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.

Wrathful Deities

“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.

wrathful deityFor the time being three heads and eight arms – the wrathful deity. The part of us that pushes back against what’s arising with ferocity, without breath, without our tools. We all have this in us. My teacher, Michael Stone, jokes that it’s called “before espresso” for him.

When are you a wrathful deity in life? When are you a wrathful, even minor, deity in asana? On the cushion? We all have this quality. It can be towards others, it can be towards ourselves. When are you a wrathful deity?

Once acknowledgement of the wrathful deity comes, we can start with softening: the jaw, the gaze – all the way to the roots of the eyes. We can relax our recently narrowed viewpoint by releasing the soft palette. Then noting the hands, allow them to rest their continual at-the-ready tension as we let go of clinging to what we expected or wanted the moment to be.  At the end of the inhale say to yourself “let”, at the end of the exhale “go”.  If you notice the words migrate to the beginning of the breath, you’ve started to tighten and over-do.

I can be a wrathful deity when I drive. But I had no idea until about three years ago when I started driving again. I had lived for the past twelve years without driving. Now I drive two hours to see my family a few times a month, I drive five hours several times a year for retreat, and once a year I drive eight hours for silent retreat. Those are one way. Now I’ve had a chance to work with it, and I’m happy to report that I’m no longer a wrathful deity when I drive, or only a very minor one…J

Here’s what I learned:

  • I needed to be in right in the middle of what brings out my wrathful deity in order to work with it. I couldn’t do it on an island in the pacific where we’re mostly bare feet (I used to live in Hawaii). I couldn’t do it in a jazz filled trolley car walking city (I used to live in New Orleans). Despite how magical both those places are, my wrathful deity just laid dormant. It’s important to remember, when we get frustrated with living in a city (or whatever frustrates you), that it’s a gift for the yogi. Don’t avoid your wrathful deity.
  • After the acknowledgement stage, I needed to figure out which tool to use, and then set it in motion prior to the triggering situation. So I’d sit in the car before pulling out of the spot, put on the right music, breathe, look around and say to myself “It’s not mine”. And keep all of that going, with a relaxed tongue and drivingroof of the mouth. With soft eyes.
  • Notice when the patterns become run-off versus actual wrathfulness. There was a point where I would realize that the wrathful thoughts that ran through my mind had nothing to do with how I actually felt. It was just mental run off. It’s important to be in tune enough with the body, breath, and thoughts to spot this. Otherwise the thoughts can trigger you back into the state. Also, our internal practice and growth deserves a nod every now and then for the progress it’s made (without attachment to results, of course)

Highest Peaks and Deepest Oceans

“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.

Close your eyes. Feel the breath in your rib cage, feel the subtle expansion and contraction of the inhale and exhale.  The height of the collarbones and broadening of the skull on the inhale, the depths of the exhale down in the pelvic floor.  Our very essence is one of contraction and expansion, of highs and lows, inhales and exhales.

top of mountainFor the time being, embody fully where you are right now – the highest peak or the deepest ocean. We all know what it’s like to be in both of those places. We also all know what it’s like to either try and hold onto that space, or to feel like it will never end.  Our very heart beats out to us the message that it’s not possible, not true.  When we fully take in the first two lines of Dogen’s poem, we are listening deeply to this message. We are fully embodying right where we are, right now, in this moment.
bottom of ocean.1“In the midst of pleasure, we are anxious about when it will end. In the midst of possession, we worry about loss. Even the most beautiful birth and most gracious death come with pain, for entering and leaving the body is inherently a painful process. We know that throughout our day, experience changes from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant, and back again, ceaselessly.” Jack Kornfield

When we share our day with others, how bizarre that we often reduce it down to one word or mood. Keeping separate that which is simply in flux. Conditions come and certain parts of our day and mood arise, different conditions swell in, and things change.  The subway car fills with people and there is discomfort, it empties at the next stop and there is spaciousness, a man comes through asking for money and there is concern, we step off the car and there is cold.  Our life is more inhale and exhale than our sequential minds believe it to be.

Listen – A short excerpt from Ram Dass’s “Making Friends with Change” Podcast. I recommend listening to his reading before googling the printed version.

We extend this to our practice:

“Now, at the stage that many people I meet are at, they do their practice, their method, as “good” and as well as they can. And then they take a little time off. They say, “Well that’s been great; now what do you say we have a pizza and a beer and listen to some good music?” Now that – pizza, beer, and music – could do it for them too, except in their mind there’s a model that the “time off” has nothing to do with it.”  Ram Dass from Grist for the Mill

I don’t know about you, but I have definitely done this. And my first instinct upon coming across this passage and essentially being called out in a very specific way – was defensive. I need time off- it’s hard work to practice off the mat or cushion. But then I thought – why would I want to being doing something if that’s how I feel about it? Why would I be committing to a life time of delving deeper into something I needed to be away from.  And I saw habit thoughts around the concept of “work” – it’s something I’ll put effort into in its time, and then I need my time off from it to “relax” and really enjoy life. That’s not at all how I actually see my practice.  With that, I realized how accurate Ram Dass’s critique was – in ways I hadn’t even known.  Now I think – I just don’t want to do anything, anymore, without being as fully there as possible. Whether it’s drinking with friends, or watching Netflix, or sitting with trees, or studying with my teacher, or engaging in relationships.  It’s not separate. One is not a black or white sheep. Whether a high or a low, being fully in that space means being fully present, as fully awake as I’m capable of in that moment. And I stopped using “work” to apply to my practice, or study, or teaching, or the dharma in general.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
if it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
and expanding,
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.

-Rumi (excerpt)

Questions

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

postit questionsExcerpt

Villagers: “Yet this we ask ere you leave us, that you speak to us and give us of your truth. And we will give it unto our children, and they unto their children, and it shall not perish. In your aloneness you have watched with our day, and in your wakefulness you have listened to the weeping and the laughter of our sleep. Now therefore disclose us to ourselves, and tell us all that has been shown to you of that which is between birth and death.”

The Prophet: “People of Orphalese, of what can I speak save of that which is even now moving within your souls?”

Can you picture this?  A group of eager inquisitive people have their shining eyes turned toward this man.  They want to know everything about life he has to tell.  Instead, he tells them it’s all already right there inside them.  Of course he goes on to tell them, but he gives that pause, that opportunity for them to trust themselves.

thinking questionWe can do this too  – not be in such a rush.  Give space after the question. Let it roll around for a bit in your practice, in your body, in your life, like a mantra. See what arises.

Sometimes you wind up with more questions, and you begin to realize that questions might be answers.  The pause can make space for questions you hadn’t thought to ask before.

question othersCan you imagine how seductive it is for the Prophet? To be the ONE that knows what everyone else wants. The next time you’re in a position to be the ONE – perhaps at work where you hold a senior position, at home with a young family member, or with someone who recently joined the hobby you’ve been doing for years – consider giving them an opportunity to know. Resist the urge to give the answer right away.  A simple “What do you think could work?” “What would you do?” could instruct more than an answer ever could. Maybe you’ll still need to give the answer, but creating that space in invaluable.  Practice this with others, practice it with yourself.

“Instead of gathering knowledge, you should clear your mind.  If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours. When you listen to our teaching with a pure, clear mind, you can accept it as if you were hearing something which you already know.” Shunryu Suzuki

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Equanimity: More Than One Story

On the announcement of being one of the first professors to be fired from Harvard, Ram Dass (then Richard Alpert) was in a room with the press. He writes, “They had that look on their faces you have when you’re around a loser… And I looked around and saw that everybody believed in only one reality to this situation except me.”

One of the hallmarks of when we’re in that more awake and story2aware space is that we’re not tunnel visioned into just one way of seeing ourselves or others or a situation.  We hold space, we don’t make up our minds about what’s in front of us, we have more than one story – without needing any of them to be right or wrong.

“My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.  Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.”   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Danger of a Single Story

Books are about specifically American and British lives, and they are also specifically about Nigerian ones.  Being fired from Harvard was disgraceful, and it was also freeing. Working ourselves free from the habit of a single story cultivates the type of equanimity required to really see ourselves and others, to really be present with the moment arising in front of you.

Often we drift into a single story when we are explaining “why”, and using language like “That’s just the way it is. That’s just the way I am, she is, he is, the government is, my handstand is, my body is.” Or, like Ram Dass, when our culture has a very strong single view of a situation.  It can be hard to climb out from under that.

stories1When we notice there’s just one story in our perception, we can stop, and ask “That’s one story, what’s another one?” Who or what do you have a just one story about? Where do you feel stuck? Test run this question now, and then try it out over the next few weeks. Try it with people, try it with yourself, try it with situations. Let equanimity be your guide. When it starts to slip too far from your field of vision, check in with this question.  Save yourself from having a single story of any aspect of your life.