Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Secret of Yoga

Most mornings, after coffee and quiet reading, as soon as dawn starts to show, I take my yoga mat out into the backyard and I roll it out on the deck beneath the rustling trees. I face the rising sun. Then, as the last star fades, I begin.
            I don’t remember every pose. I haven’t been in a yoga class for years. But I remember most of them. The more I practice, the more I remember. They come back to me as I come back to them. There’s a lesson right there.
            In English they’re called sun salutations. In Sanskrit, if anybody’s interested, it’s surya namskara. It’s a fairly simple and straightforward cycle of poses that begin and end in a standing position. There are many variations on a common core. Just Google it and you’ll see what I mean.
            What’s beautiful about surya namskara is its simplicity and effectiveness. Any beginner can do it, yet it tests even the most advanced practitioner. It stretches major muscle groups, stimulates circulation, deepens flexibility, and all while warming and awakening the mind. After a few rounds of surya namskara you remember what a sacred blessing it is to be alive.
If you’ve never done yoga, it’s essential that you begin with a teacher. There’s a lot to learn about proper posture, breathing technique, and avoiding injury. Videos and other online resources are great, but there’s no substitute for a real flesh and blood teacher in the room, someone who can help you adapt the classic poses to your body type and ability, and who can make tiny but significant corrections to your poses. Teachers save you a lot of suffering – trust me. Then once you get the basics down and know how to take care of yourself through the process, online videos and other digital resources are useful amendments to your practice.
            What you might not know is this – that what we call “yoga” in the west, the breath and body work, is part of an ancient curriculum with six other key components. Together they are called Ashtanga (Eight-Limbed) Yoga. The breath work (pranayama) and the body work (asanas) that comprise your typical yoga class are numbers three and four of the eight-limbed process. So, what are the other stages, and what is yoga’s deeper, hidden purpose?
            The first limb is called yama. Here, we commit to a life of moral integrity by relinquishing bad habits like lying, stealing, sloth, covetousness, and addictive disorders. It’s difficult to move forward on a program of whole-life awakening when you’re an obnoxious creep with self-destructive compulsions.
            The second limb is called niyama. Here, we commit to spiritual and mental well-being by deepening into our sacred practices whatever they may be – prayer, study, service, or contemplative walks in the woods. Attend to your cleanliness and self-care. Make an intentional practice of gratitude and contentment. Decide to be happy.
            With our life set right by the practice of yama and niyama, we’re ready to move into the deeper stages.
            The third limb is called asana. This is what you think of when you hear the word yoga. Asanas are the poses that strengthen, stretch, and vitalize the body temple, a sacred house in need of deep care and attention. As other ancient wisdom traditions attest, (Aristotle comes to mind), our mind, body, and soul are three aspects of an integrated singularity. A healthy body is a prerequisite to a healthy mind and a healthy soul. A violinist cannot make beautiful music if her instrument has fallen into neglect.
            The fourth limb is called pranayama. This is the breath work that accompanies the body work of the asanas. Your yoga teacher will really help you with this. Most of us take breathing for granted and, believe it or not, don’t do it right. It matters how you breathe. You’ll be amazed by how deeply transformative this one step is. Breathing is, after all, kind of a big deal.
            The fifth limb is called pratyahara. At this stage we begin to disengage from the outer world of sensation. We deepen and go within. Sure, you stay engaged with the outer world – you can’t help it. But you add to that a renewed focus on the inner life. It is out of this deep introspection that insights begin to arise regarding the formerly unconscious processes that enslaved us. It isn’t easy undoing decades of unconsciousness. Simply slow down and feel the realization arise that you are much more than your body, your property, and your persona.
            The first five stages were all merely preparation for what’s next. Now we are ready to go even deeper.
            The sixth stage is called dharana, meaning concentration. As we gain practice moving into deeper states of intentional consciousness, we notice that our minds are a mess – a cacophony of competing cravings and fears. The practice of dharana helps us navigate this debris field and, believe it or not, quiet the chaos. Different teachers recommend different techniques. Some suggest concentrating on a mantra, a simple, repetitive phrase. Others suggest focusing on the breath. Find a technique that helps you still the thought-waves of the mind and deepen into dharana. As we get better and better at this still-point concentration, we are poised for the seventh stage.
            The seventh stage is called dhyana, or meditation. Now that we’ve sharpened our ability to concentrate, we move into proper meditation. In the practice of dhyana we grow adept at deep, soft-focus awareness without a specific idea, topic, or point of concentration. We shift from being the thinker of thoughts to the silent witness of the thinking process – we have unhooked from both the thinker and the thoughts. We realize that we are the spacious, empty field in which both thought and thinker arise. We slip beneath the thought-stream and enter a state beyond all concepts, words, labels, and distinctions. We are moving toward the eighth and final stage.
            The eighth stage is called samadhi. This is where it’s all been heading. Here the duality between the experience and the experiencer dissolves. We realize that we are one with everything. Only there is no longer any “we” to realize this. As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “There are no enlightened persons. When enlightenment happens, there is no one there to claim it. There is only enlightenment.” The intellectual, conceptual construct of a separate self is just one of the many thought-forms that dissolve in the awakening process.
            What’s most surprising about this ancient eight-limbed practice is how all that breath and body work we learned about in our yoga classes was originally conceived and designed merely as preparation for the deeper and more important work of meditation and awakening. There’s no harm of course in doing your sun salutations on the patio without the other six stages. In fact, there are enormous benefits. But now you know there’s more. Much more. It’s about awakening to the truth of who you are. And that’s the secret, hidden agenda of yoga.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Don't Be Buddha

There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of all self-improvement work: You’re perfect just the way you are, but you could use a little improvement.
            Whether you categorize your self-improvement process as spiritual, religious, secular, psychological, or some combination thereof, the fact remains – something about the way you’re living your life isn’t quite right. You’re stuck in self-defeating cycles. Bad habits keep tripping you up. You’re tired of being angry or afraid or sad all the time. There’s a pervasive sense that the sweet stuff of life is just out of reach and you don’t know how to bridge the chasm. In a word, you’re unhappy.
            And yet you know intuitively that the worst thing you could do is indulge in the downward spiral of self-loathing, the false idea that you’re not good enough, and that you’re broken beyond repair. This kind of negative thinking only throws gasoline on the embers of your despair and helplessness. And upon deeper analysis, self-loathing may be yet another symptom of debilitating self-obsession. Life thrives only where there is love. A healthy, humble dose of self-love heals us from within.
            Teachers and models help. They embody and demonstrate for us the self-discipline, wise choices, and best practices that lead to increasing wellness. If we are willing to be led, teachers lead us toward our best life. In the same way we seek out expertise when we need our hair cut, our car repaired, or our taxes done, so too with maladies of the spirit we seek out discipline-experts who’ve devoted their lives to the soul-healing arts. They know more than we do not because they’re better than us, but because while we were doing other things, they were doing that. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make experts.
            But what should our relationship with our teachers be? This is where it gets tricky.
            Confucius said, “I give a student one corner. If they can’t bring back the other three, I stop teaching,” a profound statement about the teacher-student dynamic if there ever was one. Wisdom can never be packaged and delivered from one person to another. The best a teacher can do is provoke. The student has to do almost all of the work.
            And then there’s this – the dangers of devotion loom large. In the practice of psychotherapy it’s called transference. As the patient feels the fog of neurosis lift they erroneously transfer their elation from the process to the person. But it’s not about the practitioner – it’s about the practice. This is a dire occupational hazard for every healer, minister, guru, therapist, and teacher. Many a teacher and student have fallen prey to the seduction of this delusion. Did even Jesus struggle with transference?
            In chapter 13 of the Gospel of Thomas Jesus asked his disciples to define him.
“You are like a just messenger,” said Simon Peter.
 “You are like a wise philosopher,” Matthew said.
Then it was Thomas’s turn. “Teacher,” Thomas said, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”
            “I am not your teacher,” Jesus said. “Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.”
            Is Jesus the tender of the bubbling spring, or the spring itself? In this metaphor Jesus is not the water, he is the groundskeeper, maintaining a clear channel through which the life-giving water of wisdom can move. His role is to clear blockages and provoke us into openness. This interpretation is clearly out of step with mainstream Christian orthodoxy where we are called into a devotional relationship with Jesus. In traditional Christianity Jesus is the spring, not its tender. Still the deeper question remains: what’s more important, the message or the messenger?
            For both Confucius and Jesus, the onus is on the student to get it right. And for both of them, teachers are initially essential, but ultimately expendable. For Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven” is within us. It is not to be received second-hand from another, but discovered within and realized. No teacher could give it or take it away.
            As a well-educated Jew, Jesus had his mentors too. But if Jesus had conformed perfectly to his teachers and their traditional practices, there would be no Jesus, and no Christianity to boot. Wisdom requires breaking rank with authorities.
            The same holds true for Buddha, the 5th century B.C.E Indian teacher. Born into the ancient tradition of Hinduism, he studied under many gurus and was well-schooled in the wisdom of the Vedas and the science of yoga. But if Buddha had conformed to the demands of his teachers he would never have become the Buddha, and there would be no Buddhism. Great minds don’t follow, they lead.
            Both Jesus and Buddha were shaped by their respective religious traditions. Then they abandoned them. Instead of obedience to others, they obeyed the unimpeachable authority of their own experience. They had the guts to go it alone and trust that Brahman, God, or the universe spoke most clearly through the sound of their own voice.
            It is in this spirit that the 17th century Japanese Zen poet Basho wrote, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old, rather, seek what they sought.”
            So too the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, challenged the elders. They were not content to follow Muhammad – they wanted to be Muhammad; to experience directly the divine as he had.
            Mainstream religions are sometimes described as elaborate institutions constructed around someone else’s religious experience, someone who lived long, long ago. What if we respected, or even revered the teachers of the past, but then went out and had our own spiritual experiences? Buddha didn’t follow anybody. Jesus didn’t follow anybody. Muhammad didn’t follow anybody. Maybe we shouldn’t either.
            In spiritual circles there’s even a thing called the no-guru movement where one abandons all paths, teachers, and teachings. But the “pathless path” has its dangers. If you rely solely on your own experience, with no checks and balances from teachers or a trusted community, you’re vulnerable to confirmation bias and other cognitive errors. Once again, Buddha’s middle path comes to mind. Wary of his student’s propensity for devotional adoration, Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.” But he also offered a method, a path.
But don’t try to be Buddha. Be yourself. “Imitation is suicide,” Emerson wrote. “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.”
            In an old Hassidic tale, Rabbi Zusya was worried that when he got to heaven God would be disappointed in him because he hadn’t been as great as Moses, or David, or Solomon. When Rabbi Zusya finally stood before the Almighty, God's only question was, “Why were you not Zusya?”