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: Apathy

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.

Apathy (styana)

Have you ever had a limited time to live somewhere? A month, a year?  Have you been a new parent, or gone back to graduate school? Have you had limited time with someone?

Limited time naturally preempts apathy. If we have just two hours in a day to study, we study with all we’ve got for those two hours. If we have just one week in a place, we don’t sit at home and watch TV.  We’ve all experienced time at work in our lives in this way.

time

Working with the obstacle of apathy asks us to look at how we experience time in our daily lives and practice.  We can all be anxious about time and feel as though there’s never enough. And we can all slip into the apathy-inducing illusion of seemingly limitless time.  Different tonics need to be applied at different times.  I had a period of meditation where I would sit with a lot of self-induced stress to really focus this time, and eventually I needed to remind myself that I have (hopefully) years of practice ahead of me.  This provided much needed relaxing around my sitting practice.  I have also had periods where the everydayness of meditation and asana made it seem as if I had so much time that apathy crept in.

Usually in my classes, I encourage students to be expansive with how we consider practice; that it expands way beyond this one person, this one mat, this one row, this one room, community, family, borough, and onwards.

Consider the next time you sit or step onto your mat, especially if you’ve noticed overtones of apathy coming in, to imagine that this was it. That you had to go through a whole week of constant story-telling, of the mind continually on and leading you around, of living habits of action crafted over decades. What if this was the one 10 or 20 or 30 or 90 minute period you had to drop all of that, let the mind relax into quiet with the breath, and let the heart expand with its loving kindness for all the body’s cells, and blood, and those of all beings? To be really intimate with this experience moment to moment to moment? What happens?

Our time

When we don’t experience our time as fully as we know or sense to be possible, it often causes discomfort during time with others. Those feelings of wishing we were in some different place, or with some different people, or had a chance to be alone again can easily creep in.  I knew there was a chance of this when I recently went upstate to the cabin I take many solo retreats in.  This time, my family was going to be there.  I knew that I was going to have about an hour in the woods to myself.  That would be all the time I had to really drop into the nourishing and inspiring retreat feeling of the cabin experience. Since I had prepared, I found that not only could I be fully with the joy of my family without regretting the lack of solo time, but that hour in the woods was more continuous and more quickly accessible than when I go by myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a beautiful story at the start of his book, Miracle of Mindfulness , from his friend Allen. It takes this work a whole step deeper in how we work with “our time”.  Thich Nhat Hanh has just asked Allen about his experience as a family man;

  “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work.  The time left over I considered my own.  I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

But now I try not to divide my time into parts anymore.  I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey  with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time.  I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now i Have unlimited time for myself!”

Nothing left out. Nothing squandered.

Chant

life and death are of supreme importance.
time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
let us awaken. awaken!
do not squander your life.

may all beings be happy.
may all beings be healthy.
may all beings be safe and free from danger.
may all beings be free from their ancient and twisted karma.
may all beings be free from every form of suffering.

 

 

 

 

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?

Pratyahara: Withdraw to Interact

In the first pratyahara blog, the traditional translation of “withdrawal of the senses” was discussed.  Like many yoga practices – it can seem as if we’re being led in, and consequently away, from the world.  Away from the lives we’re actually motivated to live more fully, more awake with the present moment. i-think-you-are-shirt

Michael Stone once encouraged students to “withdraw your idea of others and the self” – as opposed to withdrawing from society or the natural world. I love the practice of withdrawing my ideas of who someone is, especially those I am closest to.  A practice I invite you try out today, if you have yet to do so.

In the cyclical intertwined nature of the sutras, this practice of cultivating sensory equanimity, actually fuels our ability to more readily and adeptly interact with others and live into the preceding sutras.  The more we’re aware of the interaction between our sense organs and sense objects – the more we’re able to watch the thoughts, perceptions, and reactions that result.  From there, we’re able to see more clearly what is happening right now. Or as Bernie Glassman says, it’s “the ability to approach a situation without superimposing what you know.”

When you practice asana next be aware of the sense(s) you most dwell in – where are you most distracted? Can you use the breath to tune into all the senses equally, and so not be drawn out from the present moment by any one?

“How do we live a balanced life in an unbalanced time? How does our practice help us to maintain the sensory equanimity we need to participate effectively in our families and communites?” Michael Stone

“Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.” Rilke

Pratyahara: A matter of sense (the 5th limb)

sva-viṣayāsamprayoge ćittasya sva-rūpānukāra ivendriyāṇāṁ pratyāhāraḥ

When consciousness interiorizes by uncoupling from external objects, the senses do likewise; this is called withdrawal of the senses. PYS II.54

Tatah parama vasyata indriyanam 

Then comes the spontaneous, complete and natural mastery over all the senses, that is to say, the natural self-discipline to hold on to I-AM. PYS II.55

turtle in shellWithdrawal of the senses is the traditional translation of pratyahara. Often described as a turtle withdrawing its limbs into its shell, pratyahara can seem a bit esoteric and unattainable outside of a sensory deprivation tank or sleep.

Added to that is science’s ever growing understanding that 1) Our senses are limited in perceiving the true nature of reality (think quantum mechanics and how the computer you’re reading this on is more space than solid) 2) Our senses are intrinsic and vital to our evolution and survival as humans – and therefore are automatic and embedded in the brain:

“The goal of every living brain, no matter what its level of neurological sophistication, from the tiny knots of nerve cells that govern insect behavior on up to the intricate complexity of the human neocortex, has been to enhance the organism’s chances of survival by reacting to raw sensory date and translating it into a negotiable rendition of a world…brain

None of [our] quintessentially human accomplishments would have been possible without the brain’s ability to generate rich, effective, and meaningful perceptions of the world.”
– Andrew Newberg, M.D. (Why God Won’t Go Away)

Yet yoga philosophy insists that pratyahara is not only attainable, but vastly possible.  Science philosophy suggests doing so might allow us to peer closer into the nature of reality. The good news is that both asana and meditation offer concrete ways to encourage* pratyahara.

Asana:
1) Dristhi – Every yoga pose and transition has a corresponding gaze point (dristhi).  When the breath, dristhi, and intention are connected pratyahara arises.  The tendency and desire of the various senses to search off your yoga mat fade. You become located right in the center of your breath – as if you were looking out with breath, instead of your eyes. As if you were practicing in a breath body, instead of one of touch.  Key to the dristhi practice is an experience of dristhi as a field of vision, rather than a single point.  Dristhi uses a single focusing point to allow the gaze to actually widen – to take in the whole panorama before you.

2) Savasana strings – After your body settles into the pose, tune into your senses. Notice how the world has hundreds of invisible strings that pull at you, even lying still in a yoga studio. Mentally imagine scissors gently snipping the threads circling your body – and they just drop away.  No need to push or shut out or harden around “distractions”. There are no distractions, just strings that continue to exist, no longer tugging on you.

Meditation:
1) Body – Almost every meditation begins with the body. It’s important to set your seat as comfortable as possible, with as much attention to alignment as possible.  Creating ease in the body allows us to settle our minds around it. If you find your foot falling asleep every time you meditate, seek a teacher’s guidance to modify how you sit.  Fine tuning aspects such as relaxing the tongue in the jaw, and letting the eyes release deep in their sockets cue further release of the sense organs.

2) Focus – Sound meditation is one of the best ways to release the ears’ insistence on reaching out to the world.  There are several techniques such as playing intentionally vague sounds in order to “short circuit” the ear into letting go, or working intimately with mind and ear to release the constant chatter between the two that goes into instantaneous naming of sounds.

perception

A few final tips:
*Practice asana without music every once in awhile
*If you live in a city, spend time outside of it. Even the quietest block is filled with over- stimulation.
*Spend an entire evening at home without the TV on, the computer on, or music on
*Walk slowly, fidget less – allow the body to settle more
*Refine all the input to your senses you have direct control over: what you listen to on the TV/computer/ipod/in relationship, what you see around your home, what you place on your body, what you buy and prepare to eat, and what you cultivate to smell.

*There are thought-camps around whether pratyahara is something that can be practiced, or if it just occurs when the conditions are right, like sleep. Whether the tips presented can be thought of as practices or setting up conditions is not the focus of this article.

Asana 3: tato dvandvanabhighatah

Tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ PYS II.48

When posture is mastered, there is a cessation of the disturbances caused by the pairs of opposites…whether physical, mental or spiritual

Most translations go on to give examples of opposites. Common ones are: like/dislike, love/hate, relative/universal, hot/cold… And that’s where I got stuck. I, like you, have noticed how yoga has influenced my choices and my outlook over the years. I am less attached to my likes and dislikes, habitual preferences that create cycles of suffering are easier to see. All of them are still there of course, but I get how asana embued with the qualities of the two preceding sutras work towards the cessation this sutra indicates.  Except for hot/cold.

I really really don’t like the cold. If I could transplant my family, close loved ones, and yoga community to New Orleans tomorrow, I would do it. Without thinking twice.

2059-fall-tree-800x600Fall is often a challenging time for me.  Despite the beauty New York offers at this time, it’s all a subtle reminder that winter is coming. cold winter2

All of which meant this particular duality bore closer inspection, and I happened to re-cross its path during late winter, so it was great timing.

While walking down the street I realized I could, in fact, diminish the cold. I could begin ujjayi breathing. I could focus on a mantra. I could draw my body in towards the central line. I could catch myself before I start to complain about the cold to myself or someone else – which only ever makes it more present, entrenched, and generally worse. The cold could be like another teacher, who I would not speak poorly about either in its presence or not. I could stop making it bad and just let it be itself. As I would let a tree be its tree self, my mom herself, my dog himself. I could also stay right in the uncomfortableness until it shifts, without trying to fix it in any particular way – like pigeon pose and how my outer hip felt when I first learned it.

Asana had actually taught me valuable and multiple ways to deal with it.

This was a reminder, which we must revisit again and again, that asana and yoga never change anything or anyone external to us. The only thing asana and yoga ever work on is ourselves. You diminish the dualities, they do not diminish.

To work with this in your next asana class, or really at any time, watch your self-talk for dualistic language especially of good/bad.  Watch for trying to fix bad with forcing good, or vice versa.  Watch your conversation indicators of listening for dualistic tones, and figure out how to make your language match your yoga.

lovehate37-thumb“Who we truly are goes beyond all polarity, including the polarity of love and hate.” Ram Dass

In case you missed the first two installments of asana: one and two.

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.

330_the_lorax_cover

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.

iPad Wallpaper - 02

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.