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”?