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.