Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bright Compassion

For Jessa

I read this in Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology:

Living with compassion does not mean we have to give away all our possessions, take in every homeless person we meet, and fix every difficulty in our extended family and community. Compassion is not co-dependence. It does nto mean we lose our self-respect or sacrifice ourself blindly for others. In the West we are confused about this point. We mistakenly fear that if we become too compassionate we will be overwhelmed by the suffering of others. But this happens only when our compassion is one-sided. In Buddhist psychology compassion is a circle that encompasses all beings, including ourselves. Compassion blossoms only when we remember ourself and others, when the two sides are in harmony.

Compassion is not foolish. It doesn't just go along with what others want so they don't feel bad. There is a yes in compassion, and there is also a no, said with the same courage of heart. No to abuse, no to racism, no to violence, both personal and worldwide. The no is said not out of hate but out of an unwavering care. Buddhists call this the fierce sword of compassion. It is the powerful no of leaving a destructive family, the agonizing no of allowing an addict to experience the consequences of his acts.

Wherever it is practiced, compassion brings us back to life.

pp. 32-33 [boldfacing added]

Friday, September 19, 2008

Off the mat -- Why Practice Yoga

A yoga teacher recently began a class I attended by saying that he’d run across an idea in his vocational rehabilitation study that he strongly disagreed with. He read:

Unless we die suddenly, we are all disabled eventually. Most of us will live part of our lives with bodies that hurt, that move with difficulty or not at all, that deprive us of activities we once took for granted or that others take for granted, bodies that make daily life a physical struggle.

--Wendell, S., “Toward a feminist theory of disability,” Hypatia, 4, p. 104 (1989)

“That may be true of people outside of this studio, but it’s sure not true of people who practice yoga.”

He said this to a room of 30-35 people, most of them in their twenties. I wondered for a few moments whether he noticed the age distribution of his class. And, if he did, I wondered how he would have accounted for the fact that there were few people in their thirties, and only one or two of us in our forties there.

The teacher was, I’d guess and as you might well have imagined, in his mid-twenties.

* * *

Aversion, attachment, delusion.

The Buddha taught that these three actions of our minds create and perpetuate suffering. The Buddha’s excellence lay not in finding a remedy for a life-scarred, pain-ridden, capacity-constrained body, but in finding freedom inside such a body.

Is a right hip joint with limited rotation a cause of suffering?

Is not being able to fly?

Yoga is a blessing. Within the context of a declining physical capacity, within the context of a limited range of flexibility, of a diminishing amount of strength, of a decreasing stamina for endurance, yoga allows us to blossom. In degrees, it does reduce pain, increase strength, advance flexibility, improve endurance. But if that is all there is to the practice of yoga, it is a band-aid on a heart attack.

Despite faithful practice, bodies age and die. Krishnmacharya died. Paramahansa Yogananda died. Vivekananda died. Gandhi died. Their yoga, as profound and committed as it was, did not save them from aging, decrepitude and death.

* * *

Asana, which we translate into the word “pose,” in the Yoga Sutra actually means “seat.” Patanjali did not seem to intend asana practice to be much more than the physical preparation needed to enable the yogi to sit quietly in meditation. That’s not to say that we should only practice asana for the purpose of enabling us to sit quietly. Much has been discovered and developed about the practice of yoga since Patanjali’s times. But it does stand as a reminder that yoga is about much more than a perfect body or a pain-free life. Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that my meditation practice seems to bleed off the meditation cushion (actually, I use a block) and into every part of my life. As that has happened, I’ve come to appreciate Patanjali’s formulation of asana practice more. Asana practice is precisely to prepare us for our meditation practice – which practice is all of life.

The very definition of an asana practice is moving and stilling a body in a context of space and gravity. That physical embodiment is entirely defined by limitations. What is Warrior 3 pose other than an expression in and through the limitations of a particular body’s strength, flexibility, and endurance? Absent the limits, the pose isn’t a pose. Utkatasana, like lots of other yoga poses, quickly saps us of strength, of endurance. Though we often get entranced by discovering a deeper reserve of strength, of prana, a deep enough pose will never last more than a few minutes.

When I was a runner, I loved increasing the distance that I’d run. It was always a bit of a balancing act, because my mind could outrun my body, and I often found myself injured to one degree or another. One day as a part of a physical check-up, I was put on a treadmill for a heart check. The nurse wired me up, and started me running at an easy pace – well within the tolerances of my running practice. Trying to be helpful, but tinged with obvious pride, I told her that to get me to the point of exhaustion at that speed would take at least a couple of hours. She looked up from her equipment and smiled slightly, saying that this would take no more than fifteen minutes. I mentally shrugged to myself and proceeded into my mind thinking that I’d prove her wrong. After a couple of minutes at that level of exertion, she didn’t increase the speed any, but she increased the angle of the treadmill by a few degrees. A couple of minutes later, she did the same again. And a couple of minutes after that, I couldn’t run any longer.

I’d been living so comfortably within the confines of my own capabilities that it had never occurred to me to that I’d identified those conditions with the entire potential of existence. Nor did I have any idea of how short a distance there was between my relative ease and comfort and completely impossible physical experience.

Asana practice puts us into situations at the edges of our capabilities. Doing that has the fortunate side effect of expanding those capabilities to a small degree, but really not much in the over all scheme of things. But that’s ok because it’s just the side-effect. The principal effect of putting ourselves into situations at the edges of our capabilities is to train the mind, to allow us to experience pain and to discover how our minds respond to pain. To allow us to experience fear and to discover how our minds respond to fear. To allow us to experience frustration and to discover how our minds respond to frustration. To allow us to experience joy and to discover how our minds respond to joy. And as we become aware of each of those experiences, we strengthen the basic practice of awareness itself.

And awareness itself prepares us for meditation.

Bless the young yoga teacher’s heart, he meant well when he promised us that our bodies would not experience pain, would not decrease in flexibility, would not lessen in strength, in endurance. He was obviously wrong, of course, but given the age composition of the class he was guiding, he wasn’t alone in his thinking. Where were all the forty and fifty and sixty and seventy-year-olds? Their bodies, I’m dead certain, knew much of pain and stiffness and weakness and misalignment. Perhaps they, too, thought that if yoga didn’t confer on them strength and flexibility and stamina and energy, they’d failed. Or perhaps yoga had failed them.

Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t yoga that failed them, but the unwise teaching that yoga, done right, was a panacea for ageing that failed them.

But eternal youth is not the promise of yoga. The promise of yoga is wisdom, and an end to suffering. Not an end to pain.

From a dharma talk by Pema Chodron:

The first thing the Buddha ever taught was there is suffering. It’s part of the human experience. It isn’t bad. No matter what you do, no matter how much money you spend, no matter how much physical exercise you get, no matter how many face lifts, or beautiful clothes, or the right diet, or whatever, you still have old age and death. And probably a lot of other things as well.

And so this whole attitude of the whole catastrophe living, you know, of actually opening your heart, softening around the whole thing, this is what I’m getting at here. … It’s all about learning to let go, loosen up, relax. And it’s never too late. I want to say that again and again. No matter how far you are into clutching and grasping and yelling and screaming and stamping your feet and throwing things, it’s never too late. You can never lose it. Because now is the moment. You just catch yourself right now.
-- The Pema Chodron Audio Collection, part 1.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More on Lucid Dreaming

A passing and recurring thought about lucid dreaming: if your experience is like mine, lucid dreaming arises seemingly spontaneously at some point in your life, then it subsides for a long time – for me, it subsided for many years. Then perhaps you have an experience or engage in a mind practice that touches the connection between awareness and subconscious, and it arises again for a time. Then it subsides again. It seems binary – on or off. Mostly off.

For me at present, it’s currently off.

At least mostly.

Mostly? Yeah. I’m beginning to question the binary nature of it.

Recently, I’ve been getting up early more or less consistently to meditate – earlier than I have done for a long time. I still haven’t mastered the getting-to-bed-on-time part to make this an easy process. The net result is that at least part of the time I’m meditating, I experience sleepiness.

And that, itself, is kind of interesting. I find that even when my mind is sleepy, my awareness is just pure, undiluted awareness. Not sleepy, or anything else, so far as I can tell. Just awareness. Though I don’t stay steadily in the witnessing awareness in my meditations, my mind (me?) does stumble into the state more frequently than I/it used to do. Often on my mat. Sometimes in daily life.

What I’ve come to realize is this: that “witness” state? It’s always present. Always. It’s not only present whenever I’m awake and alert – it’s present when I’m drowsy and sleepy. It’s present in the dreaming mind the instant before I awaken in the morning, and it’s present the consciousness the instant after I awaken in the morning.

But most times, my mind is not, itself, aware of the awareness.

In this morning’s meditation, my mind switched back-and-forth between normal thoughts/ sensations and awareness. And as it switched, it occurred to me exactly how much that the shift from thoughts to awareness is like waking up, like seeing clearly the background that has always been there, is always there.

And in that moment, I realized that the experience of lucidity while dreaming isn’t any different than the experience of lucidity while “awake.”

Both conditions are pretty rare. Both seem to occur more frequently when I practice mindfulness and resting in the witnessing awareness. Both feel more than a little like a kind of curious freedom.

Friday, September 05, 2008


A week ago, I drove up to Shambhala Mountain Center for a tantra yoga-and-meditation retreat. Sally Kempton taught and led the tantra meditation sessions (of which there were lots), and Jeanie Manchester taught and led the Anusara yoga sessions (of which there were some, but not enough for my appetite).

I'll try to spend some time with my notes and write up some more in the next few days, but here are a few take-aways:

1. At this point in my life, retreats are good more for discovering obstacles and practicing techniques for engaging them than for getting some surpassing peace or whatever. Felt distinctly like hard work, and hard work of the sort that I typically avoid.

2. A wonderfully interesting question to ask whenever obstacles occur in daily life: "What would I be like without this particular thought?"

3. When breathing into the back body, we don't have to stop with the confines inside the rib cage. Breathing into the back of the heart, I find it possible to combine physical, mechanical breath with consciousness as I draw in and through the heart and into the back and beyond. Is that an approach toward deity?

4. When meditation ends by another's instruction or by a timer, rather than by my own top-of-the-ocean awareness re-arising, it can be important to take a few minutes to intentionally draw awareness and consciousness back into the body. (Yes, that sounds weird. Maybe I'll find something useful to say about it later.)

5. Mechanically, my knees sit with greater ease if I practice Half Pigeon pose on each side for a few minutes before sitting. Also, breathing into the back body and allowing the back rib cage to expand and the shoulder blades to separate on the in-breath seems to relieve the chronic rhomboid cramping that I've experienced for the past five years or so. Who knew?

6. It's easier to sit longer after the retreat than it was before, but things are more jumbled.

7. I'm still on the fence as to the utility of mantra practice for me at this stage. Sometimes it seems to help manage the meditation (when Sally led us in hum-sah meditation, I found it to be powerful and subtle) and other times it seems a distraction from the experience of Witness. Maybe I'm just not very good at it yet.

8. Tonglen meditation, especially when combined with breathing through the back of the heart, is powerful.

9. For walking relatively safe trails, star light is plenty.

In December, I've decided to spend five days at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, north of SF to see what I can see from there then.