Obstacles to Practice: Doubt

The obstacles to becoming an adept yogi are sleep, laziness and disease. One has to remove these by the root and throw them away … Asana will help all this. To acquire this skill, recite the following slokam every day before practicing yoga.  Yoga Makaranda (II.3)

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

Salutations to the king of the Nagas,
to the infinite, to the bearer of the mandala,
who spreads out the universe with thousands
of hooded heads, set with blazing, effulgent jewels.
(Listen to Richard Freeman chanting.)

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (I.30) there are nine obstacles to the practice listed.

 

doubt negativeDoubt – sanshaya

Lacking conviction or confidence, distrust, and fear, are among a few of the definitions of “doubt” that make it pretty clear why it tops the list of Patanjali’s obstacles in the third position.  However, the other definition that is found most in tandem with these less positive ones revolves around uncertainty.   It is that definition family that gives rise to sentiments like Paul Tillich’s “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith.” Or Volataire’s, “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” Or doubt being one of three great qualities in Buddhism: Great Doubt, Great Faith, and Great Determination.

Doubt is the factor that allows us to drop how and what we’ve pre-decided about people and situations.  It grants us freedom to respond to what is, freedom from having to know, freedom not to need to make up our mind about what’s happening right now – to be alive and open to what is.

Two Doubts

Doubt can function in our practice in two ways; one is as a general mood of open inquiry – of a cultivated uncertainty that keeps us awake to the moment. The second is one of critical inquiry that takes a teaching we’ve read or seen and begins to turn it into something we experiment with and experience for ourselves.  The results of any teaching reveal its worth.

Stephen Batchelor describes the first kind of doubt in his book, “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist”;

“When the retreat began and I started meditating in earnest on the question “What is this?” my mind insisted on coming up with clever answers.  Each time I tried to discuss my latest theory with Kusan Sunim, he would listen patiently for a while, then give a short laugh and say: “Bopchon [my Korean name]. Do you know what it is? No? Then go back and sit.”

Irrespective of how suitably enigmatic they seemed, my answers were either trite or predictable. After a while, I simply gave up trying to find an answer. “What is this?” is an impossible question: it is designed to short –circuit the brain’s answer-giving habit and leave you in a state of serene puzzlement. This doubt, or “perplexity” as I preferred to call it, then slowly starts to infuse one’s consciousness as a whole.  Rather than struggling with the words of the question, one settles into a mood of quiet focused astonishment, in which one simply waits and listens in the pregnant silence that follows the fading of the words.”

We can offer this type of listening to our experiences in nature, in relationship, in our meditation and yoga practices.   We can be free from what we think is happening, right in the middle of it happening. Not that we erase our memory, or don’t have ideas, but that we can drop the teacher, you can say to yourself “neti neti” – not this not this, and practice the freedom from knowing.

“Doubting has immense power. It allows us to remain curious and to consider multiple alternative perspectives.  This is deeply important because as soon as we think we understand something, we stop paying attention.  We then miss the truth about it because nothing is ever as simple as our minds try to make them.  Once we think we think we have the answer, we stop questioning.   Once we understand something, we grow bored with it.” Sangha member at ID Project

doubt inquiryRilke writes of the second kind of doubt; “And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.”

Here Rilke gives us advice on what to do when doubt arises, as if seemingly on its own.  How to allow it to be a harbinger of investigation.  While not recommended as how to work in the midst of a meditation or yoga practice, later reflection on doubts that arise from practice or elsewhere would be a powerful way to cultivate great doubt in our lives.

A paper by Robert M Baird on Creative Doubt looks at that second type of doubt from a more proactive lens – to take on the task of actively doubting.  The online abstract opens with this story:

“A college student approached his professor after class. With anguish he complained, “I don’t know whether you know it or not, but this class is painful.” “How’s that?” the professor asked. “Well,” the student continued, “you have convinced me that we ought to do what you are encouraging us to do, but when I do what you suggest, it’s so painful.”

What had this professor suggested? What had he encouraged his students to do, the doing of which created, in at least one student, pain? He had encouraged them to doubt creatively. That is, he had encouraged his students to challenge and evaluate the fundamental values – ethical, political, and religious – to which they were committed.”

Follow this source link for further information about the paper, as well as the complete abstract which presents his four arguments for the benefits of creative doubt.

Whether Rilke or Baird, Batchelor, or the Buddha, there is a strong tradition for actively cultivating skillful doubt in our lives.  Can you imagine undertaking one of these practices for a month? What happens? What shifts?

Small doubt, small enlightenment; big doubt, big enlightenment – Zen Master Nine Mountains

Obstacles to Practice: Apathy

The obstacles to becoming an adept yogi are sleep, laziness and disease. One has to remove these by the root and throw them away … Asana will help all this. To acquire this skill, recite the following slokam every day before practicing yoga.  Yoga Makaranda (II.3)

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

Salutations to the king of the Nagas,
to the infinite, to the bearer of the mandala,
who spreads out the universe with thousands
of hooded heads, set with blazing, effulgent jewels.
(Listen to Richard Freeman chanting.)

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (I.30) there are nine obstacles to the practice listed.

Apathy (styana)

Have you ever had a limited time to live somewhere? A month, a year?  Have you been a new parent, or gone back to graduate school? Have you had limited time with someone?

Limited time naturally preempts apathy. If we have just two hours in a day to study, we study with all we’ve got for those two hours. If we have just one week in a place, we don’t sit at home and watch TV.  We’ve all experienced time at work in our lives in this way.

time

Working with the obstacle of apathy asks us to look at how we experience time in our daily lives and practice.  We can all be anxious about time and feel as though there’s never enough. And we can all slip into the apathy-inducing illusion of seemingly limitless time.  Different tonics need to be applied at different times.  I had a period of meditation where I would sit with a lot of self-induced stress to really focus this time, and eventually I needed to remind myself that I have (hopefully) years of practice ahead of me.  This provided much needed relaxing around my sitting practice.  I have also had periods where the everydayness of meditation and asana made it seem as if I had so much time that apathy crept in.

Usually in my classes, I encourage students to be expansive with how we consider practice; that it expands way beyond this one person, this one mat, this one row, this one room, community, family, borough, and onwards.

Consider the next time you sit or step onto your mat, especially if you’ve noticed overtones of apathy coming in, to imagine that this was it. That you had to go through a whole week of constant story-telling, of the mind continually on and leading you around, of living habits of action crafted over decades. What if this was the one 10 or 20 or 30 or 90 minute period you had to drop all of that, let the mind relax into quiet with the breath, and let the heart expand with its loving kindness for all the body’s cells, and blood, and those of all beings? To be really intimate with this experience moment to moment to moment? What happens?

Our time

When we don’t experience our time as fully as we know or sense to be possible, it often causes discomfort during time with others. Those feelings of wishing we were in some different place, or with some different people, or had a chance to be alone again can easily creep in.  I knew there was a chance of this when I recently went upstate to the cabin I take many solo retreats in.  This time, my family was going to be there.  I knew that I was going to have about an hour in the woods to myself.  That would be all the time I had to really drop into the nourishing and inspiring retreat feeling of the cabin experience. Since I had prepared, I found that not only could I be fully with the joy of my family without regretting the lack of solo time, but that hour in the woods was more continuous and more quickly accessible than when I go by myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a beautiful story at the start of his book, Miracle of Mindfulness , from his friend Allen. It takes this work a whole step deeper in how we work with “our time”.  Thich Nhat Hanh has just asked Allen about his experience as a family man;

  “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work.  The time left over I considered my own.  I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

But now I try not to divide my time into parts anymore.  I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey  with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time.  I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now i Have unlimited time for myself!”

Nothing left out. Nothing squandered.

Chant

life and death are of supreme importance.
time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
let us awaken. awaken!
do not squander your life.

may all beings be happy.
may all beings be healthy.
may all beings be safe and free from danger.
may all beings be free from their ancient and twisted karma.
may all beings be free from every form of suffering.

 

 

 

 

Obstacles to Practice: Sickness

The obstacles to becoming an adept yogi are sleep, laziness and disease. One has to remove these by the root and throw them away … Asana will help all this. To acquire this skill, recite the following slokam every day before practicing yoga.  Yoga Makaranda (II.3)

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

Salutations to the king of the Nagas,
to the infinite, to the bearer of the mandala,
who spreads out the universe with thousands
of hooded heads, set with blazing, effulgent jewels.
(Listen to Richard Freeman chanting.)

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (I.30) there are nine obstacles to the practice listed.

How we practice

When we commit to practice, we soon understand that we’ve undertaken a lifelong pursuit.  What can sometimes take longer to perceive is that it’s a twenty-four hour one as well, including weekends.  We don’t take time off.

The first obstacle, disease or illness (vyadhi), is perhaps the most universal. We can all recall when it’s been nearly impossible to get off of the couch/floor/toilet/bed, let alone onto a mat or cushion.  So the question arises: “What is practice? What does it look like, what does it feel like, when we’re sick?”

I recently experienced a stomach bug while travelling, and have front line recommendations for the question.  Ethan Nichtern of the ID Project shared his own list with his sangha which is worth checking out as well.

savasana-corpse-pose1) Savasana – truly use the time to be quiet, still, resting and inwards.  Avoid the habit embedded in us since childhood of turning to TV or movies.  If you can’t get up, truly be down. Since I was travelling, I did not have my Netflix queue nor my stash of comfort reading.  I had no choice but to savasana, and it was delightful.

2) Notice – just as you would in practice, pay attention to the thoughts and stories that come up while you’re sick.  How did this happen? How much longer will this last? When I get better I’ll take X action.  Let go of ruminations. Notice tendencies towards judgement or blame. Cultivate the positive, calm, healing thoughts.

3) Movement – therapeutic stretching for parts of the body that get strained, constrained, or achy with illness can be a sweet relief. Simple, slow, and easy –a few neck rolls or hips movements can suffice.

 At the first signs of illness I know many people go to a yoga class in the hopes it will move the illness through.  Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If you have this thought, practice at home so as not to potentially spread what’s brewing. In many illnesses, it’s the beginning period when you’re most contagious.

4) Breath – sometimes it’s the only thing you can pay attention to that isn’t painful.  It can be an important anchor. And sometimes you can barely make a full round of breath. Paying particular attention to the end of the exhale during pain can give you a small moment of oasis.

5) Experiment – the next time you’re not feeling well, bring in this question and see for yourself how practice shifts with you.

How we’re calledmoney-and-illness

We never know how we will be called to take care of others. We never know when we are going to need others to care for us.  What we know is that both will happen. People we love will get sick, they will need care.  We will get sick, we will need care.

Our practice can prepare us to be receptive and open to meet another when they are in the hospital or the bathroom floor or the couch. Our practice can help us cultivate deeper and deeper relationships, and the ability to ask for help.  It can teach us to rest and be still.  There are so many ways in which our practice can serve us when we’re called.  We can use that as motivation to truly give our hearts to our paths.

How joy enters

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his essay ‘The Peace of the Divine Reality’, writes: “When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. That is peace. I had to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful. My nontoothache is peace, is joy. But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be very happy. Therefor to look deeply at the present moment and see that I have a nontoothache, that can make me very happy already.”

Take a moment to reflect on one or two recent physical ailments or illnesses in the body or mind which are no longer present.  Perhaps any of the afflictions of allergies, a persistent cough, a toothache, food poisoning, or joint or muscle pain. Remember how it felt, how difficult and challenging certain aspects of asana practice, or sitting practice, or sleeping, or getting dressed, or general life were. Notice how easy it is now.  You’re not just fine or ok, you are nontoothache! Allow joy and gratitude for your healthy eye, tooth, elbow, hamstring, toe to well up and infuse you. Sense, perhaps, an appreciation for your life.

What would it be like to infuse a week with this type of reflection?

Lokah Samasta

Lokah Samasta Sukinoh Bhavantu
May all beings be happy and free

Lokah samasta – all beings everywhere
Lokah – location, here, region, world
Samasta – all, whole
Sukinoh – be happy and free
Bhavantu – may I contribute to this, I pledge to this, may it be so

Part of embodying lokah samasta is to fully inhabit your body – your personal region, your world of existence. Asana practice is one of many ways we deepen our ability to do so.

Seeing clearly the whole space and world in which we find ourselves, moment to moment to moment, is another part.  This is both in the larger scale of world citizenship, and also the daily scale of the space you’re in, right now, reading this.

Our ability to fully embody all aspects of our lokah samasta is limited by our edges. We all have edges. We all have parts of us, others, and the world, that we don’t want to see. Sometimes we can’t see.  We have lines drawn between what we’re willing to work with and what we’re not. What we include in our intentions and practice and hearts, and what we don’t.  Often, a large part of the path is being able to first see those lines and then to soften or shift them.

As Abbot Myogen Steve Stucky said, “Whatever you feel is right at the edge of your familiar world, that’s the edge of your deep intention to wake up with what is.”

cut out (2)This past year I’ve made a practice of a weekly morning silent walking period through my local park.  There’s a waterfall along the route, and I usually sit with it for a good while.  One day, the light, the leaves and sky behind invited a picture.

I soon noticed that I was being very careful to cut out the collection of three or four discarded soda bottles someone had left on the side.  The waterfall was beautiful and inspiring, the trash was not.  A clear line – what I was including in my experience, and what I was cutting out.

I was cutting it out because if I spent time with it, I would go on cut outa thought train of how thoughtless those people were. I’d berate the park employees for not picking it up.  Thinking those thoughts made me feel bad. So I cut all of it out.

Seeing the division enabled me to turn and actually look at the bottles. To actually include them in the whole moment of experience.  This park is special to me, my time here is meaningful.  I love the earth. Even the part of earth over there on the side that’s ugly and unusable.  If I’m also committed to yoga and dharma in action, how can I respond fully? How does all of my personal embodied world meet the needs and experience of the whole space and world I’m in this moment?  The answer for me was a new addition to my weekly walks: a plastic bag.  I fill it two to three times on my way to the waterfall with trash, emptying along the way in the park garbage cans.  It doesn’t matter why they did it, or whose job it is to pick it up.  What matters is how I respond to it.

What or where are your edges? What do you care about? How can seeing and softening those edges allow you to interact and respond to the world, to the moment? It won’t look the same for everyone. But imagine if everyone did this practice?

To celebrate one of my favorite holidays, I’ve started Pick Up & Picnic. Join me 🙂

final

Consolation vs Confrontation

Swasthi praja bhya pari pala yantam
May all human kind be happy and well

In our efforts to fulfill this, for ourselves and others, we tend to dip into consolation.  The practice of telling ourselves the story that everything is alright, when it’s not. You can’t rush happiness and wellness. I, you, and all of human kind, are far better served by what Stephen Batchelor calls confrontation.  Not the confrontation of demanding answers and reckoning, but from the root of confront, which is to come face to face with.

pendulumIn yoga practice, consolation can become the side effect of working with our tendencies towards perfectionism, self-consciousness, and judgement. Our practice allows us to see how those tendencies are ways that we keep ourselves small, that we reaffirm old stories that no longer (if they ever did) serve us, that are harmful to us and our relationships.  So we start to catch ourselves before we get going on the “Why can’t I just…”, “I’m better at this than they are”, “disappointed noise/grunt at ourselves” pendulum swing.

And then we throw ourselves to the other end of the pendulum swing – “I’m not good at balancing anyway.” “I’ll work on this in the next side, down dog, class, week” “It’s ok, not a big deal, doesn’t matter…”

It’s not a big deal, yes. And it’s also a big deal. How do we drive our experience a bit deeper – how do we actually stand face to face with what’s arising – confront what’s actually there?

The next time you practice:  notice when you judge (pendulum side one), when you console (pendulum side two), and when you confront. You can fall AND it can suck AND that can be ok – with the right attunement to breath.

Another console pitfall is the idea of “the teacher” or “the lesson”. Sometimes we can be a little hasty when we encounter a difficult situation to make it our teacher – the subway, the rude person –  and we start tying it up in the “patience teacher” “compassion teacher” before we’ve actually confronted and sat in it. We can know it’s happening, because the lesson/teaching just sits on the surface of our experience.  It doesn’t sink down in a way that really shifts anything.

face-to-face-bannerOur habit of consoling in relationship is not only strong, but culturally reinforced – it’s pretty much expected of us.

I was with a group of friends as we were about to embark on a day together enjoying the late summer weather – yoga together, then coffee, then brunch, then playing in the park.  One friend could only make the coffee portion due to weekend work coming up.  He expressed feeling disappointed – that inner-three-year-old-disappointed that just wants to stamp it’s foot a bunch of times.  I started to say things like “Well, at least you go to come to coffee.” “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll do this again soon.” “You’ll get a lot out of this work session, right?”

The words just kind of sat there, until I realized I was consoling. And so I told him I took them back, I didn’t mean any of it. And we discussed instead this idea of consoling versus confronting. It’s doesn’t make anything better – but confronting what is can be way more refreshing, nourishing, and in the end, settling than the quick rush to consoling.

Original-Huashan-PicCan you bring this into your life practice?  Do not console, yourself or others.  See what happens.

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.” – Marcel Proust

the earth AND sky

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:
For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

city horizonWalking in Brooklyn, in warmer weather when the cold air doesn’t push your gaze down and in, you can look ahead and see both the earth and the sky.  It’s harder to do in Manhattan, the horizon is obscured, and that meeting place is rarely seen. The head has to move, has to choose, it’s the earth or the sky.

I imagine that when this poem was written, everyone could always see the earth and the sky.  And usually they wouldn’t go too long without seeing them meet at the horizon.

In asana practice, it’s easy to be flipping back and forth – sky/head (breath, intention, gaze) and earth/limbs (standing, balancing, aligning). Skipping around the body is an easy habit to fall into. Earth or sky, sky then earth, earth, earth, sky, sky, sky.  Imagine practicing as this line in the poem: Earth AND sky. In touch and filled all the way through.

BKS Iyengar’s description of satya includes; “…as long as one cell of our body holds back and disagrees with the others, our success is not assured.”  Could you set as your intention to bring all the cells, from sky to earth, on board with your practice? To feel the soles of your feet contacting the earth and all the way through to the crown of your head sensitive to the air above you.  To feel the breath move throughout the body. To integrate every cell – those being flooded with breath, those devoted to focusing with your intention, those sensing your body in space.

Just as we draw lines between earth and sky in the body that don’t really exist – so too with the world. Earth elements are held in particulate in sky and vice versa. The body, the world, is more like the inhale and the exhale – you can be solidly in one part, but pulling out one from the other isn’t actually possible.

This is true of you and your family, lover, dog, apartment, city, and beyond. We are not one hundred percent dependent or independent. You and I are a collection of everyone we’ve ever known, every being we’ve been in contact with today, and vice versa.  And also, you are uniquely, brilliantly, hopefully more and more so, you. The next time you’re at the store, in the subway, at a party, leaving home, bring this in and notice what shifts?

When you are walking outside this week – can you walk taking in the earth AND sky. What shifts?

When you are in the middle of your day, can you feel the breath go down to the soles of the feet and meet the earth and travel all the way up through the horizon of the body to the sky? What shifts?

And when you have a moment of reflection – where in your life is there an OR when AND is more appropriate?

earth and sky
“i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes…”
e.e. cummings  – from Xaipe

Being Ordinary

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:
For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

Ordinary-FeatureThe sons of Zhang and Li.  At the time and place this poem was written, those last names were like Smith and Jones.  Really common. An ordinary person.

I have the pleasure of teaching at two different yoga studios that could be given the title of the “Cheers of yoga studios” – all the students know each others’ names.  As you walk up the stairs to the second floor studios – it can sound as if you’re walking into a café, as the rooms are often filled with the sound of laughter and chatter as yoga friends connect and share life before class starts.

This level of community is fairly unique in New York City. And also, it’s so intrinsic to the nature of each studio – it’s ordinary.  Like Zhang and Li.  Most of the time neither the students, nor myself, find it remarkable at all.

Going to other studios as a student serves a dual purpose – to realize how special each studio is, hopefully inspiring everyone to go deeper in the ways they participate in and build community.  And it also provides the experience of being anonymous – of being ordinary – just another student.

beauty_ordinary_things-2It can feel like being undercover, or playing hooky. Just being ordinary can be exhilarating. It gives us a chance to show up without our stories a little bit more easily. Without the long list of injured/ailing body parts, maybe it allows us to show up healthy today. Without the shared personal history, maybe it allows us to break free of the shell of habitual interacting that has slowly crusted around us. Without the history of poses achieved or failed, maybe it allows us to try something new or take childs pose or not be the one to demonstrate.  It allows us to show up with space. Being ordinary, not being someone special, can be freeing.

Perhaps you practice at a “Cheers studio”, perhaps you have no idea what that would be like.  You can still work with Zhang and Li in your next class:

First, acknowledge the stories you wind up practicing with at that studio – about your body, about your health, about your personal life, about your professional life, about your relationship with the people in the room.

Second, after seeing them, drop them. Shake them off, let them drop.

Third, if one gets stuck, say to yourself “neti neti”, not this not this. Because if you were no longer any of those things, you would still be you. So be that you now. Be beyond “you”ness.

Shunryu Suzuki describes life in community at the monastery Eiheiji from the perspectives of within and without it:

“That is all. And when we were practicing, we did not feel anything special.

We did not feel even that we were leading a monastic life. For us, the monastic life was the usual life, and people who came from city were unusual people. When we saw them we felt, “Oh, some unusual people have come!”

But once I had left Eiheiji and been far away for some time, coming back was different. I heard the various sounds of practice- the bells and the monks reciting the sutra- and I had a deep feeling. There were tears flowing out of my eyes, nose, and mouth! It is the people who are outside the monastery who feel its atmosphere. Those who are practicing usually do not feel anything. I think this is true for everything. When we hear the sound of the pine trees on a windy day, perhaps the wind is just blowing, and pine tree is just standing in the wind. That is all that they are doing. But the people who listen to the wind in the tree will write a poem, or will feel something unusual. That is, I think, the way everything is.”

So perhaps our work, in the end, is a balance: between appreciating how special our ordinary is, and making time to be truly ordinary.  Where, in your ordinary daily life, is there something quite special actually going on? There is an Oscar Wilde quote: “Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.”  Chances are, among your loved ones, you are being treated quite extraordinarily, it’s just so intrinsic we miss it.

Where could you inject a truly ordinary experience into your life? Or take stock of one that might already be occurring, like being on a business trip? How could you be a bit anonymous and step into the freeing space of being Zhang or Li?

Grateful for Pillars and Lanterns

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

For the time being a pillar or lantern.

camping-lanterns-main_feI was driving through one of the snow storms that blazed through New York last winter.  After just having been in a minor snow swerve accident, I then had to drive a further 8 hours (normally 4 hours) home because conditions were so intense. Many insights and lessons came out of that experience.  One was to realize just how important it is to have someone in your life who is a pillar and lantern. Both to lean on, be supported by, and gather strength from. As well as someone who brightens, cheers, and gently guides you forward.  This person was my eyes when I needed, last minute route change navigator, nerve soother, and perhaps most importantly – was willing to “shake it off” in the middle of a rest stop food court so that I could release enough stress to keep going.  There were a few stares.

“Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.
Help someone’s soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.”
-Rumi

The importance of friendship – the pillar and lantern kind – is rooted in the dharma practice:

Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.

“And how does a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path?

Upaddha Sutta

group talkBuddha goes on to give reasons why this is so. One of the first reasons is the quality of conversation you will hear. Obviously not every one of your conversations will be about the path, we all need to debrief on the Walking Dead.  Yet conversation between friends is one of Buddha’s main recommendations for practice. In a small satsang that meets monthly, after we chant, and before we eat, the host introduces a question that everyone will answer. Sometimes it’s spurred by a poem, sometimes by an important dharma point someone is struggling with, sometimes it’s one of those questions that you contemplate but don’t often find a place for it to land in regular conversation.  Having someone (or a community of comrades) to dig in on those topics with is important to the path.

If you don’t have a community in place – look around, start one. It only takes one other person. Food is a great addition. Maybe start with meditating together.

full-heartThe next time you’re on the mat – think of someone who is a pillar and lantern for you, think of a specific person and examples of them being this in your life. Then let your intention for practice to be really grateful that day. Not dedicating the practice to them, or sending them energy, just being really really grateful for a friend. Let them sit right in your heart as you practice. And well up with him or her, without needing to do anything with it, but be filled, supported, brightened.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

Embodying a whisk

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

For the time being a staff or a whisk. Both are tools, both belong to different traditional jobs or offices in a temple: the staff for the zen meditation master, the whisk for the tenzo (the cook in zen temples).

The following bolded lines are from Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun (Instruction for the Tenzo). Translations from Moon in a Dewdrop.

rice “Watch for sand when you examine the rice. Watch for rice when you throw away the sand.”
Can you imagine this task set before you? Two bowls – one filled with the raw rice, another for the rice after examining, and the floor below you for the discarded sand.  Bringing practice into this task is two-fold – both carefully cleaning the rice of sand before considering it clean, and carefully examining the sand before you consider it dirt.

Paying attention not only to the action of the task – the arising of the task, but also to the end – the falling away of the task.  Dogen’s teaching urges us to stay with it – all the way to the end.  In asana this might mean watching equally how we enter, as well as exit a pose – so we don’t wind up with a sequence of starting pose after pose without ever really completing them.  Or in the kitchen, so we don’t wind up with a lot of clean rice without ever really checking to see if we missed any.  Or we spend an entire day moving from one event, task, need, person to the next, without taking any time to pause and be present as it comes to the end. Perhaps, if we did take that time, we might even notice the pause between them – just like the pause at the end of the exhale.

“Do not be careful about one thing and careless about another.”
How can we stay with the beginning and end of a pose? The beginning and end of a breath? The beginning and end of a commute? The beginning and end of a sensation or mood?  We all have areas where we take time to be careful all the way through, and we all have areas where that is not the case.  What are yours? What is one thing, today, you could apply this practice to and see what happens?

“When preparing the vegetables and the soup ingredients to be cooked, do not discuss the quantity or quality of these materials which have been obtained from the monastery officers; just prepare them with sincerity. Most of all you should avoid getting upset or complaining about the quantity of the food materials.”

What would like look like in your office? In your home?

 “Since ancient times this position has been held by accomplished monks who have way-seeking mind, or by senior disciples with an aspiration for enlightenment. This is so because the position requires wholehearted practice.”
How hard is it to do anything whole-heartedly?  For me, this is especially challenging with cooking – it’s so easy to drift off to another task mid-boil, get lost in commentary about completely unrelated topics mid-chop, or get into a mood that makes me less approachable to those I love. Even while writing this dharma, I was making coffee and planning out my words instead of just emptying the grinds.

In B.K.S Iyengar’s translations of “satya” (honesty), he suggests that if every cell of your being is not on board with what you’re saying – it’s not satya.  I like that for a definition of whole-hearted activity – every cell of your being is present and dedicated to this moment.  And also, there’s a mood of whole-heartedness that goes along with that definition.  Without that whole-hearted mood – our movements can become mechanical.

whisk “If there is sincerity in your cooking and associated activities, whatever you do will be an act of nourishing the sacred body”
Sincerity is the quality of being free from pretense…free from trying to make what’s happening anything other than what it is, right now, in this moment.

Sincere, whole-hearted, all the way through from beginning to end practice – this is how we embody a whisk.

Golden Buddhas

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

“We go around as ordinary people and move through the world, but actually we’re spectacular buddhas” – Michael Stone

Three Stories

1) “A traditional Swedish Story: Because of the Black-Dragon-04mishaps of her parents, a young princess named Aris must be betrothed to a fearful dragon. When the king and queen tell her, she becomes frightened for her life. But recovering her wits, she goes out beyond the market to seek a wise woman, who has raised twelve children and twenty-nine grandchildren, and knows the ways of dragons and men.
This wise woman tells Aris that she indeed must marry the dragon, but that there are proper ways to approach him.  She then gives instructions for the wedding night. In particular, the princess is bidden to wear ten beautiful gowns, one on top of another.
The wedding takes place. A feast is held in the palace, after which the dragon carries the princess off to his bedchamber. When the dragon advances toward his bride, she stops him, saying that she must carefully remove her wedding attire before offering her heart to him. And he too, she adds (instructed by the wise woman), must properly remove his attire. To this he willingly agrees.
Then, taking off the first gown, the princess watches as the dragon sheds his outer layer of scaly armor. Though it is painful, the dragon has done this periodically before. But then the princess removes another gown, and then another.  Each time the dragon finds he too must claw off a deeper layer of scales. By the fifth gown the dragon beings to weep copious tears at the pain. Yet the princess continues.
With each successive layer the dragon’s skin becomes more tender and his form softens. He becomes lighter and lighter.  When the princess removes her tenth gown, the dragon releases the last vestige of dragon form and emerges as a man, a fine prince whose eyes sparkle like a child’s, released at last from the ancient spell of his dragon form. Princess Aris and her new husband are then left to the pleasures of their bridal chamber, to fulfill the last advice of the wise woman with twelve children and twenty-nine grandchildren.” – From Jack Kornfield’s “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.”

tall golden buddha2) Building a temple in rural Thailand, a set of monks uncovered the top of a plaster buddha statue – which turned out to be huge – 5 tons! Later, the temple moves several times, and the monks always arrange to have the large buddha statue moved as well.  The third move is into Bangkok, where they had cranes positioning the statue into place.  As it was being set up, a rope from the crane broke and the buddha crashed to the ground, and cracked.  As the monks went up to investigate the damage, they saw that inside the cracks was something shining.  The buddha was actually a gigantic golden buddha that had only been covered over with plaster.

3) When I was in high school, my parents got divorced. At the time, this was still relatively rare for where I grew up – I knew only one other person with divorced parents.  I experienced a range of sadness and disorientation that only occasionally came out in tears at the end of the school day.  My last class happened to be French, and so my French teacher, along with my friends, were the only witnesses to this.  About a year later, I was again with that same French teacher where we were given the assignment to write (in French of course) one nice thing about each person in the class. She compiled them, added her own, and gave them to us.  To this day, I remember that she called me a “steel magnolia”. To this day, it’s one of the compliments I’m most proud of.  Not for a moment during the divorce had I thought about how I was handling it, how it was perceived, or if I was being strong. I’d never thought of myself as strong in any regard. It took her words for me to see it.

Despite how much we may doubt that first quote – or have trouble wrapping our adult-view points around it – it’s true.  And all the ways in which you can, right now, easily accept and name your inner 16-foot golden body – is not it. The most spectacular ways in which it is true, are the ones we don’t easily see – the ones that require a crack, a tearing, a lifetime of effort in order to be known.  And then a further lifetime of polishing.  Tend your inner buddhas, and peer deeply into cracks for what glitters there.