Practice, contemplation, and insights

Rain in the Night (and the four states of consciousness)

This morning when I woke, my first thought was that I thought it had rained in the night. My second thought was that I felt well-rested for having slept through the night — not having had my sleep disrupted by thunder or the earthquake, as was the case for recent nights — perhaps I had just dreamed about the sound of rain..

The yoga teachings say that there are four states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep (dreamless) sleep, and the fourth or turya state. The fourth state is both beyond the other states and also encompasses the others. It is where we find in meditation the merger of the individual consciousness with universal consciousness. The better we are able to access the fourth state, the more the other three states, and how we think and act in them, are illuminated by the very light of being.

The more I meditate, the more aware I am of what is going on around me while I am in a non-waking state. I am also finding that waking and dreaming are more luminous.

My awareness of the rain without knowing whether the awareness came while I was awake or asleep show both that I am finding more awareness in the different states and that I have a long way to go and much to discover.


Sensing the Subtle Energies (an Earthquake)

I woke up around 4 o’clock this morning, inexplicably agitated and unable to fall back asleep right away. Sully, too, was restless. I went into the yoga room and did a series of restorative forward bends and twists, which provided some ease, but I was still a little restless and unable to go back to sleep.

It was too far out of my usual experience for living in DC and too little impact at my house (compared to what it was reported to have felt like in some of the suburban areas) to have identified the earthquake for what it was.

When I called the weather, which advised of the earthquake, I knew that its immanence was what had caused me to wake in anticipatory anxiety.


Picture Within a Picture

This afternoon, I went with my friend Dan, who was here just for the day from California, to the National Gallery. I kept talking to him. “Look at the pictures,” he said. “Pay attention.”

“I am paying attention, but to you,” I replied. “The Gallery is always across the street from work, and I come here frequently, but you’re not often able to visit.”

The sign on the dogs back said not to disturb him: he was working. How do we decide to what to give our attention? When do we decide and when do we let things decide for us? Part of a deepening yoga and meditation practice is being better able to choose where to direct our attention and to be able to give our attention more fully where we choose to direct it.


Ecstatic Serenity

When I was eight or nine, a teacher asked everyone in my class to say what they wanted to be when they grew up.  The other children named the various jobs or professions that appealed to them at the time.  I responded that I wanted to be independently wealthy.  At that age, I was expressing something I already knew from family issues.  Though I did not have the words for it or a clear understanding, what I was saying was not just false precocity.  I knew at a basic level what is taught in yoga:  I would need enough material support (ardha) to follow my heart in love (kama) and work (dharma); then my life could be free (moksha).

When I was 22 and visiting my friend Dan, he asked me what I really wanted to do with my life.  We had just graduated from college.  Dan was working for a sculptor who was a professor in the art department; I had just moved back to New York, had just gotten over a failed attempt to serve as an office manager for an off-off Broadway theater, was in a place of deep emotional and financial struggle, and was trying to determine what work and corresponding further education I wanted.  “I want to be content,” I said.  “That’s too passive,” he replied.  “No, that’s not what I mean,” I tried to explain.  “For me being content being satisfied and engaged with my work and life, but still working hard and having goals.  It’s not just hanging out.”  I had all sorts of things that I found interesting and possibilities for a life path, but I didn’t have one specific career or life plan that I was certain would be more fulfilling than any of the others.  They just would have satisfied me in different ways.  Because of the dilemma of too many choices, I wanted to be able happy with whatever choice I made, even if it seemed like a compromise.  I was conscious that once I picked, because of the inherent limitations of time and space, that I would either have to be content with my choice or be unhappy.  I have since learned to think of contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of the path of yoga expounded by Patanjali, as a practice rather than a goal (and it is a very important and continuing practice for me).  Contentment is not an end, as I had thought when I was 22; it is just one part of the path to a goal of living liberated (jivanmukti), experiencing self as spirit in all that one does.

On a recent telephone seminar, Paul Muller-Ortega, my meditation and philosophy teacher, in the midst of a broad dialogue regarding various studies and practices, spoke a little of ecstatic serenity.  Memories of the discussions I had had long ago about what I wanted welled up in the forefront of my thoughts.  In thinking about what is my intention now, especially with regard to my practice (sadhana), I witnessed my previously stated intentions as just stages on the path to this discovery.  As soon as I heard Paul say the phrase, I thought, “that’s what I want; I want to be ecstatically serene.”   I seek to be always in some part of my conscious being still and peaceful, while simultaneously being passionately engaged in what life brings to me and I bring to life.


An Unplanned Break from Air Conditioning (and Yogic Physical and Emotional Equilibrium)

I came home last night from my cousin’s funeral to discover that the temperature in the house was 83F (it is now up to 86F). The air conditioning system, which had been serviced last week, is now not working at all. The repair person is not scheduled to return until Friday afternoon, and the forecast is for blazing heat. I have two choices: (1) I can get into a dither about whether the work last week in fact broke the system and get stuck in suffering from the heat; (2) I can be grateful that I have electricity, which is giving me ice and fans. I can wear comfortable clothing, eat lightly, and do yoga practices suitable for the heat.

I am choosing the latter (I am not long from the period of years when being too hot on an irregular, but consistent basis is both inevitable and beyond my control, so this will be good practice). I may not be able to control the heat, but I can, to some degree, control my reaction. Part of controlling the reaction is just accepting the situation with equanimity and grace, so that my mind and emotions do not get heated. One of the reasons we do strenuous and challenging poses on the mat is so that we can get progressively more skilled at feeling comfortable with where we are, even when mind and body are taken out of our comfort zone by forces beyond our control.

By keeping my reaction cool, I actually physically am noticing the heat less. As I will not be able to cool off much after practice, I will be choosing practices that are still and inward and take advantage of how warm are my muscles, rather than engaging in exertion that will make it hard for me to get cool afterward. Balanced and cooling breathing practices, meditating on stillness, and sweet hip openers and forward bends are definitely in the picture.


A Flood of Memories (and Luminous Spaciouness)

I returned home yesterday from teaching my Willow Street classes and having a late lunch with a friend to a message on my answering machine from my mother advising me that a cousin had died. Although I was not close to my cousin, her parents, my great Aunt and Uncle, were a significant part of my formative years.

As I made telephone calls and sent emails to get coverage for work meetings on Monday and care for the cats so that I could leave for New York, I found myself flooded with long-ago memories of my cousin, my family, and myself. I could also hear and feel old patterns surfacing, as they tend to do in such situations.

In counterpoise to the tumble of memory, I felt a strong pull to go into the space of meditation.

In the spaciousness, I no longer feel trapped by the inevitable consequences from the events giving rise to all those memories that have partly shaped my path. The light of consciousness itself, as the ground of the play and the illumination of inner space, begins to reveal the links and sequnces of the memories, the cause and effect, thus allowing me to see other ways to react. Instead of remaining entangled by trying to dismiss or reject or cling to any part of my history, I could see shapes, sequences, and opportunities.

At lunch, one of the things my friend and I had been discussing was the idea of bringing into “luminous spaciousness” our relationships. John Friend had invited us to think about that concept at the Teachers’ Gathering last month, and I have been contemplating the practice in a variety of contexts and discussing with fellow Anusara yogis what it would mean to them to bring luminous wisdom to relationship by seeking to create the true spaciousness we can find in our practice of yoga and meditation. I had talked about it previously with the friend with whom I lunched yesterday. She asked, “where was your blog entry on luminous spaciousness; I’d been looking forward to it.” “I haven’t found the right context for describing it that would convey what I think it means for my practice,” I’d replied. When I came home to my mother’s message, because I had been continuing both the contemplation and the dialogue, I was focused on the practice when I found myself in a situation where I really needed it. (Great reminder of the need for a steady practice).

I am now on the Long Island Railroad, heading to my parents’ house. Tomorrow we will go back into the City for the memorial service.

As I allow my thoughts to be stirred up–giving myself space, as it were to have natural mind processes–I seek space and light for myself in my relationship with my family to try and foster more love and clarity.


The Parable of the Guru, the Disciple, and the Mad Elephant

It is a constant dialogue that arises for me with others in my various communities about the place of political discussion in a spiritual community.  Is there a place for examining the state of the world, calling for action, and trying to change things when we believe (or are seeking to understand) everything as being at its essence infused with the light?  I just happened to read this parable today, after being advised that spiritual and political dialogue have no place being conjoined (today, it was about the budget and the war; it could just as easily have been about how to address from a place of spirit the complexities of how to shift and respond to the Gulf oil spill):

“RAMAKRISHNA: … [W]ater remains water, whether it stands still or breaks into waves.  Divine Reality remains exactly the same when one is silent and one speaks.  Relax your mind a moment and consider this parable.  A guru teaches his disciple that every being and event is simply God.  The ardent disciple, while walking home meditating on this truth, encounters a mad elephant.  The elephant-driver, who has completely lost control of the animal, shouts to all who are in the way, warning them to run.  But the stubborn disciple refuses to deviate from his path.  He continues his contemplative exercise, regarding himself as God and the elephant as God.  The crazed beast picks up this foolish man with its trunk and dashes him to the earth.  The guru, famous for his healing powers, is called to revive the unconscious victim.  After certain prayers are recited and holy  water is sprinkled, the young man regains consciousness.  He is surprised to find his guru gazing at him.  When asked why he did not run from such evident danger, he replies:  ‘Why should I run?  My guru, you teach that all beings and events are God.  I have implicit faith in your inspired words.’  The venerable master then addresses his immature disciple:  ‘But my child, why did you fail to heed the inspired words of the elephant-driver, who is also God?'”

Lex Hixon, Great Swan:  Meetings with Ramakrishna (Shambala Publications 1992)


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.


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..