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

Lokah Samasta

Lokah Samasta Sukinoh Bhavantu
May all beings be happy and free

Lokah samasta – all beings everywhere
Lokah – location, here, region, world
Samasta – all, whole
Sukinoh – be happy and free
Bhavantu – may I contribute to this, I pledge to this, may it be so

Part of embodying lokah samasta is to fully inhabit your body – your personal region, your world of existence. Asana practice is one of many ways we deepen our ability to do so.

Seeing clearly the whole space and world in which we find ourselves, moment to moment to moment, is another part.  This is both in the larger scale of world citizenship, and also the daily scale of the space you’re in, right now, reading this.

Our ability to fully embody all aspects of our lokah samasta is limited by our edges. We all have edges. We all have parts of us, others, and the world, that we don’t want to see. Sometimes we can’t see.  We have lines drawn between what we’re willing to work with and what we’re not. What we include in our intentions and practice and hearts, and what we don’t.  Often, a large part of the path is being able to first see those lines and then to soften or shift them.

As Abbot Myogen Steve Stucky said, “Whatever you feel is right at the edge of your familiar world, that’s the edge of your deep intention to wake up with what is.”

cut out (2)This past year I’ve made a practice of a weekly morning silent walking period through my local park.  There’s a waterfall along the route, and I usually sit with it for a good while.  One day, the light, the leaves and sky behind invited a picture.

I soon noticed that I was being very careful to cut out the collection of three or four discarded soda bottles someone had left on the side.  The waterfall was beautiful and inspiring, the trash was not.  A clear line – what I was including in my experience, and what I was cutting out.

I was cutting it out because if I spent time with it, I would go on cut outa thought train of how thoughtless those people were. I’d berate the park employees for not picking it up.  Thinking those thoughts made me feel bad. So I cut all of it out.

Seeing the division enabled me to turn and actually look at the bottles. To actually include them in the whole moment of experience.  This park is special to me, my time here is meaningful.  I love the earth. Even the part of earth over there on the side that’s ugly and unusable.  If I’m also committed to yoga and dharma in action, how can I respond fully? How does all of my personal embodied world meet the needs and experience of the whole space and world I’m in this moment?  The answer for me was a new addition to my weekly walks: a plastic bag.  I fill it two to three times on my way to the waterfall with trash, emptying along the way in the park garbage cans.  It doesn’t matter why they did it, or whose job it is to pick it up.  What matters is how I respond to it.

What or where are your edges? What do you care about? How can seeing and softening those edges allow you to interact and respond to the world, to the moment? It won’t look the same for everyone. But imagine if everyone did this practice?

To celebrate one of my favorite holidays, I’ve started Pick Up & Picnic. Join me 🙂


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.


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.

Vessel ~ 2

Unlike other vessels, human vessels are changed by WHAT flows through them, and HOW it flows.  For example, whether you choose to drink water or coffee will affect you.  Whether you sip, chug, gulp; whether you do this once a day, or consistently and steadily all day; all of this will affect the human vessel.  This is just a micro-example, but this is true of any WHAT and HOW we have flow through us- fluids, food, thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.

Yoga asks us to cultivate several different kinds of WHAT (yamas, niyamas, vairagya, isvara, karma yoga etc.), and it is generally best to focus on one or two at a time.  Abhyasa (practice), as defined in Patanjali’s yoga sutras, advises that the HOW be steady, consistent over a long time, in all earnestness, and joyful.

In yoga practice, on and off the mat, check in and see WHAT and HOW you are being a vessel.  You might be surprised, as I was, how often the answer is boredom, inertia, criticalness, ambivalence, or of course the “bigger” ones of anger, regret, guilt, joy, love, etc.  Once you spend enough time noticing this, take it even a step further, and set an intention for the WHAT and HOW you want to be a vessel for, in actions, thought, and speech.

This is not a program for changing us into better people, because there is nothing missing in us. We are already holy beings, are already whole, already light, already divine – whatever term you use. The key is to cultivate that as the WHAT that flows through us and the HOW as all the time.

Beings that have achieved that are the ones we call gurus – they are just vessels for the divine. It is that light that draws us towards them, and encourages us on our path. Teachers are beings who are vessels for the teachings. They are just a bit further down our path, and flow to us what they have seen and experienced.  Students are vessels for experience – for the real-life application of what has been passed down by gurus and teachers – whether in writing or spoken transmission.

That being said, it’s not realistic to say “I’m going to have ahimsa flow through me all the time.” One because inevitably we will fail in some small way, and two because external circumstances change. What is ahimsic one day, may not necessarily be the same the next.  The air in NYC flows differently than the air in Hawaii, and will inevitably affect WHAT and HOW flows through you, and your ability to be a vessel.

While we need intention, we also need to keep that intention fully open to the present moment.  This is not to say we become inconstant in our WHAT, but that we don’t become rigid in it either.  There must be a balance, a flow, to our practice as a vessel.

Vinyasa is generally thought of as meaning “flow” – but really it means: well-sequenced indivisible moments of time.  How well are your moments sequenced, how well are they chosen?  The better sequenced and chosen, the more you “flow” in practice – on and off the mat.

The Holy Moments

Ever since watching Waking Life, the concept of the “Holy Moment” and the divisions we make in our lives as to what qualifies, or not, has threaded through my studies. As a Jivamukti teacher, the idea of everyone as a “Holy Being” is very close to my heart.  Recently, it all came together in the Bhagavad Gita, as I was rereading my Stephen Mitchell translation.

Krishna says:

The man who sees me in everything
And everything within me
Will not be lost to me, nor
Will I ever be lost to him
BG 6.29

This is not actually referring to seeing Krishna running around everywhere (although some people marvelously do), but that you cultivate the ability to see everything as holy – every person, every moment, every being, every place.

There is a similar sentiment in yoga sutras where Patanjali asks us to cultivate vidya – the shift in perception to seeing things as they actually are, which is what lies beyond all the “stuff” of life (prakriti), to that spark within (purusa).

When you shift your perception in such a way, you are never not in a holy place. The division between your yoga studio, the room you’re in now, the bathroom, the elevator, or the subway car is seen as false – as avidya – and falls away.

Next time you come to your yoga mat, try it out. Let every placement of the hands be holy, every breath, every pose, every transition, every movement of the props- holy.

 When he sees that the myriad
Beings emanate from the One
And have their source in the One
That man gains absolute freedom.
BG 13.30

This is the practice of coming into relationship with all beings: human, plant, animal, water, etc, and moving past the layer of form,  the layer of personality, the layer of personal history, to the place where its all holy, all the spark within.

Lately I’ve been trying this when out in the world. I will look at one specific person, and notice how in just that moment of noticing, a thousand layers of “stuff” has come up – labels, judgments, predictions, etc. Once I notice, I let it all go, and since he or she is a stranger, and I have no entrenched attachments to that stuff, it’s easier to let go.  Then, softening enough to actively see his or her spark, that person becomes beautiful and amazing. I am actually amazed and fascinated by how that spark has manifested.  I fall a little bit more in love the whole world.

Then you move into a space where you are a spark, a holy being, in the presence of another holy being. Then you interact in whatever roles, games, or structures have been set up and are needed for that situation. Yet, at the same time, you are just two sparks.  Then you see how all the other times you are just running through those roles, identifying as those roles. When really you are a holy being playing. The more you see others as holy beings, the more connected you are to yourself as one.

Then yoga practice, daily life, every moment is an opportunity to practice in a very unique way – not just to see everything as your teacher, but to see beyond ideas of teachers – and to see the holy moments and beings everywhere, every time.

When you’re on your mat, practice not as all your stuff, but as a holy being. As a spark relishing the play of a body in motion in asana.

“When the direction of our attention is fixed on divinity, we  will arrive there eventually, but inevitably.” Sharon Gannon

Moments in Time – A Yoga Practice

Starting with Shakespeare in “As You Like It”, and possibly before then, our culture has toyed with the metaphor performance provides for life.  The modern yogi’s version of “All the world’s a stage…” is to perceive ourselves as if watching a movie of our lives.  This cultivates, among many things, a connection to the witness (saksi)/Self/Seer, the ability to be present, and a loosening of our particular viewpoint which in turn opens us to compassion and intimacy with all beings (yoga).

When considering ksana – the smallest indivisible unit of time in yoga philosophy, based on the movement of the smallest indivisible particle (anu – smaller than even an atom, as an atom can still be divided into protons, electrons, quarks, etc.) to the adjacent spot – the cinematic montage becomes perhaps an even greater tool for the yogi.

I encourage you to attempt this, now sitting at the computer, later while walking to the kitchen, stepping out of your home, and moving in your daily life. To witness the difference in experiencing yourself as a continuous entity moving through past present and future, and as an entity of this moment of creation, and then the next, and next. In sequence, but not continuous in nature. Noticing the past as a vehicle to and memory in the present, but not a part of the present itself.

This creates an opening to experience what is termed in the movie Waking Life as the Holy Moment.  In the movie they discuss how we normally think of some moments as Holy, as special, and then we have all the rest.  But when we step into the montage of our lives, we step into each moment as unique, special, Holy.

This is particularly pertinent to yoga asana practice.  Often, especially as we mature in our practice over years, we allow ourselves little moments of laziness. A shorter chaturanga here, an inattention to the exact placement of the hand there, allowing flexibility or strength to substitute for the other in a pose, or other manifestation.  We know, as consistent practioners, that we will practice this pose again, often in that very same class.

Like any skill, practice is the key ingredient. What and how you practice, is how you will perform. In yoga asana, there never is the performance, the big game to highlight this.  The practice then, says the montage, must be the performance.  From this vantage point each pose becomes a “Holy Pose”, a unique, special, experience.  Every placement of the hand, every full aware exhale, every adho mukha svanasana is entered into with full intention to be the very best – in all the ways that is meant in a yoga practice – which includes the ability to let it go when we “succeed” or “fail”.

Every moment is a moment of practice – and not just seeing every struggle as an opportunity to practice compassion, or every change as a transition, or every street as an opportunity to be present of the trees, the smells, the people, etc.  But each and every single second, we are practicing, we are setting patterns.

Or, simply put, don’t practice our mistakes. Each moment is setting our pattern of practice. Set the body pattern, set the mind pattern to the groove you WANT to move in – be intentional.

Grooves set us up to be able to move, respect others, and come into relationship with ourselves, other beings and the world in ways that will be beneficial for all more easily. It also cultivates the ability to more easily change grooves when we outgrow old ones.

When I lived in Hawaii, I rode a moped. Which I adored.  Like any vehicle, slouching was a form my body easily fell into while driving. The problem with a moped, however, is that everyone can see you.  I would be driving, slouched as can be, and have a sudden thought that my beloved yoga teacher might be driving by, and see me.  I would immediately straighten up, and assume a more tadasana-like position – hearing her exact words and instructions in my mind.

Whether or not you can recall your teacher’s words, I highly recommend this mental play as a means to recall this work of stepping into ksana.  While you are practicing asana, imagine your most beloved teacher is beside you, and you want to practice as best you can for her/him.  While you are meditating, imagine they are sitting with you, and will see if you end early, or check you phone during the session.  The possibilities are endless.  But beware of creating an opportunity for guilt or blame to arise.  “Guilt” does not exist as a word in Sanskrit. This practice is not meant to give you a prison guard, but an inspiration, an opportunity to perceive each practice, each moment as “the big game”, a reminder that each moment is Holy, and there is nothing we should be waiting for to make it so.

*Ksana appears three times in the Yoga Sutras, the following two are inspiration for this post:

ksana tat kramayoh samyamad vivekajam jnanam YS III.53
By samyama on single moments in sequence comes discriminative knowledge.

ksana-pratiyogi parinamaparanta-nirgrahyah kramah YS IV.33
Each sequence of events is composed of distinct moments that are only perceivable when the yogi transcends those moments and is at the other end.


Before posting this month’s article, I wanted to establish The Grounded Universe as an opportunity to pose questions.  Often during class a question may arise about a particular aspect of a pose, or a tidbit of what a teacher says, and the student asks the teacher after class.  Not all questions arise conveniently in the presence of a teacher, or have a chance to fully formulate themselves at that time. Or, questions may spring from home practice, readings, conversations, art, or other sources of inspiration and yoga.   By posting questions on The Grounded Universe, we can start to transform the site into a satsang among many yogis, taking advantage of the new evolution of community the internet offers. How to submit questions: 1) At the bottom of every post is a link to add comments.  Click and post your question. 2) If you have a question that has arisen in a realm of your yoga practice that is not addressed in an article, feel free to contact me. Questions received via either forum will be responded to, either directly in an email, or online for others to benefit from as well.  I invite everyone to also respond and comment on answers from their personal experiences and study.

Metta Meditation & New Years

Metta Meditation is a specific meditation practice where you call to mind a person and offer blessings to him or her.  The wording you use and the person you call to mind (which can include yourself) varies.  It is a powerful practice in developing compassion, practicing ahimsa, broadening the scope of your awareness, working on your approach to uplifting or troubling relationships.  At this time of year it can be a tangible way to connect the work you do on your meditation cushion or yoga mat to other people as an offering, as a gift, as a blessing for the new year, or as a personal remembrance of gratefulness.

Here is one traditional metta meditation:

May you be safe and protected.

May you be peaceful and happy.

May you be healthy and strong.

May you have ease of well being.

You can use these, or approach them as inspiration or guidelines to create 3 to 4 similar, short sentences that convey the spirit of what is most alive in you this season.  The key is first in the repetition: that you use the same sentences throughout the practice. Also, as with all yoga practices, it is the intention that determines the end result.

For the practice:

*Allot yourself a certain amount of time, and set a timer

*Decide on your wording before you begin.

*Establish your meditation seat.

*Begin with the individuals in your life who are physically and emotionally closest to you:

~draw her/him into your mind’s eye (be specific, notice a facial detail, a habit of standing, clothing, etc.)

~calmly, deliberately, and with full intention, silently offer the blessing

~see her/him accept this blessing, smile, and turn and walk away

*Continue to broaden your circle of blessings until time runs out

*If you have finished all the people who have meaning in your life before the timer ends, deepen the practice by expanding it to include strangers

*End with yourself last

*Allow yourself time to reside in the space you have created from this meditation before opening your eyes and moving again.

Thank you for your support of the website and my classes.

May you be happy, may you be free from suffering, may you know peace, may you be free.