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?

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?

Embodying a whisk

“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 staff or a whisk. Both are tools, both belong to different traditional jobs or offices in a temple: the staff for the zen meditation master, the whisk for the tenzo (the cook in zen temples).

The following bolded lines are from Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun (Instruction for the Tenzo). Translations from Moon in a Dewdrop.

rice “Watch for sand when you examine the rice. Watch for rice when you throw away the sand.”
Can you imagine this task set before you? Two bowls – one filled with the raw rice, another for the rice after examining, and the floor below you for the discarded sand.  Bringing practice into this task is two-fold – both carefully cleaning the rice of sand before considering it clean, and carefully examining the sand before you consider it dirt.

Paying attention not only to the action of the task – the arising of the task, but also to the end – the falling away of the task.  Dogen’s teaching urges us to stay with it – all the way to the end.  In asana this might mean watching equally how we enter, as well as exit a pose – so we don’t wind up with a sequence of starting pose after pose without ever really completing them.  Or in the kitchen, so we don’t wind up with a lot of clean rice without ever really checking to see if we missed any.  Or we spend an entire day moving from one event, task, need, person to the next, without taking any time to pause and be present as it comes to the end. Perhaps, if we did take that time, we might even notice the pause between them – just like the pause at the end of the exhale.

“Do not be careful about one thing and careless about another.”
How can we stay with the beginning and end of a pose? The beginning and end of a breath? The beginning and end of a commute? The beginning and end of a sensation or mood?  We all have areas where we take time to be careful all the way through, and we all have areas where that is not the case.  What are yours? What is one thing, today, you could apply this practice to and see what happens?

“When preparing the vegetables and the soup ingredients to be cooked, do not discuss the quantity or quality of these materials which have been obtained from the monastery officers; just prepare them with sincerity. Most of all you should avoid getting upset or complaining about the quantity of the food materials.”

What would like look like in your office? In your home?

 “Since ancient times this position has been held by accomplished monks who have way-seeking mind, or by senior disciples with an aspiration for enlightenment. This is so because the position requires wholehearted practice.”
How hard is it to do anything whole-heartedly?  For me, this is especially challenging with cooking – it’s so easy to drift off to another task mid-boil, get lost in commentary about completely unrelated topics mid-chop, or get into a mood that makes me less approachable to those I love. Even while writing this dharma, I was making coffee and planning out my words instead of just emptying the grinds.

In B.K.S Iyengar’s translations of “satya” (honesty), he suggests that if every cell of your being is not on board with what you’re saying – it’s not satya.  I like that for a definition of whole-hearted activity – every cell of your being is present and dedicated to this moment.  And also, there’s a mood of whole-heartedness that goes along with that definition.  Without that whole-hearted mood – our movements can become mechanical.

whisk “If there is sincerity in your cooking and associated activities, whatever you do will be an act of nourishing the sacred body”
Sincerity is the quality of being free from pretense…free from trying to make what’s happening anything other than what it is, right now, in this moment.

Sincere, whole-hearted, all the way through from beginning to end practice – this is how we embody a whisk.

Equanimity: More Than One Story

On the announcement of being one of the first professors to be fired from Harvard, Ram Dass (then Richard Alpert) was in a room with the press. He writes, “They had that look on their faces you have when you’re around a loser… And I looked around and saw that everybody believed in only one reality to this situation except me.”

One of the hallmarks of when we’re in that more awake and story2aware space is that we’re not tunnel visioned into just one way of seeing ourselves or others or a situation.  We hold space, we don’t make up our minds about what’s in front of us, we have more than one story – without needing any of them to be right or wrong.

“My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.  Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.”   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Danger of a Single Story

Books are about specifically American and British lives, and they are also specifically about Nigerian ones.  Being fired from Harvard was disgraceful, and it was also freeing. Working ourselves free from the habit of a single story cultivates the type of equanimity required to really see ourselves and others, to really be present with the moment arising in front of you.

Often we drift into a single story when we are explaining “why”, and using language like “That’s just the way it is. That’s just the way I am, she is, he is, the government is, my handstand is, my body is.” Or, like Ram Dass, when our culture has a very strong single view of a situation.  It can be hard to climb out from under that.

stories1When we notice there’s just one story in our perception, we can stop, and ask “That’s one story, what’s another one?” Who or what do you have a just one story about? Where do you feel stuck? Test run this question now, and then try it out over the next few weeks. Try it with people, try it with yourself, try it with situations. Let equanimity be your guide. When it starts to slip too far from your field of vision, check in with this question.  Save yourself from having a single story of any aspect of your life.

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