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.