Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Svadhyaya ~ stillness and movement, courage and change

"We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think." - The Buddha

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 Arizona. I was very excited to go when I signed up for the training, but following a series of personal challenges, the intensity of The Samarya Center teacher training, and an interruption of my own grief process after losing a second pregnancy, I was reluctant and less than enthusiastic when the time actually came. When I arrived in Arizona, I was stressed, lonely and physically and emotionally drained. When I arrived at my hotel, I thought more about lounging by the pool than showing up at the workshop in downtown Tempe.

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.

Tapas ~ The Hard Work of Healing

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.