Monday, August 16, 2010

Running in the Light of Darkness

A couple years ago, I was with my wife, Celeste, and our friend Ben spending an afternoon in the paradoxical desert of the Great Salt Lake. The texture of the sand, crusted with salt, weather, and time is a sensational feast for bare feet. We played a game: In this extremely barren, extremely flat land, we decided to close our eyes and run blindly and at full speed in any direction for 100 paces. Eager for the adventure, we closed our eyes and shouted, "GO!" I bolted into the darkness of the afternoon sun. My other senses came alive. I could smell the mud, the salt, the sulfur, the decaying brine. I felt the texture of crusty-soft sand beneath my feet as they beat across the surface of the desert. I could hear my companions several paces from me, their feet slapping the sand, laughing and panting.

Then a thought entered into my head, "Hadn't I seen some ominous-looking spikes sticking out of the sand? I would really prefer not to impale my foot on one of those." Regardless, I tightened my closed eyes, quickened my pace, and began to laugh, wild with wonder and worry. " . . .53, 54, 55 . . . ." My paces were whizzing by but the thought of me stepping blindly onto something sharp had almost put me into a panic. ". . .71,72,73 . . ." I could no longer hear my fellow runners and wondered if I'd veered wildly off-course. " . . . 83,84,85 . . ." Only fifteen paces to go. I desperately wanted to stop and open my eyes. Instead, I let out all the stops, opened my running to as fast as I could, and sprinted madly in any direction, no direction, the only direction-forward. From deep in my gut came a raw and uncontrolled scream of anticipation and fear and fun, "98, 99, 100!" at which point I dug my feet into the sand and did an immediate halt. As I stood there panting, I slowly opened up my eyes and looked down at my feet, muddy, unspoiled, unharmed, these feet who willingly leapt me through space as I ran through the darkness toward fear, away from fear. After a moment, I looked up and around for any spikes. None. Nothing for miles. What a rush!

An important concept as explained in the Yoga Sutras explores the relationship between perceptions and actions. If our perceptions are incorrect, we'll often find ourselves in difficulty or fear. If we know what creates such problems, it is easier to avoid them. If I knew for sure that there were no obstacles in my path, I'd have had an easy run. These elements of faulty perceptions are called Avidya. Interestingly, one of the most common false perceptions is called Dvesa, the action of rejecting things because of fear. We have a difficult experience and are afraid of repeating it so we project the effects of the past to try to illuminate the future and end up making our present moment unpleasant. Unfortunately the effects of Dvesa tend to make us reject things that are unfamiliar, even if we have no history with them.

Until we are enlightened, it is impossible to avoid all fears, and therefore we have a model to face those that remain with a sense of adventure. I've referenced a few times one of my favorite movies, Wings of Desire (if you haven't seen it, go out and watch it tonight, but bring a glass of milk to wash it down-it's rich). In this film, an angel, Damiel, decides he'd prefer to live one life, fully human, sentient, and alive, than an eternity of the colorless, only observational life of an angel. Once mortal, Damiel happens upon another mortal who was once an angel (who, interestingly, is Peter Falk playing himself--what better character to decipher the mystery of life than a sleuth). Damiel pleas for Peter Falk to tell him everything there is to know about being human. As he's walking away, Peter Falk turns to Damiel and playfully shouts, "No! You have to figure it out for yourself. That's the fun of it!" You've got to shut your eyes and run full out and experience what you are going to experience. Since we can't avoid all fears, to the extent that it is possible, we must somehow learn to see the beauty and adventure in them.

Even in our fears and failings there is amazement and beauty. Poet David Ignetow says, "I wish I knew the beauty of leaves falling. To whom are we beautiful as we go?" He says that even in our failing, there is a part of the Universe that finds us astonishing in that going. In yoga, we explore the relationship between what is personal and what is universal-the universe inside. Therefore, there is a corner of your heart that can grant a magnificence to the most difficult of circumstances.

Through yoga and mindfulness, we learn and experience more about our True Self, Home, who's opposite is fear and worry. With the remembrance of our True Self, we are less and less persuaded by Dvesa's false perception of fear. Against the backdrop of the magnificence our True Self, even in the smallest understanding of it, many of our fears simply dissolve. And from this courageous place, we face what fears remain with presence and boldness. We run into the darkness screaming, laughing, and fully alive.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

--Wendell Berry.


Monday, August 9, 2010

The Wisdom of Kenny Rogers

You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em . . . (lyrics by Don Schlitz)

Everything dies. And hallelujah. Like that first job I had when I was a teenager when I'd dress up like a chicken and go stand on the sidewalk and invite people over to eat at a fast food restaurant while fielding drive-by cat calls, single fingered gestures, and death threats. I'm glad that job
died. And the restaurant too, for that matter. I was happy the day that my fifth-grade romance with Kelly Campbell died. Something about our relationship was very sweet: I gave her the Twinkie from by lunch box. When I lost my interest in Twinkies, she lost her interest in me. So I'm happy that died. Breaking up with Kelly Campbell made way for my romance with Brooke
Anderson to whom I even gave a locket on valentines day with my picture in it. I was 11 at the time. It was very serious.

We die too-several times. Regardless of what you believe in regarding reincarnation, try the idea that we die and are reborn several times during our lifetime. I'm certainly somebody different
now than I was even five years ago. We all are. That old self who was a little flaky or maybe overly committed to work and underly committed to also having a personal life might need to die in order to give birth to a more satisfying way of living. Old habits, relationships, the old self, can all die. Some things live their season then croak on their own and other things need to be euthanized. With the mindfulness we practice in yoga, perhaps we'll be savvy enough to know when to sustain things, when to let things die, and when to kill them.

The Yoga Nataraj is a statue that depicts Shiva, a Hindu deity, as a dancer with four arms. The dance refers to the constant cycle of birth and death, sustaining and evolution, that happens with all things. We set ourselves up for disappointment if we attach ourselves to any part of this cycle understanding that everything is changing. It's like trying to enjoy the scenic view while riding
the Scrambler, that diabolic amusement park ride designed to spin you mercilessly in circles, eventually scrambling your brain, or making you puke, or both. The Nataraj suggests that everything is turning, changing as we speak. Just as things are dying, something else is being born.

We practice this death every time we rest at the end of class in savasana. In many ways, our yoga practice represents our life: we're born, we grow and learn, we slow down and eventually lie
down. But at then we get to start over. We do so with renewed life, keeping all the good stuff and letting the rest decompose. It's like a computer update-we get to use the most current version of
our own personal operating system.

Practice rolling through this cycle by coming to yoga this week. What in your life needs to die so something else can be born?

See you in class.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Radical Permission for Truth

If it hasn't happened already, there will come a time when we stop trying to produce that infallible vision of ourselves and allow ourselves the radical permission to be exactly what and how we are. This permission revolves around the yogic principle of Satya or truth. To be honest with who and where we are, both our strengths and weaknesses, allows us a solid platform from which we can skillfully step to the next place. We stop trying to be everything that we're not and finally find how perfectly we belong to exactly where we are.

With intention, direction, work, and most of all appreciation for our present situation, our dreams of where we want to end up will start to fill out. If we feel stuck, indecisive, depressed, or angry, our truth is to speak to that place. We can speak to all our situations with yoga, an embodiment of all our inner landscapes.

What we want is within our reach; it's simply laced with a bit of irony: the key to fulfillment in the future is to be content now. If we're committed to the honesty of where we are and are content for what is, knowing things change, we create a bridge of present content moments which links us to contentment in our fulfilled future. Without present contentment, without appreciating the truth of where we are, we may find ourselves where we previously hoped for only to discover our habit of malcontent, and, disgruntlement, wishing we were back where we started or somewhere else. We're back in the viscous cycle of hoping for anything but what is true, what is here.

Our main task as I see it is to understand where we are, where our love lies, and bravely organize our lives to focus on what matters most.

I hope that this truth and brave path may lead you to yoga this week.

Here is an offering I learned from my teacher that you may want to use in your meditations:

By the power and truth of our simply practice,
May we and all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May we and all beings be free from sorrow and any causes of sorrow.
May we and all beings never be separated from that sacred happiness which is beyond sorrow.
And may we and all beings live in equanimity, without too much attachment and too much aversion.
And may we live recognizing and honoring the equality of all that lives.

Sarva Mangalam (May the greatest goodness unfold)