Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.48, tatah dvandaha anabhighataha is translated by B.K.S. Iyengar as “from then on [after the yogi through steady practice has absorbed him/herself in the practice of yoga), the sadhaka (practitioner) is undisturbed by dualities.” This sutra follows the only two in all of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that specifically discuss asana, which Patanjali describes as a controlled and perfect ease and steadiness of mind and body.
I was thinking about the freedom from the “pairs of opposites” — pleasure and pain, etc. — when I read an article in the Washington Post yesterday dividing everyone who was impacted by the blizzard as a winner or a loser. Children off from school were winners, frustrated parents, travelers who were grounded from flying, and politicians sure to be blamed for not having planned in a Southern city to have the snow removal equipment, personnel, and budget of a city like Buffalo, NY, were losers. I am fairly certain (based on the harangues on the blogs) that the author was not alone in seeing everything as winning or losing. To me, though, it feels like one of the “afflictions” described by Patanjali. I was a grounded flyer. I was much looking forward to a trip to San Francisco to see a dear friend from college and then to attend the weekend workshop with John Friend. It would have been great fun to be there. I was disappointed. But it never would have occurred to me to label myself a loser. Do so so would just had me hold onto unhappiness.
Yoga teaches us to look for the good, to accept what we cannot change, and to seek to respond in the highest. In essence, we are changing what we can change, which is how we react. If my only reaction to the storm was pain and sadness from having the pleasure of my planned trip taken away from me, then I would in fact be a loser. If I just accept that no one can anticipate when record-breaking winter storms are going to arrive and then have the best day I can under the unavoidable circumstances, then I am a winner. I am not a winner in a game where someone else is a loser. I am not a winner in that I did not let Mother Nature win. Rather, I have learned that the steady practice of yoga makes life more easeful and delightful even in challenges and disappointments. I am motivated to practice more. The lessons learned from being confined a blizzard when I was warm, well fed, and surrounded by friends are a hopeful prelude for how the yoga will serve when I really face a challenge.
A rather conservative co-worker, who was one of the people who would have to go grocery shopping last night lest the family be without perishable food for a few days, was talking to me about the impending snowstorm (including me advising him of the one forecast for next Tuesday/Wednesday). “It shows,” he said, “how easily our infrastructure and food supply can be disrupted.” I gave it a little pause, and then replied, “this is why I talk about gardening in our own yards and switching away from agribusiness to a more sustainable and self-sustaining way of living and seek to shift myself, though it is difficult.” He said, “hmmm,” letting the idea stick in his mind, but not wanting to carry the discussion further. I know him well enough to have dropped it for the time, but also know he will think about it and perhaps over the years, for his beloved daughters or out of perceived necessity, start making small shifts.
In yoga practice, the concept of suddha vidya — illuminative wisdom — is both revealed and practiced. When we start practicing or even before, we may have occasional and early insights into fundamental truths of being, but without steady practice and contemplation they will be fleeting and not shift our way of living. If we practice and study continuously, though, our insight will become steadier, more consistent, and will start to illuminate all states of our being on and off the mat. The more I practice, the more it is illuminated for me the connection of all beings and my need to live in a way that is more open, tolerant, loving, and aligned with the complex web of our interconnection. My co-worker’s insight might not have been “yoga,” but it was indeed a moment of illuminative wisdom in its recognition of a misalignment of society that tears at the fabric of our being.
It is almost inconceivable to my limited mind how many snowflakes it took to whiten our world yesterday morning. This weekend, there will be far more snow (alas, it will be too cold to stick to the trees and create such a beautiful canopy; instead we will have howling winds and heavy going). I might catch the first of the snowflakes tomorrow morning on my walk to work before the storm really comes in with all its wild fury. When there are only a few, it is easy to see the individual flakes. Once there is a storm, though, we tend only to see the storm.
Just as it is hard to remember that the snow is about both each individual flake and the whole snow fall together, we forget about the simultaneous place of ourselves as individuals as part of the whole, or we get caught up witnessing ourselves as individuals and forget that we are all a part of a much vaster energy. The reality is that we are all both all of the time — we are completely individual and part of a vast, interconnected web. When we can remember and witness both aspects of ourselves, then we can most deeply witness, participate in, and appreciate the extraordinariness of being.
This is the view from the corridor just outside my office door. On the left is the Tax Court. On the right, is the homeless shelter where Mitch Snyder, advocate for the homeless, committed suicide. In between, the highway emerges out from under our building. At rush hour, especially on a rainy day, it is completely congested. Even on a cloudy day, not much light comes in the window. It is a north-facing view, and the windows are tinted.
If I were to be standing at a window on the other side of the building, it would be bright with sun. On the left would be the Capitol and the west lawn. In the center, the National Botanical Garden’s graceful contours would gleam on the far side of the reflecting pool. To the right, the National Mall, flanked by museums, would stretch in the distance to the Washington Monument.
What is important to remember is that both sides are always present. When we are facing harshness, demands, suffering, and challenges, we need to remember that beauty and light are still present. When we are filled with abundance, beauty, and light, then we must remember that there are others who are challenged and suffering and make efforts to extend to them our own abundance and light.
This month’s recipient will be the Environmental Defense Fund. Why? Because in his State of the Union Address to much applause by Democrats (Republicans don’t clap for a Democratic President even if he is giving them everything they want), President Obama announced that part of the support for “clean” energy would be for nuclear power plants, “clean” coal (an oxymoron if I ever heard one), and off-shore drilling.
You might wonder why not have the February cause be an organization that is doing work in Haiti? I feel it is important to support organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and Doctors Without Borders, who are doing yeoman-like work to ease suffering in Haiti and other places around the globe, and I have given some support. Following disasters or major incidents, though, society as a whole often experiences “donor fatigue.” I want to make sure that in the aftermath, the other changes I seek in the world do not go unsupported by me. So I try to give extra, and I try to remember all the things about which I care.
This week I drafted, and today signed along with two witnesses, a living will. It has been on my “to do” list for a good 20 years, and I have been carrying in my wallet a card from the Society for the Right to Die (which no longer appears to exist) saying that I have a living will in my possession. Two things led me to get it done at this time. The first is my deeply held belief that privileging hospice is an important and mostly missing element of the health care debate. The second was witnessing a dear friend have the last few months of her life being attached to machines and receiving ever more painful medical intervention even with end stage cancer. I know that is not what I want.
This society gives you the medical care, though, whether you want it or not, if you do not say something loudly, clearly, and with technically the right jargon. I could not wait any longer. I did the research, drafted the document, spoke to my family and friends, and finally did it. It is hard to do. I am still anxious that I did not do it right or that in the end, should it come where the living will would be necessary, my wishes will not be honored. It is hard to think about death, illness, and accident. It is scary to approach legal documents that are so fraught with political and religious weight (a friend cautioned me to make sure I have lots of copies because of his experience of a nurse, who because of her religious doctrine, repeatedly “lost” copies of his mother’s directives when she was dying from advanced Altzheimer’s.)
The yoga helps me think about these things with some measure of equanimity. I have even heard teachers say that the whole reason for a steady practice is to be prepared for death and dying, so that we can go peacefully, comfortable with both our life and our death. Part of the yoga off the mat, in this regard, is recognizing how society is likely to behave, and what we need to do to be healthy within the confines of society.
Last night, at his workshop at Willow Street Yoga, Todd Norian discussed the niyama samtosha — contentment. “Perfect,” I thought, because I had been contemplating the practice of samtosha all day. When I had sat to meditate in the morning yesterday, it was hard for me to stay with my mantra or any sense of peacefulness, light, or delight. Thoughts of the horrendous repercussions of the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance kept arising. Time to get back to the foundations of practicing! As I began walking to work (past the Capitol), I brought myself back to the practice of samtosha, which I find one of the most useful practices for me.
Samtosha is the second of the niyamas set forth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas are ethical precepts for living and for practicing. In Patanjali’s eight-limbed, dualistic path of raja yoga, they precede the practices of asana (the physical postures), pranayama (breathing), and the various stages of meditation, which culminate in samadhi (equinimity or bliss). When I am struggling with what I witness in the outside world, I always come back to the practice of samtosha. Some people may be naturally lighter-hearted than others, but contentment is indeed a practice, and it is a foundational practice.
When I practice contentment, I remember to be grateful for all that I have. When I fully practice contentment, instead of becoming bleak and cynical (it is easy enough for me), I not only feel more naturally cheerful, but find I have have more strength to continue acting in accordance with my beliefs, even when I am confused, alarmed, outraged, and disgusted by what is going on outside. When practicing contentment, I try to find my own light, I seek the love and company of friends, I join with like-minded persons to be moved to work for change, even if I do not trust it will make any visible change to anyone other than me.
FYI, Todd Norian will be at Willow Street Yoga Center all weekend. If you are local and reading this in time, try to come for some of the weekend. He is wonderful.