then watch them. See how long they sustain themselves, and watch them subside. They always do.

Then, also, notice the effect of the attraction on your compassion toward the other person. Are you more or less aware of or attentive to the other person’s best interests? In some regards, sexual attraction can enable a kind of intense awareness and concentration on the other. But also, notice the feeling’s effect on those outside of the field of attraction. Are you able to think and act compassionately toward those persons or do they fade from your perceptions? What energies are entailed? How are they expressed?

Are your thoughts and actions consistent with the deepest wisdom of your heart and mind?

It can be profoundly instructive to watch our own experience of the entire process of sexual attraction from the time it first arises, through its full development and manifestation, and then through its subsidence and transformation. But that kind of mindful observation is much harder (perhaps impossible?) to accomplish if we are simultaneously trying to observe the process and trying to fulfill our desires.

In that light, perhaps, it is easier to understand why some people choose to pursue a path of celibacy. Mind you, though, celibacy can come in lots of different shapes and sizes.

It can exist for a day or a week or a month, as we just experience the attraction itself, neither shunning contact with the person, nor indulging our desires. Celibacy can exist in a different form by committing to intimacy with a single person, as many promise with marriage. For most, sexual attraction does not limit itself to a single person forever, so there can be opportunity to practice and experience celibacy by abstaining from sexual expression outside of the committed relationship. Celibacy can also exist during stages of a lifetime, or even for an entire lifetime, as well, for those who seek what it can provide.

One further point: if you do choose to practice brahmacharya in any of its shapes or sizes, try laying aside the judgmental part of your mind. We live in a society that is a peculiar amalgam of sexual indulgence and condemnation. It’s useful to be conscious of our environment, and its influence on our selves. For some, sexuality is difficult to de-link from the internal judging mind. But that mind, like the “oughts” we discussed last week, can easily get in the way of clear seeing. If you choose to practice this yama, consider doing so without judgment, only with clear eyes and a heart of compassion, even for yourself.
So how does any of that comprise “approaching ultimate reality” that the Sanskrit term brahmacharya translates to?

Just like our work on the yoga mat – whenever we engage in life without judgment, but completely mindful and completely aware, we pop our minds out of their well-worn ruts, and –sometimes quite suddenly –we can see in ways we couldn’t from the inside of the rut.

The Yoga-Sutra describes it this way:

As the patterning of consciousness subsides, a transparent way of seeing …
saturates consciousness; like a jewel, it reflects equally whatever lies before
it – whether subject, object, or act of perceiving.


Monday, June 11, 2007


I've recently begun to consider that perhaps self-labelling even with ostensibly "good" characteristics may lead me away from clear seeing.

Recently, this issue arose as I reflected on a brief discussion I'd had with one of my yoga students at the end of a class just before Memorial Day. She'd asked if I had plans for the Memorial Day weekend, and I responded that we'd probably put together a barbecue of some kind. She asked what we'd be barbecuing, and I responded "I'm a vegetarian, so green stuff, plus some bratwursts for my kids."

So what was the issue? It's the effect of applying that label, "vegetarian," even though I tend to think of it as either neutral or slightly a good thing. I'm sure that my yoga student just chalked it up to one more way that her yoga teacher is weird, so it isn't the inter-personal effect of the label that I was considering at lunch. It is the effect that applying the label to myself has.

I've begun to think that telling myself that "I'm Christ" produces as strong a tendency toward delusion as telling myself that "I'm Satan" -- not because either characterization is inaccurate when applied to actions, but because those actions (and their respective labels) definitionally apply to something past, rather than something present.

I am not a good person because I did something good yesterday. I am not a bad person because I did something bad yesterday. I am simply a person who has had the experience (and who therefore has been shaped by the experience) of doing something good or bad yesterday.

So back to lunch: is being a "vegetarian" something good? I suppose it can be; but self-notions of "I'm a vegetarian" tend to reinforce the idea that what I have done yesterday and last month and last year should somehow be accounted as good in this instant, when what matters in this instant is whether I choose to eat meat today at lunch -- not what I did yesterday, nor what I may do tomorrow.

(Of course, it's thought-processes like this that explain why I find myself eating lunch alone a fair amount )

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Off the Mat -- Oughts

As I’ve been thinking the past several weeks about the Yoga-Sutra’s recitation of the yamas – the ethical principles for interacting with others – I find myself remembering a statement by a psychiatrist I was almost acquainted with: “I don’t do oughts.”

When my family first moved to our neighborhood, we began attending a church there. Shortly before we arrived, a member of the congregation had died, a psychiatrist I wish I’d had a chance to meet. But his influence was far from gone. Mormons – like members of other faiths – tend to get bound up in ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, righteousness and wickedness. That tendency sometimes manifests as lots and lots of “oughts”: We “ought” to love our neighbors. We “ought” to pray. We “ought” to support charities. We “ought” to…

Once you get started with such a list, stopping is nearly impossible.

So one day at church, I found myself in a discussion with another member of the congregation about various responsibilities we had, and he reported that Gary (the recently deceased psychiatrist) had responded to such situations by announcing that “I don’t do ‘oughts.’” Though I can’t for the life of me remember what specific responsibilities we were discussing, I remember very clearly that statement. It was an approach that contrasted sharply with the culture I thought I’d been raised in, and with my own mindset at the time.

While my views on many things have changed over the past fifteen years or so, Gary’s statement, “I don’t do ‘oughts,’” has stayed with me and continued to grow in significance.

As we think about the yamas, it is very easy – for me, at any rate – to fall back into the usual ought way of thinking: “I ought to tell the truth,” “I ought to avoid causing harm to other sentient beings,” “I ought to avoid taking things not offered to me.”

You get the picture.

But all of those thoughts depend pretty heavily on notions of self and judgment and – here’s the interesting part – I think they also depend a little bit on harming. Not flashy and dramatic violence of the Quentin Tarantino sort, but harming, nonetheless – forcing something to fit a pattern that it might not yet fit. Spiritually, that can be as painful as trying to force myself to fit into Lotus Pose before I’m ready to fit into Lotus Pose.

So with that in mind, I’m beginning to think of the yamas more like maps, than like “oughts.” An “ought” is the imposition of judgment with all the elements of disapproval and aspiration and striving and failure implied in that process. A map, on the other hand, just shows the way to a particular place. The Yoga-Sutra’s yamas are just maps to particular experiences. They show paths we can walk to make the journey easier, if we’re interested in traveling. They show us the obstacles between ourselves and those other places. They don't tell us whether we should go down the path, but they show the way if we decide to do so.

For me, at any rate, that’s a profoundly different way of thinking than “I ought to move further down the path of non-harming.” The pure seeing that yoga fosters is nearly the opposite of imposing judgment. The two practices don’t mesh very well at all.

Mary Oliver, an amazing poet, wrote the following, which expresses the idea better than I can:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

© Mary Oliver. Online Source

Finally, this morning, I listened to a podcast of a dharma talk by a favorite Zen teacher. He talked of setting aside ideals of what we should or “ought” to be, and thinking of various ethical or behavioral instructions as practices that remove obstacles that otherwise would inhibit or distort our natural growth.

So long as obstacles to growth are removed, acorns grow into oak trees, all without oughts.

In thinking about the yamas we’ve already discussed, as well as those we’ll discuss in the future, it might be useful to think of them less as “oughts” and more as practices, maps around obstacles to our growth.

Your thoughts?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Off the Mat -- Asteya

Asteya -- non-stealing

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

At its most basic level, recognizing that we should avoid stealing isn’t headline-grabbing news.

Yoga, though, asks us to look a little more deeply into the subject: how does our relationships with things, both those we “own” and those “owned” by others affect our mind-body-spirits?

Just for a minute, remember the last time that someone took something from you that you hadn’t offered to the person, whether it was someone breaking into your apartment and taking your valuable, someone grabbing a Hershey’s Kiss out of the bowl on your desk, a co-worker taking credit for an idea you came up with, or an acquaintance calling you on the phone and launching into a long story without asking if you had time to talk. Remember, specifically, how you felt when that happened. If you’re like me, you actually felt something pretty distinctive – like you’d been disrespected. That’s when things start to get interesting. There are few experiences in my life that engender a more clear a sense of myself as a concrete “ME” than having something I think of as mine taken from me.

If you’ve had that or a similar experience before, then the following may make some sense to you. If you haven’t, or you’re not sure of what you felt the last time something like that happened, feel free to read on, but if you can, please let me know what your experience has been. I’m interested in such things, and I suspect that they aren’t uniform for all people.

Why should yoga tangle with ideas like that? Because yoga looks at what happens in our minds when we take what is not offered to us, and what happens in our minds when we have things taken from us that we have not offered to others. What are those mind-events? Feelings of separation, alienation, anger, violence. All of those feelings reinforce our mental images of our Selves. Weirdly, being deprived of something makes our concept of our Self stronger. Similarly, taking something that is not offered to us manifests two different weirdnesses – the first kind is “this isn’t mine, but I’m taking it anyway” – a kind of assertion of one person’s importance over others’. The second kind is the lack-of-boundaries sort of thinking that makes a muddle of things: “I don’t think clearly enough to recognize that cutting flowers from my neighbor’s garden might relate to my own subconscious notions of right/wrong/mine/yours, nor to consider the impact of those actions from another’s perspective. … And isn’t that just beautiful?”

As I was considering what to tell you about non-stealing, a friend came into my office and told me about how unhappy he was to find a neighbor with her dog in his backyard at 6:30 one morning, letting her dog “play” with his. He went out, a little disturbed at the intrusion, but quite angered by his neighbor’s presumption and oblivion to his feelings. He spoke sharply to his dog, which was barking, and took the dog inside, leaving his neighbor behind. He came to the office and told me of the experience and his frustration at not responding well, but also concerned that he didn’t want to alienate his neighbor entirely.

The next morning, he came back into my office to report the perfect solution. Very early that morning, just like the prior one, his neighbor came into his backyard so her dog could play with his. As he was getting enough clothes on to go down and confront his neighbor, his four-year-old daughter opened the back door, and both dogs ran into the house. The four-year-old helped the neighbor catch her dog, and, once the dogs were sorted out and the neighbor was out of the house and on her way, the four-year-old came upstairs and told my friend, “I got her dog for her and I told her that it wasn’t polite to come into our yard early in the morning.”

As I’m a word-person, I did a little investigation: “polite” comes from the same Latin root as “political” – polis – the word relating to culture or people. The neighbor was taking something – access to my colleague’s backyard and dog and privacy – that wasn’t offered. He saw the affront to himself and got mad. His daughter perceived all the same things and saw a lack of knowledge – a kind of ignorance on the part of the neighbor – and educated her about what was and wasn’t polite. A remarkable lesson in how ego gets wrapped around the axel when things get taken without permission.

So how to practice asteya? Like every other yoga practice, just notice it. A couple of easy-to-find opportunities:

1. Notice what happens in your own mind when someone cuts in front of you on the freeway. Notice where in your body you feel the sensations of anger and indignation. Notice how long those feelings last. Notice them subside.

2. Notice when you take something that isn’t offered to you – whether it’s candy out of someone’s dish at the office, a space in traffic, or credit for an idea. (These situations are harder to notice because our minds often start from the assumption that we’re entitled to things, but see what you can come up with, anyway.) If you’re lucky enough to be able to see such a situation occur, notice your feelings about the action before or as it occurs, then notice your feelings and (re)actions after it has occurred.

3. Obviously, not taking what is not offered is a simple way of preserving a basic level of respect among people and keeping a basic level of peace and trust among them. But it’s always interesting to ask why it works that way. For me, I tend to think of the human responses as built upon and into ideas and feelings of ego.

4. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.