Sunday, September 28, 2008

More than Thought

“Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows...”
-from B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, II.4

This “lack of true knowledge” or Avidya refers to spiritual ignorance which is inherent in the human predicament. I say that this ignorance is inherent because our eyes seem to be made to look outward and our ears and other senses also seem to be set up to pick up external vibrations. But, yoga teaches that we can also turn our senses inward to perceive greater depths, or spiritual vistas.

Spiritual wisdom traditions from around the world indicate that we are more than what we see and more than what we think, so why is it hard to experience this? The slant of our materialist culture, according to science, says that we cannot prove the existence of anything beyond the physical world, and beyond what we can measure with mechanical instruments. So I think part of the reason it has been hard for me to accept my spirituality is because I was taught to believe otherwise.

As a woman, I was taught to believe that I was a sex-object, a machine that also must be fed and eliminate waste, and a computer who’s job was to accumulate data as well as follow the rules of society. But guess what? I am more than that. I am more than what I was taught in school. I am more than what others have told me about myself. I am more than the food I have eaten or how many times I went to the bathroom. I am more than how much money I have or what clothes I wear. I am more than “American”. I am more than my sexuality.

What is this more? What more could I possibly be?

I have discovered from my experience practicing yoga and from others who also practice (no matter what spiritual tradition or religious commitments a person has) that yoga helps people get in touch with their spirituality. A person’s spirituality is the other side of the coin from the material aspects of life, and a way to experience this sense of vastness is through a spiritual practice like yoga.

In the absence of practice there is a strong likelihood that I might get totally sucked into the material side of life, and when that happens I am also likely to start drowning in pains and sorrows. This is the nature of Avidya, or spiritual ignorance.
Said another way: when I am caught-up in the web of materialism, without a sense of connection with something greater or more, my life is stuck. But, when I give myself the chance to look inward, and yoga is a great place for this, I can see beyond my little web of thought. I have greater strength and know that I am greater than the contents of my mind, and more than my physical body. In the practice of yoga postures the body is my instrument, tuned into the infinite. And I am happier.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Truthful Fire

In my last entry I talked about creating space for emotions in yoga. While this is an important aspect, if all we did was create space, we might end up like a pancake without blueberries! Emptiness is good, but we need the ripe fruits of our lives to give us direction.

In yoga I want to open up and refuel. This is where the fire aspect of yoga comes in.

A large open gas tank is nothing without the fuel inside. In this case the fuel is truth, including truth that might seem difficult to bear.

Is there easy truth? It can be hard to see in this world where there is violence, ecological destruction, corrupt politics, and sometimes difficult personal truth that everybody faces.

From the Hindu tradition, Nataraja, the fire dancer represents standing in the fire of truth, both personal and shared truth.
In LifeForce yoga, the archetype that Nataraja represents (staying present with one's truth) is coupled with that of Kuan Yin (compassionate understanding, or heart-listening) from the Buddist tradition. Together, an understanding of the human attributes represented by Nataraja and Kuan Yin can help make the situation workable.

If we only stood in the fire of truth we might burn, but if we also include arms of compassion to hold truth, we can protect ourselves from the hot flames.

With this model of practice, we allow the truth to be with us on the yoga mat. The truth could be tightness, fatigue, anxiety, sadness, anger, warmth, ecstasy, and so on... I'm not suggesting that we take yoga into the mental realm, only that we feel whatever is there. And if the story around the sensations starts coming up, observe that and allow the heart to hear. Rather than trying to fix it with intellect, bring attention to the body and to the practice.

For example, I have had various things come up in backbends. One time I was getting a delicious-feeling adjustment from a beautiful male yoga teacher, when my body let out a loud, cracking fart. I felt myself shrinking inside after that. I was so embarrassed! After I came out of the pose, I courageously looked at my teacher. His eyes told me that it was okay. In this case my truth was embarrassment about a body-noise, and the compassionate understanding came from the eyes of my teacher.

In another backbending incident with another male teacher I moaned, but it didn’t seem like me. When I came out of the pose this time (this teacher had brought me up to standing), there was the teacher, who’s first look was accepting, and a female assistant who mocked me with her eyes. Then she looked at the teacher and they shared a look that seemed to judge my behavior. So I explained what happened: I was in the backbend (Urdhva Dhanurasana) and it felt amazing. It had the effect on me as if I existed as pure bliss. The body didn’t seem to be there. The moan came from somewhere far away. I observed it mostly from the outside, and was only dimly aware that the sound came from the body that was “me”. Only after I came out of the pose (feeling expansive) did I realize that it was me, and the strange looks from the teacher and assistant also clued me in. So in this case the truth was ecstasy, and the compassionate understanding also came from inside myself. The experience had seemed to be beyond ordinary experience so I didn’t judge myself, even though I saw others judging me. I just accepted that wildly wonderful backbend experience.

At least that is what I have told myself, but I am suspicious now because I never went to that class again. It was another body-noise embarrassment. In fact I remember myself as a child, cringing at the sound of my voice on a tape recorder. Somehow I haven’t been very accepting of the sounds I make.

What I learn from this is that the compassionate space represented by Kuan Yin has been hard for me to experience. I was so quick to judge.

Both of these backbend experiences happened years ago. The farting backbend happened years before the moaning one, and the moaning one was about five years ago. So perhaps now that I am writing this on a public blog, it might indicate that I am in a place of greater compassion and understanding than I was then. Don’t we all fart and moan? Aren’t these sounds truth?

So as I accept the truth of these experiences with compassionate awareness, I say, “What’s next?” and go back to my yoga mat.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Room for Emotions

A few years ago I traveled with certified Iyengar yoga teacher, spiritual mentor, and beloved friend Gabriel Halpern for a yoga retreat at Kripalu. When we arrived in Albany it was gray and rainy, and I was disappointed by the weather so I complained about it. Gabriel replied with the observation, “Rain is a sign of fertility.” And said that it could be seen as a blessing for a rich learning experience on retreat.

Perhaps emotional rains can also be seen as a blessing. These showers nourish the ground of consciousness and water the seeds of creativity.

A strategy for working with the emotions in yoga comes from the LifeForce yoga training that I did earlier this year. This approach uses archetypes of human experience to set the tone for practice. One of the archetypes used is the bodhisattva of compassion from the Buddhist tradition, Kuan Yin; the name means, “she who hears the cries of the world.”
In the representation that I have, Kuan Yin is seated on a human hand. The hand represents action, and I’m inspired to think that something I can do can actually create enough space to adequately hold my sadness. At certain points in my life this seemed impossible. But the practice of yoga and meditation does create more space in the experience of consciousness so a person can hold much more than once seemed possible. And I now find myself in a place where I can hear other people’s sadness, too.

I’m also inspired to think that this representation might also suggest that humanity has the ability to hold it’s sorrows in this troubled world.

It’s not from the intellect that one can do the kind of listening I’m talking about here, it is from the heart. In the heart I’m convinced that there is adequate space to hear all cries. To me, Kuan Yin represents the listening heart. This kind of listening is not trying to fix anything. Heart listening is acceptance.

The yoga mat can also represent this, an open and accepting space where feeling-states can safely come up. Metaphorically speaking, the yoga space can have the ears and heart of Kuan Yin, who hears an individual’s sorrow, as well as all of humanity’s sorrow. Suffering is bigger than any individual. This reminds me that I am not alone, and that my emotions are a natural part of the path.

In yoga, there is a call for me to expand beyond my woe-is-me story line. Yoga gives me tools for enlarging my consciousness, and with that the sense of who I am.

I have a story, but who I am is bigger than that. And how I express who I am is a creative project.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Judgmental Goliath

“Suspecting that perhaps (s)he is incapable of getting rid of these innumerable images, (s)he has created a super-image, and to that image (s)he has become a slave, therefore (s)he is not free.”
-J. Krishnamurti, The Awakening of Intelligence
(gender inclusiveness added by me)

In my neighborhood, today, I saw a bouncy blonde woman walking down the street dressed as a garish brauhaus maid, wearing an extremely short crinolined skirt and carrying a bunch of yellow balloons that were buoyantly traveling with her. “Would you like a balloon for your baby?” she said to a man nearby. Some teenage girls asked if they could have some. To which she replied, “Yes, if you promise to tell people that I am selling real estate.”

Further down the way I saw five children holding these same yellow balloons, that I now noticed had a big black logo on them. Each child in his or her own time was saying, “Look at mine!” Which seemed so perplexing to me because I was seeing them as exactly the same, and as marketing swag. So I looked closer, and I saw that some of the children were standing at different heights, one on the stairs of one building, one on the stairs of another, with hands holding the balloon’s string as high as they could make them go. A little girl on the grass said, “look at mine!” excitedly. And then with a note of disappointment, “It almost touches the sky.” It was as if she felt that the children who were holding there balloons higher up were a little better than her.
In the above quote Krishnamurti is observing a mental conundrum. When a person believes everything the mind serves up, sometimes we end up feeling bad falsely like the small girl on the grass, and sometimes we might feel good falsely like the children able to hold their balloons higher up. When they really are all holding identical balloons, and the way they hold them doesn’t make them better or worse children. Yet I noted disappointment and shame in the little child who felt her balloon wasn’t as good, and pride and enthusiasm in the children standing on the stairs. They had established a mental framework amongst themselves that they could measure the worth of their respective balloons. This framework created an illusion that one child’s balloon was better than another—the ones “closer to the sky” were better.

A person’s upbringing and culture helps to create similar illusions. The mind creates it’s own complicated logic based on an individual’s experience. And it works well for covering survival needs, like knowing what food to eat, and getting adequate warmth and shelter, even technology and the scientific method. But where it fails miserably is in relationships. The mind thinks it knows what it doesn’t.

As an example I’m sharing a relationship I have with myself, and just like the little girl from the opening story I tend to judge myself falsely. I too allow a framework of thought (mine has been slowly established over the course of my life) to affect how I feel about myself. This framework is the “image to which I have become a slave” from the opening quotation, and I think of it almost like a thought-monster: the “super-image”.

There are times I feel like I live under a giant dome of decisions that have already been made (it represents how I “should” be). These decisions, based on past experience, are frozen into an immense image that hovers over a “me” that is very small, and doesn’t measure up very well to the perfection of the image (of course I am describing a psychological space here). And when I fail to fulfill my expectations I feel wounded inside, almost as if the super-image has lasers that attack my sense of well-being.

I measure myself against this perfect and false super-me, and in this process of comparison I hurt myself. And what does this false “me” look like? She is married, has two kids, a normal career, and had a good and healthy childhood upbringing. This image is far from my life right now so for me my super-image becomes a stepford-wife style robot with guns. This giant she-bot doesn’t even have qualities that I like about myself. So why do I allow this image to rule? Why do I do this when this image is so far from the realities of my life in the present moment? Keeping my eye on the robot, instead of my current situation keeps me stuck. So, again, why does this image get so much power?

Well, when I feel like a victim of my past, it is very easy to see how this King Kong sized judgment-machine can dominate the little “me” who can’t help it. My image is also about cultural norms. And my image comes to me from my family. This image also comes from allowing my primary focus to be on what others think, instead of looking to see my contribution, and really creating what fits for me with my life. Very powerful is this image that has been built up over time.

In reference to the opening quote I do have a choice, even if I don’t always know it. I can let the ogre super-image monster keep me in a state of perpetual torture and servitude. Or I can begin to see differently. I can start to take responsibility for how I relate to the images, thoughts, and stories in my mind. I can take the time to understand how my mind operates, and from that experience I can learn how to use the blessed gift of mind.

Now I know that I don’t really want to be the image from my past, so I can begin to honor my life as it is. And I can learn to appreciate the magical moment we call “now.”

“My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.”
-Swami Kripalu/Carolyn Delluomo