Saturday, December 28, 2013

Year-End Review: A Guided Meditation

Year-End Review: three words that can make your heart race a little! In corporate culture this means a sit-down with your manager and some feedback on your work, sometimes framed as "constructive criticism," though euphemisms have come to replace anything that could seem too "critical," unless you are a law firm associate or finance professional. Just kidding. Sort of. Well, I'm really glad I teach yoga these days... but even I had a Year-End Review! "Here's what's working, here's what's not." I asked for it! Old habits die hard. Reviews are helpful!

This is a rich, festive and fruitful week for those of us on the Good Ole Gregorian Calendar. Year-End is a beautiful, sacred time when we can look back and reflect on all we have accomplished, ways we have grown, new relationships we entered and events that shook things up in our lives. Facebook has a Year-In-Review feature that lets you see your notable status updates and photographs. You can do that with an old-fashioned photo book, too, or a personal journal.

Today, I'm suggesting we do this in a yoga class, or on your own in your home practice. I'd like you to direct your mind's activity in a purposeful meditation period today, first getting quiet and centered and then systematically going back through your year to collect impressions, high points, low points and turning points from 2013. I want you to form a mental picture of what 2013 brought to you, good and bad. What do you want to celebrate, and what do you want to leave behind? Make peace with 2013, thankful for both the blessings and the adversities and what they meant for you on your life's journey, so you can step into 2014 with an open mind and heart, ready to receive the gifts of the New Year.


Let's begin. We will use a candle to ritualize this moment and our intention, so light your candle and set it down in front of you if you are at home. Find a comfortable seat so you can begin settling into your body with ease: either legs crossed and hands resting on your thighs, or sitting up on a block in hero's pose with the tops of the feet resting on the floor. Now, steady your gaze on the candle. Begin to bring awareness to your breath. Feel the in breath and the out breath. Notice the sound and sensation of your breathing. As you focus your attention on the breath, begin to even out the length of the inhale and the exhale. With the eyes open, still gazing at the candle, we will take three deep, soothing breaths, inhaling to the top of the lungs, and exhaling all the way out, to a hollow belly. 1.....2.....3.

Gaze at the candle for a few more moments.  And now, let your eyes gently close. With your eyes closed, see the image of the candlelight set against the darkness on your eyelids.

Direct your attention to your head. Relax your forehead. Release any tension between your brows. Relax your jaw. Relax your scalp, from the top of your head to the base of your neck. Relax your neck. Relax your shoulders and the area between the shoulder blades. Relax your arms, all the way down to your fingers. Breathe into your belly and as you exhale, fully release and relax your abdominal muscles. Bring your attention to your legs. Relax your thighs and feel them get heavy and loose, the weight of the thighs dropping towards the floor. Relax your knees...your calves...your ankles...and your feet, down to your toes. Direct your breath all through your body, from your heart to your extremities, and feel everything relaxing and releasing. Let go.

Now, let your mind take you on a journey. Begin to take yourself back in time, to this time last year. You had finished celebrating your holidays. You were ready to embark on a New Year. Take yourself back to Wintertime, one year ago. How was last Winter for you? What did it feel like, physically, emotionally? How much did you work? How much did you play? Was it cold outside and warm in your house, in your cozy bed? Or did you go away? Was it warm where you went? When were you happy, or sad? Did you get sick? What was that like? Did you get better? Did you set resolutions? Did you get a financial bonus? Were you focused on gratitude, goal setting, or both? What other things happened in your life last Winter? Stay in your previous Winter for another minute or two.

Now, we will travel just like that through the other three seasons, up to today. Let's move on from Winter and into Spring, 2013. Take yourself back to last Spring, and envision what happened for you then, what you wanted, what you experienced, what was memorable? If nothing pivotal comes to mind, just focus on the sensations and impressions of Springtime, and something notable may come to you.

Last Summer. Go there now. What did you do last summer? Really. What can you be proud of and what could have gone better? How did it feel? Summer. Ahhhh...stay a few moments in Summer 2013.

Fall. Let's go. Autumn in New York...or wherever you were. Where were you? This one is recent. Did your autumn fly by? Take note of what happened in your life, what you achieved, what fell behind and what moved forward, and what did you experience? Who was with you?

And now come full circle, back to Wintertime, here in your body, sitting on the floor, at the tail-end of 2013. How do you feel this Winter, and how do you feel right now? What were the memorable moments of your holidays? What are your plans for New Year's Eve? What do you feel really good about and what do you want to happen?

Keep your eyes closed, but move around a little. Start to come back into the now. But as you are doing that, I want you to envision a big, old fashioned collage on poster board, or on a projector screen...a vision board, if you will. Imagine snapshots of events and people from the past year, and also words and other images that form a picture of your year. Get that image ready, and then, look it over really well, side to side and top to bottom. Hey, you... good job! And also--I'm sorry. And also... what an adventure. You gained some things, you lost some things, but most importantly, you are still here, and you are still breathing. You are a gift, and your life is a gift. Thank yourself. Applaud yourself. Bring to mind those achievements and good times and good feelings you want to keep with you as you move into new blessings.

Finally, I want you to choose a few things you'd like to leave behind as you move into 2013. Remember the candle. Imagine that candle is actually a big fire, big enough to burn anything you are leaving behind. Now, in your mind's eye, I want you to see yourself approaching that fire and throwing onto it all the experiences and sensations and memories you'd like to leave behind you. They're going to burn out in the fire, and in the heat we create in today's movement practice.

Take a few moments, and let your eyes open. Look at the candle. Come back into the room. Wiggle your arms and legs and fingers and toes. Deep breath in, deep breath out, three times. And now open your arms wide, and feel your chest and heart open. You are ready to walk with open arms, an open heart and an open mind, into a new year. Congratulations. And Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

In Everything, A Gift: The Wisdom of Madhu Vidya

This moment is a gift--that is why it is called the "present." Yoga teachers often tell you to focus your attention on the present moment, anchoring to the here and now, coming back to the immediacy of the breath and body. Increasing numbers of psychotherapists will give you similar advice, using techniques such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBSR and MBCT).

We live in an exciting era where we are seeing ancient teachings from Eastern wisdom traditions validated by Western science and utilized in various therapeutic settings. Mindfulness teachings (or practices analogous to mindfulness teachings) exist in Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Yoga.

In the history of Yoga, the spiritual tradition of Tantra (a Sanskrit word roughly translatable as "expansion leading to liberation") had its greatest influence during the post-classical period, in the time following Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Some scholars claim that Tantric teachings date back at least 7,000 years, but in the teaching of Yoga, Tantric philosophy came in and shook things up after Patanjali's contributions. Tantra is a non-dualistic spiritual discipline, embracing all experience as a pathway to the Divine. The Yoga Sutras teach that matter and spirit need to be separated in order to evolve consciousness. Patanjali considered the body an impediment or obstacle to developing higher consciousness. Tantric philosophy brought in a different perspective: for Tantric practitioners, the body is used as a vehicle to evolving consciousness; the physical body is seen as a sacred vehicle to enlightenment, so there is an emphasis on nourishing the body and prolonging life. According to Tantra, this body, and everything good and bad that comes with it, is a gift.

In Tantra Yoga, the practice of fully embracing the present moment is called madhu vidya, which means "sweet knowledge" or "honey knowledge." The body is a gift, the present moment is a gift, and fully experiencing the body in the present moment is the path to enlightenment. Click here for an example of tantric mindfulness practice.

“Tantra is the yoga of everything” (Ramesh Bjonnes, The Yoga of Tantric Love: 7 Reasons Why It’s Not Just About Sex). Read the article. The day-to-day peaks and valleys of human existence are the essence of the spiritual journey; this includes suffering, sickness, desire, anger, boredom and vice. Tantra teaches that we can meet the Divine everywhere, in the good and the bad within and without. “This knowledge, this wisdom is called Madhuvidya, or honey knowledge, the idea that the bees of Spirit can turn everything we do and feel, even failure, into nectar” (Id.). Through embracing all experiences, even physical experiences and the great range of human emotions, Tantric yogis make use of vulnerability as a gateway to receive Divine love and compassion. “Tantra is seeing love in everything” (Id.) Tantra is seeing the gift in everything.

The gift is the present. Let's open to this gift, through our practice today. Simply experience your practice, without judgment, and in the fullness of your own embodied presence. Can't get on your mat today? Tantric practice can be any activity or experience as long as you intend it to evolve your consciousness, so open up to the gift of your own experience today, in the wisdom of madhu vidya.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Namaste: Celebrate the Light

The Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st, this year and every year. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year. It has been marked and celebrated around the world and throughout the ages to usher in the return of the sun’s light. Our planet and our species rely on the sun’s light and heat for survival. This is a fact that has not changed, even though our beliefs and practices for celebrating the Solstice have evolved.

In ancient Pagan traditions, the return of the sun’s light at this time of the year was celebrated through long festivals dedicated to various deities representing the sun. Modern Pagans still celebrate what is called Yule, the name for one such ancient festival. In our Western society, we have both religious and secular traditions around the holiday of Christmas. Christmas was made to coincide with the celebration of Yule. The season leading up to Christmas, Advent, is a season to prepare Christians for the arrival of a great light, the light of God come to shine on humanity in the form of a living person.

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is celebrated near the time of Christmas and Yule, and it also celebrates light; in fact, it is sometimes called the Festival of Lights. A bit of oil, only sufficient to light the menorah in the Temple for one night, kept the menorah burning through eight consecutive nights. The story of this miracle is the origin of the Chanukah celebration.

Light, as a universal quality and value, is a beautiful thing to celebrate. In Yoga practice, we also celebrate light. Yoga is not usually thought of as a religion; indeed in the West, and even in the rest of the world, people with all sorts of different religious beliefs, or even no religious beliefs, practice Yoga.

We hear Yoga teachers talk about the practice of Yoga uncovering the light of the soul. In Yoga philosophy, the word most often used for the true self, or the light of the soul, is Purusa. This is the big self, as opposed to the small self. Purusa is the self that never changes, the part of us that is not subject to changing conditions and circumstances. My teachers have called Purusa, “pure consciousness.” We use the practice of Yoga to help us come to a direct realization of our pure consciousness. We try to make room for the true light within us to arise and shine through. This is the classical goal of Yoga.

Last week, my teacher talked to the class about refining our consciousness through a three step process: sense consciousness, witness consciousness and God consciousness. This describes the classical progression in Yoga from the gross to the subtle aspects of the self. First, we become fully aware of our body and our senses through breath and movement. Then, through meditation, we develop the ability to be a neutral observer or witness to all that is happening within and around us (this is witness consciousness). Finally, as we achieve that state of balance and equanimity, we can raise our consciousness to a reality that is larger than our small self, something that is greater than, yet shared by all of us. We do not have to call this higher reality God, and there is nothing particularly religious about it. It is simply a recognition and experience of a reality that transcends our suffering and limitations. It is consciousness of the light within us, which we all share, and through which we are all connected.

Welcoming the return of the sun, or the Light of the World, is act that turns our focus outside of ourselves to something greater than us, something we anticipate and depend upon. In a Yoga practice, it doesn’t work quite that way. In Yoga, we begin by focusing and refining our consciousness to fully dwell in the body, in the breath, in our movements. We begin at the gross level, focusing on what is concrete for us right now. Then we gradually move towards meditation, learning to reside in the place of the witness, witnessing rather than engaging with the fluctuating movements of the mind. Finally we progress to the subtler level of opening up to the true light within us, our pure consciousness, the Purusa.

Our yoga practice leads us to the emergence of the light within us, and that is something we can celebrate on our mats every single day. All of these other traditions and festivals around us can remind us that this is a goal we all share as humans, and that because we all carry this light within us, we are all truly One.

Namaste (we say this to honor the light within each of us which reflects a greater, universal light, and connects us all). 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Unconditional Friendliness

Last week I was away on a one-week Thanksgiving vacation with immediate and extended family members. We stayed at an all-inclusive resort. Our every need was attended to by a large staff of cheerful servants: waiters, babysitters, bartenders, cooks, housekeeping staff and even entertainment specialists. I was struck by the consistently warm, joyful and friendly attitude of these workers. The resort welcomes guests from all over the world, from different cultures and with differing preferences and needs. I was impressed by how unfailingly accommodating the staff was to the various types of people they served.

Lounging by the pool, I read part of a book by Pema Chodron. When I read her explanation of the Sanskrit word, maitri, I looked up from my book at the waiters strolling around the pool area. I then re-read this bit, “The word for loving-kindness in Sanskrit is maitri. Maitri is also translated as unconditional friendliness.” I thought to myself, “the staff at this resort excels in displaying unconditional friendliness to every guest who is here.” It was a perfect example of how I could immediately apply the concept of Maitri in my own life; what if I could do the same for myself and the people I am supposed to serve? I decided to work towards unconditional friendliness to my extended family members during the trip and this holiday season, as well as unconditional friendliness to myself during the stressful moments of travel and holiday preparation. I don’t expect to change all of my reactions and develop a new personality overnight just because I set a new Holiday Maitri goal, but keeping it in my mind as a theme this season feels right.

The concept of Maitri is present in Yoga philosophy as well as in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. I thought about unconditional friendliness in my yoga practice and my relationship with myself. My practice is where I work on developing Maitri, in asana and especially in meditation. I did water aerobics and Zumba on vacation. I also practiced yoga in my room. What made the yoga different from the other two activities was the practice of connecting with myself, and working on that relationship. This is what sets yoga apart from other physical pursuits. On this vacation, I had to apply the concept of Maitri when I realized my muscles were loose after a massage and a mid-day cocktail; the practice felt very different. I would normally never have a drink before yoga, and I rarely treat myself to a massage. Both of those things change the state of the mind/body, so I couldn’t do certain postures the way I normally like them. I did not freak out and get off the mat. I just found other postures to practice and took more time in savasana.

Every time we practice is like that—we are experiencing different states in our minds and bodies, accommodating different types of guests: high or low energy, up and down emotions, aches and pains, good or bad digestion. It all affects our practice, both physical and mental. When we can accept all of it with unconditional friendliness, going with the flow instead of resisting our experience, we are practicing Maitri with ourselves.  Gradually this makes it easier to practice Maitri with other people. We don’t have to judge our experiences in our practice as good or bad—we can simply accept it all and keep on breathing, moving or sitting. No need to freak out or stop. We can learn to live that way, too. I tried it on the airplane on the way home. We had 30 minutes of uninterrupted turbulence. It was scary. I felt nauseous. I didn’t resist those feelings. I closed my eyes and breathed into those sensations, fear and nausea, and said to myself, “of course you are frightened. Of course you feel sick,” and comforted myself that way.

Whether or not you choose “Maitri to All and to All a Good Night” as a theme for your Holiday Season, at least try it out on your yoga mat. When you feel tight, when you feel unbalanced, or scattered, or hungover from holiday parties, or perhaps you'll even feel happy and giddy some days: instead of resisting the experience, accept it with unconditional friendliness. “Of course I feel tight, but I will breathe into it.” Welcome each passing sensation with Maitri, and as the poet Rumi wrote, remember that “this being human is a guest house.” That attitude removes a lot of stress from the holidays and from all of our everyday experiences. 


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
    translation by Coleman Barks

Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't Lose Your Touch

We live in a hyper-connected culture: FaceTime, Facebook, texting, Skyping, Tweeting, chat rooms, message boards. We connect through technology more than ever, staying in touch with record numbers of people at one time...but how many people really touch us? How many people do we touch, with our hands, our eyes, our hearts? Experts such as social psychologists and our own grandparents have suggested that most of us are actually out of touch...we're missing out on true connection. We are becoming lonelier. 

A Facebook friend of mine, who also happens to be one of my very few true friends, recently posted an article about loneliness and social media, confessing that she cried after reading it. We are holding our phones and tablets instead of each other: “the very magic of the new machines, the efficiency and elegance with which they serve us, obscures what isn’t being served: everything that matters. What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are.” 

In our fast-paced lifestyles which prioritize multitasking, we are not only spending less time physically connected to our tribe, the members of our social and familial circles; we are also spending less time with ourselves. Although loneliness is a growing problem, we have all but eliminated solitude. This explains our growing interest in yoga and meditation. We need time to connect through disconnection. 

Practicing yoga, alone or in a class, cultivates a deep interior connection. Through our practice we tune into who we really are. We go within and connect deeply, accessing our natural qualities of empathy and compassion. This allows us to make more meaningful connections in the world. Seeing the suffering in ourselves and learning to ease it helps us to recognize suffering in others, and informs us as we reach out on a deeper level than just a chat room, just a text message, just a "like" on Facebook. 

A focused, physical practice like yoga is self-care for the mind, body and spirit. By steadying the breath and the mind, we learn how to take care of our own feelings, our own injuries, our own hearts; in turn, we become better able to cultivate sweetness and openness in our relationships. As we connect on our mats, we become better connectors in the world outside, experiencing deeper connections and facilitating them for others. 

Do this for yourself today. Don't be a lonely heart. Light your heart aflame and shine that torch for others. I tell this to myself, too: put the phone down, get off the computer and go hug someone, knock on your neighbor's door, call your friend instead of texting her (I did call my friend when she posted that she was crying!) Maybe even go to a yoga class! Hug yourself on your mat. I ask my students to do this. Try it. Be present for yourself, not virtually, but completely. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Marcel Proust was a Yogi

From the time we are in our mother's womb, we learn and follow patterns that help us to survive. Our brains and nervous systems are wired to pick up and settle into patterns; in the womb we attune to our mother's heartbeat, her particular voice quality, her unique biorhythms and the predictable schedule of her life: when she eats, when she is physically active, when she sleeps. A baby is born into the world having already learned that life unfolds in predictable rhythms and patterns. As it grows, it develops its own patterns based on stimuli and reactions to the stimuli; some reactions work and others do not, so the brain adapts and finds a predictable structure of behaviors to follow, allowing the little baby to grow up, survive and thrive.

Beyond survival and comfort tactics, we develop and follow all sorts of patterns in our day to day lives as humans. Most of our physical and mental patterns operate on an unconscious level. Some patterns are what we call habits. We like to think we choose our habits and have control over them, and sometimes that is true. Anyone who has ever tried to stop smoking or kick a sugar or other dietary habit knows that we can master certain habits, but it takes determination.

In Yoga philosophy there is a term for the deeper or latent causes behind our habits: samskaras. The word sounds like "some scars," and that is a helpful way to think about the concept because a scar is a fixed imprint, like a brand that is burned into the skin of cattle. Scars and brands are deeply implanted grooves in the skin.

At a deeper level of the body, in our brains and nervous systems, we have grooves called neuropathways; when we perform an action, think a thought or experience a sensation repeatedly, a particular neuropathway is activated each time; that repetition forms a groove, like a groove on a record player or a line in the sand that gets deeper as we build a moat for a sand castle. When a wave washes up on the shoreline, the water goes right into the groove we created for it. Eventually, the groove will wash away or get replaced when someone else builds a new sandcastle. Our brains can work that way, too. Thanks to a scientifically observed phenomenon called neuroplasticity, our neuropathways are pliable enough to be weakened and overridden; in other words, we can consciously apply ourselves to recognize our thought and behavior patterns and create new ones when needed.

Our habits are formed based on the structure of our neuropathways. Samskaras are thought to be patterns which run even deeper than our neuropathways. Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, reads the second sutra of Book One of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga). Do yoga--free your mind and the rest will follow. Sutras 9 and 10 in Book Three describe the process of observing samskaras, sort of catching them in the act, and then restraining them. A major goal of Yoga philosophy is to restrain not only our thoughts, but our deeply ingrained patterns so that our true Self can emerge. This is deep stuff. Many yoga teachers and yoga experts don't even want to talk about it for fear of sounding like proponents of pop psychology or pseudo-science or a mind-erasing cult. Maybe it doesn't seem practical to talk about the deep, spiritual roots of thoughts and habits. On the other hand, it is certainly practical to use Yoga as a framework for dealing with habits.

Our habits are both physical and mental and it takes effort and awareness to notice and change them. Some habits we can't help, and they may even be good for us; if you are someone who always double checks the locks on your home and car, does it make you neurotic or judiciously careful? In any case, why fight it? Some habits we can change, and when we do, we prevent harm to ourselves and others and enhance our health and happiness. Through Yoga we can work with the habits that are holding us back in life: these can be as simple as poor posture, shallow breathing and weak abdominal muscles, or as complex as holding onto harmful beliefs about ourselves. In our practice, we repeat similar movements and breathing exercises again and again; this repetition brings our habitual patterns to the surface; we may prefer a certain style of yoga or react to a certain posture the same way each time; the repetition alerts us to our habitual patterns.

When we can break out of our patterns, even for just a few moments, a whole new world opens up to us. We can perceive things differently. Our slate gets a little cleaner, we become more childlike, our view becomes less clouded.

One of my favorite writers, Marcel Proust, wrote about, "The deadening effect of habit, which cuts away from things we have seen many times the taproot of deep impression and thought which gives them their real significance." (The Past Recaptured). Habit impedes inspiration, joy, the fullness of life. It protects us from painful truths, and in so doing it anesthetizes us from living an impassioned life. To uncloud our perception and uncover the most powerful parts of ourselves, we must confront our own habits.

We will work with habits in our practice today by staying aware and remaining open to trying new things. Notice your preferences and reactions. Notice how you feel when a preferred sun salutation or transition into a posture is changed. Come into Warrior I in a new way. Then try it your favorite way. Notice the differences. See if something opens up for you, in your body, your mind, or both.

“Habit enables us to cling to the familiar, to the self we think we know with a persistence almost irresistible. An anodyne for the terror of the unknown, it effectively keeps us from knowing, and is fatal in itself. Habit is a fiction the organism requires to dim perception. It screens us from the world, and from the true world of the self. Habit—no matter how intense the suffering it causes—is the last thing the personality will give up. It is arming itself against danger. The weapons may be more painful to use than the pain they seek to deflect. No matter. Habit allows us to live—by which Proust means it allows us to exist while it simultaneously compels us to miss Life.” 
― Howard MossThe Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust

Friday, November 1, 2013

Whole Body Listening

I love school. As a yoga student and yoga teacher, I have found an ongoing way to continue the experience of school.  Right now I get to play the role of the teacher, but I know that each of us are teachers, no matter our jobs or our age. Some of my greatest teachers are my family members. I learn from my family each and every day. 

Last week my kindergarten-aged son Rhys brought home an award he received from his teacher: it was a Whole Body Listener certificate, and attached to it was a poster illustrating what it means to be a Whole Body Listener, with pictures of the eyes, mouth, hands, feet, brain and heart. Here is what I read from the poster:

Whole Body Listening is more than just “hearing” with the ears. It includes:
  • listening with the eyes (looking at the speaker)
  • listening with the mouth (closed and quiet - no talking or making sounds)
  • listening with the body (facing the speaker)
  • listening with the hands (quietly at the side of the body or in the lap)
  • listening with the feet (standing still or quietly on the floor)
  • listening with the brain (thinking about what the speaker is saying)
  • and listening with the heart (caring about what the speaker is saying)
Rhys was so proud to get this award. I know he has worked on his listening skills in kindergarten. While he was telling me about his award, he said, "Mommy, you're not listening with your whole body right now," because I was distracted by the dog and my other son, and we were sitting on a bench so my body was turned partly away from him. Even more importantly, I know that I am not a Whole Body Listener most of the time. I told him I was sorry and that I want to listen better. 

The next day, my Mom arrived from Missouri to visit us for a week. Obviously, she is another one of my teachers. Just this morning, as I was thinking about what to say to yoga students about Whole Body Listening, she said, "I need to talk to you. I am asking for just ten minutes of your time so that you can sit and really listen to me. I need you to listen to me about how I feel left out of your life." I sat and truly listened to her. Listening with my eyes was easiest. Facing her with my body was also pretty easy. Listening with my heart was a conscious choice, and it was hard because it hurt a little. I had to let down my usual defenses. Listening with my brain turned out to be even harder, because when she asked me questions or needed feedback, my brain jumped in with all sorts of ideas and words I wanted to say to her, and in turn I stopped listening with my mouth. Then I came back to my intention of Whole Body Listening and became quiet again. At the end of that ten minutes, which had turned into half an hour, my Mom and I worked through something that had been troubling our relationship. We found a good solution to serve us both: so that we can both practice speaking and being heard, giving and in turn receiving communication, we will schedule bi-weekly phone calls, one with just me and one with my boys present as well. 

In the context of Yoga, my teacher Al Bingham has been instructing a group of yoga teachers in how to best listen to our students. As a teacher, I need to be a good Whole Body Listener. Students listen to the yoga teacher, but they also need to be heard. If I am listening to you instead of just up here giving cues and doing postures, then I'll be able to respond to you effectively. Sometimes I will make mistakes, and other times, because it's a group setting, I won't be able to listen simultaneously to every person. At those times, keep listening to yourself and move from your own wisdom, not always in the way I guide you to move. 

Through Yoga, we learn, practice and teach the art of the listening. What are we doing when we get quiet and centered and focus on the breath? We are listening. Listening to what? We are intently listening to ourselves, our own bodies, our own minds, our own hearts and souls. If we have spiritual beliefs, we can expand this idea to listening to the Divine, however we may call it. As we move through postures we move with consciousness, focusing our attention and listening to what our hands, feet, hips, shoulders, knees and heart have to say to us. If we mindlessly force ourselves into pretzel poses, we are not listening, but instead talking over our own body's wisdom--we want to do the opposite of that. If our body, our breath and our heart tell us to slow down, then we slow down. If our chests and hearts soar in a certain posture, then we open up freely and deeply and we go for it. If we listen to our heart in savasana, sometimes we shed a few tears. That's a beautiful thing because it shows we are listening. 

The art of Whole Body Listening is always at the foundation of our practice, but we will set this as our whole intention today. The chakra system, Yoga's metaphorical map of our energetic body, has a particular area devoted to communication: the throat. Vishuddha is the name for the throat chakra, which is responsible for speaking, hearing and listening; located at the throat, vishuddha also covers the area of the ears. Many postures we will go through today are traditionally associated with vishuddha. We will use both sound and movement to channel our energy towards listening. This will help us listen to our own bodies and our inner voice, so that we can hear what we need to hear. In our lives off of the mat, this will help us in our relationships with ourselves and others, so we can listen when we need to listen and say what we need to say, at the right time and in the right way. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Surrender to the Dark Side

This week Halloween will be celebrated in the United States and in a few other places around the world that give credence to this modern, American festival, tenuously linked to the Celtic Samhain celebration.  We had a German visitor in our house this summer--when we asked her if she ever dressed up for Halloween, she replied, "I think Halloween is shit." Whatever you may think of the costumes, the candy and the glorification of guts and gore, one positive aspect of Halloween is the permission it gives us to delve into the Shadow side of reality and of ourselves.  

We live in a culture where everyone is supposed to be pretty, death is taboo and the Shadow is suppressed.  Our collective Shadow is the violence that keeps sprouting up in our culture--we see it in road rage and gun violence, for example. We turn a blind eye to violence as a society, and so it continues to get worse. The solution to this dilemma is to stop running from our Shadow and shine some light into it. At least on Halloween, we can give safe expression to the darker sides of humanity. It is better to dress up like an ax murderer and be playful with that role, than to actually become an ax murderer. 

Working with your Shadow, the aspects of yourself that you condemn or don't want to recognize, is a very powerful practice.  When you open up to your selfishness, your vanity, your anger, your neediness, then you become the master of those tendencies. How do we recognize our Shadow in the first place? We have to greet it with acceptance before it will even show itself to us. If we are fearful and anxious about our destructive tendencies, they will grow stronger--the Shadow feeds on fear and anxiety. To get out of that rut, we need to feel safe enough to let the Shadow out to play. When the Shadow can emerge in a safe and constructive framework, then we can begin to shine some light into it.  

In addition to Halloween, Yoga is a framework we can use for working with our Shadow side. When we sit in meditation, or when we move through our asana, all sorts of fears, aversions and strong emotions arise. When we meditate we sometimes have disturbing and unsettling thoughts. As we sit quietly, we can greet those with our compassionate presence. When we move through postures there are certain ones we hate or feel like we can't do. We may stiffen, frown, engage halfheartedly or refuse altogether. There are other postures we love and believe we perform well, and in these we may show off, look at ourselves in the mirror or even have a few narcissistic photos taken to share. We may relish lion's breath or obnoxiously loud ujjayi breathing. We may sigh audibly and moan with contentment in certain stretches. We may laugh out loud or snort when we fall out of a balancing posture. It's all OK because in yoga, we are safe and free to be who we are in the moment. Our practice is the time we carve out of our lives to relax the restrictions, bring ease to our bodies and go with the flow. Yes, yoga is a discipline, but it isn't about consistently doing something right--instead, it's about consistently accepting ourselves. 

So, today in our practice, let's make friends with the Shadow if and when it arises. Let's watch for it, warmly greeting it and inviting it to stay awhile.  There is a favorite story about the Buddha and his interactions with the Demon God called Mara. As the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree just before he became enlightened, he was often visited by Mara, who came to defeat him. Instead of fighting Mara or pushing him away, the Buddha calmly greeted him and invited him to stay for tea. In the end, Mara went away, frustrated and bewildered, and the Buddha achieved Enlightenment. When our Shadow shows up in our practice today, let's see what happens if we let it hang out.  We might even give some safe expression to our Shadow side here. I am up for anything, so if tigers come we'll let them roar. 

I'm not suggesting, as Darth Vader did, that we permanently join the Dark Side.  He said, "give into your anger and hate and your journey to the Dark Side will be complete!" Yoda is more my speed, and he probably would have offered some Jedi tea instead. Our Shadows are inevitable companions on our journeys, but they don't have to steer the ship. 

Happy Halloween. 


“Your life will be transformed when you make peace with your shadow. The caterpillar will become a breathtakingly beautiful butterfly. You will no longer have to pretend to be someone you're not. You will no longer have to prove you're good enough. When you embrace your shadow you will no longer have to live in fear. Find the gifts of your shadow and you will finally revel in all the glory of your true self. Then you will have the freedom to create the life you have always desired.” 

― Debbie Ford

“Surrender is the ultimate sign of strength and the foundation for a spiritual life. Surrendering affirms that we are no longer willing to live in pain. It expresses a deep desire to transcend our struggles and transform our negative emotions. It commands a life beyond our egos, beyond that part of ourselves that is continually reminding us that we are separate, different and alone. Surrendering allows us to return to our true nature and move effortlessly through the cosmic dance called life. It's a powerful statement that proclaims the perfect order of the universe.

When you surrender your will, you are saying, "Even though things are not exactly how I'd like them to be, I will face my reality. I will look it directly in the eye and allow it to be here." Surrender and serenity are synonymous; you can't experience one without the other. So if it's serenity you're searching for, it's close by. All you have to do is resign as General Manager of the Universe. Choose to trust that there is a greater plan for you and that if you surrender, it will be unfolded in time. 

Surrender is a gift that you can give yourself. It's an act of faith. It's saying that even though I can't see where this river is flowing, I trust it will take me in the right direction.” 

 Debbie FordSpiritual Divorce: Divorce as a Catalyst for an Extraordinary Life

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Secret to Getting Nowhere

This autumn in the Hudson Valley has been mild, luscious and luminous. The apple harvest this year was extra plentiful, the foliage colors seem more vivid and the slightly warmer temps and ample sunshine have allowed for more time outdoors. When I walk my dog in the mornings I use that time to practice mindfulness, anchoring to the present moment and connecting to the Source of All. 

Last week I had a few flashes of bliss on those sunny autumn mornings that brought a particular sutra to my mind, from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Sutra 2.27 is Tasya Saptadha Prantabhumih Prajna-- the translation given in my version of the text is, "One's wisdom in the final stage is sevenfold," and then seven qualities are listed. My teacher Liz Schulman who trained me to teach yoga gave us her interpretation of sutra 2.27: "When we are without ignorance, we realize there is nothing more to know, nothing to avoid, nothing new to gain, nothing more to do, there is no sorrow, no fear and no misunderstanding because we understand the true nature of ourselves and God. In other words, we have all we really need within us. We are already whole." 

Experiencing the knowledge that we are truly whole, that we don't have to chase anything, run from anything or acquire anything more, is a rarity. Some of us may believe this notion to be false. Others may intellectually grasp the truth of this idea, yet never have experienced it. Still others may believe it is true, though they have only experienced it in brief flashes, aided by external stimuli such as holding a sleeping baby, sailing on a clear day or seeing vibrant red leaves reflected through the morning sunlight and stopping in stillness to breathe the autumn air. We reach for the truth of our wholeness in those feel-good moments. But if we believe that we are already completely whole and lack nothing, then shouldn't we be able to experience this bliss and freedom without any external help? This is where compassion enters the picture: we are only human and we are often at the mercy of our prevailing culture, not to mention our own bodies and minds. 

Think about our culture and the conditioning that has trained us away from blissful realization of our wholeness. We base our lives on seeking, avoiding, acquiring and holding onto things, people and ideas.
We are oriented towards next steps, precautions, goals, planning weddings, vacations, parties, wardrobes and home renovations. This outward seeking isn't wrong in and of itself. It can just get excessive. The balance can tip towards neurosis, fatal attraction, obsession, greed, hatred and prejudice, instead of contentment, detachment, equanimity, lovingkindness and peace.

Sutra 2.27 hits on some of the deepest principles of yogaIt guides us to the concept of transcendence and being in the world, but not of it. When we can experience glimpses of this in our practice, we are experiencing a new kind of conditioning, one that is mostly absent from our popular culture. The knowledge of our inviolable wholeness is like a precious little seed planted in the soil of our minds and bodies; with time, if we keep watering the seed through more practice and attentiveness to this free and contented state of mind, the seed will sprout into all aspects of our lives: our work, our relationships, our habits of consuming food and other material things. We will become more peaceful and balanced and less prone to blindly run
after the next thing or person or idea we think we desperately need.

In our yoga practice today we can simply begin with the thought, and possibly even the feeling, of this blissful wholeness.  We can bring to mind one person or experience that makes us smile from the inside, that opens our heart, that softens our exterior and centers us. We can use this mental picture of a loved one's smile, or a blissful memory, to guide us toward the seat of bliss within us. First we can tap into that bliss. It is our true nature. Then we can orient today's practice to embrace our wholeness. We have no need to be anywhere else or seek anything more than the present embodiment of each posture and each breath. Sitting on our mat: just this. Standing in Warrior II: just that. Opening into Triangle: nowhere else to go. Just be here now, and know that you are whole.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Yoga is Self Serving

I am a practicing Yogi(ni) and a parent.  I very often hear other parents and other Yogis talk about selfishness and not wanting to be or appear "selfish." For example, a working mother I know who loves to practice yoga recently joked with a group of friends about having gone back to work, "It's been a hard year. I guess I could lie around and do yoga instead." I have heard other people say that they just can't make time to meditate, do yoga, or any other type of exercise or self-care because their jobs and families are just too important.  There is a suggestion that once we grow up and live in the real world, we must dispense with such selfishness. That is one of many viewpoints we can choose to adopt, or not. I would like to share an alternative perspective.

Yoga, meditation, time in stillness, time to simply be, and go with the flow... these things are not selfish in the sense of lacking consideration for others. On the contrary, when we center ourselves, when we make time to become grounded, to connect to the Self at our core, to attain unity and wholeness within ourselves, this has a positive impact on everyone around us, even those beyond our immediate reach. The Sanskrit word "Yoga" means "union," and the root of this word, yuj, is literally, "yoke." As human beings, we are collectively yoked in this life. Everything that happens in our sphere of existence, everything each of us thinks and does, has a far-reaching impact, whether we are aware of it or not. We sometimes get glimpses into our interconnectedness and shared consciousness. Some people are very attuned to others' feelings, even when they are far away, like a mother who knows that her child is sick or frightened though they are miles apart, or twins who always know when to call one another if something is wrong. If you are familiar with the movie Star Wars, then you may remember this quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi: "I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened." The Star Wars films allude to a shared energy that unites everyone and can be properly harnessed with the right training. Like the Jedi, we can do practices to refine our own energy, empowering ourselves to fight the good fight. Training takes time, but training is never selfish.

Our own energy is affected by the energy of the people around us, and vice versa. We are inextricably woven into a World Wide Web of Consciousness. There is some level of scientific evidence affirming this, resulting in the "unified field theory" in Physics. Some people believe in the power of collective prayer, and even more believe in the power of collective action to bring about change in the world. We should first understand that change begins within the individual. Through practicing yoga and meditation we can transcend the isolated self and deeply connect to life and to others; this is a real connection, not a text message or Instagram or Facebook kind of connection, but a connection that impacts the whole of our being, individually and collectively.

We are each part of a greater whole--our altruistic, empathetic nature wants to reach out and serve the collective. We don't want to be selfish. But we must realize that our individual consciousness is tied into a greater, collective consciousness. When we connect to the purest part of ourselves, when we access the peace and equanimity deep within us, that action has a limitless ripple effect. It is not only in doing for others that we help others. We help others by our being, as well.  Improving the quality of our presence and consciousness helps us, and in turn has an inevitable impact on others. To be or to do? That is the question: the answer is, both, yet emphasize quality over quantity. When the quality of our being improves, the quality of our doing follows, and we can do greater things for others.

As parents, this translates as centering ourselves and practicing mindfulness in our parenting, being truly present with our children in this age of unlimited distractions.

As yogis, this translates as an effort to be present and connected in our practice. In our time on our mats today, we can focus our attention to cultivate union, connection and wholeness with each breath, with each asana, and in the flow from one asana to the next. As we leave class or end our practice, we take that deeper, connected quality of being off the mat and back into our homes, our work, our relationships. This does serve the self, but in so doing, it serves the whole world.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Objectivity is Happiness

A fundamental goal in practicing yoga, or any type of meditation, is to guide our minds to a state of objectivity.  We are training the mind to perceive things clearly and objectively.  

What does it mean to be objective? Here is a definition: (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.

To perceive situations and events objectively is difficult. Nonetheless, when we can do it consistently, we will experience more peace and happiness.

If you want to find a quick example of how difficult it is to be objective, and how much it helps when we can be, think of the last time you or someone close to you told a story about being ticked off.  

A few days ago my friend told me about his bad week at work. He said he had been in a bunch of meetings with a person who was unprepared and who talked out of turn. This same person was chosen for a job that he had applied for within the company. He said he felt like every other person in the meeting was thinking, “Wow, she is really not good at this job and you were passed over for her? You must be really bad at what you do.” As a neutral observer, this subjective interpretation of the thoughts and opinions of the others in the meeting seemed silly to me. Since I was not the one experiencing his emotions, it was easier for me to see the situation objectively: it was just a meeting; the others in the meeting were focused on getting the meeting over with, listening to what was being said or how long they had before lunch. They were not sitting there thinking about my friend and how this woman’s poor performance in the meeting reflected indirectly on him. Unfortunately, he had experienced negative emotions and stress throughout the week due to his subjective interpretation of what had happened. Just yesterday I caught myself in the same trap: I described feeling left out and judged by certain group of people when I was telling my sister a story. Her reaction, along with two other family members, was simply, “No, I really don’t think they think that way about you. That doesn’t seem right at all,” and immediately I thought about how my interpretation of events was entirely based in my subjective feelings and viewpoints. My feelings and viewpoints were upsetting me.  I was experiencing distress as a direct result of my lack of objectivity.

This happens to all of us, every day. It is part of being human. But we can help ourselves and one another when the fruits of our yoga and meditation are clarity of mind and objectivity.

In both sitting and moving meditation, we make ourselves the neutral observers of our thoughts, our sensations and our breath. We gradually tap into the natural spaciousness that comes from pure awareness, unclouded by judgments and arbitrary mental patterns. When we are able to still the mind and step outside of its activity, remaining aware of all that is happening from the temporary perspective of a neutral observer, we will gradually be able to tap into that freeing objectivity in our everyday lives...not all of the time, not even most of the time, but bit by bit, until we begin to experience more peace, more harmony, more unity, within and without. This is the fruit of our practice.

We will practice this objectivity today, first in sitting meditation, then in mindfully moving through our postures. When you observe a distressing thought, or a pleasant thought, see it for what it is: just a thought. Let it go. When you observe a physical sensation or difficulty in a posture, or ease in a posture...stay with it long enough to observe it, see it for what it is, and let it go. Don’t judge it by clinging to the thoughts, “I am not good at this,” or “this is my favorite posture and I look great doing it.” Recognize what is there, and then move on, happily, freely, objectively.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sermon: Up from the Waters

As you have undoubtedly gathered by now, from the music, the scripture reading and the altar, we are celebrating water today. We are paying attention to the transformative and healing qualities of this essential element, and we are focusing more particularly on the importance given to water purification rituals in the world’s many faith traditions.  For generations, people from all corners of the world have given water a central role in the way they relate to the Divine.  So I am asking the question, why is this so?  What is the purpose of the Jewish mikveh or Christian baptism? Who do Muslims practice ablutions before prayers? Why do Hindus wash in the Ganges River? What’s the fascination with water and spirituality all about? 

Let’s start with the universal spiritual significance of water.  It is a symbol of clarity and purity in every religion.  Cleansing by water is part of our collective spiritual consciousness, and even more fundamentally, it is an unavoidable part of existence not only for humans, but for the animal kingdom at large.  Some people and animals like to avoid it, but everybody and everything has to get washed sometime. Have you ever thought about this? You know the bird baths you see in people’s yards?  They look a little like baptismal fonts, or Holy Water urns! Next time you see birds taking a bath you’re going to think of that! Those birds are getting holy! Especially if they’re cardinals! (Please, don’t throw things at me.) And elephants… we love to watch them bathe, spraying water on their bodies with their trunks! They are self-sprinkling with Holy Water from the jungle! Seriously, though, we can’t get away from regular washing in water if we are living and breathing on this Earth.  We do it habitually--it is a part of our physical routine.  And we wash the dishes…the wise and venerable Buddhist teacher we all love, God bless him, he was on Oprah last year: Thich Nhat Hanh.  He teaches about washing your dishes as a spiritual practice.  He says to wash your dishes with gratitude and mindfulness.

So we know a lot about physical washing, or what Jesus called washing the outside of the cup.  But what about washing what’s on the inside?  I am not referring to a cleanse or a detox! That’s still the outside of the cup; that still falls under physical washing. These water purification rituals we see in the many faiths, these are about spiritual washing.  And can we take out our spirit and soap it up?  Can we wash it and hang it out to dry?  No, not really, so this water purification in the different religious traditions is a symbolic act.  We are symbolizing with the water what we would like to experience on the inside of the cup as well as the outside.  We are focusing not just on the physical, but on spiritual cleanliness and purity.  So then a mikveh, or a baptism, or a river immersion, or any water purification ritual symbolizes washing impurities and things from our past away, so that we can emerge into a new spiritual reality; it is a preparation for, an initiation into a significant spiritual act or commitment.  It is symbolic of transformation and new birth. 

Let’s look at how we humans are celebrating this symbolic ritual around the world, just to get a glimpse of the richness and commonality of our beautiful spiritual traditions.  Let’s take a virtual world tour. 

We’ll travel East to West.  First up on the map is Japan, the birthplace of Shintoism. The Shinto tradition was created from the way the people of ancient Japan systematized their understanding of and relationship to the Divine. Like so many of the world’s faith systems, this one started with connection to and reverence for the Earth.  The people in ancient Japan believed that the Divine inhabited trees, rocks, mountains, springs of water and other natural phenomena.  From the inception of Shintoism, each act of worshipping the Divine began with water purification.  This is why you will find a trough for ritual washing inside of every Shinto shrine.  Waterfalls are held to be sacred in Shintoism, and standing under a waterfall is a powerful purification practice.  When I learned this, I was very touched, since standing under a waterfall is a visualization practice I have used from early childhood in moments of stress, and I seek out waterfalls as natural meditation sites now.  Again, this comes back to our collective spiritual consciousness as humans.  Waterfalls are also used in Japan in practices called suigyo, translated as “water austerities.”  These are practiced in Nichiren Buddhism today.  Some Buddhists have adapted the ancient Japanese ritual of standing under waterfalls while chanting sacred scriptures.  Now, Buddhist monks and nuns practice suigyo for cleansing and purification, by standing in front of basins of pure water which have been blessed by the Sui-jin, the water deities.  They sing sacred words from the Lotus Sutra while using water from the basin to purify themselves before beginning their daily spiritual practice.  The Lotus Sutra instructs monastics to clean themselves within and without, and these are the particular verses they chant during suigyo.

Next stop, India.  We are staying in Asia for the time being. I’m trying to take an efficient route.  In India, and elsewhere, Hindus begin the day with morning cleansing by water.  This is often done on a river bank, so let’s visualize a river: In a practice called Tarpana, the worshipper makes a cup with his hands and pours the water back into the river reciting mantras.  After sipping some water, he may then apply the distinguishing mark of his sampradaya (tradition), and say the morning prayer, samdhya.  Sodhana is a word that means “cleansing,” and the name of the Hindu purification practice. Physical purification is a part of daily ritual which can be very elaborate.  Every Hindu temple has a pond near it and worshippers are supposed to take a bath before entering the temple. As in Japan, natural sites featuring water are considered sacred in India.  Indeed, to Hindus all water is sacred, especially rivers, and there are seven sacred rivers, the Ganges being the one we are most familiar with, and with good reason because it is an extremely important sacred river in Hinduism: In the Ganges the pure are made even more pure, and the impure have their pollution removed if only temporarily.  In the sacred water, distinctions of caste are supposed to count for nothing, as all sins fall away.  Although Hinduism encompasses so many different beliefs, all Hindus strive to attain purity and avoid pollution. This relates to both physical cleanliness and spiritual well-being, as in all the faiths we are discussing. (Just an aside here, we know that there is a huge pollution problem in India and by Western standards it is very dirty, but when we think this way we should remember compassion and think back to the great pains that Western countries went through as they industrialized, and we should remember the very different history that India has, the multiplicity of faiths there, and the many forces that prevent the sort of universal cleanliness seen in some Asian countries such as Singapore.) Before we leave India, I must mention the first cleanliness requirement I learned from the tradition of Yoga: it is the first of the niyama, the five fixed observances in Yoga, and it is called sauca, the Sanskrit word for cleanliness.  Yogis talk a lot about what this cleanliness really is, and how we are to attain it, and while it does have the external aspect of physical purity and orderliness of our surroundings, sauca is about spiritual purity.  Here is a short passage from a great book about yogic mysticism and parallels with the teachings of Jesus, Quest for the Kingdom, by John Newman:

The meaning of sauca is not the cleanliness that comes from washing one’s hands before eating; rather, it is about the internal cleanliness that results from paying attention to spiritual cultivation. Several teachings that go back to Jesus speak directly to the first niyama of yoga.  The aphorism What Goes In is a direct literal attack on Pharisaic purity codes. Jesus insists that emanations of one’s ego (what comes out of one’s mouth), not the food one eats (what goes in), subvert one’s spirit: “What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it is what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.” Another saying of the historical Jesus criticizes the traditional Jewish purity code of external washing: [and this is in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as well, but John Newman quotes the Gospel of Thomas] 1Why do you wash the outside of the cup? 2Don’t you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside? (pg. 157).

Then the author goes on to explain the insinuation that the Pharisees were neglecting the internal for the external, in his words, “paying attention to what is impure and transient outside of us, and not paying attention to what is pure and permanent inside of us.” (id.) I appreciate these reminders from yogic teachings as well as Christian teachings, to retain constant awareness of the spiritual purity we are seeking, lest we become overly attached to surface purity in our cleansing rituals, neglecting the inside for the outside.  That is such an important part of today’s lesson, and it’s a good segue to move us over to our next destination on our field trip: the Middle East.

            Let’s start with Israel, since we were just discussing the ancient purity code in Judaism.  Generally, the laws in Judaism concerning ritual purity and cleanliness come from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and also from a much later source, the Code of Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, which was written in the 12th century.  Many definitions of what is considered kosher or not, in Orthodox Judaism, are found in the Mishneh Torah, but for our purposes we will just talk briefly about the purity code in the Torah, because the rules on ritual purity and ritual washing that Jesus addressed are found there, and because some of those washing and sprinkling practices persist to this day in Judaism and of course in Christianity which came out of Judaism.  In Judaism ritual washing is intended to restore or maintain a state of ritual purity.  These ablutions can be washing the hands, the hands and the feet, or total immersion which must done in 'living water', i.e. the sea, a river, a spring or in a mikveh.  A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath. Only water that has not previously been drawn into a container can be used, and there must be no leakages. In Temple times ablutions were practiced by priests, converts to Judaism as part of their initiation rites, and by women on the seventh day after their menstrual period. Priests had to wash their hands and feet before taking part in Temple services.  The ritual washing of hands is performed before and after meals and on many other occasions. We see this same type of ritual washing in Islam, and it is most particularly evident in the ritual washing that is done five times a day before salat prayers. In the washing before salat, the face, hands and feet are cleaned with water, but sand can be used when water is not available.

In Christianity, we are all familiar with the rite of Baptism, which depending on the denomination, is done either by full immersion into water or by pouring a small amount of water onto the crown of the head, which for a baby is often referred to as a christening.  Baptism is symbolic of initiation into the Christian community of faith, and of a new birth as a Christian. Many Christians see baptism as a symbol of new life following death. Christians use water in sprinkling rituals as well, and sprinkling is a practice that is also inspired by earlier Jewish practice.  Substances other than water were to be sprinkled for various ritualistic purposes, most commonly blood. Blood was sprinkled on the altar of sacrifice as part of the ritual for a variety of sacrificial offerings, and the sprinkling of blood is associated with the ceremony of covenant ratification.  Members of the Jewish priesthood were sprinkled with blood as part of their ordination ritual.  Blood sprinkling was also done in something similar to what we might call a “house blessing” today. The sprinkling of water for ritual cleansing was indicated under certain circumstances, such as following any contact with a corpse. My favorite reference to the sprinkling of water, in all of the Bible, is found in one of our scripture readings today, Ezekiel 36:24-26, which mentions the sprinkling of water by God onto the people, thereby renewing their hearts and spirits.  This verse is so well-loved because it combines the idea of ritual cleanliness with the phenomenon of profound spiritual renewal. This sprinkling referenced in Ezekiel is a washing of the inside of the cup, the heart and the spirit.  Following such a transformation, we are able to live from our spirits rather than from the impermanent part of ourselves, the heart of stone referenced in Ezekiel 36: the ego center.  That is the understanding of it that makes the most sense to me, and that not coincidentally jives with the practices in the other faiths we are looking at today. 

Speaking of these other faiths, before we wrap up this world tour, it’s time to jump over to Africa and then to the Americas, if only briefly.  Africa is such a vast continent with practically innumerable tribal spiritual traditions and rituals, water of course figuring prominently in many. In my research for today, one particular ritual caught my eye because it tied into what have learned about the Jewish purification rituals surrounding death.  In South Africa, following a funeral the guests are invited to partake in a meal at the home of the deceased.  Before entering the house, they must each follow a cleansing ritual, washing off the literal and figurative dust from the graveyard.  Sometimes pieces of freshly cut aloe are placed into the water, and this is believed to ward off bad luck or negative energy surrounding the circumstances of the death, and re-center the focus on life rather than death.  Again we encounter the concept of a water ritual signifying new life following death. 

To end our tour, let’s finish in North America, where we are physically residing at the moment. Native American spirituality is another vast swath of practices and information, so again I have chosen one particular water ritual to describe, and it is from the Cherokee tribe. The Cherokee do something called “going to water,” in their celebration of the first new moon in October.  The Great New Moon Ceremony represents the celebration of the new year for the Cherokee, so along with the other ways they celebrate, such as dancing and sharing produce from the fields, they immerse in water seven times to wash away the past and purify themselves for a new cycle.  Again, we see here a cleansing of the past, a washing away of the old self to welcome in a new beginning. 

Now we can put down our bags, settle into this space and ruminate some more on the meaning of these water rituals.  We have seen that water purification rituals are sometimes once in a lifetime events, but many of them are cleansing rituals performed again and again. So, when we wash in the waters, one time, or many times…what gets washed away? We just mentioned this with reference to the heart of stone in Ezekiel.  We wash away the old self, the egocentric self, the sick and dying self, the addicted and deluded self, the suffering, separate self.  When we wash spiritually, the cumulative effect of spiritual washing (spiritual practice and devotion) eventually works to reveal the brilliant jewel within us, like these shining crystals we see on the altar. We are uncovering the spiritual self, the Essence. 

This is an interfaith gathering and an interfaith sermon. So how do we approach water purification rituals in the Interfaith Movement? How and why would we celebrate these, other than the fact of their universality? As a group with a common perspective, we are not hung up on purity laws. We’re not incessantly washing our hands out of fear of spiritual death or damnation.  We are supposed to be more enlightened than that, even with our bottles of hand sanitizer. We are working towards the goal of world peace and understanding, shared global values, the realization of Oneness, and the shift in consciousness from the ego to the essence.  Supposedly we are the spiritual radicals of our era. What do we have to do with baptism? Well, let’s think about that for minute.  What are the first names we hear in connection with baptism? Jesus and John the Baptist, right? Do we have anything in common with those two?

Let’s look at John the Baptist. Most notably, he is the person who first recognized Jesus as the Messiah and baptized him in the River Jordan, and he is known for that. Historically, not much is known about him, other than the fact that he was a pretty radical guy. He was described as wearing wild, caveman-like clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He reportedly survived on a diet of locusts and wild honey and he wandered around, an itinerant preacher, preaching a radical message. He was a sort of ascetic, and is often associated with the Essenes, a Jewish mystical sect from that time period. It’s debatable that John was ever a part of the Essenes, but they, like John, practiced a ritual washing that required a change of heart, a baptism that was focused on the internal rather than the external. This is true even though the Essenes were very caught up in ritual purity for its own sake. John the Baptist was what scholars call an apocalyptic eschatologist. He preached that the end was near and that meant people needed to wake up, right then and there, and get ready for God to act. Jesus is also sometimes described as someone who taught an apocalyptic message above all else, but there are now some scholars who say that he was more of a sapiential eschatologist, meaning that his message was more of a call to create the Kingdom of God on Earth in the present moment, to transform ourselves now and come into alignment with God’s will and God’s heart, rather than focusing on an imminent Judgment Day. In the words of the scholar John Dominic Crossan, author of The Historical Jesus: “An eschatologist is somebody who sees that the problem of the world is so radical that it's going to take some kind of divine radical solution to solve it. One type, for example, is John. God is going to descend in some sort of a catastrophic event to solve the world. There is another type of eschatology. And that's what I think Jesus is talking [about]. I'm going to call it ethical eschatology. That is the demand that God is making on us, not us on God so much as God on us, to do something about the evil in the world. In an apocalypse, as it were, we are waiting for God. And in ethical eschatology, God is waiting for us. That's, I think, what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. It's a demand for us to do something in conjunction with God. It is the Kingdom of God. But it's the Kingdom on earth of God.”

Jesus said that we have to be born again, and baptized by water and the spirit. We are to become new creatures. And the water alone is not enough—we must also renew spiritually. This is getting back to the illustration about the inside versus the outside of the cup. Jesus and John the Baptist preached very radical, transformative messages. I think these messages are similar to what we are talking about when we speak of conscious evolution and a shift in consciousness from ego to essence, in ourselves and in our world. How much do our current religious systems reflect this type of transformative message? Do they instead uphold old forms and rituals, conservative values, many of which have passed their expiration date? Our current religious systems are also trying to evolve, but in many ways they remain stuck. It is the job of their followers to move them forward. So in Interfaith, what are we conserving and what are we birthing? We want to conserve what serves and wash away the rest. We want to preach the radical message of emergence as a universal human from the sacred waters of the Earth. That is our life after baptism. Like us, John the Baptist represented a departure from the culturally bound local self. We are preaching a message of spiritual renewal and spiritual purity, birthing the transition from the old, egoic self to the new, spiritual self. So we are asking the question, to ourselves and to all people, what kind of world can we co-create when the old ways are washed away? What will we see when we come up from the waters of our rebirth?