The greatest of virtues is kindness… of all the best ways we can live, compassion and kindness, to see others as we see ourselves, this is the way toward virtue. These are the words I read tonight in a book about Hindu philosophy. These are the words I read growing up Christian, and these are the words I find to ring true no matter what “god” or “not god” exists.
Today I had jury duty; while there I read “Between the World and Me”, a book by a black man from west Baltimore to his young son. I have never felt entirely comfortable in this white skin… like I was accidentally a part of some club I didn’t really belong in and would rather deny. I never felt comfortable in its privilege or its entitlement. I’m not sure how to give it away, and I know that many people, even my own family, don’t always understand. I’ve almost always fallen in love with men and women of color, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve thought brown skin to be the most lovely in all its shades and tones.
I don’t feel white, and yet here I am. When the world sees me, it sees a white man, given the benefit of the doubt. Doors are held open, and “sir” I am called. I don’t want it! All I have ever wanted was to be kind and equal. I’d rather face a firing squad than hold a gun, and I pray that I never change in this.
I’m not sure why I am writing this or what I intend to accomplish except maybe to say that I hope one day to raise a family that is not white or black but simply human. We will celebrate diversity and all the lovely flavors that she brings, but we will always, above all else, be love. I am human; you are human, and I love you.
For the first few years of my practice, I think I expected yoga would fix something broken about the world. It was incredibly naive and perhaps optimistic, but I suppose one day I thought I might just wake up and all would be perfect. So much of my life has been about feeding an emptiness or trying to validate myself through the external world. Yoga taught me to look within, and also to be willing to understand and accept that yoga won’t fix or change anything else about the world except my place in it. It gives courage, discipline, and conviction; yoga has the transformative power to make one a warrior, equipped with the necessary inner tools to navigate this great battle of life.
I recently finished reading the Mahabharata, a great Indian epic about a horrendous and deadly battle. While reading through the pages of this book, I found trouble finding spirituality in the murder, rape, incest, betrayal, love, loyalty, etc…it was so very macabre. It wasn’t until I almost finished the book that I realized the great and also obvious truth of this tale: that life just is what it is. Sometimes it is going to be filled with luck and love, but other times, life will be so unbearable it requires every ounce of determination a person can muster. When shit happens, it isn’t personal, even though it sure feels that way, and when things are great… it isn’t always deserved or something to which anyone is entitled.
Yoga gives us the courage to keep going when life is good and when it isn’t. This is the power of the practice. By looking within for strength, by finding a sense of centeredness and home within one’s self, the chaos and fluctuations of the world have less affect upon the yogi. Yoga can’t fix that which is fucked outside of you, but it will make you strong enough, courageous enough, and flexible enough to face it. Yoga is not a path for the meek or lazy. It is not an easy path, but it is one worth taking.
As part of my advanced teacher training program, I spent four hours in a cadaver lab this morning examining and dissecting human bodies to better understand anatomy. While my understanding of human anatomy certainly increased in ways I’m sure I haven’t even processed yet, today’s experience was about so much more. There are certain experiences for which words were not invented, moments in life that transcend the limits of human language and are somehow recorded deep within one’s being; these experiences often are those that touch us to the core. While this is how I feel about what I was blessed to do today, I will do my best to express a few of the epiphanies that I had.
I am not my body! Whatever it is that makes my body be alive will one day leave this body, and this body will die. On that day, the thing that is “me” will no longer be inside this body. It is temporary, and it is meant to die. I hope that I have a soul or some essence that will move on once this body dies, but even if I do not, I am not my body.
With all that being said, this body, your body, my body, even the cancer lung I held today… all bodies are beautiful and miraculous. The intelligence with which the body naturally operates and grows is nothing short of divine. There is not a single thing that is being wasted, and it’s gorgeous.
In one of the bodies, the man had lung cancer, and I was able to hold his lung in my hands. The color was the most amazing shade of violet I had ever seen; forgive me if this sounds macabre, but cancer in this lung made it somehow even more beautiful. Holding this man’s cause of death was one of the most intimate things I’ve ever done. It makes me cry to think about the man’s friends and family, the treatments he sought for his disease, the years he had, and now I’m forever a part of his story even if he can’t be here to know it. I don’t know that I have ever been more humbled in my life.
Perhaps my biggest take away today was gratitude. I can not possibly be more grateful for the people who donated their bodies to science so that people in health related fields can better understand and help heal broken bodies. I am grateful for this miracle I get to live inside. I’m grateful that I can run and dance and sing and drink water and smell flowers and love. This life will not last forever. It is meant to be enjoyed, and it is meant to be lived.
I no longer have the luxury of ignoring the rest of the world and pretending like I am just an American. Our borders, which separate and protect us, are the very things that are preventing us from our next stage in human evolution, peace and equality. Because of recent events, I’ve begun to ask myself the somber question, “would I be willing to give up my life so that others might live in peace, in freedom, with equality and actual justice.” How much of what I know and believe would I be willing to sacrifice in the name of peace and safety?
I ask this question because the world is clearly not yet ready for peace. We speak of wanting peace, we demand peace, and we even fight for peace. ( How, I wonder, will we ever find peace through war?) Like every single person I know, I want to be safe; I want to feel heard, respected, and treated justly. Though I am an American, I am fairly certain that all people, everywhere, want these things. These are the same things that animals want, plants too. Essentially, all living beings want to live, safely and comfortably. If my assertion that all beings want these things is true, I have to ask myself, “why is my need for safety, why is my love of my family or country, why is my health any more important than any other persons.” What makes me and mine matter more?
Now this is where the thoughts get a little scary, because this is the beginning of the realization that mine, my life, is simultaneously the most important and insignificant thing on Earth. Nothing matters more to me, and nothing matters less to everything else. With the exception of what I affect in the world, my life only really matters to me and mine. I love my life very much, but it is not any more important than any one else’s.
As I think more about what it means to be a yogi slowly walking the path toward enlightenment (I hope), and what it means to be a Boddhisatva, a living Buddha, I realize that… well first that I’ve got a shit ton of walking left to do! I know that I am a deeply flawed being, but I also know that to move toward enlightenment is to move toward love. Even if none of this (my life) ultimately matters, it does today, and if ultimately my life does matter, than what I do today is even more important. I will not let fear affect my ability to love anymore. Today I choose love unconditionally, even if it means my life matters a little less so that other lives can matter more.
Inside I have been feeling knotted up… not physically, even though it is a physical sensation, but it’s more of a feelings kind of thing. I feel like I’ve got a bundle of knots right around the top of my stomach and just below the base of my breast-bone. When I used to smoke cigarettes, this is kind of what it would feel like to need a smoke. I imagine a shrink would call it some sort of anxiety disorder or depression, and for most of my life I’ve called it that too. This feeling comes and goes, often quite whimsically and without warning. It’s my least favorite thing about myself, and it’s been the hardest thing for me to accept.
Meditation isn’t practiced with the intention of fixing anything, at least not at its purest form. Instead, meditation is meant to put the practitioner in touch with himself, and in my case, that includes these knots I’m feeling. It hasn’t made them go away, but it’s made me able to notice them as a feeling… a holy fucking hell powerful feeling… but a feeling inside my body. It’s not unlike the feeling I get when put my body through a physically demanding asana, but the power of these feelings in my body makes my mind go crazy.
I suppose I have a fixer mindset. Present me with a problem, and I will work to fix it. This is what I’ve done with these knots over the years. I’ve done everything I can think of from smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey, to quitting all that and becoming an organic vegan. I’ve lifted weights and practiced yoga, written countless poems and made hundreds of paintings… all initially with the intention of fixing these knots. I’ve psychoanalyzed my life from today all the way back as far as I can remember. I ruminate on things I feel could be the cause of the sensations. I worry and brood, but to no end.
Yoga and meditation haven’t made the feelings or the worries go away. None of the things I’ve done ever totally fixed these feelings of tightness and worry, but I feel like I know myself better and I love myself more. Even on the days where the feelings are strong inside, and I feel like I might break, I know that I love myself and that this will pass. If I can sit and watch the feelings, as merely sensations in my body, like I would during yoga or meditation, I can begin to let go of the worrying thoughts and just feel it in the body. Somehow this makes it easier. I feel less guilty, less like I did something to deserve these feelings, and I am better able to wait for the knots to untie themselves again.
On days like today, where I feel this way, I go to my mat and I remember that no matter what, there is always a part of me that is safe and ok. That part of me can peek through the sensations and remember that I don’t deserve this, and that this will pass. That part of me realizes that I am so much more than these knotted feelings and the worries that come with them. That part of me that is always ok knows that I am loved and that I deserve love, and if I listen hard enough that part of me reminds me that I am love itself.
Aum Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
The new year has arrived, and with it, many people are making resolutions… this year I’ll quit smoking, quit drinking, go to the gym, lose weight, eat more veggies… all the stuff. Each of us knows we have a little bit of room to improve, and in the spirit of new beginnings, we use the New Year’s holiday as a bridge toward the new and improved us. Part of the story of New Year’s resolutions is that many people make them without having much intention on keeping them; many of us enter into these resolutions knowing that they are a joke. And so life goes on…
…just the same
The second yama(restraint/ethic) is satya (truthfulness). To make a resolution requires a certain amount of reflection and truthfulness because we cannot wish to see a change, even half heartedly, if we did not first find an area upon which to improve. Unfortunately, if the truth only goes into the exploration stage, without action, we might be left ruminating over the same worries or concerns that caused us to have the initial spark of inspiration to grow.
I remember my teacher once said, “never lie, but especially never lie to yourself. If you are honest with yourself, if you keep every promise you make to yourself, you will learn to be more careful with your thoughts and your words. You will learn to depend upon yourself, and always know that you are true.” Satya is to be so honest with our thoughts, that our words and actions all are true. For this reason, I like to begin all of my classes with a sankalpa.
A sankalpa is an intention, a small (or grand) promise to oneself. The sankalpa can be a physical goal, a spiritual goal, a balance goal, even to dedicate the fruits of one’s practice. No matter the intention, when we begin practice with a sankalpa, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives and make a small vow that we know we can keep. Like stairs leading us to a higher place, these sankalpas serve as our steps toward our greatest self. We gather these small truths into our minds, over days, months, years of practice; we integrate the truths into who we are, and we digest them. We become the truth.
It occurred to me once, on a day where I was really listening to myself, that I complain entirely too often. I’d tell a person how great my day was or how life was going well, then I’d almost always finish with a “but (insert whatever here) sucks.” Even with a huge smile on my face and happiness in my heart, I felt the need to verbally express the one thing that was not going as planned. This, I later realized, was probably a habit that came from being somewhat chronically anxious. Often my mind was seeking that which was not working and causing me stress, things in my life or in the world, that I could then bitch about.
Realizing about the complaining that day, I began to notice that this was not an isolated incident. I think I noticed this about three years ago, and I’ve been actively working, since then, to stop doing the complaining. The reason I’ve tried to make this switch is several fold… the first of which, and perhaps most important I think, No body gives a shit! I don’t mean that in a malicious sort of way, but I do mean that everyone has things going on. I’m the only person in the world who thinks my life is the most important of lives and mine are the most important of problems. People want you to be happy, but they don’t always want to hear about why you’re not. The second reason is that the things I was complaining about were petty, and they were negating the good things in my life.
I’m a truly blessed man. After I saw this pattern of complaining, I began to actively practice santosha (contentment), which became a lesson in Thanksgiving and gratitude. Rather than seeking and acknowledging the wrong things in my life, I’ve been attempting to more actively say thank you for the good things. Perhaps it’s a deluded “fake it till you make it” sort of, white lie, way of living life. Even if that is the case though, and all I am doing is fooling myself, I am still happier than I was before. Not complaining has been an active practice, and it has led me to understand how blessed I am because that is what I let myself talk about. When I recognize and acknowledge that which is good, goodness is celebrated and attracted.
With Thanksgiving in mind, in this week’s classes, we focused a lot upon the core and the symbolic fire in the belly. We are called to come to our practice, sometimes, from a place of tejas or agni (fire) and tapas (heat energy of change). When we fuel the symbolic fire in our belly and practice with diligence, we create an ability to change the things within ourselves we would otherwise just complain about, and we strengthen the things that are already great in our lives. The fire cleanses, changes, and purifies, but it also serves to make strong. Like a potter who places her pots into a kiln to fire them and make them like stone, so too do we yogis put ourselves through symbolic firing to make ourselves better, stronger. All that we do on the mat is practice for life. We burn away the things which no longer serve us, while making strong that which does… and all the while we learn to love ourselves, flaws and all.
Keep refining friends. Happy Thanksgiving.
In his book, Artist of Life, Bruce Lee discusses his ideas about presence and, though he doesn’t call it this, enlightenment. In addition to being a great Kung Fu Master, Bruce Lee was a driven and deeply contemplative man. His martial arts practice, his attention to healthy living and eating, and his drive to act and make movies were all reflections of his longing to be the best he could possibly be. His essays also revealed a man who longed for peace within by connecting to the present moment.
Bruce Lee is said to have attained enlightenment while on a solo boat trip. He was contemplating water, and when he punched it, he realized that water is the strongest thing on earth because it is also soft. Water is fully present and so it moves with the present moment. We must learn to be like water, Bruce Lee said, so that we can flow freely in the moment. We should not try to hold ourselves or our minds still because life, like water flows. In the mind Bruce Lee referred to this concept as “Wu Shin” or no mindedness.
I imagine wu shin to be like samadhi or enlightenment, which I will freely admit I have not attained. As a mere mortal walking the path of the yogi, I think this idea of wu shin is a means of flowing like water within the mind. When disturbances of the peaceful mind arise in life or in the practice of yoga, wu shin means to allow the thoughts to flow, to move, and to pass… to not hold back the river. Fighting water is pointless, water will always win. Wu shin is a way of letting go of the need to control and accepting what is happening in life right here and now; we treat ourselves with softness.
The paradox is that water is strong and so we too must be willing to be strong. Bruce Lee turned all of his life into a practice, and in his short life, he became a great river. Our world needs great rivers who are living lives that push the boundaries of compassion and peace. Our world needs great rivers who understand that all rivers come from the ocean, and all oceans are one.
Be a Great River!
Aum Shanti, Shanti, Shanti