“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 pillar or lantern.
I was driving through one of the snow storms that blazed through New York last winter. After just having been in a minor snow swerve accident, I then had to drive a further 8 hours (normally 4 hours) home because conditions were so intense. Many insights and lessons came out of that experience. One was to realize just how important it is to have someone in your life who is a pillar and lantern. Both to lean on, be supported by, and gather strength from. As well as someone who brightens, cheers, and gently guides you forward. This person was my eyes when I needed, last minute route change navigator, nerve soother, and perhaps most importantly – was willing to “shake it off” in the middle of a rest stop food court so that I could release enough stress to keep going. There were a few stares.
“Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.
Help someone’s soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.”
The importance of friendship – the pillar and lantern kind – is rooted in the dharma practice:
Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”
“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.
“And how does a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path?
Buddha goes on to give reasons why this is so. One of the first reasons is the quality of conversation you will hear. Obviously not every one of your conversations will be about the path, we all need to debrief on the Walking Dead. Yet conversation between friends is one of Buddha’s main recommendations for practice. In a small satsang that meets monthly, after we chant, and before we eat, the host introduces a question that everyone will answer. Sometimes it’s spurred by a poem, sometimes by an important dharma point someone is struggling with, sometimes it’s one of those questions that you contemplate but don’t often find a place for it to land in regular conversation. Having someone (or a community of comrades) to dig in on those topics with is important to the path.
If you don’t have a community in place – look around, start one. It only takes one other person. Food is a great addition. Maybe start with meditating together.
The next time you’re on the mat – think of someone who is a pillar and lantern for you, think of a specific person and examples of them being this in your life. Then let your intention for practice to be really grateful that day. Not dedicating the practice to them, or sending them energy, just being really really grateful for a friend. Let them sit right in your heart as you practice. And well up with him or her, without needing to do anything with it, but be filled, supported, brightened.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb
I was inspired to re-delve into the eight limbs from reading a passage of Dogen’s in the collection “Moon in a Dewdrop”. It’s only fitting that in coming to the most popular of the eight limbs – asana – we investigate through Dogen’s lens with an excerpt from the Genjo Koan – Acutalizing the Fundamental Point. (Click here and here to read more about Sthira Sukham Asanam)
“A fish swims in the ocean and no matter how far it swims,
there is no end to the water.
A bird flies in the sky and no matter how far it flies,
there is no end to the air.
However, the bird and the fish have never left their elements”
The question arises; Have You? Have you ever left your element?
Which is not to ask; Have you explored outside your comfort zone? But rather; Have you gone past your beneficial boundaries? Have you overextended yourself? Have you spent an inordinate amount of time being your social self, without sinking into your original self?
Yes. We do it all the time. Usually, we are aware only after we’ve returned, when we say things such as, “I feel like myself again.”
So the next question arises; Do you know what nurtures you? What reinforces you being in your element?
When I personally think about things that do – for example, studying with my teachers, it’s not remembering the details. It’s not, per se, their teachings, advice or philosophy. It’s remembering how it feels to be around them, who I am when I’ve been around them, and how that extends out afterwards. It’s a place that holds space for me to both work on myself, and be myself.
Can we allow sthira sukham to be recast from a command to be steady and joyful, to a reminder of who you are when you are steady and joyful, when you’re in your element?
“When their activity is large, their field is large, when their need or activity is small, their field is small”
What is your field? Sometimes it’s the universe of the breath, sometimes the yoga mat, sometimes the neighborhood, sometimes it’s the whole world. At those times, it’s not your office, nor your home. When it is your office or your home, it is not the yoga room.
Sometimes life is huge, and you are called upon to fill it all, and yoga asks you to do so staying in your element. You are party planner, host, mother of two small children, best friend of a friend in need, and wife all at the same evening event. You are a manager of employees, yourself an employee, responsible for the success of a project that is dictated by another, and need to figure out the IT situation preventing the work from being done, all in the same half hour.
How do we fill large fields, or let go into small fields, with sthira and sukham? First – find your element. From there – realize that you act within your field for the sake of that action, with success or failure not mattering either way. The Bhagavad Gita shares this wisdom. But it’s only philosophy until you do it. Until you stand in honest presence before your field, grounded with both feet in your element, and decide the field and the whole way out to the horizon do not depend on what you get, or don’t get.
Try it on the practice field of asana. Internally stand before the pose (field), find your sthira sukham beginning with an exhale (element), and imagine doing the asana perfectly, but invisible. No one will know, you will have no feedback or barometer for how it went. All you will be left with was how you existed in your element, in that field, in that moment.
“Thus the bird and the fish totally covers their full range and totally experiences their life”
Michael Stone says nothing obstructs steadiness and joy (enlightenment) more than believing it is outside of you and your life.
Rumi (2061) says
Give yourself a kiss.
If you live in China, don’t look
somewhere else, in Tibet, or Mongolia.
If you want to hold the beautiful one,
hold yourself to yourself.
When you kiss the Beloved,
touch your own lips with your own fingers.
The beauty of every woman and every man
is your own beauty.
The confusion of your hair
obscures that sometimes.
An artist comes to paint you
and stands with his mouth open.
Your love reveals your beauty,
but all covering would disappear if only for a moment your holding-back
would sit before your generosity
“Sir, who are you?”
Shams’ life-changing face
gives you a wink.
When the mind is disturbed by thoughts contrary to yama & niyama, one should ponder on the opposite, that is, on constructive thoughts, and driving forces. II.33
In the yamas and niyamas, Patanjali outlines 10 qualities and modes of being in and seeing the world. Tools and techniques to mutually benefit our journeys, and those of the people, beings, and world we move through.
He follows that up with: but you’re still human.
You will have moments where the habits cultivated over the majority of your life will come in and all you can think to do is lie, or say the mean thing, or be so mad or hurt that you just want to be tight and closed around your heart.
And he says –pause in that moment (which we’ve been training to do with the yamas and niyamas). And see it, acknowledge the dark thing, and hold it – which in and of itself is hard work. And hold it lightly, unjudgingly and uncelebratingly, in your hand, and then hold up your other hand and counter it with the opposite.
It’s a contemplation exercise. It’s a brain plasticity exercise – choosing a new way-of-being mental groove. It’s training a vine to go up a different path. At each cross-road of the lattice work, you hold the space to see your options, and decide which direction to grow in.
Implicit in this is the “do not beat yourself up” idea. Neither celebrating, nor ignoring, nor judging, nor fixing, nor feeling like you are wrong in some way. It’s neither trying to be holy (and ignore these things) or just going as always (and ignoring the possibility), it’s accepting and choosing. It’s as Ram Dass says “to risk being human”, or as Michael Stone says, “yoga is the process of becoming more human.”
Sometimes it could be with a “what would ahimsa do?” What would satya, etc. do? What would my isvara do? Invariably it would be to let go, which might not always be the antidote you’re ready for. But sometimes just imagining maharaji in my situation, makes letting go seem more likely.
Bird Wings by Rumi
Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
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
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
Aparigraha is traditionally translated as “greedlessness”, a word traditionally always spell-checked in word processing programs. It is the yama that has the greatest variety of alternative translations, with the greatest amount of nuanced differences between them. Ahimsa, for example, is traditionally “nonharming”, and sometimes “causing the least harm”, but very rarely is it contemplated to err that much from the “harm” vocabulary. While I do not know for certain the reason why aparigraha has such variety, I think those spell-checkers are on to something when they question leaving it as “greedlessness”. Here, for consideration, are five different definitions:
While television has brought the idea of hoarding into our reality TV vernacular, it is not a predicament that many yogis find themselves in. However, just as with Asteya, broadening the scope of what is included in nonhoarding can really open up the practice. It’s possible to hoard someone’s attention, their affection, someone’s time or skills, you could hoard space on public transportation, or ideas. You could hoard habitually, when the situation arises, or only once in awhile. To take a moment, with closed eyes, to ask yourself “What do I hoard?”, can be a surprising and enlightening practice. I know it was for me. Follow up questions could be “When do I hold back?” “What do I hold back?” – these are other subtle forms of hoarding.
Nonhoarding opens up aparigraha to something more than greed and money – to a practice of investigation, of letting go, but most importantly of opening up. Yoga is not meant to make us into someone different than we are – it’s meant to bring us into honest investigation into who we already are, and to help us in living it as fully as possible.
In your next asana class, consider having as your intention the commitment not to hold back. Not to approach triangle like just one more in a long succession of triangles, or hold back from your first chaturanga because many more will follow. This intention is not one of those “do this as if it were your LAST TRIANGLE EVER!” dramatic ideas, but because every moment, every triangle, matters as much as every other, so why would you hold back for this one?
This one comes from Michael Stone.
Think about the last time that you planned what you would do on a free day – what activity or relaxation you would pursue, the ease of flow throughout the day, the fullness of it – and then had something come up at the last minute where you couldn’t do it. Maybe it was a family obligation, maybe work, or maybe a storm. If you’ve ever gotten frustrated because someone ruined YOUR day – there is where we can work on aparigraha.
I recently took a trip to New Orleans – where I used to live. Within hours of my first day, I noticed something from speaking with different people there. I had a tremendous amount of walls built up when talking with someone, especially a stranger, from living in NYC. The walls went something like this | What do they want? | How can I make sure not to inadvertently give it to them before I decide if I want to or not? | I most likely don’t want to give it to them, how do I ensure that? |. Upon reflection, I realized that this was unnecessary in New Orleans, and I could relax. I also realized that the reason those walls exist is because, at least in my experience, people in NYC want something from you, all the time. Money, a smile, your attention, money, sex, time, religious conversion, money, etc. As a result of this, I had become very tight around anything that was mine – everything from the above list, and more. Even in the face of people I loved, and truly wanted to give everything to, I had these barriers going on the whole time, without knowing it. The only way I could realize it was in the complete absence of it from the other side. Without strangers in New Orleans wanting anything from me, my walls had no ground to stand on, and were so superfluous I laughed at myself in the moment of realization.
In the Bhagavad Gita (XIV.12) an imbalanced person is one where “greed, constant activity, excessive projects, cravings, and restlessness” are ruling or predominant.
Perhaps in looking at how we’re choosing to live our lives, where we’re allowing “our” time to be dispersed, we wouldn’t be so tight around them?
This one is pretty simple: time, money, talent, skills, love, etc: be generous, give often
In asana class, we’re always talking about being present. Could you contemplate giving this to someone? Michael Stone often speaks of “giving your face”. In this age, it’s so easy to barely look in anyone’s eyes, or to shy away from sharing yourself with others. You could bring more awareness to how you quite literally share your face with others?
In what ways might you be unintentionally stingy? Again, contemplate broadening the scope to not only include money, but much more.
4) Not giving or receiving gifts
This one is from Ram Dass.
Initially upon hearing this translation, I was a little surprised. Especially having previously considered giving as a way to embody aparigraha, now Ram Dass was saying the opposite!
Then I thought about it a bit more deeply, and I thought about Japanese custom (at least in Hawaii, where I also used to live). If person A gives a gift to person B, then B MUST give a gift back to A. But now A has received a gift, and MUST give one back to B, creating an endless -cycle of enforced giving.
And while such strict rules on giving may or may not exist in the culture you were raised in, we all have some kind of motive behind giving. It could be to get a gift of some kind in return or something as simple as a smile, appreciation, or thank you.
I’m not saying to boycott the upcoming holidays and birthdays of your loved ones. But perhaps consider your intention when you go shopping and purchase a gift. Could it be equally wonderful to give a gift whether or not the recipient even smiles?
In the Bhagavad Gita, giving is one of the best practices recommended. It specifically says it doesn’t matter what you give (even a leaf would be a wonderful gift!), as long as the intention is to give without thought of getting something in return.
Could we perhaps practicing giving more often, throughout the year, so that it doesn’t become such a huge deal at other times? Could it even lead to our own well-being? How to Buy Happiness
Andrea Gibson has a line in her spoken word poetry: The hardest part of having nothing, is having nothing to give. I used to feel that so acutely when I first moved to NYC, and had so very very little. Now, I’m not so sure I agree. Now, I think that we need to reimagine giving.
And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.”
5) Not taking more than you need
This is perhaps the most timely of the definitions, considering the recent encounter NY had with Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy. How many people might have taken a few extra candles, gallons of gas, loaves of bread, or containers of oat milk than they needed? And in doing so, left less or none for others, or for restocking after the storm passed?
At a recent Jivamukti Yoga Tribe Gathering in NYC, the makers of China Gel were giving away free travel-sized samples. As a Jivamukti Yoga teacher, I use quite a lot of China Gel, and the large tub often weighs down my already heavy yoga teacher backpack I take out for the day. How wonderful to have travel sized ones! So on the way to the bathroom I took one. On the way back from the bathroom I took another. On some trek or another, I wound up with 5 or so free samples, because I needed them as a teacher, and I needed them to help lighten my load. This, of course, was not a very aparigraha moment for me.
This definition asks us to work on that part of us that “needs”, when we actually mean “really really wants”. China Gel was not a need.
Needs are unbidden, basic, elemental – like affection, housing, food and water. But when we put coffee, new yoga pants, China Gel, or that fifth loaf of bread in the same category, we’re in trouble. This is because we can’t control needs, and therefore we have this unconscious Green Light from within to get whatever falls in that category whenever we can. Wants get the Caution Light, and give us the opportunity to bring our decisions into a more conscious place.
Whether it’s in yoga class, the grocery store, or a family gathering see if you can set as your intention to be aware of what you’re setting up as a “need”, and if it might not actually be “really really want”.
The Plutocrat – Kahlil Gibran
In my wanderings I once saw upon an island a man-headed, iron-hoofed monster who ate of the earth and drank of the sea incessantly. And for a long while I watched him.
Then I approached him and said, “Have you never enough; is your hunger never satisfied and your thirst never quenched?”
And he answered saying, “Yes, I am satisfied, nay, I am weary of eating and drinking, but I am afraid that tomorrow there will be no more earth to eat and no more sea to drink.”
Not really something we speak about much in daily life, and especially not in yoga, and yet compared to how much it’s passing through us, or we’re thinking about it, it’s a bit disproportionate. Which is perhaps why it’s included in the yoga sutras as one of the 5 yamas.
For monks, it’s a fairly no-brainer yama – celibacy. For the householder, however, the ancient and modern experts agree, it’s a bit more complex. Recently I’ve looked at the two parts of this particular definition for some clarity in real practice.
1) Sexual Energy
Vita raga visayam va chittam PYS I.37
Or (the yogi can still the fluctuations of the mind) by focusing on things that do not inspire attachment (likes or dislikes)
Or by contemplating on enlightened sages who are free* from desires and attachments.
(*not free as is don’t have, free as in not ruled by)
Raga – attachment, I like, I want more, awesome, bring it on Dvesa – aversion, I don’t like, I never want that again, I wish it didn’t happen, yuck
Often compared to ends of a pendulum swing, raga and dvesa are the two reactions we’re constantly running through. Sometimes they’re “big” swings, and we’re really aware of them, and sometimes they’re smaller, almost subconscious, but going on all the time nonetheless.
We’re like goalies, in one hand we hold a tennis racket, in the other one of those circular Velcro mitts. We stand in front of a large soccer net, and use our dvesa tennis racket to hit away all those tennis balls we don’t like, and use the raga Velcro mitt to snag and throw into the net to keep all those tennis balls we do. Basically doing what we’ve been taught by various forces all our lives – to be happy get more of what you like, and get rid of what you don’t.
The problem is the analogy is wrong, and therefore so is the teaching we’ve been given. There is no net in the soccer goal, and we’re not really standing in front of it as gatekeeper, we’re more like sitting on top of the post. The way to true happiness is to see this, and allow all the tennis balls, the ones we like, and don’t, to pass through us. Without attaching to which ones we like and don’t, without trying to define ourselves as goalies that are great at velcroing in delicious soy lattes, live jazz music and yoga books or racketing away manipulative people, bad soy lattes, and housework. The more we’re able to allow energies, all kinds, to be things we fully experience, but ultimately allow to pass right through – like breath – the more at peace with ourselves and this life we’ll be.
As Rumi says:
“This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
Or Michael Stone:
“Welcome anger, my old friend! It hasn’t been awhile…”
So, too, with sexual energy. Instead of getting caught up in our sexual likes and dislikes, our likes of our dislikes, or dislikes of our likes, our too much or not enough or not right sexual tennis balls – can we let that energy flow through us as well? Can we embrace being sexual beings without it causing us to suit up in our goalie uniform? Can we swing from the top of the goal post, delighting in it all and not regretting its passing?
“allowing sexual energy to unfold without repression(dvesa) or entanglement (raga) is the task of the yogi” Michael Stone
2) Wise use
This is the aspect most covered, if it’s covered. Generally wise use is translated, or considered to mean conserving energy. This is linked to the idea above – that everything moving through us is different energies. When we choose to connect to one of those energies with our own thinking, the creation of the stories and ideas takes energy.
It’s like suddenly emerging into Times Square. Your eyes go everywhere, you have to process a ton of information mentally, it’s like one of the tennis ball shooting machines went haywire, and has shot all its balls at you within 5 seconds. And you’ve got to racket away or Velcro all those balls in that time. It’s tiring. Try leaving Times Square and not feel more exhausted then when you entered, even without “doing” anything.
Imagine if you didn’t try to racket away or Velcro in all those balls. Imagine that from your perch you used that energy, instead to focus on your breath, or practice asana, or prepare a meal for a loved one, or create, or play with your child, or choose just one ball to notice passing by in its elegant journey. Imagine how much focus, clarity, and energy you would have. This is the idea behind brahmacarya as conserving energy. Think about all the times during the day you think about your cravings or lack of cravings or respond to others’ cravings or talk about cravings or try not to talk about them. It’s exhausting!
“Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose…., the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind…, as logn as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power tha is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good…” –Gregory of Nyssa (via “Yoga for a World Out of Balance” by Michael Stone)
So how do we work with this in yoga?
The amazing Iyengar shares how asana is the perfect ground to practice this:
“The citta is like a vehicle propelled by two powerful forces, prana & vasana (Desire). It moves in the direction of the more powerful force. As a ball rebounds when struck to the ground, so is the sadhaka tossed according to the movement of prana & citta. If breath (prana) prevails, then the desires are controlled, the senses are held in check and the mind is stilled. If the force of desire prevails, the breathing becomes uneven and the mind gets agitated”
Thich Nhat Hanh has provided many helpful guidelines on how to wisely use sexual energy, such as not having a sexual relationship with someone that “if we needed to, we would be willing to spend the rest of our life with, let’s say if the person got pregnant, and so on. And we would be happy to do so and not just do so out of a sense of duty. It doesn’t mean that we do have to spend the rest of our life with this person.” – website. As well as “I’m determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment.”, and many others. It would be a worthwhile practice to compile your own list.
And a last shout-out to another website considering different angles of brahmacarya.