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Wintry Mix

As I write, big fat flakes of snow are falling against a pale gray sky that is struggling to turn to daylight.  It is too early to know how much of the storm will be snow or freezing rain or just plain rain, though all are both possible and probable.  If there is mostly snow or mostly rain, some of those I know will be sure to say the weather forecast is never right.  My experience is that the weather forecasters are usually quite accurate about pointing out the probabilities and then sometimes the probabilities at the far end of the spectrum are the ones that happen, which makes the forecast apparently off the mark.

I am always entranced with the anticipation of a storm.  It only takes the slightest shift in temperature in the atmosphere or a move of a degree or two of the pressure system for there to be a dramatic change in the outcome — a day of rain or a half an inch of ice or several inches of snow.  I think all relationships — to places, jobs, people, illnesses, our meditation practices are like that.  Just the subtlest shifts in atmosphere and attitude and the whole thing can seem completely different.  What I continue to work on is to open to the best path that results from the combination of factors.  If because of a less than optimal shift, there is an ice storm with power outages and downed wires and trees, then I try to learn why it happened, see the beauty, and try to shift in a better way.  It is hard, and I do not always succeed, but I continue to make the effort.

I remember my first big icestorm.  I was in high school and at a big party a few miles from my parents house.  We were teenagers and mostly oblivious.  We just thought it was raining and continued partying.  At some point, we realized that everything was coated with ice, and then we needed to start calling on help to get home.  It was disappointing to have the party end prematurely, but very exciting to have the wild and unusual weather.  And the next morning, when the temperature dropped and the sun came out, the whole world glittered.

Baksheesh and Brahman

I spent a few hours this weekend reading Joseph Campbell’s  Baksheesh and Brahman, which is Campbell’s journals from a year in India from 1954-55 (I’m now about a third of the way through).  Campbell writes that he went to India to find Brahman and instead found politics.  He approached his visit from the perspective of a mythologist.  In contrast to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who went to India to find God, Joseph Campbell went to observe religious practices.  Although the journals evidence his own perspective and prejudices, he makes cogent observations on the difference between religiosity and spirituality (not all that dissimilar to the distinctions made in the Bhagavad Gita about the difference between rigidly practicing ritual and truly believing).  He also makes very interesting and still timely and cogent comparisons between the relationship of Hinduism and to the then rather new Indian nationalism and American Protestantism to democracy.

Ultimately, though, it is evident that this year was important for Campbell’s life path and work, as it was for the Beats, and has been for many of my friends who have gone, though not for all.  I think about going to India.  It will be when I have several weeks and don’t have a venerable and ancient cat who cannot be left behind for a long stretch of time.  In the meantime, reading of such journeys can stimulate thought and can be applied to other aspects of my life, though reading and studying (especially in the yoga tradition), is never a substitute for experience.  Just reading of spiritual experiences, but not doing the practices to open the door to one’s own experience is like reading cooking or gardening books, but never going into the kitchen or the garden.

Mahabhutas (the great elements)

The mahabhutas are the grossest, most physical of the 36 tattvas described in Kashmir Shaivism.  They are:  prithivi — earth or solidity; ap (or jala) — water or liquidity,  agni (or tejas) — fire or formativity; vayu — air;  akasha — space.  When we practice asana, we can focus our practice on discovering one of the elements in our bodies and how we move.  As we get more skillful, we can choose which element seems out of balance and emphasize one or the other to bring ourselves more into balance.  This week, for example, I have noticed that my mind has been scattered and distracted because of all of the excitement of the Inauguration.  After being blown about by the cold and the wind and all the excitement, I had gotten to airy (which is my tendency anyway).  It is a good time, therefore, to explore prithivi (earth) in my practice.  By emphasizing a strong foundation coupled with the Anusara principle of muscular energy, I can literally bring myself to a more solid, stable, and grounded state.

We can work with the tattvas as described above, to realign our energies so that our physical and mental state is more balanced.  We can also explore the more concrete tattvas as we embody them to understand better how they are manifestations of the subtler tattvas — the tattvas that the great yogis who have described them would call more real and we dwelling in our bodies and minds might think of as observably less real.  Where we can best appreciate and experience the relationship between the gross and the subtle elements is in meditation, and our asana practice can help lead us there.

Look forward this week to working with the earth element in your bodies and minds, practicing strong standing poses and shaping your physical and energetic bodies like clay.  Use your earth nature to sculpt the art of your intention.

For suggested readings see my earlier post on the tattvas.

A Personal God (Ishta Devata)

My earliest exposure to eastern mysticism was through Salinger and the Beats, which I read avidly in high school and even junior high.   The Beats were hipper and smarter than I could ever hope to be (and they weren’t so good to the women, but that’s another avenue to discuss and explore), but I could check out the Beats call to the east.  One of the reasons I found the Beats use of the eastern imagery so compelling, was that I wasn’t expected to believe, I was just expected to understand how the imagery could open me up to new experiences and understandings of the deeper self and how it fits into the web of being.

I just finished reading Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand, The Beats in India, which is an unsentimental, not particularly flattering, but most interesting account of the Beats and their time spent in India and how it influenced their work.  This particular passage resonated with one of the issues that I wrestle with as study yoga and its underpinning philosophy and its relationship to my personal experience of “spirit”:   “Mr. Jain explained to Allen [Ginsberg] that all gods are unreal, but most Hindus choose one and use the image of that god (either a picture or a statue) to focus on during prayers, to quiet the mind and soak the heart in the gentle vibes it radiated.  Or, after taking your measure, your guru might assign you a god.  Apparently, there was a personal god for everyone, Allen [Ginsberg] reported to Jack [Keroac], tailored to your temperament, desires, or inclinations.”

Have you found that the characteristics or image presented by one of the pantheon resonates more deeply with you than the others?

Other interesting books about the Beats experiences in India:  Indian Journals, Allen Ginsberg, Passage Through India, Gary Snyder

Buy a Coffee Mug (and never forget)

buy-a-coffee-mug-and-never-forgetI didn’t buy a coffee mug, but I did take the picture.  If only remembering was as easy as buying a souvenir.  Memory, though, it much more ephemeral.  I’ll remember this day.  Sometimes I will deliberately recall it.  Sometimes, images will come unbidden as something triggers a memory, just as the solicitation by a friend last week to support an orphanage in Peru brought back the thought of 9/11.  I had been in Peru at the retreat center that supports the orphanage when the planes hit the World Trade Center.  I hope for news tomorrow of the imminent closing of Guantanamo to start reshaping our relationship to 9/11.

Privilege and Periphery


At about 10:30 am, I left my house and walked over to the Capitol.  I knew that by leaving the house at that hour, instead of at 7am, I would be outside the fence, but I instead practiced in the morning and opened myself to the sense of amazement and hope filling my city.

My friends who were inside the fence either are press or have other jobs that got them an invitation or they arrived at 5am to volunteer. I look forward to hearing their stories and seeing their pictures.

It felt urgent to be present for this occasion.  One of the things that made it especially poignant is that where I went was on my walk to work.  I forget, sometimes, the import of the capitol and the Mall because they are so much a part of my daily geography.

The audio visual we had in my spot just north of the Capitol (turned out to be next to the cannons for the salute) was a couple of ipods with speakers and boom boxes, rather than the big, fancy rock concert screens, but we were in fact physically closer than most on the Mall.  Some of us were just happy to be there together celebrating and being less densely packed into the crowd.  Some, so used to being marginalized by society — being able to see privilege and insider status, but have it be completely out of reach — grumbled that they might as well have stayed home as they witnessed even those with tickets not getting through the security lines towards the end.

But every one was hushed, even in the crowd, even without a view, for the oath of office and for the President’s speech.  It was a privilege to stand with these neighbors and fellow citizens.  It was an honor to see grown men unashamed to let their eyes fill with tears as they witnessed what they never saw they would see in the Nation’s Capitol, in their town, an African-American President.

I am filled with hope, not because I think there will be almost instantaneous and miraculous “change,” but because we have just witnessed an enormous step in a better direction.

Aerial View

If I had been born a different person and chosen an entirely different career path (say a secret service agent), I might have had a view like this today.  Would it have been worth it?  So interesting to watch the dance of intention and fate.  This, by the way, is the view from the cafeteria at the Department of Labor, so I can have it any other day.  If you look closely, you can see where the podium was set up in front of the capitol.  The pictures in the next post are mostly from the park just north of the capitol — so they would be just outside of this shot on the left.a-secret-service-view

“Yes We Can”

Yesterday’s inaugural concert spurred all sorts of memories from me.  When I was a child, we went a number of times to the Clearwater Revival Festival and other folk festivals where Pete Seeger was a headline.  He is just ten years older than my Dad, and though my parents were not among those who became famous, they were hanging around the Village and my Dad was doing activist things at the same time.  James Taylor’s “Shower the People” was a favorite when I was in junior high school.  There was a boy from camp who played the guitar who I remember saying that “a little James Taylor goes a long way [towards getting a girl’s attention].”  Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellenkamp, U2, Bob Marley, Aaron Copeland, and the great oldies (played at the concert and listed as Obama’s top ten ipod songs), are part of the music of my high school, college, and law school years.

Not needing music or advertising to help me decide to vote, I didn’t pay much attention to how music was being used in the campaign.  But here was the music, and it was mostly my music, too.  The concert was very clever, designed to appeal to black and white, young and old, and populist — they were careful to have the performers whose oevre might not appeal to an older or younger crowd stick to songs with mass appeal.

Interestingly, it gave me an insight to those conservative guys from the middle of the country who said they liked W because he was the kind of guy they could hang with and have a beer.  The concert was a concert I might have attended when I was in high school or college or law school.  I had an insight about what it feels like to feel comfortable with the education and background of the President, but only up to a point.  I enjoyed this trip down memory lane, but it did not impact my politics or how I would view the Presidency.  There is a fine line between relating and agreeing, appreciating and accepting without question.

January Cold

Here’s a picture of the chard I harvested last Wednesday.  I don’t usually harvest that much at a time just to feed myself, but it was harvest Wednesday or let it die back.  I have most of my chard plants in a large rectangular container on my very sunny back deck (not really a deck, but a platform to which the patio stairs are attached).  There’s room for my bay tree to go outside in the warm months and to have a few containers, maybe a chair.  Barely that really.  All it takes, though, is a few containers and a little mindfulness to be eating some fresh greens 10-12 months of the year in our hardiness zone.  It looks like the plants survived the bitter cold last week and will go into leaf again when the temperatures are back in the mid-40s, but I’m not certain of it.  I’ll be patient and observe what happens so in future years I’ll have a more refined gauge of what works and what doesn’t work for different shifts in the weather patterns.  The weather will do what it will; but I can act to adapt in a way that tries not to fight what is.  Dan — how is that chard patch of your in New Bedford?

This morning my harvest was from my refrigerator and cupboard by way of the TPPS, Yes Organic, Farmer’s Market, Whole Foods, and Giant by way of all sorts of places — and this is supposed to be the good, healthy eating.  I took the basic proportions from the back of a box to make muffins that had spelt flour, multi-grain flakes, wheat germ, hemp seeds, currents, flax seed meal, walnuts, chopped fresh apple (it all started with needing to cook the apple), ginger, vegetable oil, baking powder, salt, dehydrated cane (unprocessed sugar), and spices.  No eggs, no dairy even on the back of the box of currents.  By the times I was done transforming them, though I would have enjoyed the original, I’d ended up with the kind of muffin the Vermont-granola-style restaurants name “power” muffins, or “energy” muffins, or maybe “everything” muffins because it is too hard to be descriptive of this many ingredients.  I think they will be good food to carry in pockets when out in the cold for extended periods of time.

Advance thoughts on the inauguration festivities

The picture on top shows police blockades put up on the west side of the Capitol for inaugural preparations.  The bottom picture shows a bandstand erected at the extreme west end of the Capitol lawn looking over the reflecting pool and the Mall.  I’ve refrained from posting pictures of the hundreds of port-a-potties on the Capitol side of the Mall.  Event planners brought in 5,000 — more than has ever been put in the Mall area for an event.  The ones next to the Capitol are “United” port-a-potties; do you think they planned that?

Hard to imagine 2,000,000 plus or minus a million in this space.  I’ve been here with 700,000 or maybe even 800,000 at the fireworks and a couple of really big demonstrations.  But what seems a nice open space seems awfully small to hold that many people.  Just think:  right now there are only 450,000 residents of the District of Columbia and the greater metropolitan area has only about 3,000,000 (last time I checked, maybe it’s a couple hundred more).  But having them all 10-20 blocks from my house on one side with 10,000 of their charter buses only 8-15 blocks seems a shocking sandwich of huddled humanity.

Where will you be?  I know a few of you are volunteering and will have seats on the bleachers.  Many more of you have said you don’t plan to go any where near the festivities, but will appreciate this rush of energy from your warm homes or a friends’ house in your own neighborhood.  Several hundred thousand people on a nice day would be one thing, but a million plus on a bitter cold day with large chunks of the city not only cut off for cars, but also cyclists and pedestrians, seems quite another.

I do not think it means that I am not celebrating (nor a real tantrika) if I end up choosing not to squeeze myself into the crowd because I find it hard to revel in a crowd.  I’ll just be celebrating in my own way with groups of a size where I feel more comfortable.  I’ll be up in Takoma Park on Saturday teaching my regular Willow Street yoga classes.  On Sunday, I’ve planned dinner with a friend, but I am not sure about trying to plunge into the sea of humanity at the Lincoln Memorial earlier in the day.  On Monday, I plan to join 400 other yogins at a giant kirtan as my “inaugural event.”  As for Tuesday — I’ll wait to see what the energy feels like.  Whatever I’m doing, I will be sending energetic support for the trees.  They are stressed enough in the city that it is hard to have their roots trampled by so many people.  If you come down to be part of the crowd, please send loving energy to the trees.  Let’s also hope the new administration honors its promises and starts taking care of trees all over the country and the planet (and let’s support advocacy groups that work to care for the environment — now’s a great time to move forward in a positive way).