One of my favorite Sufi tales gives a teaching about a charming mullah named Kahil. A mullah is an Islamic guru, someone versed in the theology and philosophy of the Muslim religion. Kahil was a kind man and with a large and loving congregation. He had several assistants who came each day to help him with the administrative tasks at the mosque. Every day at noon, they all sat down for lunch. Recently, the mullah had been complaining about his food. Basically, he was tired of what was packed in his lunch bag. Every day it is a cheese sandwich. He would say, "I am so tired of eating cheese sandwiches." Another day he would yearn, "I would love something else for lunch." Almost to the point of whining, "I wish had something else for lunch." Time went by and Kahil's complaints became more vociferous and angry. The brothers began to worry about the mullah’s health and happiness.
“Mullah” they inquired, “why don’t you just let your wife know you are tired of cheese sandwich? Why don’t you ask her kindly to make you something else for lunch?”
The mullah tilted his head to the side, as if reflecting on the question.
“Why my dear brothers.” he answered, “I make my own lunch.”
Do you yearn to change the way you are doing things yet find yourself repeating actions, thoughts, and patterns that no longer serve you? What is it that drives us to live in the trap of our very own habits? In yoga these habits are called samskara.
Whenever I need inspiration to create a mindful change, I turn to Agnes Martin. I find her to be brave. She is clear about the importance of the inner work that impels us to make a different kind of sandwich. A sandwich that is truly nourishing.
"The process of life is hidden from us. The meaning of suffering is held from us. And we are blind to life.
We are blinded by pride. Pride has built another structure and it is called “Life,” but living the prideful life we are frustrated and lost.
It is not possible to overthrow pride. It is not possible because we ourselves are pride. Pride the Dragon and Pride the deceiver as it is called in Mythology. But we can witness the defeat of pride because pride cannot hold out. Pride is not real so sooner or later it must go down." Agnes Martin, Writings
Where Martin uses the word pride, I often insert the word ego. The ego is important and the habits (samskara is sanskrit) we develop are what gives us a sense I, me, or mine. Understanding the world and creating short cuts are skills that allow for our very survival. Imagine if you had to discover each step every time you cooked. We turn on the heat automatically, get out our ingredients and cook for our children, all while talking to our spouse, writing a thank you note, and planning a day date with a friend but our short cuts are only one way. Sometimes we confuse our way of doing things as reality (the unchangeable) and this is where the suffering of pride or ego can come into play. And sometimes our way of doing things becomes, from our perspective, the only way to get the task done. This perspective can be extremely painful especially if we want change.
Yoga teaches us that we can approach a pose from a certain perspective for a while, then out of the blue, one day we will have pain and we need to modify our approach. Changes in flexibility and strength will also eventually ask us to approach the pose in a new way. The ability to change how we do things is an embodiment of the very flexibility we are searching for in the practice. Haughtiness relating to our way, as the only way or the best way, can cause a sense of separation from real joys in life. In the previous passage Martin introduces to the ideas behind the mullah story, as he complains about the sandwich he is blind to his own habits. He is blind to the possibilities and his ability to change.
The antonyms of pride, it’s opposites, are characteristics admired in all spiritual traditions. In order to free ourselves from the tight grip of the ego we embrace the qualities of nature: humble, meek, modest, and yielding. These freedoms are the space of inquiry. The place where the sunrise is a marvel, the crunch of autumn leaves is like music, and the apple is the first you have ever tasted. The mullah was far from this place, yet he was also very near.
Martin continues, "When pride in some form is lost we feel very different. We feel the victory over pride, and we feel very different, being for a few moments, free of pride. We feel a moment of perfection that is indescribable, a sudden joy in living.
Our best opportunity to witness the defeat of pride is in our work, in all the time that we are working and in the work itself."
In yoga, as we come to the mat each day, we meet our work. The form of the work is irrelevant. Our work is the place where we meet who it is that we really are. If we come to the mat, with a cheese sandwich in hand, oh the suffering and the woe that will follow. I can’t do this, I am so good at that, I hope we do this pose, oh she better not teach that - these preferences, aversions, and grooves in our thinking create a tedious experience that is rigid in form. The remembered experience is separate from what we are experiencing today. It is a misunderstanding to think that the practice will be the same each day. Even if we practice the same poses everyday the sensations arising as a result of our efforts, will change. Our emotional state is different each day and the work, in this sense, is a defeat of pride. Or as I might say, we cultivate humility and yielding by recognizing the immensity of what stands before us: our miraculous body, mysterious mind, and intrinsically good soul.
My teacher Richard Freeman, in his book, The Mirror of Yoga, says, that the practice always begins with the listening. Listening makes room for what is. Lending an ear prevents approaching the practice from a mechanical perspective. The practice becomes art, born each day from sincere work.
"Our best opportunity to witness the defeat of pride is in our work, in all the time that we are working and in the work itself." Agnes Martin, Writings
Many of us don’t want to think of the practice as work, but I would say that it is. Work doesn’t have to imply a predetermined amount of effort or struggle; it does imply a certain amount of concentration, focus and discriminative thinking. Practice as work implies that we engage in our process correctly and efficiently. It implies that at the end of the session there is an outcome and this outcome is measurable. I call the outcome a residue: that which remains when the work is done. If we examine the residue of our practice, we can approach tomorrow’s work with more intelligence. This is a way to explore the self. If, at the end of lunch, I do not feel good after eating a cheese sandwich and if I am aware of this, tomorrow I can try peanut butter and see how I feel.
"Work is self-expression. We must not think of self-expression as something we may do or something we may not do. Self-expression is inevitable. In your work, in the way that you do work and in the results of your work yourself is expressed. Behind and before self-expression is a developing awareness in the mind that affects the work. This developing awareness, I will also call “the work.” It is the most important part of the work. There is the work in our mind; the work in our hands and the work is a result." Agnes Martin, Writings
Work as self-expression can make us, not only better at our jobs, but better at our practice. The hope that who we are comes through in everything we do, or do not do, invites me to relax as I effort. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna reminds Arjun that even inaction is action and a reflection of who it is that we really are. Self-expression is inevitable. Underneath action or inaction is the breath and beneath the breath is the mind. If we come to our practice with an understanding that the developing awareness is a subtlety we are moving towards, there is almost no way to eat the same sandwich every day. Martin calls this awareness the work. I call it the practice. She says it is the most important part. What is happening in your mind is the most important part of the practice. Are we watering seeds that we want to nourish and are we allowing the bitter seeds, parched by the heat of our efforts, to die.
Where Martin talks of the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work is the result, she is referring to art work, but this logic a can apply to our practice:
There is the practice in our minds, the practice with our body, and the achievement of yoga is the result. One cannot be without the other. Success on the path requires and engagement with both the mind and the body. The mullah was not using his mind in relation to his discomfort around a cheese sandwich. He was not recognizing his own habit, the only thing necessary to make a change.
"In your work in everyone’s work in the work of the world, the work that reminds of pride is gradually abandoned. Having, in moments of perfection, enjoyed freedom from pride; we know that that is what we want. With this knowing we recognize and illuminate expressions of pride." Agnes Martin, Writings
We illuminate expressions of pride so they can be abandoned. It is one thing to feel content at peace, or even pleased with our efforts. But suffering comes with: I nailed it, I got it, and it’s mine. The mine will be a cheese sandwich before long. Expectations of solidity, in a practice that boasts of nothing but change will cause the student to suffer. Awareness of change and embrace of change is the means to be free, but it requires we stay awake to our preference and aversions. We can recognize them through statement like: that is I and that is not me. One is drawn, once you have tasted the freedom of mystery, toward practice as an inquiry. To the listening and looking at who I am, as if for the first time.
Mary Oliver in her essay, Staying Alive, says, “I did not think of language as the means to self–description. I thought of it as a door - a thousand opening doors - past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and thus to come into power… I saw what skill was needed, and persistence – how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page - the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, the desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstance – a passion for work.”
She goes on to say,
“I don’t mean it is easy or assured; there are stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all these years…but there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness, and because, more interesting, more alleviating.”
Our practice is our work. We go to the mat with eyes and mind wide open. Here we meet everything that ever was and every thing that ever will be, a banquet that is our own unique and marvelous life. You do not have to be puffed up about the life that is yours, you do not have to be filled with pride; instead, we bend our spine mindfully over the mat, watching, with curiosity, kindness, and love.