Highest Peaks and Deepest Oceans

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

Close your eyes. Feel the breath in your rib cage, feel the subtle expansion and contraction of the inhale and exhale.  The height of the collarbones and broadening of the skull on the inhale, the depths of the exhale down in the pelvic floor.  Our very essence is one of contraction and expansion, of highs and lows, inhales and exhales.

top of mountainFor the time being, embody fully where you are right now – the highest peak or the deepest ocean. We all know what it’s like to be in both of those places. We also all know what it’s like to either try and hold onto that space, or to feel like it will never end.  Our very heart beats out to us the message that it’s not possible, not true.  When we fully take in the first two lines of Dogen’s poem, we are listening deeply to this message. We are fully embodying right where we are, right now, in this moment.
bottom of ocean.1“In the midst of pleasure, we are anxious about when it will end. In the midst of possession, we worry about loss. Even the most beautiful birth and most gracious death come with pain, for entering and leaving the body is inherently a painful process. We know that throughout our day, experience changes from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant, and back again, ceaselessly.” Jack Kornfield

When we share our day with others, how bizarre that we often reduce it down to one word or mood. Keeping separate that which is simply in flux. Conditions come and certain parts of our day and mood arise, different conditions swell in, and things change.  The subway car fills with people and there is discomfort, it empties at the next stop and there is spaciousness, a man comes through asking for money and there is concern, we step off the car and there is cold.  Our life is more inhale and exhale than our sequential minds believe it to be.

Listen – A short excerpt from Ram Dass’s “Making Friends with Change” Podcast. I recommend listening to his reading before googling the printed version.

We extend this to our practice:

“Now, at the stage that many people I meet are at, they do their practice, their method, as “good” and as well as they can. And then they take a little time off. They say, “Well that’s been great; now what do you say we have a pizza and a beer and listen to some good music?” Now that – pizza, beer, and music – could do it for them too, except in their mind there’s a model that the “time off” has nothing to do with it.”  Ram Dass from Grist for the Mill

I don’t know about you, but I have definitely done this. And my first instinct upon coming across this passage and essentially being called out in a very specific way – was defensive. I need time off- it’s hard work to practice off the mat or cushion. But then I thought – why would I want to being doing something if that’s how I feel about it? Why would I be committing to a life time of delving deeper into something I needed to be away from.  And I saw habit thoughts around the concept of “work” – it’s something I’ll put effort into in its time, and then I need my time off from it to “relax” and really enjoy life. That’s not at all how I actually see my practice.  With that, I realized how accurate Ram Dass’s critique was – in ways I hadn’t even known.  Now I think – I just don’t want to do anything, anymore, without being as fully there as possible. Whether it’s drinking with friends, or watching Netflix, or sitting with trees, or studying with my teacher, or engaging in relationships.  It’s not separate. One is not a black or white sheep. Whether a high or a low, being fully in that space means being fully present, as fully awake as I’m capable of in that moment. And I stopped using “work” to apply to my practice, or study, or teaching, or the dharma in general.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
if it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
and expanding,
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.

-Rumi (excerpt)