Day 2 of Being Present

It’s raining and dreary, so I decided to stay home instead of stumble through the Ashtanga class I thought I would go to.  I rolled out my mat in my own studio/office and put on a new playlist and moved through as many of the postures as seemed sensible.  For the past 12 months or so, I have been going to various physical therapists who have instructed me to avoid yoga. Well, actually, the first guy told me to avoid forward bends, and the second woman said to avoid backbends, so I stopped feeling confident in my body altogether.

Last week I went to an Ashtanga class (the one I avoided tonight).  I felt I had aged ten years.  My arms buckled in chatturanga and I could no longer squeeze myself into any kind of bind.   Humbling.

I teach a Trauma-focused yoga class to women in therapy at a community health center every week, and there I tell them to pay attention to what they feel in their bodies, and to make choices based on what they are feeling.  I’ve decided to practice what I’m preaching and spend a few minutes each day writing about it.

Things I noticed today: my stomach feels bulky and heavy and in the way.  My neck feels tight when I bring my ear to my shoulders.  I clench my teeth.  I felt angry today, not irritable, but appropriately angry, I thought.  A co-worker was rude and unkind to me.  Another challenged my judgment.  My back went up.  I’ve been carrying anger around in my belly and my neck.

It was surprisingly lovely to arrive in my body during sivasana, to dwell in my awareness of  the sweat cooling my forehead and chest, my lumbar spine and hips settling down towards the floor, my abdomen resting as my heart slowed down, the sound of my breath and a quiet, soothing swishing sound filling my ears.  It was surprisingly difficult to stay there, to remain simply in being.

Dhammapada, 1:1-2

All experience is preceded by mind,

Led by mind,

Made by mind.

Speak or act with a corrupted mind,

And suffering follows

As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,

Led my mind,

Made by mind

Speak or act with a peaceful mind,

And happiness follows

Like a never-departing shadow.

Buddha, Dhamapada  1:1-2

The first verses of the Dhammapada remind us to guide our thinking, because our thoughts inform our experience.  Everything that we go through, every event, we interpret with our minds.  But experience also has a way of shaping the way we interpret our experiences.  The families into which we were born, the people and cultures that shaped us, inform our minds, the ways we see the world.  So, for example, a child who is mistreated from the moment she is born,who is told that she is worthless and stupid and incompetent, nothing more than a thing to be used by others, is likely to grow up with a false understanding of herself.  She will not know her true nature as a being of light and beauty, deserving of all love.  She will have a corrupted mind, and suffering will follow her.

The wonderful knowledge that the Buddha offers to us here is this: no matter what has happened to us, no matter how corrupted our ways of understanding the world have been, each one of us has the freedom and the power to learn, through practice, to step aside, as it were, from the false, corrupt thoughts that have been imbued in us, and to have a “peaceful mind.” This is the only path to lasting happiness.

 

On Pantanjali, the Self, and why I practice and teach yoga

The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe.  In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says.  This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.

The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning.  In other words, the “I” is the sum  of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be.  One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken.  Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya.  But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization.  Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go.  It leads into more suffering, not away from it.

In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while.  A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body.  Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.

Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being.  Some days I am strong.  Some days I am weak.   Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing.   When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable.   Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.

The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.”  Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings.  My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.

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Gelek Rimpoche

Tibetan Buddhist lama Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek relates a wisdom from seventh-century Indian pundits:

You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not.  If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it.  If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy?  The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.

Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him,  Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable.  Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean?  Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.

The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about.  We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma.  We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow.   If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.

We don’t have to do this.  Why do we do it?  Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity.   If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.

The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.

I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence.  My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).

No.  For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.

As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,

The Buddha was not a mystic.  His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God.  He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.”  Buddha did not found a religion.  He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.

This is how I understand yoga.  Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.

My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.

Kafka in Kathmandu

2 August 2011

Kafka in Kathmandu

What are you willing to go through in order to get a pair of walking sandals?  I had brought my old Chackos, my sturdiest, waterproof, hiking sandals to Nepal, where I wore them every day.  At night I left them with the myriad other shoes jumbled up at Sughanda’s house door, well behind a locked gate.  One morning, towards the middle of my time there, they were gone.  Someone had stolen them.

I bought a knockoff pair in Kathmandu, but they fell apart the first time I climbed a mountain in them.  Then I tried to get by on flip-flops and hiking boots, but the former were too flimsy and the latter too hot.  My dear friend Shreejanna spent an entire day with me searching for something with which to replace them, but I found nothing suitable and ended up with more blisters.

I found myself walking less and less.  After a few miserable weeks I broke down and ordered another pair from R.E.I.  I had plans to do some serious mountaineering and needed something sturdy and reliable.  The new Chakos cost $95 plus $30 to ship, and arrived 10 days later. I had no idea what I was in for when I headed downtown to pick them up.

Three days before I was supposed to leave Nepal, I received a phone call from an officious official who informed me that I had a package waiting and should come to Room 32 at the General Post Office (GPO).  My friend Bill, who knows Kathmandu very well, went with me by cab to the heart of the city.  The GPO is an enormous, concrete structure in deteriorating piss-yellow paint.

We entered a cavernous, noisy room with grey walls and floor and stood for a few minutes in front of a teller who sat well behind a high, glass wall.  When it became clear that she was determined to ignore us, we moved to two other women who looked a little friendlier.  They looked at me and acknowledged my greeting, so I said,

“Hello, my name is Doctor Latta and I have a package to pick up.”

Neither of them said a word.  I repeated my statement.  They mumbled something in return.

“I need to pick up a package!” I said, raising my voice.

They responded again but I could not comprehend.  Finally Bill stepped in and said exactly what I had said, but it was as though he had said something different because the women grinned at him and directed us to a different building.  We went back out the door and around what looked like a trash heap through a parking lot and towards some piss-yellow buildings.  I saw a lot of crushed boxes mailed from different countries and wondered if the carton of books and tee-shirts that Tim had sent me had ended up here, in this graveyard of undelivered packages.

We went into one building and found another enormous, echoing room  At a large wrap-around desk in the center  a woman in a purple kurta sat and stared at us.

“Yes?” she demanded crisply.

“Room 32?”  I asked.

She pointed to a dirty corridor to her left and we followed it outside again, around a corner and across a concrete slab on which a dog lay. It was hard to tell whether it was dead or alive.  We entered another, smaller labyrinth but this time there were signs in English.  Room 30, 31, 32 this way.  We followed the arrow and entered into a dim corridor which led us to a number of different rooms.  Finally we found room 32, a long, dark room with a long counter that ran its length.  We waited for about five minutes in line behind someone speaking to an official, when a man dressed in black pants and white shirt—the uniform of the officials at this office—called us in an irritated voice to a different spot at the counter.  I explained that I had receive a call from the G.P.O. informing me that I had a package to pick up.

“What is your name?”  the official asked.

I told him.  He disappeared into a room at the end of the room, behind the counter, for another 5 minutes, and then returned, empty-handed.

“We cannot find your package,” he said, and gestured for me to follow him into the room from which he had just emerged.  Bill came with me into another dark room filled with boxes in no particular order, haphazardly stacked in piles on the floor.

“You look for your package,” the man ordered.

We obeyed.  After 10 or 15 minutes of searching, we found the box and mistakenly assumed that our ordeal was finished.  But no.  The man took the box from me and put it behind the counter.  He shoved a form at me and told me to take it to room 31.

We took the form to room 31, a bit brighter but dirtier room in which four or five men were lounging behind desks, smoking cigarettes.  The only person who appeared to be working was a woman in a pink kurta at a desk near the entrance to the room.

We approached her, but she directed us to one of the more relaxed fellows at a neighboring desk.  He allowed us to wait for a few minutes before scanning the form that I handed him and consulting a large, green, leather-bound book.  He said that I had to pay about 180 rupees and wrote something on the form.  Returning it to me he indicated that we should return to the woman at the front desk, who took my money.

She didn’t have exact change in her drawer so she got some bills out of her purse.  Then she told us to return to the central office, where we had encountered the woman in the purple kurta.  We went to her, showed her the form, and she told us to return to room 32.

We trudged back through the labyrinth, outdoors again and around, past the still seemingly dead dog.  In Room 32 we presented the form to a different man behind the counter, who pulled my box from underneath the counter and looked at it blankly.

“You must wait for Mr. Shrestha,” he said, without further explanation.

We stood there for many minutes, staring at the box that I for some unknown reason was not yet permitted to receive.  Finally he told us to sit down in some plastic chairs nailed against the wall opposite the counter and put my box back under the counter.  This was all starting to get very tiresome, and I was tempted to simply grab and run, but Bill stayed me.  We waited.  Mr. Shrestha failed to show.

I got up and went over to the counter, where I did my best to glower at the man who had asked us to wait.  Perhaps I looked fierce, or perhaps he was also tired to waiting for his superior, and so he pulled the box out from its hiding place and stood with his hands on it.

Suddenly, Mr. Shrestha appeared.  He ceremoniously stepped up, greeted us gruffly, and proceeded to tear open my package.  Inside he found the sandals and rooted around for other stuff.

“That’s all there is,” I said, expecting any minute to have them in my hands.

But no, he did not hand them over.  Instead he scribbled something illegible on another form and told me to take it back to Room 31.  Back out we went, past the still unmoving dog, around the piss-yellow walls, and into the enormous central office, and into the dingy room where all the men lounged and the single woman worked.  We went back to the surly gentleman who we spoke to before, and he demanded another 50 rupees, which he said was a tax.  I was so sick of the process that I didn’t argue and dully handed over the bills, which went again to the woman in the pink kurta, who signed the form.

We took it back to Room 32, where I think I would have screamed and raved had I not finally gotten my hands on the goods that we had expected to get over an hour ago.

As we sailed out the door Bill asked, “Ever get the idea that you’re in a Kafka story?”

“Never quite so much as today,” I said, laughing.

O Nepal.  How I miss you.

Bikram Day 26: the back and the belly and the mind

What I’m liking best about bikram these days is the yogatalk in the locker room afterwards.  Today I mentioned that sivasana is still incredibly painful for me and elicited a chorus of similar complaints and advice.  The consensus view is that I don’t know how to stand or sit properly, like lots of women.  What I need to do, the women in the locker room said, is tilt my pelvis back while tucking my butt under and pulling in on my stomach muscles.   A number of them demonstrated, in various states of undress, standing and kneeling on the floor.

It’s not like I haven’t heard this before.  My wonderful Iyengar teacher in Hotchkiss, Nancy, suggested that I think about my pelvis as a bowl of milk.   I need to tilt the bowl back, bringing the front rim up, so that I don’t spill the liquid that I’m carrying in it. This is an old metaphor.  As the lover says to the beloved in the Song of Songs,

Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.

According to the naked and sweaty women in the locker room at my yoga studio, combined with the advice I got from my wonderful Iyengar teacher in Colorado, my back pain, which is sometimes so debilitating that I can hardly move, comes from not having enough respect for my belly.

So where does this leave me?  How do I continuously focus on how I’m holding my self, my spine?   I don’t know if I can do this, but I will try.

What I am noticing now on day 26 is not physical.  I haven’t lost an ounce and I can’t see that I’ve tightened up in any one of my muscular areas.  My arms still look flabby, damn it.  I’m still drinking a couple of glasses of wine every night.  But I am eating less junk food, and I do notice that I’m craving healthier meals.  Yesterday, for example,  I did a double class–four hours in a 90 degree room, three of them holding poses–and afterwards I wanted to eat green stuff.  But the greatest noticeable benefit is psychological.  I feel calmer, more centered.  I feel more self-confident and less anxious.

For example: today I sent off my book proposal. This is a huge achievement.   I’m embarrassed to admit how long I’ve been working on it.  Something about the commitment to yoga made it possible for me to make a commitment to myself in this way.  After years of anxious hiding,  I finally said to someone, “hey, this is my theory, and it is mine, and you should pay attention to it.”  Also: “My ideas are interesting and worthy of publication.”  And, “I’m not going to sit on this for one more minute.”

What is the connection between this locker-room lesson about the belly and the back and  my having sent out something that I have been sitting on and fretting over for 10 years?  The sending out of the proposal is a kind of birth, a kind of delivery of what is within me to the world.   This gesture, so long guarded against, so long feared, has helped me to relax.  But I wonder if I would have been able to make this vital move if I hadn’t also been going through the same 26 spine-altering poses for the past 26 days.

Tonight I practiced yoga with a woman who I have had trouble accepting, even though I have also been very touched by her.  When I first met her, I felt resentment, competition, and dislike.  Tonight my anxiety, or discomfort in the world, abated a bit, and I was able to see and accept her with much more compassion than before.  I caught myself comparing my ability to do the poses with hers, and tried to let this ridiculous competitiveness go.  Tonight she was rather noisy and self-centered and vain and domineering.   I sensed that her not very likable behavior was coming from pain and misery.  She’s very confessional and at the end of class she mentioned that, just before it, she had been weeping in her car.   Christmas is coming on and she just broke up with her boyfriend.  None of her family is here in Pittsburgh.  She doesn’t know quite how to get through the holiday.

Why did it take so long for my heart to soften and to see her as a human being whom I actually liked and wanted to help?  Is it not because I get into these habitual and rigid poses of the mind, not unlike the habitual and rigid poses of the body, that ultimately bring me pain?  Isn’t this guarding of the heart, and these customary ways of holding the body and the mind, a way of dwelling in dislike and distance and alienation from other people? I experience this alienation from other people as a form of pain.   I don’t know how I learned to hold myself in these ways, and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I learn to change the way I carry myself in the world, not only in relation to other people but also in relation to myself.  The old habits of rigidity and separation may once have protected me from pain, but they can also increase the discomfort, the stiffness, that makes the movements of my body and mind excruciating.