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?