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Daffodils

Daffodils and tulips have arrived in the shops.  If you’ve forced bulbs (I didn’t this year), they are blooming (give or take a few weeks).  The arrival of the Dutch flowers and the forced blooms lets us know that spring is soon to arrive.  If you look carefully, you can see that the early bulbs are starting to come up.  If you are lucky enough to have them growing in your garden or a neighbor (who wants to share), it is a great time to bring in forsythia and pussy willow cuttings for forcing.

How wonderful to enjoy these harbingers of spring in the last few weeks of winter.  I get a similar feeling when I am given an assist to be able to do a yoga pose that will be out of reach for me to do by myself for some months or perhaps longer.  When an assist opens me to an understanding of how I can grow, just as the arrival of the dutch bulbs and the forced flowers give an early reminder of spring, my heart opens.  Given this inspiration, this understanding of the possibility of growth and flowering, I am inspired to turn around and share this delight with others.  How could I not want to share?

Ether (the Mahabhuta akasha)

Ether (akasha) is the fifth of the mahabhutas.  In science and perception, it is the space between the other elements, it is that in which the other elements reside.  It is to some degree, the critical element of how we are able to perceive the other elements.  I find focusing on the Anusara alignment principle of “open to grace” is the best way to experience the element of ether in myself.  By softening, opening, and inviting spaciousness, I can better experience the subtle elements and appreciate how it is that I experience them.

The subtle elements or the panca tanmattras are smell (gandha), taste (rasa), form (rupa), touch (sparsa), and sound (sabda).  The subtle elements are not what we sense (which is composed of the mahabhutas) nor are the tanmattras our sense organs.  Rather the tanmattras are, as it were, the space in which perceptions arise, the ability to be perceived.

The next sets of elements are the panca karmendriyas, the organs of locomotion, which correspond to how we physically move, digest, and change in the physical world, and the panca jnanendriyas, the organs of perception or cognition, which correspond to our sense organs themselves.  Our movement in and perception of the world bridges the physical elements, the perceptability of the physical world, and ourselves as physical beings, beings who move in the physical world, and beings who perceive the physical world.  All of this, I think of as needing space or residing in space.  As I consciously think of space giving a place for the world, my movement in it, and my perception of it, I become more conscious of consciousness.  The physical practice of “opening to grace” and experiencing the element akasha makes possible for me in my practice knowing or experiencing a greater consciousness.

To start discovering your own understanding of akasha, try this meditation:  listen to the sounds beyond the room without trying to analyze or change them.  Appreciate how far in space your senses and consciousness can be.  Then bring your attention into the room and hear the sounds in the room.  Then open your ears to the sounds within you — your heart beat, your breath.  Then open to all the sounds (don’t try to change or analyze them), both those physically far away and those within your own body, and be aware of them as all residing within your own consciousness.  Appreciate that your consciousness is as spacious as the world around you and within you.  Rest in the space of consciousness.

See whether spending a few minutes using this meditation technique helps you when your day has gotten too busy with work, errands, family or other demands.  I find it very helpful.

Ardha, Kama, Dharma, Moksha

Friday, when I was traveling through New York City on my way home from a business trip, I detoured to the Metropolitan to see the Walker Evans’ postcards and the Bonnard, Late Interiors.  The curator chose this quote to inform the viewing of the paintings:  “Material concerns and worries about the future are troubling me a lot, and I’m afraid that painting may abandon me because of a lack of mental freedom.”  Pierre Bonnard to Henri Matisse, September 1940.

The quote made me think of the yoga principles of ardha, kama, dharma, moksha. In classical yoga, in order to reach liberation (moksha), we need to have our material life — how we eat, consume, dwell, etc. (ardha), our love and relationships (kama), and our work/life path (dharma), in right order.  From a tantric perspective, when ardha, kama, and dharma are aligned so that mind, body, and spirit are united in our day to day being, then we are living liberated — jivan mukti (moksha).

In 1940, the Nazis were growing in power and World War II was impending.  Bonnard had lost his love, Marthe, was ill and aging, and was in some financial difficulty.  He was afraid of losing his vision, his creativity (dare I interpret “painting may abandon me” as “loss of connection to spirit”) because ardha and kama were out of alignment.  The late paintings carry a sense of yearning of spirit — perhaps because of the consciousness that struggling physically and emotionally challenges our ability to truly see, to feel connected to spirit.  The paintings are lovely with color and light.  The subject matter makes them accessible at a surface level.  Shadowy figures and ambiguities, though, give a sense of longing and seeking.  Although there is a certain basic prettiness because of the color and the subject matter, they are not comfort paintings.  They invite one to think about whether color is enough, whether home is enough, what we need to be in a place where we can rest at one with ourselves.

Take a Moment (and be in it)

On unexpectedly beautiful days like yesterday, I make sure that I get out during the workday.  I’ll ask a co-worker, “did you go out?”  Often the response is, “I couldn’t go out; if I went out, I wouldn’t have wanted to come back in.”  This is not an uncommon response.  I so treasure the spaces of delight in the midst of any day, that it is hard for me to appreciate that response on an emotional or visceral level.

But what my co-worker is saying is that she will get so caught up in longing (pain) that pleasure for a short time is not worth the pain.  Thinking about it in that way, I understand.  Patanjali cautions us not to get caught up in the “pairs of opposites,” pleasure and pain.  Both the longing for pleasure and the avoidance of pain take us out of the moment and make it hard for us to connect to the essence of being.  If we are always yearning and avoiding, we cannot rest in the bliss of being.

When we take a walk outside, or stop to eat a nourishing lunch, or pause for five minutes to meditate during the work day, it will only have fleeting benefits if we do it just for the pleasure.  If we can consciously bring ourselves into the moment and simply rest in our own being, then it will help us just be (in the state which is free from pleasure and pain/longing and avoidance) while we are in the whirlwind of activity and challenges of our day.

Robert’s Dendrobium

roberts-dendrobium2A number of years ago, when he was moving from Capitol Hill to Denver, my friend and former neighbor Robert gave me this dendrobium orchid, which bloomed this year for me for the first time.  The dendrobium was just an extra.  If you know orchids, you can see that it is planted with a vanda.  These orchids came from Robert’s mother’s garden in Florida.  When she had to give up her place in Florida, Robert brought home some of the orchids, including the vanda.  If I know Robert, he just saw a baby dendrobium in the garden and stuck it in with the vanda when he carried it back north to Capitol Hill.  When Robert moved to Colorado, he left the vanda with me because he did not expect it to tolerate the Colorado climate.  Even here, the vanda is not likely to bloom.  Not enough heat, light, or humidity in DC (really!!!).  But after five or six years of steady care, the dendrobium flourished and finally bloomed.  Robert inspired my affection for orchids; he had a greenhouse and knew each one of his tropical plants intimately.  We would go to an orchid show or nursery, and he would look with love on each and every plant, cherishing their individual traits, no matter how small or large.  At the botanical gardens, he had different plants he visited and enjoyed.  Now his yard has cactii and peppers.  He has a few of his most faithful orchids, which are flourishing and which were delightful to visit, and I have this lovely reminder of a time when Robert was one of my local gardening buddies.  This, I think is one of the extra joys of gardening, especially with houseplants that come from cuttings.  They have a history with our family and friends that is passed on, cherished, and shared.  I also have a night-blooming cereus that was a baby from a plant that started as a baby of one in his mother’s garden.  The night mine first bloomed (just a single night in the year), the parent plant with Robert in Denver also bloomed.

Bonus love from this particular dendrobium; it is scented!

Sthira-Cara (of the stationary and moving living beings)

A number of years ago, I attended a week-long workshop with Rod Stryker.  He invited us to meditate on absolute stillness — cara sthira — meditation.  Sitting comfortably, still the skin, the muscles, the bones.  Draw the attention to stillness.  The breath and heart will still move, but the concentration is on stillness rather than on any movement.  Rod Stryker discussed the next day the challenges of this meditation, especially for those who are intellectual, who enjoy being active in the mind.  I found it difficult at the time and even dreamed about the issues the meditation brought up for me.  Meditating on stillness can be very challenging in a way that meditating on a mantra or the breath would not necessarily be.

I believe the origin of the meditation comes from the principle of sthira being  the absolute unmovable, the essence of being (not dissimilar to Kant’s unmoved mover).  We invoke pure stillness, pure potential out of which movement comes because that is part of our essence and a place where we can rest our spirit.  See, for example, the Srimadbhagavatam.

I discovered absolute joy in this meditation a couple of years after I learned it.  I was suffering from a severe sinus infection and bronchitis simultaneously; I joked that I was fine as long as I didn’t breath through either my mouth or my nose.  In the midst of my suffering, I remembered the teaching.  For a few days I stayed in the meditation for hours at a time.  I found the place where I did not really need the breath.  Enough came to survive, but I forgot about wondering how to breath or finding a place for it or my struggles with it.  In the stillness, there was space and peace and supreme bliss.  Ever since then, I have chosen this form of meditation when I have a cold, a sinus infection, or other challenges with breathing.  Meditating on the breath, obviously, will not be soothing when breathing is a struggle.  But when even breathing is a struggle, peace can be found in complete stillness.

Theater of the Absurd

Last night I went with a group of friends for dinner and to see “Hell Meets Henry Halfway” at the Woolly Mammoth.   We all had a most enjoyable time, although the play was pretty negative.  What could you expect, though, from a play based on a 1930s novel written by a Polish exile that was about declining monarchies and social depravity, etc?  What relieved the bleakness of the outlook was the slapstick playfulness of the acting and staging.  It was also a pleasure just to see beautiful technique, and acting was wonderful.

As the recession deepens, I have been trying to go to see more theater and dance, to support local theaters and restaurants that I care to have still in my world.  It would be easy to settle into a mindset of anti-consumption at this time.  Better I think, even if we are trying to shift the consumer orientation of our society, to become ever more mindful in our consumption, being especially mindful of those around us are struggling from the sudden shift.  The right action, I think,  for those who cannot help but recognize problems, or suffering, or even absurdity, is not only to seek change, but also to see the playfulness in everything to keep the spirit vital and to be able to accept the change that might not be realized despite our best efforts and intentions.

A Patch of Sunlight

This morning when I went for silent worship, I was in a seat that was in a delicious, warm patch of sunlight.  Like a cat in such a spot, I was perfectly content to be still and completely happy.  It is good, sometimes, to have stillness come easily, especially if it has been a challenge in recent days.

When my students ask me about starting a home practice, I suggest that they start with their favorite poses.  If we start with what is challenging or what we like least or what we think we need to do because we think it will be good for us, it is easy to get frustrated or to find something else to do.  Better to start with what is easeful and inviting and then work in the challenging aspects then not to practice at all.

Intention

When I came out of my afternoon asana practice and meditation, I picked up the John Friend Teacher Training Manual to look up one of my favorite passages.  In describing the “attitude” that brings us to our deepest practice, John Friend writes that there are two reasons to practice yoga:  “1.  Co-create in the art of life.  2.  Realize and awaken to our divine nature.”  John Friend, Anusara Yoga Teacher Training Manual (9th Ed., Anusara Press 2006).  He explains that sometimes we come to our mat because we are happy and we want to celebrate.  Other times, we are sad or confused and we want to remember our essentially divine, blissful nature.  This particular teaching has continues to resonate for me.  I find great comfort in it because it recognizes that we do forget; we will not always act perfectly.  All life, though, is part of our practice, and we can keep trying to co-create and remember the light in all beings in our daily lifes just as we keep can coming to the mat.