Being Ordinary

“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.

Ordinary-FeatureThe sons of Zhang and Li.  At the time and place this poem was written, those last names were like Smith and Jones.  Really common. An ordinary person.

I have the pleasure of teaching at two different yoga studios that could be given the title of the “Cheers of yoga studios” – all the students know each others’ names.  As you walk up the stairs to the second floor studios – it can sound as if you’re walking into a café, as the rooms are often filled with the sound of laughter and chatter as yoga friends connect and share life before class starts.

This level of community is fairly unique in New York City. And also, it’s so intrinsic to the nature of each studio – it’s ordinary.  Like Zhang and Li.  Most of the time neither the students, nor myself, find it remarkable at all.

Going to other studios as a student serves a dual purpose – to realize how special each studio is, hopefully inspiring everyone to go deeper in the ways they participate in and build community.  And it also provides the experience of being anonymous – of being ordinary – just another student.

beauty_ordinary_things-2It can feel like being undercover, or playing hooky. Just being ordinary can be exhilarating. It gives us a chance to show up without our stories a little bit more easily. Without the long list of injured/ailing body parts, maybe it allows us to show up healthy today. Without the shared personal history, maybe it allows us to break free of the shell of habitual interacting that has slowly crusted around us. Without the history of poses achieved or failed, maybe it allows us to try something new or take childs pose or not be the one to demonstrate.  It allows us to show up with space. Being ordinary, not being someone special, can be freeing.

Perhaps you practice at a “Cheers studio”, perhaps you have no idea what that would be like.  You can still work with Zhang and Li in your next class:

First, acknowledge the stories you wind up practicing with at that studio – about your body, about your health, about your personal life, about your professional life, about your relationship with the people in the room.

Second, after seeing them, drop them. Shake them off, let them drop.

Third, if one gets stuck, say to yourself “neti neti”, not this not this. Because if you were no longer any of those things, you would still be you. So be that you now. Be beyond “you”ness.

Shunryu Suzuki describes life in community at the monastery Eiheiji from the perspectives of within and without it:

“That is all. And when we were practicing, we did not feel anything special.

We did not feel even that we were leading a monastic life. For us, the monastic life was the usual life, and people who came from city were unusual people. When we saw them we felt, “Oh, some unusual people have come!”

But once I had left Eiheiji and been far away for some time, coming back was different. I heard the various sounds of practice- the bells and the monks reciting the sutra- and I had a deep feeling. There were tears flowing out of my eyes, nose, and mouth! It is the people who are outside the monastery who feel its atmosphere. Those who are practicing usually do not feel anything. I think this is true for everything. When we hear the sound of the pine trees on a windy day, perhaps the wind is just blowing, and pine tree is just standing in the wind. That is all that they are doing. But the people who listen to the wind in the tree will write a poem, or will feel something unusual. That is, I think, the way everything is.”

So perhaps our work, in the end, is a balance: between appreciating how special our ordinary is, and making time to be truly ordinary.  Where, in your ordinary daily life, is there something quite special actually going on? There is an Oscar Wilde quote: “Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.”  Chances are, among your loved ones, you are being treated quite extraordinarily, it’s just so intrinsic we miss it.

Where could you inject a truly ordinary experience into your life? Or take stock of one that might already be occurring, like being on a business trip? How could you be a bit anonymous and step into the freeing space of being Zhang or Li?

Questions

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

postit questionsExcerpt

Villagers: “Yet this we ask ere you leave us, that you speak to us and give us of your truth. And we will give it unto our children, and they unto their children, and it shall not perish. In your aloneness you have watched with our day, and in your wakefulness you have listened to the weeping and the laughter of our sleep. Now therefore disclose us to ourselves, and tell us all that has been shown to you of that which is between birth and death.”

The Prophet: “People of Orphalese, of what can I speak save of that which is even now moving within your souls?”

Can you picture this?  A group of eager inquisitive people have their shining eyes turned toward this man.  They want to know everything about life he has to tell.  Instead, he tells them it’s all already right there inside them.  Of course he goes on to tell them, but he gives that pause, that opportunity for them to trust themselves.

thinking questionWe can do this too  – not be in such a rush.  Give space after the question. Let it roll around for a bit in your practice, in your body, in your life, like a mantra. See what arises.

Sometimes you wind up with more questions, and you begin to realize that questions might be answers.  The pause can make space for questions you hadn’t thought to ask before.

question othersCan you imagine how seductive it is for the Prophet? To be the ONE that knows what everyone else wants. The next time you’re in a position to be the ONE – perhaps at work where you hold a senior position, at home with a young family member, or with someone who recently joined the hobby you’ve been doing for years – consider giving them an opportunity to know. Resist the urge to give the answer right away.  A simple “What do you think could work?” “What would you do?” could instruct more than an answer ever could. Maybe you’ll still need to give the answer, but creating that space in invaluable.  Practice this with others, practice it with yourself.

“Instead of gathering knowledge, you should clear your mind.  If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours. When you listen to our teaching with a pure, clear mind, you can accept it as if you were hearing something which you already know.” Shunryu Suzuki

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Earth

dirtThis summer I had the occasion to have my hands in the dirt of two amazing places in upstate New York. Each time, the dirt was so dark and rich, smelling so amazingly fresh, that I just wanted to eat it (alright, I did actually eat it one of the times).

Everything grows out of something else. A tree stump can house not only moss or mushrooms, insect larvae and beetles, but also a whole new tree.

We all grew out of this earth. The more I practice, the more I can feel this. Although it still does take me by surprise sometimes, the default understanding of the earth is hard to shake.

Sanskrit has several different terms for earth to delineate the different kinds of relationships we have with it. English just has one (and a capital letter).  Our default understanding of it is often something that we’re ON, not OF. But if you spend enough time with a forest, you watch not only the mossy fallen trees become dirt, but the hearty standing trees themselves fall, become leaf and moss covered, break down to where they feel more like carpet under foot than wood, and eventually resemble dirt more than anything else. You feel in your bones that this too, is what happens with us.

It is not poetic to say that sitting in the forest, it feels like the stones and water are my bones and blood, or that the layers of leaves are my skin, and the trees veins to my heart.

enso“When we feel the beauty of the river, when we are one with the water, we intuitively do it in Dogen’s way. It is our true nature to do so. But if your true nature is covered by ideas of economy or efficiency, Dogen’s way makes no sense.” Shunryu Suzuki

What is Dogen’s way? To bring a bucket to a nearby river to retrieve water.  After filling up the bucket, he would dump part of it back into the river. Not to make it the right weight to carry, but to return a bit to the river. To have that connection. To take care of the river.

This is our practice – taking care of what’s around us, what’s right in front of us, what we’re in relationship with.

Below the flights of stairs, layers of pavement, sewers, and subways, deep down there is earth that needs us to take care of it.  Deep down under your partner, child, friend, there is something that needs to be taken care of.

In the wake of the Climate March, and the climate UN meetings, remember that it is not just (and perhaps, controversially, not at all) the government and regulations that will take care of the earth.  It is us, if the same number of people who attended the march committed to 10 small acts* of environmentalism, it would make a difference. If we practice, it will make a difference.  It is not necessary to try to be better, or to aid the environment as a mission – we all naturally want to do that – we just need to really practice. So really practice.

10 Small Acts of Environmentalism You can do for the Rest of Your Life:

*Never buy another roll of paper towels. Use small rags. It creates no greater water or laundry detergent use than I’ve always used to wash my regular bathing towels. (Ditto with paper napkins)
*Use a shower head that pauses the flow, or an adapter for your current shower head.
*Never buy another conventional cleaning product. Buy ones like Meyers Brand, or make your own.
*Spend time in nature regularly. Develop a relationship with a particular place in nature.
*Never buy another plastic bottle of water. Buy one of the multitude of refillable water bottles to your weight and aesthetic needs. If you plan ahead, and accept the small inconvenience, it becomes something you don’t even think about.
*Never buy another garbage bag. Use the plastic ones from grocery stores you get when you forget to bring your reusable bag/don’t have enough with you.
*Be educated about what is currently most sustainable to buy, and buy that. For example, cork yoga blocks came on the scene as a great alternative to the foam blocks.  Then everything started to be made from cork. Then cork trees began to be endangered. Now bamboo is best. Although I hear they are cutting down regular forests in some places to build bamboo ones. Don’t get bowled under by these kinds of situations. Make the best choice possible at the time you’re making it.
*Institute the old camp favorite: If it’s yellow, let it mellow…
*Never “print something for your records again”.  Create a PDF, and file it electronically.   As a yoga teacher, I have to itemize my purchases each year for taxes. I used to print all my receipts from online purchases. I don’t print a single one anymore.  Anything I do print, I print double-sided. Anything with one side that I eventually am done with, I use the other side as note paper.
*Compost and Recycle so regularly that when you’re somewhere it isn’t possible to do, it hurts a little to put it in the trash.

Mother_Earth caitlin taylor*Bonus: Be creative – what works in your life? What are other ways? How do you care for this one and precious earth?

Return from Retreat

Returning from retreat is a skill the meditator cultivates along with any other technique in their practice. As a current resident of New York City (Brooklyn to be precise) with a heart born in the country, this has been a particularly challenging skill for me.

826-new-yorkFor several years now I have taken solo retreats in upstate New York, and at first re-entry was tough. I would cross the George Washington Bridge, look out at the unnatural grey towers, and feel weighted down by the heavy frenetic energy of the city.  Turning around always seemed like the best possible option.  Leaving retreat was always and only sad.

What changed: I began to notice that when I returned from retreat the first couple days of classes would be amazing. They were rare special classes where there was less of me, and more of just passing along a space inside.  Connections with students, and my personal relationships alike held a deeper quality.  I realized that I had something pretty amazing to look forward to back in the city.  Sharing the nourishing, inspiring, beauty of the natural world I immersed myself in – while deep in my practices and studies – became this heartfelt private gift I would bring back to those waiting for me. I entered the city smiling.Basic CMYK

Last week I came back from my first 8-day silent meditation retreat with Michael Stone.  Coming home was once again buoyed by this heart filled gift I carried inside.

A few days after, I was sitting in Prospect Park, watching trees, listening to birds. Being in Brooklyn. Right in the middle of my regular life, there was a shift. A place I had only recently begun to touch on during this past retreat was suddenly there and alive.  A place I had worked to cultivate during the retreat, a place I had thought I would only know in meditation – a place meditation created. The next day, sitting at my desk, looking out past house plants to the sparse tree branches beyond the window, there the space was again.

“What is true zazen? When you become you! When you are you, then no matter what you do, that is zazen.” Shunryu Suzuki

“The message for us today is “Cultivate your own spirit.” Is means not to go seeking for something outside of yourself.” Shunryu Suzuki

il_fullxfull.338294012_originalThat place is not there because of meditation – it’s nowhere other than in me. Meditation and asana never make anything. They, like all the teachings, are arrows pointing back at us.  Our job is to let them pierce right where they need to, melt around it, let go, and trust.

And if you retreat: How are you generous with that internal space? What ideas of that space are you holding onto? Don’t go seeking for something outside yourself – let that be an arrow that sinks right into the marrow of your spirit – or turn it into a flower.