Monday, December 22, 2008

Ideas Welcome

Two details regarding the Spirit Rock retreat last week that I haven’t figured out at all:

First, I experienced a lot of anticipation leading up to the retreat. I probably talked too much about it with colleagues and friends, but they were patient and indulgent with my unfocused animation. As a yoga teacher persuaded me a long time ago, it’s often best to set aside expectations before embarking on a new sort of experience. But I didn’t manage that overly well this time.

To get to Spirit Rock for the start of the retreat on Wednesday, December 10, I had to catch a flight from DEN to SFO. Nothing terribly unusual about that. I get to the airport in the morning, check through security, find the gate, login, and field last-minute office work by email. The gate attendant calls the boarding sequence. I board, find my seat, and settle in.

And sitting there on the airplane, my mind shifts a bit, and I see everything from an outsider’s perspective – to borrow Oliver Sack’s phrase, like an anthropologist from Mars.

No, wait. That’s too cold. More like the first-time-appreciation of Miranda’s “…brave, new world…” phrasing, before Huxley turned it dark and naïve.

The people walking down the center aisle of the plane are a varied lot, each remarkable, each strange, each new. That they are embodiments of consciousness is remarkable, strange, and new. That I can see them is remarkable, strange, and new.

After a time, the sense subsides, leaving new tracings in my mind.

How? Why? Exactly what?

Couldn’t tell you.

Second, as I mentioned in a previous post, three days into the retreat, I woke, showered, walked to the meditation hall and sat the pre-dawn meditation. When the bell rang gently, I got up, left the hall, put on my shoes, and began walking down the hill to the dining hall.

As I walked on a little dirt path down the hill, my sense of self turned suddenly transparent, and I saw from the perspective of something other than Sean. Not that there wasn’t a Sean – he was there, but he wasn’t the perspective I was seeing from. He was the perspective that something was seeing through. That perspective was filled with quiet, abiding joy – joy at the cold air, joy at the diminishing cramp in Sean’s neck, joy at the emptiness before eating, joy at the peace of the retreat, joy at Sean’s sore right knee, joy at the slanting sun, joy at the cloud of exhaled air.
The sense sustained itself for a time, then subsided.

It’s hard to find the right words for the completely natural sense of seeing through the self of that experience.

* * *

Ideas or references to others’ ideas about such experiences are welcome.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Red pill

In reflecting on my few days at Spirit Rock last week, I have to allow that I spent most of the nine or so sitting sessions each day in various degrees of discomfort, generally increasing from the first day to the second, from the second to the third. And also generally increasing from early morning to late morning to afternoon to evening.

Recounting this fact to a friend elicited this question: “Why would you think positively about such an experience?”

In listening to a dharma talk recording this evening, I think I heard an approximation of an answer to that question: it’s possible to reach a point where you’re no longer afraid of being afraid. You’re not averse to feeling aversion.

* * *

During the retreat, one of the teachers, Mary Grace Orr, read the following poem, though I don’t remember who she said wrote it. Unfortunately, as you’ll see, it doesn’t lend itself to google searches:

What is is
Is what I want –
Just that,
But that.

Winter Haiku

Frog creaks at sundown,
Dry-throated; brown grass, acorns
Await winter rains.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Word-less-ness: Being Silently

Three days in to a five-day meditation retreat, this was my situation:

I’ve taken and lived a retreatant’s version of the Five Precepts: no harming any living being, no taking what is not offered, no speaking, no sex, no intoxicants.

At three days of silence, I’ve lived wordlessly for longer than I’ve ever done since I began talking at (my mother reports) six months of age.

The days are filled from before dawn to long after sundown with sitting and walking meditations, alternating. All in silence. After the first two hours on the first day, sitting meditation becomes progressively more uncomfortable – excruciating, if you listen to my ever-suffering mind. Briefly, the lotus blossom opens and transcendent clarity opens without notice, without words. It sustains and then subsides, its space and openness re-cloaked, re-filled with the muck of pain and suffering.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, I take a pen and write this note to my meditation teacher:


I’m a bit frustrated with myself. I had one of those peak experiences this morning, and I spent the rest of the day in aches and pains and aversion and samsara.

Is this really the path? Does it get easier?


I fold the note and pin it to the section of the bulletin board for notes to Howie, and I go outside for a period of walking meditation.

The simple framing of my situation in words reignites my conceptual mind enough to allow me to see a space between the seeing and the suffering. My suddenly-word-re-enabled mind crafts responses from Howie to me:


Yes, it’s the path. Easier? No.




Yup. Now go back to meditating.

I resolve to retrieve the note, as the very forming of the words has created the space I needed between the pain and the suffering. When the bell in the courtyard signals the end of the walking meditation, I return to the bulletin board and find that Howie has already collected the note. Ok. I return to silence and wordlessness.

The next morning, I find his response folded around my note, both pinned to the board. His note, of course, is much kinder than any I’d have written to myself:

Hi Sean,

Some days are dukkha days. Some days are sukkha days. Learning how to find our composure with both is the way… The by-product is more ease and consequently more pleasure. Hang in there. It is actually a sign of deepening when things get crazy.



A most kind response to a problem that had resolved itself as soon as words were reintroduced into my mind.

* * *

I’m fascinated by the wordlessness of my time there. I became acutely aware several times of how much word-ing intervenes between experience and comprehension, how much dualistic word-ing shapes experience to fit dualistic models and understandings.

The longer I lived in silence – even for just the few days I was there – the quieter the word-ing part of my mind became. That was useful as it allowed me to see a bit more clearly what words would otherwise have obscured. But when the word-ing part of my mind subsided, I lacked the usual tool set that allows me to maintain a separation between my body’s pains and my mind’s suffering.

Makes me wonder what might be built with intention and awareness in such a space.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Buddha, Archetypes, and Coloring Books

From Wikipedia:

Archetypes are, according to Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge. Being universal and innate, their influence can be detected in the form of myths, symbols, rituals and instincts of human beings. Archetypes are components of the collective unconscious and serve to organize, direct and inform human thought and behaviour.

The archetypes form a dynamic substratum common to all humanity, upon the foundation of which each individual builds his own experience of life, developing a unique array of psychological characteristics. Thus, while archetypes themselves may be conceived as a relative few innate nebulous forms, from these may arise innumerable images, symbols and patterns of behavior. While the emerging images and forms are apprehended consciously, the archetypes which inform them are elementary structures which are unconscious and more difficult to apprehend. Being unconscious, the existence of archetypes can only be deduced indirectly by examining behaviour, images, art, myths, etc. They are inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behaviour on interaction with the outside world. (November 28, 2008)

* * *

In the religion I grew up with, trying to live in alignment with divine commandments is a pretty central feature. Commandment-style living starts with the assumption of a dictator-god, ideally, a benign and altruistic one. Mind you, I’m not saying that God is so, only that commandment-style living depends on the assumption. If we already hold that assumption, then as we interact with God we come away with commandments.

My experience with God, though, is that while I come to God with a coloring book and nicely drawn lines, God often enough colors outside the lines. When I’m paying attention, sometimes I see the coloring and I see the lines, and I say, “Oh – God has colored a bluebird.” True, when I look a little bit more clearly and honestly, I have to admit that the blue doesn’t stop at the edges of the bird lines on my paper. If I had different lines on my paper, it might look more like a flower. And, truth to tell, if I were to disregard the lines entirely, I’d probably conclude that the blue that God has colored looks a lot more like the sky than a bird. But I have a paper with bird lines on it, and they matter to me, and God has colored things blue, and I find a bluebird.

* * *

I sit in meditation. At home, I sit in a pretty sparse place. No altar, no incense, no statutes, no pictures.

My mind, as usual, flips and flops from one thing to another until jumps aboard a train of thoughts. It rides that rail for as long as it can hide from the “Hey! I see that!” part of my brain. When the mind-escape gets spotted, instantly, I’m off that particular train and back to the space between thoughts until off I go on another one.

Despite the spartan quality to my meditation space, I indulge myself one way: every now and again, when I’m having a particularly challenging time maintaining my focus, I allow myself to slip my mind into the Buddha – I let myself imagine that the “sean”-I drops away and the Buddha-I sees through my eyes. To write it out sounds artificial, and I suppose that it is from a perspective. To write it out sounds magical, and it really isn’t – at least it isn’t any more magical than identity itself.

But when I do this, I find a profoundly still and peacefulness that exists in every moment that I hold this mind-stance. Of course, that usually isn’t very long, as my monkey-mind starts scratching an itch, mentally or physically, until I’m lost once again on an ocean of thoughts.

* * *

Is the Buddha-sense and the stillness that comes from it just God-coloring in and on and over the Buddha-shaped lines of my coloring book? Is there a Buddha-archetypal built into my mind-culture? How does the form of the Buddha in my head make it easier for me to experience peace?

The story of the birthday of the world


Speaking of Faith
Listening Generously: The Medicine of Rachel Naomi Remen

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the einsof, the source of life. And then in the course of history, in a moment of time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the holy darkness as a great ray of light.

Then there was an accident. And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke, and the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousands fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day. The whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again, and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.

This task is called tikunolun in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world. This of course is a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, and all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.

This story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you. That’s where our power is. Many people feel powerless in today’s situation. It’s a different way of looking at our power.

I think that we all feel that we’re not enough to be able to fix it. That we need to be more, more wealthy, more educated, somehow different than the people that we are. But according to the story, we are exactly what is needed.

What if we were exactly what’s needed? What then? What if I were exactly what is needed to heal the world?

Sunday, October 19, 2008


It seems I’m dying again.

* * *

This morning, before getting on the current flight to Charlotte NC, I had a few minutes between packing and the time I needed to leave for the airport. The dog wanted some company in the backyard, so we went out together. He sniffed his way around the usual scent paths. I wandered up to the tangle of blackberry canes at the back corner of the yard. The bird netting lay where we’d put it months ago to protect the ripening berries from the flocks of starlings and the endless appetites of squirrels, but instead of covering the tops of the canes, now it was embedded deeply in the thicket. Lots of canes had grown sunward, thin tendrils that easily grew through the netting, now branches several feet long and a couple thickened enough to tear through a strand or two of the net on their own. The netting did serve its purpose – I’d guess this year we picked about 70 lbs. of blackberries.

I began pulling the netting off the canes. I lifted, unsnagged, ripped, and generally hand-worked the netting away, one cane at a time. It’s a task I left too long one year, and when the sticky, wet snow of autumn came early, it stuck even to the fine netting that covered the canes, the weight of the snow flattening both netting and canes into a broken mess that took the canes a full year to recover from. So this warm, sunny morning halfway through October, I looked at my watch and settled into the task.

As I attended the canes and nets, I found two stems of berries that I’d missed before. They were overripe and sweet, fermented enough to be fragrant. They stained my fingers and tongue.

I resumed de-netting.

Pulling the last of the netting from the canes, I wondered whether it was too early to prune them. I usually wait until a warm day before or after Christmas. Sometimes I’ll weave a wreath from them. But this time, as I thought about them and the pumpkins that have begun to appear in doorways in our neighborhood, a vision/notion of a cane-man began to form. A scarecrow with tangled weavings of blackberry canes for a head, for hands. The tiniest tartness of the last berries still on the tongue.

The canes now free, I bundled the black netting, rolled it tighter, and took it to the trash cans in the garage.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sunlight, Autumn, and Darkness

A couple of weeks ago, the array of life labeled as sean shifted from one pattern to a different one. Each pattern is a familiar counterpoint of the other.

Sometimes, I love brightness and sunshine.

Let me amend that – sometimes the array that is sean responds most strongly to the sharp clarity, warmth and vibrancy of sunlight. I drink it in, elated, brimming, joy-filled at the seeing it enables.

But in my life, the inverse of loving sunshine is not loving darkness. It’s hating – hating darkness, being dissatisfied with sunshine, frustrated by my own incompetence, disappointed with what I get from loved ones, angry at opponents. If I loved darkness, I’d be set. But that isn’t the way my experience has worked.

But in the midst of hating darkness last week, I was blessed with a few minutes of clear sight. As so often happens, it was not my own sight, but my teacher’s.

* * *

Here’s the question she put to me: “Why is it I can be open and kind to yoga students who respond to my actions with defense mechanisms appropriate to their level of development and experience, while I respond to my family members with contraction and dissatisfaction when they respond to my actions with defense mechanisms appropriate to their level of development and experience?”

The question didn’t draw me out of depression – not immediately. My usual experience with depression is that it just takes a while. But her question did, suddenly – startlingly – turn the light of awareness onto my own responses.

I’ve mentioned this most recent experience of depression to several people now. Each has asked me, “Did you see what triggered it?” That’s good cause-and-effect, scientific thinking: find the cause, eliminate, avoid, or counteract the cause, and by so doing, change the effect. But here’s the thing: depression doesn’t come via an announcement. It doesn’t arrive via a physical manifestation, like a big zit appearing on my forehead, a piano falling from the sky. I don’t blame my friends for asking the question the way they did – talking about “depression” as if it were a thing separate from experience, from existence, actually encourages that sort of thinking. But for me, depression is an after-the-fact label that I apply to sift meaning from the perpetual swirl of thoughts. The labeling is an exercise in mindfulness. So there is no separation between experiencing the dimness of autumn’s lessened light and the lowered energy it engenders in my body-mind. They both, simultaneously, are. But depression is a useful mindfulness label nonetheless, because it allows me to perceive the texture of the mind behind the thoughts. And that influences both the sorts of experience/thoughts that can display on that canvas, as well as the mind-channel/ruts that are more likely to arise from such a matrix.

So what manifested this time? A kind of tired-of-it, no-ideas-left brittleness of mind arising as our family struggles to sort out how to take teenaged boys into their school studies in ways that are either beyond their capacity or their desire. A weariness with the constant need to interpolate my world view to my loved ones’. At its most fundamental level, it was “Damn it, I want something other than this!” Which, with a bit of perspective, translated into “Damn it, I want, and wanting sucks.”

As I said, the question my teacher framed didn’t dispel the depression immediately – it just enlightened the darkness a bit, providing a rudimentary ability to see what was going on as simply what was going on. Why do I readily accept my yoga student’s defensive responses, but not my family’s? Easy: because I’m not teaching yoga for what it will get me, but for what it may give them.

So when did I assign my family to the “get-me-what-I-want” category and remove them from the “give-them-what-they-need” category? Once the question is phrased right, it answers itself.

Bless you, my teacher.

* * *

It’s finally autumn here in Denver. The leaves are changing. The sky is clouded. Sun shines fewer hours. The air and the earth absorb less heat, and they emit less heat. My mind moves from expansion to contraction. My heart is inclined to follow my head until it is lent fire from another. Then it kindles, glows, warms.

Fires, like minds, need tending.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Earth Air Fire Water

Mother earth lends me her body.

Father sky lends me his breath.

I’ll return them in a bit, no overdue notices, no late charges.

* * *
The garden is mostly past its prime.

The left-behind zucchini are fat, ignored, baseball bats. The tomatoes are fading, a few green ones still hang in the cool fall air, like people waiting for the last bus of the night, not knowing it’s already left.

The carrots, though – the carrots are big and sweet and crunchy. I pull one, leaves eighteen inches long, the orange root, about six. I brush off most of the dirt and bite into it.

I’m eating Colorado’s thinnish air and Colorado’s overbright sunshine and Colorado's last-winter's snowmelt and Colorado's dirt, all woven into carbohydrates and proteins as the genetic windings of a carrot seed instructed and as the sprouted plant could manage.

Two weeks ago, I picked the last of the blackberries. They, too, were woven from the same Colorado air and water and earth and the fires of a far-off sun, but on a different loom, a different warp, a different weft.

The tomatillos came back this year as volunteers from the ones we left for the birds last year. We got more this time than last.

I crunch the carrot. The bits get small enough, and I swallow. Swallowing raw carrot always feels like giving up – in my mouth, its roughness never feels quite done. I leave it to digestive fires to get what they can from it.

They’ll unweave the weavings, some. Unbuild the complex sugars into glucose that can oxidize with adenosine triphosphate to power muscles. Free the vitamin A from the cell walls where the carrot used it as a sunscreen; leach it into my bloodstream; bathe the cells, one and all, allowing those with vitamin-A-sized holes – the retinas have lots. They'll harvest the carotene, embed the molecules into particular proteins, and put them to work processing photons into electro-chemical signals that can trigger nerve fibers. Those, of course, run into a brain and a mind that has come to think certain orange-colored taproots are worth munching.

And so Colorado earth and air and water and fire come to see themselves.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Off the mat -- Dreaming up obstacles

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lists seven different practices that “settle” consciousness. One of them is reflecting on insights culled from sleep and dreaming. (I:33, 38)

I’d have to be pretty oblivious not to note the trend in my dreams the past couple of weeks:

  • Driving into the wilderness on a familiar road, I find the way getting unexpectedly steeper and steeper. Finally, I have to stop and retreat to keep the SUV from toppling backwards and down.
  • Practicing yoga, my poses are disrupted by some thing’s fingers and then hands pressing up, through the floor and the carpet, like weeds. As I continue, the weed-hands continue to emerge – arms, obstructing the poses, entangling my limbs.
  • Searching in the basement of a building for a way into the inner-most part. When I finally find the way, it is doll-house-sized, and absurdly smaller and more narrow than I could possibly fit. Nonetheless, I start trying to puzzle out how I can get in.

* * *

Yesterday, I read this, from a dharma talk by Adyashanti:

Ego is a movement. It’s a verb. It is not something static. It’s the after-the-fact movement of mind that’s always becoming. In other words, egos are always on the path. They are on the psychology path, the spiritual path, the path to get more money or a better car. That sense of “me” is always becoming, always moving, always achieving. Or else it is doing just the opposite – moving backward, rejecting, denying. So in order for this verb to keep going, there has to be movement. We have to be going forward or backward, toward or away from. … As soon as a verb stops, it’s not a verb anymore. As soon as you stop running, there is no such thing as running – it’s gone; nothing is happening. The ego sense has to keep moving because, as soon as it stops, it disappears, just like when your feet stop, running disappears.

When we really let it in and start to see that there is no ego, only egoing, then we start to see ego for what it really is. This produces a natural stopping of a pursuit toward or a running away from something. This stopping needs to happen gently and very naturally because, if we are trying to stop, then that is movement again. As long as we try to do what we think is the right spiritual thing by getting rid of ego, we perpetuate it. Seeing that this is more of the same egoing will allow stopping without trying.

Emptiness Dancing: Selected Dharma Talks of Adyashanti, Open Gate Publishing: Los Gatos, CA, 2004, p. 106

And last night I dreamt this: Driving through the red-rock deserts of western Colorado and eastern Utah, I’m trying to get to a destination, and my car breaks down at sunset. I decide to proceed on foot, but it’s moonless and dark. I go to store after store, looking for one that has flashlights for sale. I can’t find one. As I’m walking from one store to another, I catch sight of a man with a twisted, spastic body, lurching inch-by-inch across a parking lot on the knee of one leg, the heel of the other foot, the elbow of one arm, the hand of the other. He’s glistening with sweat. I don’t stop to help because, I think to myself, “he seems to be making decent progress.”

* * *

The truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing.
--Tao Te Ching

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bright Compassion

For Jessa

I read this in Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology:

Living with compassion does not mean we have to give away all our possessions, take in every homeless person we meet, and fix every difficulty in our extended family and community. Compassion is not co-dependence. It does nto mean we lose our self-respect or sacrifice ourself blindly for others. In the West we are confused about this point. We mistakenly fear that if we become too compassionate we will be overwhelmed by the suffering of others. But this happens only when our compassion is one-sided. In Buddhist psychology compassion is a circle that encompasses all beings, including ourselves. Compassion blossoms only when we remember ourself and others, when the two sides are in harmony.

Compassion is not foolish. It doesn't just go along with what others want so they don't feel bad. There is a yes in compassion, and there is also a no, said with the same courage of heart. No to abuse, no to racism, no to violence, both personal and worldwide. The no is said not out of hate but out of an unwavering care. Buddhists call this the fierce sword of compassion. It is the powerful no of leaving a destructive family, the agonizing no of allowing an addict to experience the consequences of his acts.

Wherever it is practiced, compassion brings us back to life.

pp. 32-33 [boldfacing added]

Friday, September 19, 2008

Off the mat -- Why Practice Yoga

A yoga teacher recently began a class I attended by saying that he’d run across an idea in his vocational rehabilitation study that he strongly disagreed with. He read:

Unless we die suddenly, we are all disabled eventually. Most of us will live part of our lives with bodies that hurt, that move with difficulty or not at all, that deprive us of activities we once took for granted or that others take for granted, bodies that make daily life a physical struggle.

--Wendell, S., “Toward a feminist theory of disability,” Hypatia, 4, p. 104 (1989)

“That may be true of people outside of this studio, but it’s sure not true of people who practice yoga.”

He said this to a room of 30-35 people, most of them in their twenties. I wondered for a few moments whether he noticed the age distribution of his class. And, if he did, I wondered how he would have accounted for the fact that there were few people in their thirties, and only one or two of us in our forties there.

The teacher was, I’d guess and as you might well have imagined, in his mid-twenties.

* * *

Aversion, attachment, delusion.

The Buddha taught that these three actions of our minds create and perpetuate suffering. The Buddha’s excellence lay not in finding a remedy for a life-scarred, pain-ridden, capacity-constrained body, but in finding freedom inside such a body.

Is a right hip joint with limited rotation a cause of suffering?

Is not being able to fly?

Yoga is a blessing. Within the context of a declining physical capacity, within the context of a limited range of flexibility, of a diminishing amount of strength, of a decreasing stamina for endurance, yoga allows us to blossom. In degrees, it does reduce pain, increase strength, advance flexibility, improve endurance. But if that is all there is to the practice of yoga, it is a band-aid on a heart attack.

Despite faithful practice, bodies age and die. Krishnmacharya died. Paramahansa Yogananda died. Vivekananda died. Gandhi died. Their yoga, as profound and committed as it was, did not save them from aging, decrepitude and death.

* * *

Asana, which we translate into the word “pose,” in the Yoga Sutra actually means “seat.” Patanjali did not seem to intend asana practice to be much more than the physical preparation needed to enable the yogi to sit quietly in meditation. That’s not to say that we should only practice asana for the purpose of enabling us to sit quietly. Much has been discovered and developed about the practice of yoga since Patanjali’s times. But it does stand as a reminder that yoga is about much more than a perfect body or a pain-free life. Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that my meditation practice seems to bleed off the meditation cushion (actually, I use a block) and into every part of my life. As that has happened, I’ve come to appreciate Patanjali’s formulation of asana practice more. Asana practice is precisely to prepare us for our meditation practice – which practice is all of life.

The very definition of an asana practice is moving and stilling a body in a context of space and gravity. That physical embodiment is entirely defined by limitations. What is Warrior 3 pose other than an expression in and through the limitations of a particular body’s strength, flexibility, and endurance? Absent the limits, the pose isn’t a pose. Utkatasana, like lots of other yoga poses, quickly saps us of strength, of endurance. Though we often get entranced by discovering a deeper reserve of strength, of prana, a deep enough pose will never last more than a few minutes.

When I was a runner, I loved increasing the distance that I’d run. It was always a bit of a balancing act, because my mind could outrun my body, and I often found myself injured to one degree or another. One day as a part of a physical check-up, I was put on a treadmill for a heart check. The nurse wired me up, and started me running at an easy pace – well within the tolerances of my running practice. Trying to be helpful, but tinged with obvious pride, I told her that to get me to the point of exhaustion at that speed would take at least a couple of hours. She looked up from her equipment and smiled slightly, saying that this would take no more than fifteen minutes. I mentally shrugged to myself and proceeded into my mind thinking that I’d prove her wrong. After a couple of minutes at that level of exertion, she didn’t increase the speed any, but she increased the angle of the treadmill by a few degrees. A couple of minutes later, she did the same again. And a couple of minutes after that, I couldn’t run any longer.

I’d been living so comfortably within the confines of my own capabilities that it had never occurred to me to that I’d identified those conditions with the entire potential of existence. Nor did I have any idea of how short a distance there was between my relative ease and comfort and completely impossible physical experience.

Asana practice puts us into situations at the edges of our capabilities. Doing that has the fortunate side effect of expanding those capabilities to a small degree, but really not much in the over all scheme of things. But that’s ok because it’s just the side-effect. The principal effect of putting ourselves into situations at the edges of our capabilities is to train the mind, to allow us to experience pain and to discover how our minds respond to pain. To allow us to experience fear and to discover how our minds respond to fear. To allow us to experience frustration and to discover how our minds respond to frustration. To allow us to experience joy and to discover how our minds respond to joy. And as we become aware of each of those experiences, we strengthen the basic practice of awareness itself.

And awareness itself prepares us for meditation.

Bless the young yoga teacher’s heart, he meant well when he promised us that our bodies would not experience pain, would not decrease in flexibility, would not lessen in strength, in endurance. He was obviously wrong, of course, but given the age composition of the class he was guiding, he wasn’t alone in his thinking. Where were all the forty and fifty and sixty and seventy-year-olds? Their bodies, I’m dead certain, knew much of pain and stiffness and weakness and misalignment. Perhaps they, too, thought that if yoga didn’t confer on them strength and flexibility and stamina and energy, they’d failed. Or perhaps yoga had failed them.

Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t yoga that failed them, but the unwise teaching that yoga, done right, was a panacea for ageing that failed them.

But eternal youth is not the promise of yoga. The promise of yoga is wisdom, and an end to suffering. Not an end to pain.

From a dharma talk by Pema Chodron:

The first thing the Buddha ever taught was there is suffering. It’s part of the human experience. It isn’t bad. No matter what you do, no matter how much money you spend, no matter how much physical exercise you get, no matter how many face lifts, or beautiful clothes, or the right diet, or whatever, you still have old age and death. And probably a lot of other things as well.

And so this whole attitude of the whole catastrophe living, you know, of actually opening your heart, softening around the whole thing, this is what I’m getting at here. … It’s all about learning to let go, loosen up, relax. And it’s never too late. I want to say that again and again. No matter how far you are into clutching and grasping and yelling and screaming and stamping your feet and throwing things, it’s never too late. You can never lose it. Because now is the moment. You just catch yourself right now.
-- The Pema Chodron Audio Collection, part 1.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More on Lucid Dreaming

A passing and recurring thought about lucid dreaming: if your experience is like mine, lucid dreaming arises seemingly spontaneously at some point in your life, then it subsides for a long time – for me, it subsided for many years. Then perhaps you have an experience or engage in a mind practice that touches the connection between awareness and subconscious, and it arises again for a time. Then it subsides again. It seems binary – on or off. Mostly off.

For me at present, it’s currently off.

At least mostly.

Mostly? Yeah. I’m beginning to question the binary nature of it.

Recently, I’ve been getting up early more or less consistently to meditate – earlier than I have done for a long time. I still haven’t mastered the getting-to-bed-on-time part to make this an easy process. The net result is that at least part of the time I’m meditating, I experience sleepiness.

And that, itself, is kind of interesting. I find that even when my mind is sleepy, my awareness is just pure, undiluted awareness. Not sleepy, or anything else, so far as I can tell. Just awareness. Though I don’t stay steadily in the witnessing awareness in my meditations, my mind (me?) does stumble into the state more frequently than I/it used to do. Often on my mat. Sometimes in daily life.

What I’ve come to realize is this: that “witness” state? It’s always present. Always. It’s not only present whenever I’m awake and alert – it’s present when I’m drowsy and sleepy. It’s present in the dreaming mind the instant before I awaken in the morning, and it’s present the consciousness the instant after I awaken in the morning.

But most times, my mind is not, itself, aware of the awareness.

In this morning’s meditation, my mind switched back-and-forth between normal thoughts/ sensations and awareness. And as it switched, it occurred to me exactly how much that the shift from thoughts to awareness is like waking up, like seeing clearly the background that has always been there, is always there.

And in that moment, I realized that the experience of lucidity while dreaming isn’t any different than the experience of lucidity while “awake.”

Both conditions are pretty rare. Both seem to occur more frequently when I practice mindfulness and resting in the witnessing awareness. Both feel more than a little like a kind of curious freedom.

Friday, September 05, 2008


A week ago, I drove up to Shambhala Mountain Center for a tantra yoga-and-meditation retreat. Sally Kempton taught and led the tantra meditation sessions (of which there were lots), and Jeanie Manchester taught and led the Anusara yoga sessions (of which there were some, but not enough for my appetite).

I'll try to spend some time with my notes and write up some more in the next few days, but here are a few take-aways:

1. At this point in my life, retreats are good more for discovering obstacles and practicing techniques for engaging them than for getting some surpassing peace or whatever. Felt distinctly like hard work, and hard work of the sort that I typically avoid.

2. A wonderfully interesting question to ask whenever obstacles occur in daily life: "What would I be like without this particular thought?"

3. When breathing into the back body, we don't have to stop with the confines inside the rib cage. Breathing into the back of the heart, I find it possible to combine physical, mechanical breath with consciousness as I draw in and through the heart and into the back and beyond. Is that an approach toward deity?

4. When meditation ends by another's instruction or by a timer, rather than by my own top-of-the-ocean awareness re-arising, it can be important to take a few minutes to intentionally draw awareness and consciousness back into the body. (Yes, that sounds weird. Maybe I'll find something useful to say about it later.)

5. Mechanically, my knees sit with greater ease if I practice Half Pigeon pose on each side for a few minutes before sitting. Also, breathing into the back body and allowing the back rib cage to expand and the shoulder blades to separate on the in-breath seems to relieve the chronic rhomboid cramping that I've experienced for the past five years or so. Who knew?

6. It's easier to sit longer after the retreat than it was before, but things are more jumbled.

7. I'm still on the fence as to the utility of mantra practice for me at this stage. Sometimes it seems to help manage the meditation (when Sally led us in hum-sah meditation, I found it to be powerful and subtle) and other times it seems a distraction from the experience of Witness. Maybe I'm just not very good at it yet.

8. Tonglen meditation, especially when combined with breathing through the back of the heart, is powerful.

9. For walking relatively safe trails, star light is plenty.

In December, I've decided to spend five days at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, north of SF to see what I can see from there then.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

summer haiku

On blond-striped Hosta
Raindrop sparkles, slides, lets go.
Leaf lifts minutely.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Meditation Update

Sitting is essentially a simplified space. Our daily life is in constant movement: lots of things going on, lots of people talking, lots of events taking place. In the middle of that, it's very difficult to sense that we are in our life. When we simplify the situation, when we take away the externals and remove ourselves from the ringing phone, the television, the people who visit us, the dog who needs a walk, we get a chance--which is absolutely the most valuable thing there is--to face ourselves. Meditation is not about some state, but about the meditator. It's not about some activity or about fixing something. It's about ourselves. If we don't simplify the situation the chance of taking a good look at ourselves is very small--because what we tend to look at isn't ourselves but everything else. If something goes wrong, what do we look at? We look at what's going wrong. We're looking out there all the time, and not at ourselves.

--Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen

It’s a little more than a year since I went to my first meditation retreat – one at Shambhala Mountain Center, led by David Nichtern and Cyndi Lee – and a bit longer than that – call it 14 months – that I’ve been meditating daily.

I’ve noticed that I am often judgmental of my practice. Some mornings, sitting is peaceful. Some mornings, it’s fascinating. Some mornings, it’s jittery. Some mornings, it’s a constant battle between distractions and effort. The thing is, I (or at least what I think of as the “small-I,” the self that sometimes seems all-encompassing and sometimes seems merely an object within awareness) likes certain kinds of meditation experiences, and dislikes others. And it translates “I like this experience of meditation” into “This is a good meditation session,” and it translates “I dislike this experience of meditation” into “This is a bad meditation session.” When I get into such a mind-mode, I try to remind myself of what meditation teachers constantly say to beginners: “Ignore your particular experience in meditation. Notice, instead, the effect of the meditation on the rest of your life.”

So in that vein, here’s what I’ve noticed about “the rest of my life”: whether a particular day or week or month of meditation is pleasant or unpleasant, since I began meditating, I’ve become more patient, I seem to see things a bit more clearly than I used to, I’m happier in an equanimous kind of way. I seem to be depressed a lot less, and I’m less attached to my manic days. I am more aware of my thoughts and my actions. I’m less reactive.

While it happens less frequently, I still go through lots of “small-I” experiences – getting angry at other drivers on the road, taking offense when someone says something that pushes one of my buttons, that sort of thing. But in recent months, even those experiences have changed, and that’s what I wanted to talk about here.

I’ve begun to experience this: even when I find myself unhappy or angry or offended, or annoyed – even though I still experience all of those things – it’s like they’re thinner somehow than they used to be – less substantial, less weighty, less important, less complete. (As I write, I hunt through Hartranft’s translation of the Yoga Sutra, and find that he uses the term “transparency” in expressing a related idea (III:56) – it’s a good match for what I’m trying to express.) It’s like I can see through the experiences to one degree or another, even as they happen.

Oh, don’t get me wrong – seeing through and beyond doesn’t mean that the small-I doesn’t react. If you’d been with me a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled into a bunch of stinging nettles along a backcountry stretch of the Henry’s Fork, you’d still have heard me swear loudly at the nettles. (The nettles were more equanimous and said nothing in response within my hearing.) But the negativity of the experience was easily contained in and perceived as the experience itself, not spilling out into other parts of life or mind. As I felt the needle-sharp pain in my calves and thighs, as I felt my body pull back, I was aware that it was the small-I that was responding, and not my whole being. It was like I was existence, and existence included the pain and consequences of nettles stinging but wasn’t limited to that experience, if that makes any sense at all.

* * *

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali says that part of our experience of life includes an unconditional part – “pure awareness” (sometimes it gets translated as the “seer” or the “witness”) – and that it is not something that can be perceived directly. But he also tells us we can still perceive it indirectly, nonetheless, because pure awareness can color the mind itself, just as the phenomenal world does, also. IV:23 In other words, while the small-I can’t see the seer, it can notice when it’s obscuring the simple experience of pure awareness – like looking through a window and suddenly realizing that you can see not only the trees and sky outside, but also a reflection of your own eye, at the same time. I’ve had this experience occasionally in yoga, more frequently in meditation – the “small-I” settling down enough to see itself reflecting the pure awareness that is the awareness through and of the small-I mind, itself.

Mirrors, everywhere.

* * *

At any rate, perhaps what I’ve recently experienced as the “transparency” or ‘thinning’ of experience is simply the small-I mind becoming a bit quieter, less impressed with itself, more aware. It is truly hard to come up with the right words for this experience. But whatever the correct articulation may be (and, dear readers, feel free to suggest any ideas that you have along these lines), the small-I seems changed by the simple experience of daily meditation practices of concentration and mindfulness.

Freer, in a word.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Off the mat -- Sadhana

Enough yoga people are refugees from overly structured jobs, overly organized religions, or just overly programmed existence that it's easy to think of yoga like we think of a massage or a soak in a hot tub -- something to be savored and treasured and absolutely free of all constraints. The relief it entails, alone, is worth the investment of time and money.

And when used in that fashion -- as a counterweight to the pressures and disciplines of the other parts of our lives -- there's lots of reason to resist allowing our yoga practice to turn into one more item on an ever-ugly "to do" list.

But if your experience is like mine and many of my friends' and students', there comes a time in your practice when the initial motivations start to transform and give way to others. If you started because you wanted to be a bit more fit, a bit less heavy, a bit more flexible, you might have been surprised to discover that your mind was responding to yoga as much as your body. And without necessarily losing interest in fitness, you might become more curious about how to live off the mat more in the "flow" state of mind you occasionally experience on the mat. If you started yoga because you wanted an escape from stresses and pressures of work or family, over time you might be surprised at the insights into those very stresses or pressures that occur to you in a particular pose, and you might find yourself wondering whether yoga might have more to offer your life than just an escape from it. If your interest hasn't transformed, don't sweat it -- there's really no point in arguing with a seed about when the right time to germinate might be.

But for those whose motivations have begun to transform, in yoga -- as in other parts of life -- if you keep doing what you've done, you'll keep getting what you've gotten. You reach a point where your current level of effort and action keep you where you are, but don't continue to carry you any farther. This shouldn't be a surprise to us. If we repeat the same poses again and again in exactly the same degree of extension, exactly the same degree of exertion, we won't increase strength or flexibility -- we'll maintain where we are, whether we're talking about Downward-facing dog, or Warrior 2 or Corpse. One of the cool aspects of yoga, though, is that while a particular stage of practice enables me to reach a particular point and become stable there, each stage also includes glimpses of the next. So "flow" states in my vinyasa practice start to persuade me that there's the potential for more grace in life off the mat. The peace and equanimity of my de-stressing yoga enable me to perceive the possibility of greater equanimity in life generally.

So as my perception of what is possible starts to shift, so too does my sadhana -- my spiritual practice -- start to change. I go from sweating happily on a yoga mat to discovering unexpected spiritual aspects to the practice to becoming curious about meditation. I go from being curious about meditation to sitting for a few minutes by myself. When I start sitting for a few minutes, I immediately discover how flitting and unsteady my attention is. But I also find a little bit more stability in my attention, a little bit greater concentration. As I reach the limits of what that practice level offers, I become more curious about what I might find with a more frequent and more sustained practice. So I go from sitting every now and again to sitting for ten minutes at a time, a couple of times a week. That lasts for months. I discover a greater awareness of my mind-chatter, of the potential for being aware of my thoughts. I begin to discover that I can perceive the experience of depression without pressing farther into depression. This is nothing short of a miracle, and I find my depression lessens in both duration as well as intensity. As I become stable in this level of practice, every now and again, I have glimpses of a much deeper perception -- of perceiving directly aspects of mind that I previously never noticed. And I change my practice, again, deepening the effort, increasing the discipline.

And so it goes.

But there's an easy-to-overlook risk to this kind of work. At each level of experience, there's a real risk that I'll attach to the practice itself, that even if I start simply going authentically where an experience leads, I'll derail at some point and pursue a practice because I "should" -- because conforming to my view of myself (or to my view of others' view of me) requires me to do certain things, to practice certain ways. Whenever we shift into that mode, we've moved into reinforcing an artificial sense of self, whether in my own eyes or in the eyes of others. Ego is a sneaky critter, and it's as content to hide behind spiritual practice as it is to parade around in more obvious forms. When we adopt a new sadhana for ourselves, when we change our current sadhana, when we continue a sadhana, it's always worth asking, "who wants this, and why?"

As plenty of Buddhists have discovered and taught, enlightenment happens as an accident -- it is absolutely not a product of yoga or meditation. So why practice at all? It seems that deep practices of yoga and meditation seem to make us accident-prone.

* * *

For myself, I haven't worked out exactly what the perfect relationship might be between structured discipline and letting go. Some days, it is clear that letting go is the answer. Others, that more discipline is the answer. I like to remember a comment from a Zen teacher -- I think it was Ajahn Chah -- to the effect that his students complained that his instructions were contradictory. He said that when his students were about to walk off the path to the left, he'd tell them to "go to the right" and when they were about to go off the path to the right, he'd tell them to "go to the left." The instructions only seemed contradictory to one who couldn't see the path or the students.

Some of the answer, I'm confident, is found in Krishna's instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:

You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a person established within himself -- without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. (2:47-48)

This approach is, at once, both the practice and the objective of the practice -- it is a practice that enables us to let go of the insistence that the practice deliver us the objective of the practice. If that sounds contradictory, then I think you've got it.

Perhaps some of the answer can be found in the Heart Sutra's teaching that Form is not other than emptiness -- Emptiness is not other than Form. Discipline of any kind -- like embodiment itself -- involves imposing constraints on consciousness. Imposing those constraints is a wonderful way to enable perception and attention and focus. There's nothing like a hamstring at its fullest extension to enable us to feel clearly. Similarly, there's nothing like a long meditation to enable us to see how our minds twist their ways through attachment and aversion and delusion. Maybe what we need to remember in the middle of a disciplined effort is that as valuable as it may be, it's simultaneously emptiness -- nothing to attach to. If that's right, perhaps the other side is equally true -- whenever we find ourselves insisting on freedom and liberation, it may be worth reminding ourselves that it's found in and through all Form, including -- sometimes, at least -- highly structured and ascetic-looking practices that, in the end, are just being.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Nobodhi spoke to me

As much as I benefit from reading them (thanks, Google Reader, for making me able to follow more blogs than I could possibly click on consistently) I don’t always remark on what I find in other people’s blogs, but today one of my favorite bloggers, Nobodhi of Nobodhis Yoga Journal posted something that seemed to speak to me not of my experience today, but rather something toward which my experience these days seems to be pointing.

Have you ever had the experience of noticing slight changes arising in some portion of your life, seeing them strengthen and grow, but rather than see them as steps along a path, you see them just as changes? But then, a bit of a sudden, you see what they portend, to what they point?

The last several months, I’ve noticed that my awareness has begun to reawaken in my asana practice. Now I know that sounds a bit strange, as yoga is supposed to be about mind as well as body, but for the past few years, my practice has been to press my mind so deeply into my body that my mind’s job has been only building and maintaining. At any rate, during the past few months, I seem to be seeing my practice from the outside of the inside, if that makes any sense. Some part of my mind finds itself no longer wrapped up (or in) the practice, but watches both my mind and my body working there. I suppose it would be accurate to say that I seem to be identifying with something other than the mind-body on the mat. And that seems most peculiar. I assumed that it was a function of my meditation practice, and perhaps it is. But rather than taking me away from the practice, it seems to have taken me into the minutiae of the practice – the feeling and distinguishing of sensation of finger bones and hand tendons pressing into the floor, the visual rhythm of my gaze swings in sun salutations, the stretching of individual muscle fibers tying vertebra to vertebra. I tried to say something about that experience in my last post on the solo practice in Santa Monica – something more about the same in my post about my photo session with barefoot bhakti. The perspective makes the practice fresh again in ways it hasn’t been for years. New. Enlivened. Freed.

I don’t want to overdo the experience of my practice these days – it’s often quite what it has been for the past few years – but it has been changing bits at a time, and I’ve been noticing the differences.

But this afternoon, as I read this post by Nobodhi, it was like wandering around comfortably in mist, and then when the mist clears briefly, you discover that you’ve actually been moving toward something.

Nobodhi – may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be clear.

And when you are, may you find new voice, if not for your-self, for us.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Soloing on a back porch

Monday morning I found myself on my brother’s terra cotta tiled back porch in Santa Monica, CA. By the time I had finished with some early work, two of the household were out, two others still asleep. I cleared some patio furniture to the sides and began the sequence of sun salutations that I’ve repeated more than a few times. The temperature was pleasantly cool, heavy with ocean.

As the salutations progressed, I re-re-re-discovered mindfulness in solo practice. I love my daily practice in studios, my twice-a-week teaching, but I’m always surprised at how much more is available to be felt and seen by a quiet mind alone. Gazing across fingertips in Warrior poses, seeing the ground in Plank, feeling joints and tendons and muscles in my hands connected to the earth in Dog poses. Reopening energy pathways in lunges and backbends. Integrating mind and body in balances. And yet my self-hungry mind looked for glimpses of reflections in window panes, of sweat drops falling on mortar between the patio tiles.

When I finished the practice, I grabbed a patio chair cushion, arranged my legs and hands, and sat.

And saw.

And saw the seeing.

I bow in gratitude to all who cared and preserved and taught these things across the course of their centuries to mine.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


anonymous julie wrote this:

I think it’s easier and more comfortable to continue to believe in one’s bondage than to take responsibility for one’s freedom.


She nailed it, exactly.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Few people are capable of wholehearted commitment, and that is why so few people experience a real transformation through their spiritual practice. It is a matter of giving up our own viewpoints, of letting go of opinions and preconceived ideas…. Although this sounds simple, in practice most people find it extremely difficult. Their ingrained viewpoints, based on deductions derived from cultural and social norms, are in the way.

If we have a relationship with another person, and we love the person but don't understand him or her, the relationship is incomplete; if we understand the person but don't love him or her, it is equally unfulfilling. How much more so on our spiritual path. We have to understand the meaning of the teaching and also love it. In the beginning our understanding will only be partial, so our love has to be even greater.

~ Ayya Khema, from When the Iron Eagle Flies

* * *

I’m holding a scissored and revolved version of what I think of as Crow Pose – an arm balance – in an asana room of Cosmic Dog Yoga, a Livermore California studio that’s under construction but nearly finished. Sunlight streams in from the west-facing windows.

“Come forward about three feet, and face this way.” She gestures. I come out of the pose, back to my feet, and move forward. I resume the pose. Now I can’t see her, but I hear.

“Extend your foot from the ankle.”

I adjust the foot.

“Now holding the foot-ankle extension, draw your toes back toward the shin.”

My peripheral vision notes that she’s lying on the floor nearby, propped on her elbows. She begins taking pictures.

The heels of my hands press into the floor. The right, unweighted, forearm begins to tremble.

“Lift the forward foot slightly, the light angle’s wrong.”

I shift. Another picture.

“Can you draw your spine and neck into alignment?”

I try lifting my neck into alignment. Maybe the neck moves a half inch, but no more.

* * *

In the world of yoga, the word bhakti is Sanksrit for devotion. It is a path toward liberation through devotion – encountering the divine as You. Not an impersonal third-person Independent Divine that we perceive as a Deist might the Kosmos. Not a first-person manifestation of Divinity as Walt Whitman conceived of Self. But rather second person – You – a relationship – a friend.

St. Teresa of Ávila wrote that her form of contemplative prayer, oración mental, “is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” This is also the essence of bhakti yoga – a relationship of worship. It is the path described in the Bhagavad Gita: “One can understand Me as I am, as the absolute, only by devotion. And when one is in full consciousness of Me by such devotion, he can enter into the kingdom of God. (B-Gita 18.55). It was Jesus’ message to his disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends…”

* * *

Laurie climbs the construction scaffolding, and I hand up the cameras.

“Let’s see Triangle.”

I move through the eight or nine actions involved in building a Triangle Pose: ground back foot heel-to-toe, angle foot out 30˚; place front foot four feet ahead, align heel and toes to the front. Lift the arches of the feet, engaging the groin muscles. Extend torso and abdomen, draw front arm forward…

As I move, from above the camera clicks.

* * *

In the political circles I frequent, devotion isn’t at the top of the agenda. It does not affirm or fortify the independence of a soul, but rather the discovery of spirit in the utter interbeing of each with the other. It is not the clear, structured rationality of logic and formalism, but rather the discovery of freedom through submission, of liberation through discarding insistence on self, of coming to life by uprooting the individuality-hedgerows we’ve planted and watered and groomed. It does not bear the hallmarks of scientistic objectivity. It is, instead, a path into and through subjectivity. Not so much a “moving toward” as a self-surrender.

* * *

“Let’s try uttanasana.”

I stand, big toes touching, side by side, heels parted an inch or so. I raise my arms and gaze up to the ceiling, then bend at the waist, bringing my hands first to the floor, then to the backs of my calves, my face to my knees. I extend my spine. My face presses into my shins.

“Rotate slightly to your left.”

I shift to the left.

* * *

Part of the modern objection to self-surrender is rooted in historical recognition of Jim-Jones style cultism, “just-following-orders” war crimes, and perversely co-dependent pathologies. Those problems are painfully real, and I’m not entirely sure how to describe and contour my sense of how they differ from bhakti yoga. I suppose one could avoid those problems by confining the scope of one’s devotion to bounds set by rationality, but that very constraint seems inconsistent with the whole-hearted connection and liberation that characterizes bhaki. Perhaps there are more and less mature ways of engaging in bhakti, just as one can engage in a variety of non-rational ways of being, some pre-rational, unaware and dismissive of all that rationality has to offer, others post-rational, incorporating all that rationality offers, but wider and deeper than rationality, not confined by its limitations.

Or perhaps, though, bhakti is just stepping through a darkened doorway.

* * *

“Deepen the twist.”

“Now lift your head.”

“Draw your chin back a bit.”

I comply.

* * *

Bhakti is the part of yoga that most resembles religious practices. Consequently, it is the part that can make those devoted to a particular religious practice –and equally those opposed to religious practice altogether – distinctly uncomfortable.

In bhakti, I find joyful, whole-hearted connection. Some bhaktis love the embodiment of that connection in imagined images of divine. For me, I find it in the twisting wisps of smoke rising from a smoldering incense stick, in chanting.

Now in fairness to my specific-religion friends and to my specific-no-religion friends, if I chant Jaia Ganesha Jaia Jaia Ganesha Jaia intending to curry special favor with an invisible, portly-human-bodied, elephant-headed god named Ganesha who is particularly inclined to remove obstacles from human endeavors for those who worship him repeatedly, then yes, I’m engaged in a kind of pre-rational worship that may well conflict with a belief in a different deity that is appeased or approached through a different set of practices or with a “no-deity-no-way” policy. I get those ways of looking at the world. I lived versions of them myself for a long time. And I don’t criticize anyone who finds them useful or good or important. There is neither point nor good in rejecting what is.

But there’s a way of devotion, a tao, that is more immediate, that is neither petitioning of an independent Other, nor simply empty ritual, but that is intermeshed with consciousness in the very act of devotion itself, whatever form that devotion might take, whether burning incense or paying tithing or feeding the hungry or cleaning toilets or weaving flower garlands or painting the Sistine Chapel. And that tao dissolves everything but the devotion, both lover and beloved, both teacher and student, both subject and object.

* * *


I sit. Balance. Grasp my toes. Extend my legs. I lift my heart toward the ceiling.

“Hold it there.”

I hold.

* * *

My first experience with bhakti was singing. My earliest memory in life is sitting on my mother’s lap in a rocking chair, singing with her before bedtime. I was, I think, about 3 years old at the time. The memory remains, I’m sure, because it was the first time I recall singing dissolving into harmony – perfect fourths, if such a distant memory can be trusted. As I grew up, I sang in children’s choirs at funerals and church meetings. I sang in school choirs throughout grade school. I spent more hours singing in college than I spent in course work for either of my majors.

Singing – an activity made of breath, vibration, and mind – can be entirely self-focused concentration. But it can also be bhakti – devotion. It takes all kinds of forms, ranging from Protestant hymns in 4/4 time with rhyming lyrics sung in well-lit chapels, to textured drum-beating, tabla-droning, body-swaying kirtan chants in Sanskrit to Ganesha in a half-dark yoga studio, to Gregorian plainsong chants intoned in stone cathedrals, to OM continuously chanted in a circle of friends sitting on the floor of an office, converted for a time into a sacred space.

Or, as happens most mornings of my life, an invocation sung quietly to the field above my yoga mat before I step into that sacred space.

Really, we don’t sing to communicate information. We sing to embody feeling. We sing to embody ideas. We sing to vibrate in a harmonic dance with the universe.

When I sing, I open my heart, not to myself, not to I, but to You.

* * *

I’m in hurdle pose – balanced on my hands, arms bent at elbows, my left leg angled forward, resting on the back of my left tricep, right leg extended into the air behind me.

“Can you draw your left leg forward a bit?”

I press. Not sure whether anything moves or not.

“Engage your toes.”

“Now lift the left leg a bit.”

I lift.

* * *

As I said, for a variety of reasons –some pre-rational, some quite rational – not everyone finds the path of bhakti to be particularly appealing, so many yoga studios scale back the overtly bhakti aspects of the yoga they practice. The studios where I practice most of the time tend toward the austerity of postures, heat, and breath. But for a person inclined toward bhakti, the lack of a Shiva statute or a Buddha mural isn’t really an impediment. The basic elements of bhakti yoga are still always present: there’s the devotee, and there’s the teacher.

Exactly what it is about working with a gifted teacher, I truly don’t know. There isn’t much about the western practice of yoga asana, breath, and meditation that makes obvious the need for a teacher. Lots of people practice their yoga based on a few books, a video or two, in the solitude of their own homes. I have a home practice, myself. But nonetheless, many of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had have come through yoga, and almost always have come through teachers.

…love is the vehicle through which you can much more quickly learn the language of your own True Self. Precisely because this learning is driven by love, it happens more rapidly than sitting alone, in the corner, on your meditation mat, counting your breaths.

Ken Wilber, One Taste, pg. 209

* * *

“Do you have a standing backbend?”

I position my feet.

“Come closer to the scaffold.”

I move toward the platform.

“Face away from me, and bend back toward me.”

I turn 180˚, lift my arms to Mountain Pose, then widen the pelvis, rotating the femurs inward, creating space for the sacrum to descend. The tailbone rotates down and under, the pubic bone rotates up and forward, bringing a stretch to the quads. Spine lengthened, the shoulder girdle begins its motion up and back.

“Relax your arms – bring your hands to heart center, anjali mudra.”

I press my palms together, just above my heart. The back bend deepens. My eyes gaze upward, but now up is back. I breathe slowly, each exhale taking me more deeply back, the entire front of my body from knees to pelvis to ribcage to sternum to chin is bow-string taut, vibrating with fatigue.

“A bit more.”

I exhale again, the backbend deepens, my gaze travels across the ceiling and suddenly, I’m seeing into the inverted eyes of the photographer above and behind me in the air.

Looking into Laurie’s eyes, I feel the prana of devotion to the presence above me, and I see that the next stage of the backbend is constricted not by the limitations of muscle or sinew, but by fear and self-protection. I release them and trust the pose, the teacher, the photographer, the alignment of existence, the internal point of singleness, Shiva.

Ishvara pranidhana indeed.

The spine arches more deeply, the abdominal and diaphragm muscles release slightly, and my gaze moves from the photographer’s eyes, to what is beyond them.

* * *

Eye-to-eye, we connect: the unity, the dance, the connection, the not-two-ness of the experience – bhakti – a way of relaxing the attachment to self.

It is momentary freedom, beginning as one, discovering another, and each disappearing, leaving only the twining.

[For more pix, go here.]

Friday, June 13, 2008

James on Consciousness

Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness…. There is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir.

No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.

--William James

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Arguing in circles

A recurrent idea/sensation/feeling:

I look out the window of the plane I’m on and see the clouds, the still-light rim of horizon beyond the clouds, and then I see not only clouds and sky but the plane window framing them and the periphery.

And then the idea/feeling/sensation occurs: “I” am composed of the same stuff as everything around me – plane, air, light, body, mind – and “I” am not separated from what I see – “I” am the world seeing itself.

* * *

There is a phrase I learned in law school: “a distinction without a difference.” In our common law system, judges are supposed to decide like cases alike. So when considering a decision, a judge often looks to see how similar cases have been handled in the past. Your opponent proffers prior decisions in prior cases to the judge, arguing that they require a decision in her favor and against you. You scrutinize the cases for a meaningful distinction, an argument, a plausible way for the court to conclude that a decision in your favor is really consistent with the prior decisions on the same subject – they turned out the way they did because of some key aspect of them that is not present in your case. Sometimes you see and articulate the perfect argument that makes it clear that a particular case doesn’t compel a decision against you. That is called “distinguishing” your case from the prior case.

But sometimes you build your arguments as well as possible, finding all the ways in which your case is different from the cases argued by your opponent, and in the end, they just don’t distinguish your case from the prior cases. “Yes,” the judge tells you, “you have found a way in which your case is distinct from the prior case.”

“But your argument is really just a distinction without a difference”

* * *

The idea/feeling/sensation I get when I look out the plane’s window and see the clouds and dimming horizon-rim of light is that argument separating the seen and the seer is a distinction, but it’s a distinction without a difference.

Not “we” are one.

Rather: I am That.

Or as the Chandogya Upanishad tell it: Tat twam asi.

That thou art.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A letter to my teacher

Dear [Teacher],

Thanks so much for yesterday’s practice.

I’m a little leery of binding the experience into the straitjacket of words, but I do want to capture a little bit of what happened and share it with you.

As we began by talking about prana and perception of it, there was a familiar feeling of basic honesty, of reality that I profoundly appreciate when I work with you. I think that that basic background makes a lot of perceptions possible that otherwise can’t happen.

One of those perceptions was this: I think I remember that in our discussion, even though I was the one who brought up the topic of the jump forward from down dog to standing forward bend, I didn’t feel as though it was my idea. And when you suggested the jump-forwards be the focus of yesterday’s practice, I felt a little resistance arise in me. It started as a “this is just the same-old, same-old” response. But the basic orientation I have toward bhakti readily overrode the initial resistance to the practice. The important part was that shortly after I felt the resistance arise, I noticed it.

As we worked on position and jump-forwards, you described the flow from feet to hands to feet to hands, comparing it to those wave toys that some people have on their desks. That visual connected to our discussions about the experience of perception of prana. And so with a jump, there came the awareness of energy from feet into legs into buttocks, and what felt like the “end” of the energy at the spine, below the back ribcage. The energy sequence-flow just seemed to stop at that point, and the legs came back down to the floor, the hips never reaching alignment with the shoulders or the hands, the energy never reaching the palms. Through that practice I perceived the energy stopping, and the place where it stopped. I had not seen that before, though I’m not particularly sure why not, as once it was seen, it seemed obvious.

For reasons I don’t understand, there is a resistance that arises there. As we talked about it, instead of the word “fear,” you suggested the word “trust,” which resonated deeply for me. Here’s why: when I admitted to myself that I no longer held my the belief set of my religious tradition, I lost a lot of the experience of trusting. There seemed so many things that were not trust-worthy. That led, quite directly, to a kind of existential despair, suspicion, separateness. I lived that way for years. But during teacher training a couple of years ago, some experiences began to draw together.

At the core of those experiences seemed to be this: the more I looked squarely at my preoccupations and my obsessions, and my insistences, and my attempts to control – the more I pulled them into the light of day – the less solid they looked. But as I began to see past them, through them, what I found was not nothing, but a surpassing warmth. Love. Describing it, I wrote to a friend, “I have come to trust existence.” I no longer felt the fear, the need to try to control, existence. So yesterday when you said, “trust,” what resonated with me was a sensation that now, hours later, I can describe as the discovery of a residue of distrust.

Something else you said also fit into a slot my mind had open: talking about the energy stopping point, you said something like “once you’re aware of it, it isn’t a block any longer.” That sounded like a familiar idea to me when you said it, but my mind twisted it a little bit into an external description of my mind seeing resistance in my body. And once I did that with the idea, while I superficially agreed with it, I simultaneously made it not true. Not that what you said was false – rather, I took a statement about unity and turned it into a statement about duality.

Last evening, I was reading from Ken Wilber’s book, No Boundaries, and he said the same thing you did:

What on the surface we fervently desire, in the depths we successfully prevent. And this resistance is our real difficulty. Thus, we won’t move toward unity consciousness, we will simply understand how we are always moving away from it. And that understanding itself might allow a glimpse of unity consciousness, for that which sees resistance is itself free of resistance.

p. 136.

And what I saw last evening is that your statement was right: a block seen is no longer a block, because the seer and the seen are not separate, and the understanding of the mind is not separate from the experience of the body. But then I constricted my perceptions from unity to duality, from a body/mind that dissolved a block by seeing clearly to a subject mind seeing an object body’s blockage. And once in that duality, the ego-stroked mind persuaded itself that it could “see” the body’s problem, as though it weren’t the ego’s own problem. And so it reinstated the block while deluding itself that it was superior to it.

What have I learned? I need to practice seeing the block while jumping forward. Drishti indeed.

[Teacher], thank you for guiding me. Sometimes it is easier for me to see clearly with your eyes than with mine.

Be well,


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Who's breathing?

For much of my life, breathing has come in two modes. The first is natural, guided by my autonomic nervous system, fluctuating with the oxygen requirements of my body, with my emotional state. The other is an act of pure, conscious will, structured, managed, controlled, like the long, slow breaths I would use to calm my mind even before I discovered the pranayama breath control practices of yoga -- or the formally structured six-count inhale to maximum capacity followed by six-count exhale evacuating all but the tidal capacities of my lungs.

Yesterday in meditation, I added a third mode – one that I don’t recall hearing about before. Usually in meditation, as my mind quiets, my breath becomes quieter and slower, just as it did yesterday.

But toward the end of my sitting time, the breath began to increase in depth and speed until it crested and held at a strong pranic pace and depth, drawing up along the back spine, circling down the front chakra sequence, up the back, down the front.

The breath itself wasn’t unusual – it was quite similar to a pranayama practice that I use periodically. What was unusual was that “I” didn’t breathe that particular breath.
It breathed me.

It arose at a time when my body manifested no obvious need for oxygen, no emotional state that linked to breath. It manifested a rather ornate structure, pace, and sequence.

And the will-powered self that thinks it’s in control of just about everything didn’t have anything to do with it. At that point in my meditation practice, as usual, that self was busy watching thoughts arise, sustain, and subside. When the breath arose, the self turned to watch it arise, watched it sustain, and watched it subside.

I’ve been breathed by a breath.

Kind of turns the entire notion of pranayama as a form of intentional breath control on its head.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Off the mat -- Finding Prana

(From the dharma talks to my students)

Often enough when I practice yoga, I find that I start from a low energy state. And by “low energy,” I’m talking less about the actual amount of energy available at a particular time and talking more about the way I feel and perceive that energy.

For many of us, the first time we start practicing yoga when we move into the first energetic pose – whether it’s Mountain or Downward facing Dog or Warrior 2 – as we first move into that pose, we are assembling it through will power. Some combination of our internal motivation or a teacher’s cajoling leads us to Warrior 2, raising our forward arm to shoulder height, and extending it forward from a vertical torso.

The energy that moves the arm into position comes almost mechanically and dully from our mind’s decision to position the arm.

That’s one experience of prana. And it’s not an unimportant one. In fact, it’s the one lots of people identify with, and it may be the only one that many perceive consistently, whether it’s used to get out of bed in the morning or to show up at work or to pick up the groceries or to feed the dog or to mow the lawn or to get up from the couch to go to bed at night.

But it’s not the only experience we can have of prana, by any means.

* * *

Think back to that first (or recent) practice session when moving into a pose was a mechanical exercise in willpower. Often enough, for me, the first one or two Sun A sequences of each practice feel this way.

But then something happens, though it happens gradually enough that I usually don’t notice it until it’s pretty far along: Instead of formulating the pose in my brain and then manipulating my various body parts into position, I find the pose begins to generate itself without the mechanistic effort of my brain’s control. I don’t mean to suggest that my mind is absent – it’s there and engaged and choosing poses and depth and alignment and the like – but the energy that creates the pose is no longer something applied, but rather something that begins to flow through the pose itself. It’s hard to find the right words for this.

The best way I can think of to describe it is that the energy and the pose aren’t really separated. Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t as though everything turns into energy and lightness and ease. Many yoga poses remain at or beyond the borders of my capabilities. Some are incredibly difficult, requiring all the strength and endurance and flexibility I can muster. But the energy of the pose is internal to it – not external.

I once had a teacher who gave very precise instructions for poses. One day I was working with her one-on-one and she provided the usual set of meticulously specific instructions for a pose, and I grinned and asked what would happen if I did the pose with my neck bent rather than straight. I was just teasing her a bit about being so precise, but she, quite seriously, responded, “Oh, you should try it that way.” So I did.

Now I’m not sure whether it was one of those “magic teacher” experiences or whether I was warmed up enough to be aware of things that I’m often not aware of or what, but changing the pose made a subtle but very perceptible difference in the way the pose felt energetically. It’s a practice worth trying, just to reinforce the sometimes otherwise unnoticed experiences we have with prana.

Once you’ve noticed the experience of “doing it wrong,” you can feel the difference. I put “doing it wrong” in quotation marks, because, of course, when it comes to yoga, the only “wrong” way is the “not paying attention” way. Anything that happens with full attention isn’t wrong. It may be counterproductive to a particular objective, but it will never be “wrong.” Anyway, once you come to notice the difference, you can start to move into alignment with those patterns of energy. Why would you care? As you align with the energies of your body, your moves become more fluid, your balance stabilizes, you allow prana to guide you more deeply into poses, strengthening and stretching. Once you become familiar with its flow, you can move with it, using it as a counterpoint to your own actions. A dance.

Prana in this form sometimes gets labeled shakti, sometimes as the flow, sometimes other things. But often enough in Sun A or Sun B sequences, as we move with the breath, we’ll discover not just a trickle of energy, but a river current that pulls us on an inhale to Warrior 2, presses an exhale into Chautranaga dandasana, that makes Upward facing dog not just a counterpose, but a fully expressed embodiment of the heart, shoulders, and head, energized, that draws the torso, shoulder girdle and head back into “reverse” Warrior, and from there to the grounded power of extended side angle.

* * *

Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth (nod to Laurie G. for telling me to go read it) writes that there are three basic mind sets with which we should engage in life: acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm. His point is, I think, that any more negative or contracted mind sets will do us (or will lead us to do others) harm. But as I think about the three basic manifestations of prana on the mat, I wonder if Tolle’s point isn’t more fundamental than that.

Prana – energy – moves. We can accept it, enjoy it or embrace it, but if we resist it or seek to subjugate it to our wills, its flow is impeded. When that happens, often enough, I find myself completely lost in thoughts, oblivious to where I am, what I am doing. And when I do finally come back to myself, I can find energy knotted somewhere in my mind or body, the flow blocked, stuck. There are lots of mind-body sticking points.

Sometimes prana gets diverted into judgmental competitions, whether with another person in the room or with a notion of an ideal we hold in our heads. There is surely a kind of energy in such actions, but such efforts depend on a kind of cruel dualism – a separation of my Will from the prana itself, an effort to mechanize a river. When I indulge this urge, the river of prana soon reduces to a trickle, constricted around judgmental contraction. The more I separate myself from the experience of prana, the more I seek to subject it to my will, the less I find it available to me.

Yoga can be an exploration of and with prana. We can move into poses less with an attitude of conquest and accomplishment and willful ambition and more with a sense of exploration and discovery. At its best, yoga asana practice is a practice of bringing mindfulness to the experience of prana, and a pose sequence becomes an embodied dance of the experience of prana shaping the body’s position and motion and the body’s actions shaping the experience of prana.

* * *

So I tend to think of Tolle’s three mind sets as the three kinds of constructive prana experiences in practice: at the acceptance level is the mechanical application of energy to fulfill a mind-set objective. The self-aware energy experience of a pose itself is enjoyment – a kind of quiet, introspective, fun that leaves us calm, with heightened awareness, and peace. At the shakti level of experience is the free movement of prana through our bodies, drawing us from one pose to another, the movement becoming not “effortless” because there is no exhaustion, but rather “effortless” because there is no need to marshal energies to perform the pose – only efforts to channel the energies that flow, themselves, freely.

* * *

A river is not simply a channel through which water flows – it is the flowing water, itself.

We are not simply channels through which prana flows – we are the flowing prana.

We do not need to strive to gain or cling to hold prana any more than a river needs to cling to its water.

In your next practice, allow yourself to become quiet enough to perceive the prana. And then notice what you find.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What's Awake?

This morning’s meditation was no more interesting than the instant the day began. I’d set my clock/radio to wake me at 5. When it turned on the very quiet radio, I went from complete, 100% immersion in the reality of a full-scale dream, all the sights and structures, concerns and interests of a dream reality to 100% immersion in the reality of full-scale waking, all the sights and structures, concerns and interests of waking reality. There was literally no intermediate state at all.

Just dream world.

Then waking world.

The only think that linked them was the consciousness looking through the mind.

Very strange.

Very interesting.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Marginalia: Love, pt. 1

Blogging challenges my instinct to finish a thought before posting it, so I'm trying something new with a series of posts.

In recent months, I've been molding and modeling and wordsmithing bits a pieces of what feels like a larger thought about love. But I've not found the glue to hold the pieces together. I've been inspired by a few posts touching on aspects of love at Integral Options Cafe, She Lives Her Life In Widening Circles, musings of, Buddhist in Nebraska, ... By talks with Ed and Hampton hiking through squeaky December snows and in an odd little tavern outside Kripalu; by online conversations with many people in many places; by a yoga teacher who one day adjusted my head and neck while I lay in savasana, touched her forefinger to the center of my forehead, and whispered to me, "You are divine. I love you." But most of all, I've been inspired by my wife, who has found ways to continue to love me from a time when we shared the same visions of life and eternity along a long path into loneliness and darkness, only to have me emerge profoundly changed. Less abled in some ways, lacking beliefs that I had when we started together, much more alive in other ways.

I suppose that nothing that can be caught in a net of words will look like the ocean the net sweeps through.

So I've decided to share bits and pieces as they are, hoping for comments and community to help me understand how they relate, where they conflict, how I might explore them more deeply.

Part 1:

So recently, I was reading in Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul, and in making a particular point, he tossed out the line that articulated so clearly my experience of the past several years:

"In most human beings, the heart does its work unattended. Even though its behavior governs the course of our lives, it is not understood. If at any given point in time the heart happens to open, we fall in love." p. 49.

For years, I’ve practiced yoga, and for almost as many years, I’ve found myself falling in love.

You’d expect there to be here some qualification – “not love like…” But I won’t give you any such qualification. The more I practice opening my heart, the more I find myself in love.

Sometimes it’s love of something as broad as existence itself. Sometimes it’s existence manifested in a particular person. Sometimes it’s intensely concentrated on a particular person. Sometimes it’s diffuse across a group. Many times, it’s been entirely oriented toward my wife. Sometimes, unexpectedly, I found it concentrating in men. Occasionally, it manifests itself with my dog.

But here’s the thing: it’s all love. And by love, I don’t mean only some abstract fondness. No. I mean the kind of experience you have when you let down your last defense because you realize that the other person is as completely important to you as yourself. Perhaps more.

Falling in love and acting for the benefit of all beings are not in the slightest inconsistent. I’m a living testament to the fact that it’s possible to fall in love with someone without pursuing intimacy – that it’s possible to be in love with someone without being intimate.

Love is what happens when we let down the defenses to our hearts, and when we push our mental barricades to one side.

For a long time, I didn't see the link Singer writes about. I had no idea that love could be so pervasive. But when I practiced yoga, my heart would open. Sometimes a little bit. Sometimes a lot. And I found myself feeling overwhelming love at various times. That discovery was disturbing. Didn't feeling such love require action? How I could stay married to one person and feel love so strongly for another? When I feel love, doesn't that mean I should seek to bind myself to that love, to grasp it, to preserve it, to perpetuate it, to cling to it?

With hindsight, I can see that once I started down that thought path, I began creating a world that fit the "love is exclusive" model: I began to close my heart when I was around the familiar ones. And once my heart began to close, even without me realizing it, I found that I felt less love toward those people.

But fortunately for me, those people were patient, and I wasn't in a hurry, either. I opted to wait and see, rather than act on my desires to possess new love. And I found that six months in, the infatuation would subside, and love would remain. Less a desire to control, to capture for myself; more a desire for the other's well being, empathy, sympathetic joy, and desire to extend compassion. As I wrote several months ago, learning and practicing a loving-kindness meditation radically changed my perceptions of how love worked. And finding Singer's articulation of exactly what I'd experienced provided a capstone to the realization:

When I allow my heart to open, I fall in love.

The more I let go of my insistence on being, I find not nihilism, not nothing, but a kind of love that seems woven into the fabric of consciousness, rather than embroidered on top of it.