Art and Culture

The Four Gates of Speech

One of the  offerings in John Friend’s Anusara Teacher Training Manual, is the “four gates of speech,” which I believe comes from Buddhist practice.  The four gates are:

1.  Is it truthful?

2.  Is it necessary to say?

3.  Is it the appropriate time?

4.  Is it a kind thing to say?

It is easy to see this application in terms of speaking with others, though not always easy to practice, especially in a group setting where the culture is to condemn and criticize.

A more subtle practice of the four gates is how we talk to and about ourselves.  I am someone who was raised to have a very strong internal judging voice.  Although with the steady practice of yoga affirmation, my tendency for self-judgment has eased, the propensity reasserts itself when I am stressed.  I have taken to asking myself, when I hear the judging voice, does it pass the four gates of speech?  I find it a challenging practice, but a necessary one.  When we honor ourselves (we can honor ourselves and our own light and still know there are ways we would benefit from expanding or shifting), we will more easily honor, recognize, and affirm the light in others.


Boycotting Arizona?

Having just returned from Arizona (yes, Sedona is in Arizona, as hard as that may be to believe from any perspective other than cartographically) from a meditation retreat, and having two more scheduled with my teacher at the same location during the year, I have pondered with my usual degree of self-questioning about the potential impact of my choices the suggestions to boycott Arizona.

I had decided — perhaps because continuing to study with my teacher, including on retreat is so important to me now — that as I pretty much go straight from the airport to the meditation retreat and back without shopping, I am probably supporting people who did not support the immigration law.  On previous trips, in addition to paying for the food and lodging at the retreat (my teacher lives in California, so the tuition goes to California), we ate at a Mexican family-owned restaurant and a raw foods restaurant and bought some supplies at the natural foods store (eschewing the Whole Foods in favor of the local natural foods store).  I’ve decided it is OK — perhaps even a good thing — to support those who clearly were not in favor of the immigration law.

What does it mean to engage in a boycott?  Who does it hurt and help?  What impact could the Arizona boycott have? Have you thought about whether to boycott Arizona?


Great Swan

I found a used copy of Lex Hixon’s Great Swan–Meetings with Ramakrishna, last week that I am reading with delight.  Lex Hixon has rendered the teachings from the seminal and extraordinary voice of Ramakrishna very accessible.  It also provides in a light-handed and intelligent way, an excellent perspective on the history and dance of the mingling of East and West. Ramakrishna, as Swami Vivekenanda‘s guru, is an incredibly important part of the path of yoga to the West.

As an American drawn to the teachings of yoga, I feel it important for me to know the context of how these teachings reached me, and how they interconnect with the embodiment of religious and social practice in both the society whence they came and the cultures they have reached and shifted.  Those who have imbibed the teachings with pure bhakti (devotion) might think it is not necessary to study so much.  For me, whose nature and practice includes skepticism and questioning, the more perspective I gain by thinking, exploring, and studying, the more I am able to open in different ways.


The Four Agreements

Several years ago, I was introduced to Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements in a yoga book group.  I come back to them periodically.  I am not usually one for self-help books, but I think the agreements are a wonderful teaching.

I have them taped to the bottom of my computer monitor at the office because I find them especially useful in the office setting.  In particular, they are helpful in my relations with a co-worker senior to me in the chain of authority who tends to be very critical or speak in a strained or loud voice when anxious about work.  As it involves my projects (or we wouldn’t be talking in the first place), it is hard not to react and take it as personal criticism.  Today, I found myself in two different discussions about them.  First, I found myself reading them aloud to someone who called me to talk about a painful situation through which he is living.  The response was “thank you” and, in particular for Agreement 2, “amen.”  In the second situation, I was talking to two co-workers.  One was describing a work situation, and she said she had found it very helpful to come back to her desk and read “agreement number two.”

The Four Agreements are (I found them on the Facebook page for The Four Agreements, so I feel OK printing them in full here; you can also see them on the “inside flap” view on (I have honored copyright by buying the book long ago for the book club meeting):

Agreement 1:  Be impeccable with your word – Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Agreement 2:  Don’t take anything personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Agreement 3:  Don’t make assumptions – Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Agreement 4:  Always do your best – Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

I find Agreement 1 the most challenging.  When I am under stress, I tend to fall back into the ways in which I was raised and use “the word” to diss myself pretty fiercely, though I am getting better at not doing so persistently.  With Agreement 2, the tricky thing is simultaneously not to take things personally and keep perspective, but still to listen openly for ways in which one might still want to seek to grow and shift in response to what is said.

Are you familiar with The Four Agreements?  How have they assisted you in giving perspective in your relationships and life?


Coming Home from Retreat (and Savasana)

How do you plan your return home from a retreat or vacation?  Do you come home at the very last minute, so that the travel is exhausting and the first day back at work is a struggle?  Or do you plan to have a day — or at least several hours — to unpack, make sure you have fresh food to eat, and have brought the feeling of vacation back into your home life before getting back to work?

When I was studying on retreat in Arizona, Paul Muller-Ortega took particular pains to emphasize the importance of doing savasana for at least a few minutes after sitting for meditation for a “slow re-entry.”  Without the resting time in between practicing/adventuring/celebrating/retreating and working, it is like eating a loaf of bread right out of the oven, rather than giving it at least 10-15 minutes to rest.  Right out of the oven, the is too hot and the texture is not right, and we cannot taste how good it is.  Give it a chance to rest, and it is exquisitely hot and fresh and perfect.

We need to rest, to reintegrate, to settle or we can feel like there is no point in going on vacation.  How many people do you know (perhaps you have said this yourself) who say there is no point in going on vacation because it just makes work harder on return?  When I take a shorter vacation/rest/retreat to account for reintegration time, and then fully reintegrate, the rejuvenating properties of getting away definitely last longer.

I returned very late Sunday night.  Yesterday I practiced at home, did my laundry, cleaned the yoga room, petted the cats, had a massage, did a little reading, cooked delicious food (homemade granola, kitcheree, greens from the garden), and went to sleep early.  Now I am off to work, seeking to bring what I learned into my day.


When was the last time you noticed a “Hare Krishna?”

Yesterday morning, before I read the article in the Washington Post I discussed in yesterday’s post, a memory of an acquaintance from Quaker youth camp entered my seated meditation.  I had not thought about C in at least 30 years.  He was a couple of years older than me, and all the parents were a buzz with talk and worry when C decided that instead of going to college, he wanted to give away his possessions, live in a community devoted to simple living, a vegetarian diet, daily worship, a like-minded community, and spreading what they believe is the word of God.   Nowadays, many of the people who are in my broad social network would have nothing but admiration for someone who lived by and practiced such tenets, including the daily chanting of the name of Krishna (or some other deity).  In the late 70s, the parents were deeply concerned:  “He is in a cult, he is brainwashed, we need to get him back.”  “Back to what?” I remember thinking at the time.

I have not seen a member of ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in years.  Why not?  Not because the “cult” has disbanded.  Rather, it has grown substantially and become part of the fabric of our global religious society.   Now, by virtue of its longstanding existence,  its members blend in with accepted norms of social and religious behavior.

What makes a cult?  What makes a religion?  How do cults and religions foster, spread, or interfere with our own relationship to spirit and our recognition of spirit in others.  What is the difference between ritual and religion?  Ritual and spiritual belief and practice?

ps Craig made a good point yesterday about being sensitive to the practicing Hindus when we take part in some of their practices, but not in the context of the Hindu religion.  He also noted a number of rituals that have morphed and shifted with changing religious groupings in society.  ISKON “took” something that was part of the Hindu religious practice and opened it to the masses (proselytizing with enthusiasm).  Is that not analogous to the development of any religious sect?  Think about the meaning of the word “protestant.”  When is an off-shoot of a religion a cult, a “legitimate” religious group, or an offense to the group from which it parted in terms of stated belief or practice?  Does it matter that some take offense?  What if offense is taking because of a disturbance of a status quo that diminishes and constrains large elements of society (such as women or people of certain classes)?  What about practicing a ritual to honor members of another religion — I am thinking, in this regard, of the recent example of the White House seder?

pps. How is this relevant to our yoga practice in the United States?  Many of us listen to and practice our asana to the music of “chant.”  Krishna Das has a CD called “All One” that has nothing on it but variations of the maha mantra “Hare Krishna” that became so notorious when ISKON was just being known here.  What does it mean when we listen to such music, buy such music, share such music, chant these words?


“Taking Back” Yoga

I read today a piece in the Washington Post about Hindus needing to “take back” yoga.  I read the article and the comments with great interest because it has been a matter of much discussion with those in my meditation and philosophy course as to the extent to which the practices we are learning are “religious” practices and whether they can be practiced consistently with other religions.  There is much difference of opinion and strongly heated and held positions.

What I think is missing from the article is the question of distinctions between “spiritual” and “religious” practices.  It is a simple fact that practicing yoga with depth and sincerity entails learning practices that are observed by Hindus.  Does that make one a Hindu?  Does it mean that one is “dissing” Hinduism if one learns and benefits from the practices, but does not self-identify as a Hindu.

What about Jews who have trees at the Christmas holidays (a tradition co-opted from the pagans in any event)? Is it OK that I have a mezuzuh even though my parents (who were born Jews) raised me in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and I continue to be a member of a Quaker meeting, and observe no other Jewish laws or practices.

Is it OK for me to chant “Hindu” chants if I do not identify myself as a Hindu or attend Hindu temple?  If it is not OK, for whom is it not OK?  Quakers?  Hindus?  Jews? Me?  Who is to decide or judge?

It seems to me that “religion” (as specific sects, identities, and strict rules) tends to highlight difference and disunity, but sincere spiritual practice — whether or not done in a religious context and observance — should be unifying because all religions at their highest and most universal, call upon us to recognize the unity of spirit in ourselves and in all beings.


Azalea Walk at the National Arboretum (and Sadhana)

As it is every year, the Azalea Walk at the National Arboretum fills me with joy and wonder.  “Was it really this splendid last year?” one of my companions asked.  “I go every year,” she said, “but I forget how gorgeous it is!” She comes back each year to remember the beauty and the awe.  So, too, it can be with our practice.  We stop going to class or practicing our meditation or asana for a while because we get too busy.  Then we come back, and we ask ourselves how we could have forgotten the joy and beauty a steady practice brings us, and we are inspired to commit again.