“Mechanism of Meditation” — lecture by Kausthub Desikachar, 3/15/12

The second of Kausthub’s lectures at the “Discover Yoga Anatomy” intensive at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, March 2012….

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Many people make claims about meditation, but still don’t  understand it.  They assume that TECHNIQUES are meditation. 

What is happening in modern day science and medicine is that they say meditation works, but we don’t want to understand WHY it works.  Books on this subject are merely guidebooks, they give no explanation as to HOW meditation works.  If we take a tool like meditation and become attached to it, there is no understanding.

WHY is more important than WHAT.

There are three domains of meditation in yoga, but modern yogis are concerned with bendy bodies, fancy clothes, and taking their pictures in front of waterfalls.  They should be applying for jobs in Hollywood, not in yoga.  Yoga is meant to be done as a meditative practice.

The first domain is that meditation is about helping us live our lives better.  We have daily activities, actions concerning the world, we’re part of a social eco-system.  Many times we do not deal appropriately with this eco-system because of our klesas — we make mistakes.  To help us see clearly, to improve our actions, meditation is done.

The second domain of meditation is to improve or regain our health because we get sick, whether it is body, mind, emotions, or spirit.

The third domain has to do with self-realization.  The difference between animals and us is that we are not only interested in eating and sex, but as humans we have the potential for self-realization.  We have the ability to question the meaning of life and our role in it, what we can give back.

It is my hope that there will be enough sanity in future yogis to move beyond the body and go inward.

So how does meditation work in these three domains, because it does not work the same in each.

For the first domain, yoga philosophy says that there is a process in which an action begets another action.  We hear or read something (knowledge) and that awareness creates a desire.  That desire creates an action, so we act from a place of desire.  The action is not the end of the cycle because there is a consequence.  The consequence leaves an impression on us, good or bad.  This is where mistakes happen.

Meditation works here by addressing the source:  is your awareness right or wrong?  Our knowledge is not based on a fact but what we are drawn to.  We have the illusion of clarity, we see what we want to see, not what is really in front of us.

In meditation for this domain, the practice is designed in such a way in order to give us clarity of perception.  It takes us to a neutral space, not from a bias.  Meditation can influence how we see things, i.e. with greater perception of clarity.  In that way, our responses in life become more appropriate — this is the opposite of what we usually do, how we usually react in and to life.

In the second domain, it is given that the mind controls the body.  For example, we have a nightmare and truly believe that whatever is happening in the nightmare is actually happening to us, we have a physical reaction to the nightmare  — that is how strong the mind is over the body.   In the same way our mind can influence us in a positive way.  Modern science is finally seeing this.  When the mind moves into nirodha samskara (YS Ch. 3), the mind becomes stable.  Meditation helps us change the patterns of the mind which can thereby change the patterns of the body.   In yoga philosophy, diseases and health are seen as nothing other than a set of patterns.   Patanjali introduces the concept of yoga therapy in the second and third chapters of the Sutra-s.   The mind is very powerful — there is a reason why it is said “mind over matter” — because the mind can literally change matter.   This seems paranormal, but it is not.

The trouble is that we always want things to change quickly, but change takes time.  The mind is linked with the senses which are linked to matter.  What is held in the mind moves towards what holds the senses.   We have seen what could be called miracles at the Mandiram, when all we do is show a person how to breath, how to meditate, when they came here and could not even lift an arm.

However, the same thing won’t work the same way with everyone.  The stupidity of modern times is that everyone is the same — we want the same prescriptions.  The same focus will be different with everyone.  A metaphor for this is that the same food will be cooked differently whether it is cooked in an electric oven or a traditional tandoor — same food, different result.  How your mind is will affect what the change is.  Giving the same medicine to everyone and expecting the same results is ridiculous.

Patanjali said that each of us has different kinds of mind — which mind that holds the object of meditation will affect the change.  The standardization of meditative practices is rubbish.

The third domain is the spiritual domain.  The exploration of our potential is the spirituality contained in the Yoga Sutra-s.

We all have within us seeds that are dormant, seeds that will grow.  Meditation in the spiritual domain is like a dry field with seeds — prana is equivalent to water for that field.   The prana will irrigate that mind field so that our seeds will sprout.

But we trap ourselves.  We are ignorant of our seeds.  We don’t nourish them because we don’t have the patience.

We don’t want to be who we are, we want to be someone else.  We think being different is somehow better.  This is where acceptance of ourselves is so important — a mango can never be a papaya.  We have to start accepting who were are and stop rejecting who we are.

The river of prana must water the deep levels of the mind, but remember that we also have negative seeds.  Besides the beneficial seeds, a field also has poison seeds, weed seeds — we have to accept both.  We do not have authority to judge ourselves or others.

If prana is remaining in you, it finds you worthy of something — look at the positive, not the negative, because no one is perfect.

I’ve been kicked out of better places than this

OK, I really wasn’t kicked out. I just wasn’t let in.

In 2006 I did my first 10 day silent vipassana retreat here that is in the strict Goenka tradition. A requirement of the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training that I did at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California was that one had to sit a 5 day or longer vipassana retreat.

The vipassana retreat was my first long silent retreat and it was the hardest thing I have ever done but the most transformative. I went through 6 days of hell, but on the 7th was reborn, so to speak. I ended up loving my experience. In fact, if I had my own yoga teacher training program a vipassana retreat would be one of the requirements for certification, that’s how important I think it is. If you want my piece of paper you would have to sit in silence 10 hours a day for 10 days, no excuses.

I’ve always wanted to return. When I came back from India I felt the need to sit intensely like that and desired the structure of the retreat, don’t ask me why. I wanted to do a three day retreat instead of a 10 day so I applied for a sit in August. If you go to the Illinois website you can see what the lengthy application is all about. They ask you lots of questions about your practice, if you have done any other meditation styles, if you teach any other meditation styles, plus the usual questions about your mental health since strict vipassana is a very intense practice. After writing the application you are then called for a telephone interview.

So being the good yogini that I am I was honest. You know, that whole satya thing. I wrote about my retreats and training at Spirit Rock, who the teachers were, that I am a yoga teacher, that I incorporate meditation in my classes, and that I teach mindfulness meditation.

A very nice woman called to interview me and she was very impressed with my application commenting on everything I have done. She said I could do the retreat as long as I understood not to “mix” my mindfulness meditation with the vipassana practice. I said that I totally understood that and she said I could go on the retreat.

She called me yesterday with the bad news: I could not attend the retreat. Instead of becoming angry or disappointed, feelings of amusement arose. I REALLY wanted to do this retreat (and some of you might think I’m nuts for REALLY wanting to sit 10 hours a day), but for some reason I thought it was hilarious. Maybe it was the woman’s voice. Ginger had the stereotypical voice of a grandmother that you might hear in cartoons. It was classic and precious. How could I get angry at her and besides, what would be the point? She was just following Goenka’s rules. Don’t kill the messenger.

She told me that she looked at my website and was very impressed with my “accomplishments” in yoga teaching and that I trained at Spirit Rock and go to India to study yoga. But I don’t consider myself “special”, I just do what I do. I thought, so just because I’ve done the training that I’ve done, that means I can’t do a 3 day vipassana retreat, something that I really want to do? I mean, I don’t know very many people who would subject themselves to a strict vipassana retreat. In fact, most yogis I know would probably prefer to hang upside down over a fire. WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN’T GO?!?

I tried not to chuckle. Ginger sounded so sincere in her compliments about my yoga and meditation practices, how could I dare laugh? She said it was BECAUSE I teach mindfulness meditation that I can’t go. She said that Goenka was very strict about the mixing of any other practice with vipassana (which I already knew) and her supervisor was afraid that I would mix everything up and get “confused” (and go nuts — the teachers are afraid people will freak out because vipassana is an intense practice.) Please stay home she told me.

The bottom line is that one has to make a choice. It’s either a strict vipassana practice or the highway. None of this take one from column A and one from column B. I told Ginger, yeah, but the roots of mindfulness meditation are in vipassana. “Yes, dear, we know,” she said, “but unless you make a choice of what practice you want to do, you can never come back here. Go to Barre instead.” Goenka, via Ginger, banished me to the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. I hung my head. Oh, the shame of it all.

Damn it. I’m banned from every vipassana center in the known and unknown Universe! Sigh. I was really looking forward to all those kriya nightmares ridding me of my samskaras. Mara won’t be visiting me in my dreams now.

So much for honesty is the best policy. If I had said nothing about everything I have done since my first retreat, I would have gotten in. I should have kept my mouth shut.

Well, you know what, Goenka? According to your rules, one is not supposed to do any yoga on a vipassana retreat. But listen up, dude — you know that 4 AM wake up call to sit? I blew that off every day and DID MY YOGA IN MY ROOM!! Yeah, that’s right, I broke the rules!

Gee…ya think they found out about that?

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yoga wisdom from my teacher

Meditating on Meditation by Srivatsa Ramaswami

“I was watching a live television program in India some 30 years back
when TV had just been introduced in India. It was a program in which
an elderly yogi was pitted against a leading cardiologist. It was
virtually a war. The yogi was trying to impress with some unusual
poses which were dubbed as potentially dangerous by the doctor. Almost
everything the yogi claimed was contested by the non-yogi and soon the
dialogue degenerated. The yogi stressed that headstand will increase
longevity by retaining the amrita in the sahasrara in the head and the
medical expert countered it by saying that there was no scientific
basis for such claims and dubbed it as a pose which was unnatural and
dangerous and will lead to a stroke. The Yogi replied by saying that
Yoga had stood the test of time for centuries; it had been in vogue
much before modern medicine became popular. Thank God it was a black
and white program; else you would have seen blood splashed all over
the screen.

Things have become more civil in these three decades. Now neti pot,
asanas, yogic breathing exercises and yogic meditation have all become
part of the medical vocabulary. There is a grudging appreciation of
yoga within the medical profession. Many times doctors suggest a few
yogic procedures, especially Meditation, in several conditions like
hypertension, anxiety, depression and other psychosomatic ailments.

Ah! Meditation. The Yoga world is divided into two camps. On one side
we have enthusiastic hata yogis who specialize in asanas and the other
group which believes fervently in meditation as a panacea for all the
ills.

But how should one meditate? Many start meditation and give it up
after a few days or weeks as they fail to see any appreciable benefit
or perceivable progress. The drop out rate is quite high among
meditators. The mind continues to be agitated and does not get into
the meditating routine. Or quite often one tends to take petit naps
while meditating. Why does this happen? It is due to lack of adequate
preparation. Basically one has to prepare oneself properly for
meditation. The Yogis mention two sadhanas or two yogic procedures as
preparations. They are asanas and pranayama. Asanas, as we have seen
earlier, reduce rajas which manifests as restlessness of the mind, an
inability to remain focused for an appreciable amount of time. But
another guna, tamas also is not helpful during meditation, manifesting
as laziness, lethargy and sloth and this also should be brought under
control if one wants to meditate. Patanjali, Tirumular and several old
Yogis advocate the practice of Pranayama to reduce the effects of
Tamas. Patanjali says Pranayama helps to reduce avarana or Tamas. He
along with conventional ashtanga yogis also mentions that Pranayama
makes the mind capable of Dharana or the first stage of meditation.
Pranayama is an important prerequisite of meditation.

There is evidence that pranayama has a salutary effect on the whole
system. In an earlier article I had explained the beneficial effects
of deep pranayama on the heart and the circulatory system. Further,
when it is done correctly, it helps to draw in anywhere between 3 to 4
liters of atmospheric air compared to just about ½ liter of air
during normal breathing. This helps to stretch the air sacs of the
lungs affording an excellent exchange of oxygen and gaseous waste
products. These waste products are proactively thrown out of the
system by deep pranayama, which yogis refer to as reduction of tamas.
Thus soon after pranayama, the yogi feels refreshed and calm and
becomes fit for the first stage of meditation which is called Dharana.

What should one meditate on? Several works talk about meditating on
cakras, mantras, auspicious icons, various tatwas and on the spirit/
soul etc. But, the method of meditating, only a few works detail.
Perhaps the most precise is that of Patanjali in Yoga Sutras.
Patanjali details not only a step by step methodology of meditation
but also the various objects of prakriti and ultimately the spirit
within to meditate on. Hence his work may be considered as the most
detailed, complete and rigorous on meditation

For a start Patanjali would like the abhyasi to get the technique
right. So he does not initially specify the object but merely says
that the Yogi after the preliminary practices of asana, pranayama and
pratyahara, should sit down in a comfortable yogasana and start the
meditation. Tying the mind to a spot is dharana. Which spot? Vyasa in
his commentary suggests going by tradition, a few spots, firstly
inside the body, like the chakras as the Kundalini Yogi would do,, or
the heart lotus as the bhakti yogi would do, or the mid-brows as a
sidhha yogi would do or even an icon outside as a kriya yogi would do.
The icon should be an auspicious object like the image of one’s
favorite deity. Many find it easier to choose a mantra and focus
attention on that. Thousands everyday meditate on the Gayatri mantra
visualizing the sun in the middle of the eyebrows or the heart as part
of their daily Sandhyavandana** routine. It is also an ancient
practice followed even today to meditate on the breath with or without
using the Pranayama Mantra.

(*Namarupa published my article “Sandhyavandanam-Ritualistic
Gayatri Meditation” with all the routines, mantras, meanings, about 40
pictures, and also an audio with the chanting of the mantras in the
Sep/Oct 2008 issue.)

What of the technique?

The Yogabhyasi starts the antaranga sadhana or the internal practice
by bringing the mind to the same object again and again even as the
mind tends to move away from the chosen object of meditation. The
active, repeated attempts to bring the mind back to the simple, single
object again and again is the first stage of meditation (samyama)
called dharana. Even though one has done everything possible to make
the body/mind system more satwic, because of the accumulated samskaras
or habits, the mind continues to drift away from the object chosen for
meditation. The mind starts with the focus on the object but within a
short time it swiftly drifts to another related thought then a third
one and within a short time this train of thoughts leads to a stage
which has no connection whatsoever with the object one started with.
Then suddenly the meditator remembers that one is drifting and soon
brings the mind back to the object and resumes remaining with the
“object”. This process repeats over and over again. This repeated
attempts to coax and bring the mind to the same object is dharana. At
the end of the session lasting for about 15 minutes, the meditator may
(may means must) take a short time to review the quality of
meditation. How often was the mind drifting away from the object and
how long on an average the mind wandered? And further what were the
kinds of interfering thoughts? The meditator takes note of these. If
they are recurrent and strong then one may take efforts to sort out
the problem that interferes with the meditation repeatedly or at least
decide to accept and endure the situation but may decide to take
efforts to keep those thoughts away at least during the time one
meditates.

If during the dharana period, the mind gets distracted too often and
this does not change over days of practice, perhaps it may indicate
that the rajas is still dominant and one may want to reduce the
systemic rajas by doing more asanas in the practice. On the other hand
if the rajas is due to influences from outside, one may take special
efforts to adhere to the yamaniyamas more scrupulously. Perhaps every
night before going to sleep one may review the day’s activities and
see if one had willfully violated the tenets of yamaniyamas like “did
I hurt someone by deed, word or derive satisfaction at the expense of
others’ pain”. Or did I say untruths and so on. On the other hand if
one tends to go to sleep during the meditation minutes, one may
consider increasing the pranayama practice and also consider reducing
tamasic interactions, foods etc.

Then one may continue the practice daily and also review the progress
on a daily basis and also make the necessary adjustments in practice
and interactions with the outside world. Theoretically and practically
when this practice is continued diligently and regularly, slowly the
practitioner of dharana will find that the frequency and duration of
these extraneous interferences start reducing and one day, the abhyasi
may find that for the entire duration one stayed with the object. When
this takes place, when the mind is completely with the object moment
after moment in a continuous flow of attention, then one may say that
the abhyasi has graduated into the next stage of meditation known as
dhyana. Many meditators are happy to have reached this stage. Then one
has to continue with the practice so that the dhyana habits or
samskaras get strengthened. The following day may not be as
interruption free, but Patanjali says conscious practice will make it
more successful. “dhyana heyat tad vrittayah”. If one continues with
this practice for sufficiently long time meditating on the same object
diligently, one would hopefully reach the next stage of meditation
called Samadhi. In this state only the object remains occupying the
mind and the abhyasi even forgets herself/himself. Naturally if one
continues the meditation practice one would master the technique of
meditation. Almost every time the yagabhasi gets into meditation
practice, one would get into Samadhi. Once one gets this capability
one is a yogi—a technically competent yogi– and one may be able to
use the skill on any other yoga worthy object and make further
progress in Yoga. (tatra bhumishu viniyogah)

The consummate yogi could make a further refinement. An object has a
name and one has a memory of the object, apart from the object itself
(sabda, artha gnyana). If a Yogi is able to further refine the
meditation by focusing attention on one aspect like the name of the
object such a meditation is considered superior. For instance when the
sound ‘gow” is heard (gow is cow ), if the meditiator intently
maintains the word ‘gow’ alone in his mind without bringing the
impression(form) of a cow in his mind then that is considered a
refined meditation. Or when he sees the cow, he does not bring the
name ‘gow’ in the meditation process, it is a refined meditation.

The next aspect-after mastering meditation— one may consider is, what
should be the object one should meditate upon. For Bhakti Yogis it is
the Lord one should meditate upon. According to my teacher, a great
Bhakti Yogi, there is only one dhyana or meditation and that is
bhagavat dhyana or meditating upon the Lord. There is a difference
between a religious person and a devotee. A devotee loves the Lord and
meditates on the Lord, all through life. The Vedas refer to the
Pararmatman or the Supreme Lord and bhakti yogis meditate on the Lord.
The Vedas also refer to several gods and some may meditate on these as
well. By meditating on the Lord one may transcend the cycle of
transmigration. At the end of the bhakti yogi’s life one reaches the
same world of the Lord (saloka), the heaven. Some attain the same form
as the Lord. Some stay in the proximity of the Lord and some merge
with the Lord. The Puranas which are the later creation of poet seers
personify the Lord and the vedic gods. Thus we have several puranas as
Agni purana, Vayu purana and then those of the Lord Himself like the
Bhagavata Purana , Siva Purana , Vishnu Purana. Running to thousands
of slokas and pages the puranic age helped to worship the Lord more
easily as these stories helped to visualize the Lord as a person,
which was rather difficult to do from the Vedas. Later on Agamas made
the Lord more accessible by allowing idols to be made of the Lord and
divine beings and consecrating them in temples. Thus these various
methods helped the general populace remain rooted to religion and
religious worship. So meditating upon the charming idol/icon of the
Lord made it possible for many to worship and meditate . Of course
many traditional Brahmins belonging to the vedic practices stuck to
the vedic fire rituals, frowned upon and refrained from any ‘form
worship’, but millions of others found form worship a great boon.

Meditating on the form of the chosen deity either in a temple or at
one’s own home has made it possible to sidestep the intermediate
priestly class to a great extent. One can become responsible for one’s
own religious practice, including meditation. The ultimate reality is
meditated on in different forms, in any form as Siva Vishnu etc or as
Father, Mother, Preceptor or even a Friend. Some idol meditators
define meditating on the whole form as dharana, then meditating on
each aspect of the form as the toe or head or the arms or the
bewitching eyes as dhyana and thus giving a different interpretation
to meditation. Some, after meditating on the icon, close the eyes and
meditate on the form in their mind’s eye (manasika).

Darshanas like Samkhya and Yoga which do not subscribe to the theory
of a Creator commended ‘the understanding of one’s own Self’ as a
means of liberation. The Self which is non-changing is pure
consciousness and by deep unwavering meditation after getting the
technique right, one can realize the nature of oneself and be
liberated. Following this approach, the Samkhyas commend meditating on
each and every of the 24 aspects of prakriti in the body-mind complex
of oneself and transcend them to directly know the true nature of
oneself, and that will be Freedom or Kaivalya. Similarly the Yogis
would say that the true nature of the self is known when the mind
transcends(nirodha) the five types of its activities called vrittis to
reach kaivalya, by a process of subtler and subtler meditation.

The Upanishads on the other hand while agreeing with the other
Nivritti sastras like Yoga and Samkhya in so far as the nature of the
self is concerned, indicate that the individual and the Supreme Being
are one and the same and meditating on this identity leads to
liberation. They would like the spiritual aspirant to first follow a
disciplined life to get an unwavering satwic state of the mind. Then
one would study the upanishadic texts (sravana), by analysis (manana)
understand them and realize the nature of the self through several
step by step meditation approaches (nidhidhyasana). The Vedas, for the
sake of the spiritual aspirant, have several Upanishad vidyas to study
and understand It from several viewpoints. For instance, the panchkosa
vidya indicates that the real self is beyond (or within) the five
koshas (sheaths). It could also be considered as the pure
consciousness which is beyond the three states of awareness (avasta)
of waking, dream and deep sleep, as the Pranava(Om) vidya would
indicate. The understanding and conviction that Self and the Supreme
Self are one and the same is what one needs to get, before doing
Upanishadic meditation following the advaitic interpretation.

Summarizing one may say that traditional meditation warrants proper
preparation so that the mind becomes irrevocably satwic and thus fit
for and capable of meditation. Secondly it requires practice on a
simple object until the meditation technique is mastered and such
meditatin samskaras developed. Then the Yogi should set the goal of
meditation based on the conviction of a solid philosophy—bhakti,
samkhya, yoga, vedanta, kundalini (or if comfortable, nirvana) or
whatever.”

Thank you Ramaswamiji!

I can’t credit this as my own question, but it’s a good one: “why is it that all these people practice yoga (also known as “stretching”) but never seem to meditate?”

This morning I asked my class (a class that has 15-20 minutes of meditation at the end — and no one leaves) if they are using meditation to gain something or to get rid of something.

My personal yoga practice is almost all meditation nowadays. Yes, I still move, but asanas are merely shapes and forms to lead me into formless quietude.

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taking a long savasana


For what is it to die, but to stand in the sun and melt into the wind? And when the Earth has claimed our limbs, then we shall truly dance.–Kahlil Gibran

Savasana is the dying that brings life so I’ve decided to slowly fade away. I may post sporadically, I may not. How can I not write about the goat sacrifices at the Kali temple in Kolkata or the naked Shiva babas at the Kumbh Mela next year? I’m bringing yin yoga to Africa next year which will surely be fodder for a yoga blog. But that’s next year.

At this juncture I feel written out. I see on my site meter what brings people here and the most searched for phrases are “St. Theresa’s Prayer” and some variation of “naked yoga” or “hot yoga chicks.” Take your pick. If those are the only reasons people are consistently coming here, have at it. As the author of the book that I mention below writes: “All words are lies. At best, they point toward the truth. At worst they totally mislead and create confusion. We already know everything there is to know…”

For those of you who are interested in more than a dead saint’s prayer or a photo of a naked yoga babe — the juxtaposition of those two images is supreme — you can start reading at the beginning of this blog. I’ve been writing since 2005 and I think I’ve laid down some rather pithy posts along the way, this one in particular being a favorite. Hey, maybe I can get a book deal. Or maybe someone will write my obituary in the yoga blogosphere — R.I.P oh snarky one, we hardly knew ye.

There have been internal shifts going on for some time now and I’m going to honor them. Shifts with my yogic path, shifts with my relationships with friends and husband, shifts with my relationship to myself. It’s all good because life is about change. If you don’t evolve, you die, just like the dinosaurs. It’s good to step away from things, whatever those things are, and let the chips fall where they may.

I wonder whether in this journey, instead of feeling more connected (as we are told we are “supposed” to feel the longer one does yoga or meditates), a consequence is feeling even more alone or apart from others. Not disconnected, but truly being in the world, but not of it. Sometimes I feel as if I am on a merry-go-round, and the faces of people I know are circling faster and faster away from me, eventually disappearing. They’ve stopped and I’ve kept going. As I’ve always said, people float in and out of our lives at specific times for various reasons and I stopped trying to figure it out long ago. It just is. The holding on (to anything or anyone) is what causes the suffering. My friends, it’s time to move on.

I will leave you with some quotes from one of the post potent and powerful books I’ve read in my 30+ years of being on a spiritual path: Shadows on the Path by Abdi Assadi , a book I learned about on AnthroYogini’s blog. If I had my own teacher training, this book would absolutely be on the required reading list. There are so many passages that I have underlined and highlighted, that if I cited all of them I would rewrite his entire book in this post. So I will just cite some sentences that have meaning to me right now, in my present experience.

“To undertake a spiritual quest as a defense mechanism against pain without addressing the underlying psychological issues will always lead to a deep splitting of one’s psyche.” (p. 19)

“In my own experience, every teacher I have had had been a perfect mirror of myself at that time….every new partner is an uncanny reflection of our subconscious needs and issues. …I also learned that fully enlightened teachers who have worked through their personality distortions are incredibly rare.” (p. 22)

“The important thing now is to do the work, to prepare the internal vessel for whatever truths may enter. Think of this as a process of simplification, not sophistication.” (p. 23)

“Spirituality is a process of dying, not gaining. This important and obvious point is not often properly acknowledged. The spiritual path is about the death of the needs and wants of an insatiable ego and its endless cycle of desire, acquisition, suffering and renewed hunger.” (p. 16)

“Grace is not a product of our willful volition but something that appears in spite of it. One of our ego’s false presumptions is that it can lead us toward grace instead of understanding that we are already swimming in it. We need to let go to feel this — but that means facing the terror of our best-kept secret: that we are not in control.” (p. 74)

“I do know that to live fully we have to practice dying while still alive. Meditation is this practice. I invite you to practice daily, letting go of who you think you are and being born into who have you have always been.” (p. 96)

I am going to practice dying.

MAY ALL BEINGS HAVE HAPPINESS AND THE CAUSES OF HAPPINESS
MAY ALL BEINGS BE FREE FROM SUFFERING AND THE CAUSES OF SUFFERING
OM MANI PEDME HUM

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meditation

“We hardly ever listen to the sound of a dog’s bark, or to the cry of a child or the laughter of a man as he passes by. We separate ourselves from everything, and then from this isolation look and listen to all things. It is this separation that is so destructive, for in that lies all conflict and confusion. If you listened to the sound of those bells with complete silence, you would be riding on it–or, rather, the sound would carry you across the valley and over the hill. The beauty of it is felt only when you and the sound are not separate, when you are part of it. Meditation is the ending of the separation not by any action of will or desire.

Meditation is not a separate thing from life; it is the very essence of life, the very essence of daily living. To listen to those bells, to hear [that] laughter…to listen to the sound of the bell on the bicycle of the little girl as she passes by: it is the whole of life, and not just fragment of it, that meditation opens.”

(pp. 20-1, Meditations, Chennai, Krishnamurti Foundation India, 2000)

My recent experiences with yoga studios have caused me to draw inward and reflect on human nature. as my teacher told me, I should accept that sometimes there are no answers.

The lines “We separate ourselves from everything, and then from this isolation look and listen to all things. It is this separation that is so destructive, for in that lies all conflict and confusion…” are the operative words for me in this quote. even in the so-called yoga community we separate ourselves from each other and become dogmatic. that is NOT what yoga practice is about in my humble opinion, yoga is about opening up to greater things. and what are those greater things? more students? money? I have a website but I’ve never been good at marketing myself, it’s just not my thing. frankly, the chase for more money and more students gives me pause and leaves me cold. is that what yoga in America has become, the constant chase for “more”? more classes, more students, more yoga jewelery, more $80 yoga pants? and when you get more classes and more students, are you then happy? or does the chase begin all over again for more? even meditators chase after more meditation experiences. Chogyam Trungpa called it spiritual materialism.

A friend told me “I think you belong in India where it’s real. There’s too much of nothing around these parts.” I’ve been to India three times and I can tell you it’s really real, life and death on the streets, in your face 24/7. I’ve been invited to live there. but India has it’s own set of problems just like anywhere else and people certainly claw and scratch for “more” just like we do here. but somehow it’s bit different, at least to me it is.

So these experiences with the studios have caused me to step back and evaluate my life. I know it’s my dharma to teach, I’m just not sure if it’s here because I do long for something more “real” and for something “deeper.” I think it is also my karma to walk this path alone. another friend told me that Kali is testing me, that I must hang in there because the ride has just begun. she said that now my karmic playing field has been emptied from the trash and that I’ll see what comes to fill the void.

I have two trips to India planned. one is a year from now, two months at a south Indian ashram studying yoga therapy with a swami. the second is 2010, the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, the largest spiritual gathering in the world. I really don’t like to plan that far in advance, but I just offer those plans to the Universe and see what comes up, if it happens, it happens. I know in my bones that something will happen to me at the Kumbh.

Maybe my void will be filled. and if I die there, at least I will be next to the Ganges, my body can be burned and returned to Mother Ganga.

But for right now, I will rest and meditate and not look outward for more. my answers are within.

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be here now


Mike always has the best posts in his blog Silent Musings — short, pithy, and exceedingly on point about spirituality. I found myself laughing in agreement at his description of riding the Los Angeles commuter train — in my previous life as a legal assistant I rode the train to downtown Chicago everyday and also learned to laugh at the floor. because there’s no where else to be but here.

just this, just here, just now.

every time I return from India people stare at me in disbelief at some of my stories about, shall we say, the less touristy aspects of India that I deal with on a daily basis when I’m there — the legless beggars, the starving dogs, begging children pulling on my clothes. “how can you stand it?,” they ask.

easy. I laugh at the floor. as Mike wrote, I find the profound beauty in the Indian floor beneath my feet and know how foolish I would be to think that it should be anything other than what it is.

I received an email today from a friend who is in Varanasi and she said that she watched a man standing in the Ganges, washing up for the day and brushing his teeth….about 5 feet away from him was a corpse and a dead cow.

just this, just here, just now.

Mike says:

“Surrender means giving up the pursuit and accepting, done to the bone, that you’ll never get anything from meditation or any other spiritual practice, other than being right here exactly where you already are. Mundane, of the world, form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. If you actually give up, and aren’t just fantasizing about surrender, you may find a profound beauty in the simplicity of the floor beneath your feet. And perhaps you will find yourself laughing/crying, as the floor laughs back at you for the foolishness of all those years of seeking.”

As yoga practitioners and meditators we run from one form or style to another, always seeking, never stopping. there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with searching and seeking, I’ve done plenty of it myself. but there comes a time when you need to know when to stop and to just be with what you already are. perfect. we are already in the place where we need to be and all our healing comes from within. if you don’t have your answers, maybe you’re not asking the right questions, because we already have all the answers we need. search deeper — we only need to listen to them when they arise within us but that’s the problem — we don’t listen to and believe our true voices and we continue our search for the next best thing until we fall down, exhausted, and surrender everything to the Universe.

only then do we realize we are perfect, just the way we are.

“It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism. If we do not step out of spiritual materialism, if we in fact practice it, then we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths. We may feel these spiritual collections to be very precious. We have studied so much. We may have studied Western philosophy or Oriental philosophy, practiced yoga, or perhaps have studied under dozens of great masters. We have achieved and we have learned. We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge. And yet, having gone through all this, there is still something to give up. It is extremely mysterious! How could this happen? Impossible! But unfortunately it is so. Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego’s display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in doing so, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as “spiritual” people.”
–Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

jai bhagwan

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"ecology of mind"

Here is Chogyam Trungpa’s “ecology of mind”, a talk given at Naropa University in 1974. for those of you who don’t know him, Trungpa was the “crazy wisdom” meditation teacher credited with bringing the Shambhala tradition of Buddhism to the west in terms accessible to westerners. The Shambhala tradition believes in the inherent wisdom, compassion, and courage of all beings. It holds that these qualities are ultimately more stable than aggression and greed, and shows us how to use this worldly life as a means to ripen our spiritual potential. Besides his idea of “crazy wisdom”, I love his other ideas of “idiot compassion” and “spiritual materialism.”

since my post body consciousness: a discussion attracted so many comments about “what is meditation?”, I thought I would post some excerpts from Trungpa’s article. talk amongst yourselves!

“Meditation helps to simplify your life. It is the act of surrendering while sitting on your meditation cushion. Then, by relating directly with your breath, body and mind, you have no problems communicating with yourself.”

“When we begin to practice and to learn more, we may think we should be adding tricks or embellishments of all kinds to our practice. This is the approach of spiritual materialism.”

“Spiritual discipline is not about advancement, but it is a question of undoing what we have created already. We are not talking about extending ourselves to become greater or more professional meditators, we are talking about meditation as unlearning.”

“The basic practice of meditation is a question of simplicity. The technique for the practice of meditation that was prescribed by the Buddha is working with the awareness of breath. That tends to cut through the unnecessary chatter of thought….Just be with your breath; just be with your body….Just sit and be with your breath. Let the breath be your thought.”

So let your breaths be your thoughts as Trungpa’s son, Mipham asks you, “What about me?”…..


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when loving-kindness is needed


(Photo for the Tribune by Patrick Yeagle)

About 5 hours ago I had to deal with students whose friends witnessed a massacre.

7 dead in NIU shooting; 4 identified; Ex-graduate student slays 6 before killing himself

I teach at a community college that is less than 40 minutes from Northern Illinois University. I was starting my 4:45 yoga class when students walked in late and told me there was a shooting at NIU, that they were waiting for news about their friends. Two girls were crying because they did not know if their friends were dead or alive.

I had to make some announcements before I started to teach, but I knew that metta — loving-kindness — meditation was in order. So I asked them to come to a comfortable seat and just breath, to watch the breath, and not to run from whatever physical or emotional sensations come up. and then I started to teach them about loving-kindness meditation.

I told them to step outside themselves and see themselves and repeat “may I be well, happy, peaceful, may I be safe.” I said that if they preferred they need only say “may I be safe.” after awhile I told them to visualize the NIU campus, to visualize anyone that they knew was in that killing hall, or to visualize the friends, parents, and loved ones of those who died, and to send them loving kindness and peace.

then I told them that what they are about to do will be the hardest of all: to send loving-kindness to the killer. I told them that when I was in the Dalai Lama’s teachings, His Holiness said that the highest compassion of all was to have compassion for your enemies, or someone like a terrorist or a murderer. I told them if they did not want to do that, that’s fine, but keep sending loving-kindness first to themselves, then out to others.

I told them that thoughts are energy, so they should send out love and peace, even to people who they think don’t deserve it, like the killer. I told them about my Buddhist prayer that I end all my classes with (however, not at the school — it’s a public school, tax-payer supported, you know how that goes), the prayer about the Four Immeasureables:

may all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness
may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering
may all beings never be parted from freedom’s true Joy
may all beings dwell in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion

I told them that “all beings” meant just that: everyone, not just “good” people, but even killers.

Tomorrow will bring more news about what happened. next week I will deal with the aftermath of this on my students. I hope for the coming week they will remember what I taught them today, for themselves, to ease their suffering.

I thank all my teachers, and my teachers’ teachers, for all that I have learned about yoga, meditation, and Buddhism.

and I bow to Buddha, for the Dharma and for showing me the way out of suffering.

peace
shanti
salaam aleikum
so shall it be

body consciousness


Those of you who have been reading this blog regularly know that I don’t treat yoga as a physical exercise or performance art. I know that people come to yoga for all different reasons, and many people say “so what if people just do yoga for the work-out? they’ll find the non-physical part of it eventually.”

my contention is…maybe.

remember what I said before: in the pre-Yoga Journal days, that is, when I dabbled in yoga and meditation in college in the early ’70s, the only people I knew doing yoga and meditation were patchoulli oil wearing hippies who had already been to or were going to India. They lived in communes or had studied with white-robed gurus who did not separate yoga and meditation. Yoga was meditation and meditation was yoga. what a concept!

I also contend that if one is “doing yoga” for only the physical aspects, it ain’t yoga. it’s acrobatics. it’s gymnastics. but it ain’t yoga. I’ve heard Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya, say the same thing. you can call a dog a cat a thousand times, but that will never make that dog a cat. it’s still a dog, no matter what you call it. so you can call your morning work-out “yoga” all you want, but that does not make it yoga.

what I find in my classes both with beginners and experienced students is that they are very disembodied. their bodies are in the room, but their minds are not. my teaching is very breath-oriented, and I can always tell when someone moves first, and then breathes. it’s become second nature to me. and when they are holding the asanas, I can always tell how they are “out there”, instead of “in here”, that is, in their own skin. the darting eyes, the twitching fingers, the hard bellies without the softness of breath, the constant adjustments without stopping to feel the asana, the need to rush on to the next asana, these are all dead give-aways of disembodiment.

I teach a slow flow vinyasa, moving with the breath, and also yin. Yin is a style that can make people uncomfortable in their own skin because they have to be still for at least five minutes in order to stretch the connective tissue (and thereby the meridians of the body) in order to facilitate opening and an increased flow of chi. it’s a style that teaches you to stop resisting, first in your yoga, but more importantly, I believe, in your life.

it is also a style that connects you to the concept of surrendering to your body. I think the concept of surrender is a dirty word to many western yogis because the western mindset is conditioned for resistance and hardness, in other words, “working out.” I believe that the way you do your yoga is the way you live your life…soft v. hard, resistance v. surrender, rushed v. slow, pushing away v. acceptance.

In my Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training we must do periodic readings and one reading was a chapter called “Sensations” from Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness by Will Johnson. as I was reading a light bulb went off over my head and I said “YES!, this is why people are uncomfortable meditating”. not because our minds run away with us, which is what people always say, but because we run away from our physical sensations. what comes up in asana practice or when we try to meditate draws us into the present moment and sometimes that’s a terrifying place to be. the present moment helps us experience life in the here and now instead of regretting the past or anticipating the future. the present moment helps us become embodied rather than disembodied. when we stop feeling our physical sensations, when we run away from them, when we are “out there” instead of “in here”, that is when the monkey mind takes over. that’s when I see the twitching fingers and the darting eyes.

it’s hard to be still because we are conditioned to run.

Johnson says that “it is not possible to be aware of the full presence of bodily sensations and lost in the involuntary monologue of the mind at the same time.” Buddha said that “everything that arises in the mind starts flowing with a sensation on the body.”

Below is an excerpt from one of my favorite blogs The Absent Mind. In this post Mike writes about meditation, surrender, and acceptance:

I’ve been feeling that I could actually meditate indefinitely, if not for physical limitations. And even then, I could probably bear any level of physical discomfort. Somewhere along the line, I passed a point where I stopped resisting or expecting anything from meditation. Or life for that matter. The two go hand in hand.

…I still resist life here and there like everyone else. But not nearly as much as I once did. With regard to meditation, I am in awe of the beauty of utter simplicity. A friend of mine once said that transformation is the shift from nothing is very satisfying to nothing is very satisfying. Brilliant, and oh, so True.

When people ask me about meditation, they often tell me they have tried it but can’t sit still for even 15 minutes. What can I tell them? Practice.

Here is another hint that might unlock the door for some. The reason that people can’t sit still in meditation (or any other part of life) is that they want to eliminate what they perceive as the negative. In the case of meditation, it can be mind chatter or whatever unpleasant thoughts or feelings arise. How many times have I heard the words, “If I could only quiet my mind …”?

But the problem with that perspective is this: reducing the negative in anything only changes the scale on which you operate. It never eliminates duality. For example, if you reduce mind chatter to the point where you only have a fleeting thought once every 2 minutes, you may still be just as annoyed by that thought as you were with constant mind chatter. There is no escape from thoughts, feelings, or any other forms of negativity. There is only surrender, acceptance.

As one of life’s most excruciating ironies, a funny thing happens with surrender. Gradually one opens up to the profound beauty in every movement, thought, feeling, or stirring. One becomes able to perceive even the slightest shift in energy, and the Silence of Pure Being arises amidst the storm of thinking, feeling, and otherwise being alive.

(emphasis added)

In my comment to his post I said that when people try to meditate they usually run from any type of temporary physical sensation. Mike said: “I notice this, too, when attending yoga classes. The most challenging (yet also most satisfying) aspect of the asana is the relaxing into body consciousness. Of course, this is why breath is so important, because it is synonymous with energy flow and the consciousness of the body.” (emphasis added.)

Mike said that he pondered the question, “why does consciousness follow this body around?” and when he asked his teacher, his teacher said “‘the body is consciousness.’ …there is no separation of mind and body, they are one and the same.”

mind + body = no duality. until we understand that, we’re not doing yoga.