Meditating at the Shala
“Silence is the first and last teacher.”
As the New Year began, I think it’s safe to bet that many resolved to give themselves to this endeavor: To sit on their cushions for a little time each day, to turn their attention to the deep silence within. This sounds delightful doesn’t it? But the reality is quite different. For most, what we find is not silence but an unrelenting mind screaming for our attention like an abandoned child.
This morning, looking out over the shala from my desk where I like to sit in contemplation, I invited silence and within nanoseconds the mind was serving up distractions, providing running lists of to-do activities, and anything it could to get me moving again. This is the way of the mind. I do not try to turn it off. Frankly, I don’t recall ever turning it on. So the mind is not the way to access our deeper self where true intelligence resides.
The way to silence is through the doorway of the senses – not in the usual functioning – but rather through tending to them with one’s attention, consciously inviting a felt experience of them.
Next time you sit try this practice:
- Turn your attention to feeling yourself in contact with the object(s) you’re sitting on.
- Fix your gaze in stillness and locate yourself in the room with your peripheral vision – see yourself, and see the room at the same time. If you prefer your eyes closed then look into the back of your eyelids with the awareness of seeing while simultaneously staying connected to your space.
- Open your ears to hear everything that is available to hear.
- Smell what is available to smell.
- Keep the arrow of your attention in two directions: aware of everything that you can be aware of through sensing – not thinking about – and stay aware of yourself.
- Continue to sense and feel, and relax deeply.
The silence experienced is not void, but rather full – full of presence and clarity. A felt connection to our state of being that sees and knows, free from analysis and memory, where our intuitive wiser selves reside.
It is revolutionary and terrifying to release the control and movement of your breath into another’s control. At least for someone that likes to be in control, which of course, isn’t me.
About a month ago, I was in the middle of my 2nd Yoga Teacher Training Intensive at Circle Yoga Shala that was focused on Pranayama (Breathing Techniques). I climbed the hills of Hwy 7 to the shala with a hybrid of emotions not yet knowing these would be forced to the surface in a room full of individuals due to focusing my attention on breath alone (under the guidance of my teacher, Matt).
On the 3rd day, we began the practice of Kapalabhati – “Skull shining breath.” In the middle of practice, I felt my chest tighten, my jaw clench, and tears flood down my face. Completely perplexed by what was going on, I tried to make myself as small as possible in the room, not garnering attention from anyone. I have always been the “I don’t cry in front of other people” person. Also, I loathe being the center of attention which is obvious by the deep shade of beet red that rises in my face. Yet, here I was sitting in what felt like a crowded room searching my head rather than my heart for why on earth I couldn’t gather myself and stop. I didn’t want to sit through this and show what I perceived to be a weakness. For some reason, I stayed put. I didn’t rush out the door and head off that mountain though I entertained that thought for about 15 minutes. My tears slowed but I knew the minute we circled up to talk about our experience they would return. All Matt had to say was “Why the drop in spirit?” and here they came. What I struggled the most with was my inability to pinpoint the cause of this downpour. I sat there thinking is this what a nervous breakdown is? Have I completely lost my mind? Graciously, Matt moved to the next person. I was really hoping for a break, but after everyone shared we went back to practice. And here they came again, but rather than forcing the tears and the emotions to go back to a tightly closed bottle, I sat there and let them come. I could not do the practice that was being taught, but I did stay with my breath body. The practice came to a close and I wiped my face as we circled up. Holly (my teacher too) came in and noticed my drained face. She had me try and relate what was happening. She observed that even in that moment I was barely breathing, so her only instruction was to breath in my stomach. The rest of the day went on with a screaming headache but with kind love from my teachers and all the other students. Continue reading
Matt and I have been engaging in some very lively conversations up here on the mountain. Those discussions have primarily revolved around two books. Thanks to the unrelenting snow storms there has been lots of time to read! I decided that a creative way to include you in the conversation would be to interview Matt. (1st posting in a series)
Q: You just read N.E. Sjoman’s book, The Yoga Traditon and tbe Mysore Palace, and Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: the History of Modern Posture Practice. Why do you think these books are important to today’s practitioners of Yoga?
A: Each book is an attempt to trace the set of conditions that gave rise to Asana’s – – or the practice of posture – – becoming the central focus of “Yoga” in the West. It’s interesting that the traditional texts of Hatha Yoga (like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika) do not describe elaborate sequences of postures, linked together in very specific rhythms of movement and stillness; nor are there any standing postures to speak of in the Shiva Samhita. The original texts on Hatha are rather oriented strongly toward the practice of single postures for long periods of time, and are steeped in pranayama, bandha, and the akarmas or kriyas much more than today’s styles. So, why the modern equation of Asana as Yoga, and why these forms that we have?
Because we are practicing a hybridized art form, there is actually no definitive answer to these questions, but one thing is clear: most of us who have been practicing for a long time have been told various stories and legends about the origins of what we do, often in an attempt to ground our style of practice in the reaches of antiquity, and thus confer onto it a degree of mystique and authenticity. This orientation derives from the human tendency to value things because they are representative of an ancient lineage. Patthabi Jois for instance asserted that the sun salutation could be found in the Rig Veda, perhaps the oldest written text we know of. But there is simply no reason to see this as anything other than a creative act of interpretation on his part. The postural sequence we know as the sun salutation was in fact conceived by the Raja of Aundht, Pratinidhi Pant – – himself an avid body builder. Pant solidified this form and popularized it for the public. So it was a body builder who came up with the sequence for the purpose of advancing bodybuilding technology. Notably, according to Singleton, suryanamaskar and other techniques like it “. . . were not recognized as yoga” at the turn of the nineteenth century. (location 2472 kindle). Continue reading
Moving from and with Source
. . . . “In the state of surrender we begin to learn how to act in a way that is free from habit”.
I was recently emailed about this statement from my last blog entry: “Yoga and the 3rd Step of AA.” To act in a way free from habit is to move from a place below the level of ordinary mind, beyond reflexive, habitual responses fueled by memory and personal preferences of like and dislike. We know we are moving from ordinary mind when our internal dialogue involves words like ‘need’ and ‘should’, ‘could’ and ‘would’, for example. Anytime those words are present there is a latent wish for reality to be other than it is, and that is an indication that our actions are unfolding in an orientation governed by past learned responses. Moving in the surrendered way is not mutually exclusive to conditioned action, it actually has that mode of action at its disposal at all times, but there is another element to surrendered moving that is important to understand, because it creates space for new responses to ever changing situations. Continue reading
STEP 3: MADE A DECISION TO TURN OUR WILL AND OUR LIVES OVER TO THE CARE OF GOD AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM.
First, don’t let the usage ‘him’ be the end before you even begin. AA is not concerned with the face – or lack thereof – of God for you. It is only concerned with your opening to a power greater than yourself. The ‘as we understood him’ admits from the get-go that your higher power now will certainly evolve and change over time, and that is not a problem.
The Yoga Tradition takes the same view. The word for God is Ishvara, and Ishvara is neuter. This is important to understand because the tradition is not concerned with dictating a particular form for God. What is important about Ishvara to the yogi is that “his” actions do not originate in ignorance (avidya).
The third step is a culmination and integration of the first two: we begin to accept that our life is unmanageable and that we have no control over it, that we don’t actually see reality as it is, which is a form of insanity. From this perspective the only action that is clear is complete surrender. Continue reading
It’s been awhile since my last entry, so I thought I would quickly revisit why Yoga and Recovery is of interest to me, and why it’s possibly relevant to You.
When first realizing the urge to write about the parallels of the two traditions, naturally it occurred to me to write from the the perspective of the “ailment” that first brought me to the doors of a room where the 12-steps were made available: alcoholism. But, in truth, I know about more than that. I also know the way of the drug addict, sex addict, shopaholic, relationship junkie, spiritual seeker, transcendental experience junkie, slave of material security, and addict of maintaining personal appearances in search of other’s approval. Like all of us to varying degrees, I was just another individual running around grasping and groping for some sense of peace, trying to find something good that might last, all the while not knowing that what I was looking for would not be found in my surrounding circumstances. So let me say this again, I’m interested in Yoga and Recovery because the root of addiction is common to all of us, and both traditions aim to cultivate a certain new relationship with that root, because their interest is the deepest spiritual evolution. Continue reading
In the last blog entry it was suggested that the twelve steps of recovery and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali parallel each other as spiritual systems. Let’s keep looking at this idea.
First, both traditions understand that healing must take place on many levels, and both support healing by proceeding gradually, in very specific stages or steps. Second, in both traditions the first level of healing is designed to stabilize the everyday mind.
I find it extremely interesting that novice Yogis and addict/alcoholics are prescribed essentially the same regimen in the initial stages of their journey. And though I understand that there are important differences between the average Joe and the alcoholic, let’s be honest: have you observed misperception at work in your life? How many times have you made up your mind to do x only to end up doing y? Or, have you ever been sure that he said x, but later found out that he did not? Continue reading
Picture taken by Nicolas Pippins at Circle Yoga Shala
Most of the great spiritual traditions offer maps of human development that show a way to be free from the delusion and fear that arises out of ignorance and its habitual behavior – -like addiction. My interests lie in the tradition of Yoga and that of Recovery. I have been active in both for the last two decades, and I have deep respect for them as spiritual programs that show a way to express our fullest human potential. In recovery there are 12 stages or steps, and in the Yoga Tradition the famous 8 Limbs in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Over time, I came to marvel at the depth of the twelve steps, and at how a certain level of participation in the program actively freed so many from the grip of what seemed to be the deepest possible pain. But more than that, I also saw how something suspiciously like the intelligence of the steps unfolds in the Yoga Sutras. This vision of their parallels soon became too great to ignore. If we look at them simultaneously, we can see that Patanjali’s process map, and that of the recovery tradition, converge around a triad of key concepts: addiction and ignorance, and the personal sense of self. Continue reading
Picture taken by Nicolas Pippins at Circle Yoga Shala
About two decades ago, after entering into a 12-step program, I heard the most wonderful saying, ‘we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience’. I’ve heard it since in different circles, and I don’t know to whom it should be credited, and I’m not sure that that matters anyway. It brought a smile to my face and resonated with something deep inside my being. So it became catalogued in my mental bank of clichés and beautiful sayings, and repeated now and again without any inquiry into its essential meaning. But then again, the meaning is obvious and needs no heady effort to understand, right?
If there is a deeper understanding to be had here, all we have to do is look at what we do: we make grand efforts to become spiritual, to avoid negative experience(s) like pain, sorrow, suffering, loss, betrayal, and so on. We go to even greater lengths to predict the future so that we get only that which is thought to be good and pleasurable. Why not simply trust being human if the essence of that is always already spiritual? Continue reading