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

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.

Asana as Object of Meditation

Yathabhimata-dhyanada va  PYS I.39
– Or (steadiness of mind is attained) from meditation upon anything of one’s inclination.

This sutra appears at the end of a listing of various objects a yogi is suggested to use for meditation practice.  In the yoga system, meditation is almost exclusively encouraged through methods of concentrating the mind in one place, creating a groove in the mind in one direction that replaces and stills all the multiple grooves and dances the mind is usually following.  Once this one pattern is established, it too, eventually, is let go and:

Tada drastuh svarupe vastanama PYS I.3
-Then the seer abides in her/his own true nature

In Edwin Bryant’s commentary on this sutra, he mentions BKS Iyengar’s book Tree of Yoga.  In this book Mr. Iyengar offers what Edwin Bryant sees as an innovation to sutra I.39 – to take asana as the object of meditation.  This is an innovation because while asana is mentioned several times in the yoga sutras, it is never mentioned in this context. However, if a yogi were to practice asana with it being the single point of concentration, Edwin Bryant says, it would absolutely be in line with these teachings.  It might, he says, even be a more advisable practice than ever before, due to the way that most yoga is approached today – through asana.

How then can we put this in to practice? How do we make asana, which is constantly changing throughout a practice, something steady enough to meditate on, as an object of concentration?  The breath seems like a good lead, but that has its own sutra.  A specific body part could work, and I believe does in the Iyengar tradition, but it doesn’t really suit the vinyasa style class, in my mind.

This reminds me of what Davidji spoke about during the Master Classes at the beginning of the year.  While sitting in virasana (hero’s pose), he asked us to consider what the “energy signature” of the pose is. He said that all poses have their own energy signature – much like an energetic graffiti tag.  He encouraged us to see it.  Then to have a sense of each energy signature like a sound vibration, or like a letter, and that when we practice a vinyasa (especially a strict one-breath-count vinyasa like Suryanamaskars) to feel that we are stringing them together into a sentence, a chant, a prayer.  And it’s not cool to mispronounce prayers… So make sure that each pose is as fully “pronounced” an energy signature as your body is capable of, then let go and move onto the next.

I believe if we were to set this as our intention for our vinyasa practice – to really enact asana as chants or prayers, with that much concentration on fully enunciating the energy signature, we could approach this idea of using asana as a point of concentration.

To fully enunciate the signature requires a great deal of concentration – and a dialogue between the external structure of the body, and the internal energy.  Without the external structure and alignment being maintained, the energy signature gets static-y or completely fuzzed out. Without the energy signature, we may as well be doing any other form of workout. To fully enunciate a pose, to create a resonant vibration of a chant with our asana, it is necessary to have this back and forth between the external and internal – in every pose, every time, all class long.

From there we could begin to imagine how carrying over a practice like this to our day would make us more aware of the moment to moment of our lives.  We might be encouraged to savor the moments more, and be less likely to arrive at the end of the day and feel like it was all a blur.  We might even start to be aware of the “sentences” that we create with the physical and mental asanas we perform throughout the day, and decide if we could make them more true to the story we want to be creating on our path.