Practice, contemplation, and insights

Lunchtime Idyll

I did not have much time for a break today as I had a meeting scheduled for 1:30 pm. I always try to take at least a short break from work in the middle of the day, including a walk and some time to sit quietly. I am far more productive and have a better day all around when I do.

One of my favorite places to go is directly across the Mall to the US Botanical Gardens. When I sit and close my eyes, it feels and smells like I have gone someplace warm, beautiful, and exotic. I had only time to take a few good breaths and write a couple of sentences in my journal, but that brief interlude can be all that I need to bring renewed enthusiasm to my work.

Do you have an idyllic place you can go for a few moments? If you cannot leave your office, do you remember to close your eyes and breathe or engage in other simple meditation?


Walking Holiday

Walking has always been my preferred form of getting from one place to another; if time and distance require it, I intersperse a lift from bus, metro, or taxi on one end or in the middle of a walk.  All I really wanted to do with my time off–I don’t have to go to the office or teach class until January 3rd–is to walk and practice and visit with friends and family and look at art and cook and read and study and eat and play with the cats and write and photograph and dance (an open-ended term) and maybe knit or draw.  For me, walking is walking in itself; time to practice bhavana — deep contemplation; time to practice japa–repetition of mantra; opportunity to open the mind and senses to allow the flourishing of creative projects–mostly writing and photography; a way of going from one place to another for shopping, working, visiting, etc; and sometimes an activity to share with friends.  And of course walking to get food is wonderful both for stimulating the appetite and for aiding digestion.

Yesterday, we were given 90 minutes of administrative leave.  On leaving the office at 3:30, I walked west from my building to the last Thursday until spring of the Penn Quarter Farmer’s Market.  I didn’t really need anything, but wanted to support the farmers who were braving the cold, so I bought a wild oyster to eat while I stood there and a bag of arugula and a few apples and pears.  From there I walked back east, traversing the Capitol grounds to East Capitol Street and stopped in and browsed at Capitol Hill Books.  It was turning dark when I walked east into Lincoln Park before turning north to go home.

In less than an hour, a good friend will arrive at the door in her walking shoes.  We are going to head out on foot to the Mall to talk and to look at art and to share a meal in Penn Quarter or back on the Hill.  Later in the day, I will walk along the bus route to Dupont or walk to the metro to go to a Christmas Eve potluck dinner at Friends Meeting of Washington.

Tomorrow, Christmas Day, I will celebrate Christmas in the manner of New York Jews (Chinese food and a movie).  After walking through Lincoln Park and down Kentucky Avenue SE (where are some of the most beautiful trees in the neighborhood) to get a massage, I’ll walk to the U.S. Botanical Gardens to meet a friend I have known since third grade who is town with some of her NY friends for the holidays.  We will probably walk up to Chinatown after that.  Then I’ll go see a movie.  Whether I walk or take the bus will depend on whether it is dark by the time the movie lets out.

On Boxing Day, I will go to Georgetown to volunteer at the Lantern Bookshop.  I will walk some of the way and take the bus the rest of the way.  The length of the walk will depend on the amount of time I spend making breakfast, caring for plants and cats and house, and writing.  How much of the return trip ends up being on foot will depend on how many books I decide to take home from the Lantern.  Sometimes I only get one or two.


Watching the Clouds Dissipate

Tonight (technically very early tomorrow morning), will be the first full lunar eclipse on the winter solstice in 350 years. Part of me wants the sky to be clear so that I can witness this extraordinary event. The other part yearns for a cloudy forecast so I can stay warm in my bed at 3 a.m. without feeling that it would be my own inaction that led me to miss the eclipse.

I think we all feel this way about our practice sometimes. We want to have the great openings that come from a deep and steady practice, but it would be oh so nice if they came without effort. And an excuse not to practice that comes from somewhere out of our control makes it so much easier to accept not getting the benefits.

Unlike a cloud cover blocking our view of the moon, though, there aren’t many things that actually prevent practicing, although they might change what kind of practices we can do at a particular time in our lives.


Teaching Less to Practice More

This morning is the last Saturday in the foreseeable future when, even waking up before dawn, I have to cut short my morning practice to get on the metro to go teach. I have a strong memory of a relatively novice teacher telling me, before I started teaching, that she was going to stop teaching indefinitely because she needed more time for her own practice. At times over the years, when my other job was at its most demanding, I would think about that statement. Mostly, though, I have circumscribed other activities to fit in time for work, teaching, and a full practice.

It came time to admit, though, after nearly two years of steady study with 0Paul Muller-Ortega, which expanded my meditation practice from 25-30 minutes a day, in addition to asana practice and studying, to an hour a day plus additional practices and more studying, that there are not enough hours in a day for all I want to do.

I have been teaching on Saturday mornings for a number of years now. I love my Saturday morning students and have embraced the discipline of getting to class to teach.

The energies have shifted. I will still teach my noon class on Saturday and my weeknight classes, but I will have more time for a full practice and perhaps some extra garden time from this shift. I expect that this time to deeper into my own path will bring new energy and light to my teaching. I hope trust I will see my Saturday morning students at other classes and workshops, both when I am teaching and taking class together at Willow Street.


Starry Nights, Tantric Yoga, and Pratyahara

On my previous visits to Sedona in the past year and a half, the moon has been full or nearly full each time.  Even though there was little light from man-made sources, the bright light of the moon illuminated the sky enough that the stars were outshone.  This trip, though, there was only a sliver of a crescent, and then, no moon at all.  In the absence of the moon, the stars blazed forth in all their glory.

I recently have been contemplating how the practice of pratyahara (usually translated as withdrawal of the senses) fits into a tantric yoga path. Pratyahara is the fifth limb of the eight-limb path of raja yoga, see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.   In classical yoga, the aim of yoga practice is to transcend the body-mind, and the eight limbs provide the means for that transcendence.  It fits within that paradigm to withdraw from the senses to move towards meditation.  In tantric yoga, though, the aim is not to transcend or quell the body-mind, but to understand that the body-mind is an emanation of spirit and to live ever more full of the light of spirit. The senses are not something to be transcended.  Yet we still practice pratyahara on the tantric path.Why is that?

I think that in order to remember our own light, we sometimes need to choose to withdraw from the potentially constant stimulation of our senses; we need to pick darkness and quiet so that we can better discriminate between being delighted and inspired by the senses and being bound by craving stimulation of the senses.  If we get completely bound up in the senses and seek only to get more and more stimulated, we will forget the fullness and light of spirit.  We choose, therefore, at times in our practice, to diminish outer sensory input so that the inner light can shine more brightly.  When we return from the inner light to go back to the senses, we are then better able to appreciate the wonder of what our senses bring to us.  It is not unlike how we get to witness the extraordinary magic of the stars when we take ourselves away from the light of the sun, the moon, and the city.


Airport Delay (and “Unreasonable Happiness”)

I am sitting in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International airport waiting for the plane that should already be carrying me home to finish being repaired. After having done a full hour of practice this morning in my room, having a last delicious breakfast at the retreat center, and enjoyed the two-hour ride with friends to the airport, I find myself perfectly happy to sit in the airport. I am warm and well-fed. I have bought a novel to read on the plane — Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” — and put aside a philosophy handout to write. The handout, a translation of the beginning of Abhinavagupta’s “Tantrasara” that was given to us by Paul Muller-Ortega to support our meditation practices, teaches us to seek the power of bliss through the practices, this bliss being true knowledge and true freedom. The more we practice, the more we can draw on this power and abide in a state of true happiness. Paul Muller-Ortega sometimes says that we want to be “unreasonably happy.” As I sit here feeling perfectly content after my weekend of practice and community and watching others in the airport get progressively grumpier with the delay, I feel unreasonably happy. I also feel fully motivated to practice and study ever more deeply so that I can abide ever more steadily and this glorious unreason.


Going on An “Advance”

I am sitting at the airport getting ready to fly to Phoenix. At Sky Harbor International, I will join friends, and we will drive together to Sedona for a weekend of study, meditation and other practice, and companionship.

On the most recent study call, our teacher Paul Muller-Ortega said that we are not going on a retreat. We are not joining together to get away from things, to escape from our lives. Rather, we are taking an opportunity to deepen and expand our practice to live life more fully. Would it not be more accurate, then, Paul suggested, to think of it as going on an “advance” than on “retreat?”


Found Sculpture

I saw this beautiful roll of chicken wire in the Enid Haupt garden when I was walking back to the office after a quick visit to see the Gods of Angkor exhibit at the Sackler Gallery (sorry about the absence of links; blogging from the BB).

I was first introduced to the idea of “found poetry” in junior high school and have developed a life-long habit of photographing words to change, enhance, and/or question their meaning and hidden beauty by the act of extracting them from their original place and presenting them as a photograph. Marcel Duchamp and others did what poets and photographers were doing with words with ordinary objects by presenting them as sculpture.

Here, where I have photographed the chicken wire roll, is the art a sculpture (because I could treat it as such) of which I have taken a photograph–the photograph being mere documentation? Is the art the photograph of what I have seen to the extent I am offering it as a vision and a dialogue generated by what I saw? Or is the photograph merely a snapshot taken with a hand-held computer device documenting an object that happened to be sitting there–not art at all? If it were not for artists such as Duchamp, could I or would I even be able to ask this question?

I think that analogous types of questions have been and can be asked about the variety of religious and mystical experience. Is there a particular way they must be experienced? Do such experiences have to fit within a prescribed framework to be valid? When are such experiences madness or delusion and when are they the voice of the spirit? Who gets to decide? Does it depend on the era and the culture in which the experiencer lives? Does the answer to any of these questions matter if the experiences lead one to a more loving, compassionate, and beauty-filled life?


“It’s All Good” (and Voltaire’s Candide at the Shakespeare Theater)

Last night I went to see the revival of the Bernstein musical version of Voltaire’s Candide, now playing at the Shakespeare Theater’s Harmon Hall (discount tickets available), which was absolutely a delight — fantastic staging and direction, luxurious costuming, enthusiastic performances.  Throughout his journey, which is beset with cruelty, hardship, natural disaster, and other mishaps wherever he goes, Candide sings of his tutor’s optimistic advice that “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”  The application of this philosophy leads to some silly results, including the Monty Python-worthy lyric “it’s a great day for an auto da fe.”

I have a friend who, after telling me of various life challenges and griefs, inevitably signs off with the phrase “it’s all good,” though I am not sure she believes it.  I thought of her repetition of the phrase “it’s all good,” while I was watching the musical.  Later in Candide’s travels, he encounters a second philosopher scholar who (I’m paraphrasing loosely) contradicts the “it’s all for the best” philosophy of Candide’s tutor by telling Candide to just look around and he will know that things are not in fact always for the best.  A fluffier version of  the debate in the novel, as to whether things are all for the best when there is so much cruelty and devastation, is interwoven into the rest of the play.

I’ve never had a desire to wear the t-shirt proclaiming that “it’s all good.”  I look around me, and I simply do not believe it.  I do believe wholeheartedly, though, Voltaire’s premise that we have the responsibility to “cultivate our garden.”  As my teachers John Friend and Paul Muller-Ortega espouse, we should “respond from the highest,” regardless of what we experience and encounter.  By having our response make the best of all possible worlds from things that are not evidently for the best, we bring more light into the world, whatever is our world view.  I can only hope that with steady practice of yoga and meditation, I can keep ever truer to these teachings when I am seriously challenged.