Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cosmic Halloween: The beauty and challenge of Maya

At this point in our story from the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers find themselves living out their 13th year of exile, the year they have to live in disguise and not be discovered.  How perfect that we have come to this point during the week of Halloween. 

There are traditions in every culture for dressing up, wearing costumes and disguising oneself.  This is a metaphor for maya or illusion.  Maya is the veil that descends that differentiates us from our source. So in a sense our whole human existence is like wearing a costume. The truth is, it is impossible for us to be cut off from our source, yet we can and often do have the feeling of being separate.  When we dress up or disguise ourselves we have a direct experience of maya – we may not recognize the person looking back out from the mirror, but it doesn’t change who you are underneath the costume.  It’s only because we are embodied (i.e. wear the “human” costume) that we are able to reflect back to our own divinity – it’s a complete paradox.  Although maya is the veil that separates us from our connection to source, it also serves as the portal back to that same one-ness.

Another way to think about this is like wrapping up a gift.  We’ve all had the experience of being handed a gift in the plastic bag it was purchased in – it’s still a gift and it’s nice to receive.  But how much more fun is it to be given a beautifully wrapped package with fancy paper and bows.  The gift inside doesn’t change, but isn’t it a nicer experience to joyfully tear off the wrapping?  Our true nature, who we really are, is satchitananda (one-ness, or being-consciousness-bliss) but we forget.  Maya exists purely for the joy of rediscovering ourselves, like the joy of unwrapping a beautiful gift.  Without darkness we can’t know light, without separation we can’t know one-ness.   This is what our yoga practice does for us - pulls back the cosmic veil so we can see who/what we really are at the core of our being.  From the outside looking in sometimes all we can see is the surface, the disguise, yet we know that's not all we are.  

Maya has taught me one of the most important, life-altering, consciousness-shifting lessons of my yoga practice: We are not separate – there is an intelligence, an interconnected-ness, a one-ness that has brought us all together, it is part of each of us and it is always there.  It tells me even if I am lonely, I am not alone.  Neither are you.

Maya practices:

Off the mat:
Here is a beautiful practice to invite into our relationships and interactions with people and with nature: practice seeing beyond the “costume” of everyone you come into contact with to the oneness beneath.  Recognize their divinity first.

On the mat:
Open to Grace: Recognize that the human “costumes” around you contain the same source

Muscular Energy: Hug muscles to bones, bones to marrow, marrow all the way to your Source giving you strength

Organic Energy: Let the light of who you really are shine through - through your clothing, through any role or disguise you might have put on today

Offer a Namaste: “I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.”

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cultivating patience

We started our blog a bit out of order so I wanted to go back and give the background story for the questions we’ve been reflecting on the past 2 weeks. 

At this point in the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers find themselves in the woods hunting deer.  After an unsuccessful hunt, they are tired and thirsty. Yudhishthira, the eldest brother, sends his brothers out one by one to search for water and none of them return.  He follows closely behind Bhima, the last brother he sends out, and as he emerges into the clearing at the edge of the forest he sees a beautiful crystal lake and all four of his brothers lying dead on the shore.  An “invisible voice” speaks to him, explaining that the lake belongs to him and as each brother approached thirsty he asked them to answer his questions before drinking.  None of the brothers honored his request and so he killed each of them in turn.  The voice asks if Yudhishthira will answer the questions before drinking or meet the same fate.  Yudhishthira agrees to answer his questions, and these are the questions we have been discussing the past couple of weeks.  (Spoiler alert – he successfully answers all the questions and the “invisible voice”, who we learn is really the voice of his father Dharma, restores the slain brothers back to life.)  We’ll continue to look at more of Dharma’s questions over the next few weeks, but let’s talk a little more about this story first.

To me, this is a story about patience.  The “invisible voice” acted impatiently and killed the brothers without recognizing that they were suffering a long day of hunting and perhaps it would have been difficult for them even to talk without having some water first.  The brothers acted impatiently by putting their need for water above the needs of the owner of the lake.  The root of the word patience in Latin and Greek means suffering.  In Hebrew the root of the word means to endure.   So being patient means that it’s not going to be easy, that we have to set our needs aside for a while and there is discomfort in doing that. 

To be patient means to see another perspective, whether it is our own or someone else’s.  It is a practice of loving kindness.  When we pause before honking our horn at the car in front of us, or before banging our groceries down and muttering under our breath while the lady in front of us at the supermarket slowly writes her check rather than swiping her card, or before reading my 6 year old the word rather than letting him sound it out, we give a beautiful gift.  We tell that person I care about you and your feelings, and we reinforce to ourselves our own capacity for open-mindedness.  It works the same towards ourselves – when we let challenging poses unfold slowly and mindfully rather than forcing or pushing our bodies we send a powerful message of acceptance and self-love. 

Here are some other ways patience can help us in our yoga practice, both on the mat and off:

Open to Grace: Open yourself to a bigger picture of the world, where everyone’s needs are equally important.
Recognize that you are part of something bigger, we are all interconnected so making time and/or space for the other makes time and space for you too.

Muscular Energy: Draw into your ability to endure challenges.
Embrace the discomfort of having to wait.

Organic Energy: Extend loving kindness to all beings.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Can Anger be "Yogic"?

At Shree for the next few weeks we are talking about the questions that Yudhisthira needs to answer to earn himself a sip of water to quench his thirst, and to restore his brothers’ lives in the ancient Indian epic, The Mahabharata.  Our question of the week for this week is:

Q: What enemy cannot be overcome?
A: Anger

At first I had trouble with this one – how “un-yogic” to think we cannot overcome anger!  But I think what is really being said is that anger arises - it tells us we care and that’s not a bad thing.  Its what we do with it that matters.  Anger in and of itself is not a "bad" emotion.  There is no "bad" emotion. If we choose to eschew anger, do away with it, bury it, etc. one of two things happen: we either become numb, insensitive, tuned out to reality, or we become resentful and bitter.  Because in reality its not possible, we will get angry (and that’s appropriate in many situations!) and its going to come out one way or another so may as well be prepared and know what to do so we can react in a way that is in alignment with our highest aspirations.  We recognize that if we perpetuate the anger - i.e., bring it forth into the world, we exacerbate the problem.  When we can feel anger, honor that we feel that way, and yet respond with loving-kindness we transform our world and the world around us.  Marc Gafni says "In a world of outrageous pain, the only response is outrageous love."  I agree.

So how can we put this into practice? I was listening to an interview with Buddhist scholar Sylvia Boorstein, and she was talking about helping her children get through struggles they face. She shared that when they are upset she says to them  "Sweetheart, you're in pain.  Let's pay attention to what happening, then we'll figure out what to do."  After many times saying this to her children, she realized she could say this to herself when she was feeling strong emotions. 

Anger is heating, it fires us up.  Heat is not "bad", it just is, like everything else. What do we do when we get heated up - how do we react?  If we take Sylvia’s advice we just become mindful and notice we are feeling a certain way and decide what we're going to do about it. Can we use that heat to fire us up to make a change for the better?  Like in every yoga practice, the asana give us an opportunity to work through our human-ness, our embodiment, with loving-kindness, without judgment about why we feel how we feel.   By purposefully heating ourselves us we "practice" dealing with it in a place that is safe for us to have that experience, then when we go out into the world we know what to do.

Here are some simple ways to “embody” your anger (or any other strong emotion you are having) on your mat:
Open to Grace: accept any feelings of anger as part of your human-ness
Muscular Energy: embrace the heat and emotion (don’t try to push it away or ignore it)
Organic Energy: offer out loving kindness, send out outrageous love in spite of how you are feeling

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