We can move our bodies. We can shape our bodies. Just as I can refine an intellectual position through observation, research, learning, and reflection, I have the ability—indeed, it is my birthright—to refine my bodily position. Through this movement, through this project, I can actively receive, with much less static and opposition, the Divine—or, as it is termed in the Gita: Cosmic Nature. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s hard work! My tailbone really loves to jut out.
It is clear that the body seeks to be aligned—it isn’t simply for symmetry with itself, but with the Self. Imagine you are given the most beautiful orchid—would you force it into a pot that strangles its stem and crushes its flower? This is what I do to ‘my’ Self, my soul, my connection to Cosmic Nature when I contort the body—(voluntarily! I’ve voluntarily sent myself to Dante’s hell!!)—and strangle the spine.
Tantra, after all, is using the body to transcend the body. It is our Nature.
Therefore, let us begin a gradual and mindful untangling. I am inviting you, whomever you are who is also seeking communion, and I am calling—with steady devotion—for the inner guru to reveal to each step that guides the unfolding.
I’d like to share my practice with you. Perhaps you might share your practice with me. Together we might create a virtual ashram and support our own each other’s efforts to achieve union.
Paradoxically, the direct path to Divine Union—if we are to follow the ashtanga (eight-fold) Yoga—begins with the restraints: Yamas and Niyamas. Restraint requires mindfulness, it does not necessarily mean holding back in a negative sense by pushing our impulses deep into the back our minds or the pit of the gut. It is a conscious redirection of the impulses, tendencies, thoughts, and habit patterns so that they work in service of the Self rather than tossing you around as a fool while simultaneously strangling the Self. By practicing the restraints we gradually pull back the veil concealing the Self.
How might we begin to embody the principle of ahimsa (non-harming)? I would love to hear your thoughts. Hari Om Tat Sat.
“We see that in our daily lives that every one of us influences the world around us to a lesser or greater degree….We are continually influencing others and being influenced by others.” ( Swami Tyagananda-ji in What Ramakrishna Taught). Listen to the podcast here: 01 What Ramakrishna Taught
The more refined our skills of observation, the deeper our practice, the more thorough our recognition will be. It is easy to lose sight–to forget–just how much we influence one another. Sadly, far too often, our violences exceed in number and frequency the peaceful contributions we make to our environments.
The first step of the Raja Yoga path is ahimsa: non-harming. I’ve written about this before and pointed to B.K.S. Iyengar’s great quote “Why do you think of the violence of the world? Why don’t you think of the violence in you?” ( The Tree of Yoga). And so, we might sit, and embark on this courageous and transformative inquiry.
Push up your sleeves, and get in your brain. Listen to your thoughts, listen to others, and listen to your environment. Reflect on your thoughts, interactions, and sensations. Ask yourself what have you done today to contribute more violence to the world, and what have you done to contribute peace.
The past several months have been fruitful and there is an increasing hunger in me to listen, reflect, and meditate. I would like to share with you some ideas that have inspired me during this time that I’ve not been publishing my thoughts.
“Vedanta asks you always listen, reflect, and meditate; this is a necessary for living a spiritual life.”
Swami Chetanananda mentioned this several weeks ago during one of his Sunday talks.
As I listened, and reflected, and meditated I came to realize that I was splintering my attention and energy. Around the same time I came across a blog post that gave simple but practical advice on how to focus your energy in order to unveil your purpose, life’s work, or as the article itself articulated it, work that ‘suits you.’ The writer suggested to spend some time in reflection and inquiry in an effort to identify the three elements that matter most to you and to then make a Venn diagram with each element listed in one of the three circles. I came up with this:
I printed the image and hung it on my refrigerator. Every day, several times a day I look into the center of that diagram and it feels as if I am plugging into an infinite source of energy, inspiration, and awakening. The more I focus on the center, the more I seem to notice or make connections that bring me into closer contact with that center. For example,
“At the heart of all practice lies noticing: noticing an opportunity to act appropriately. To notice an opportunity to act requires three things: being present and sensitive in the moment, having a reason to act, and having a different act come to mind.” John Mason
“Now, as never before, all of education needs to be concerned about the question of what it is to be human and how formal curriculum can facilitate the exploration of that question so as to prepare learners to participate in social change, political economic reconstruction, cultural transformation, and consciousness” Betty Reardon (my emphasis)
and perhaps most radically, here is a statement taken from Dale Snauweart’s presentation Cosmopolitan Ethics and Being Peace in which he states that learning requires:
“various techniques of awakening to one’s one Self-awareness.”
I am grateful for this Union. Hari Om Tat Sat.
If you were to make a similar diagram, which three elements would you choose?
Each soul is potentially Divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature: external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy–by one, or more, or all of these–and be free.
All of Green Acre, where this photograph was taken, is suffused with a Divine energy. This past August I was lucky enough to join a retreat with the Boston Ramakrishna Vedanta Society at Green Acre. It’s the kind of place that makes you walk more slowly, deliberately, and openly with no added effort. My face was made softer, my mind relaxed, and my heart inspired.
These days it is so easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of noise, movement, information, demands for our time, attention, and efforts. How can we maintain our balance when it is so difficult to find time?
My husband has a tendency to take ‘experimental short-cuts’ whenever we are in a hurry. In situations that require the greatest efficiency in terms of travel, he choses to experiment at the risk of getting lost. In fact, it used to drive my batty but gradually I began to realize the wisdom in his approach: Especially in times of high stress do your best to work against habit. The clock will keep on ticking, the tasks will continue piling up, but without a strong spiritual foundation it is all just debris.
My little practice for now is to remember to nourish that foundation, even if it is for just a few minutes each day.
What happens, asks Swami-ji, when you suddenly realize that years and years of your life have passed before you realize that you have forgotten. Lost track of who you are, who you intend to be, what you value most. Somehow, life takes on a momentum of its own and you are no longer driving but just getting pulled along. You might even regularly say out loud how stressed out you feel, how unhappy you are, and feel as if your life is simply not yours.
Listen here to his inspiring talk about Looking Forward Looking Back.
Today I met the most courageous young man. He walked into ByteWORKS (an organization for which I volunteer) and asked if he could take a class, volunteer, or just hang out and learn. He told me that he is now “Turning my life around” and that he is interested in learning and not wasting his time getting into trouble and hanging out in the streets. I could see the pain, fear, and humility in his eyes and was relieved that I had baked some homemade chocolate chip cookies the night before. I offered him a cookie as he filled out an application for an upcoming computer class.
“It takes enormous courage in life to say ‘I am responsible'” says Swami-ji. But once we do pull together the courage and might to recognize that we indeed have the choice to drive our own lives, “nobody in this world has the power to take away our own joy, peace, and contentment.” The thing is, we too often pitch ourselves at fate and move through the days mechanically and single-handedly, mindlessly, destroy our own well-being. Create a mess of our own lives. We forget. Who is driving?
“When our lives lack mindfulness, our lower nature gets the better of us and we behave in a way that destroys rather than heals. Destroys our own happiness and unconsciously we do things against our own self interest without even realizing it.” (Swami Tyagananda-ji).
You know, I told that young man, you are way ahead of me. I was a late bloomer too. The fact that I am responsible for my own life and happiness didn’t even begin to dawn on me until I was twenty-five and frankly, the notion continues to unfold in my consciousness. This man, this courageous young man, is going to shine. He has had the guts to say “I am responsible” and there is no doubt that he will be Rightly Guided.
Does this story remind you of anything?
It’s often said that those with whom we have the most conflict, annoyance, and challenges are our greatest teachers. Those individuals who really just scratch at us for reasons we just can’t articulate only to realize a bit down the road–if we’re lucky–that what was really crazy-making was the reflection of our own weakness. Reflections are not the only source of learning and teachers as reflectors/deflectors are not the only teachers. We also come across those individuals who are boiling pots of karma and although avoiding those individuals is often the best choice there are also instances in which taking a detour is simply not an option. What to do when you find yourself pitched into another’s boiling pot of karma?
There’s a particular person in my life who fits this bill. For the sake of young innocents painfully and unwillingly embroiled in the wrath, I am desperately searching for ways to create peace in the pot and to protect us all from the violence. Negotiation is consistently rejected: emails are ignored, phone calls refused, and even in the midst of a face-to-face meeting the pot simply refuses to even look in my direction. I’ve tried japa, prayer, and meditation–and I do believe they’ve helped a bit–but the pot is still boiling and spitting at anyone or anything that steps near. I’ve tried, and I’m still trying, to cultivate compassion for the pot because it must MUST be suffering terrifically to produce such vitriol, such negativity, such violence. The pot’s energy is so filled with rage that a necessary phone call (even if I’m only in the room while another is conversing with the pot) causes my heart to pound thunderously as if it’s summoned all force to blow through my ribs and out of my body.
What to do? How to deal? What little practice can possibly tame this shrew?
Searching, I came across a podcast by Swami Tyagananda-ji about Karma Yoga. In it he says:
“We ought not to hate anyone. This world will always continue to be a mixture of good and evil. Our duty is to sympathize with the weak and to love even the wrongdoer. The world is a grand moral gymnasium, wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger and stronger spiritually. So, eliminating hatred from the heart is one of the central practices of Karma Yoga.” (download the podcast here: Karma Yoga)
What happens when we experience muscle failure?
The exercise is to consistently practice to respond kindly, to make a relentless effort to forgive, to continue to cultivate compassion even in the midst of an attack. And, personally, I will fail but I will try and try more as long as it takes. However, the suffering that it most painful is that which is felt by the little ones and it just breaks my heart that karma knows no age. If I were to be struck by God embodied in a tremendous bolt of lighting I would hope to walk away burnt to such a Divine crisp that I could immolate the suffering of others–particularly the kids’.
I am practicing with full force to get struck with that bolt of pure love but I’d settle for the pot to stop its boiling.
Om eim klim Kali-ye svaha.
Hari Om tat sat.
Long ago I had a book about Raja Yoga. If I remember correctly it was about Raja Yoga…I have a tendency to remember the smallest details of books I’ve read. The author and title will remain irretrievable but I will remember very vividly a detail I found tucked inside the text. (Indeed, till this day—my friend Roger recently reminded me—I’m still asking him whether he read that Milan Kundera novel, the one with the blue pill.)
Inside that little Yoga book there was an exercise to strengthen one’s concentration, which in turn would help prepare her to move on to deeper stages of meditation. The practitioner was asked to choose an object—any object, it could be material, emotional, abstract—but only one to concentrate on with one-pointed focus. For example, suggested the text, imagine a pencil. It went on (I’m sorry I don’t remember the name of the book!), hold the pencil in your mind and explore it in its entirety. Mentally rotate the image of the pencil. Focus completely on the…crap, I forgot to do my geometry homework, I really like Chrissy Ambrose’s hair, ugh, I need a haircut, oh I don’t like that place down the street, I wish we could go somewhere else…ten minutes later: “Has anyone seen my pencil?”
Noise matters. It sounds impossible, perhaps daft, maybe obvious or even irrelevant but I’ve come to decide that noise really does matter.
Monkey mind monkey mind monkey mind we meditate to train the monkey mind. Sit and you will find peace and quiet. What? I can’t hear you the monkeys are making so much noise!
Stay there, the noise matters.
It is not the content of the noise—what the noise is saying, imaging, or emoting. Of course, you can watch it—practice watching it because it matters.
It was many many years later when I sat again for meditation. This time it was called “meditation” and I sat with small group of Yogis and our teacher. He had a lovely padmasana! So nice! So comfortable! Such a comfortable seat! And then I closed my eyes and it was not like putting my hand in the fire, it was putting my face in the fire. Smudge; there go my eyebrows, aye, and the pain. My eyes were stinging, my joints were howling, my entire body was filled with a restlessness so deep it took every bit of will power I could muster, peer pressure, and a heavy dose of Grace to keep my seat…although it was not a comfortable one.
Eh? I thought you practiced asana? Where’s your comfortable seat?
The noise matters, watching the noise matters, and at times you uncover a knot. Holy moly, you suddenly realize, dispassionately and with a calm heart, I have this very bad habit of (fill in your annoying/destructive/aggressive/violent/counterproductive habit or thinking pattern here) and because of that I am hurting myself and others. Here’s the place to do your best to have compassion for yourself but recognize that you’ve been given—by the Grace of such noise—a little practice. Okay, I admit, they are often incredibly deep, ongoing, and challenging practices but just remember in the context of multiple lives (wink) it’s not so big.
Recently, I was on a retreat with the Boston Ramakrishna Vedanta Society. We sat for meditation twice a day for at least one hour each sitting. Both swamis were incredibly inspiring and the entire time throughout the retreat—almost the entire time—I felt lifted, entranced, close and closer to the Source, except when we sat for meditation. Good lord, when we sat for meditation it was as if I had been dropped into Cairene traffic during Ramadan just before iftar (breaking the fast). Noise pollution, restlessness, hunger, thirst, physical pain, mental pain, wait…what? Are there spiritual ‘muscles’ to condition…?
The strange thing is…lately, when I sit down I find a bar of intense yet soft light that holds my focus and holds me close. It is becoming more clear that at some point, after all that noise, the hunger to sit with that light will become stronger and stronger until it is impossible to blow off, always worth ‘the trouble,’ and sitting with that noise—that sharp-edged noise—becomes the smallest effort. As they say in Cairo—enshallah (God willing), but also you willing. So will you sit down?
I once met a traveler in India, who told me about a powerful experience he had while trekking in Nepal. He was walking and walking and walking for days. The environment was gorgeous, peaceful, and welcoming. However, he noticed–after several days walking along like this on his own–that despite the fact that there was no-one else around to ruffle him, and although the environment itself was serene and inviting, his mind continued to bounce among various moods, orientations, and so on. At one hour he would feel at peace, calm, and focused. At another hour he would feel absolutely wound up–panicked even. He recognized the fluctuations and started reflecting on them, wondering, what is there to disturb my mood? I’m alone in this beautiful place.
He then realized that he was in the habit of assigning shifts in his inner life—moods, musings, thoughts—to events taking place outside of himself. What then, does it mean, if this round and round continues to unfold when those outside influences have been reduced?
I’m reminded of three things at once: Iyengar’s teaching “Why do you think of the violence of the world? Why don’t you think of the violence in you?” (Tree of Yoga); Vivekananda’s insight that responsibility is the key to freedom, “nothing” he says “makes us work so well, at our best and highest, as when all the responsibility is thrown upon ourselves” (“The Freedom of the Soul in Jnana Yoga, p. 120); and, it reminds me of pratyahara—sense withdrawal.
Yes, our environment can shape and influence us. We know this to be true. What is less often recognized or focused on is the fact that we can passively accept external pressures and allow them to dictate our moods, our thoughts, our minds—and our bodily health as well—or we can assume responsibility and work as a gatekeeper observing what is and choosing what we internalize, where we put ourselves, and most importantly how we respond to our environment.
Right, it’s not my intention to give the impression that I’ve achieved this! Though, I will say this: Just last week I was finally able to unpack my suitcases—after a four-month period of being in-between places during which my husband and I moved from our house in Japan, to a hotel in Japan, to my parents house in New Jersey for a visit, to a campground in Maine where I attended a retreat with the Boston Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, back to New Jersey for another week with my parents, and finally to a new flat in St. Louis.
Once we arrived in St. Louis and all the rushing about slowed considerably, I found myself standing at the sink washing dishes and watching my thoughts. There, I found a restlessness and a deep feeling of alienation, psychic pain, and anxiety. Suddenly, I am in the United States—my home country—yet I feel like a foreigner. Now, I panicked, there is no reason to not achieve this, that, this other thing, this of course and don’t forget that…and on and on went the loop until—like a flash of brilliant luck—I remembered the lessons from Iyengar-ji, Vivekananda-ji—and that traveler I had met in India: I am responsible for my own life, my own happiness, my own mind. And a peace came over me and I continued quietly—inside—washing the remaining dishes.
This post is dedicated to Tania.
The title is taken from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Tonight I can Write the Saddest Lines.” Oh, I adore Pablo Neruda but this post is more about forgetting and how it relates to learning, integration, and the degree to which we maintain an open heart that has the capacity to contain our many experiences.
Culture shock, in my experience, is one of the most powerful teachers there is. And with the heart in mind already, it will do to conjure an image of one’s heart shaken by the shock of new rules, familiar rules made useless, new language, new environments, definitions of space and time pushed aside and replaced with new definitions of time and space. As the brain and the heart are shaken about there is a tendency to close in on oneself in an effort to protect one’s programming, one’s home culture’s preferences and modes of thinking. It is easy to miss that Golden Thread that runs through all cultures, all religions, all that is human when we hunker down into the familiar.
Many have held up forgetting as a necessary means for learning. Although I do understand the necessity of unlearning, I don’t know that forgetting–permanently forgetting–is ultimately beneficial. What the heck is inspiring this left-field musing, you might be asking yourself. Well, let me tell you.
This morning I was looking through a handful of photographs that I had taken in Cairo, while I was living there. As I looked through them I was shocked to realize that I had forgotten the poverty. So much of my thinking about Cairo and Egypt in general was related to the difficulty that I experienced while living there–that relentless feeling of being under siege….In the end, I walked away with an enormous bruise on my heart that arose not from the pummeling blows of culture shock but by the darkness cast by my own forgetting. So busy with my own experiences, I failed to contain the conditions, sufferings, and perspectives of others. So many others. It’s not just me and it’s not just you. There are billions of us, each with our own story.
Just as I practice imagining that the space in my mind is infinite as the universe, I endeavor to practice cultivating a heart that is just as vast. For in it, I hope to contain all of humanity and to never become so focused on my personal details so selfishly that I forget these:
What is the little practice? An effort to remember in order to lengthen and expand the love that is too often so brutally clipped by forgetting.
I’d love to hear from you! Please share your ideas in the comment box and talk back to the blog.
A few days ago I found myself in the eye (or perhaps more accurately the “I”) of a collision of memories, impulses, habit patterns, and a generous dollop of Grace. It hurt like hell and I’m ever-grateful for the dollop. Although, like many of the other aha moments, this increased vision expanded my consciousness it certainly didn’t clean up the mess. What I mean is this: It seems that many of us are waiting for that moment, that event, that teacher, that idea to show up in our lives, tap our foreheads, and clear the path. Maybe. Maybe it does happen. But I’m no longer placing my bets on the waiting.
When I was younger I was completely enamored with a poem by Theodore Roethke called “The Waking.” Just like Miro paintings, which I would stare at for ages in a wordless, idea-less state, I didn’t really ‘understand’ the poem but something very deep inside of it connected to something very deep inside of me. And so, I copied it over and over in the front of every notebook, on the back of my textbooks which were covered with a protective layer of brown paper bag, and in letters to friends.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
How does this relate to the aha moment? Let me explain. Overcome by a sense of deep restlessness (or a longing displaced by the myriad distractions in my mind…and so, saucha indeed relates to cleanliness and space in the physical and mental environments), I began to clean the house from top to bottom. As I was going from room to room, I watched my mind and the multitude of memories, feelings, notions that were arising. It felt as if an enormous wave was pulsing upward and overtaking me. Finally, something broke and I realized plainly: I am responsible for my own happiness. And then, immediately after: I am terrified to assume that responsibility.
Ugh. Now what?
“This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.” Indeed, the shaking does keep me steady as it becomes more readily apparent–in fact, undeniable–that the only viable option is to take my waking slow. To do so, I remind myself of Patanjali’s sutra (and one of my favorites): The practice of the perfect discipline is achieved in stages.
“What falls away is always. And is near”; all those moments one would like to forget may fall away from consciousness but they remain near and they guide us–for better or worse. To take the waking slow I must encounter them each and ask, as Swami Tyagananda has suggested, “What is it that you are trying to teach me?”
On the flip side, we can also consider that although we might drop the Divine from our consciousness and focused intention, It remains always. And it remains near. It’s everywhere and always, it’s the light that takes the tree. (Could it be that Roethke was talking about the spine?)
There are so many questions in my mind. What is the distinction between happiness and contentment, for example. Contentment, it seems, is held in balance and denotes a quiet and thorough acceptance of what is. Happiness…must it always be the result of positive feedback from the external environment? The aha moment laid a deep impression in my mind that happiness comes–authentic happiness–only after one makes a decision to be happy. The trick is this: The degree to which you are capable of cultivating and maintaining a quiet and thorough acceptance of what is, determines the magnitude of your happiness. For some of you that equanimity and contentment may be easily achieved. As for the rest of us, we must take inventory of each of those snags (what haunts us, what infuriates us, what inspires fear and so on) and recognize the lesson it brings and steadily endeavor to integrate it. For this, I continuously return to the Science of Yoga. Lesson two is carrying on with vigor, courage, and perseverance.
Do you make a distinction between happiness and contentment? Is the search for ‘something’ (even religion) to grant us happiness one of the most formidable obstacles on the spiritual path? I would love to hear from you, please share your ideas in the comment box. ;-)