Wednesday, November 24, 2010

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.

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