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.