Sunday, August 26, 2012

Freedom is Beyond the Mind's Construction Zone

A year or so ago a friend of mine posted this on Facebook: "There is always unconditional happiness present when one is going through personal suffering. You just have to awaken to it. Feel inspired..."

To me, this was a neat way of expressing the idea that most of our suffering is directly related to what we think, or more precisely, what we think we are experiencing. It was especially poignant to me at that time, since I had just lost my parents to conditions of aging beyond their control.

If pain or loss in the moment overwhelms our sense of being, then all we have in that moment to experience is the misery of pain or loss. If we can remain present, the suffering becomes one level of our experience but not all of it. This leaves that little bit of leeway, or breathing room, to feel alive beyond the pain or the loss, and become aware of other options.  Sounds a little other worldly, but it can be quite a surprise to find that there is still a layer of being that is not consumed with the conditional and reactive part of life.

We excel at constructing a mental world in which to live, each of us serving the continuously running mind. It is a bit as though our lives are all about walking our heads around, or even just sitting on the couch swimming in mind soup.  Sometimes watching TV or engaging with the computer can really bring this out: the body sits for hours and hours, but the mind is running along with whatever is in front of it on the screen.

Stubbing a toe brings up the immediacy of reactive nature, yet we continue standing on the other leg (there's hope for life beyond the sheer pain of the moment).  Perhaps there is a thought strand about "what should I do for this toe right now?" and also perhaps a strand that triggered an emotional line of "stupid idiot" thinking aimed towards the self or the leg of the chair or the person who left that rock in the path.  Meanwhile, the body goes on standing or hopping, and the digestion creates an appetite for lunch, and part of the mind is remembering why one was walking in this direction anyway.

All of this can simply be left to happen on its own, and there we are, a constant construction site with louder aggressive moments when the jack hammers or circular saws are going, as well as quieter ones more like plastering or even laying cement for the brick or tile work. All active, some by choice others by condition, yet our awareness and possibilities go far beyond all that. Even with jackhammer in hand we can feel temperature on the skin, smell the blooming clover wafting in from the empty lot next door, and even softly hum a song remembered, or a rhythm that supports our activity.

Past all that is equilibrium, the part of the self that knows even in the moment of loss that we will keep breathing when our loved one stops breathing. We can strengthen our ability to tune in this way, to get past the construction zone into that more open space of mind. With practice through meditation, and yoga,  we can learn to allow ourselves to detach from reactivity while still reacting; we can create a structure of acceptance that is not judgmental so that we are free from the good-bad aspect of the situation and can actually just feel fully; and we can lean in towards the deeper understanding that we exist beyond just feeling the intensity of this particular moment. Just as with the stubbed toe, or the dying parent, that moment will be intense, but freedom seems to come from being present fully in that moment, not clutching at nor shying away from what is happening.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Energy, Choices & Self Interest

Goals, action and intention all use our energy and help us fill our days, along with their shadows of anxiety, confusion and judgment.  Every time we do anything, from putting butter on toast to signing a contract for a job, we choose how we will spend this moment and many to come, knowingly or innocent of our motives. Usually there are some indicators that help us act in what we believe to be our self interest, to take on work that is worthwhile because of our training, or the paycheck or other benefit, whatever it may be that we think we want or need.  Perhaps it is the choice for taste over cholesterol level (butter on toast), or it can be social connection over isolation, or cleanliness over dirtiness, going to class or watching TV, there are many moments of choice that involve our energy and our identity and self concept in subtle and obvious ways.

It is hard to get away from the fact that self interest can be at the core of spiritual practice. In some ways it is an act on behalf of the self that drives a person towards some understanding greater than that of the first layer of self interest: those actions that take care of the basics of food, shelter, perhaps on behalf family and a wider layer of friends. Perhaps a connection to spiritual ideas can help further these more practical concerns, once a person believes that there may be something beyond the small isolated self to be considered. Self interest is definitely part of praying for a particular outcome or even giving donations of time or money to help promote the community in which one lives or to help lessen the suffering of those around us. We can use our energy to feel better about ourselves through helping others, and to feel better on behalf of others for having used our energy this way.

The next level of spiritual action could be turning one's life more fully over to spiritual practices from a deep desire to improve one's future condition as in "going to heaven" or improving "karma" for the next life. Some would say this is self-less behavior, but I see self-interest here too. Even in this matter it is a choice of how one uses the energy of this moment, and what manner of reward or outcome one expects or seeks. This seems to me to be connected to one's self concept as much as whether to eat toast or raw whole grains. We operate based on what we think is best or right or meets our criteria for usefulness, or offers us part of a goal we seek. This goal might be the betterment of living conditions for other living beings, or equitable means of resolving conflicts, or ensuring nutrition for malnourished infants, or helping a random passerby cross the street safely, or ending one's class on time. There is no hierarchy that makes one choice "better" other than how we see the choice and that, I think, is deeply colored by self interest and our ability to perceive who we are.

Spending one's life truly doing and being on behalf of others rather than just for one's self has a totally different impact in the world in the moment,  and in its consequences. This might be more obvious in one endeavor than another, say changing laws or governments versus nurturing a student's meditation practice. Yet the expenditure of energy that helps one's own child with homework or a co-worker resolve a moral dilemma, or in cooking one's own food from unprocessed local foods rather than buying a processed cheese food product,  is of the same temperament. Each of these small uses of energy serves the purpose of giving the self a clarity of purpose beyond selfishness even though the motive may be self interest. Perhaps it is a question of seeing the self in others, of recognizing that the self has an interest in the benefit to others.

Some people believe in heaven and hell, some believe in karma and the endless cycles of samskara; while some believe that all we have is this moment with no deeper consequence than that of this moment.  In any of these belief systems, it makes sense to me to use the energy we have to actively take on self interest, while at the same time developing our ability to be aware of what we do and why we do it. This cultivation of awareness, developing the ability to perceive our self and our patterns, is the basic nature of yogic practice and meditation experiences. This is the path towards recognizing the self and its interests in the welfare and conditional nature impacting other living beings.

Yoga does not make me a better person nor put me in a realm outside of self interest. It is as if yoga gives me the purest intelligence, like that of a bee: honing in on the pollen, using everything I have in me to collect from this one and that one until I must rest in the coolness of the evening. The bee in me is  doing what I have within me to do with all my energy, unflinchingly and without concern for the potential consequences of pollination and flowering, fruiting and feeding others. The bee in me is on the path, fully realizing my potential in the moment, doing what I can do in my present form.

So when I think about my teaching and find myself searching for motives, arranging and planning outcomes, I laugh and shrug it off. It is the energy of the bloom itself that draws the bee, the energy of the bee that brings the bloom. Letting go and seeing the dualities, I can feel my self interest in the benefits to my students -- whatever they are, and remain grateful to my students for my own practice. Will this get me points on the karmic scale? Who is doing the counting?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Balance & Politics: Finding a Leg to Stand On

Oh the politics of the moment are such fertile ground for my practice!! Watching the pingpong ball fly back and forth between angry outraged entrenched political adversaries just tempts my blood pressure and old habits to rise to the occasion.  How to find center, that ground upon which I can stand and see clearly that the intentions on all sides are fundamentally emerging from well meaning impulses, and get beneath the superficial slapdash untruths to the kernels of fear and control that shape political policy and so often public opinion and beliefs.  Just try standing on one leg to get in touch with that combination of fear and desperate desire for control.

There is a moment of fear for all of us when we take one foot off the ground. Funny that every step we take requires that one foot lift off, and with practice and experience we begin to have confidence that momentum will carry us forward to the next step. On stairs too, or stopping in mid step to change direction, we must get through that moment before touch down.  Sometimes we choose not to notice that moment. In my yoga teaching I call attention to that moment, making it mindful, cultivating awareness of the great possibilities that are already within us to let go of the fear-based pattern, and judgments -- allowing the reality of the moment through.

In asana practice, we seek the source and structure of balance, the foundation that supports that lift so that it is no longer mysterious. We find our muscles and bones, we widen our hands and feet on the earth, we stretch through the binds and open where we thought we were closed. It is still scary.  The mind can create the scenario in a split second, without words or threats. The body reacts to the intensity of risk and effort; our self image is on the line. The foundation holds steady, and the breath, with mindfulness, continues smoothly expanding and releasing.  Perhaps we experiment with ankle rotations, or lifting that leg and straightening it, or propping it against ourself, foot to inner thigh. The permutations of balance become endless once we find that center. In reality there is freedom where in the grasping for control we lose our foundation.  This is the difference between standing on one foot and standing in fear of falling off our self made pedestal.

Still, this is a solitary pursuit. One body, one mind, working closely with faith and memory to maintain equilibrium, dwell in equanimity, experience openness and find the possibilities.  Creating a social environment that fosters this ability in others, no matter where they stand, now that would get my vote in a flash. Not that yoga practice will necessarily change one's politics ... but at least there's the opportunity to be clear from whence our motivations arise for the impulses to run the lives of others with rules of our own making.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Source: Attentiveness or Suffering?

I've heard writers and artists say that the source of their creative energy often seems to come from their anxieties or pain, that they feel driven to mine their demons and express what they find there. This isn't true for all creative people, but when I think about the times that I have thrown myself on the yoga mat or the meditation cushion in desperation... well, it gets me there, doesn't it?

It certainly isn't odd that people need motivation to do something active rather than remain passive. Students, myself included, often come to yoga class for a purpose, to solve something, or to get to a place that feels better in one way or another. This kind of assumes that they begin in a different place than that, one where something needs solving or improvement or perhaps there is a long term goal in mind. I go to classes to spice up my own practice or teaching, to learn something from someone else's sequence or perspective, to experience yoga in a communal context,  all of which is hard to do by myself. I do have sources for adding into my practice from reading, from observations of my own teaching experiences, even from using music to accompany practice or not, or to practice in different contexts with and without the usual props. But injury or anxiety will get me to the mat or cushion fast!

What if our practice brings us to a place of equanimity? Does it then become hard to continue the practice unless we routinize it? Doesn't a routine dull the senses? Lull the mind into complacency? Or set us up for judgment and comparison? Where does the urge for inquiry come from? Must it be suffering, or dissatisfaction, or making a goal?

If we take the moment and tune in, just this moment, I think the experience itself actually is the motivation. Attentiveness is the source of inspiration. Even the most beginning student who arrives in class feeling poor self image or damaged in a shoulder joint can very quickly become entirely consumed with remembering to align their knee over their ankle, or finding the neck adjustment that brings the weight of their head above their heart. What they derive from this is intrinsic: alignment of the self and noticing the difference in their normal patterns. The original motives vanish with rewards that are embedded in the experience. Not just savasana, but even in the moments of rolling up the mats, the sense of integrity and integration of mind/body/spirit, of wonder and peace, combine into a feeling of wellbeing.

Can we get there without the pain or dissatisfaction that drives us in the first place to get to the mat? Perhaps not. Rarely is it joy that brings us to that first meditation experience.  It is one of the truths of human experience that this layer of irritation (judgment or separation from seeing and accepting the self as we truly are) can motivate the deepest search. Is this what provokes all spiritual study, the yearning to understand and explain, integrate and absorb beyond the small self, its conditional, impermanent and frail nature?

These motivations can be called suffering or misery. In Patanjali's terms they are the kleshas, those 5 aspects which doom us to the never-ending cycle of suffering, separating us from our true nature and the bliss and equanimity of that nature. These five aspects are Avidya - ignorance of the true self (not recognizing who we are), Asmita - egoism (seeing the separate self  as all important), Raga - attachment (things, definitions, judgments, others), Dvesha - aversion (avoidance, pushing away, judging), Abhimivesa - fear of loss (fear of death, of losing our self).

The crazy thing is that with practice (paying attention) we can see our own suffering as the source for profound inquiry, even a challenge to rise to our full stature and cultivate greater awareness of the breadth of our own experiences. Even suffering is a transitory experience, a result of conditions, and with practice that, too, can be experienced with something like equanimity.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Certainty is an act of Imagination

Every moment is an opportunity for drama. Consumed with physical and emotional feedback, we play out scene after scene from the moment we wake and even throughout the roller coaster of dream life at night. As with traveling in a foreign land, each difference from our expectations can bring thrill or frustration; each aspect of experience or sensation that we cannot control or explain offers us another chance for self involvement and crippling attachments.  We confirm our suspicions, we seek out the familiar among the unfamiliar, we attend to our reactions with endless interest.

Being fully present in the moment does require a level of engagement that is intense, but without the drama of self-centeredness that seems to block vital qualities of awareness.  Noticing what I feel, physically or emotionally, is not the same as being ruled by that or literally living from that reactive state.  I am beginning to see certainty as an act of imagination, a construction that we each build with the blocks of experience available to us. It is complex to function within the wash of conflicting feelings and insights that arise when I don't pin down meaning, or block out the untamed data as it comes in. Yet that is a most wonderful way of experiencing the self in action.

There is nothing wrong with knowledge, experienced or learned in other ways. But knowledge is not in a vacuum. To be useful to me, it takes seeing context and conditions and accepting the array of possibilities that can literally change what I think I know. Letting go of knowing as "certainty" and understanding that illusion does not mean unreal, just profoundly impermanent.

And as when traveling in a foreign land, as soon as I begin to make generalities, I know that I am blind to the truth, which is myriad and ever changing. I consider the variation when opening one bottle of wine after another, made from the same grapes grown in the same row of vines, harvested the same day and filtered and fermented the same length of time. This just reinforces my growing sense that an open and curious mind gives access to the broadest palate of experience, and an intensity in living.

What else are we here for, if not to experience our own lives, through the filters we have developed along the way? We can let the filters be like blinds and shutters, that we can adjust once we see them clearly. We cannot really set this aside, but can live with blinds and shutters set in position, or take on learning to see them for what they are and adjust them for the light at any time of day or night. We can still protect ourselves from groping in the dark or being blinded by the brilliance of direct sunlight depending on what we require for visibility or privacy.  Imagination can help us make these adjustments and enjoy where we are in the moment.