Photos

Whispers of Spring

Look very closely on this wintry day, with ice still caking the sidewalks and the news full of the next winter storm, and promises of spring are visible.

I have not seen any bulbs coming up yet, though with the rain and higher temperatures on Wednesday, a few may start to appear in warmer spots.

The buds that set up last fall are starting to color and swell; leaf nodes on early trees are forming. Some of the maples have reddish leaf buds already.

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Snow In

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Bare Bones of the Trees (and Pratyahara)

One of the things that I appreciate most about winter is being able to see the bare articulation of the shape of the tree in the absence of its leaves. A dormant tree looks very different from a leafless, lifeless tree. The dormant tree still has a vibrancy to it.

As I enjoyed the beauty of the trees in Stanton Park this morning on my walk to work, I thought about pratyahara (withdrawal of or from the senses), which is the fifth step of Patanjali”s eight-limbed path of yoga and the bridge between life and physical practice (the first four limbs consist of ethical observances and restraints, asana, and breathing practices) and meditation. I have been led to contemplate the practice and meaning of pratyahara since the last meditation retreat I attended.

From a renunciate perspective, pratyahara entails withdrawing from that which stimulates our senses. A renunciate would simplify and restrict what he or she takes into his or her system to free the mind from stimulation and make it easier to go into a space of meditation.

Being careful to eat lightly, avoiding the stimulation of electronic entertainment, finding a quiet place to sit, and shutting our eyes before we begin meditating is part of the practice of pratyahara that all of us who practice meditation do as a matter of course.

From a tantric perspective, I think pratyahara fits into our practice a little differently than for someone seeking to be on a reunciate path. We may definitely choose to minimize undue or excessive stimulation because certain types or amounts of stimulation feel out of alignment with our practices. For me, more than a certain amount of sense stimulation and certain types of stimulation can numb my celebration of and experience the spirit. Refining what I take into my system so I feel better able to live fully and celebrate and see the play of consciousness is different than renouncing objects that stimulate the senses or sense impressions themselves, as being less real than spirit. It is not renouncing things as unreal; it is picking and refining what to experience to better recognize and remember spirit. For the great siddhas, withdrawal from stimulation would not be necessary because they do not lose sight of spirit by either the cravings of the senses or being overwhelmed by reactions to stimulation of the senses.

The trees seemed to me this morning to help elucidate this principle. The trees aren’t acting out of ego or greed or yearning to find happiness from the outside because of an emptiness on the inside. They are always open to the light and the rain. In winter, when they are dormant, they are not reaching for the light and rain or hungering for spring. They are there in all of their beauty open to receive nourishment when it comes. In spring, when the leaves start to bud and open, it is because of the light and the rain, but the essence of being a tree does not change or get distorted by going inward and resting or by opening to burgeoning growth.

When we can simply open to all that is around us as spirit (beyond my capacities except at the rarest of times), then we can be open to the fullness of what stimulates the senses and still be practicing pratyahara. As long as we are swayed from the recognition and delight of spirit by stimulation of the senses, then we need to practice withdrawing on a grosser level to help us find the space of still being where we can be in the world of the senses without being tangled up and bound by it as such.

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A Secret Garden

I was at a meeting at another agency that was built in the years when civil service was a respected nd honored activity. The garden is clearly maintained, but I have never seen anyone in it, and wonder whether entrance by anyone other than maintenance is permitted. Does the solitary air of the garden make it feel more personal and sweet? Or does it seem isolated and less intriguing because of the absence of people?

I wonder whether people who are naturally drawn to meditate would be the ones who would answer yes to the first question and no to the second.

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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?

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I Wanted to Be Near the Water

When I finished practicing this morning, all I wanted was to be near the water. I walked to the tidal basin–about seven miles round trip. Some of the museums were open. After the crowds in New York, even the Natural History Museum for a rest stop did not seem too, too terrible. The day was almost balmy, no need for a scarf or hat even with the wind off of the water. Appreciating the contrast between walking around in DC and NY, I found myself remembering why I had first decided to come to DC from New York to go to law school, based on an initial visit in February: the snow was melted and the museums were free.

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Two Temptations of Maya

In classical yoga, maya is the illusion that the tangible world is what is real.  Only atman is real; the world we experience through our senses (and our senses them selves) as reality is an illusion.  We renounce the world to escape the temptation of being drawn into it as reality.  In so doing, though, we ineluctably must come to the conclusion that all that is ill with the world is as much an illusion as that which is tempting.  In turning away from the world we would be also turning away from the pain of seeing inequity and suffering and the desire to seek change in the tangible, sense-experienced world.

As I was walking around New York City, ankle-deep in slush and being hyper-stimulated by the lights and the noise and the smells and the bustle and the choices, I found myself thinking about maya and that in its classical sense has two surface temptations for me.  The first is the temptation to turn away from the stimulation, to reject consumption of more than needed to exist.  In the face of such excessive stimulation, the idea of nothing, of utter simplicity, of quiet seems desirable.  If the turning away is another form of seeking pleasure or escaping pain, though, it is still in the trap of maya — the worldly illusion that binds us in the pair of opposites–pleasure and pain.  The second temptation, the temptation to withdraw from everything except seeking the light within, is more subtle.  If we truly are to turn away from the world of the senses, we turn away from notions of justice and equality and freedom that are based how we live in the material world as much as we turn away from consumption.

The true path of renunciation, of pure meditation, is a rare and beautiful path, but to stay in the world and to withdraw ineffectually in such a way might earn the hackneyed epithet “navel gazing.”  My path is not that of the renunciate yogin, nor do I have the fortitude to live a life of Christian poverty, which would reject riches and live for service.  Where can we find the support in the yoga path to stay engaged and yet still live mindfully, fostering the expression and recognition of spirit in ourselves and others?

In tantric philosophy, maya is understood somewhat differently than in classical yoga.  The maya is not the world itself.  When we think that getting and having and avoiding is all that there is and that it is separate from spirit, then  our lives are cloaked by maya, and we are ignorant (avidya) of the true bliss of spirit (satcitananda).  To know spirit, we must see through maya.  To do that requires discrimination (viveka) in what we take into our senses and ethically responsible action in the tangible world to align our lives in a way that expands the opportunity to recognize spirit, which in my mind includes having less material disparity in society, which disparity most assuredly makes the essential truth of blissful consciousness more opaque (due to the play of maya) for both the haves and the have nots.  While we make our attempt to live with more discrimination and grace and with less cause of conflict or suffering (doing better some times than others), we still try to recognize and savor the exquisite divine in each sight and taste and sound and creation.  How extraordinary always is New York in all its wild manifestation!

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