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?

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)

Contracting, Letting Go and Intimacy

The 8 Day Silent Meditation Retreat I went on over the summer with Michael Stone has provided many lessons .  It also provided the opening I needed to create an overdue shift in my daily practice.

Since returning from retreat, I have not played a game on my phone, I have sparingly listened to music on my ipod. When I ride the subway home into Brooklyn I might read a book or listen to a podcast. Rides into the city, I am only present. When I first got back I neither listened to music, nor a podcast.

This is not because the subway has teaching moments I want to be awake to –although it does.

This is not because reading provides me with insights – although it does.

This is not because technology cleanses are necessary – although they are from time to time.

Small-World-600x400This is because that is how I contract – it is what I specifically contract around – it’s where and how I make my world small, disconnect from others, leave the moment, and lose touch with my embodied self. All of which are pretty much the opposite of what I want to cultivate.  However and whenever we contract, this is what happens.

When I began to feel that I could listen to a podcast or music without contraction, I did so. Although I don’t listen to them nearly as much as before, and I go to them to learn, study and enjoy, not to tune out or avoid.

Clues for where you might contract:
1) When I’m deep in the mode of contracting – the discomfort is so strong that it can be almost painful not to contract, not to do that thing.
2) When I’m refreshed and nourished after a vacation, retreat, or deep workshop – I feel unattached, and that those things are not necessary.

When I came back from retreat, I was in just exactly that second mode.  I realized that, in fact, the whole time I thought I had been turning up the ipod in order to maintain a pleasant state in the face of the literal ugliness of the subway – I was actually avoiding being with myself.  I knew I wanted to be present, but who can be enjoyably present with the wet matted trash on the tracks? Being present isn’t being with that external object, it’s being with you, with your body, with your breath. That’s the main focus. I tune outhad been missing that point (avoiding it?) and chose to escape with audio. After the retreat, being with my breath and body was home, and I finally could see how I had been making my world small, turning not only the world out, but myself as well.

The less you contract, the more you’re able to be with your body – to embody, moment to moment to moment your practice. You can be awake with your whole body. You become the best transmitter, physically, energetically and emotionally, of what you most hope to express.

We contract around things in our practice as well – we can contract around our injuries, our desires for the class, our fellow yogis, our balance, the breath itself.  How and when do you make your world small on the mat? How and when do you make your world small in life?  Then make it easy on yourself – the next time you’re in the second mode – reflect on this and use that time to let go AND make your world expansive, connect with others, stay in the moment, and embody your life. Letting go is only ever the first step.

Kaisen said:
Even if you obliterate your meditation seat with tireless sitting (you’re really fierce), and if your conduct is immaculate (like you know how it’s done), even if you’re eloquent dharma teaching astounds heaven and earth causing flowers to rain miraculously from the blue sky, even if you annihilate all thoughts and emotions and your body is like a dry tree, even if you never loose mindfulness though confronted by disaster, even if you die while sitting zazen and appear to have gained great realization and liberation; if you’ve not reached intimacy, it is all without value   (From Dharma Talk by Koshin)

intimacy-in-relationshipsKaisen is a dharma heir of Dogen – who was really big on intimacy. Intimacy with the breath, with the moment, with oneself. And nowadays we think also of intimacy with the sangha, with the teachings, etc.  Let go and be intimate.


dirtThis summer I had the occasion to have my hands in the dirt of two amazing places in upstate New York. Each time, the dirt was so dark and rich, smelling so amazingly fresh, that I just wanted to eat it (alright, I did actually eat it one of the times).

Everything grows out of something else. A tree stump can house not only moss or mushrooms, insect larvae and beetles, but also a whole new tree.

We all grew out of this earth. The more I practice, the more I can feel this. Although it still does take me by surprise sometimes, the default understanding of the earth is hard to shake.

Sanskrit has several different terms for earth to delineate the different kinds of relationships we have with it. English just has one (and a capital letter).  Our default understanding of it is often something that we’re ON, not OF. But if you spend enough time with a forest, you watch not only the mossy fallen trees become dirt, but the hearty standing trees themselves fall, become leaf and moss covered, break down to where they feel more like carpet under foot than wood, and eventually resemble dirt more than anything else. You feel in your bones that this too, is what happens with us.

It is not poetic to say that sitting in the forest, it feels like the stones and water are my bones and blood, or that the layers of leaves are my skin, and the trees veins to my heart.

enso“When we feel the beauty of the river, when we are one with the water, we intuitively do it in Dogen’s way. It is our true nature to do so. But if your true nature is covered by ideas of economy or efficiency, Dogen’s way makes no sense.” Shunryu Suzuki

What is Dogen’s way? To bring a bucket to a nearby river to retrieve water.  After filling up the bucket, he would dump part of it back into the river. Not to make it the right weight to carry, but to return a bit to the river. To have that connection. To take care of the river.

This is our practice – taking care of what’s around us, what’s right in front of us, what we’re in relationship with.

Below the flights of stairs, layers of pavement, sewers, and subways, deep down there is earth that needs us to take care of it.  Deep down under your partner, child, friend, there is something that needs to be taken care of.

In the wake of the Climate March, and the climate UN meetings, remember that it is not just (and perhaps, controversially, not at all) the government and regulations that will take care of the earth.  It is us, if the same number of people who attended the march committed to 10 small acts* of environmentalism, it would make a difference. If we practice, it will make a difference.  It is not necessary to try to be better, or to aid the environment as a mission – we all naturally want to do that – we just need to really practice. So really practice.

10 Small Acts of Environmentalism You can do for the Rest of Your Life:

*Never buy another roll of paper towels. Use small rags. It creates no greater water or laundry detergent use than I’ve always used to wash my regular bathing towels. (Ditto with paper napkins)
*Use a shower head that pauses the flow, or an adapter for your current shower head.
*Never buy another conventional cleaning product. Buy ones like Meyers Brand, or make your own.
*Spend time in nature regularly. Develop a relationship with a particular place in nature.
*Never buy another plastic bottle of water. Buy one of the multitude of refillable water bottles to your weight and aesthetic needs. If you plan ahead, and accept the small inconvenience, it becomes something you don’t even think about.
*Never buy another garbage bag. Use the plastic ones from grocery stores you get when you forget to bring your reusable bag/don’t have enough with you.
*Be educated about what is currently most sustainable to buy, and buy that. For example, cork yoga blocks came on the scene as a great alternative to the foam blocks.  Then everything started to be made from cork. Then cork trees began to be endangered. Now bamboo is best. Although I hear they are cutting down regular forests in some places to build bamboo ones. Don’t get bowled under by these kinds of situations. Make the best choice possible at the time you’re making it.
*Institute the old camp favorite: If it’s yellow, let it mellow…
*Never “print something for your records again”.  Create a PDF, and file it electronically.   As a yoga teacher, I have to itemize my purchases each year for taxes. I used to print all my receipts from online purchases. I don’t print a single one anymore.  Anything I do print, I print double-sided. Anything with one side that I eventually am done with, I use the other side as note paper.
*Compost and Recycle so regularly that when you’re somewhere it isn’t possible to do, it hurts a little to put it in the trash.

Mother_Earth caitlin taylor*Bonus: Be creative – what works in your life? What are other ways? How do you care for this one and precious earth?

Asana 1: Sthira Sukham

I was inspired to re-delve into the eight limbs from reading a passage of Dogen’s in the collection “Moon in a Dewdrop”.  It’s only fitting that in coming to the most popular of the eight limbs – asana – we investigate through Dogen’s lens with an excerpt from the Genjo Koan – Acutalizing the Fundamental Point. (Click here and here to read more about Sthira Sukham Asanam)


“A fish swims in the ocean and no matter how far it swims,
there is no end to the water.
A bird flies in the sky and no matter how far it flies,
there is no end to the air.
However, the bird and the fish have never left their elements”

fish sky The question arises; Have You? Have you ever left your element?

Which is not to ask; Have you explored outside your comfort zone? But rather; Have you gone past your beneficial boundaries? Have you overextended yourself? Have you spent an inordinate amount of time being your social self, without sinking into your original self?

Yes. We do it all the time. Usually, we are aware only after we’ve returned, when we say things such as, “I feel like myself again.”

So the next question arises; Do you know what nurtures you? What reinforces you being in your element?

When I personally think about things that do – for example, studying with my teachers, it’s not remembering the details.  It’s not, per se, their teachings, advice or philosophy.  It’s remembering how it feels to be around them, who I am when I’ve been around them, and how that extends out afterwards. It’s a place that holds space for me to both work on myself, and be myself.

Can we allow sthira sukham to be recast from a command to be steady and joyful, to a reminder of who you are when you are steady and joyful, when you’re in your element?

Dogen continues:

 “When their activity is large, their field is large, when their need or activity is small, their field is small”

fieldWhat is your field? Sometimes it’s the universe of the breath, sometimes the yoga mat, sometimes the neighborhood, sometimes it’s the whole world.  At those times, it’s not your office, nor your home. When it is your office or your home, it is not the yoga room.

Sometimes life is huge, and you are called upon to fill it all, and yoga asks you to  do so staying in your element.  You are party planner, host, mother of two small children, best friend of a friend in need, and wife all at the same evening event. You are a manager of employees, yourself an employee, responsible for the success of a project that is dictated by another, and need to figure out the IT situation preventing the work from being done, all in the same half hour.

How do we fill large fields, or let go into small fields, with sthira and sukham? First – find your element. From there –  realize that you act within your field for the sake of that action, with success or failure not mattering either way.  The Bhagavad Gita shares this wisdom.  But it’s only philosophy until you do it. Until you stand in honest presence before your field, grounded with both feet in your element, and decide the field and the whole way out to the horizon do not depend on what you get, or don’t get.

Try it on the practice field of asana. Internally stand before the pose (field), find your sthira sukham beginning with an exhale (element), and imagine doing the asana perfectly, but invisible.  No one will know, you will have no feedback or barometer for how it went. All you will be left with was how you existed in your element, in that field, in that moment.



“Thus the bird and the fish totally covers their full range and totally experiences their life”

Michael Stone says nothing obstructs steadiness and joy (enlightenment) more than believing it is outside of you and your life.

Rumi (2061) says

Give yourself a kiss.
If you live in China, don’t look
somewhere else, in Tibet, or Mongolia.

If you want to hold the beautiful one,
hold yourself to yourself.

When you kiss the Beloved,
touch your own lips with your own fingers.

The beauty of every woman and every man
is your own beauty.

The confusion of your hair
obscures that sometimes.

An artist comes to paint you
and stands with his mouth open.

Your love reveals your beauty,
but all covering would disappear
if only for a moment your holding-back
would sit before your generosity
and ask,
“Sir, who are you?”

At that,
Shams’ life-changing face
gives you a wink.

Svadhyaya 3 ~ Forget the Self


Svadhyaya – Self-study:  study of the Self, study of the self, study of oneself, study by oneself


Svadhyaya 3 ~ Forget the Self

SAMSUNGWhen the Buddha gave his first sermon, he said that the things he realized would be difficult, even for the wise, to hear.  He continued that this is because “people love, delight and revel in their place.”

Take suffering – we all have our own particular brand of suffering – when we feel put upon, slighted, ignored, unwanted/loved, taken for granted, taken advantage of, etc.  – and at this point in many of our lives, we have gotten that suffering to be so sweet.  I know this was true for me, and still is sometimes.  It’s such a unique form of sweetness, that you don’t realize it for quite awhile.

We also have our flavor of delight –  in being someone who loves/hates/enjoys/dislikes wine, coffee, beer, horoscopes, vampires, politics, yoga, gym yoga, green, curly hair, etc.  We can get so solid in those, just reveling in that in us, in the structure that we’ve established of us.  But there’s also the us behind that structure. That would still be there if that structure crumbled.

You can see where this is going – they all prevent us from being in touch with our svarupa – our true selves (Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam).  So we study our place, our self, in order to let go and make room for the Self.

Or as Dogen says:  To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.

Or as the Tao 48 says: In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.

The next time you practice asana, let your intention be to practice in possibility – not the structure of reveling you have already established.  Whenever “I always…”  “My ___ can’t…” “This is the way it is” or “I’m the exception” show up notice that this is the structure of the self, and see if you can loosen it enough to identify with the Self behind it all.


Recommended listening:  Ram Dass’s “Here We All Are”  minutes 1:42:21-1:45:12.

Recommended meditation practice: Neti Neti (not this, not this)