Obstacles to Practice: Doubt

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

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

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

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

 

doubt negativeDoubt – sanshaya

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

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

Two Doubts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obstacles to Practice: Sickness

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

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

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

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

How we practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How we’re calledmoney-and-illness

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

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

How joy enters

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

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

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

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.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

samantha cross stitch

The preamble: When I was much younger, I was the proud owner of Samantha . She was a doll of the Victorian era, and as such, the make-at-home activity that came with her was a cross-stitch sampler. After much struggle (and much help from my mom), I became the doubly proud owner of a small pillow emblazoned with tiny x’s reading: Actions Speak Louder Than Words. Which I promptly gifted to my mom that Christmas.  There began the fodder for her admonishment upon my various actions of teens and twenties “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” – often with a sad downturned shake of her head.  Brutal. I hated that pillow.  I was clumsy! I was absent minded! I was young! Believe my words! I couldn’t understand her insistence.

The relevance: After 8 days of silence in community with strangers, on the morning before we were to speak again, that pillow suddenly became so clear. I got it. After a week of silent full-on interactions with others, of coordinating manual labor, meals, bathroom sharing, common area use, and many tiny other daily activities – words suddenly seemed a bit, well, unnecessary.  I had whole relationship arcs including disputes, resolutions, space and reconciliation. I deeply cared for people. I finally understood the concept of the overlay of words, and how words can be anything – but actions imbued with that much intention aren’t.

The lesson: Returning from retreat, I quickly noticed how the return of words left me using my body body_language_by_moni158-d5a4gndin relation to others in a lazy way.  The juxtaposition made it clear just how much I forgot about my body, and interacted with others from the chin up.  Of course, there is body language going on all the time at varying levels of consciousness. How to move that from being so unconscious? How to move it beyond flirting, getting a job, or detecting lying? How to make it less lazy?

It can seem like words are all we have to connect us – in fact several well respected counselors will actually tell us this. But I’d like to put forward the theory of intentional action.  And that attempting this in our regular lives allows us to be more connected to ourselves and the moment. More able to feel our feet and breath in a day. Better able to respond to situations as we might be working towards. More grounded.

For a week – can you move through your day as if you had no verbal communication (sign language or otherwise)?

“A seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have I found in silences that I may dispense with confidence?”

-Kahlil Gibran

Svadhyaya 1 ~ Svadhyaya as Silence

The final two niyamas: Svadhyaya and Isvara pranidhanadva can be the most challenging, both to work with and discuss, as they are the most internal and therefore less in the range of words and more in the range of experience.  The first evidence of which is finding it necessary to break Svadhyaya into three separate posts. We’ll see what happens when we get to Isvara! The second evidence to follow:)

svadhyaya

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

Svadhyaya 1 ~ Svadhyaya as Silence

With prior yamas and niyamas, we’ve been working with a lot of our patterned thoughts, words, actions, ways of seeing and being in the world.  Working towards cultivating those in a direction that create the most beneficial relationship with the world and all beings.  Svadhyaya is the stepping off point, a shift from that kind of work, or perhaps more aptly, a broadening.  Instead of focusing on our likes/dislikes, cravings, attachments, habits, reactivity exclusively, we are now looking beyond/beside/within it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecently Davidji gave a dharma talk related to the new Jivamukti t-shirts. On the front are the words “I AM”.  He asked us, what is on the back? For him, it’s “David”, for me “Jen”, for you “Your name here”.  The previous yamas and niyamas can be seen as practices cultivating the “Jen” side, svadhyaya asks us to investigate “I AM”.   And since we’ve spent the majority of our lives getting to know the back side of the t-shirt so well, a lot of svadhyaya is evening the scales with the “I AM” side.

As Rodney Yee said, “Suspend the knowing, the karmic history – the patterned ideas of you. To make space for you.”

In asana practice, we start off focusing and spending so much time on physical body alignment.  After a while, we get comfortable, we feel safe in the strange poses, and we begin to investigate our mental habits, our fidgets, our reactions and emotions.  When we begin to feel comfortable and safe within this level of exploration, we study our breath and the energy exchanges of the subtle body.  After that, we go one level deeper still – and that’s the level of svadhyaya.  It’s like we’re at the eye doctor, and they flip between two perspectives and ask “Is 1 or 2 clearer?” you respond, and again they flip, “Is A or B clearer?”, again “Is A or 2 clearer?”.  Except we’re our own eye doctor, and keep evolving through clearer and more evolved perspectives.  We’re working towards seeing ourselves at a level that is all “I AM”, and “Jen-ness” is quiet.  The amazing part of this is that when I can really be with “I AM”, then my “Jen-ness” becomes more and more brilliant.

Enjoy_the_Silence_by_WickedNox1

Rodney Yee also says, “If you can’t relax, you can’t hear more than one voice at a time.”  Whether in our own minds, or in the room we’re standing in, we know from personal experience that the loudest voice we hear is not always the one we want to listen to.  So when we practice asana, pranayama and meditation, we’re moving towards a kind of relaxation where the eager, well-meaning, but loud and insistent Jen voices quiet down, so I can hear the voice of “I AM”.

Recommended practices for this work: restorative asana, pranayama, and nadam meditation

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.

Ghosts of Christmas – A yogi’s look

In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts – from his past, present, and future. Each brings a glimpse into the truth of that time, as well as a warning to change his behavior.  From a yogic perspective, there are overtones of the three kinds of karma, the kleshas (avidya – not seeing things as they are, raga & dvesa – attachment & aversion, asmita – ego, abhinivesa – fear of death), and even the 8-limbs (yamas & niyamas).  Not that I believe it was Charles Dickens’ intention to speak to these yogic concepts, or that everything must resonate with yogic teachings. However, it did provide the impetus for an addendum to the end of the year meditation I usually do.

Once you have taken your meditation seat for the session, and focused the mind through the technique you are currently working with, move through the following concepts. Notice urges to shift or move, especially in uncomfortable thought moments, and allow them to subside before continuing. Avoid getting caught in any stories, and reliving them for the whole meditation.

1)    Ghost of Christmas Past – We spend a great deal of energy either continually rehashing past unpleasant experiences, or completely ignoring them. Break both of these thought patterns. Bring to mind an action (thought, word, or deed) you chose to take in the past that was harmful to another person in some way.  This can be quite challenging, since as yogis we are misled into believing we should be non-harming and compassionate all the time. While this is certainly something we are striving for, it is not expected that the moment you become a yogi or learn what the yamas are, you instantly embody them.

The yamas are not meant to induce guilt or suppression, instead they are meant to be tools of self-analysis. To admit to ourselves that we have within us these unflattering tendencies, to be open, and honest about them, and then to work on them, is the true path of a yogi.  To “act yogically” is not to act like some sort of flexible angel, but to be brutally truthful and present with what really is. No matter how ugly. So bring to mind, as honestly as possible, a harmful act of the past – without going into the story of why it happened, or what happened after – just the act itself. Resist the urge to feel guilty or think “why did I do that” “I can’t believe I did that”, etc.  Instead, consider how you would act differently if a similar situation presented itself in the future.  Acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as it may seem, you did the best you could at that moment. Then let it go on your next exhale. If it feels particularly sticky, sense where it is stuck in your body. See it as a black cloud, and with each exhale release some of it out through the nose. Continue until it has completely emptied out. Take a few moments with slow steady clean breaths.

2)    Ghost of Christmas Present –  The Ghost of Christmas Present can be even more elusive than the Ghost of Christmas Past – our unconscious patterns and actions.  Being unconscious, they can be very tricky to see.  A large part of the work we do in yoga classes is to bring unconscious habits (whether in our bodies or in our lives) to light.  From there, we have the ability to act with full awareness, and prevent wear and tear on our bodies or lives that unconscious habits create. In this stage of the reflection, bring to mind the way in which you move through your entire day. Try to identify moments when you are moving unconsciously – common points are eating, commuting, etc. Try to dig a little deeper, or take a step back and look broader. This is can be a powerful wakeup call.  Observing how often we move unconsciously, and in which moments we do so, can lead to subtle or momentous shifts. If it’s challenging to do this right now, notice this tomorrow, throughout the day check in and see how often and when you are moving unconsciously. Then take one of those moments, and commit to seeing things clearly and being fully present from then on. Create  plan that will help you, or even talk to someone close to you that can help remind you.

3)    Ghost of Christmas Future – In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer is swayed to change his ways due in large part to his fear of death.  In yogic philosophy, a fear of death is actually a hindrance to the practice.  A yogi works to cultivate living with death without fearing it.  There are a variety of practices to choose from, which were the subjects of a previous post, so I won’t go over it again here.  Please refer to that post and end this session with one of these practices. By cultivating a new relationship with death, we can let go of that fear and what keeps us from residing in the present moment.

At the close of 2010, I just want to thank you for your continued support of my teachings, and for your interest and dedication to yogic study. I look with great joy to deepening the practice with you in 2011.