Meditation

Practice, contemplation, and insights

Not just freedom from

Paul Muller-Ortega, who is offering a meditation and philosophy workshop at Willow Street Yoga Center this weekend, says that sadhana (yoga practice, incuding meditation), doesn’t just give us “freedom from, but also freedom to.”

The “freedom from” is freedom from suffering. The freedom to” is freedom to move towards light and blissfulness.

When we first come to the yoga mat or meditation cushion, we are usually coming to discover the “freedom from” we have heard about — perhaps relief from aches and pains or disease, perhaps weight loss or improved body image, perhaps lowering anxiety or easing depression. We discover, when we start practicing, that even if we do not get “freedom from” exactly as hoped within a limited view, that discovery of the “freedom to” itself provides a “freedom from” by making that from which we seek freedom less prevailing as the focus of our being.

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Stringing Baby Seed Pearls (and “Opening to Grace”)

Last night I sat down at my kitchen table to string baby seed pearls for a mother-of-pearl charm I had gotten from Manoj a few years ago.

When I took the pearles off of the thread they came on and put them on my jeweler’s mat, several challenges were revealed:  even with the lights on bright and my reading glasses, it was almost impossible to see the bead hole; if I touched the wire other than on the hole, the pearl bounced; if I tried to hold the pearl still, the hold was obscured by my fingernail. Using a needle was not a viable option because the holes were too small for a wire-threaded needle.

At this point, since I was doing this after a long and frustrating day at the office, the tendency was to get more frustrated. Should I just give away the pearls? Get stronger glasses or a loupe? Try to return them?

Instead I softened. There was no mandate I get the pearls strung. I was doing this solely for enjoyment.

In softening, I discovered — to mix philosophical underpinnings — the zen of baby seed pearl stringing. If I grouped a bunch of pearls together, not only was it easier to see holes in certain pearls, but the others around it held the pearl in place for the wire to pierce the pearl. By softening, it occurred to me to use the technique of cutting the wire on a bias (and repeating it every several pearls strung), which gave me a smaller, sharper point, making the threading much easier. Most important, though, I stopped trying so hard. I let the wire and each pearl meet each other instead of my trying to force the meeting. When I did that, the openings were revealed, and I entered a quiet and serene meditative state during which the project completed itself through my agency.

It is for discovering, experiencing, and always being able to engage this essential and blissful merging of being and acting that I meditate and practice asana. We practice the Anusara principle “opening to grace” so that we can experience grace itself (whatever grace means to you) doing our acting, both on the mat and off.  As such, “opening to grace” is both the primary and ultimate activator of this merged state of being that is yoga--union..

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An Environmental Perspective on Yoga

Every once and a while, I poll my students and ask them whether they find that they need less medication and medical intervention (testing and other procedures) than before they were regularly practicing yoga.  Students uniformly advise that they take painkillers less frequently.  Some students say they need lesser amounts or have been taken off other medications by their doctors.  Others note better sleep, less frequent colds, flu, or other common contagious illnesses.  Others have stated they have avoided recommended surgery by working hard to shift their alignment.  I personally have experienced great improvements in physical and emotional health from my steady practice, which has led to my doctor of 15 years agreeing that I need less medicine (note:  I am not advocating none) and testing. I think my making the commitment to practice to minimize health care consumption as one of the ways I personally take care of the environment.

No matter what it is we are making, consuming, and disposing, and how we are doing those things, the four R’s of consumption to benefit the environment (refuse [i.e., don’t use], reuse, repurpose, recycle), start with not using things in the first place so that we do not have the environmental degradation of manufacturing and ultimate disposal.   We do not usually think about this in the context of medical treatment because we want to be out of pain and illness and for the most part, think of medical treatment as a fundamental right.

At an individual level, lots of people would rather just take a pill (or even have surgery) than have to make a consistent change in behavior, physical activity, and diet.  There are also times when western medical treatment is the only effective treatment, and we are very fortunate to have it available.  Some people are not in a position in society to make a shift easily in this regard or to understand what it means.  But for those of us in the know, prevention not just of illness, but of medical consumption, by exercising, meditating, practicing therapeutic yoga, and shifting our diet, is a wonderful way we can personally seek to limit our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce our personal waste output.  In addition to eliminating the need to have the supplies manufactured, it will also keep medications that have passed through your body from reentering the water and food supply (which in turn has its own detrimental health impacts to society and to the environment).

Has the practice of yoga changed you as a consumer of health care?  Have you ever considered the relationship between being a consumer of health care and your environmental impact?

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A Mini-Experiment (Meditation and Blood Pressure)

This morning I went for my bi-annual physical. The first thing that the doctor’s assistant did after having me stand on the scale (a blood-pressure elevating activity out of habit), was take my blood pressure. It was on the low end of normal, as usual for me.

In the middle of the exam, after having intimate discussions about tratment to alleviate suffering vs. treatment for longevity, and similar topics, my doctor took my blood pressure again. No surprise: it was higher than it had been when I irst walked into the exam room.

When we were just about done, my doctor said, “let’s see if we can lower that blood pressure. Close your eyes and relax.” “Relax” can be a hard command to obey. Instead, I went right to where I go in meditation, softening to my mantra. In less than a minute, my blood pressure was lower than it had been at the start of the exam. “A beauty of meditation,” I said. “Yes,” my doctor replied (who is a very traditional western medical practitioner, “I wish I could get all my patients with high blood pressure to meditate.”

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Intention, Discipline, and Freedom

One of the primary themes at the Anusara certified teachers’ gathering this week with John Friend has been how discipline and technique serve our yoga. In keeping with the elemental Anusara principles of “attitude, alignment, and action” (iccha, jnana, kriya), the point has not been to emphasize rules for the sake of rules, form over substance, or technique for its own sake. Mastering technique, by itself, will not bring us to the ultimate intentions of yoga: living liberated (jivamukti), experiencing the very wonder, bliss, and dance of being.

But just playing or seeking freedom for its own sake, while we are embodied in human form, will not likely lead us to the most expansive and steady experience of ultimate freedom (svatantra). It is discipline and technique with the constant remembrance of the reaon for being disciplined about how we practice and live that will take us further on the path.

It can be nice, for example to go to a class where there is little emphasis on form, and the call is just to flow and feel. For me, though, because of my physical limitations (degeneration in my spine, old groin injury, etc–these do not define my being; they just inform how I practice), I feel far freer and more able to expand how much I can play the more attention I give to the physical alignment. In such a situation, the rigorous attention to detail is not for the sake of an external idea of what is right and what is wrong. Rather, it is the constant disciplined attention to alignment that frees me to play as free from injury, pain, and fear of injury as is possible in my body.

The discipline then becomes a way of self-affirmation. It is the limitations that lead me to have to focus more on technique than if I did not have the limitations. That attention then provides a ground for a more expansive practice and a deeper appreciation for the beauty of what the practice can offer.

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Windows That Open

When I first got to my room on the fourth floor of the hotel, the airconditioner was straining noisily, and the room was very stuffy. To My great delight — the windows not only open, but have screen and look out onto an unveveloped tract of land with trees higher than my window. I immediately opened the windows and let in the smell of fresh air and the sounds of the forest. There is occasional car noise, but it is muffled by the sounds of wind and rain in the trees.

I thought this morning how often I end up in an office building or hotel where the windows do not open. That cutting off access to the realities of nature, of what is greater than our little world, in order to have a controlled climate seems like much of modern life.

Many I know do not even notice that the windows do not open. Others of us, see the windows and want to know what is outside and to be with the greater energies. We seek to oprn the windows and know. Those who are able and so moved and who are able — rare beings — leave behind the buildings and go entirely on the renunciate path. The rest of us who live the life of householders, seek to have windows that open and spend time each day breathing in the sweetness of what is greater.

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Spam Filter (and thoughts in meditation)

When I have not looked at my email for several days, I am faced with dozens of emails in my two regular accounts, plus the spam folders.  The first thing I do is see what in the spam folder is not spam.  In doing that, I give some attention to everything in the folder.  Then I go through my in box to figure out what should have gone to spam.  Then I delete the spam.  Then I decide what emails from list serves there is no point in reading because if I have not read them immediately, I will have missed the letter-writing, petition-signing, event-going, offering-enjoying that is described in the email.  Those get deleted without being opened.  There is another level of emails that I open, but just skim.  Then I either delete quickly or leave to be read after I get to the important stuff.  Then there are the personal and business emails that I want to read and require my attention.  I look at them to see if they need immediate attention or can wait.

The thoughts that arise during meditation have a similar filter.  Some are spam.  There is a certain almost mesmerizing quality about the quantity and array of the thoughts, but I just let them go — returning to my mantra or the breath because the mantra is far more delightful than the thoughts.  Other thoughts, I acknowledge, but leave for later (i.e., the proverbial “to do” list), again finding more delight in the spaciousness and light of meditation.  Sometimes particular thoughts relevant to my practice and very being will start resonating in the light itself and becomes messages.  These thoughts sometimes dissolve again into the light of meditation and do not come with me from the session in a tangible form.  Others stay with me and give me fruit for contemplation, for investigation and study, for illumination of my day, or for discussion with others for further refinement.

Always, though, there is an acceptance that thoughts will arise as inevitably as one with multiple active email accounts and many list serves will get email.  The practice is learning which thoughts I should give heed, which to discard, and when and how to listen to those that will serve and inform.

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Forgetting to Take a Break (and a reminder of the importance of practice)

I got caught up in something in the middle of the day today.  By the time I could reasonably take a break (I did eat my lunch from home), it was too late to be able to get a real break.  I then worked fairly late.  By the end of the day, I really noticed the difference between a day when I have taken a walk, met a friend, sat at the Botanical Garden or the museum for even 15-20 minutes and this day, when I let myself get so tangled in the demands of work that I did not take a break.

I work better in the afternoon when I have taken a break, just as my work, my body, my digestion, my sleep, and my relationships are healthier when I practice consistently.  I no longer need a reminder how important it is both to take a good break each day and to find time for practice.  I am looking at this day, though, as a teaching lesson, an extra reminder of the importance of finding some delicious time to bring into the rest of the day.

Do you take a break to eat quietly or take a walk in the middle of your day?  Can you notice the difference the days you do and the days you don’t?  What about the weeks you practice and the weeks you do not?  Does this not fire you up with resolve to be steadier in your practice and kinder to yourself?

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Stand Steady in the Light (Workshop at Willow Street this Saturday)

One of the most wonderful ways we can find our own steadiness using asana practice is the joy of standing balancing poses.  Even when our feet are not steady, a gentle turning of our mind to a focused, steady place will bring us a sense of calm and ease.

Please join me this Saturday for:

Standing Steady in the Light: A Standing Balance Workshop, Sat May 8, 2:30-5pm, Willow Street Yoga Center, Takoma Park, $35.  Find a place of deeper steadiness and balance in your own light and worthiness.  Learn how to use the Anusara principles to enhance your ability to stand or your own two feet or on just one foot at a time.  After we playfully explore a progressively expansive array of standing poses, we’ll finish with a few upside-down restorative postures to let our legs and feet feel the bright light created by the practice.  Whether you find standing poses a challenge or revel in the dance, this workshop will illuminate your practice.  Everybody welcome.  To register, please visit www.willowstreetyoga.com.

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The Nyaya of the Cat and the Bunny

A nyaya is literally a recursion, something which leads back to an essential principle.  In my recent studies of meditation, we have been taught various nyayas that help to explicate the experience of meditation and the whys and benefits of steady practice.

At the place where we have been staying for our meditation and study retreats with Paul Muller-Ortega, there is a wonderful cat named Oberon.  I first met him last summer when I was walking the labyrinth just before dawn.  I’d heard a meow off in the distance.  Lonely for cat company since my Becky had so recently left her body, I called to the cat.  He came running to me and walked the labyrinth with me.  Each time I have visited, I have had some special moments with Oberon, who lives fully up to his name — Oberon being the King of the Faeries.

Oberon loves the meditation hall and often tries to get in.  He also brings offerings.  Last winter, he brought us a mostly dead bird.  As well intended as it might have been on Oberon’s part, it was not particularly welcomed in the meditation hall.  On the final night of our retreat this time, we were reveling in the good fortune of having fellow students (and my sometimes teachers and the creators of many CDs in my music collection) Heather and Benjy Wertheimer lead us in kirtan.  At one point, I left my place to go to the facilities.  A fellow student, stopped me, “Elizabeth, the cat has a really big mouse.”  I went to look.  Oberon did not have a mouse; he had a young bunny.  “It’s a bunny I said.”  The other students who were outside were horrified.

Without thinking, I went to him, “Oberon, drop it!” I said, as if it were appropriate to speak to the King of the Faeries as if he were an obedient dog.  He listened though and dropped the bunny, which remained frozen.  I held Oberon by the scruff of the neck.  “Go bunny; bunny run,” I said, but the bunny did not move.  I then tapped the bunny on his back at the tail.  The bunny remained frozen, though it did not appear yet to be injured.  I let go of Oberon and went to get a towel or something to pick up the bunny.  Then Oberon tapped the bunny just where I had touched it.  Off ran the bunny through the shoes neatly piled outside the meditation hall.  I caught Oberon and picked him up.  The bunny again froze, looking back at us.  At this point I was completely oblivious to anything other than the cat and the bunny.  “Bunny run; go now.”  Oberon squirmed, but did not scratch me, letting me continue to hold him.  Finally, the bunny ran off into the scrub and disappeared.  I put down Oberon.  He sniffed the trail, but then came back to me for a petting when I called.  “Thank you for the offering Oberon; I know it was well intentioned, but we are not so keen on bringing dead baby animals into the meditation hall.”  He sniffed, lifted his regal head, and sat down to wash.

Leaving aside what my actions may have done to the fabric of the world order and the pondering I could do about the interrelationship between destiny and free will, I felt that I had been given a wonderful lesson about life and practice. Practice can bring us great freedom if we stay steady on the path.  Like the bunny, though, we can stay frozen in fear and old patterns, even when we are given a glimpse of the freedom of self we can get from practice.  As dire as things may be (or perhaps even when they are at their worst), we return to the familiar, regardless of whether we are unhappy with it, regardless of how old patterns are limiting our ability to grow.  Sometimes it is dissatisfaction with and pain from the old patterns themselves (revealed more clearly by practice already begun) that push us to go further, just as it took Oberon getting the bunny to run again for me to realize he was sufficiently healthy to be able to run off.  And just as I stayed with Oberon and the bunny until the bunny finally took his chance at freedom, the practice and the truths and freedom practice can reveal will always be there.  No matter how many times we forget or return to the stuck and the familiar, the opportunity for growth and freedom continues to await.

When I am feeling stuck, when I am finding myself returning to patterns that do not serve, I will think about my own personal nyaya of the cat and the bunny.  I hope it will serve to keep me moving forward, less stuck, less attached to the familiar that no longer serves.

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