Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"But isn't all yoga mindful?"

This has been asked of me -- usually rhetorically -- by students over the years more than once. And of course, I agree... all yoga should be practiced mindfully. Sadly, given today's commodified and mainstreamed practice of yoga as a "workout" or exercise regimen, we cannot simply assume that mindfulness is present in all venues.

But that aside, there is still a difference between yoga practiced mindfully and Mindfulness Yoga. Especially when what is being described as yoga is actually asana practice.

There's an old story about two zen students on retreat wondering if the roshi will allow them to smoke while on retreat. They decide to separately ask the roshi during dokusan. A bit later, one of the students notices the other one sitting in the garden smoking a cigarette. The student goes up to him and whispers, "Why are you smoking? The roshi told me I couldn't smoke." The smoking student asks, "What did you ask the roshi?" The other student responds, "I asked if I could meditate while smoking." "Well," the smoking student answers, "I asked if I could smoke while meditating."

Hopefully, anyone engaging in asana practice, if they understand the purpose of yoga, is doing it mindfully. That is to say, as they move into trikonasana, for instance, they are doing so mindfully, paying attention to what and how they are doing the posture. But as you can see, to say one is doing the asana mindfully is putting emphasis on the asana; mindfully is an adjective describing how one is engaged with the posture.

With Mindfulness Yoga, as the proper noun evidences, the emphasis is on the practice and cultivation of mindfulness through the vehicle of the posture. In mindful yoga, one is practicing asana mindfully; in Mindfulness Yoga one is practicing mindfulness in the posture. 

Further, for me, what I coined Mindfulness Yoga is a form or approach to asana practice (including pranayama) based upon the buddha's instructions given in the satipatthana-sutta and the anapanasati-sutta. In Mindfulness Yoga, whether we are practicing slow-movement, restorative, yin or vinyasa-flow, the foundation for practice is the practice of sati, which is the word translated as "mindfulness." 

And to be absolutely clear, with the mainstreaming of "mindfulness," much of the practice of sati has been left behind: mindfulness is not the same as "bare attention." That is to say, it is not merely "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally," as it is most often described by many contemporary mindfulness teachers.

Yes, mindfulness includes and is based upon such an orientation to the present moment: we observe what is happening purposefully, and without judgment or reactivity. But that is only to enable us to see clearly -- to have 'clear comprehension' (Sampajanna) of the present moment. If we judge or react, we are no longer seeing clearly, but rather through the filter of our reactivity.

But, we do this in order to then seen clearly the causes and conditions for the present moment in order to discern what and how we should respond. If the present moment is positive and wholesome, (which is a judgement, after all) then we are determined to continue nurturing the causes and conditions that led to the present moment. However, if the present moment sucks, if is is filled with duhkha and unwholesomeness, then we respond in such a way to cut off the causes and conditions and to not repeat them in the future.

Thus, the full practice of mindfulness is not atomistically looking at the present moment, but is doing so while remembering (which is the actual root of the word sati) what led to its arising. The practice of sati is relational, requiring memory and discernment as we move from conditioned reactivity to creative response. If one is living only in the present moment, there is no relationship possible. Relationship requires memory. Ask anyone who has a family member suffering from Alzheimer's if you doubt that.

So, with Mindfulness Practice as I teach it or in my upcoming retreat at Kripalu, we follow the various practices outlined in the two suttas I referred to above which includes observing and investigating breathing, the positions and activities of the body, the various parts and elements of the body, and the ultimate state of the body; whether the feelings arising are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and whether arising physiologically or psychologically; all mental activity; and the fundamental categories of the buddhadharma.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Friendship With The Lovely...

"Ananda said: 'Friendship with what is lovely, association with what is lovely, intimacy with what is lovely -- that is half of the dharma practitioner's life.'

The buddha replied: "Oh, don't say that, Ananda. It is the whole of the dharma practitioner's life. One so fortunate with what is lovely will develop a skillful way of being, a thinking that no longer grasps at what is illusory, an aim that is concerned and ready, a contemplation that is unentangled and free. Association with what is lovely is the whole of the dharma-practitioner's life.'"
--- Samyutta Nikaya

I remember that though I had been interested in buddha-dharma for years, and had been practicing (mostly alone, but occasionally I'd sit with one group or another), I refrained from joining any sangha. And when a group of friends and I began to sit together in my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, we jokingly said we were a group of "non-joiners." 

And yet, over time, despite my skeptical suspicions of group-think, and seeing how easy it was for such cultish dynamics to form, I have also come to see just how necessary "association with the lovely" is. 

Of course, humans being human, no community could or should expect to be free of tensions, conflict and disharmony. What makes a community a sangha and not just a group of people, is that each participant takes responsibility for their own reactions as well as for speaking up when s/he witnesses a dharma friend saying or doing something that seems harmful and using such conflict and tension for the general purpose of all members of the communities awakening.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that each participant in a sangha, rather then turning to others when upset with another member of the community, addresses that member directly, whether alone or in the company of another member as witness. And when some offense is brought to a member's attention, that member practices restraint of defensiveness, offers deep listening, and enters into the co-practice of restoration.

While there is no need to formalize this practice, the "Peace Treaty" created by the Plum Village community offers some guidelines for how sangha members can work with conflict. Of course, there is a caveat: I have seen the teaching of 'right speech' and 'deep listening' used in such a way as to create the tendency toward self-censorship, as well as the marginalization of dissenting opinion. Each and every sangha member must feel they can indeed speak up and out and be heard. The sangha must be willing to be changed by what comes out of any conflict.

This indeed is intimacy with the lovely -- though it may not always be pretty!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

What Do We Know?

"Ananda said to the buddha: 'I think there has never been a teacher as great as you, nor will there ever be one as great in the future!'

The buddha asked Ananda: 'Have you known all the buddhas of the past?'

'No, honored one,' responded Ananda.

'But you are able to know all the buddhas of the future, then?' asked the buddha.

'No, honored one,' Ananda repeated.

'Then I suppose you know my awakened mind completely?' the buddha asked.

'No, honored one. I do not even know your mind completely,' Ananda admitted.

'Then how can you make such a bold statement as that I am the greatest teacher that ever was or will be? It is much better to talk of what you know than to speculate foolishly,' the buddha told Ananda."

This exchange from the Majjhima Nikaya it a good one to keep in mind when we find ourselves so sure of our perceptions and opinions. We often seem so sure of ourselves when we impute motivations to others; and we can pontificate on the subjects we have very little experience in as if we have the deepest insight into them. This passage reminds us to be a bit more humble in regards to the confidence we hold for our perceptions and opinions.

The fourth precept includes this understanding, not to speak of things of which we are not sure, but there are actually very few things of which we are sure! Ananda says he does not know the buddha's mind completely, but truly, there is no one among us who can say we know our own mind completely! Both neuro-science and cognitive science shows us that much of what we do and think we think is guided by the unconscious and pre-conscious mind to which we have no access. We do things and then confabulate reasons. Perhaps only children, who openly admit they do not know why they've done something when asked why they've done it are completely honest. Bodhidharma, when asked by Emperor Wu, "Who are you?" responded "I don't know." 

If we too can remember that we often do not know, perhaps we can stay more intimate with our experience, maintaining an ardent sense of curiosity while holding a relaxed grasp on our perceptions and opinions? But we do love to speculate, don't we? Perhaps this exchange can help us remember to speculate wisely, rather than foolishly assert things to be that we truly have little to no idea about!

"Appropriate thinking" is the second of the 8-limbs of the buddha's eight-fold path. One actual practice to support appropriate thinking is to ask oneself: "Am I sure?" when we find ourselves asserting something as fact. And when we catch ourselves indulging in the idea gossip of speculation, we can stop ourselves and kindly ask ourselves: "What are you doing?" Finally, when we see we've given sway to foolish speculation -- especially as to the motivations of other's behavior, we can say to ourselves, "Hello habit energy!"