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.
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.
When meditating and practicing in a group, if I am feeling settled and grounded myself, it does not disturb my practice that others near me are fidgeting or not fully present. Just as I can meditate on a bus or in a waiting room, I am responsible for descending into my own inner space. If I am unsettled myself, then I am more likely to notice others fidgeting. But it is not their fidgeting that disrupts my practice, but that I am having a day when it is hard for me to center on my own.
It is true, though, when practicing with a group, that sometimes we will all be deeply centered and then the power of the group can bring all of the individuals to a deeper experience.
I walked into the dining room yesterday and caught a hint of an exquisitely sweet fragrance. I knew the paperwhite bulb I was forcing was only in bud. What was it? I went to look and saw that there was a single blossom on the nightblooming jasmine. Inside, in winter, the single bloom emitted as much apparent fragrance as dozens outside. I have had this plant for 12-13 years, since it was in a three inch growers’ pot. The last time I repotted it was several years ago, but I faithfully bring it inside and out every winter/summer cycle, and feed and water it plentifully. In response, it keeps getting fuller and offering blooms. When it is outside, it can have dozens of blooms at once. Sometimes I harvest the buds before they open and use them to scent green tea. When I find open blossoms in the morning, I harvest them by the handful and put them on my alter or in the bedroom, where they will provide scent for a day or two. Outside in the summer, while profuse, the blooms last only a single night. Inside in winter (with an average 24-hour a day temperature of 61-62F), the blooms, though coming more occasionally and only a couple at a time, can last for three or four days.
I think the blossoms of yoga and meditation sadhana (practice) are not dissimilar to the way this plant blooms. With steady care, they will always bloom, though sometimes more than others, sometimes with a different character, and sometimes with just growing periods with no apparent blossoms. Sometimes, there will be a wild profusion of vision and offering, but those tend to be fleeting. The memory of the intoxicating perfume, though, keeps us tending the practice, knowing it will come again. During the time between the wilder experiences, the nectar still comes, and though in less dramatic ways, perhaps all the sweeter for coming in a time wh
en we are just practicing and tending and not expecting any great revelation.
Vikalpa samskara is a term that describes the fundamental process of an ever refining yoga practice. It encompasses both study of text (with a teacher) and experiential learning and practice. With just experience, we may feel full unto ourselves, but we cannot explain the richness of our experience to others nor can we understand why. If we just hear something from a teacher or see a picture or read about it in a book, however, no matter how book smart we are, we do not have the understanding that comes from personal experience. It is by continuously combining and refining study and practice, that we can have a progressive deepening of true knowledge.
We often talk about “beginner’s mind” with respect to asana practice and meditation (and bringing the beauty of that state off of the mat). We are invited to be receptive and open the way is an ideal beginner, who wants to learn, but does not yet know the topic.
What does “beginner’s mind” really mean, though, in the context of someone who is experienced? I do not believe that it should mean discarding either book learning or discrimination built of experience. What it suggests to me is to approach our practice and life with freshness, with open-mindedness, without being bound by preconceived notions. I think this is the true process of vikalpa samskara. To be able to deepen our knowledge ever more deeply, we have to be willing to be open to shifts and changes in understanding. Then “samskara” does not become a rut, a bad habit, the inevitable effect from a previous action, but the development of a deepening path for more refined understanding.
The other day, after having worked, been on the phone, and continued in the social whirl of the holidays, the thought sprung up in my mind that I wanted to “go to the place of no words.” It felt absolutely essential that I go into the space of deep meditation. It was not so much for escape, as for rest. For me, meditation can provide more of an opportunity for my mind to rest and renew than can sleep. I rarely have dreamless sleep, and when I am very busy, my dreams get more so. My meditations, like everyone’s, can be full of thoughts and words. Thoughts will inevitably arise. What is different in meditation, though, is that even when my mind is full of thoughts, I know I do not have to follow them. I can just let them be — as if there were some radio or television program on that I just allow to be on, but to which I do not give my attention. It is this rest from paying attention, from having to follow and direct thought that I wanted so that when I returned to active thought there would be more clarity, discrimination, and, where needed, detachment.
I went today with my younger sister and brother-in-law to see the Terracotta Warriors exhibit at the National Geographic Museum. Even with only a few of the warriors and photographs of the site, it is possible to imagine the sheer magnitude of the vision of thousands of these life-sized images living underground at the tomb of the Emperor. I then thought of how vast must have been the Emperor’s yearning for power and the wildness of his vision of this extraordinary tomb for it to have become manifest. Trying to expand my imagination to understand the reality of such ambition and creativity I thought of the principle of iccha shakti. Iccha shakti is the very will of consciousness to be, to creatively manifest, to become diversified embodiment out the universal. Ego and will are not themselves bad, but our very freedom allows us to choose a path that is out of alignment with the principles of joy and unity.
The Terracotta Warriors show the immense possibilities of exercising will. In their very existence and the manner of their coming into being, they evidence both enormous cruelty and disdain for life and a wondrous manifestation of human creativity, collaboration, and effort. One of the goals of yoga, in teaching us the possibilities of our own freedom and creativity, is to lead us to choose a life that is progressively better aligned with nature and with all of beings. This is the path of one who practices, and I find it ever a challenge.
Instead of being able to walk into the office with the first thing scheduled a regular 10am conference call, this morning I have to be across town to appear on a panel discussion with the Director of my Office. This means I have to leave the house at least an hour earlier than I usually do. As I am heading into a more stressful workday than a typical one, skipping meditation and my morning walk would not be optimal.
I made sure I was out of bed the minute I got my wake-up call (currently Vedic chanting). It was the will to practice (the embodied, stepped down version of iccha shakti, which is the ultimate will to being) that got me into meditation cushion. It will be getting out of the house 20 minutes earlier that will give me the time to walk to a more distant bus or metro stop so that I feel invigorated and refreshed before the talk.
Sometimes we do not get into poses because we lack the will to do so. Keeping pelvic loop engaged requires will. Some people naturally love the feeling of keeping the buttocks engaged, the pelvic floor lifted, and the belly toned. Others (myself included) have to develop a keen sense of will to keep the lower torso engaged, to keep with and enhance the intensity of sensation and concentrated action. The more I practice, the more will I have to stay engaged because I have experienced that the challenge of staying intensely engaged is worth the lightness and freedom that ensues. For me, this is true in my yoga and meditation practice and in nearly everything else (which includes, sometimes, having the will to rest and relax).