My friend Barbara asks of our just-completed Kripalu adventure in "Building Your Yoga Practice"
Did you both come away with a yoga practice that belongs to you?to which I responded
That requires a complex answer, which I'll need to think about how to phrase and convey for a bit. The short answer is certainly in the affirmative, but it's not a yes/no question and so deserves a more articulated answer. Or maybe a more articulate answer, which will require some delving into practice, and what it might entail and include. So I'll work on it...In thinking about the appropriate medium for response (email? blog entry? nothing electronic?) it seems to me that the audience for my synthesis is (in addition to Barbara, who posed the question) principally my own self, but secondarily might include any number of interested others from various phases and facets of my life. And there might be others who would happen upon the exposition if I put it where it might could get found... so writing it as a static Web page is not-inappropriate. Some of what I need to include is mildly confessional, and probably a good bit of my telling will be more than most readers will have any interest in knowing. But as I say, I'm the primary audience, and I can be endlessly fascinated by my own narrative ratiocination. And nobody is compelled to keep reading.
Let me begin with a story that I heard second-hand (from Betsy, who heard it from Colin Fay) and may have fledged with details that the original teller wouldn't recognize as part of his story:
Colin lived at the Cambridge Zen Center for a number of years, and often saw groups of Korean women in the kitchen, chopping and paring and cooking to prepare the food for the participants in various events, and of course talking animatedly among themselves. One day he asked one of them if she practiced Zen. Her answer:I heard the story a year ago, and was transfixed by it, by its economy, by its message, by its applicability to Life, the Universe, and Everything. I'm no student of Zen, but I adopted it as a mantra for mowing the grass (mindful mowing?) and doing other tasks that seemed pretty mindless. It would make a lovely t-shirt.Always and Everywhere
What is This?
I need to provide a bit of background to explain why and how this question of practice arises now, and why I'm attempting to explain. Perhaps it's just a digression to slow down the narrative, and perhaps it's mostly self-justificatory, but here goes:
My son John fingered me some years ago as a "Karmic Atheist" ("A-theist" is my preferred spelling). The Karmic part has to do with a Principle I've been espousing for years, involving the Karmic (sometimes Cosmic) Kitty. The Correct thing to do is make continual payments into the Karmic Kitty; occasionally the Karmic Kitty makes a payout in one's direction, and that's nice when it happens, but it's not why one makes the payments. One makes them because it's the right thing to do. And there's only one Rule about the Karmic Kitty: one must never ask what the Balance is.Now, my parents were intellectual Swedenborgians (and my father was a Swedenborgian minister), so in some senses I grew up in a religious family, but I was never personally oppressed by that, and certainly was never required or expected to manifest religious attitudes or behaviors. From a quite early age, I developed an antipathy to the organizational trappings of the church, and to what I observed as the hypocrisies of church folk (not my parents --they were the objects or victims of the hypocrisies, not the perpetrators). Salvation and Faith and Belief were something that others might be concerned with, but I simply wasn't interested in the Spiritual. My aversion to organizational trappings and machinations extended to other religious traditions as I encountered them, and I was pleased by the conceit that I might, as an anthropologist, be interested in the variety of human religious or spiritual activities without having to subscribe to any of the substance. So I know a fair bit about varieties of religious life in an arms-length sort of way that includes oracles and omen birds and various -mancies and iconography and a good bit of slippery terminology of the arcane.
So about 8 months ago I started to explore yoga, with the initial purpose or goal of fitness and flexibility and with no Spiritual intents or presumptions. I started going to yoga classes once I had a few basic moves down, and I just tuned out any whifty bits. I ran into physical challenges in back and knees, but I kept at it and gradually began to see modest physical progress as I was able to focus my attention on balance and coordination and breathing. My basic attitude was that yoga could be treated as a refined sort of exercise, an admirable tradition of interlinked postures that could be seen as a worthy focus of my attention, with the payoff that I would "feel better" if I kept at it. And that's proved to be true. Meanwhile, some of the stuff beyond the physical on-the-mat experience did start to filter through my defenses. A yoga session ends with a guided relaxation (sometimes called the "Corpse Pose" 'Savasana'), often accompanied by a short poem or pensée, and one can't help dwelling on the words sometimes. Besides, I knew that Paying Attention to the breath was part of doing yoga, and I'd begun to try to Attend to that.
A couple of months ago Betsy asked if I thought any of Kripalu's workshop offerings might be of interest to me (she'd spent a week at Kripalu with Barbara in Spring 2006), and I picked out one called "Build Your Yoga Practice", one of Kripalu's Healthy Living Programs, saying that it was the only one I could imagine as relevant to me.
(brief digression: I'd heard our yoga teacher say a couple of times that somebody had "a beautiful practice", so I knew that 'practice' occupied a complex or polyvalent semantic domain)I wasn't at all sure that my involvement with yoga was a 'practice', or that I had any interest in developing in that direction, but I did overcome my lifelong aversion to (or anyhow extreme caution about) participation in public display of anything touching on internal states, at least enough to sign up for the week at Kripalu, with the mental reservation that I could pick and choose what to attend to in the smörgåsbord of experiences in the package, which includes
* 50-minute Private Kripalu Yoga Session,The Old Me would have been freaked out by some of that, but I thought well whatthehell I'm anonymous and nobody's watching anyway.
ask questions, design a practice
* 45-minute Abhyanga-Garshana Treatment,
experience an Ayurvedic herbal massage
* 50-minute Thai Massage,
session of assisted yoga-like stretches
...and sessions on "Yogic philosophy and history"
At the first meeting we were given red Moleskine-like books, 4x6, no lines... so, being a habitual writer-down, I wrote a few things that happened to occur to me, unbidden. This is what I wrote on that first evening:
Not to compare, not to judge or to congratulate. To BE in the present, to work at patience with others, and with self. Realise that practice is Doing.A few minutes later, again unbidden:
What I love is Epiphany: musical, verbal, wordlessNow, at this point you're either with me or you think I've gone off into soft-headed cloud cuckoo land (did you know that the image comes from Aristophanes? I didn't...). It gets better, or worse.
They gave us a folder with various papers in it, some of them xeroxes of articles, some of them lists of stuff (Sanskrit terms, diagrams of asanas, etc.). I started idly reading one of them and the phrase witness consciousness ("observe... without judgement or reaction") caught my eye, and I copied the words into the book and noted that I'd
never run across the notion of witness consciousness before, or anyhow never attended to it, let alone seen it as something I might wish to practice myselfSo here I am trying to orient myself to what practice might mean, and I note
My interest is neither in "rigorous spiritual discipline" nor in "fitness system", and I don't see myself as part of the "yoga movement" ...so where does "practice" come in, except perhaps in the context of going to Melissa's classes? Is going to classes sufficient, possessed of enough ambit, or space for eventual further evolution?I don't mean to go through the classes in detail, and I didn't "take notes" anyhow, but I did write down portentious bits that passed through my head, and I did write pretty unstructured bits in odd moments, to sort of summarize the flux of internal states. Some of those do seem to have caught the process of development of an altered consciousness of self, so I'll reproduce some bits here. Once again, the primary audience for this is myself, and anybody else is entirely free to not put up with it.
Well Being is what I'd choose as a primary objective for the next decade, and I'd like to develop what that is in a complex and expansive way. Physical health is surely a part of that, and surely needs and will repay attention, but I'd like to explore other and deeper senses of both the Well and the Being. Some would see that in the frame of the Spiritual, but I recoil from that label because of the religious connotations. I want nothing to do with the organized, still less with the organizers --I'd rather do it myself, whatever it is, with whatever eclectic resources seem Righteous in the particular circumstances. I don't feel any need for a community to support and sustain whatever I evolve as practice, but I'm beginning to see the point and the attraction of a defined practice, and yoga seems like a sensible core for that.It's a real mixed bag, interesting to me as a succession of states of mind and surprises, things I didn't know or hadn't ever explored, some of them perhaps less clear if you weren't there. Some of it was as simple as re-glossing a familiar (but perhaps already lacquered) term: for example, Stephen Cope spoke of the Suffering of the Noble Truths as "unsatisfactoriness", and that's what it took for me to grasp that we're all subject to the affliction, and that it's a sort of Suffering.
I'd like to look more deeply into what Epiphany means and has been taken to mean, both within and outside of religious definitions. I need a word to cover the frisson of Recognition. What's Melville's term? [that refers to Shock of Recognition which I'd written up in a Web page 2-3 years ago]
Another bit of technique that's so simple but never occurred to me: focus on the nostrils, attention on the passing of air, the minute sensations of in and out [this in the context of an introductory talk on Pranayama]It looks like a lot of that is internal colloquy, and what isn't captured is my delight and awe at the teachers I encountered in the various sessions. All of my years in educational institutions really didn't prepare me at all for the clarity of the people who talked to us. The degree to which what they said grows out of their own lives and practices and essential humility really eclipses nearly everything I've encountered in conventional classrooms. Really. I won't try to exemplify with quotations except for one, which popped out as an offhand comment by Grace Jull:
Liberate the Self from Reaction (willingness not just to be run by Reaction)
Less suspicious and less defensive. More willing to try things without the need to evaluate dignity coefficient. That all adds up to FREEer, and that's an unanticipated benefit
And now I'm considering back and knees, wishing to be able to sit and kneel more comfortably, and in better balance and conformation. Some of it is volitional, a matter of Intention, and some is physically limited. I used to think it was a matter of Flexibility, and that's some of it. I can sense progress in that dimension, but I'm not really concerned with milestones or the focus on progress, and happier with the idea of more intense focus on the present moment. I'm not trying to get anywhere, in a goal-setting sense. And that's easy enough to foreground, since it's basically what I've always done without quite realizing that it was an approach or a strategy.
what if the thing that is larger than ourselves is ourselves?Generally a class or a yoga session begins with a "centering activity", most often a short period of silent contemplation, tantamount to Meditation. I confess that I'd never "tried" to meditate, in any structured or systematic or even self-aware way, and in fact I was I think rather afraid of what it might entail if I ever did (though I can't really tease that out). And one of the obstacles for me was discomfort: I simply can't find a comfortable way to sit cross-legged, so the experience of sitting for five minutes or three hours in one position was simply unthinkable. Somebody pointed out that one could sit-kneel on a pair of Kripalu cushions, so I tried that and was astounded to find that it was comfortable... and then Betsy blew me away completely by pointing out that it was perfectly acceptable to turn a zafu 90 degrees and sit on its edge. Presto, instant comfort. So now I have a way to Sit, and that impediment to meditation is vanished. The other impediment, the Spirituality of it, is dissolved (for me, and for the moment) in focus on the Breath. And so I happened upon a book in the Kripalu bookstore Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation (Larry Rosenberg), and I was I suppose Prepared to hear what it has to say. Nothing freaky about it, no God stuff, built around the Anapanasati Sutra, which serves as an outline of practice.
I begin to wonder if I would undertake a meditation practice myself... I have no objection, and don't feel that there's anything I need to defend myself against. I can't imagine at the moment seeking a group like the Brunswick zendo, or being attracted by the ritual associated, but the exercise of sitting and breathing and exploring does have some appeal. Perhaps it's a matter of not requiring any reason.Since returning home, I've continued to write in the red Moleskine:
it's Intention that I feel interested to explore. That heads in the direction of practice, though I mean to make no prideful claim to HAVE a practice --just to be working towards/on the development of a practice. One of its aims is NOTICING, working on awareness of in/out breath, of erect spine, of the feeling of just being in the world, of the sensations to which I might attend. I'd like to have calm, and quiet, and focus, and a minimum of Desire, Demand, Distraction. Not in order to accomplish anything (nothing so goal oriented), and not even to savor (though that's a pleasant extra), but rather to explore awareness. To be able to see what Mind does, as if watching it from outside and above. To recognize the habits of a lifetime, and acknowledge them for what they are at their best and their not-best. Not really that I want to reform anything, unless perhaps the tendency toward autopilot, and perhaps the self-absorption of mental rehearsalsSo back to Barbara's question about "a yoga practice that belongs to you": what I seem to have gained is much more than I ever imagined I'd come away with, entraining realms I never expected to involve my self in. Kripalu says of itself "exploring the yoga of life", and that's much more than a convenient motto.
I'll think differently about it in a year or a month or a day, but there's some value in trying to set down the current state and my guess at the trajectory, or at least something of what I now see as the intention.
I fancy that I glimpse other modes of thinking about, understanding, expressing my self. I may never manage to arrive at/attain what I seem to glimpse, but the effort to do so seems at the very least interesting to explore and attempt.
This isn't something I was inclined (ready?) to contemplate or explore, and there are still plenty of bits of territory that I'm not drawn toward, or actively avoid: the spiritual, the religious... but I'm interested to explore at least the interfaces between my self and conceptions of and those of others --with what I hope will be respect and minimal judgement. To put that another way, others' delusions are much easier to recognize and confront than one's own. So I recognize that I have a lot of baggage, some habitual, some that I treasure, some that I am not inclined to examine, and some that seems essential to sustain me. Shedding it, or even sorting through it to prioritize isn't currently a priority or an objective. The current wonderment is awareness --of something as simple as the breath, but also of the vast complexity of the mind: how it goes about its construction and interpretation of the Reality of the energies it observes and interacts with. I don't seek to control the breath OR the mind, but rather I seek to quiet myself enough to observe, to sharpen awareness.
Various turns of phrase and concepts seem to epitomise the quest, and I'm struggling to attend to them: WITNESS seems pretty much the core of that focus of attention. So it's not that I want to DO anything, so much as to practice the subtle art of observing, and of watching the watcher. Yoga and breathing and sitting seem three interlinked methodologies, instrumentalities --and they are surely capable of carrying me anywhere.
I began in August with a sort of goal, expressed in terms of fitness and flexibility of the body. The week at Kripalu took me a few giant steps further, but away from the state of having or at least trying to articulate goals or destinations. Early in the week I fastened on Well Being as the overall objective, and there's plenty to do in explicating the multiple meanings of "Well Being". And at some point I grasped that focus on or attention to the breath was a viable means to pursue the explication of Well Being. And then I found myself meditating, or as I prefer to characterize it, SITTING. Again, a viable means to explore, and to work with attention. Why it took me so long to cross the threshold I can't say, and it's not important to try to --or certainly much less important than just doing.
Perhaps Oneiromancy in the Home is a continuation...