I had a very metaphysical Thursday this week. My wife and I had a lunch date in a park overlooking Lake Union during a rare bout of sunshine, and I was talking fairly lucidly about lenses and filters as metaphors for systems of thought and belief. Our context was a recent news story about a private religious school who had invited and then disinvited a popular band based on their name. “Steve”, I think it was. Read more »
The image of my late great-grandfather was in my mind as I practiced yoga this week. Wilbur McKenna, or “Mac” as his co-workers called him, was a railroader who drove steam, diesel, and electric locomotives for the Milwaukee Road through southern Montana and the surrounding states.
His constant companion, whether hauling passengers through mountain passes at three a.m. or freight through the grasslands at mid-day, was his fireman, the man who kept the boilers stoked and operating at enough pressure to keep the trains moving. That’s as clear and as basic an illustration of the precept of tapas as I can think of: Maintaining the energy needed to keep moving forward. Read more »
I started reading The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali as translated by Chip Hartranft this week on the advice of a friend. I like to start from the ground up when I learn things and The Yoga-Sutra is the root of the tree as far as yoga goes, I’m told, so I’ve been keen to get my hands on a copy.
I haven’t been disappointed, even though I’ve only gotten through Mr. Hartranft’s Introduction and the first section, “Integration.” I did have a moment at first when, after I took a good long look at what the book covered and its emphasis on consistent internal discipline and meditation and conscious effort, when I thought to myself, “I want to run with scissors instead.” The end goals of an enlightened attitude and transformed consciousness just seemed impossibly abstract, and unconnected with anything that I had experienced up to that point in my life.
I ended up re-reading the first section several times before I began to see the real merit of it.
Vairagya: Reactionless Awareness
I posed a question in a post before my trip to Chicago last month: “What if having a hard time holding a certain pose, or sustaining my focus, was just an observable fact that could be recorded, understood, and then dealt with by continued, mindful effort over time, rather than being a reflection of my personal worth?”
It turns out I was unwittingly describing the precept of vairagya, defined in Mr. Hartranft’s translation as “the willingness to let a phenomenon arise without reacting to it.” Patanjali makes the point that our reactions to events rise out of learned responses to experiences, like my reaction to a life of meditation and discipline and mindfulness. I learned, somewhere in childhood, that no one who does anything disciplined has any fun, has any friends, and never gets to play.
This is, of course, not true but then I’ve had some intervening decades in which to rethink the whole concept of reward vs. effort. And, I’ve realized that I haven’t learned helpful lessons from some of my experiences, so there is validity to the idea that learning to let go of a preconditioned response “reveals the newness and originality of the unfolding moment”, to quote Patañjali.
Yogi and the Hare
I am not a patient person. This is an admission that would surprise people who know that I practice yoga, one of the most patient forms of exercise. I am impatient, though, and I show it in some very strange ways.
This is my morning routine, repeated with some variations depending on the day:
I wake up. This happens, on average, two to three hours before my wife does. When it happens, my mind wakes up pretty quickly. It’s keen and ready to work on the list that it’s been prepping all night. My body, however, is not thrilled to get a to-do list when what it truly wants is breakfast, and takes an hour of coaxing to get out of bed.
I go to the bathroom and flex in front of my mirror. This is partly because I am vain, but also because I am impatient. I did a total of 10 to 11 repetitions of the Plank-to-Four-Limbed-Staff sequence yesterday, including five of them in a row. Where are my rippling biceps? In case they decide to show up without telling me I flex several more times during the day, just to be sure. This reassures me and amuses my wife, so it’s a win-win for all concerned.
I weigh myself. I do this about three or four times because our scale is old and imprecise and I have to take a wide sample of possible weights before settling on the most likely total. Also, I am nearsighted and the markings are small. When combined with my height, this makes accurate first readings unlikely, even when wearing glasses. Am I much lighter yet?
I eat breakfast. While breakfast digests, I search the internet for likely jobs, write in my journal and wait one hour before:
I practice yoga.
Living mindfully requires me to practice patience in a number of areas. My rippling biceps will appear, but it will take time to allow the muscle tissue to rest and rebuild itself between workouts. I will get lighter, but I will have to keep eating properly and riding my bike up hills to make that happen. For now, there are the needs of the moment. Breathe, be grateful, and be mindful.
Or, to quote Lama Surya Das, from his book Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be, “Hasten slowly, and you will soon arrive.”
My wife had a great idea this week. “Why don’t we start doing yoga together?” she asked me. She had seen what yoga had done for me lately, and was impressed enough to want to do it herself. I thought it was a great plan, and we started as early as was reasonable on Monday morning. Then it happened.
“I’m stuck”, my wife said to me.
She had been moving smoothly if a bit stiffly into Plank pose from Full Forward Bend, and had successfully gotten one leg to go back into place. Her other leg, however, had decided for reasons of its own that it would remain in place supporting my wife’s torso, leaving her hovering above the kitchen floor in what now looked like a runner’s lunge. “I’m stuck”, she repeated.
This is great, I thought. My calming manner and innate teaching ability have frozen my wife roughly parallel to the floor. I began notice things about the floor, like its current state of cleanliness. I wondered if I would end up sleeping outdoors if she came unstuck in a bad temper. Then the laughter began to kick in, starting somewhere around my wife’s toes.
It continued working through both of us in huge belly laughs as we realized that:
- the mind/body balance is more like a balancing act than a static state;
- it is extremely funny to end up stuck in an awkward, halfway sort of asana whose proper name is probably best translated as “take it a bit easier, please”;
- the only thing we could do was wait for her other leg to go back when it felt ready.
When it finally did, my wife finished up her Sun Salutation with me and got on with her day.
The laughter my wife and I shared is my favorite kind. It wasn’t bitter, or cynical, or despairing, or mean. This kind of laughter is my best friend because it reminds me that no matter how high-minded my aspirations and intentions may be, I am still capable of getting myself (and occasionally others) stuck. It also helps me relax enough to see the ways of getting unstuck as well. It’s the most enjoyable of the many invitations to mindfulness I get every day.
When I left off last week I was scuttling around the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport hoping for a last-second reprieve from having to fly to Chicago. My wife was holding my hand a bit tighter than usual as we waited in the terminal to soothe my nerves. More and more frequently prior to boarding, my wife and I would break into a well-rehearsed question-and-answer routine: “People do this every day?” I would ask. She would respond in the affirmative: “People do this every day.”
Repeating that phrase helped me see that, on entering the aircraft, I would become part of a community of millions of people who would all, barring the rare accident, get where they were going and would return home again on a daily basis. Some nights before the trip I imagined an ongoing stream of airplanes sailing over my head, filled with people already doing what I was planning to do.
Yoga provided me with many benefits on this last trip besides the strength to carry heavy luggage up and down subway stairs or the calm to manage a phone interview with a potential employer on my last day in Chicago. In addition to the quote by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn from Healing and the Mind that I posted last week, I found an explanation of yoga in the same interview that I hadn’t heard before. Read more »
I’m doing something this weekend that I very rarely do– I’m getting on an airplane and flying to Chicago to take part in a family member’s wedding. I say rarely because I last flew nearly three years ago and that seemed like a good place to leave it. Yet, here I go again, and of course it’s not going easily.
People who fly without the white-knuckled, jaw-clenching anxiety that I endure before flying seem like the bravest, shiniest people in the world to me. I, in contrast, often feel like Hoggle from Labyrinth as I enter the concourse – shabby, muddy, troll-like, and in need of a place to hide.
In the scramble to soothe my nerves prior to this upcoming trip, I was poring through Bill Moyers’ Healing and the Mind. In the section Healing from Within, Mr. Moyers interviews Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who specializes in using yoga as a means of stress reduction in his patients. Dr. Kabat-Zinn says this about the real value of yoga: “If you do this (practice yoga) for any period of time, lo and behold, you’ll find the real value of yoga: to work at your limits non-judgmentally.” Read more »
During spring housecleaning this week, I came across notes I had taken during an acting workshop several years ago with a teacher named Carol Fox Prescott. Her approach to acting technique is very much in line with one of the key elements of yoga practice: the practice of breathing. In her work, the connection of one’s actions to the natural rhythms of their breathing is the true fuel for the individual actor’s creativity.
The notes my younger self had made that captured my attention were these: “Breath is power with this work. Using breath to inspire you will create freedom. You can take inspiration from anything, in any position or circumstance. Breath can give you inspiration by allowing you to listen. Take a breath to listen, to regroup.”
June 18-26 join Sherri Baptiste and India Supera on a pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle to celebrate the Summer Solstice.
This Celtic Journey will be an amazing experience and balm for the soul, a tour interwoven with wisdom, compassion and Joy in the Journey.
This ancient land carries an inspirational richness of tradition that will enrich and deepen your own personal journey.
This is my debut post on Touchstones of the Sacred, and I’m thrilled to be joining a vibrant community of people who are seeking, like myself, to find a space in life that is truly their own and where they can rest and refresh themselves in the midst of the ever-moving world.
I use yoga as my primary means of fitness, so I’ll be posting primarily about things that I learn or come to understand from my daily sessions that might be of benefit.
I’m focused on the word practice right now, as in the practice of yoga. It’s hard to write about practicing anything without sounding like I’m about to impose a great burden on myself. I’ve learned, though, that
practice is the key that opens the door to understanding. Read more »