On unexpectedly beautiful days like yesterday, I make sure that I get out during the workday. I’ll ask a co-worker, “did you go out?” Often the response is, “I couldn’t go out; if I went out, I wouldn’t have wanted to come back in.” This is not an uncommon response. I so treasure the spaces of delight in the midst of any day, that it is hard for me to appreciate that response on an emotional or visceral level.
But what my co-worker is saying is that she will get so caught up in longing (pain) that pleasure for a short time is not worth the pain. Thinking about it in that way, I understand. Patanjali cautions us not to get caught up in the “pairs of opposites,” pleasure and pain. Both the longing for pleasure and the avoidance of pain take us out of the moment and make it hard for us to connect to the essence of being. If we are always yearning and avoiding, we cannot rest in the bliss of being.
When we take a walk outside, or stop to eat a nourishing lunch, or pause for five minutes to meditate during the work day, it will only have fleeting benefits if we do it just for the pleasure. If we can consciously bring ourselves into the moment and simply rest in our own being, then it will help us just be (in the state which is free from pleasure and pain/longing and avoidance) while we are in the whirlwind of activity and challenges of our day.
A number of years ago, when he was moving from Capitol Hill to Denver, my friend and former neighbor Robert gave me this dendrobium orchid, which bloomed this year for me for the first time. The dendrobium was just an extra. If you know orchids, you can see that it is planted with a vanda. These orchids came from Robert’s mother’s garden in Florida. When she had to give up her place in Florida, Robert brought home some of the orchids, including the vanda. If I know Robert, he just saw a baby dendrobium in the garden and stuck it in with the vanda when he carried it back north to Capitol Hill. When Robert moved to Colorado, he left the vanda with me because he did not expect it to tolerate the Colorado climate. Even here, the vanda is not likely to bloom. Not enough heat, light, or humidity in DC (really!!!). But after five or six years of steady care, the dendrobium flourished and finally bloomed. Robert inspired my affection for orchids; he had a greenhouse and knew each one of his tropical plants intimately. We would go to an orchid show or nursery, and he would look with love on each and every plant, cherishing their individual traits, no matter how small or large. At the botanical gardens, he had different plants he visited and enjoyed. Now his yard has cactii and peppers. He has a few of his most faithful orchids, which are flourishing and which were delightful to visit, and I have this lovely reminder of a time when Robert was one of my local gardening buddies. This, I think is one of the extra joys of gardening, especially with houseplants that come from cuttings. They have a history with our family and friends that is passed on, cherished, and shared. I also have a night-blooming cereus that was a baby from a plant that started as a baby of one in his mother’s garden. The night mine first bloomed (just a single night in the year), the parent plant with Robert in Denver also bloomed.
Bonus love from this particular dendrobium; it is scented!
A number of years ago, I attended a week-long workshop with Rod Stryker. He invited us to meditate on absolute stillness — cara sthira — meditation. Sitting comfortably, still the skin, the muscles, the bones. Draw the attention to stillness. The breath and heart will still move, but the concentration is on stillness rather than on any movement. Rod Stryker discussed the next day the challenges of this meditation, especially for those who are intellectual, who enjoy being active in the mind. I found it difficult at the time and even dreamed about the issues the meditation brought up for me. Meditating on stillness can be very challenging in a way that meditating on a mantra or the breath would not necessarily be.
I believe the origin of the meditation comes from the principle of sthira being the absolute unmovable, the essence of being (not dissimilar to Kant’s unmoved mover). We invoke pure stillness, pure potential out of which movement comes because that is part of our essence and a place where we can rest our spirit. See, for example, the Srimadbhagavatam.
I discovered absolute joy in this meditation a couple of years after I learned it. I was suffering from a severe sinus infection and bronchitis simultaneously; I joked that I was fine as long as I didn’t breath through either my mouth or my nose. In the midst of my suffering, I remembered the teaching. For a few days I stayed in the meditation for hours at a time. I found the place where I did not really need the breath. Enough came to survive, but I forgot about wondering how to breath or finding a place for it or my struggles with it. In the stillness, there was space and peace and supreme bliss. Ever since then, I have chosen this form of meditation when I have a cold, a sinus infection, or other challenges with breathing. Meditating on the breath, obviously, will not be soothing when breathing is a struggle. But when even breathing is a struggle, peace can be found in complete stillness.
Last night I went with a group of friends for dinner and to see “Hell Meets Henry Halfway” at the Woolly Mammoth. We all had a most enjoyable time, although the play was pretty negative. What could you expect, though, from a play based on a 1930s novel written by a Polish exile that was about declining monarchies and social depravity, etc? What relieved the bleakness of the outlook was the slapstick playfulness of the acting and staging. It was also a pleasure just to see beautiful technique, and acting was wonderful.
As the recession deepens, I have been trying to go to see more theater and dance, to support local theaters and restaurants that I care to have still in my world. It would be easy to settle into a mindset of anti-consumption at this time. Better I think, even if we are trying to shift the consumer orientation of our society, to become ever more mindful in our consumption, being especially mindful of those around us are struggling from the sudden shift. The right action, I think, for those who cannot help but recognize problems, or suffering, or even absurdity, is not only to seek change, but also to see the playfulness in everything to keep the spirit vital and to be able to accept the change that might not be realized despite our best efforts and intentions.
This morning when I went for silent worship, I was in a seat that was in a delicious, warm patch of sunlight. Like a cat in such a spot, I was perfectly content to be still and completely happy. It is good, sometimes, to have stillness come easily, especially if it has been a challenge in recent days.
When my students ask me about starting a home practice, I suggest that they start with their favorite poses. If we start with what is challenging or what we like least or what we think we need to do because we think it will be good for us, it is easy to get frustrated or to find something else to do. Better to start with what is easeful and inviting and then work in the challenging aspects then not to practice at all.
When I came out of my afternoon asana practice and meditation, I picked up the John Friend Teacher Training Manual to look up one of my favorite passages. In describing the “attitude” that brings us to our deepest practice, John Friend writes that there are two reasons to practice yoga: “1. Co-create in the art of life. 2. Realize and awaken to our divine nature.” John Friend, Anusara Yoga Teacher Training Manual (9th Ed., Anusara Press 2006). He explains that sometimes we come to our mat because we are happy and we want to celebrate. Other times, we are sad or confused and we want to remember our essentially divine, blissful nature. This particular teaching has continues to resonate for me. I find great comfort in it because it recognizes that we do forget; we will not always act perfectly. All life, though, is part of our practice, and we can keep trying to co-create and remember the light in all beings in our daily lifes just as we keep can coming to the mat.
Agni or fire is the third of the mahabhutas. Fire does not just give us warmth and light. It also transforms. Just think of what happens to the humble ingredients of flour, water, yeast, and salt when they are baked. When working with agni in our asana practice, using the Anusara principles of alignment, I have drawn on the intersection of pelvic loop and kidney loop (which together create the action of uddiyana bandha, using these principles as I understand them to activate and strengthen my core.
One of the niyamas of Patanjali’s eight-fold path is tapas, which means heat or austerity. We are exhorted to bring fire or fervor to our practice to experience bliss, to know true consciousness.
Fire without balance, without a sense of detachment or surrender, though, will burn us up. We must be careful how we work with agni as the element.
Note: Agni is also the name of the god of fire. Not only do we need to be careful how we draw on the fire element — this town’s culture places perhaps too much value on “fire in the belly,” but we should be wary of how we invoke the gods: India’s nuclear missile program is named “Agni.” Of that invocation of the gods and of fire, I am afraid.
I was sitting at the kitchen table editing a document and drinking hot tea, when I heard a beating of wings against the window. It was in the inside, not the outside. A cabbage butterfly. I do not know how it got inside or where it found a place to grow and open in the house, but here it is in the middle of winter. It soon gave up beating its wings against the window and found the orchids that were blooming and rested there. What a lovely surprise.
For the past week, I have been meditating on, practicing with, and teaching the water element in classes. Our health and the health of the planet depend on the water element being balanced. When our water element is in balance, we are fluid, open, well-nourished, malleable, and life-supporting. Too much or too little water is immediately a problem. Dehydration and drought wither life; flooding overwhelms.
Yesterday, I developed the symptoms of a rather watery head cold that is going around. Did it come from invoking the water element? Doubtful; probably just a virus. I treat the watery symptoms of not merely with more water (as in plenty of liquids), but more truly with fire: hot soup, hot tea, steam to clear the head, a hot water bottle under the covers. The heat balances the excess of water and the missing fire that comes from a cold in winter.