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.

Pratipaksa Bhavanam II

Pratipaksa Bhavanam 2  ~ PYS II.34

So often I have moments in my own practice, and have heard from other practitioners “I did that thing again. I see it. Again. How long will I be stuck only seeing this habit? When will I be able to shift?”

We’ve duly noted our habits, vices, or moments of spiritual narcolepsy – whether they be giving a dirty look, drinking root beer, telling that gray lie, or whatever our particular pattern is. We’ve worked on accepting them, without judgement. And yet… there they go again!

The first shift is being able to foresee the habit, maybe only by the smallest of margins, maybe the hand is already in the fridge with the root beer firmly grasped. And yet! A moment is opened wide for us to contemplate in.

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And like the Lorax we ask “Which way does a tree fall?”

And answer, “Whichever way it’s leaning.”

We look at where we would fall if we were to continue on with the pattern, and use that as motivation to not continue onwards.

So we put the root beer back, we grab the alternative and head off. With two further points of practice:

1)     Letting Go – Theoretically to reach the point of putting the root beer back from a place of acceptance and recognition of habit would imply you have let go of root beer. That is not always the case, it’s important to watch out for false letting go – pushing away. Letting go is all about the internal state, and not at all about the external actions.  If you’re still internally occupied with root beer, it matters little whether or not you drink it.  Make sure to stay meditative and honest with where you are. It is possible to have completely let go of root beer, and yet drink it every day.  That’s a high level of letting go, and not something to reach for.  But you can imagine what that might be like.

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2)    Leaning – Now that you’re in a groove of foreseeing, expand it!  It’s not just for those big patterns of habit.  It can be an intention in asana class to return to, or one you practice throughout the day. Ask yourself “What way would I fall in this moment?” “What way am I leaning?” Then adjust, so that when we do fall (because we never won’t fall), we cause the least harm possible, and feel stronger and surer of ourselves as we stand back up.

How do you lean when you’re on the subway? Walking down the street? Running late for work? Making purchases in the grocery store? When you know you’re going into a situation that usually prompts you to   X     — prep beforehand. Set yourself up so that you will take your time with your choice, be honest, and choose to let go.

DNA Bases Alignment“People often describe the genome as a blueprint, but it’s more like a weather report. It can’t tell us what tomorrow’s clouds will look like, but it can warn us there’s a chance of rain.” Richard Eskow (in Tricycle)

Whether the fall is hereditary heart disease or osteoporosis, whether it’s lifestyle illness or heartbreak. Whether it’s separation, or losing someone we love. Whether we stop being mindful, and start taking it out on our relationships. Whatever it it – it’s going to happen, we just don’t know exactly how or when. But we know we all fall.  How you lean now will make all the difference. Scientifically speaking, emotionally speaking, yogically speaking, human beingly speaking.

Asteya


Asteya, non-stealing.  Perhaps one of the easiest to abide by yamas, and yet Patanjali felt it worth a place in the cannon of ethical ways to work with others.

Two perspectives:

1)    Broaden the definition

The full definition of asteya is not taking things belonging to others (Edwin Bryant).  Still, when taken at face-value, it seems obvious – don’t take another student’s awesome yoga mat home with you while they’re in the bathroom.

But what if we broaden our definition of “things”, and start to include “time”, “talent”, “love”, “space”, “energy”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice very much alive in each moment – choosing to take up an extra seat on the subway for your bag, or not – choosing not to ask that extra favor of a friend when they are already so busy – choosing not to take your frustration out on a loved one because they will always be there –  choosing not to plan your grocery shopping during savasana or meditation – it can become a really interesting lens for viewing our choices and actions.

How about if we broaden our definition of “others”, and start to include “the Earth”, “animals”, “our ancestors”, “future generations”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice that peers into every nook of our lives – choosing to use an animal’s fur to keep yourself warm, or not – choosing not to add additional pollution or usage strain to the water supply of your grandchildren – choosing to watch a documentary on the condition of the Earth (11th Hour, Flow, Earthlings, I am …) to become more knowledgeable of ways we may inadvertently be stealing from the Earth  – choosing not to take the credit due to someone who came before you – asteya starts to become something a lot more complex and fascinating to work with than simple theft.

2)    Letting go

At the root of asteya – is letting go of desire.  If you don’t desire that awesome yoga mat belonging to the yogi next to you, you won’t be inclined to steal it.  Letting go of desire is cutting asteya off before it can even become an issue, and it’s also the foundation of the Budhha’s  Four Noble Truths, some of the earlier practices in the Yoga Sutras such as Vairagya, and the heart of the Bhagavad Gita’s karma yoga.

Letting go of desire though, is a “biggie” in terms of our practice.  As Ram Dass says – surrender is only surrender when there is no surrender.  In other words – letting go doesn’t really work if you stop drinking coffee, but think of it as much as you used to drink it.

The next time you practice asana, try this intention: start by focusing on the breath.  Notice the inhales and exhales, gradually lengthening them to a comfortable asana practice duration.  Then let go of noticing the breath, and don’t replace it with anything.

Too often in our practices, we’re busy thinking something yogic, we’re busy thinking anatomy, we’re multitasking in our asana.  One of the hardest practices can be to let go of trying to change your awareness to be directed in a specific way – without letting it go wherever it wants.  It’s one of the things I most enjoy when I take class.  So often in my home practice I multitask thinking about students, and teaching points, wording, dharma talks, actions of energy, etc.  When I take class it’s incredibly mentally freeing to just let go, even of focusing on the breath.  It’s also a great trust exercise that your breath will continue to serve your asana without your strict attention.  Although the breath is a great starting point – so when the mind does get distracted and you notice, start again with noticing intently the inhales and exhales, and then let go again. And again. And again.

“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.”
― Rumi

Maha Mrtyunjaya Mantra ~ Moksha Mantra

Om tryambakam yajamahe / sugandhim pushti-vardhanam / urvarukam iva bandhanan / mrtyor mukshiya mamrtat swaha *

We worship the supreme light, the Absolute Shiva, who has three eyes, who is fragrant and nourishes all beings.  This light is the expression and communication of our life, and it is our physical, mental and spiritual radiation and prosperity.  Kindly release us from all calamities, bondage and suffering, just as the cucumber is released from its stalk, without any injury. May our minds be absorbed into Shiva, amrtam (nectar), the ocean of tranquility.
(Shukla-Yajur Veda, translation by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati)

Often called the Moksha Mantra, the Maha Mrtyunjaya Mantra is considered the yogi “birthday” song, a powerful healing mantra, and representing the development of freedom that is the path of yoga.  With its reference to Shiva, cucumbers, and nectar of the gods, the translation and commentary of this chant can seem unclear, obscure, or even worse, irrelevant.

Focusing on the last two lines, we can uncover a clear, direct message on how to work towards freedom (moksha) both on and off the mat.

The metaphor of the cucumber (urvarukam) addresses the manner in which a yogi moves towards freedom or enlightenment.  The cucumber’s path toward ripeness is one of action and work, filled with influences from the natural world and the variety of forces and people around and within it, just as is necessary for our own growth. There comes a point, however, where grace takes over, and there is an effortless falling away. When a cucumber is ripe, it will drop from the vine.  After this natural falling away, it will appear completely whole, without any sign of separation on either end – no stem mark or scar.  The cucumber does not still yearn for the vine.  It is as if there never even was a vine. It is whole, complete, just as it is. Just as we are, and through effort and grace, we experience it.

One of my early teachers used to tell us “there is no force in yoga” when the class had gotten particularly carried away with trying to “do” yoga, or achieve a certain outward form of a pose.  She guided us back from the tendency to push, to effort, into yoga. This is, in effect, what the Moksha Mantra is doing.

So how do we realistically work with the balance of effort and grace? How to we emulate the cucumber?

I like to think of the idea of life as the Self arraying itself.  The timeless, formless, free of suffering innate Self within us is in the constant play of dressing itSelf in the clothes of the self.  We dress ourselves in enough layers to survive Arctic winters.  We are dressed in our names, our preferences, our identities, our emotions, our habits, our speech patterns, method of commuting, career, yoga style, outward appearances, neighborhoods, and anything else that describes us. Each of these is another tank-top, pair of jeans, socks, long-sleeved shirt that we, most of the time, identify as our nature, who we are.

Our work, our effort, is to experience our identity as layers that we wrap around our Self. To sit with eyes closed, to walk down the street eyes wide open, to fall asleep, to converse with others feeling the nakedness of the Self under all the layers we operate under. And we do this as many times, as often as we can. Every choice we make is either a movement towards reinforcing the self or moving towards the Self.  Even the way we practice asana. It is not enough to show up. Make choices that uncover. Yoga is the process and development of this uncovering.  Yogis are given multiple tools (when in doubt, come back to the breath – be aware of a full inhale, a full exhale, repeat). Use them, constantly, continuously, for a long time.

We then take it one step further. We imagine all those layers dropping, falling away, sliding down to the floor.  We stand, sit, lay there naked of the arrayment of the Self, and exist as the Self.  That falling away occurs with grace, as a direct result of the repeated work of understanding the nature of the Self/self.  As the clothes drop to the floor, we fall off the stalk, fully ripe, bearing no mark from our attachment to those layers of self.  There is no force in this final act. We can not strip ourselves of our identity and layers. There is only a natural falling away.

The chant ends with swaha, which simply means “let go” or “I offer it up”.  It lies at all points on the path; to confront/sit with what arises and let go. To get a sense of this, rest in child’s pose with your palms face up.  Bring to mind that thing that happened earlier today, and imagine it flowing out through the palms of your hands, swaha.  Then bring to mind that disappointment from last week, that worry of tomorrow, that recent success, that reason you smiled today, each one, let go. Offer it up through your hands, swaha. Empty out. As you empty out, notice how you do not feel empty. This is your Self, your true nakedness.  As you become established in this, take swaha with you when you go shopping and your favorite food is not in stock. Take it with you to yoga class when you finally balance in an inversion in the center of the room, swaha.  Even the desire for enlightenment, swaha.

In the end, this is Siva’s chant, the first yogi.  Starting with him, yogis have always been the wild ones.  Be wild. Be brazen. Be naked.

*To hear this chanted, I recommend listening to Manorama’s version on her album “Awaken Fire”.

*Refer to tao te ching #48, for another look at this idea

Savasana ~ corpse pose

Pattabhi Jois is quoted by Michael Stone in “The Inner Tradition of Yoga”, as saying that savasana is the one pose you should do, if you can’t do any others.  This might surprise some yogis who have heard that sirsasana (headstand) is the king of all poses. The ONE to do, not only if short on time, but also as a palliative. October seemed a fitting month to explore the pose and the concept of death in its yogic context.

Besides respecting the words of Pattabhi Jois, why else should we study death?  First, consider that no matter what lineage, what style, what teacher, what location, what day time or other variable, every yoga class will include savasana.  We study intently, over long periods of time, our alignment in trikonasana (triangle pose), the depth of our exhale, our meditative seat, the correct prop to modify a pose, along with multiple other aspects of the practice.  In the same way, savasana, and therefore death, deserve the same treatment.

Second, it is not only what we are inevitably born to do, but it is what we currently are.  In the Buddhist tradition, impermanence is one of the three basic characteristics of existence.  To study death is not only a study of the future, but of the present moment.

Third, it cultivates a respect for the present moment from which blooms gratefulness. Also from that cultivation arises a reminder to savor and live each moment fully.

How, then, do we work with becoming intimate with impermanence, with death?

1)      Become intimate with the breath. The breath is a precious and vital yogic tool which aids the yogi in multiple ways. With the repetitive birth-death cycle (inhales & exhales) of the breath as guide, certain insights may arise about the nature of birth and death on a larger scale.

2)      Become intimate with all the “tiny deaths” that surround our daily life, such as the cycle of a day, the life cycle of clothing, the cycles found in the food you eat, the balance of your bank account, the ink levels in your printer, the pens you use to write, the technology that surrounds you, the blink of your eye, teachers and teachings.  All of these express impermanence.  It is a yogi’s challenge to refute Yuddisthira’s observation* in the Bhagavad Gita, by remaining aware of these little deaths, and, just as with working with the breath, begin to allow the seeds of insight to dig in your awareness.

3)      Death meditation. There are various ways to practice a death meditation.  Locations can range from your living room to a cemetery to a loved one’s hospital bedside.  Methods can include visualizations, reading literature on the stages of death (scientific, or in such philosophical texts as “The Tibet Book of Living and Dying”), contemplating the world you have created around you without you in it, or any of several other techniques.  The basic work in this kind of meditation to fully confront your (specifically and uncomfortably) death.

4)      Let Go meditation.  Set aside a time that will allow you to wander through each room of your living area completely.  As you move, contemplate each belonging. Stay with that belonging, keep it in your gaze, until you become comfortable with it no longer being in your life.  Do this with everything from the new computer you bought, to the hand-me-down couch that needs to be donated, to the ring your grandmother passed to you, to your collection of music, to your photos, to whatever you have on you at that time.

5)      Contemplate during asana, meditation, or quiet reflection the Yoga Sutras, Tao Te Ching, or other texts’ passages on death. For example: Tao 50 “…He holds nothing back from life; therefore he is ready for death, as a man is ready for sleep after a good day’s work.” This passage speaks to how practicing savasana after asana is a practice for dying after life, bring this to your next practice, both the asana and savasana portions.

6)      Pull from your own experience. As with all yoga practices, make it relevant to you and your life.

Allow these practices to be uncomfortable, disconcerting, frustrating, upsetting, uplifting, freeing, joyous, exhilarating, or boring.  Recall the “This too shall pass” popular yoga story:

A student was struggling in his meditation practice. His body constantly called him away through pain or other distractions. His mind wandered. He saw himself as foolish for wasting time sitting around. Frustration and anger resulted from every session. He considered quitting. He went to his teacher and told him this.

His teacher considered and replied, “It will pass.”

The student returned to his practice. Time went by.  His body began to settle and fall away from his mind’s eye when he sat. His awareness was steady. Soon he began to feel subtle shifts in his perception. Elated, he returned to his teacher to share the good news.

His teacher considered and replied, “This too shall pass.”

Inspirations for this post include:

Michael Stone (especially his chant “Life and death are of supreme importance…”)

Tao Te Ching

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Jack Gilbert “Tear it Down”

Tias Little‘s dharma talk at the Shala, NYC, 10/11/2009

*When asked, “Of all things in life, what is most astounding?” Yuddisthira replied, “That a person, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.”