Friday, March 30, 2018

Eating Salt

A long time ago, a fool was invited to a neighbor's house to share a meal. Once the food was served, the fool was displeased because he found the food bland. His neighbor noticed this and immediately sought to remedy the situation by offering the fool some salt. After the fool sprinkled some salt on his food and took a bite, he said to himself, 'The salt has really made the food quite tasty. If such a small amount of salt has had such an effect, just imagine what a lot of salt will do!'

To his neighbor's astonishment, the fool pushed his meal to the side and began to eat the salt by itself. Of course, it wasn't long at all before the foolish man had burned his mouth, and instead of being delighted he groaned in pain.
---from "A Flock of Fools," a translation by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt of "The One Hundred Parable Sutra"

The "morale" of this story given in the book by Tanahashi and Levitt is simply "A person who misconstrues the Way of Understanding* is just like this fool. He hears that by eating and drinking less, the Way may be gained, and so he fasts for seven or even fifteen days. He ends up starving himself in vain and realizes nothing of the Way. Consider carefully and you'll find it is so."

That may be so, but I think there are so many other lessons we can take from this parable. First, we've all heard that sometimes 'less is more' and that it's possible to have 'too much of a good thing.' In fact, we have heard this so many times it's become a cliche and yet we find ourselves often falling into the trap of believing that if a little is good, much more will be better! Hell, it's pretty much the basis of capitalist greed.

Speaking with a friend about this parable yesterday, she remarked on how it can also be seen as what can happen when we cling to some object and fail to see dependent origination: the food alone was bland. When salt was added to the food, the food became tasty. The tastiness arose dependently upon the small amount of salt added to the food, but the fool fixates on the salt and fails to see this. And this failure of understanding is also related to our failure to discern actual causes and conditions that lead to specific experiences, and thus causes us to focus on the wrong things.

*The capitalization of terms such as Way and Understanding is in the original. I shy away from such capitalization as it tends to idealize and reify such terms. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Yoking The Mind IS Yoga....

This mind is like a fish out of water that thrashes and throws itself about, its thoughts following each of its cravings. Such a mind is unsteady, attracted here, there, and everywhere. How good to contain it and know the happiness of freedom.

Yet, how unruly still; how subtle the delusion of the haphazard thoughts. To calm them is the true way of happiness.

Putting a bridle on the wandering mind, single-mindedly the practitioner restrains her thoughts. She contains their darting waywardness and finds peace.

With the fetishization and hyper-valuation of asana (the postural practice of yoga) in the contemporary “yoga community” it seems many, if not most, practitioners haven’t been told that the original meaning of yoga; the original practice of yoga was meditation, often described as a bridling or yoking of the mind. In fact, the word yoke is a cognate of the Sanskrit yoga, both tracing back to the Proto-Indo-European word yeug meaning “join.”

Now there have been many yoga practitioners who have taken this teaching about yoking the mind to go as far as saying that the best outcome would be to stop all thinking. In fact, many have translated the second aphorism of The Yoga-Sutra in just this way: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.” Even many buddhist yogis see deep states of non-conitive samadhi as some kind of end-goal and this has led to a pernicious anti-intellectualism in much popular, contemporary Buddhism and yoga.

However, intellectual rigor, study, and debate were always part of the various yoga traditions and it may be helpful to remember that “right thinking” is, after-all, the second of the eight limbs of the noble eightfold path of yoga practice taught by the Buddha.

We can take this teaching from the Dhammapada as pointing out that most of the thoughts that arise throughout our day are indeed of a scattered, wasteful, conditioned pattern of a mostly not very useful nature. Through meditation, in particular satipatthana or mindfulness-meditation, we can become more intimately familiar with our thinking so that we can contain the wasteful thinking in order to create a more stable and calm mind with which thinking can become more directed, skillful and creative.

It’s not too farfetched to say that the world is in the shape it is because very few ever get a chance to actually stop and investigate the nature of the mind. And so, people are mastered by their thoughts instead of them mastering their thoughts. The first important step in containing the mind is to first take an honest look at the mind that is unrestrained and untrained. When we take the time to do this, we can begin to see how much of the thinking that goes on causes us – and those around us – so much suffering. Training the mind, we can begin to create the peace in the world we say we seek.

All we need is to begin. Sit down comfortably in a suitable space where you won't be interrupted and just rest your attention on your breath. Soon enough, the mind will wander. Gently, free of adding any agitation or self-criticism, bring your attention back to your breath. And do this every time you mind wanders. Seeing how much the mind wanders is the first insight. Later, you can begin an inquiry into what kinds of things your mind wanders to. And all the while, each time you gently guide your attention back to the breath, you are cultivating the yoking skill of concentration.

Why not try it now?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

By Way of the Mind

"The world is apprehended by way of the mind
The world is acted upon by way of the mind
And all good things and bad
Exist in the world by way of the mind.
---Samyutta Nikaya

It would be easy to interpret this verse from the Samyutta Nikaya as philosophically idealistic as several schools of buddhism have done, and go as far as saying that the world is simply a projection of the mind. However, it seems that the buddha, like Patanjali, thought there there was indeed a world that exists independently of the mind. However, it also seems that this verse can be seen to be asserting -- somewhat phenomenologically -- that all we can know of the world comes via our sensorium: the perceptions we experience via our senses.

The world is apprehended by way of the mind. 

One meaning of this word, "apprehended" is to "catch, capture" or "seize" while the secondary meaning is to "appreciate, recognize, discern, perceive, realize, grasp, understand" and "comprehend." I would argue that while the secondary meaning is most appropriate to this reading, in that we come to recognize, perceive and understand the world via the mind, it is also true that we may "seize" upon our perceptions -- often to our detriment. But it is clear: it is through the way of the mind that we come to perceive and understand the world.

The world is acted upon by way of the mind.

If you stop and take a moment while reading this, to look around at your surroundings, you'll see that everything, from the computer you are reading this through (not to mention the internet itself) to the table you are sitting at and the chair you are sitting on originated in the mind of someone who had a vision or inspiration and then made an effort to make it visible and physical. This is simply another way of pointing out that action follows the mind -- whether with conscious volition or unconscious conditioned reactivity, all action is preceded by mental formations.

And all good things and bad
Exist in the world by way of the mind.

And with this sentence there can easily be a more idealistic interpretation to the extent that to an often very great degree it is the mind itself that projects "good" and "bad" upon the world. For instance, two people step out onto their porch on a rainy day. For the farmer who had been praying for rain, it is a good day! For the parent who had promised their child a picnic, it's a bad day. Perception is all that determines the "good" and "bad" of it.

BUT, it would be a form of spiritual sickness to take this to the extreme we see often voiced by so-called 'non-dual' practitioners who assert "it's all good" or that "good" and "bad" are always a mental projection. This is getting caught in the 'absolute' while denying the 'relative.' In this world of multiplicity, there is good and bad. 

However, when we look at much of the cancers that eat away at our society such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classist exploitation, and bigotry of all kinds, along with the headlong rush into climate catastrophe, we are foolish to ignore that these are "bad" in that they cause much societal and individual suffering. But it is also true, in the spirit of this sentence and verse, that such systemic ills do indeed arise by way of the mind. By way of greed, hatred and ignorance.

For instance, at the time of the buddha (and for many fundamentalist Hindus today) the caste system is accepted as being simply part of the "natural order" of the cosmos. The buddha saw the suffering of such a system and rejected its validity and justification by pointing out that not all cultures had such a system, and therefore the caste system is a cultural creation (a creation that arose via the mind).

Mindfulness meditation offers us the all-too-rare opportunity to see the nature of mind; it's functions and abilities. Mindfulness meditation practiced to its fullness can be a form of metacognition leading to greater clarity regarding the nature of the mind. We can, through practice, change our relation to the mind and use the mind towards the betterment of all life.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The "Dim-Witted Monk" and Yoga Practice

One day, a bright and intelligent student of the Buddha asked if he could bring his younger brother into the sangha. Delighted, the Buddha said, “Of course!”

The younger brother, however, although kind and gentle, was a bit slow and “dim-witted.” He just could not understand any of his studies and asked to go home so that he wouldn’t waste the buddha’s time or let down his brother.

“There’s no need for you to give up” said the Buddha. “You needn’t abandon your working toward liberation just because you seem to yourself to be slow-witted. You can drop all the philosophy you’ve been given to study and simply repeat this mantra that I give you.” So the Buddha gave the younger brother a mantra and sent him off with encouragement to practice.

But soon the monk was back, this time feeling even more humiliated. “My beloved teacher, I can not remember the mantra you gave me and so I cannot practice as instructed.”

The Buddha kindly and patiently repeated it for him, but twice more the monk came back having forgotten it each time. So the Buddha gave him a simplified variation but when this too slipped completely out of his mind, the young monk could hardly dare to visit the Buddha again.

“There’s an even shorter version,” the Buddha said, smiling. “It’s only two syllables. See if you can keep this in your mind.”

But… he could not. Alone in his hut, the young monk broke down and wept. His older brother found him in this state and was furious, feeling that his own reputation would now be sullied because of the failure of his brother. He told the young monk to leave the sangha and return home, and so the boy left and sadly made his way along the path to the village.

As he made his way through a grove of trees, he met the Buddha practicing walking meditation. The Buddha smiled and took his hand. Together they walked to a nearby temple where two old monks were sweeping the floor. The Buddha said to them, “This young monk will live here with you. Continue sweeping, and as your brooms move back and forth, say the two-syllable mantra that I will give you now. Keep at this till I return.”

The young monk sat down and listened to the movement of the brooms to and fro over the stone floor. He heard the whispered rhythm of the mantra as it was repeated over and over again. This went on for quite a few weeks, and before the Buddha returned, the young monk had found complete liberation, and so had the two old monks.

--- Majjhima Nikaya

There are a few reasons I am fond of this story from the Pali Canon. The first is that it shows both the patience of the Buddha and his compassion and willingness to work at finding something accessible for this ‘dim-witted’ student to practice. I think there is a fairly sizable demographic of yogis whose animosity to what they see as the watering-down of yoga to make it accessible is a form of purist elitism that fails to look at the motivation of those who are creating new twists and formats.

Now, I too find myself wincing when I find posts about things like “Yoga With Goats,” which I am sure some reading this probably find lovely and fun. And what do I know, maybe even liberating! And, while "Nude Yoga" doesn't sound like my bag, I've talked to people who teach and practice it and see a true and dedicated motivation in alignment with yogic values of transcendence.  After all, self-transcendence or liberation is the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of yoga practice. (Putting aside for the moment the fact that liberation itself has been variously and often mutually exclusively conceptualized across yogic history, lineages, and philosophies).

But still, the point I’m wanting to make is that I find inspiration in the fact that the Buddha was willing to take so much time, without any hint of losing patience with this student until he found a practice that worked for this individual – and apparently the other two elderly monks!

And that’s the second point: I’ve read recently some articles that wish to nail down what yoga is and even what asana is to a very narrow and ultimately sectarian definition, claiming that any postures that are not seated meditation postures should not be called asana! Balderdash! Hatha-yogasana are asanas. They are not preliminary postures preceding ‘real’ asana.

Or… more specifically, they needn’t be seen as such. A ‘stable, easeful’ mind makes anything we do yoga. Note, I am not saying that “Yoga is whatever we say it is.” I am saying that what we do can become a yoga practice. This is most emphasized, perhaps, in the zen buddhist yoga traditions where gardening, cooking, eating, shitting and sitting are all integrated as practice. But such a view has it’s roots in the Pali Canon’s Satipatthana-sutta where the Buddha gives the instruction to practice sati while doing any and all of our ‘mundane’ daily experiences:

“Again, yogis, when going forward and returning he acts clearly knowing; when looking ahead and looking back he acts clearly knowing; when flexing and extending his limbs he acts clearly knowing; when bending down and standing up he acts clearly knowing; when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl he acts clearly knowing; when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting he acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating he acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent he acts clearly knowing.”

When Yoga Journal asked me seven years ago what my practice consisted of, I included the then new practice of changing diapers as my daughter had just been born, and I was not being flippant. My zen training prepared me for seeing the possibility of breaking through to liberating insight through any non-harming activity. A gatha written by Thich Nhat Hanh for using the toilet, alluding to the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra states:

Defiled or immaculate,
Increasing or decreasing –
These concepts exist only in our minds.
The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.

Yoga started out as conceptualized as the yoking of the unruly mind. It was so for the shramanas whose teachings were ultimately written down in the Upanishads. It was so for the writer of The Bhagavad-Gita. It was so for the Buddha and it was so for Patanjali. Like the “dim-witted” monk in the story, if we yoke our mind to the sweeping of our home’s floors, we are practicing yoga. And we may find ourselves, as my teacher, Samu Sunim would say, ‘immediately, intimately, spontaneously, and obviously’ awake!

prajnaparamita svaha!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Yoga & Abuse

Part One

Recently, riding the rising tide spurred by the #metoo movement, women yoga students have been speaking out about the abuse and harassment they have been facing -- some of them for years. We're by now all aware of the horrendous criminal behavior of Bikram Choudary, but many of us are just learning of the long-term harassment perpetuated by Astanga Yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois through the revelations of Karen Rain. (Please be sure to follow the links in order to read Mary Taylor's anemic response to Karen Rain as well as to view the linked video)

If we've been practicing for any length of time, we're probably familiar with the all-too-many scandals including those around John Friend and Rodney Yee.  Sadly, these are just two of the western yoga celebrities who have failed to live up to yoga's own ethical guidelines embodied in the Yamas (or the Buddhist yoga equivalent, the Precepts). But it's not been just western teachers, and it's not simply a very recent problem as this comprehensive list shows. And it includes those held up as "saints."

I've previously written about abuse in the buddhist community and pointed out that such abuse is -- at heart -- not about sex or money, but ultimately it's an abuse of power

One take-away from all this is that yoga is not something apart from human foibles. There is a long and deep tendency to romanticize yoga, yoga teachers, and yoga practitioners and perhaps this very romanticization is one of the factors behind such atrocious behavior (along with the patriarchal nature of traditional yoga and the contradictory and confused relationship to sexuality in our culture).

And now, Yoga Alliance is wishing to center itself as an arbiter of ethics. To be frank, I am no fan of the Yoga Alliance. Over the course of 20 years it has positioned itself as being something it is not. The Yoga Alliance is NOT a certifying or licensing body; it is simply a registry of yoga teachers who can prove they've taken a yoga teacher training that meets Yoga Alliance's woefully dismal standards (200 hours emphasizing postural practice, with barely any depth in terms of the history and philosophy of the vast Yoga Tradition). 

But by clever positioning, they've created a situation where many employers who know no better will only hire a yoga teacher who has registered with Yoga Alliance (perhaps days after completing their 200-hour training) over someone with decades of experience who has not fallen for the money-making scam of the Yoga Alliance. And students looking for a Yoga Teacher Training will often pass by longer, more in-depth trainings offered by seasoned veterans for a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training mill because it is registered with the Yoga Alliance.

So, with that said, I will say that it is good news to see Yoga Alliance seemingly taking the abuse and harassment in the yoga community seriously. Especially given their historical woeful "responses" to those who have gone to them for support such as Cori Wright. Of course, as a registry, they really have no power other than -- as Sharon Roche says -- taking away their "credential." Note that on their website regarding their grievance process it says:

Yoga Alliance will respond to each grievance received. We will also take appropriate action(s) to ensure compliance with our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, and Policies. 

Yoga Alliance will address all breaches in our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, or other Policies with the person and/or school. Any information you share will be recorded in the account holder’s file. This information is only accessible to Yoga Alliance and may be used to inform the development of our grievance process in the future.

In the interest of protecting students and trainees, we address all breaches in our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, or other Policies with the person and/or school against whom the allegations were submitted. 
Yoga Alliance affords all registrants due process. Therefore, we may not be able to provide updates regarding any action(s), conversations, and/or outcomes taken with the person or school. 
This all sounds to me like a lot of blustering. As you can see there is very little other than platitudes and empty phrases being offered here about "appropriate actions" and addressing "all breaches" of their standards, but they don't actually say what such actions are or will be, nor via what channels they will address "all breaches." And then in response to the question: 

Will Yoga Alliance revoke or suspend the school or the teacher's account?

Yoga Alliance affords all registrants due process. Yoga Alliance may or may not satisfy your intended outcomes and desires if you file a grievance.
In other words, caveat emptor.

Part Two
So, unable -- or unwilling -- to look to Yoga Alliance for any guidance, the discussion and actions that must be taken look as they are up to us to take the lead. And, as to be expected, perhaps, when the topic of ethics is raised, there is bound to be much drama, heat, and argumentation. 
"Aren't the Yamas (or Precepts) enough of a guideline?" ask many practitioners. But the history of abuse should be answer enough that they are not. And while we would all agree that rape is absolutely wrong, rationalizations around some of the adjustments Jois gave, for instance, are still being made by some among the Astanga Yoga lineage. And then the issue of the relationship between teacher and student grows even murkier, with quite a surprising number of teachers saying there is nothing at all wrong with teachers and students becoming sexually or romantically involved and others finding it absolutely a non-negotiable no-no.
The most common argument against yoga teachers becoming sexually involved with their students is the argument based upon the alleged "power imbalance" between teacher and student. But here's an article written by a women who argues against the idea of any power imbalance. 
I've been asked if I would think it wrong for a personal trainer and their client to become sexually involved; that in most cases the relationship between a yoga teacher leading a class in postural practice is more similar to that of a personal trainer and their client than between a therapist and their client or that between a dharma teacher and their student. 
I'm writing this to invite any who may read it to offer your viewpoints, as I am not putting myself out as some final arbiter of ethics. Attempts by any organization to create a universal code of ethics will continue to meet resistance from those who wish yoga to remain de-centralized.  Given that, I believe individual studios and local communities must become involved in responding to the abuse that has remained in the shadows for too long, and work to dissolve the current murky situation with clear guidelines made known to all students.

I do think that the Yamas or Precepts may serve as a foundation for ethical guidelines, but then I believe studios and individuals may need to formulate their own "Codes of Ethics" that get more specific and go beyond the general categories covered by the Yamas and Precepts as Spirit Rock has done with their "Teacher Code of Ethics," most notably in their added points on sexual relations.

I wish to end this with a short survey of the Five Precepts from the Zen traditions as a way of sparking discussion:  

1. I vow to avoid causing harm; I vow to cultivate reverence for life.
This is the first precept I took with Thich That Hanh in 1995. And how do we avoid causing harm? The buddha recommended that we think ahead about the possible consequences of our actions. And even if we proceed to act because we have not foreseen any possible harmful consequences, we must keep vigilant to see if there are any unforeseen harmful consequences and change course and make amends. We are human; we will mess up, but we must be committed to learn from our unskillful actions. How do we cultivate reverence for life? Thay suggests we do so by being as mindful as we can, practicing gratitude to the life we all subsist upon (whether vegan, vegetarian or not), and by eating moderately. 

2. I vow not to take what is not freely offered; I vow to practice generosity.
This second precept reminds us to not steal, which includes not taking credit for anything others have said or done. We also should not steal from ourselves. And generosity, the buddha said, goes to the very heart of yoga: self-transcendence. We all can give of our time, energy or material resources, whether a kind word or smile or volunteering at a non-profit, or donating money to a cause we support. 

3. I vow not to indulge in exploitative, oppressive sexual relations; I vow to practice consensual sexual responsibility.
Whether we are monogamous, polyamorous, or involved in any kink such as BDSM, it isn't the act itself but the heart/mind motivating the act. By definition, consensual sexuality cannot be exploitative or oppressive.

4. I vow not to lie, or spread rumors of which I am not certain; I vow to speak the truth at the appropriate time, to the appropriate person, in the appropriate space for the appropriate reason.
Right Speech is a powerful yoga practice and perhaps the most difficult. Truth can be wielded as a weapon to harm others, so note the point about checking our motivation for speaking. There may be times when noble silence is the best way to practice right speech. Right speech most notably includes not speaking of things of which we are not sure, which would end the divisive, cancer of gossip.

5. I vow not to intoxicate my mind; I vow to maintain clarity of mind.
Buddha means "awakened person" so Buddhism could literally be translated as "Awake-ism." Thus, the value of a clear mind cannot be overstated. We often fixate on drugs and alcohol as intoxicants, but we can intoxicate ourselves with gossip, Facebook, television... and even yoga practice if we are using our practice to avoid reality.