29 July 2008

my heart was torn open


Last night I attended a kirtan by Krishna Das and my heart was torn open. I am still feeling the effects of the bhakti so excuse this writing as I am feeling a bit disjointed.

I sat listening with my eyes closed feeling the waves of his amazing voice pour over me. he sang a chant to Durga and when he chanted the word "Kali", it felt like someone took their finger and hit me between my eyebrows, in my Third Eye, and tears started streaming down my face. immediately. uncontrollable. it is said that sometimes when a devotee merely sees a picture or hears the name of the Divine, the jolt is instantaneous. that is shakti.

When he chanted a mantra to Hanuman, all I saw in my mind was when I was in Rameswaram, India, standing on the roof of a small Kali temple, looking out into the ocean at sunset....

As I stood staring out into that ocean, I thought about Hanuman, the Monkey God, leaping across the ocean to rescue Sita in Lanka. I believed it was possible. pure compassion and love for Sita and for his lord, Rama.

I returned last week from sitting four days with the Dalai Lama in his teachings in Madison, Wisconsin. my heart was torn open by his compassion for a woman who discovered a lump in her breast on the last morning of his teachings.

During the afternoon sessions His Holiness took questions from the audience. his translator said that a woman wanted to ask a personal question. she said she had discovered a lump while bathing that morning and wondered whether she should tell her husband. she said her husband was a non-believer in anything and that two women in his family died of breast cancer. she wondered whether she should tell her husband because that would only create much suffering for him. she also said they had no health insurance.

His Holiness was visibly shaken. his concern was palpable, I could feel it from where I sat. he placed his hands together in the "namaste" gesture and said he was touched that the woman would ask him such a personal question. His Holiness said he did not know whether she should tell her husband, that it was her decision. he wondered if she could get government assistance. then he went back to the text he was teaching from, but I could tell that he was thinking about the question. he seemed distracted.

He stopped teaching and said, "about the woman with the lump...." and said that a doctor of Tibetan medicine was traveling with them for this trip. he said Tibetan medicine is very powerful and has been known to cure serious illnesses. he announced that if the woman was in the audience, that she should contact the doctor that is with His Holiness. pure compassion and love. the tears started streaming down my face. immediately. uncontrollable.

and my heart was torn open.

14 July 2008

the retreat, part 2: Yoga Dawg goes legit!

I have finally found some time to write a a bit about my second 10 day retreat for my Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. You can read about the first retreat in October, 2007 here.

We had the same teachers from last year except for Stephen Cope from Kripalu. I missed him because I love his style. In his place was Chip Hartranft who wrote The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary which is the version of the Sutras we are using for this training. In his book Chip skillfully shows how the buddha-dharma can not be separated from Patanjali's yoga philosophy.

My interview with a yoga teacher was with Chip and I loved his style as much as I loved Stephen Cope's. Chip is sweet and down-to-earth and the real deal in my opinion. We were both sorry that our 15 minute talk seemed to end so quickly. I look forward to seeing him next year as he will be one of the teachers leading asana practice, along with Jill Satterfield.

The guest yoga teachers for this retreat were my teacher, Sarah Powers, and Judith Lasater. It was good to see Sarah as she is my teacher for yin yoga together with Paul Grilley when they come to Chicago. We did a yin and yang practice with Sarah and restorative yoga with Judith Lasater. I will say that after spending two days with Judith and her style of yoga, I wanted to leave the retreat -- more on Judith's classes in my next post.

Anne Cushman, who wrote Enlightenment for Idiots (see my sidebar), is one of the coordinators of this training and she led us in classes and also gave a talk on yoga. Although it was a mostly silent retreat, I thanked her for sending me her book and she told me she was going to quote YogaDawg in her talk -- so that's how YogaDawg became legit, his book quoted at a yoga and meditation training. I was amused when I saw students furiously writing down his words about yoga students, and I wondered whether they realized it's yoga satire....after all, Lindia is YogaDawg's evil yogini sister, bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha (that was supposed to be an evil laugh.)

Anne opened her discussion by posing the question: how does asana practice help mindfulness practice? she said because everything -- meditation, pranayama, Patanjali's and the Buddha's words -- are used in the service of waking up. she said that yoga was never supposed to be for anything other than awakening and seeing the world clearly as it is. that is enlightenment.

in the retreat asana practice cultivates a deeper exploration of our emotions, mind states, and body and breath. we use our asana practice to explore our relief from suffering, to bring us ease, and to explore the Four Noble Truths in relationship to our practice and therefore our life. yoga is life -- Krishnamacharya knew this when he said "breath is central to yoga because it is central to life and yoga is about life." practice is life and our life is the practice. yoga has the toolbox to bring us blissful states but the problem comes when we think that's the only thing yoga can do, i.e., when we use yoga as a quick fix. what do we do when there is no quick fix? what are the larger principles we can bring to our asana practice?

Anne named four things:

1. bring the quality of metta (loving-kindness) or self-compassion to your practice. she said that sometimes metta was more important than mindfulness because we are judgmental about our practice. we forget that we are already complete and as yogins we have too much internal criticism about our practice. when we practice self-compassion our mindfulness will flourish naturally.

2. remember to use asana practice AS IT IS; know the difference between goal and intention. be present and develop a new relationship with WHAT IS. be willing to be present in your practice and transformation will occur. use your asana practice as a counterpose to the culture at large where we are pressured to constantly and continually become "better" because it is never good enough to be just as we are.

3. don't use your asana practice as a way to support your conditioning -- use it to counterbalance and transform your conditioning. Anne gave the example of Type A personalities always doing the same type of practice which supports their conditioning instead of transforming them into a less agitated Type B. if you live your life in constant agitation, don't do a practice that will agitate you even more. be flexible with your practice, not dogmatic. As Jack Kornfield writes in A Path With Heart, mental flexibility is one of the marks of spiritual maturity. embrace the yin along with the yang.

4. most importantly, use your asana practice as a means to get in touch with impermanence. our bodies are changing every day even though we act like they aren't. all of us will die yet we live as if we won't. use your asana practice to recognize the changes in your body while at the same time celebrating it and appreciating it.

Anne reminded us that our asana practice is a constant dance between form and formlessness. as yogins we devote ourselves to the study of form and to being healthy, but at the same time we must realize that the forms we turn our bodies into are impermanent, one asana flows into another, as do the seasons of our lives. embrace the two truths of form and formlessness at the same time and always remember that it's just a pose.

This second retreat was a mixed bag for me, good, bad, and indifferent, yet I experienced some epiphanies. I used to tell my students that a wise-ass Buddhist once said, life sucks, but suffering is optional. I now realize that life is suffering, pain is optional -- big difference, think about it.

During a meditation practice on forgiveness, I finally forgave the alcoholic yoga studio owner, I no longer feel the rage. actually, the forgiveness was ultimately for me, not her. I forgave her for myself, to relieve MY pain over being betrayed. self-compassion is a wonderful thing.

the entire trip was a lesson on impermanence. before the retreat I spent five days with a friend exploring the Big Sur area. as it turned out, we cheated death by a few days because when we left, Big Sur went up in flames. the restaurant and the store that we went to and the Tassjara area, all were engulfed in wildfires that are still being fought.

03 July 2008

shiva and kali

(The Dance of Shiva and Kali)

I returned last night from my Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training retreat at Spirit Rock in California. before I blog about my experience there, I thought I'd write about an insight I gained on the last day.

As I say in the sidebar, I bow to Buddha but I rock with Kali. I never resonated with any other Hindu goddess. I have a tattoo that includes Kali's eyes and I wear a necklace with a Kali pendant.

One of the students saw it on the last day of the retreat and asked me who it was. I told her it was Kali and she looked like I slapped her. "Ooooh....," she said, looking scared and backing away. fear. so many people live in fear of the unknown, out of ignorance. true believers in Kali know that she is very misunderstood, like all wild women are. this student told me that Thomas Ashley-Farrand said that a woman who worshipped Kali brought all her bad karma into play and she broke out in a terrible skin disease.

I looked at her and slowly smiled a Kali smile. "do you know who Ramakrishna was?," I asked her. "uh, vaguely." "then you would know that Ramakrishna worshipped Kali and Ramakrishna is considered a Hindu saint. she was the Mother to him."

I realized how yet again some people (even women) are afraid of the power of a strong woman. there is a story about how both Kali and Durga, along with the Divine female powers of the male gods, Brahma, Shiva, Skanda, Vishnu, and Indra, destroyed an army of demons. the story symbolizes the destruction of our inner enemies by our higher nature. the demons represent our pride, passion, inertia, non-discipline and rage when thwarted -- qualities of the ego that hinder our spiritual progress. Kali goads us to higher levels of self-perfection so that we can experience the bliss of our True Nature (from Kali: Slayer of Illusion, Sarah Caldwell.) Kali Ma is the destroyer of negative egos, yet she is only seen by many as the Dark Goddess. the Bad Girl.

Just like in the real world where women are supposed to be "nice", people like their goddesses quiet and demure, to know their place.

After my conversation with this student I realized how sexist the attitude is that goddesses are supposed to be meek and mild, the nourishing Mother archetype instead of the Woman Warrior, Woman as Destroyer. even modern women buy into it. in fact I think many women are more frightened of strong women (at least women stronger than themselves) than men are.

Shiva is the Destroyer, but he is male, so that's appropriate. but Kali Ma, a woman, and the image of her standing on top of Shiva with her necklace of skulls (which represent the letters in Sanskrit by the way), is too potent an image especially, surprisingly enough, to some women. there is something frightening to people about a woman who has power and control and confidence.

Nice is for little girls and kittens.


UPDATE: I just ordered the book The Quest of the Warrior Woman: Women As Mystics, Healers and Guides by Christina Feldman...I'll let y'all know how it is.