Walt Whitman, Agnes Martin, and Thomas Merton on What You Shall Do.

No one can tell you what you shall do. There are many paths and I have seen clearly that my path is not the only path, the best path, or the right path for anyone but me.

On the other hand, I am forever inspired by teachers, writers, and artists who are trying, through variety of languages, mediums, and disciplines to help us find our way.

Walt Whitman, Agnes Martin, and Thomas Merton are three artists that I turn to again and again when I do not know what to do.

Walt Whitman, a social activist, a bit of a revolutionary who fought for average workers rights, and a ultimately a supporter of the abolishment of slavery, celebrates solitude. He  knows that the subtle action is as valuable as the great action. His language and cadence make me feel companioned in my desire for stillness. I am freed by Song to Myself.

“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

 

I  like to spend a lot of time leaning and loafing and sometimes feel guilty about it.  Permission to observe a spear of grass has been so very helpful in my life. I am given permission to dwell in the invisible.

This next passage was posted on Brain Pickings Weekly; Maria Popova finds all the good stuff!

Whitman, in a commencement address, does not hesitate in giving firm fisted advice to the graduating class: 

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” Walt Whitman

Agnes Martin, who writes on perfection and the dragon left the New York Art world to live and paint in the desert of New Mexico. She speaks in a confident, clear, manner when she tells us the difference between right & wrong intention in our actions and our work:

“My interest and yours is art work, works of art, every smallish work of art and every kind of art work. We are very interested, dedicated in fact. There is no half way with art. We wake up thinking about it and we go to sleep thinking about it."

 

"We go everywhere looking for it, both artists and non-artists.
It is very mysterious the fast hold that it has upon us considering how little we know about it. We do not even understand our own response to our own work.
Why do we go everywhere searching out works of art and why do we make works of art. The answer is that we are inspired to do so.”

 

Each morning I am faced with the choice to write, practice yoga, check email chitty-chat with my husband, connect, be nice... or not.

The fact that my choice may turn out well or it may not turn out well is arbitrary. Martin's understanding that all of it is inspired is hopeful to me. Martin is forgiving and understands the ebb and flow that is life. Her articulation gives me courage to go on.

Agnes Martin continues, “When we wake up in the morning we are inspired to do some certain thing and we do do it. The difficulty lies in the fact that it may turn out well, or it may not turn out well. If it turns out well we have a tendency to think that we have successfully followed our inspiration and if it does not turn out well we have a tendency to think that we have lost our inspiration. But that is not true. There is successful work and work that fails but all of it is inspired.” 

I often practice restraint and discipline in the mornings knowing it is my best time to write. I always have a piece of paper out, in case the writing is not going well, then I draw. And if for some reason, my mind is distracted and I cannot find peace, then I check my email, answer questions, and connect to others. How I begin each day is so precious. It is so indicative of the hours that follow. Often I forgive myself and begin again. 

According to Daniel Berriganon on the Thomas Merton Website,  Merton was “the conscience” of the peace movement of the 1960's.

The Christian monk, author, and teacher, Merton referred to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time. He was a strong supporter of the non-violent civil rights movement, which the empowered monk called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." Merton was an advocate of east-west dialogue and was both praised and criticized for his monumental works.

I love how Thomas Merton uses the metaphor of the mountain as a place for refuge and ultimate awakening. He tells us how to travel on this terrain and I often think of him when times are rough:

The Other Side of the Mountain. “The contemplative life must provide an area, a space of liberty, of silence, in which possibilities are allowed to surface and new choices “ beyond routine choices” become manifest. It should create a new experience of time, not as a stopgap stillness, but as “Temps Vierge”, not a blank to be filled, or an untouched space to be conquered or violated, but a space which can enjoy its own potentialities and hopes, and its own presence to itself. One’s own time, but not dominated by the ego and it’s demands. Hence open to others - compassionate time.”

 

My teacher says that yoga has three branches of government. These branches include the community, the texts, and the teacher. Guiding lights like, Merton, Whitman, and Martin have been text, teacher, and community to me. I cannot absorb and integrate everything they say all the time; but I find, if I go back to their writings again and again the practice leads me into the mystery…I find tonic and know exactly what I shall do.

 

Whitman also says:

"Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self."

Two additional favorite pieces of advice:

Richard Tuttle, “Spend your time thinking about the art of making art.”
Dharma Mitra, “ Every spare minute, turn your mind to God”

Village Life: Time to Read, See, and Practice. Siddhartha and Brueggemann on Breaking the Rules.

Sunset

Sunset

“In modern art you do not play by the rules, you play with the rules.” Kurt Vonnegut

For me spending time in a small village in Spain provides a sustained opportunity to live simply. This year for the first time, I notice how similar village life in Spain is to the Yogic Discipline of living in Mysore, India. This simple life includes time to read, see, and practice. These are my tools and after years of learning from the worlds’ best yoga teachers, I feel the comfort of going inside to the inner world.

“Gentleness is stronger than severity, water is stronger than rock, love is stronger than force.” Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

Siddhartha is the last book we read in the teacher training. Many students have read it previously but the book often hits home after one has practiced the lifestyle required to maintain a sustained yoga practice.

Though Siddhartha and his friend Govinda both find and follow Gotama, the Buddha; only Govinda finds happiness through the Enlightened One's path. Siddhartha like so many of us, needs to find his own way.

My own path is my unique way. I must be able to see the dominant culture from a distance in order to recognize where I am influenced and where my soul longs for something other.

Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination says: “…. My accent on imagination has turned out to be exactly correct, for what is now required is that a relatively powerless prophetic voice must find imaginative ways that are rooted in the text but that freely and daringly move from the text toward concrete circumstance.”

Herman Hesse, Siddhartha's author, puts forth many spiritual tenants held within the yoga tradition. In fact, as he was finishing the second half of the book, Hess spent years living in semi-seclusion with the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads in order to know the truths he was trying to share in the story.

The Main Road in the Village

The Main Road in the Village

His solitude allowed him to use his imagination. The result offers realities that lie beyond the prescribed way of being our culture offers. 

Chris and I walk through the village each night. I notice there is no 7-11, no Walgreens, no Starbucks; there is nothing to buy. One is drawn back to nature and as a result to the self. The prevalence of consuming as a way of life is not present in Lliber. Mostly Chris and I read, see, and practice.

“When a person's effort was converted to wage earner, a person became an object. An object of cost and efficiency, an asset…When the public good is replaced with concern for private rights, we substitute a contract for what was a covenant. When this happens we become ordered for scarcity instead of abundance. Time is contracted and we become concerned about speed. Certainty replaces mystery. Perfection replaces fallibility. Individual rights trump the common good.” Walter Brueggemann, The Other Kingdom

In Spain, everyday from 2 -5 PM, it is nap time.

 


Practice Time

Practice Time

Siddhartha had three skills that sparked his imagination. He treasured and pointed to these tools throughout his life:

1.     I can think

2.     I can fast

3.     I can wait

In the evenings the vineyards are filled with villagers walking their dogs, or one another, arm in arm, silent as the sun sets behind the western mountains and the moon rises in the east. It is simple here. The market comes to town once a week. There is a honey shop, a bodega, a butcher and the bread man. If you do want to buy something new you can. There is a special place to go and purchase it and you really have to think about whether or not you need this new thing because a 21% value added tax increases the cost and goes for the common good.

“Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening.”Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

We listen a lot in the village. The church clock chimes every half hour, twice, in case the farmer in the fields missed a sound the first time around. We hear the birds, the hoopoe, the rooster, the martin and the sparrow. You can hear a donkey bray and the occasional on & off of the pool pump. There might be a car-whir or a voice in the village offering friendship, information, or warning. I find reading to be a kind of listening, listening undisturbed to words, to letters, to the alphabet and giving space to the imagination. There is a biography of Lorca here in the house. I read it almost every time I come.

 

“He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices - the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other." Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

Our Home

Our Home

Each day here is similar to the next or the last. We practice re-performance of the simple joys in life. We rise, share coffee and silence. I write, he plays guitar, meanwhile the birds come to the pool, the shadows are filled in with sun, the bodies move into the vineyard and across the valley and the ever-changing landscape reveals its unique beauty for the day. One only has to turn to the senses to be freed by them. Liberated through moving into the body and recognizing the magnificence of what is.

 

“ The lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation, and the groan of the dying. They are all interlocked and interwoven, entwined in a thousand ways.” Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

 

Each day I practice yoga. The commitment to listening take me on a journey; to use Siddhartha’s language, it takes me to the rivers edge. The place where sensation, emotion, and thought, as they arise, become part of the sound of being.

Tantra, the study of beauty in the yoga tradition, is often described as a tapestry. Just like Hesse talks about the sounds of the world, this rich weaving belies the prevalence of 5 easy tips to make your life better. It implies a sustained presence that can embrace all of the mystery, as when one looks at a finely woven cloth. We wonder how it could have possibly been created and we appreciate the weight, texture and final form of the work. But anyone who weaves, or even crochets, knows that the final form reveals a unity that can only arise as a result of the interlocked and interwoven strings.

The Mat I use in Spain is old, the rug and bag from Mysore and a bygone era. Krishna was the tailor and rugs were 50 rupees, I'm talking way back. Here, like nowhere else in the world, there is no teacher. Just the valley, my mat and me. I notice I am afraid, when there is no class, no group, and yet I begin. The valley spreads out before me and I breathe in.

“ And all the voices, the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil. All of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.” Herman Hesse, Siddhartha

 

I become more and more fluent in the restraint required to refrain from labeling these arrivals as good or bad, childish or manly. I simply continue to practice the art of listening, of paying attention.

At the end of this passage, Siddhartha hears the entirety of the sound coming together in the sound of Om, which he calls perfection.

Brueggemann continues, “Imagine an alternative set of economic beliefs that have the capacity to evoke a culture where poverty, violence, and shrinking well-being are not inevitable - a culture in which social order produces enough for all…

I am grateful for this time to slow down. I am grateful for the opportunity to depart from everything and enter myself.

Brueggemann continues, “Acceptance of mystery opens the door to a set of communal disciplines such as time, food, silence and re-performance. These disciplines lead us on a path that begins and ends in mystery. Believing in mystery is the initial act of departure and the doorway to an alternative future. Its an opening to creativity and imagination”

Here is a list of some the books I read last year, I recommend them all.

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Graham

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Tell a Thousand Lies, Rasana Atreya

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

Mislaid Nell, Xink

The Subtle Body, Tias Little

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm

The Shiva Samhita, translated by James Mallinson

The Master and Margherita, Mikhail Bulgakov

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanthi

For the time Being, Annie Dillard

The Other Kingdom, Walter Brueggemann

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

Delicate Edible Birds, Lauren Groff

The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff

Agnes Martin- Her life and Art, Nancy Pricenthal

Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, Amitav Gosh

The Prophetic Imagination and The Other Kingdom by Walter Brueggemann

 

El Bosco, The Prophetic Imagination and Aunt Jennifer's Tigers.

Garden of Earthly Delights, detail.

Garden of Earthly Delights, detail.

The Bosch exhibit at the Prado did three things for me.

1. Reminded me how much I love Art.

2. Emphasized how much I love the imaginary world.

3. Confirmed that the imaginary world is the skeleton on which I build the body of my feelings and emotions.

Walter Brueggemann (religious scholar) uses a term, Prophetic Imagination, to talk about the necessity of implementing new and effective language when talking about the invisible world. When I say the invisible world, I’m not talking fairies and dragons although at one time (perhaps Boschs’ time?) fairies and dragons were a perfect metaphor to describe delicacy and power.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann

The invisible world is the subtle place. The quiet place where the acedemic could argue till the cows come home about whose word is correct - but the poet would whisper attempts at perfection again, and again, and again. She would write, speak or sing her work; all the while knowing that the word is not quite right, or will it ever be. 

El Bosco

El Bosco

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

By Adrienne Rich

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,

Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.

They do not fear the men beneath the tree;

They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

 

Walter Brueggemann, a guest on Kristen Tippet’s On Being, author of The Prophetic Imagination and more recently, Another Kingdom, (a moving work advocating something other than capitalism as purpose for a driven life) says the metaphor must remain alive and must transform to be apt for our times. His 1978 work, the Prophetic Imagination, like Bosch's paintings transcend its era. America was emerging from the 1960’s and despite the decades that have passed since it’s publication; I feel his writing and Bosch's paintings are applicable to the inquiry into yoga and its philosophies today.

The Bosch exhibit at Museo del Prado, helped me recognize the artist, though working with the visual world, as an accomplished poet. His metaphors are still illuminating our collective imaginations today. Bosch, though the researchers have tried, cannot be deciphered literally. Is he pro-church? His affiliations with the Illustrious Brotherhood of our blessed Lady, imply yes, but a nun personified as a pig seems contrary to that idea. Was he a humanist? A rebel? A critic? Some of this or that contradicts every label we try to put on the painter.

“.. Energy comes from the embrace of the inscrutable darkness.” WB, The Prophetic Imagination

The Haywain

The Haywain

In his new preface to The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann draws the conclusion that texts (and perhaps Bosch’s paintings) 

"are acts of imagination that offer and purpose “alternative worlds” that exist because of and in the act of utterance.”WB, The Prophetic Imagination

 

“…..Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool

Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.

The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band

Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.”

Hieronymus Bosch was a poet in his prophecy. Labeling the work as anything more than an indescribable experience would be doing the work an injustice. He has not relegated his images to that of candy or that of doom alone but there exists in his alternative world the freedom of divinity and it’s many outcomes.

"Passion as the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel is the enemy of imperial reality." WB, The Prophetic Imagination

Who cares specifically what he was saying. He went to great trouble to be very exact in his forms but they are like the Divine vision of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, so many faceted that they contain everything. “Everything” is beyond our comprehension. Even if we are given the gift of divine sight, the reality is too much; we return to the familiar, to that which we can comprehend in this moment. These paintings work in this way. I can apply the imagery to my life’s work and myself rather than look to the artist for his answers but they offer me other. They - like good poetry - are bigger than I am and offer me another world.

“Imagination is a legitimate way of knowing” WB, The Prophetic Imagination

 

The Prado exhibition included most of the works actually attributed to Bosch and a few pieces that were of questionable origin and may have been executed by his workshop. The drawings were delicate and sensitive, the painting robust and bold.

Birds hold places for a quality of light and attention. Pigs are heavy yet smart. Fish are agile and furless making the muscle of their being effective, sleek and yet vulnerable. They are vehicles for traveling through the sky no less marvelous than the wildest space ships of today. A hay cart filled with golden straw represents temporality while hybrids of instrument, animal, and human create experiences that are more akin to feeling than thought.

Brueggemann suggests that the work of the prophet is to provide an alternative community. He suggests this was the role of Moses in relation to the tyranny of Royal Egypt. Yoga and art provides us with an alternative community. We are free to feel, grieve, and question. We are encouraged to live in the questions without always demanding answers. We are encouraged to turn to the inner world for truth rather than the temporary outer manifestation.

Bosche creates an alternative world in his paintings. The world - as I visit it - gives me a reality that I can immerse in like a lake on a perfect summer day. There are areas around the edges where I can see through the water to the sand and stones below and there are deep murky places, where, the first time I swim, I worry about monsters being stirred from the deep.

“The task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”WB, The Prophetic Imagination

 

The Last Judgement

The Last Judgement

Bosch wasn’t bowing down to the dominant culture but he was a part of it. The humor and directness in his work provides a language for alternative community within the world in which he lives. Alternative community, as Brueggemann defines it, is a place where we can think and feel free from the confines of the church or the government or in our times, the internet.

“…. Real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.” WB, The Prophetic Imagination

 

Brueggemann quotes Dorothy Soelle when he emphasizes our need to grieve and feel dark emotions as a means of liberation.

“  …Mobilizing people to their real restless grief and in nurturing them away from cry-hearers who are inept at listening and indifferent in response” WB, The Prophetic Imagination

 

“…When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie

Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.

The tigers in the panel that she made

Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.” Adrienne Rich

 

Bosch’s paintings provide a portal that creates a sense of new reality as I stand before them. His childhood hell, witnessing a fire that destroyed 4,000 houses before his eyes, is presented again and again. His paintings do not demand cheeriness or content with the status quo. They do not offer 5 easy steps to enlightenment. These paintings offer a mirror through which we may glimpse ourselves with delight and fancy, but also provide us the opportunity to see, feel, grieve and transform.

“ Energy comes from the embrace of the inscrutable darkness……We need not ask whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable” WB, The Prophetic Imagination

 

 

Mary Oliver, her beautiful animalistic imagery, the Yoga Sutras on Presence, and Agnes Martin on the Dragon.

Museo Del Prado 2016. El Bosco

Museo Del Prado 2016. El Bosco

Alligator Poem

By Mary Oliver

I have included this poem in my yoga classes since the beginning. It speaks of the constant flux, flow, and anxiety that can arise in the practice and in life. It speaks of our ability to rise up from the heavy ground born anew. Shivering with sensation, alive, alive, surprisingly alive.

From the perspective of presence.

“I knelt down
At the edge of the water
And if the white birds standing in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand.”

In the yoga Sutras, Patanjalis reminds us that yoga begins Now, in the present moment but what does it mean to be present, what does it mean to actually drink the water while we aware of our surroundings, including the whistled warnings of the birds? In the second sutra Patanjali says that yoga happens when one ceases to identify with the every changing fluctuations of the mind, happy sad, happy sad.

Iyengar call this evolution a disciplined mind which is cultured and matured.

Krista Tippet, host of ON Being once said, “Presence is the existence of an inner world so strong, imagined, and experienced that we are fortified.”

To me  this notion means we do not have to play the mental records of our childhood. We do not have to worry, plot, plan and scheme for our future. We can build a world through practice that is inside us, that is our home. This container, like an alchemical cauldron, is strong and can withstand the transformation of lead into gold.

in Oliver’s words,

“…I rose from the ground
 and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.
The water, that circle of shattered glass,
healed itself with a slow whisper
and lay back
with the back lit light of polished steel,
and the birds in the endless waterfall of the trees,
shook open the snowy pleats of their wings and drifted
away”

Patanjali calls presence standing free in our own form. He says that this happens when we are liberated from the identification with the fluctuations of the mind, the ever-turning carousel of our worries and wants. Iyengar says that initially yoga acts as the means of restraint, yogic discipline is accomplished and the end is reached. The consciousness remains pure. Thus, yoga is both the means and the end.

We witness the world with its ordinary detail. We see the miracle in the mundane. We observe nature, perfect in form and function. We see ourselves as a seer noticing the world.

The poetry and the metaphors that arise from her mind-sight is what I love about Mary Oliver's work in general.

Many of her poems are filled with presence.

Thich Nhat Hahn defines presence as compassionate understanding, an intelligent, sometimes fierce manner of love.

In Some Questions You Might Ask, Oliver wonders:

“if the soul is solid like iron or breakable like the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl
….does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?”

In another poem she describes the heron as a blue preacher and in yet another the heron is an old Chinese poet, clear bright and truthful.

In the Alligator Poem Oliver sees the waterfall of trees.

And in A Meeting, the animal,  perhaps a deer,

“… drops a slippery package into the weeds and tongues it between breaths, slack with exhaustion.”

Sometimes, as in the Alligator poem. we are shaken violently and the present moment appears.

Other times, we have to practice. This is what Patanjali tells us in the second sutra when he speaks of nirodaha: practice produces a state of consciousness where we release ourself from the grip of our thought patterns. The patterns begin to quiet as we stand in our own form free from ideas and notions. We are capable of marveling at what is. We are present; we are liberated.

Every time we go to practice we have the chance to stand on the mat as if for the first time. We may feel fear. We may feel excitement.

“the cradle shaped mouth gaping and rimmed with teeth,”

But we can allow what is. Then as we continue.... breathe:

“blue stars and blood red trumpets on long stems, glittering in our hands for hours like fires.”

Agnes Martin takes the animal metaphor seriously in the form of the Dragon. She explores obstacles to presence and has a fierce commitment to maintaining long periods of solitude, which she deems necessary for the creation of real works of art. 

“Worse than the terror of fear is the Dragon. The dragon really pounds through the inner streets shaking everything and breathing fire. The fire of his breath destroys and disintegrates everything. The Dragon is undiscriminating and leaves absolutely nothing in his wake. The solitary person is in great danger from the Dragon because without an outside enemy the Dragon turns on the self. In fact self-destructiveness is the first of human weaknesses. When we know all the ways in which we can be self destructive that will be very valuable knowledge indeed.”

This paragraph is an apt illustration of the second sutra and its message. One must stand free from the turnings of the mind. One must first perceive the Dragon, and then liberate oneself from it’s illusory hold. She advocates practice and recognizes the fluid nature of the path:

“Sometimes through hard work the Dragon is weakened. The resulting quiet is shocking. The work proceeds quickly and without effort.” 

 “But at anytime the Dragon may rouse himself and then one is driven from the studio.”

I.K. Taimni’s commentatry in The Science of Yoga, this is a dense translation of the yoga sutras. It’s aim to dispel the ignorance surrounding some of the mystery associated with yoga is lofty but for me the fact that the book offers the transliteration (the phoenetic English of each word) allows for my own exploration with the Sanskrit-English dictionary and that is a real plus.

I also enjoy Taimnis choice of translation, his understanding seems kind and compassionate. It is intellectual yet accessible

1.3 Then, the seer is established in his own essential and fundamental nature.

“ the broader aspects can be understood by the serious student”

Taimni, like Patanjali in chapter 2, says that yoga can only be realized through practice.

 “It is only through practice we can
bring about fundamental change in our nature
 and hope to gain real insight into
the problems of yoga and their solution.”

 

Isn’t that amazing? The problems of yoga and their solution?

 

 I am reminded of a teaching Richard always gives, that Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, is really the obstacle. For example, the pain in your side at the beginning of practice could actually (metaphorically) be Ganesh's big elephant tusk, pointing your awareness to a part of the body that needs to be seen, held in awareness, noticed…and therefore healed.

Agnes Martin goes on from a similar perspective.

“We cannot and do not slay the Dragon that is a medieval idea, I guess. We have to become completely familiar with him and hope that he sleeps. The way things are most of the time is that he is awake and we are asleep. What we hope is the opposite.”

 

Taimni describes the 9 obstacles of the practice as follows: Disease, languor, doubt, carelessness, laziness, worldly-mindedness, delusion, non-achievement of a stage, and instability.

I am always comforted by the fact that no matter what the translation, Patanjali says there are only nine obstacles. In addition, when I read the list I am comforted by the teaching that meeting the obstacle Is the practice because they seem so pervasive.

Oh the irony and paradox of this practice, you just have to laugh. You just have to keep practicing, reading, and trying to talk about the silence which is so unspeakable and..... this is the only thing worth doing.

Other readings that offer great strategies for meeting life’s challenges from the perspective pf presence include"

Austin Kleons, Get you work out there.

Anything written by Maria Popova, my personal hero.

Anne Dillard, The Abundance.

If you are buying your first copy of the Yoga Sutras, try Satchindananda’s translation and commentary. If you are buying your second translation and commentary, try Iyengar’s, Light on the Yoga Sutra. After that get every copy you can get your hands on.

If you are buying your first Mary Oliver book, try New and Selected Poems, then buy everything you can get your hands on. 

Patanjali, Ramm Dass, and Austin Kleon. Now is all there is and there is nothing new under the sun.

Richard Freeman says there are three branches of "government" in yoga:

1.  guru or teacher

2.  sangha or community

3.  shastra or text

He says that these three branches are used like checks and balances to keep our inquiry honest and balanced. He illustrates this balance by saying funny things like, if you are driving your friends and family crazy with your practice you are probably walking down the wrong path.

 He also says that the texts are an important reference for balancing what our friends and even our teacher tell us yoga is.

The Yoga Sutras is a seminal text in the yogic tradition. Patanjali, who wrote what is considered the first codified explanation of the practice and its outcome, is often revered as divine. Every student and teacher of yoga should have some familiarity with this text and its contents.

The book is a collection of threads, or sutras, which are meant to be a sort of crib note for lecturing teachers. These threads when memorized, can be carried around and referred to in times of need.

I do like the inquiry into every word of this text. Lets take for example, the first sutra,

Atha Yoga Nushasanam which translates to Now, begins the teachings of yoga.

It provides an opportunity for word play contextualizing “Now”.

1. Now as in this moment,

2. Now as in finally after we have tried everything else

3. Now simply stating that this treatise on yoga follows Patanjalis treatise on Grammar and Ayurveda.

In Iyengar's book, Light on the Yoga Sutra he translates Atha as Now and also:

1. auspiciousness

2. prayer

3. blessing

4. bendiction

5. authority

6. good omen

He goes on to describe Patanjali's use of now.

“ …his reappraisal, based on his own experience, explores fresh ground, and bequeathes us a lasting monumental work. In the cultural context of his time his words must have been crystal clear, and even to the spiritually impoverished modern mind, they are never confused…”

Now is the present moment. It is the sweet place free of the future and liberated from the past. It is the spacious place of everything. Now is just right, if you can stop and be there, and notice what is, for now. But don’t love it too much.

Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks also has something to say about Now.

“Now I lay me down to stay
Awake. Pray the lord my soul
To take into wakefulness,
So that I can get this one bit
Of wisdom clear: Grace comes to
Forgive and then forgive again.”

 

Ram Dass, a pioneer in our tradition, is famous for indulging in LSD and hanging out with cool dudes like Timothy Leary at Harvard. Richard Alpert, Ram Dass’s birth name, is truly an American spiritual teacher. In his consciousness changing book, Remember, Be here Now Ram Dass also begins with now:

"Now, though I am a beginner on the path, I have returned to the west for a time to work out karma or unfulfilled commitment. Part of this commitment is to share what I have learned with those of you who are on a similar journey. One can share a message through telling our story as I have done, or through the teaching methods of yoga, or singing or making love. Each of us finds his unique vehicle for sharing with others his bit of wisdom. For me, this story is but a vehicle for sharing with you the true message….faith in what is possible. OM"

Is his beginning a nod to the Sutras or any of the other spiritual treatise that begin with now? Is it intentional to bring us into this moment, with a powerful declaration of arrive. Be here, Now?

Adrienne Rich in her marvelous book of Collected Poems, 1950 – 2012 speaks of now:

"It will not be simple, it will
not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it
will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple."

Bhagavan Dass, author of “It’s here now, are you?”

“The path to enlightenment is not a group trip. It is between you and God. This means you have got to go inside. The fewer external distractions and more concentration you have the easier it is to get there. - It’s Here Now (Are You?)”   

So as with every yoga teaching, the inquiry into the abstract or conceptual aspect is only good for so much. Richard Freeman would say, at some point the rubber has to meet the road. The teachings need to be applied to life.

Iyengar continues his commentary on sutra 1.1 by mentioning the Brahma Sutra, a treatise exploring Vedanta Philosophy. This treatise also begins with the word Atha (now)

“Atatho Brahma jinjnasa.”

Iyengar says this sutra translates to “Now stands for the desire to know Brahman.” Brahman is the object of study. But Brahman cannot be defined, every definition is inadequate.

Even, everything that ever was and everything that ever will be, falls short.

In contrast Iyengar continues, 

“in the yoga Sutra, it is the seer or the true Self who is to be discovered and known.”

giving us hope of living the goal. Now, I begin the study of Myself. Now I begin this writing, this journey, because I am yoga and so are you. And beginning is taking a step, creating a movement now. Swami Satchidananda in his commentary on Sutra 1.1 says,

“mere philosophy does not satisfy us. We cannot reach the goal by mere words alone. Without practice nothing can be achieved.”

The Upanishad also reminds us:

"Practice without understanding is better than understanding without practice.
Practice with understanding is better than practice without understanding."

But let us also not forget the teaching continues.

"Being seated in the true self is better than any understanding or any practice."

Finally I like the advice of Austin Kleon (first found on Brainpickings.org) when I am thinking about the rubber meeting the road. Maybe his words, mixed a little with my own commentary, can help you reinvigorate your practice or begin a new project. Maybe it can help you begin, now.

Ten things I'd wished I’d heard when I was in college. It’s never too late, is it?

1. Steal Like An artist or as I would put it, let me introduce you to my favorite teacher Swami Pretendananda

2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started. Start Now.

3. Write the book you want to read, or the newsletter? Teach the yoga class you want to take, that’s how I got started.

4. Use your hands, they stimulate the mind

5. Side projects and hobbies are important.

6. The secret. Do good work and share it with people…. I would add NOW

7. Geography is no longer our master, so why not move to …or not?

 8. Be nice, the world is a small town……it also feels good

9. Be boring , it’s the only way to get work done….and it’s the yogic path.

10. Creativity is subtraction, this means edit, edit, edit. Now comes the teaching on yoga. How’s that for brief?

 

 

 

Sweet Bitter, the fifth taste and Agnes Martin on perfection.

Union Square station.

Union Square station.

When Chris and I go to New York we have several restaurants that are on our must see list. Gotham Grill, ABC Kitchen, Japonica, and Union Square Café are our favorites.

We don’t go to New York to eat, well maybe a little, mostly we go to New York to see art and practice yoga. We think some of the best art and finest yoga teachers live in the big apple but the food is also fun. 

SweetBitter, a novel by Stephanie Danler is an insigtful book about the Union Square Cafe that turns eating into yoga while simultaneously exposing the service enterprise with all it’s dysfunction and collateral damage.  

Wines, oysters, truffles, salt, sweet, bitter, and sour are the starting point. Taste is cultivated developed, and nurtured. This elevation as education is also part of the path that is  deeper yoga and art.

“You will develop a palate. A palate spot in your tongue where you remember.” SweetBitter



There is much in this book that describes the exhilaration felt as a result of hard work paired with adventure. Agnes Martin, one of my favorite painters and  an advocate for boredom, talks about this same exhilaration in her book Writings, which is a text everyone should own.

 

“I would like to consider further those moments in which we feel joy in living. To some these moments are very clear and to others of a vagueness that can only be described as below the level of consciousness. Whether conscious or unconscious they do their work and they are the incentive to life. A stockpile of these moments gives us an awareness of perfection in our minds and this awareness of perfection in our minds makes all the difference in what we do.” Agnes Martin

This aliveness in SweetBitter leads to super human feats that, perhaps from a yogic perspective, are imbalanced including: late night partying and serious use of drugs like cocaine. But it also provides a portal to taste, the art of wine, food and friends. The protagonist explores art and understands the workings of her village (her restaurant compatriots). Nothing is idealized, including the lifestyle of the patrons but what struck me most significantly was the awesome portrait of life in Manhattan and the excellence/excess in all things that survive there.

 “Moments of perfection are indescribable but a few things can be said about them. At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life ever seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties and we think that we will never lose it again. All this and a great deal more in barely a moment, and then it is gone.” Agnes Martin

Of course the joy of that instant, a restaurant career not yet jaded and fueled by unsustainable practices, can only last so long. In the end there must be change.

But I wonder does that make the endeavor futile? Does it suggest the wrong path?

Life is so very many faceted, there is so much to explore and know. There is so much I do not know and my struggle often seems to be a misunderstanding. A turn of events evaluated as a waste, a mistake. As if life is supposed to be a single trajectory leading to mastery without any left, right or even u turns.

“ Running a restaurant means setting a stage. The believability hinges on the details. We control how they experience the world: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. That starts at the door, with the host and the flowers.” SweetBitter

This stage is what we are all, to some extent, victims of and players in. Awareness is our tool for knowing and participating, and then ultimately choosing a path that once again runs true. 

In my life, everything that I thought was forever true turned out to be temporary from an external perspective, changing. Of course succumbing to that change meant I never became a master of anything. As a result, I feel quite ordinary in my accomplishments. I think about masters like Yoyo Ma, who took up his instrument at the age of four, or fellow artists who have stuck with a particular path and found success not only through talent but perseverance, endurance, and patience. I think 10,000 hours is only the beginning.

But all such moments are stored in the mind. They are called sensibility or awareness of perfection in the mind.

'We must surrender the idea that this perfection that we see in the mind or before our eyes is obtainable or attainable. It is really far from us. We are no more capable of having it than the infant that tries to eat it. But our happiness lies in our moments of awareness of it.” Agnes Martin

This creation or sensibility as Martin would describe it, is not reality and yet according to yoga philosophy the stage is all we really have. All of it is a stage, our career, our relationships, and our health. The stage is a playground and there is no there there, to paraphrase my favorite Gertrude Stein book.

 

“We are creating the world as it should be. We don’t have to pay attention to how it is.” SweetBitter

The deeper reality in yoga is awareness, awareness of our role on the stage and how we feel and react to that particular play. Martin says our happiness is dependent on that, lies within that, is contained of nothing more than that. So I think about the “what” contained in SweetBitter:

“ I learned four different and elaborate systems for managing what were essentially rags they kept under lock and key.
There were never enough. We could never attain healthy bar mop equilibrium. The kitchen always needed more….” SweetBitter

And recognize how arbitrary the "what " is, a subject to tell the universal story of struggle, growth and change. Without this arbitrary subject emerging from a very specific persons very specific life, you would only have a meme (a useless piece of dribble with no context or specificity). So the "what" is important, it is a metaphor, it is art. The art of life. 

“The function of art work is the stimulation of sensibilities. The renewal of memories of moments of perfection. There is only one way in which artists can serve this function of art. There is only one way in which successful works of art can be made. To make works of art that stimulate sensibilities and renew moments of perfection an artist must recognize the works that illustrate his own moments of perfection.

“Perfection, of course, cannot be represented. The slightest indication of it is eagerly grasped by observers. The work is so far from perfection because we ourselves are so far from perfection. The oftener we glimpse perfection or the more conscious we are in our awareness of it the farther away it seems to be. Or perhaps I should say the more we are awareness of perfection the more we realize how very far from us it is. That is why art work is so very hard. It is a working through disappointments to greater disappointment and a growing recognition of failure to the point of defeat.” Agnes Martin

Then in sweet Bitter the fifth taste arrived

“ Umami: uni, or sea urchin, anchovies, Parmesan, dry aged beef with a casing of mold. It’s glutamate. Nothing is a mystery anymore. They make MSG to mimic it. It’s the taste of ripeness that’s about to ferment. Initially it served as a warning. But after a familiarity develops, after you learn it’s name, that precipice of rot becomes the only flavor worth pursuing, the only line worth tasting.” SweetBitter

In yoga the place where the inhale becomes the exhale is called a point of contact, maybe it is Umami. This point of contact is a landmark where we can place our awareness and begin to experience directly how vast a moment, place, or singular experience is. Furthermore, in relation to the three gunas, when sweetness is at its peak, just before tamas or decay arrives we find perfection. This place is elusive without presence and vast when we are here and awake. The idea that this place is on the verge of rot while simultaneously embodying it peak of sweetness embodies Martins idea that perfection occurs in the minds ability to grasp it, hold it in awareness before the continual process of change takes it away. She goes on:

“But still one wakes in the morning and there is the inspiration and one goes on.I want to emphasize the fact that increase in disappointment does not mean going backward in the work. There is no such thing as going backward in anything. There is increased and decreased awareness that is all, and increased awareness means increased disappointments. If any perfection is indicated in the work it is recognized by the artist as truly miraculous so he feels that he can take no credit for its sudden appearance.” Agnes Martin

 

Light on Life. Iyengar, the Koshas, and Yoga.

The appearance of the infinite varieties of happenings in this world and in this body make it seem as if chaos prevails. As a result the yogis asked, is there a possibility that all of this phenomena is somehow orderly? The Kosha, which can be translated to mean veil, sheath or covering, is the explanation describing the order and structure of our being. The yogis were looking to peer beneath the gross matter into what they termed: Chit Akasha, the vision of inner space itself. Chit Akasha is the non-physical reality, which unlike the ever-changing phenomena of the body or nature (prakriti), is eternal or never changing.

Iyengar, in his thorough and informative text, “Light on Life” describes that which is real or unchanging as being like North to a compass. Our Self is north; this aligns our individual self to the universal Self.

“Spiritual realization is the aim that exists in each on of us to seek our divine core. That core, though never absent from anyone remains latent within us. It is not an outward quest for the Holy Grail that lies beyond, but an Inward Journey to allow the inner core to reveal itself.”

We can use alignment in the yoga practice as a means of exploring the Koshas. Iyengar reminds us that alignment of the outer most sheaths or Kosha of our body points us to the innermost world or the universal reality.

Abiding reality which is the soul, is selfless love founded in a perception of unity, not separation. This is the yogic definition of the soul, which is a word that can be seen as contaminated in our culture through a persistent flattening, simplifying, and packaging of the rich and complex metaphor.

 As Walter Brueggemann says,

“If we want a God healthier than that we must add these mysterious metaphors to our meditation, practice and prayer in order to make them accessible. Then they are available for us to explore, chew on and receive the gifts their infinite nature keeps on giving.”

  According to yogic philosophy, the soul is no possession, no me, no my, no I; it is unchanging. The whole practice of yoga explores the relationship between Prakriti and Parusha. (Nature and Soul).

The yogic practice equips us to learn to live between the earth and the sky.

“ To a yogi (or indeed a Taoist master or Zen monk) the path toward spirit lies entirely in the domain of nature. It is the exploration of nature…”

Stability (asana)

Anamaya Kosha, the food sheath

Solidity, shape, firmness, and strength are the primary characteristics of our body. We can understand the true nature of our physical being. We can open the gates of our soul through the exploration of the body. Asana must harmonize all the sheaths of the body and provide integration. Awareness is the tool we use in asana to sculpt the mind. Bodily consciousness allows the mind to be alert and passive which regenerates the mind and purifies the body. Extension is from the brain and expansion is from the heart. When the two meet, this is the beginning. It is important to be know where you are stretching, in your body and in the world. Extension is attention. Expansion is awareness.

Over stretching and under stretching is wrong. In every pose there should be repose. Inhalation is tension. Exhalation is freedom. Iyengar says all movement should arise from the exhalation, the root. There is lightness in the body and a freedom in the mind, extend from the center. Think of yourself as graceful and expanding, lifting the chest and opening the mind.

The gunas exemplify balance in the practice. They are the three qualities of all things in nature.

The three qualities are Satva, Rajas and Tamas. These three qualities exist in all things. Iyengar defines them as

                 1. Luminosity,

                 2. Vibrancy and Dynamism 

                 3. Mass and Inertia.

Richard Freeman describes the gunas in terms of ripening fruit. As a fruit is growing it is filled with rajas, the urge to sweeten. This fire of movement propels its ripening but at some point the fruit is at its sweetest, its most perfect state. Satva. But as we all know you cannot hold onto ripe fruit forever, the satvic state of ripeness is as temporary as the fruit’s ripening. Soon the fruit begins to get overly sweet and its sugars begins the process of decay or Tamas, the fruit begins to loose its luminosity and work its way back into the earth, its becomes heavy and inert. These are gunas and all things cycle through these qualities again and again. Om Shanti, Shanti, Shantihi. 

In postures Tamas dominates, because in the body Tamas dominates. This is a good thing because Tamas keeps us on the ground and keeps us upright and stable but in the mind Tamas must be minimized. As inertia in the body is overcome, lightness of the mind follows. Good practice brings a feeling of lightness. We work from the periphery to the core. We work with Anamaya Kosha to build a strong container. This crucible will be capable of handling the increased energy of awakening.

Vitality (Prana)

 Pranamaya Kosha, the energy sheath

Iyengar teaches us that muscular energy, nuclear energy and electrical energy are all one energy like there is only one God. Nestled inside anamaya Kosha is pranamaya Kosha. Remember all maya is illusion, or is it? All vibrating energies are Prana: heat, light, magnetism and electricity. Power, life, vitality and spirit are all Prana.

 Iyengar says that Prana is breath and breath carries awareness. Prana is a subtle but powerful force that will carry your awareness anywhere you want to take it.

“The breath, working in the sheath of the physical body, serves as a bridge between body and mind…. Move your awareness from the outmost edges of the universe to the outmost cell of your big toe.”

 Iyengar goes on to define pranayama as the fusion for the antagonistic elements of fire and water. The Pranamaya Kosha is where an awareness of the five elements comes into play. The physiological body is water and the mind is represented by fire. They do not easily come together. Air is the element that allows the fusion of such seeming opposites. This fusion produces the energetic current of Prana. The earth element is the physical body and provides a medium for the relationship to occur and the fifth element space provides room for the current of Prana to occur and be distributed. Watching the breath is the best gross vehicle for learning stability of the consciousness and concentration. Concentration allows you to use your energy wisely and well.

The four Pranayama are

1.     Puraka - inhalation

2.     Antar Kumbhak - retention of breath after inhalation

3.      Rechaka - exhalation

4.     Bahya Kumbhak - retention of the breath after exhalation.

Pranayama takes us away from the external world of AnamayaKosha. We cannot be aware of the external world and pay attention to the subtleties of the internal world.

Clarity (manas)

Manomaya Kosha, the mind sheath

Nestled just inside the breath body is the mind sheath, Manomaya Kosha. You cannot hope to experience inner peace and freedom without understanding the workings of the mind.

Iyengar, though he is known in yoga for his precise approach to postures and alignment, says clearly in the fourth chapter of Light on Life,

 “In the mind lays the heart of yoga.”

 He makes the point that in yogic philosophy there is a difference between the mind where incessant thoughts of life occur Manomaya Kosha and the intelligence and discernment of Vijnanamaya Kosha.

In Manomaya Kosha thinking, brain, memory, ego and sensory perception work together to cause suffering, (klesha) and not cause suffering, (aklesha).

Iyengar uses the imagery of a lake to describe this odd pairing.

"A lake can reflect the beauty around it (external). Clean water and a still bottom allow one to see the floor of the lake through the water (internal). He reminds us that we all know what pollution can do to the water so one has to keep the waters of the lake clean. Yoga is the process of keeping the water of the mind clean and calm."

Three parts of the mind and or consciousness:

Manas (mind) seeks pleasure and avoids pain

Ahamkara (ego or small self) no I no me no my

Buddhi (Intelligence) allows discernment, which can free us from habit

 

Wisdom (Vjanana)

Vjanamaya Kosha, the wisdom sheath

Intelligence ultimately leads to wisdom. As we begin the process of self-control and awareness we can also embark onto a journey of uncharted waters, mystery. As we transcend habit we can begin to find freedom, which art times may feel scary? In yoga, the wisdom sheath provides contact with the spark of divinity (jivatman), the individual soul. This is the place of dissolving barriers around I, me. Mine.

Iyengar calls this realm,

“the beginning of the end of loneliness.”

 This is mediation, no more separation between object and subject.

Consciousness has three functions:

1. Cognition- perceiving, knowing, recognizing

2. Volition- impulse to initiate action

3. Motion- action usually taken

As we act in awareness, we increase consciousness and concentration. We can utilize consciousness to harness action. As we harness action we can undo habits (samskaras) and we can stop creating new ones that do not serve us.  With increasing focus on equanimity and awareness, meditation is possible. Mediation is the stilling of the fluctuations in the mind.

 Iyengar then goes on to say that

“the still mind by definition is pure. The ego is still there in the pure mind but silence and retention of the breath dissolves the ego. Through retention after inhalation you are able to experience the journey from the inner core of being to the outer expanses of being. Like establishing your mind in the completeness and the grandness of the mansion of yourself. Often times we are one bit of our being or another but to experience the totality of being is to be in every room of the mansion at once with light streaming out of every window.”

 

Bliss (Ananda) Ananda Kosha, the bliss sheath

The bliss sheath is our connection to the universal soul.

Iyengar reminds us 

“we can only connect to this Everything by remembering the role of "I" as being in a flux and a flow, ever changing and impermanent.”

With this remembering we are less likely to be caught up in the story of the temporary that is often a source of suffering. Instead we are free to step aside and see the temporary dwelling in the permanent that lies within.

The five kleshas or affliction which cause suffering are:

1. Avidya, ignorance

2. Abinavesha, clinging to life for fear of death

3. Smita, pride

4. Raga, attachment

5. Dvesha, aversion

The Anandamaya Kosha is surrender. Mediation is the way out of the kleshas; it only comes when the ego is vanquished. In the Vjanamaya Kosha we work with the individual soul experiencing expansion and the journey inward. It is a creative expansion of awareness.  A fusion of the individual self with the universal ocean of being. A dissolution.

 Related to the exhale and breath retention at the bottom we dissolve in the ocean of being. With retention after the exhalation you hold not only the breath, according to Iyengar, but also the soul.

He says,

“There is space between surrender and acceptance. You surrender to the lord and the lord accepts your surrender. This is retention.”

He goes on to say....... and this is my favorite line in the book:

“If evolution or spreading ones wings is preparation for yoga, then involution or a folding of ones wings is where yoga actually occurs.”

He insists on the three steps along the yogic path:

1. Stopping self-destructive habits through asana and awareness.

2. Use of our will to favor the struggle.

3. Invoke divine aid in an act of surrender and humility.

If this seems too esoteric, Iyengar describes the physical alignment that permits these states of awareness without any other effort.

Align the brain stem, the location of asmita, beneath the hypothalamus, (the neurological nexus of the body) Patanjali referred to the hypothalamus as the seat of the moon.

This alignment corresponds to the navel, which is the seat of the sun.

When the two act as a spindle to hold the 4 quadrants of the brain steady and free union or hatha yoga occurs.

7 Inner States of Transformation:

1. The observation of emerging thoughts

2. The ability to nip them in the bud

3. The calm tranquil state that occurs from restraint of the thoughts

4. One pointed concentration on the object of choice

5. The cultivated and refined consciousness that results from the combo of the restraint and power

6. Fissured consciousness

7. Divine consciousness where the practitioner is alone with everything.