Monday, April 11, 2011
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, And his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That is the message he is sending. ~ Thich Nhat Han
The wave forgets the truth that it is ocean, thinking itself to be the grand shape, which it has temporarily taken. For a while, it takes on the rupa (form) of wave. Finally, it remembers its true rupa (form) of ocean. The two coexist, though one is true, and the other, though beautiful, is only relatively true. So too, we humans forget our true nature, but, through yoga, can remember. ~ Swami Jnaneshvara
The man equipped with yoga looks on all with an impartial eye, seeing Atman in all beings and all beings in Atmam. ~ Bhagavad Gita 6.29
I love the Big Island of Hawaii. I love the smell of night blooming jasmine, the sound of coqui frogs, the lilt of jawaiian music, the mangoes, passion fruit and soursop. More than anything, though, I love being in the middle of the pacific ocean , the constant presence of the sea, and the reminder that we are such small and inconsequential beings in the scheme of things. The ocean and its waves give countless metaphors and opportunities for learning, our relative tininess begs us to not take ourselves so seriously, to expand our ideas of right and wrong, and to lean into the big unknown. The ocean for me, a strong swimmer, is also a constant dare, a seductive companion that is always asking me to trust myself and to test my own courage, strength and wit.
When on the Big Island, my husband Sasha and I like to go to a particular beach, known for its crystal clear waters, its black sand, its friendly herd of spinner dolphins and its strong surf. We both enjoy the delight of watching the rhythm of the waves, the cautious and thoughtful entry of other swimmers, and the intrepid run into the surf, diving under at just the right moment, allowing ourselves to be tossed around, then coming up for air with a sense of triumph, exhilaration and delight. Sometimes though, the surf is not as friendly, not as forgiving and we find ourselves in a place that tests our confidence and endurance.
I have the great good fortune of having carved a life which includes trips to this particular beach, coupled with teaching yoga retreats at a beautiful non-profit retreat center just minutes away from it. My life also includes constant opportunities to test myself, my understanding of yoga, and the spiritual life to which I have committed. This month, I had the special opportunity to teach, swim and learn, within the context of the ample metaphors the sea provides and in my real life situations corresponding to directly to these images.
This trip so far, though beautiful and exciting, has also been quite full of emotion, frustration, confusion, anger and sadness. The surf has been tossing me around, and I have had moments where I doubted my ability to swim it. While in Hawaii, a difficult family situation consumed much of my energy and thought and tested my deepest reserves of love, compassion and clarity. I felt myself contracting and reacting, suffering, punishing and being punished. It was difficult to see the other with that impartial eye, to see that universal spirit referred to as Atman, especially in the murky scope of righteousness and superiority. In my initial, hurt and angry, view of this situation, I could see two distinct waves and no ocean to connect us. I could not be more different than the person who caused my suffering.
Every day in Hawaii, I would be consumed with this situation, and my mind was in a constant swirl of questioning and evaluating, devising and weighing responses and trade-offs. The best respites I could find were through teaching and swimming. One day, with a few hours of free time, Sasha and I headed to the beach to relax and reflect. The surf was crashing and there were several people on the beach just looking out at the ocean, not daring to jump in. With thoughts of abandon and cleansing, ignoring the size of the waves and the cautious assessment of the other swimmers, we ran in and dove under the biggest wave, a beach break, allowing it to carry us back out beyond the tumult and crashing of the surf. We swam around a bit, feeling triumphant and strong ~ we were the only ones that dared the waves.
After about ten minutes of being tossed around in the clear blue, I decided I was ready to go in. I waited for a wave to bring me in, but the next wave that came was so huge I couldn’t get on top of it and had to dive under just to stay where I was, neither going in nor being pulled any further out. Then it happened again, and again. I looked toward the beach and saw the others standing on the shore, I reached my feet as low as they could go but could not find the bottom. I turned back toward the sea just to see another huge wave coming toward me. Each time I tried to swim in, the surf would turn around and pull me further out. I caught Sasha’s eye and could tell in an instant that he too was struggling. “Don’t panic Molly; we’re going to make it in.” He reached out his hand and grabbed my wrist to pull me toward him. Just then another huge wave came pulling us both under, his hand that had just a moment before comforted me now seemed to be holding me under and I instinctively wrestled myself free to come up for air. Sasha was now about six feet in front of me, closer to the shore. “I’m scared Sasha. Someone is going to have to come get me. I can’t get in.” Sasha repeated calmly, although I could see the fear in his eyes, “Don’t panic. Swim when the waves move you toward the shore and don’t resist when they pull you back out. Conserve your energy. You are going slowly toward the shore, I promise.” Don’t resist? When I feel as though I am being pulled out to sea? And yet I had no choice. I was becoming increasingly fatigued and increasingly inwardly focused. Nothing mattered but getting in. Finally I saw Sasha touch the ground. The surf was so strong that even that didn’t mean a speedy exit, but I watched as he struggled against the waves, pulling him forcefully back in, and finally saw him reach the sandy beach, standing with whitewash up to his knees. A moment of security flooded me. He is in there, he can get help for me, or I can make it too. I returned all my thoughts and energy to myself, repeating Sasha’s instructions. “Swim in when it’s easy; let it take you when it’s pulling you away. You will eventually get in. Conserve your energy. Focus.”
I had a momentary thought of how terrible it would be for my students if their teacher drowned while leading their retreat, a moment of defeat ~ I really wasn’t as good a swimmer as I fancied myself ~ and then a moment of realization that I really was on my way in. Within the next several waves, I finally dragged myself out, to the encouragement and praise of people on the beach. I walked over to where Sasha lay exhausted on the black sand and dropped down beside him. We both looked out at the surf, noticing the sets getting smaller and easier, and finally the people on the beach running in when it was safe and splashing around with ease.
The man equipped with yoga looks on all with an impartial eye, seeing Atman in all beings and all beings in Atmam. ~ Bhagavad Gita 6.29
In my favorite translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Mahatma Gandhi acknowledges how difficult it is for us to really see others with an impartial eye. How difficult it is to see ourselves and others as both the wave and the ocean. In my mind, it is as difficult as swimming against a huge wave. We flail and flounder with great effort, only to meet resistance and exhaustion. Gandhi says, “The yogi is not one who sits down to practice breathing exercises. He is one who looks upon all with an equal eye, sees all creatures in himself. Such a one obtains moksha (liberation)….It is not easy to see all creatures in ourselves… we must see them in ourselves by seeing them and oneself in God….He is a true yogi who is happy when others are happy and suffers when others suffer. He alone may be said to be a person who has dedicated his all to God; but this is a difficult state to achieve.”
I understand Gandhi to mean that our practice of yoga is not what we do on our mats or in our yoga classes, but how we approach all of life, and especially those situations that challenge us. Much like swimming in the big surf, we must see that each wave is only that, a single wave, and that all waves belong to the more powerful force of the ocean itself. In this way, we really can see ourselves in others. To me this ocean is God, or an infinite opening of the heart to love and grace. It is easy to feel ourselves connected in this way when things are going our way, but so challenging to hold on to when we are faced with a spiritual or relational challenge. I think we all have the instinct to swim against that current, to push up against it, force requiring more force. But like my experience at the black sand beach, in fact we move with more ease, and in the direction we really want to go, when we do not resist what is challenging us, but swim mightily with the current of our spiritual lives.
Many years ago, in a workshop with Richard Miller on the deep meditative practice of yoga nidra, I recall him telling us, “Don’t be angry or irritated when someone snores, disrupting your practice, instead, thank them for their gift ~ they are bringing you back to awareness, waking you up to go more deeply into the practice. Offer gratitude, for gratitude is the soaring emotion.” I have repeated this phrase many times over the years, and it has helped me immensely in my yoga nidra practice. But what of the real life situations, where someone’s actions are causing us disturbance and anguish?
On our retreat in Hawaii, my students and I discussed the mission of The Samarya Center, and all its implications: To foster individual growth as a means to radical social transformation. Ah, but sometimes that individual growth is so hard. We miss multiple opportunities when we take a stand for one thing against another and delude ourselves into being only the wave, separate from the ocean. We discussed the wonderful work of yoga and social justice, and how noble and satisfied we feel when we lend our hands and our hearts to those in greatest need; children who have suffered abuse, victims of domestic violence, the homeless. But we also thought about how easy it is to forget the perpetrators, those who are the instigators of domestic violence, the abusers, and the oppressors. Don’t they too need our help? Does any of this happen in a vacuum? Are these people not a part of the ocean we all share? What if we could open our hearts to these people in the same way, and offer compassion and even gratitude, the “soaring emotion,” for igniting our continued spiritual awakening? What if, in fact, we were able to see all people who bother us, offend us, hurt us as people in the greatest need of our love and openness, if we did not resist our natural capacity for love, but moved with the current toward them when our hearts were the most open? This might require us swimming in the big surf, and yet, with practice, we gain confidence, strength and ultimately liberation from the fear of being washed away, despite our greatest efforts.
In my difficult family situation, I made many of the same mistakes I made while swimming. I saw myself as separate. I saw myself as both more and less powerful than I actually am. I jumped in without looking, without assessing the readiness of the person with whom I was engaged in conflict. I was ready to swim, but the ocean was not in any place to receive me safely. I wanted to move quickly, to change the course to my version of what seemed right, I pushed back when I felt I was being dragged away from the shore of my own center. And, like my situation in the surf, I became increasingly fatigued, confused and despairing.
But the big surf taught me how to navigate those errors. Don’t resist the push back. Let it flow over me. Respect the timing of others even if I don’t understand it. Move slowly and thoughtfully. Open myself to grace, and trust that with this light, space and intention, I will be held in safety and steadiness.
I got myself to shore. And I resolved, in my own heart, my family conflict. This does not mean that everything is the way I wanted or hoped it would be. It means only that by opening my heart, even when it is most difficult, I find the clarity and contentment that our yoga practice offers us as the reward for our dedication. I get to rest, easy, on the shores of my own heart. I find stillness and presence. And I have learned. And I am still learning.
I am glad I am a strong swimmer, because I get to tell my story ~ of challenge, fear and triumph ~ and hope it will touch or ignite something in all of you. But my swimming abilities come from practice, fearlessness and reflection on my most difficult situations in the water. It is the same with yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjuna complains to Krishna how hard it is to stay focused on our practice, and how “fickle, unruly, overpowering and stubborn” the mind is, Krishna responds, “Without self-restraint, yoga, I hold, is difficult to attain; but the self governed soul can attain it by proper means, if he strive for it.”
Practice is not always fun or easy. We love it when we get the results we want, when we are not asked to push ourselves too much. It is infinitely more difficult when we are presented with a challenge that takes us to the edge of our capacities. But with dedication, trust and thought, these challenges are the very opportunities to strengthen our practice, our hearts and our minds. We will always find our way safely back to shore.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Ishvara Pranidhana ~
surrender to God
"I wanna spread the news
Our final topic for this year is also the last Niyama, one of the ethical precepts in our yoga practice. According to Wikipedia, that vast and definitive tome of yoga knowledge, Ishvara pranidhana is "In it's simplest form, a combination of the words Ishvara, meaning Lord, God, Supreme Being or Life Force, and Pranidhana, meaning attention to, love for, surrender to, faith in, or reunion with. "Attentiveness" and "Surrender" are both close English approximations. A close literal English translation of Ishvara-Pranidhana would give "Attentiveness to God" or "Surrender to God."
Donna Farhi, a well known and respected Yoga scholar, in her book "Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit', says that the practice of Ishvara pranidhana requires that we take time to contemplate and be open to an intelligence larger than ourselves (ourselves being our small I or personal ego) and that, 'ultimately, Ishvara pranidhana means surrendering our personal will to this intelligence so that we can fulfill our destiny'.
I have often said, in the past nine years, that only since I started The Samarya Center did I really and truly understand and believe in the presence of God in my life. I have seen again and again how, when we trust in God, or the Universe, or the supreme, or the divine, whatever we might name it, and when we work for the greater good of all beings, that we are nurtured and supported in every way. I have seen this in myself, in my students, in our community and in The Samarya Center itself. There has been a divine mystery constantly unfolding that has helped us to weather storms and increase our ability to offer goodness to a world so much in need. In truth, I became so trusting in this mysterious presence, that in some ways, I stopped working for it or worrying about it at all, both within The Samarya Center and within my own life.
I have not always been that way. In fact, I have been quite the opposite. I have always been a person who has been fortunate enough to get many of the things I wanted, and always through, what I believed to be hard work and direct action. It never really occurred to me that this too was God's presence, but I have certainly been grateful that whatever spirit I was born with was one that had this great ability to get things done. It also never occurred to me that this ability was a gift from God, and that I could use it for something bigger than myself; I was always too busy using it to get things for me. I remember being in high school, and like all the good upper middle class suburban kids those days, loving the Grateful Dead. On one of their tours, they were playing Madison Square Garden, close to my parent's home, and before I was able to get a ticket, the show sold out. At about fifteen years old, I decided that I didn't need to buy a ticket, I would just get on the guest list. So I found out where the band was staying, asked myself which band member might get the least attention from fans (I won't tell you which one I decided that was), and called him up from his hotel lobby. We chatted for about five minutes, then he asked me if I was going to the show. I told him I didn't have a ticket and he asked me if I wanted to be on the guest list. Just like that. Later, when I was playing in bands, I decided I wanted my band to be in the annual and prestigious South by Southwest music conference. Knowing competition was stiff, I booked a flight to Austin, found out who the promoter was, got a lunch meeting with her, and talked my way into a Friday night slot. Later, a similar effort helped my band play our beloved Seattle Bumbershoot festival. And after that, without being a yoga teacher, or having had any experience at all in business, I decided to open a wellness center based on yoga in the Central District. This was perhaps the first time that I consciously decided that I could use my gift for action and results to actually help others, rather than for my own self-serving. I decided to apply for non-profit status, and through more perseverance and determination, was soon granted a 501 c 3. Then it seemed smart to create a teacher training so that I could share what I knew and believed in with others. It didn't even occur to me then that most people who start yoga teacher trainings have most likely been trained at being yoga teachers themselves. I was used to this hard work, and I was used to it paying off. And God had already started showing up. For real.
The Samarya Center started to become this incredible place of healing, community and outreach. I had never planned exactly that, but I began to see that God was ever more present in my life when I offered my gift of fire to serve a greater good. Soon, all of these amazing people, dedicated to love, inclusion and social justice started showing up. I had never thought of that. Frankly, I didn't even know people like that before The Samarya Center came into being. More and more it seemed that I just had to trust in God, and that whatever this universal and divine source was, its direction would guide me, all of us, into the future. I didn't have to do anything but trust. Then all of a sudden, things changed. Just before the holiday party, we found ourselves in a pretty serious financial situation that demanded immediate action and a plan. I felt paralyzed, scared and let down. We were doing great things. We were changing the world. We were mending hearts and uplifting lives. Why weren't we being taken care of?
The other night I was watching Barbara Walters interviewing Oprah. As much as Oprah is a part of our common cultural experience, I sometimes forget how amazing she is. Here is this person, from very harsh beginnings, who has become one of the most influential and richest people in the world. And not only is she rich, creative, and talented, she is also larger, black and a woman. And, she uses her money and her status to help others less fortunate than she. And she's constantly thinking of ways she can do more. In her interview she referenced a previous interview she did with Barbara Walters in the eighties (and by the way, they both look a lot better now!), where she stated that she believed she was meant to do great things. She talked about the incredible backlash she received from the media and the community. Who is this person saying she is so great? Why isn't she more humble? Who does she think she is? How can she say that God meant for her to do great things? What about the rest of us?
Oprah and Barbara didn't have to laugh at the irony of it all. Oprah clearly is great and she does great things. She told Barbara that she often thinks of the refrain from the Bill Withers song, "Use me until you use me up," and uses that very phrase in her prayers to God every day. Here is a person who recognizes her considerable gifts and guidance, and uses them to uplift others. She said that her faith in God guides and supports every thing she does, but I think we could also agree that Oprah works really, really hard. In her efforts to bring about positive change for others, Oprah has both joy and humility, not to mention an ever flowing stream of creativity and money.
See, that's the funny thing about Ishvara Pranidhana. We can surrender to God, we can ask God to use us, but we have to work too. In Yoga, it is the balance between Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana, also known in its totality as Kriya Yoga, and our topics of the last three months. We have to put in the effort, evaluate and assess the results of our efforts, and at some point let go our own holding. That's the surrender part. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is famously counseled to relinquish the fruits of his actions. In a commentary I love by Mahatma Ghandi, he explains this paradox. It's not that we completely don't care whether our work bears fruit, we do want to see the benefits of our efforts as they are directed towards important change. It's just that our attachment is not about what we, specifically, individually, receive from our actions, or what that return might look like.
We started this year with the topic of Ahimsa, and in that newsletter I shared the beginning of my journey toward parenthood. Over the year, I shared with you, my beloved community, my struggles, my losses and my own letting go. I guess in that case, I did do the work, and I also let go. I didn't just leave it up to God, but I also didn't blame or think God wrong when my plans didn't turn out as I wished. It's fitting to me, that our final topic of this year is surrender to God, as if it had always been the plan to start with the intention and end with the letting go. We have a longing, and that longing may remain as part of our call to action, and may even remain if our work doesn't produce the desired result. But we trust too, that there is some divine mystery about our reason for being, the path of our lives, and how we worked towards fulfilling our own purpose, using the unique gifts we each were given. We trust that our gifts will truly serve in ways perhaps yet unimagined by us.
I think again about Oprah's words, quoting Bill Withers. "Use me until you use me up." To me, this really is what this dedication, attentiveness, or faith in God is really all about. We can allow ourselves to be the vessels for God's work, and we can add our own work to it. We claim our power, we channel our gifts without apology, we turn down the voices of the naysayers, and we attune more deeply to whatever we understand to be the presence of God in our lives, whatever we want to call it or however we experience it. We each have the capacity for that, and we certainly don't have to be "great," or "famous." We only have to open ourselves to our own purpose, and work to be the very best we can at that. It is in this opening that we find fulfillment in our lives, and fulfill our own dharma. Although I am particularly inspired when I see famous people like Oprah, Bono, Michael Franti, Bill Gates, Sean Penn, to name just a few, who use their considerable platform of fame and money to offer all they possibly can to help alleviate suffering, particularly in a world where we so highly value the vapid and self-serving, especially among the rich and famous, I also know that we can do this by being the best parent, the kindest person, the most dedicated learner, the most humble and inspiring teacher, whatever we feel truly is our life's work and calling. We use every gift we have, we let God "use us," and we offer that to contribute goodness to our fellow beings and to the world.
For my part, work has definitely kicked back in to the equation. As soon as I realized we needed some very creative thinking to keep our great center thriving, I started to brainstorm all of the possibilities. One thing that came to me was that maybe I could somehow meet Michael Franti, a Samarya Center musical favorite, who is also a yogi and social activist, and tell him about our little gem in the Central District. I told my staff I would meet him and get us on his radar. For the first time since my previous forays into the world of music and rock stardom, I wanted to meet this person not for me, but because I truly believed that somehow meeting him might plant a seed that could help The Samarya Center and all of the people it serves. So I wrote to a bunch of people, explored and used all my resources, including trust, and ended up meeting him. Next time you see Michael Franti, don't be surprised if you see him wearing an "unfold" tee-shirt.
The Samarya Center continues to be a manifestation of this powerful combination of effort and surrender. I have learned, again, that it's not just work, and it's not just trust, but it is the magical alchemy between the two that allow us to channel God's presence and to create the changes we wish to see, in ourselves, in our communities and in the world. In this season of gift giving, consider that truly embracing and embodying the gift of yourself, your unique talents and skills, your openness to mystery, and your attention to divine presence, might be the very greatest gift of all.
~ with much love and light in this holiday season and always ~ molly
Not familiar with Michael Franti's music?
Click here for a very Samarya-esque introduction.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
This month’s topic, svadhyaya, or self-inquiry, in many ways is the foundation for all of the other yamas and niyamas. We can’t have ahimsa, non-violence, without self-inquiry. We can’t have santosha, contentment, without self-inquiry. It is only through our own self knowledge that we are able to practice satya, truthfulness. It is only through self awareness that we are able to practice aparigraha, non-grasping. Truly knowing and acknowledging our deepest selves, “the good, the bad and the ugly,” is the only way to create real and lasting change in ourselves, in our relationships, in our communities and in our world. So we might even say that svadhyaya is at the heart of The Samarya Center’s mission statement: fostering individual change as a means to radical social transformation. Svadhyaya, self-study, is a necessary practice for individual, and hence community or global change to be achieved.
It is important to note that svadhyaya is not just about this kind of self-awareness. Although at The Samarya Center, we focus heavily on this ability to know our part in a conflict, or to accept our faults, or to celebrate our many strengths and put them to good use, svadhyaya is also the concept of self-knowledge in terms of self-realization, or self-knowledge as God realization, “knowing our own true nature.” It also refers to “study” as in study of the scriptures and spiritual texts to gain insight and reflection into our Self as part of the divine cosmology. Contemporary yoga writer Judith Hanson Lasater describes svadhyaya as “more than just mental clarity. It is the deep acknowledgment of the oneness of Self with all that is. In other words, to practice svadhyaya is to begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness we feel from ourselves, those around us, and our world. To practice svadhyaya is to find God in the person standing in front of us at this very moment.”
I have been thinking a lot about this concept at all of its many levels. I have been noticing how often we hold on to an idea, or a grudge, or an insecurity, simply by choosing to not be self-aware, and to deny or defend the very actions that cause us pain and suffering. Here is a recent story from my own experience.
Back in October, I attended a five day yoga workshop in
On the very first day of the workshop I became anxious about the content and the process. I didn’t really want to do partner exercises, I didn’t want to do group sharing, and I was having a hard time feeling articulate and interested. When I did do a bit of group and partner processing, I felt misunderstood, misrepresented and frustrated. I was ready to leave the workshop, staying only because I had already paid for it, but I made a deal with myself, still being in “tapas month” mode. I would stay and I would keep a positive attitude. I would sit up front by the teacher and focus on his teachings, and be kind and generous with myself when I felt myself becoming separate. I decided that was my tapas, to keep recommitting, keep showing up, and keep learning. I was proud of my super yogic ability to turn my bad attitude around. I even exchanged some pleasantries with the person sitting next to me. I began to relax and soak in the teaching. That’s what I had come for.
The workshop was a typical American yoga workshop set-up. Everyone had their mats on the floor, sitting on blankets or with back-jacks, intermittently stretching their legs or moving around to adjust their positioning. The teacher stood in front of us and lectured. On this particular morning, I had pulled up all of my emotional and physical reserves and sat down in front and slightly to the right of the teacher. I was feeling fragile but determined. As the teacher began to speak, I became engrossed in the teachings, and was starting to feel a deeper sense of peace and belonging than I had on any of the days prior. I kept my eyes on the teacher as I stretched my legs out in front of me. Suddenly, the woman to my right tapped me on the shoulder. “How unusual,” I thought, “she’s trying to get my attention right in the middle of the lecture.” I leaned over to her, still trying to stay focused on the teacher. She whispered, “In our tradition…” before she said anymore I thought, “oh, she just wants to share a thought she’s having about her practice,” and although I wished she hadn’t interrupted the teacher to tell me, I leaned in to listen to what she had to say. “In our tradition, we don’t point our feet toward the teacher, so you may want to cover your feet.” BAM! I was taken out of every tiny bit of peace I had mustered and sent careening into defensiveness, irritation, judgment, anger and vindication. I just looked at her and said, “No thanks,” then stretched my legs out even further. In that moment, I was instantly back in the 5th grade, but I didn’t care. She was not going to tell me what to do. My mind reeled, “In my tradition, we mind our own business,” “In my tradition, we prioritize non-harming over schooling a total stranger,” “In my tradition, we don’t interrupt our teacher to try to tell another student what to do,” and on and on, and trust me, those are only the PG comebacks that whirled like dervishes through my head. I couldn’t focus. I kept thinking about the woman and her comment. I felt like I was oozing anger, and I felt like I was going to cry. Move my feet? Then she’ll think I’m doing it because she told me to. Don’t move my feet? Then the teacher will think I am disrespecting him, or someone else will tell me again. “I know more about YOUR tradition then you will ever know,” “Your tradition is some dumb Indian thing you are trying to co-opt to make yourself feel legitimized,” even, “I don’t like your mat, or that shirt that you are wearing.”
I managed to make it through the lecture, but carried my anger and insecurity through the asana practice, and on into lunch. I called my snarky support team to tell them of this great injustice that had been heaped upon me. I thought of even more and better comebacks. When we came back from lunch, I managed to not look at the offender. When she tried to engage me, I just ignored her. While I smiled and acted friendly with others, I made sure she knew that we were not friends. It felt really good. Not. But at least I was sticking up for myself. Sort of? I felt surrounded and infused with reactive, even hostile energy. It didn’t feel good, but I didn’t know how to make it stop.
In meditation, the image of a still lake is often offered for the quality of mind we are trying to cultivate. I have heard, and used, this image on many occasions. Meditation is certainly one of the practices that might help us to develop svadhyaya. We might say that emotions, thoughts, reactions, are all things that keep us swirling in confusion or illusion - these are like the ripples and waves on the lake. As we cultivate stillness, we get to more clearly see the “bottom of the lake,” or the still point in ourselves, the place in us that is able to be objective, non-judgmental, and reflective. In Yoga, this is our true nature.
On a recent morning in meditation, the image of a lake came to me spontaneously. But this time, I saw the lake that I actually know the best - the lake where my family has a summer house, and where I spent all of my summers growing up. This lake is of the “On Golden Pond” variety, quiet, remote and peaceful. I started to see myself as that lake, but in that image, I didn’t see just stillness. I also saw the activity on the lake, which more often than not consists of things like loons and kayaks. I thought about how the kayaks, like our thoughts, come into our vision in such a quiet and stealth way. They slip through the water, and then they’re gone, moving swiftly and silently. Sometimes thoughts are like that. They seem to come out of nowhere and then they disappear. If we wait long enough, we will surely see the kayaks come back around. So the lake remains very still, even though it has movement and activity. Then I thought of the loons. They are quiet and stealthy too, but they move very differently. They just emerge up out of the lake, then sit, as if they’ve always been there. Sometimes they are silent, sometimes they call out, sometimes their calls are answered. The calls can be loud and have a sense of urgency, or they can be haunting and isolated. Similarly, our thoughts can barely disturb the surface of the mind, but can feel pervasive and lingering, even in their quietness. Other times, our thoughts seem to be calling out, having long conversations of their own, which we do not understand at all, but are compelled to listen to. Then I had another image of the loon on the lake. It was when the loon, suddenly becomes aware of some disturbance, either from our presence, or from something beneath the surface, and dives out of sight. If we had not seen it go under, we would never know it was there. But we did see it, and we do know it is there. And in fact, if we know there are loons in a lake, then we can guess that sometimes they are under the surface, even if we didn’t happen to see them. I suddenly understood: thoughts are like that too. They too go under the surface, and live a whole other murky unseen life. It is this aspect of thought, of consciousness, of self-awareness, that, if uncovered, might offer us an even deeper understanding of ourselves and what drives us. And yet, because they are not immediately apparent, we can deny them. We can pretend we don’t know they exist. Or we can just forget that they do. But we can never know the whole lake without having some understanding of what is under the surface, even when the lake is still. Similarly, we cannot truly know ourselves without committing to curiosity, courage, and excavating the deepest parts of our own psyche. It’s scary going there, but if we want to truly “foster individual change,” we really have no choice.
Back in Tempe, the teacher didn’t seem to mind my feet facing towards him. In fact, he was very vocal about his support for The Samarya Center, so much so in fact, that several people came up to me asking about this amazing organization that their teacher kept championing. My arch-enemy looked at me with sweet, persistent and loving eyes, and asked me, “What does your organization do?” Well, I was stuck. I couldn’t just not answer her. So I took a breath and then started to tell her about all of the wonderful things The Samarya Center does and stands for. She engaged me, even telling me that the organization for which she worked, a company that makes yoga jewelry, had offered us support in the past for our fundraisers, and asked if I would like her to suggest us as a recipient of their donor program. In fact, she told me that she had sample jewelry in her car, and would be happy to send some back with me. I sat there, humbled and confused. I really was mad that she had “schooled me,” but she was a sweet and beautiful woman offering love and generosity. What to do? I took a deep breath. And then told her what had happened in my head. I told her that I was feeling insecure, and that in my fragile state, had been brought back to childhood fears of doing wrong, being the outsider, not being included. She told me that she had been working with trying to stand up for herself, overcoming the “loud voice of her father that always overpowered” her. That she wanted to practice telling me something that was important to her, but that she didn’t know how. When she finally mustered her courage and spoke her truth, she immediately wished she hadn’t and felt conflicted about the situation and how it had turned. We talked about how we could each handle the same thing in the future. I told her I thought she should speak her truth, but that her svadhyaya might come in the form of speaking from her own experience, rather than reprimanding a peer for “breaking the rules.” She told me that she understood how I felt, and that my svadhyaya showed up when I was able to own my own craziness in the situation, and to lovingly acknowledge all the under the surface emotions driving a seemingly disproportionate reaction.
Right after that, our teacher asked us to lie down for Yoga Nidra. We both hunkered down and covered up. We lay there ready for a few moments, and just before the practice began, I opened my eyes and turned to her and said “I’m so glad we talked.” She responded without missing a beat, “I was just thinking that same thing.” We closed our eyes and were led peacefully off into meditation. Minds still as lakes. Loons and all.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
The Samarya Center’s mission is to foster individual change as a means to radical social transformation. That individual change is not an easy thing. It takes each of our own desire and dedication to make the change happen. Upon recently returning from our Yoga Teacher Training, I was sharing with my husband the satisfaction, humility and great appreciation I felt for being part of an experience that allows people to be open, spacious and compassionate with themselves and their many stories of trauma and suffering. He was struck by the stories and commented, “Wow, a lot of people in a lot of pain end up on your trainings.” I thought about that for a moment, then responded, “A lot of people are in a lot of pain. The experience of the training just allows them to share that and feel that they are affirmed, whole and correct in their hope for a sweeter life. “
In the past ten years, Stephanie and I have trained well over a hundred students in our yoga teacher training, and literally thousands have come through our doors and, by their own accounts, have found the simple experience of being a part of our community to be truly transformative. But the work has to go beyond that initial feeling of hopefulness and that glimpse of encouragement and acknowledgement. Indeed, healing into ourselves, healing our deep wounds, our traumas and grief, our deepest secrets and our greatest sources of shame, requires effort and determination; a tapas that will last a lifetime. It is a continuous return to practice, a brave, unfiltered look into ourselves, an unearthing of our fears and limitations, and an acceptance of healing as a process of integration rather than exorcism. We cannot go to a therapist for a year and call it good; we cannot go to our evening yoga class and expect that to do the trick. True healing is a long term, life long process that requires determination, fire and steadfastness.
In many ways, our culture is suited to this hard work. We like to “get the job done,” “pull ourselves up by the boot straps,” “get on with it.” We are reminded of this from both internal and external sources. When I recently reached out to a friend to tell her of the heartbreak I was experiencing, she, with all the best intentions, advised me to “go for a run, sweat it out.” “Work it out.” And in fact, that is what I had planned, without really planning it. As soon as I found out that my pregnancy would not progress, I decided to move on, join the gym, get back in shape, organize a workshop, write a newsletter, and meet with the adoption counselor. In our adoption interview, we were asked, “How are you dealing with your recent loss?” I came back right away with a sort of “Oh that? We’ve processed that already. I mean, that’s my work, I know how to do that.” I had already done that work. I had talked about it ad infinitum, I had rationalized my choices, and I had used the experience to learn something. So, it all seemed ok. Until it didn’t.
During teacher training one morning, we were practicing the challenging and illuminating Naikon meditation, asking ourselves silently, “What have I given, what have I received, what troubles or difficulties have I caused?” Later in discussion, one student shared her experience in the meditation, saying, “That meditation was hard! I didn’t want to ask myself those questions, and I found myself getting angry, even angry at you, thinking, why does she keep asking those questions over and over?” The student continued, “Finally, I just decided to stay with it, and just work through the questions, but that still didn’t work. I wanted to just tackle them and answer them, but I couldn’t. So I finally decided to just be with the questions. That’s when I felt the deepest peace.”
In fact, we seem to be hard wired to reaction and response. When we have or hear a question, we instinctively search for the answers. But often this active seeking limits our ability to simply be present to whatever the response might be, however the “answer” might manifest. If we return to the second sutra, Yogascittavritti nirodah, or “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mindstuff,”and the third sutra, Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam, “Then we know our true nature,” we might consider that all this seeking, all this “work,” is simply creating more waves on the surface of our minds, making it increasingly difficult to find stillness, “our own true nature,” where the most important answers, and the deepest healings, actually rest. In Buddhism, there is a concept referred to as “holding the question,” in which questions are purposely left open and spacious, the “answer” lying in the very act of posing the question. When we do not try to find a response, a way to tie up all the loose ends in a neat package, the response we need will be revealed to us. But holding this space is hard work, tapas, because it is not what we are conditioned to do. Stopping and stilling and just “be-ing,” are not what we think of us taking action, and yet, arguably, this dedication to quiet and space often requires the greatest amount of discipline.
This concept of the work of stillness, of both action and inaction, is found throughout The Bhagavad Gita. In Chapter 6, Krisha advises Arjuna, “For the man who seeks to scale the heights of yoga, action is said to be the means. For the same man, when he has scaled those heights, repose is said to be the means.” In other words, there is the “work” or tapas of our yoga in action, but there is also necessary work in repose, in rest.
While on teacher training, I had two opportunities to walk a labyrinth with my students. On the second round, I had a rather profound experience. I happened to be the last person to enter the labyrinth, a triple spiral, and as such at times was very far away from the rest of the group. For the first time ever in this fairly familiar endeavor, I had very strong feelings about my relative (and changing) positions within the labyrinth and to the group. When I was on the outer most circles within the spiral, with the rest of the group seemingly miles away, I found myself feeling anxious and isolated, while when I joined the group in the center circles, I felt cramped, crowded and uncomfortable. I found that when I was somewhere in between, where I could feel connected to the group without feeling restricted, I felt safe, relaxed and present. This is an easy metaphor for the process of healing. The labyrinth itself is a physical structure that has an entry point and an exit point, and only one direction to get from one to the other, albeit through many twists and turns, much like the process of healing. And like the process of healing, there are times when we feel like we are moving in the right direction, times when we feel like we are moving away from our process, times when we feel like there is too much space and isolation, and times when we feel like we are too constricted, doing “too much work.” But the process continues to move forward, and it is our tapas that urges us to move on and move through, even when that “action” means space, stillness and rest.
We recently got to watch with, with joyful anticipation, the rescuing of the miners in Chile, trapped deep below the earth’s surface. Without knowing these people at all, we collectively prayed for their safe return, and cheered in tearful ecstasy as we saw them each emerge from the depths of darkness that had been there home for over two months. I couldn’t help but think of this same process of action and inaction for them, their families, their rescuers and all of us, as we waited with guarded optimism for them to resurface. Yes, they and their rescuers needed to work hard to preserve their lives. At the same time, we might imagine that the hardest work for the miners was the waiting itself. After some point, there was nothing to do but wait and pray and be. The two efforts combined, the hard work of problem solving and the hard work of just being, resulted in the best possible outcome ~ all thirty three miners brought safely back home. The whole world celebrated their triumphant return, crying in relief for the well being of people most of us have never met.
Imagine a world in which we collectively encouraged the steadfast commitment to healing, for ourselves, our communities and our planet. Imagine that as a culture we acknowledged and honored both kinds of work, the kind that requires a disciplined return to the mat, the therapist’s chair, the process of self-inquiry, and the kind that requires patience, stillness and space. Imagine what it would be like to sit quietly with a suffering friend, and to trust that the healing was being facilitated, not by our pearls of wisdom and advice to “run it out,” but by the space itself. Imagine if we all trusted that we could and would heal, but that it would require time, patience and effort, and that we could afford one another that time, and, as if in the labyrinth, that as long as we stayed committed to the process, there could only be one result, one exit. Finally, imagine if we assumed that everyone had something like their own personal dark, lonely and often terrifying depths, and as we did for the thirty-three miners in Chile, we held vigil, trusting in the process, praying for the safe emergence from those depths, back to light and life. Imagine if we celebrated every return to joy, peace and stillness. Could you imagine us saying to one of those miners, “Geez, are you still down there?” or “Stop processing in that way,” or “If you really want to get out, try harder,” or “Stop trying so hard?” That would be crazy and we know it. Imagine then, that we could look at our own process of healing, or the process of healing our communities and our planet, with the same determination, the same discrimination, the same patience and the same optimism. It would take practice, it would take will and determination, tapas, but more than anything, it would take a full understanding of tapas, the work of doing and the work of being.
We are all in this together.