In my previous entry, I discussed Sat-Chit-Ananda, an ancient yogic compound of three Sanskrit roots: sat, chit, and ananda, that describes the qualities of the experience of yoga. I spent most of that blog entry discussing ananda, which I translated in our everyday language, as "the yum." By "the yum," I mean that profound experience that something deep inside is fed and, thus, resonates profoundly. We all have an experience of this from time to time. It shows up in those moments when life is especially rich, rewarding and poignant. "The yum" is our truth; it's our essence; it's our raison d'être. And essentially, I made the case for the idea that "the yum" is what we're after in the practice of yoga.
Eyes Unclouded By Longing
In this entry, I intend to speak about chit, which is really "the doing" of Sat-Chit-Ananda. It's the action we must take to uncover, and meet "the yum." Chit is often translated as understanding, comprehending, or the fixing of the mind. The action that leads to such an outcome is, essentially, observation, the simple act of noticing.
And it's not just any old noticing, it's the kind of noticing that occurs when the "eyes are unclouded by longing." (Tao Te Ching). It's a kind of looking, listening, feeling, tasting, touching, and intuiting that allows us to see into things but is not obstructed by stories, dramas, or any interpretation whatsoever. It's really just noticing what is. The action of chit, as described in The Yoga Sutras is an active form of observation without interpretation. When we really get to know things without immediately jumping to conclusions, when we can just notice with curiosity, openness, and a quality of freshness, we come to know them as they are.
The Habits of Seeking Relief
We rarely see this sort of observation applied on the geopolitical stage. Instead of curiosity, what tends to show up amongst enemy nations is distrust, accusation, manipulation, coercion, and combativeness. At the heart of this form of noticing are human emotions that are difficult to be with discomfort, distrust, and, more often than not, fear. This doesn't just happen among nations. It also occurs in our everyday relationships.
A few years ago I was coaching a married couple, who claimed to have "the perfect sex life," but they just couldn't get along. Both had plenty of justifications as to why the other wasn't being a good husband or wife. He complained that she was "passive aggressive" and always found ways of deflecting responsibility for their arguments. She would argue that he was domineering and even, at times, dictatorial. When we first met, the two of them tried to get me to see their respective interpretations of what was wrong with their partner.
She'd say, "I don't want to argue. I just want to feel the way we felt when we first got together." He'd rebut with, "I am not trying to start a fight. Come on, Chad, can't you see how manipulative she is?" At the point in our conversations when both had uncovered and identified the manipulative games they played with each other, I asked them, "Well, what's here if you're not playing out this psychodrama with each other?" Immediately, the masks came off, and what revealed itself in the space was raw, passion, and it was so palpable in the room, but neither of them could just be with it without reacting to it.
Being With What Is
Part of chit is really the capacity of being with things as they are, without interpretation, reaction, or labeling. And there's so much we have great difficulty being with. Like the couple above, a lot of us have a hard time being with our passion. Instead of just experiencing it, we tend to jump to the conclusion that it means something like, "What does he want from me?" or like, "I don't deserve her." We also have difficulty being with certain feelings in our bodies, like anxiety, sadness, anger, and even joy. Before we will ever really let ourselves just feel what's coming up emotionally, we are often already seeking a solution that will get rid of the discomfort.
That's what "following the yuck in order to get to the yum" is all about. Something occurs, like somebody says something to us that makes us uncomfortable, and then, before we actually give ourselves the space to just experience the pain, we go looking for a way to get rid of it. We might seek revenge. We might go and hide. We might go straight for the pint of Haagen Dazs. This is just habit. It's the habit of reacting so as not to be with the experience, as it is.
The Body as the Field of Experience
We know the world through our bodies. All we need to do is slow down enough just to notice what's coming up, what it's feeling, and meet the feelings with curiosity and openness. But being able to slow down and notice isn't necessarily easy. That's why we practice daily and why the Yoga Sutras state that when practice is done steadily and for an extended period of time, we develop a solid foundation (1.14). It takes continuous practice to get the hang of choosing the direct experience through the body over the reactive, interpretive reality that our discursive minds create. In other words, it takes a lot of clarity and years of practice to be with both the pleasure and discomfort that shows up in our body without seeking gratification. One of the benefits of daily practice is that we get the hang of being with the initial discomfort when we have to choose something that in the short-run doesn't feel so good but is ultimately for our highest good.
A student came to class today with some tears. She was sad but proud of herself. Yesterday, she broke off a relationship with someone who she cared about but didn't see a future with. As she put it, "the relationship wasn't heading in the direction I wanted it to go. Breaking it off is really painful, but I know that, in the long run, it's the right thing for me." Instead of holding on to the relationship for another year or two, she knows that deep down inside, she has to let it go in order to meet someone who really does meet her. Sometimes being with 'what is' doesn't feel so good. In the case of our student, it's painful, but, simultaneously, there is a feeling, deeper down that something is "right," that it’s perfectly fine to just be with the discomfort, without having to fix it or resolve it.
By the way, our student is creating the yum in her life simply by being willing to face the pain of breaking off the relationship. Why? Because she is creating a sort of congruency between whom she knows she is deep inside and whom she is out in the world. Creating that harmony sometimes requires being with what we fear the most. In fact, more often than not, it takes incredible courage to make that leap.
Asana: Directing Our Awareness Toward Ananda
The practice of asana (posture) teaches us both how to be with the discomfort when and how to kinesthetically distinguish when the experience of "the yum" is authentic. In Patanjali's Sutras, "the yum" in asana is described as: sthira sukham asana (2.47), the place in the posture that has the simultaneous qualities of sthira, steadiness, and sukha, comfort. So when we practice asana, we're developing a feel for ananda. That's why Pattabhi Jois used to say that Ashtanga Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory. It's not a passive, intellectual pursuit. It's active, and it requires the direct experience.
For those of us who practice, we all know it. Every once in a while we're in a posture, working with the breath a little, refining the alignment, noticing the bandhas, and then all of a sudden there's this deep, resonant feeling of, "Yes," or "Mmm," or "Ahhh," or just emptiness, vast emptiness. That's the experience of sthira sukham asana. And it's the experience of ananda. It's not that superficial pleasure we get when we eat a cookie or drink wine. It's deeper than that. There's a sort of profundity, a rightness, a fundamental goodness about that experience.
And it's why Mysore teachers give adjustments in class. They do it, not because they simply want to force students into a deeper posture, but because they want the student to connect to the deeper resonance that the posture can evoke in the body. When we get the hang of finding those dual qualities in our physical practice, when we find that sweet spot, we begin to develop the skill for discovering it in our relationships, in our work, and in our lives.
Being at Choice
The funny thing is that the moment we've found that sweet spot, it's gone. It only occurs in a moment. So what brought us sthira, steadiness, and sukha, ease, in our asana or in our lives yesterday won't hold up today. The nature of things is change. Nothing is constant, so we have to remain flexible, not just in body but in mind, as well.
Part of chit is being aware and open enough to see that we are constantly at choice in how we interpret things. Usually, we just assume that the way we've interpreted reality is just the way it is and probably the way it will always be. Consider that your interpretation of this blog would change dramatically if you read it ten years from today or even if you read it one more time. Yet we have the tendency to think that our interpretation of 'what is' is the way it is, that it's fixed.
But if we will apply chit to an experience and the interpretation of it, we will find two very different domains of reality. The first is based in the direct experience, which is always here and in the present moment. The second is rooted in ideas, beliefs, opinions, and judgments, all of which are past oriented. So, for example, as I was practicing this morning, I noticed a lot of heavy and crampy sensations in my back and legs. That was my direct experience. I could have interpreted that experience to mean that I was stiff today, certainly quite a lot stiffer than I was yesterday. Once I made that interpretation, I could have followed that logic and made my stiffness mean something like, "I hate practicing when I am stiff. I think I'll just skip the rest of the poses I planned to do and go straight to savasana (corpse pose)."
I am at choice only when my awareness is here and now, in the present moment. When I am stuck in my interpretation of what the sensations means, I'm caught in a cascade of decisions, which are all informed by past stories and experiences that have nothing to do with what I am experiencing in the moment. More often than not, the choices are not appropriate to the situation at hand. But when I just experience the sensation directly, I am more apt to make choices that are appropriate for that particular situation, choices that bring me back to ananda, to both my truth and to what's needed in the present moment.
It takes incredible patience not to jump straight to conclusions but simply to observe what's here. Patience is not about waiting without any discomfort. True patience is really the capacity to wait both with comfort as well as discomfort. If we will slow down enough and direct our attention to what is here in the present moment without judgment, without labeling, with curiosity, by allowing things to be as they are, we will discover what the well-known and widely respected Ashtanga Yoga teacher, Richard Freeman, calls "the yoga matrix," which he describes as "the background of unconditional love and absolute support that is the true nature of an open mind" (Freeman, Richard. The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind. Boston: Tambala Publications. 2010. Print). This is nothing other than ananda, our truth, our happiness, our wisdom, and the deep, profound sense of the perfection of things.
This is the second part of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts!