Sunday, September 25, 2011

To Whom Are We Beautiful As We Go?

I wish I knew the beauty of leaves falling.
To whom are we beautiful when we go?
David Ingnato

And to whom are we beautiful as we go? This poem seems to point to the fact that even in our failing, there is a part of creation and therefore a part of ourselves that can grant a magnificence to any loss. Such a beautiful concept. Such a bittersweet truth. And perhaps this is why Autumn is so colorful: it is the opulent funeral procession of the death of so much. It is the rush of fireworks before the quiet stillness of winter.

Many of the Hindu icons tell stories. The Dancing Shiva is a story-telling icon depicting Shiva, the creator of the universe, and illustrates the five acts of Shiva. The concept is the same whether you call the creator, Shiva, God, the Universe, or Krusty the Clown. In this statue, these 5 acts are depicted by his many arms, one of which is celebrating creation, another that is sustaining his creation, another is allowing death, and another that is not only inviting things back to life, but to live again with a higher consciousness than before. This statue reminds us that our job is to allow Shiva to lead in this dance of life, to follow along as we are slowly refined into greater beings. It reminds us that death is a part of life and with a broader perspective, we can, to some degree, appreciate it as a necessary part of the cycle.

Mary Oliver writes about learning to accept death and loss in her poem, Maker of All Things, Even Healings. I love the title of the poem because it suggests that the healing, the bringing back to life for a fuller measure of life as in the Dancing Shiva, comes only after accepting death which she does so humbly.

All night
under the pines
the fox
moves through the darkness
with a mouthful of teeth
and a reputation for death
which it deserves.
In the spicy
villages of the mice
he is famous,
his nose
in the grass
is like an earthquake,
his feet
on the path
is a message so absolute
that the mouse, hearing it,
makes himself
as small as he can
as he sits silent
or, trembling, goes on
hunting among the grasses
for the ripe seeds.

Maker of All Things,
including appetite,
including stealth,
including the fear that makes
all of us, sometime or other,
flee for the sake
of our small and precious lives,
let me abide in your shadow--
let me hold on
to the edge of your robe
as you determine
what you must let be lost
and what will be saved.

As we celebrate the panoply of fall colors, may we, too, remember the beauty of leaves falling, the beauty and magnificence of this amazing dance in which we are all twirling, living and dying.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Spirit Playing Dress Up

Since my very first yoga class, I’ve be trying to answer the question, “what is this?” Is it a health promoting regimen, is it meditation in motion, is it a physical ritual on my way to spiritual understanding? It could be all of these. And 12 years later, I suppose I’m still asking that same question. Just when I think I’ve got it figured out, when I think I’ve nailed down exactly what yoga is, I experience or discover something new about yoga and I have to expand my definition to include something bigger.
I believe that everybody’s definition of yoga is individual. Here’s my current working definition (warning: this is subject to change at any moment); drum roll please. . . Yoga is the processes of understanding who I am through the method of listening. There it is. Pretty spare. I didn’t even say anything about physical poses, but of course one of the ways I listen is by feeling and becoming aware of my body.
There are many levels on the pathway to understanding who I am. I believe this understanding starts with the grossest levels of awareness and being like how I treat other people and the ways I choose to organize my life. Then, I get to apply that same sort of attention and organization to something practical and close to home: my bod. If I’m paying attention to my body, I might also feel those parts of me which are more subtle, energy—in yoga we call it prana—and find the ways that prana and body marry. I can feel the animating force of the muscles and bones and get to dance with it with clarity and consciousness.
By the way, I’m convinced that the body isn’t merely something to transcend on our way to higher understanding. The body is one of the most practical ways of feeling and experiencing my own divinity. After all, if you’ve ever seen someone who is extremely physically adept, like Michal Jordan or Mikhail Baryshnikov, it looks like you’re witnessing God. And indeed to some degree you are. You’re witnessing someone so developed in that line of understanding that they are reaching a sublime state of being.
Our physical body gives us such immediate and practical information about our being. And, because this is the vehicle, the container, of heart and mind, it makes sense to not only learn from it, but to also keep it healthy so that it can take us where we want to go. Besides, it’s fun. It feels good. What could heaven possibly be but some variation of those two things. Even when I experience love, I can only do that through the nuts and bolts of this body. When my heart feels like it’s going to grow bigger than my chest and burst out of it, or like it’s being stepped on and smooshed black, it’s still within the container of my body that I experience and understand that.
Someone who understood this beautifully is Mary Oliver in her poem about this discovery of who we are through listening and how the body plays a vital role in that discovery. I’m convinced that Mary Oliver is a yogi but who works with a pen rather than a mat. Check it out.

The spirit
likes to dress up like this:
ten fingers,
ten toes,

shoulders, and all the rest
at night
in the black branches,
in the morning

in the blue branches
of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather

plumb rough matter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
it needs
the metaphor of the body,

lime and appetite,
the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body's world,

and imagination
and the dark hug of time,
and tangibility,

to be understood,
to be more than pure light
that burns
where no one is --

so it enters us --
in the morning
shines from brute comfort
like a stitch of lightning;

and at night
lights up the deep and wondrous
drownings of the body
like a star.
by Mary Oliver, from Dream Work

Join me in yoga this week and let’s practice understanding ourselves better through the pleasure of wonderful yoga practice.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Running in the Light of Darkness

A few years ago, I was with two great friends 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 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 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 . . ." Still running with 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 this point I dug my feet into the sand and did an immediate halt. I stood there panting, then slowly opened up my eyes and looked down at my feet, muddy, unspoiled, unharmed--these feet who willingly had leaped 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 misperceptions are called Avidya. One of the most common misperceptions 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. Along human history, we've often been afraid of and rejected that which we haven't understood.

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 rent 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 angel-turned-mortal (who, interestingly, is Peter Falk playing himself). Damiel pleas for Falk to tell him everything there is to know about being human, he want's Falk to solve this mystery for him. 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 Universal 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, whose opposite is fear and worry. With the remembrance of our True Self, we are less and less persuaded by Dvesa's misperception of fear. Against the backdrop of the magnificence of our True Self, even 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, September 5, 2011

It Happened on the Way to Work

Has it really been 10 years? It happened on the way to work. I remember driving in the morning (in a different life I worked in an accounting department before I taught yoga full-time) and listening to NPR, hearing the coverage of the planes striking the towers. I felt like I was living out a bad dream or some prank that just wouldn’t stop. I remember feeling powerless and vulnerable. I couldn’t think straight. I remember feeling surreal that people at work were going about life as normal while this horror was happening in real time on the radio.
I’m thinking about how yoga relates to the anniversary of 9/11. Of course, the first yogic principle of Ahimsa or non-violence comes to mind. I’m thinking that the bigger principle of non-violence is not merely keeping my airplanes to myself, but to make it a practice to cultivate the kind of love and respect that would preclude such an attack and subsequent wars. I suppose the more challenging practice is to practice non-violence through its highest form of expression of love when someone has seriously wronged us. How do you do that? Seriously.

It reminds me of the movie, The Mission, with Robert De Niro where and 18th century De Niro tries to atone for a life of killing and capturing slaves in South America by joining the Jesuit order. As an act of penance, De Niro carries a net full of implements of war and slavery up a mountain and nearly dies in the process. After an immense struggle, De Niro arrives at the top of the mountain exhausted and almost dead at which point he is met by the chief of the indigenous people whom he’d killed and kidnaped for several years. The chief places his knife on De Niro’s neck but instead of cutting his throat, the chief cuts the ropes that bind De Niro to his net, what represents his heavy past of murder and subjugation, and pushes it of over the cliff to be swallowed deep in the ocean below. Both De Niro and the chief cry and laugh at this miraculous display of forgiveness and love.

This kind of love and acceptance is synonymous with our True Nature, the deep, deep part of us that is the foundation of who we are. Call it what you want: your spirit, your divine nature, your Buddha nature, your fundamental humanity. When we practice understanding this True Nature, we see past the smaller part of ourselves that needs to express itself with hate and violence. Yoga practice is one way to learn to understand our True Nature. Every time we practice yoga we, honor each other with the the word Namaste means essentially: “my True Nature honors your True Nature.”

So Namaste twin towers, the Pentagon, and United Airlines flight 93. Namaste, to the survivors of this 10-year tragedy. Namaste to those who fight and don’t fight for this nation. Namaste to those we are trying to lead this nation. Namaste to our nation’s enemies. Yep, them too. Namaste to those who are trying to understand this act of violence a decade later. Namaste to those who are trying their best to make this world one that reflects our communal True Nature.