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.