Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Hang On, Let Go: Embracing Paradox

Abhyasa Vairagyabhyam Tannirodhah. -The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I.12

"These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment" (Translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda). 

This sutra and the ones immediately following it are well-loved by yoga teachers. If you attend a yoga class regularly, you will likely hear your teacher talk about balancing the two wings of practice: steady effort and non-attachment. Because of the nirodhah portion of this sutra, you'll probably hear this in the context of, "why do we do yoga in the first place?" 

What is Yoga, anyway? Well, the second sutra tells us, Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, "The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga." You know that stuff going on in your head all the time? Sometimes it gets to be too much? People have experienced that mental excess, that cloudy, disturbed feeling, as far back as they could write and teach. So, thousands of years ago, some people in India developed the system of Yoga to deal with that problem. Patanjali recorded the solutions they came up with in The Yoga Sutras. That text is the primary source of the philosophy being taught alongside the postures we do in classes. There you go. 

Today, in 2014, a lot of people are practicing some type of yoga, at the gym, in different types of studios, on retreats, at home. If you say, "I practice yoga," what does that mean? Is it a continuous practice? Abhyasa means a specific type of effort: a continuous, dedicated practice, reaching far beyond the postures. The practice can start out as a once-a-week commitment, but that's not really what Patanjali meant when he was describing yoga. When you practice regularly enough, it becomes a way of life, a way of breathing, a way of thinking, a way of doing. It is a discipline with an explicit aim, to pacify your mind so you can experience bliss and union with your true Self and with the Universe. That all sounds so good; it makes you really want it! When you want something bad, you really work at it, right? Give me that! That's for me!

This is where vairagya comes in. Non-attachment. Dispassion. This is the other side of abhyasa; the flip side of effort; the other wing of Yoga practice. I have heard teachers describe this paradox as "hang on, let go." How can you hang on and let go at the same time? As soon as you see those words, you may think of relationships. We learn to do this in dating, in marriage, with our parents and with our children. "If you love somebody, set them free," sings Sting. And so it goes with a yoga practice: if you love yoga, if you are working on your postures and your breathing and your meditation and climbing up your own bliss mountain-- you have to learn to ease up. Hang on so you don't fall down the mountain, but let go so the mountain won't ensnare you. If you cling too tightly to that mountain, you'll die before you reach the top. 

In all of life, we will experience more peace and happiness if we can balance our best efforts with a healthy detachment. As you think, so you are. Are you desperate? What are you hanging onto for dear life? What can't you live without? Hang on. But let go. In the end, what can we keep for ourselves? What will endure? Even once we reach the top of the mountain, what part of the journey will we be able to wrap our arms around, save for a scrapbook or record for posterity? We have to travel light to make it up the mountain. And we can't control what happens 100 years after we get there. We can't even hang onto our body for that long. Letting go isn't just good advice; it's part of reality. 

We don't want to be all effort or all detachment. Few people aim to be a Neurotic Type-A Perfectionist or a Total Slacker. So where do we find the balance? If you want to explore this on your yoga mat, experiment with giving your full attention to your breath and postures, moving with as much strength, grace and precision as you can, while also grounding yourself fully into the moment. You're not in a yoga competition. You're not working for your personal best so you can record it later. You're doing, not straining, holding on, not bracing. So you find the places where you can ease up, where you can close your eyes, where you can pause and rest, where you can relax into a pose. You learn to just be there with yourself, without seeking a personal reward. 

It's not easy. It's possible, though. Will you always be able to practice that way? Maybe. Probably not. I can do it sometimes. I have had true moments of peace and a feeling of effortless awareness in my practice. Most of the time it's not like that. I have also had those moments in my life, but most of the time it's not like that. I catch myself clinging and bracing a lot, actually. I ask myself things about my desires, like, "why do you want this? what are you trying to hold onto? do you think it will enhance or complete you, this thing, this accomplishment, this next up sensation? can you let go of this?" I can let go a little more when I become aware of the clinging. Just seeing it helps. 

When you can let go on your yoga mat, you are training yourself neurologically to let go in other areas of your life. Your relationships will improve (mine have). Your general stress level will go down (mine has). If life has ever seemed like a hamster wheel, or if you feel you've stepped out of the ring because it's too disenchanting, then "hang on, let go" may be what gets you back in the game. I have hoped this for myself. I hope it for you, too. 

I looked for a passage to read in class this week that would perfectly sum up the teaching of Abhyasa/Vairagya, Hang On/Let Go. I decided to share Chapter 2 of the Tao Teh Ching, but this wisdom resonates in all spiritual traditions. 

As soon as the world regards something as beautiful, ugliness simultaneously becomes apparent.
As soon as the world regards something as good, evil simultaneously becomes apparent.

In exactly the same manner, existence and non-existence give birth to each other. Difficult and easy define each other. Long and short form each other. High and low make each other distinguishable. Silence and sound make each other conspicuous. Front and back connect each other. 

Realizing this, one does not separate one's being from the subtle essence of the universe. One holds no preconceptions, and does things without insisting on personal conditions. One guides people by living in accord with the essence of life. One brings good things about, but has no intention of possessing them. One performs work, but has no intention to acquire personal power. 

When one's task is accomplished, one lets go of it and seeks no reward or recognition. Because one does not claim credit for oneself, one does not do any damage to oneself. 

-Translation by Hua-Ching Ni, 1995.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Nontheist Theist, Part II: Embracing Hope

"Three things will last forever--faith, hope, and love--and the greatest of these is love." 1 Corinthians, 13:13. 

Translations of words and concepts like "hope" cause misunderstandings across cultures and religions, 
but when we simplify, we see that we all share experiences of suffering and loss and also joy and triumph. So what does that mean?

Dukkha, Anatta, Impermanence, these are real, but cannot negate Faith, Hope and Love. All of these concepts have emotional components. Our positive and negative emotions are not hindrances to Enlightenment. 

Jesus wept before the tomb of Lazarus (or someone wrote that he did). He cried out in agony on the cross. We feel, the Divine feels, and our feelings can lead us to experience deeper connection when we trust in a reality greater than our small selves and let go enough to be guided by it, and know that we are part of it. Hope does not have to be an obstacle to immersion in the present moment.

You can feel a quickening of hope in your heart in the presence of a dying relative, or in the midst of personal loss. I have. I trust my feelings. I love the Hindu and Christian scriptures, and some Buddhist teachings, but there is also some dogma within popular Buddhist messages about what truth is, 
and what reality is, and what liberation is. Yet, Buddha apparently said, "work out your own salvation with diligence; do not depend on others."

In our culture we can use a correction away from superficial emotion and attraction and avoidance,
but we can also stand to hear that needing to hold onto to something is every bit as much a part of nature and truth as impermanence. 

"Dharma gives us nothing to hold onto," "total appreciation of impermanence," "the teachings must be experienced without hope;" these quotes all sound like Buddhist dogma to me. "The truth is inconvenient," from whose perspective? "You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free," is what I believe. Hope is not an obstacle. Maybe hoping for a new car or job or a cure for terminal cancer is an obstacle, but hope with a capital H is not an obstacle.

Buddhist teachers like to say they are sitting in meditation with no goal, no hope for change, not seeking, yet everything is coming... Embracing paradox is all fine and well until it turns into picking and choosing which paradoxes to embrace. Then if anyone has an objection, the answers are all fancy lawyering, but with no accountability. "The sky is chartreuse. Don't know what that means? Keep meditating on it." 

Bringing compassion to suffering, bringing love to embrace all experience, clearing away needless activity and chatter to reveal joy and bliss--these are the fruits of spiritual practice-- this gives people hope, and it gives people something to hold onto, and it does make life better. All things are coming, and they will, and we can't stop this from happening, so then there is hope. Hope is also inextricable with life. 

Also, there is nothing with which to disagree, nothing to counter, and all truth will come to us in time, when we wait on the Lord (meditate). 

"This experience of the innermost center brings a contentment. You don't bring it; it comes, it simply rains over you." -Osho 
I find hope in this teaching. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Nontheist Theist: Where Uncertainty Meets Devotion

I had a strong internal response to this book passage, which prompted me to write something down so that my head could follow where my heart was leading me.

"The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there's always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. We sometimes think that dharma is something outside of ourselves -- something to believe in, something to measure up to. However, dharma isn’t a belief; it isn’t dogma. It is total appreciation of impermanence and change. The teachings disintegrate when we try to grasp them. We have to experience them without hope. Many brave and compassionate people have experienced them and taught them. The message is fearless; dharma was never meant to be a belief that we blindly follow. Dharma gives us nothing to hold on to at all. 

Nontheism is finally realizing that there’s no babysitter that you can count on. You just get a good one and then he or she is gone. Nontheism is realizing that it’s not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth, and the truth is inconvenient."

—Pema Chödrön, from When Things Fall Apart

I immediately wanted to discuss this with someone.  My husband was sitting next to me reading his book, so I interrupted his relaxation, per normal. I read the book passage to him and explained that I had put this book down for six weeks because some of the passages were resonating so strongly with me that I needed a break.  He listened and affirmed me as usual.  Then I wrote this with the intent of sharing it with someone, with anyone, who may also be looking for a broader view of a personal Divine being. Who else wants to be a yogini with her own, personal Jesus? (Or Vishnu? Or Allah?)

Do you think one can be a non-theist and a theist at the same time? I think so. 
I am. I don't feel limited by my conception of God. I agree with Paul Tillich 
but I also pray to a personal God and believe that I carry that God as an 
imprint in myself. I believe God to be immanent, transcendent, continuous and 
also infallible. It all comes down to perception, impermanence and the 
indivisible, perfectly whole nature of reality. We can't perceive God or reality 
from our limited vantage point but that does not mean theism is a faulty way of 
believing, or that nontheism captures the changeable nature of reality more 
accurately. Both are too limited, directly flowing from our constrained, binary 
ways of conceptualizing. 

My spiritual practice has space for both devotion and meditation on emptiness, 
groundlessness, transcendence. All of this can arise and flow simultaneously. 
Trying to parse all of that out and say what is more or less wise or true or 
real, always leads back to dogma. All I can say is that there are many right 
ways, and even circling around and zigzagging can land you right in the center. 
Because I trust, I relate to theists. Because I admit my inability to define 
anything, I relate to nontheists. It seems like I will never be a theological 
Christian or Buddhist and I am quite comfortable with that. Comfortable with 
uncertainty, yet keeping a devoted heart. 

Please message me or share comments if this stirs something in you. Anyone else feel a bit singled out as a spiritual infant still wanting to hold Daddy's hand if you choose theism? Have you ever been told you spend too much time in grey territory? Who else has donned a grey habit? Who thinks black and white hounds-tooth is still in style? Anyone in pinstripes? Color blocking? Tell me about it.