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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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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.

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Neighborhood Holiday Lights Charity Challenge

How we collectively yearn for the light, though we seek it in different ways!  For anyone who can tell me exactly where I took each of these photos, I will give a donation to charity in your name (total for all persons guessing correctly $250).  Hint:  All photos except the last, which was taken this morning, were taken on the solstice, and I did not go out of my way to take the photos.

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Peak of the Eclipse with my Point and Shoot (and while out on the street, we also got to see a drug deal go down)

For finer photos, take a look on line at what photographers with big lenses and tripods (or maybe even telescopic cameras) have done.  If I’d gone for a walk, I could have taken a picture of a big red moon over the dome.  I’m just imagining that I did that (imagination sometimes being as good as the “real thing”), as I get ready to get back into bed under a cat for another hour and half of sleep before getting up to practice.

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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.

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