the dharma of doo-doo

It always does my heart good when I hear a student talk about how yoga has helped them in their life. Most of the realizations I’ve heard are more about the non-physical than the physical, things on a deeper level than achieving an arm balance or handstand. I sit back and say to myself (or sometimes out loud), yes, they get it, someone has been paying attention!

I’ve always said that yoga is about life so what better teaching than a pile of dog doo-doo in the middle of a bike path.

A few weeks ago I had told my students that at Will Kabat-Zinn’s retreat he had talked about how one little thought can create our reality in a second. For example, we’re walking down the street and we pass someone, we assign the word “creepy”, and our mind instantly creates an entire story about that person, we create an entire world around that person. Will said, “you never know what someone else’s story is.” In other words, just as the Buddha taught, be on the lookout as to how your thoughts create your reality.

Then on Saturday morning during the yin part of our practice I read excerpts from Sarah Powers’ chapter in Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga & Buddhism.

Sarah wrote about how embroiled she became in her emotions as she laid in bed bathed in sweat from the heat. She said she became “utterly intolerant of my experience and before I knew it, I was defiantly standing, almost expecting I would encounter an enemy lurking.” Sarah said that as she simply watched her intense emotions she became aware of how her angst effortlessly slipped away and how she began to feel calm and present. She was astonished at how a strong emotion can decompose as she mindfully turned her attention inward to her direct experience in the moment. Her next moment was no less fiery, but her inner attitude had shifted. Her experience of the sweltering heat had changed simply because her attention had shifted from resistance to mindful observation.

As my students were in sphinx post one of them told the story of how she was walking her favorite path and she experienced what Sarah experienced: the shift from rage to mindful observation of her fiery emotions:

“On my first lap I just missed stepping in some dog poop in the middle of the paved walking path that circled my neighborhood park. I was enraged that someone would let their dog defecate on the walkway without cleaning it up and assumed it came from the large dog being walked by a woman I had just passed going in the opposite direction a few minutes earlier. I spent the rest of my first lap feeling irritated and blaming this woman for not cleaning up after her dog.

When I got to that same spot during my second lap, I still felt irritated and decided dogs should not be allowed in the park.

On my third lap I began to wonder whether or not the poop had perhaps been there for several hours, which would then exonerate the dog currently in the park as well as his owner. My irritation began to dissipate.

On the fourth lap I realized I had no way of knowing if it was this woman’s dog that had made the mess, so I really couldn’t blame her. I didn’t think anymore about it as I finished the lap.

On the fifth lap, I reminded myself there was poop on the walk but it no longer upset me. An oncoming jogger and I smiled at each other was we both sidestepped the mess.”

After my student told her story I clapped and thanked her for sharing this marvelous teaching. “You get it!,” I told her, “You’ve no idea how this does my heart good, thank you for listening all these years!” I asked if she felt these emotions in her body — Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness. Yes, she said. I told her that ultimately on the fifth lap she experienced Buddha’s Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, mindfulness of the dharma, i.e., the nature of reality which is impermanence — all things change. Her feelings of rage at the dog poop in the middle of the bike path during the first lap had changed to feelings of neutrality by the fifth lap. My student’s thoughts on first seeing the dog poop and then a woman and her dog had created her reality and her own suffering. If we are paying attention we notice how all things are temporary. That’s awakening, and it comes slowly but surely.

I said, “See how our thoughts create our reality? You created your own suffering all because of a pile in the middle of the path.” I asked whether she would have noticed these subtle shifts of consciousness if this had happened before she started a yoga and mindfulness practice. Her answer was no.

Yoga is Life. All things are a training. Even a hot steaming mess in the middle of your Path.

Happy Saga Dawa!

In the Tibetan tradition, June 7 was Saga Dawa, a remembrance of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. Saga Dawa is the entire fourth month of the Tibetan calendar which this year began on May 25 and ends on June 22. The seventh day of Saga Dawa, May 30, is the day of the historical Buddha’s birth for Tibetans. However, the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana at his death are observed together on the 15th day of Saga Dawa which was June 7.

A faithful reader sent me this link to a series of gorgeous photos and pithy dharma quotes in the blog of a very talented photographer: Gritz Photo Blog. One bit of wisdom from the blog:

“Conflicting emotions come from within this mind, this inner security we have set up for ourselves, where we think of our emotions as legitimate. For the world to function it is not necessary to have a belief that it is real or permanent. If I am convinced that all phenomena are impermanent I am convinced that my distractions will be reduced. We have to give up wrong views, an improper attitude towards others, that everyone is ever lasting …There is a discrepancy between how things are and how we see them.

We know everything is impermanent but we would rather see it as permanent.”
–Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche

Tomorrow I am off to Vermont for seven days to attend Level 2 training of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. I’m excited about seeing Vermont as the only place I’ve been out east is Washington, DC. Funny how I’ve been to India three times and never to New England. Here is what I wrote about how I resonated with the Level 1 training. We shall see what Level 2 brings.

may all beings have happiness 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.

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how easy to forget

“Happiness is what greases the wheels of life. It’s also what opens the floodgates, marshals the forces, commands the elements, raises the sun, aligns the stars, beats your heart, heals what hurts, turns the page, makes new friends, finds true love, calls the shots, waves the wand, connects the dots, feeds your mind, frees your soul, rocks the world, and pays compound interest.

Yeah, so easy to forget.

Wild on,
The Universe”

This was my email from The Universe this morning. happiness: something that is easy to forget, yet easy to choose.

We’ve been having a typical Chicagoland spring with days of brilliant sun mixed with freezing days of snow and sleet. as I drove to the yoga studio yesterday morning the sun was shining gloriously after a Saturday of gloomy clouds and rain, cold enough for me to start my fireplace. as I drove I thought that even though the day before was exactly the type of weather I hate, how wonderful it was to experience everything that this life has to offer. I was grateful, I had an attitude of gratitude by the time I reached the studio.

Sometimes unpleasant things can teach us greater lessons more so than the pleasant. I am still dealing with an eye problem, still dealing with (sometimes) excrutiating lower back pain, still dealing with the remnants of rage left over from the actions of an alcoholic yoga studio owner.

yet, I am grateful. despite the eye problem, I am not blind in one eye. despite the back pain, it is not constant and I can still do a strong yoga practice and still teach. I know in my bones that my back pain is a manifestation of the rage I felt over the betrayal I experienced at the yoga studio where I used to teach. after deep examination I’ve come to know that the rage is actually against myself for allowing myself to be affected so deeply by the actions of others. I’ve beat myself up for not “letting go and letting be.” but that realization is a way through it and out of it. it’s all good, every day is a gift.

The Buddha believed that our natural state is happiness. As Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche writes:

“We need to seriously investigate whether people who have fame, power, and wealth are happy and whether those who have nothing are always unhappy. When we look into this, we see that happiness is not based on objects but on one’s mental state. For that reason, those who are truly happy are the ones who appreciate what they have. Whenever we are content, in that moment, we are fulfilled. The teachings of the Buddha are common sense.

On one hand, it’s very simple: we are all searching for happiness. How do we become happy without a big effort? Whenever we appreciate what we have, we are happy. That effort is an intelligent technique. We might have a very simple life, but still we can think, This flower is lovely or This water is good. If we are too picky, thinking this is wrong and that’s wrong, then nothing is ever perfect. We need to learn how to be content so that whatever we have is precious, real, and beautiful. Otherwise, we might be chasing one mirage after another.”

In Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield wrote:

“When the mind ceases to want and judge and identify with whatever arises, we see the empty flow of experience as it is. We come to a ground of silence and inherent completeness. When we stop struggling and let be, the natural wisdom, joy, and freedom of our being emerges and expresses itself effortlessly….

To come to this we must accept paradox. As T.S. Eliot beseeches, ‘teach us to care and not care.’ In meditation we learn to care with full-hearted attention, a true caring for each moment. Yet we also learn to let go. We do not separate out only those experiences we enjoy, but cultivate a sense of harmony, opening constantly to the truth within us and connecting with all life.”

Atma hrdaye
Hrdayam mayi
Aham amrti
Anrtam anandam

“Let my life force be linked to my heart
and my heart be linked to the truth that lies deep within me.
Let that truth be linked to the eternal
which is unending joy.”

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While working with a private student this morning I asked:

why is it that people are so attached to things they CAN NOT change and don’t do anything about (or are so detached from) the things that they CAN change?

How does that view of reality get so turned around in people’s heads?

You can’t change the bad weather, you can’t change being stuck in traffic, you can’t change a slow line at the airport, you can’t change the way your mother or father treated you in your childhood. so why are you intimately attached to your own suffering? maybe because your suffering gives you your identity?

do you experience sadness or are you a sad person? do you experience anger or are you an angry person? hugely different scenarios.

However, you can change the way you look at things: you can cultivate more patience, you can become less judgmental, you can become more compassionate (always first towards yourself), you can slow down, you can stop multi-tasking. so why do you have aversion to changing your conditioning? maybe because if you changed your conditioning you would not be “you”?

oh those pesky samskaras! who would we be without them?

It dawned on me that this is the cause of so much suffering.

I am not going to write a long esoteric post of what the Buddha taught, but some of the things he taught were about the impermanence of all things, about seeing the true nature of reality, about attachment and aversion.

People cling to the mindset of “that’s the way I’ve always been” or “that’s the way we’ve always done things” when they are talking about their lives in the HERE AND NOW. Because X happened 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, that is why they are like this now. We are “survivors” of this and “victims” of that. that has nothing to do with NOW.

I always use the example of concentration camp survivors when I talk to students about changing their way of looking at things….

two men survive Auschwitz. they both lost their entire families. they are all alone. they both suffered through the cold, the lice, the dysentery, the starvation, through the same horrors. but when they are liberated, what makes one a Nazi hunter and what makes the other a hungry ghost shackled to the past? are they both survivors or are they both victims?

I am reading Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi. this is one of the best yoga books I have encountered and it will definitely be on the students’ required reading list when I start my own teacher training program. it is not a book on asana practice, it is so much more…just like yoga.

In the chapter “A Box of Monsters”, Farhi writes that separating our true Self from our box of monsters is no easy task, and she cites the advice of the great Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi. She says that Maharshi used an analogy repeatedly with his students to help them understand the layers of their experience:

“It is like a cinema. The screen is always there but several types of pictures appear on the screen and then disappear. Nothing sticks to the screen; it remains the screen. Similarly, you remain your own Self in all the three states [wakefulness, dream, deep sleep]. If you know that, the three states will not trouble you, just as the pictures which appear on the screen do not stick to it. On the screen you sometimes see a huge ocean with endless waves; that disappears. Another time you see fire spreading all around; that too disappears. The screen is there on both occasions. Did the screen get wet with the water or did it get burned by the fire? Nothing affected the screen. In the same way, the things that happen during the wakeful, dream, and sleep states do not affect you at all; you remain your own Self.”

Maharshi’s basic question was: are you the screen or are you the projection?

Farhi says that if you think the projection and the screen are the same, then it is like thinking that every time a horror show is on television, you’re going to have to fix the TV.

Yes, as feeling human beings we are affected by the horrors we endure, but that is not our endgame because we are so much more. Some may call me a survivor, a statistic, but I am so much more. we have a body, but we are more than our bodies. we are more than our box of monsters. what remains after our own horror show remains undamaged.

As a wise-ass Buddhist once said, life is suffering, life sucks, but pain is optional.
the choice is yours.

Impermanent are all compounded things.
When one perceives this with true insight,
then one becomes detached from suffering;
this is the path of purification.

Dhammapada 20.277

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thanks given


Suddha Weixler. . .for showing me what it means to be a true yogi

Srivatsa Ramaswami. . .for showing me what pure yoga is and inspiring me to go to India

Paul Grilley. . .for showing me that yoga truly is “all in the bones”

Sarah Powers. . .for confirming for me what I have always intuited

My students. . .for their support along this Path

Buddha. . .for the Dharma and for showing me the way out of suffering


right livelihood

Dzambhala — Buddhist — He embodies the power of wealth to benefit beings. He symbolizes “richness” in all its forms and holds the mongoose which vomits jewels for the benefit of beings.

Ganesha — Hindu — God of Prosperity

Right Livelihood is one part of the Ethical Conducts in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddha together with Right Speech and Right Action.

Right livelihood means that one should earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1. dealing in weapons, 2. dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3. working in meat production and butchery, and 4. selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.

As long as I’ve been teaching yoga I’ve had more than a few discussions with yoga teachers about whether it’s really OK to be paid for teaching yoga. One yoga teacher tells me that “yoga is really supposed to be taught for free.” Uh…really? Where does it say that in the Yoga Teacher By-Laws? Did I miss the fine print somewhere? Actually I do teach for free and that’s my karma yoga that I do once a month at a domestic violence shelter and I’ve been doing that for going on three years now. Truth be told, it’s my favorite class to teach.

One of my private students is a business entrepeneur and we discussed Right Livelihood when he gave me advice on starting a yoga clothes business. He rolled his eyes when I told him how some yoga teachers believe that yoga should be free and he said, “I see lots of ads in Yoga Journal so somebody is making money.”

Money itself is not good or bad, that’s merely a judgment. Money just IS. It’s all about how it’s used and what it’s used for.

Ethan Nichtern, creator of the ID Project and son of David Nichtern, gives a great interview on Buddhism & Money: Does Priceless Mean It’s Free?. While he speaks specifically about the spiritual economics of teaching the dharma and what Right Livelihood ought to look like in a market economy, everything he says can also be applied to the spiritual economics of teaching yoga.

In this culture, the reality is that yoga is big business. A yoga teacher is performing a service just like a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, or a “Life Coach.” Ethan makes the excellent point that Life Coaches charge upwards of $100 an hour, while a dharma teacher, especially one who has gone through many hours of training in, for example, the Shambhala tradition, is sometimes much better equipped than a Life Coach to help someone. But are you going to pay your dharma teacher $100 an hour? I didn’t think so.

It’s about the perception of value, what value do you place on yoga, meditation, or the dharma? Ethan said that when he managed a Shambhala center they would ask people to “donate” $25 toward something, but they would say that $25 wasn’t in their budget. But two days later he’d go out to dinner with the same people and they would spend more than $25 on dinner and drinks.

I see that all the time at the studio where I teach. Early this year I did a fundraiser for the domestic violence shelter and had a donation box on the desk. The studio also has a small retail section so I would watch women write checks for $100 for yoga clothes, but when the donation box would be pointed out to them they did not have a buck to donate. But 15 minutes later I would see them down the street at Starbucks paying $4.00 for a double shot carmel macadoodle frappawhozit whatever.

One of the best pieces of business advice I ever got was from my first accountant when I started my garden design business. He said, “never give away your services, because if it’s free, people won’t value it.” Ethan says the same thing when he says that teaching the dharma is priceless, but the western capitalist mindset equates “price-less” with “it doesn’t have a price.”

To paraphrase Ethan, our motivation as yoga or dharma teachers should not be toward the bling, but we also need to get out of the naive “poverty mentality” about teaching.

notes from the Dalai Lama

This might be first place you’ll read that the Dalai Lama is cute — a stooped, shuffling little old man whom you want to hug, or at least help into his chair. There is something so endearing about a stooped, shuffling little old man with a beautiful smile, twinkling eyes, and a hearty laugh. A simple monk, as he says.

I spent three days in the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Madison, Wisconsin, and also received a Green Tara empowerment and blessing. I sat less than 30 feet from him for all three days, and when he walked in, everyone in the huge events center rose from their seats and you could hear a pin drop. I was seeing him for the first time, and I started to cry. In my training with Sarah Powers she spoke about meeting the Dalai Lama and how he radiates “presence” — how as yogis we should cultivate “presence”, not merely cultivate awareness of being in the “present moment”. Think about that, yoga peeps. Now I know what Sarah meant by “presence”.

His Holiness’ teachings were on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Experiential Teachings: “Songs of Spiritual Experience: Condensed Points of the Stages of the Path” and “The Good-Goal Expression of Realization: The Spiritual Autobiography of Lama Tsongkhapa.” These texts were divided into short paragraphs and His Holiness spoke at length in Tibetan about each paragraph which his translator then explained to us. His explanations were fascinating, but two lines from Tsongkhapa’s Songs of Spiritual Experience resonated with me: “If we do not contemplate the causal process of the origin of suffering, we will fail to understand how to cut the root of cyclic existence.”

Here are a few notes from my three days with His Holiness:

He advises people to stay with their own religion, because sometimes changing religions can cause confusion. He feels very strongly about this. But he also believes that we can learn from other traditions, so the “whole planet can be one entity.” Having knowledge of others’ practices, leads to having more respect for the other person. However, if the other tradition (such as Buddhism) seems more effective to you, then study it deeply. It is our individual choice, but it does not mean that our original tradition is no longer good or effective, we should still respect our former religion.

He said that the key approach to Buddhism is the cultivation of “discriminating awareness”, i.e., developing a deeper insight into the nature of reality which is the impermanence of all things. This discriminating awareness will bring about the transformation of our emotions from a mind that denies what is real or exaggerates what is real to an awakened mind that arises from a deeper understanding of the buddha-dharma.

To be truly on the Buddhist spiritual path, one must be grounded in the nature of reality, which Buddha taught in his First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma upon his enlightenment, i.e., the Four Noble Truths: that there is suffering, what is the origin of suffering, what is the cessation of suffering, and what is the path that leads to cessation of suffering. It is only when we have this basis of understanding, that we have the potential to change via the Noble Eightfold Path. Buddha said that root of all our suffering is our own ignorance of this reality; our own ignorance is what perpetuates our own suffering and keeps us in the “cyclic existence” of our own negative samsaras.

As for following a spiritual path, I thought that what His Holiness had to say can also apply to the relationship between a yoga teacher and the yoga student. He said that someone whose own mind is not disciplined, should not be training others’ minds. The Dalai Lama believes that this idea should be taken seriously.

According to Vajrayana Buddhism, the student should examine the person they want as a teacher. The teacher’s qualities should not be confined to knowledge, because knowledge can be inferred. The key is to check the level of realization — again, a disciplined state of mind. I took this to mean not just talking the talk, but walking the walk, with sincere effort. As my own teacher says, even if you fall off the path 500 times, get back up and keep walking, with determination. His Holiness believes that if the spiritual mentor displays the qualities that the student is seeking, then the student can infer from external behavior the suitability of a teacher.

But the spiritual seeker also needs certain qualities — objectivity, no bias one way or the other; a certain degree of intelligence to evaluate right and wrong; and sincere interest. As I tell my students, come to class with a beginner’s mind and an open heart, but take that attitude off the mat and into your life.

After the teachings, I went to the Dalai Lama’s public address where a few Christian fundamentalists were demonstrating against him, handing out their literature that said that Buddhists have no concept of right or wrong and that the Dalai Lama is going to hell unless he accepts Jesus Christ. I thought about how ironic this was considering His Holiness’ strong belief in not leaving your own religion. The topic of the Dalai Lama’s public address was “Compassion: The Source of Happiness.” I guess those Christians should have sat in on his speech.

As a practicing Buddhist, being in the Dalai Lama’s presence and experiencing his teachings was profound and powerful for me. I must still be in the Dalai Lama Zone when my students tell me how grounded and centered I look. What I especially loved about His Holiness was how he made fun of himself and how he admitted to being judgmental — like how some of his meetings are a “waste of time”, how he thinks some speeches are “boring”, and how he probably would not have a lot of patience with raising children! He’s human! And a simple monk, with exquisite intelligence and a beautiful smile.

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
om mani pedme hum

buying your way toward enlightenment

Isn’t this great? I can’t wait to get my new VISA card that has an AUM or Buddha’s face on it!

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I saw an ad for this I let out a groan. Using Buddha or the AUM symbol to market something that is the epitome of a capitalist society just rubs me the wrong way. Sort of like when I see the images of Hindu gods and goddesses on underwear or see a cocktail called the “Buddha Bomb” on a menu — a tad distasteful to me, but maybe I’m just overly sensitive to things like that.

While I commend VISA for the concept of the card holders’ points going toward socially conscious projects such as Youth Aids or Rainforest Action Netork, there is also something about using these images to promote accumulating more unnecessary junk in our lives that is disingenuous to me.

To me, yoga and the spiritual path are about downsizing. Ridding our lives of clutter, both physical and emotional, in order to strip us down to our bare essence, to our True Nature. I know for myself that the longer I walk along the yoga path, the less I “need”. I may want things — who wouldn’t want a pair of $90 yoga pants with handpainted chakra symbols flowing down the legs? — but more times than not I ask myself, yeah, but do I really need them?

I could charge my next yoga retreat with this credit card, but when it comes right down to it, I don’t need a credit card with an AUM symbol on it to remind me to think globally and act locally.

A few weeks ago I taught a yoga class as a benefit for a local domestic violence shelter. I had a donation box set out in the yoga studio where I teach for about two weeks before the fundraiser. I raised a lot money, but I found it amusing when a student wrote a check for $120 for a class pass, and then could not even put $1 into the donation box. That’s OK — maybe she was still paying off her credit card bill that included those chakra pants, with the matching $150 Swarovski crystal sacred energy Shakti necklace, and the $80 eco-yoga mat that she carried in the $200 real leather yoga mat bag. Later I saw the same student buying a $4 cup of coffee at the Starbucks down the street.

Hmmmm…I wonder if she used that AUM card to charge that latte?