Sunday, October 21, 2007

Stillness behind, below, between, and inside

Two things, linked:

1. Yesterday, I got around to listening to this podcast at Speaking of Faith. It is an interview of Matthew Sanford, a yoga teacher who has been paraplegic since he was in a car accident at the age of 13. The entire interview is well worth the time needed to listen to it, but one of the points he made in several different ways really resonated with me: that there is, at the core of us, a quality of experience he calls "silence" that he learned to discover, and then to perceive even in the active aspects of his life in the body and mind. I won't try to elaborate on his point, as I wouldn't do it justice. Listen to the interview.

2. Last night, I went to sleep listening to the rain falling on our roof. At some point in the night, I awoke to the sense of absolute silence. Of course, it wasn't really absolute -- I could hear my heart beating, the sound of my breath across my nostrils and through my broncheal tubes, of the shifting of sheets and blankets in the bed. But at some point in the night, the rain had changed to snow, and the snow absorbed all of the sounds that usually form the baseline that my mind has come to accept as "silence" -- traffic from the not-too-distant freeway, that sort of thing.

So this morning, I get up, shower, and decide to do my meditation practice before finishing getting ready for Church.

Usually, my meditation practice starts with about 15 minutes of mind-tennis, as my mind tries to volley with "thought" or "judgment" or "desire" each idea that flies in across the net. Then it settles into a kind of quiet vigilance.

But this time, three or four breaths in, I find this lake of silence. Then, as thoughts or desires or whatever arise, I perceive them clearly against the stillness of the background.

Yoga occurs when a body moves through space aware its interbeing with that same lake of stillness.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ar, the Crone, and the Dragon

With a nod to an old recording of a Jack Kornfield dharma talk, a version of a Scandinavian folk tale:

There once was a princess – Ar – who lived with her parents, the king and queen. The king and queen had overextended themselves, and had for some time relied on loans they obtained from a dragon who lived in the area, dragons having lots of gold and such.

The time came for the king and queen to pay the dragon back, but they didn’t have the money to do it. So they met with the dragon to see what could be worked out. As was the way in those days, they told the dragon that the only thing they had left was their daughter, Ar. The dragon thought about it for a few minutes, and said that he’d accept their offer, would take the princess as his wife, and would become a part of their family.

The daughter was as distressed as you might imagine, but showed more wisdom than her parents. She fled the city to a village on the outskirts of the forest, to a hovel where an old, wise woman lived. She told the old woman of her plight. When she was done with her story, the woman said, “Don’t worry so much. Here’s what you should do…”

Ar listened carefully, and when the old woman finished her instructions, Ar thanked her, and returned home.

Soon enough the wedding day came, with lots of celebrations and toasts and talk and ceremony. Ar was nervous, but dressed for the wedding, as the old woman had instructed her. Ar and the dragon were married. After the dinners and toasts and talk were all done, Ar and the dragon withdrew to their wedding chamber, and Ar said to the dragon, as the old woman had instructed, “Would you like me to undress, so we can consummate our marriage?” The dragon, responded, “Yes!” Ar then said, “One more thing – it would be fitting for you to remove as much as I do. Do you agree?” The dragon, highly motivated, agreed quickly.

Ar then began removing her wedding gown, and the dragon removed such trappings as he’d put on in honor of the occasion. But as Ar removed her gown, there was another gown beneath it. She looked to the dragon, and began to remove her second gown. The dragon, having only put on one layer of clothing for the event, began to peel off its skin. Dragons, like snakes and lizards, sometimes shed their skins, so it wasn’t too painful to do so. But as Ar removed her second gown, there was a third beneath it. The dragon, seeing this, used its claws to carve away its scales. Beneath Ar’s third gown was a fourth, and a fifth, and more – she had followed the old woman’s instructions to put on ten gowns. As she removed each gown, the dragon clawed off more and more.

As she took off her gowns, and as the dragon carved away more and more, Ar saw that his shape began to change. By the time that Ar had removed her tenth gown and stood before the dragon uncovered, the dragon carved away his tenth layer and stood before Ar, now a beautiful young man.

And then, they kissed.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Off the Mat -- Svadhyaya

(Another in my series of dharma talks with my yoga class.)

Try to pronounce that one.

Svadhyaya means “self-study.” It stands for the unremarkable point that if we don’t pay attention to ourselves, we won’t understand ourselves.

The remarkable parts happen when we do pay attention to ourselves – or, rather, when we try to do so. “Self,” it turns out, is a remarkably slippery critter. To get the point, it’s worth trying to spotlight it. So by all means, go ahead. Close your eyes, and use your mind to identify what is “you.” Sometimes, we think of our “self” as an occupant of the position in space defined by the outside of our skin. But once you close your eyes, that spatial relationship mechanism starts to seem pretty artificial. Sit in a silent place, and you’ve lost the audial stimuli. Holding still, you will quickly lose track of most sensory stimuli. So once you get that far, move into your mind.

Are you your name? Well, that’s easy – of course not. You can change your name. Are you a particular set of memories? Are you the same person you remember being last week? Last year? Ten years ago? Thirty? If you’ve changed, what does it mean to talk about yourself during those periods? If you’ve changed over time, are “you” a particular pattern of behaviors and responses? When those change, are you someone other than you are today?

Whether we look at body, memory, behavior, or whatever, while we can see reasons to talk about a “self,” the more carefully we look, the less we seem to find. If you can look at something and think of it as a thing – whether it be a shoe, a fingernail, or a memory – once you see it as a thing, you realize that it doesn’t define you – in fact, it seems very much to be not the “you” that observes it. It’s just a stream of various perceptions.

If you sit in meditation (and meditation is the basic practice of “self study”) even for just a few minutes, you’ll quickly discover lots of thoughts – some are memories, some are fantasies, some are judgments. But whatever they are, they are like pictures that flash up on a movie screen. They aren’t you – you are the one observing them. Sometimes they convey a sense of familiarity – not only do you remember a particular event, you remember remembering the event previously. You can learn to recognize that sense of familiarity. But the fact that a memory is familiar does not make the memory “you.” Memories are other than “you.”

So what’s left? It’s a secret, and you have to find out for yourself. Or your “self’ Or your “Self” or your “SELF” or however you want to think of it.

Really – I’m not trying to hide the ball here. I could tell you what I’ve found when I looked, but if I did, what you would hear (or read) would seem (unremarkably) something that is not “you.”

To some degree, this is all quite sensible. If you first learned of yoga from seeing someone else practice, whether live or in a book or on a video of some kind, see if you can reconstruct what you thought yoga was and would be as you looked at it from the outside, and then compare that with your experience of yoga the first time you stepped onto a mat. And then compare that with your most recent experience on the yoga mat. One teacher I’m familiar with suggested that you perceive about 10% of what’s really going on when you watch someone else practice yoga compared with practicing it yourself. I’d go farther: they’re simply different experiences. One happens from the outside to someone else. The other is your own experience. One is a glove. The other is your living hand feeling the glove around it.

So if “self” is so slippery, what point is there in looking for it? There’s an easy answer and a deeper one. The easy one: realizing what isn’t “me” helps me to let go of ideas and beliefs that no longer serve me. I tend to get attached to things that I like, that provide security, that are familiar. While attachment itself can be a problem, attachment to things as they no longer are can really cause problems. Svadhyaya, self-study, helps bring me back to the present, to things as they are now, while I’m looking at them, rather than as how I remember they once-were-but-no-longer-are. The deeper answer to why not? Self-study, Patanjali’s svadhyaya, enables us to see our prejudices, our habits, our addictions, our self-delusions, our hypocrisies, our self-ish-ness. And seeing them enables us to work more skillfully around and through and past them. But it also allows us to see the warmth of our compassion for other beings, the clarity of our intelligence and perception, and to understand our relationship to – our “inter-being with,” as Thich Nhat Hahn calls it – all of existence. Wisdom.

When you’ve looked, what have you found?