Sat-Chit-Ananda

Knowing When to Let Go

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rk_15At some point, all of us face the need to evolve.  It's almost an imperative in spiritual practice that if we are to experience the aliveness of life, we must keep growing.  And sometimes that means letting go of what no longer serves us or that we serve whole heartedly.  If we don't let go, we suffer.  And yet doing so can be grueling.  I wanted to share a teaching from 'The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna' about knowing when to let go.  Ramakrishna was a 19th century, Indian mystic.

When we plant a sapling we put a fence around it so that cattle will not eat it or nobody would accidentally crush it under one's feet.  But when the plant starts growing into a large tree, the fence should be removed and taken away.  If the fence is not removed in time then it might even hinder in the growth of the tree.  The trunk of the tree may even get trapped within the fence.  Moreover, after the sapling turns into a big tree neither can cattle eat it up fully nor can people crush it under their feet accidentally.  Likewise, the tree will drop fruit that will feed the cattle and the people who once threatened its very existence.

Whenever we begin anything new, especially the discipline of spiritual practice, we need to protect the fragility of our endeavor.  When I first started my yoga practice, it took me a few years, but I had to learn the discipline needed to maintain a daily practice of yoga: going to bed early, waking early, eating properly, resting enough, getting enough mental and emotional stimulation, etc.  I needed that discipline in order to grow within my practice.  And I loved it!!!  It fed me deeply.

Spiritual Arrogance

But, after awhile, I started to feel like the fences I'd created for myself only created more rigidity.  I'd find myself judging non-practitioners as "unconscious."  The fragility I'd once felt around my practice gave way to a quality of spiritual arrogance.  A lack of curiosity is  a sure sign for each of us that either we need a new challenge or we need to find a new way into the practice we're committed to. This is where it's critical to remove the fences that once kept our fragility from being devoured.  Distinguishing when it's time to give up or alter the discipline and what exactly to give up is highly individual.  That's where having a good teacher or a community of friends on the journey with us can be extremely helpful.  What is clear, though, is that at some point aspects of the structure stop empowering transformation and, instead, only harden us.

Very few of us have the courage to let go of what no longer serves us, though.  Why?  Because our identities get wrapped up in the external recognition and kudos we receive.  These external boons can be enticing, but they can easily be traps for all of us.  When you're considered 'advanced' in a community and you're identified with your role in it, it can be a sort of identity suicide to let go.   I am not saying that we should completely stop looking to the outside for recognition.  As humans, we long for and need this recognition.  But we're all so starved for it, that we tend to forego our own authentic experience and expression of fulfillment in order to be loved, liked, wanted, admired, needed.  And then we miss the opportunity to live a rich and full life on our own terms.

Knowing When We've Deceived Ourselves

When we're attuned enough to our inner wisdom, however, we know when we're 'b.s.'-ing ourselves.  But when we're not, it can be extremely helpful to have people in our lives that offer us the space of honest communication. If  we don't have this, it can be helpful to empower our inner witnesses, the neutral part of us that is noticing all the time, noticing what we're saying, doing, and experiencing.  That part of us can notice when we're "should-ing on ourselves."  I love this expression.   When we're "should-ing," we say we do what we do not because we love it but because we "should" do it.  That's a good sign that our heart is no longer in it.

The point of all practice is to bring us to the heart of our innate wisdom.  It is not to end up more disciplined.  Paul Meuller-Ortega aptly said, "Eventually as Seekers, we must become Finders."  Knowing when you've discovered an access to your innate wisdom is not  a form of spiritual arrogance.  It's just something that's not empowered within spiritual traditions.  What is empowered is hierarchy.  Tapping into our innate wisdom does not necessarily lend one to becoming recognized in the external sense.  But that it isn't recognized by a community of seekers is not of significance.  What's important is that we not only recognize this indweller that the yogis call the purusa, but that we share it, that we have the courage to give our gift.  That's the part of Ramakrishna's story in which the tree drops fruit for everyone, even the cows and humans who previously threatened its existence.

The point of all spiritual practice is to attune us to our truth, our innate wisdom, and our joy.  This is what the yogis call, Sat-Chit-Ananda.  The point isn't to win in some hierarchical game that all traditions can't help but maintain.  The point is to find access to our inner strength, our magic, and our gifts and to trust them.  I'll end with the following quote from Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who inspired the Star Wars trilogy and who coined the term, "follow your bliss."  In this quote Campbell helps us to not mistake the trees for the forest:

What is important about a lightbulb is not the filament or the glass but the light which these bulbs are to render; and what is important about each of us is not the body and its nerves but the consciousness that shines through them.  And when one lives for that instead of the protection of the bulb, one is in Buddha consciousness. Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. 2011. The Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF)

 

Isvara Pranidhana: Sticking With What We Truly Know

In my previous blogs, I have been discussing Sat-Chit-Ananda, which is really a description of the experience of yoga.  If you've been following the series, you'll notice that I give examples of Sat-Chit-Ananda from the perspective of not just our yoga students, but various coaching clients of mine, as well.  This experience shows up not just when we're practicing ujjayi pranayama (victorious breathing) or following the vinyasa count exactly the way it's performed in Mysore.  In fact, Sat-Chit-Ananda is an everyday, common experience we all have.  It spontaneously occurs in moments that ring of profound truth; in moments that wake us up; and in moments that evoke resonance. But if everyone can experience Sat-Chit-Ananda, and it happens in everyday, normal experiences, then why do we practice yoga?  What's the point?  The point is that to continually discover Sat-Chit-Ananda in our lives, it requires both practice and the capacity to stay.  In one sense, the practice gives us the kinisthetic experience of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  We tune and attune to the instruments of our bodies in order to experience what it's like to be in accord with our inner most truth; to develop the knack for directing our attention without distraction; and to know what "the yum" feels like.  Not only do we cultivate the feeling sense in the body, but we also foster and learn to stay connected to the part of us that is courageous, wise, and clear, the part that Patanjali calls isvara.  In this blog, we will explore why this part is so important.

The Threshold

We all come to places in our lives where we just have to make an authentic, resonant choice over doing what we think we "should do" or what the so-called "right thing," is.  Joseph Campbell describes this choice in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949,  CA: New World Library) as "the threshold," which he described as the "passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown."  It's a place in which we have to become bigger than we know ourselves to be.

Devorah and I often have the privilege of sitting in the front seat of our students' lives as they're at their thresholds.  Sometimes it shows up in the form of of a physical injury.  I don't know what it is about us Ashtangis, but often it takes the experience of pain to wake us up and connect us to the fact that we have to change.  On one level, we can't keep practicing the way we've been practicing previously.  We have to clean up aspects of our asana practice, so we don't keep getting repetitive strain.  Maybe we need better alignment; maybe we need to back off certain postures; maybe we need to just stay more present when we're entering and exiting.  More often than not it's not just the asana we need to clean up.  We also have to face the fact that our lives need to change.  And change can be a pretty scary thing for most of us.

The Resistance to Change

We all get pretty locked up at the threshold of change.  We resist and resist because we're frightened of what we might find out about ourselves and whether we will find what we're truly looking for on the other side.   To make choices that lead us toward authenticity, toward awakening, toward aliveness, toward healing we often have to say, "no" to what we're habituated to.  And when we don't, our "world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and [our lives] feel meaningless." (Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949. p.23)  In other words, when we can't muster the will or courage to make the leap, life feels stagnant and heavy, dull and grating.

I recently had a chat with a new friend who spent three years in a quagmire.  Once she and her partner had her first child, she discovered that he didn't really meet her.  As she said, "if he was just a jerk, leaving him would've been a cinch," but she loved many things about him.  And it was important to her not to leave him because "he is the father of our child."  So she tried all sorts of different ways of staying in the relationship.  And no matter what method she employed, she kept discovering and rediscovering throughout those three years that they just weren't a match.  She described those three years as "some of the hardest years of my life."  That's what it's like for most of us when we just can't move even though we need to...badly.

Samsara: Conditioned Existence

We're so conditioned to stay with things even though they don't suit us.  Choosing differently often can feel like a death.  We're programmed at such a very, very early age to choose things that don't necessarily resonate with us in order to receive the love we crave.  I am watching this first-hand since my wife, Melissa and I took a puppy into our lives.  I know that our little Disco would like to poop wherever she wants to in our house, but she's learning that the pleasure of affection and attention will be temporarily removed from her if and when she does so.  And, more importantly, she will get rewarded when she goes to the bathroom outside.

I know that we're psychologically different from dogs, but we're all trained in a very similar manner.  Most of us were rewarded when we did things that others wanted, and, likewise, were punished when we did things they didn't like.  That's how we were taught to survive in our homes, at school, and any other place we were exposed to as kids.  For all of us, our survival was predicated on a few things.

In my case: "Always look your best, even if you don't feel it;" "don't be so negative;" and "never let them know how you really feel."  As a result of these subtle messages, I developed a pretty affable personality, but for many years, I was frightened of confrontation.  Still to this day, I struggle with expressing anger, except to the few who I trust will stick with me, even when my anger starts to look ugly.

In order to fit in to our family settings and to survive all of the socialization we get as kids, whether it's at home, in the classroom, or on the football field, we had to make choices that took us out of accord with ourselves, with who we authentically were.  We had to do this.  That's just part of growing up.  If Melissa and I just let Disco take a crap on our rug, like she did today--ugh--and just say, "Hey, she's just expressing her 'authentic, doggy nature,'" we're setting her up for a rough adulthood.  By conditioning her to live in our home in such a way that she can live in harmony with us, we all get to thrive.

Samsara Halahala

But there's no doubt that many of the experiences that socialized us also scarred parts of us.  That conditioning is what we're requesting to overcome when we chant:

vande gurunam charanaravinde sandarsita svatmasukhava bodhe nihsreyase jangalikayamane samsara halahala mohasantyai

We're essentially calling on the guidance of our guru to eliminates the delusion of our conditioning.  Delusion includes all of the ways we numb out to the suffering that results when we don't follow our Sat-Chit-Ananda.  For many of us, the experiences that conditioned us also left us lacking in confidence, either about how beautiful we were, how smart we were, and many of us grew up wondering, deep down, whether there was something fundamentally flawed about us.  So we remained stuck in what everyone else wanted for us.  We never found our own unique way in the world.

In fact, even when we survive our childhood, even when we "make it" relative to the standards of most human beings in the world, we still sometimes make choices that don't feel very life affirming.  We still make choices that keep us in a sort of unconscious fog.  We choose the yuck.  On a deeply emotional level, on the level of the pre-rational brain, we're still looking for some sort of affirmation that we're okay; that we're wanted; or that we're lovable.  In many ways, we're still surviving our childhoods even though we've totally outgrown them.

Isvara Pranidhana: Staying With the Seer, the Knower, and the Guru Within

It takes a lot of guts to make some life-affirming choices because we've all been programmed to believe that if we do, we might end up "without a home, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, just like a rolling stone." (Dylan, Bob, "Like a Rolling Stone". Highway 61 Revisited.  Columbia. 1965)  To make choices that go against our conditioning can be downright frightening because it often feels like we have to cast ourselves off of a cliff with no clear sense that there will be anything below to catch us.  And no matter how intensely we practice asana, somehow the physical practice doesn't always take us all the way there.  This is where isvara pranidhana is needed.  Isvara pranidhana is typically translated as surrender to God or faith in God, but as we explore further, we'll discover that it is something altogether different.

In the West, we have all sorts of funny reactions to both the words, "surrender" and "God."  Either we wholeheartedly give our life to our savior; we're just over the superstition of the whole thing; we're not sure what to believe; or we have inklings of some relationship to a higher power, but that relationship doesn't fit the models we grew up with.

But pranidhana isn't exactly faith or surrender.  Surrender is what we do when we realize we're not going to win the war. We pull out the white flag, both literally and figuratively, and enter the battle field with our hands in the air.  "We give up. Don't shoot!" Maybe we give up to a higher power, which is beautiful, but it's not pranidhana.  Faith is belief without proof.  When we have faith we don't need it.  We just believe.  But pranidhana is a "continual placing of ourselves into." Pra means continuously, ni is into.  And dha is place. So it's much more active than faith or surrender.  It is the act of totally staying with the part of us that is isvara.

And isvara isn't God, the way we know God.  Isvara is not the biblical God.  It is not the judger, the punisher, the ruler, or the guy with the white beard.  Patanjali describes the three qualities of Isvara like this:

  1. the seer that is unaffected by the suffering we face (1:24).
  2. the knower (1:25)
  3. the teacher of teachers, the dispeller of darkness (1:26)

Isvara can either be perceived as a force outside of ourselves or something that is within.  My preference--since it is easier for me to access-is to see isvara as the one within me.  It's the part of me that is not afraid to suffer, the one who knows, and the one who, as the teacher of teachers, is always learning and growing in order to become wiser.  Accessing this part of ourselves can be extremely useful in moments when we're scared shitless; when we're confused; when we're depressed; and when we're so angry that all we see is red.

I recently got a call from an acupuncture client who said that within an hour or so after leaving the appointment that she started to feel tightness in her chest and breathless.  My first instinct was to press my internal "panic button" along with the button that say, "You're no good at what you do.  See you're a failure.  People pay you to feel better, and you make them worse. Just give up.  It's not worth the fuss, anyway.  You're a fraud.  Just think what people will be saying about you."

In spite of the fact that I have been practicing yoga for almost 20 years, I still have these self-loathing and belittling voices in my head.  But I've also cultivated isvara pranidhana.  When the shit hits the fan, not only do I consult the self-critical voices, but I've also learned to consult the part of me that is isvara and to stick more with that wisdom than the crap that my self-sabotaging voices would have me believe.  And when I contacted this part of myself, it asked:

"What's the truth here?"

"The truth is that my patient experienced a reaction from my treatment."

"Does that make you a failure?"

"No, I did and continue to treat my patients the best way that I know how.  And I make mistakes.  So, I guess I get to admit being a human here, a human that makes mistakes."

"Yeah, you get to be human.  And you get to have compassion for yourself.  Now, what can you do to support your client?"

"Well, I can call her.  I can see if I can help her with her pain.  And I can learn from this experience."

So for me isvara pranidhana is a bit like having a dialogue with myself.  I am accessing the wiser part of me that dispels the lies of the self-sabotaging voices; offers compassion and the gift of humility; allows me to see what can be done to rectify the situation; and most importantly, sees the opportunity for learn and grow.

It is a lens through which we see the world, an access point for moving forward, for making choices that are informed by the depth of who we are rather than those smaller, superficial parts of us that are holding on for dear life.  We're all in samsara, or conditioned existence.  We all have things we must overcome in order to meet the direct experience of Sat-Chit-Ananda. For me, personally, Isvara pranidhana, is really the gift of seeing that the things we suffer with are really opportunities for our evolution.

My brother-in-law, Boyd, just came back from a hospital visit to a friend who only a few days ago fell backwards from the bed of a truck onto his spine.  In a split second he went from being an agile, capable man to being a quadriplegic.  His response to the accident was, "It's just another of life's hurdle."  One might read that as either machismo or naiveté, but it also just might isvara pranidhana.  Somehow it shows up in those moments we need it the most.  And in those hours, weeks, months, and years when we're stuck on the threshold, Isvara pranidhana can be our greatest ally.  We need allies on the journey toward Sat-Chit-Ananda, whether we're paralyzed in our body or paralyzed by life.

 

Exercise

It can help immensely to tap into the three faces of Isvara within ourselves: the seer, the knower, and the teacher.  Whether they actually exists or not is really of no significance, but it's a powerful lens or perspective to step into when we're stuck or we're freaked out by change.

  1. Take a moment to slow down.  In fact, don't just read through this exercise if you don't have time to really give it the thought it deserves.
  2. Notice if there are areas of your life where you're on the threshold.  Is there a fulfilling move you've been too afraid to make because you fear a loss of love, affection, or care from another or others?  Are you sticking with something even though you know it doesn't fit you, but it's the so-called "right thing to do"?  Take a few moment to either write, contemplate, or meditate on where, exactly you're held back and what it's like being there.
  3. Describe, think about, or meditate on what the self-critical voices are saying about the situation.  Notice if you can hear the voices of your parents,  teachers, or mentors.
  4. Tap into the part of you that is the seer.  It's the part of you that is permanent, pure, unchanging, non-material, and everlasting.  It's the part of us that knows that you can withstand all suffering and so is not afraid of it.  What's the perspective of the seer in you?
  5. Tap into the part of you that is the knower.  This is the part of us that just knows the truth.  When all the drama of life is dropped away, when all of the fear and doubt are dropped, what's true about this situation? What's eternally true?
  6. Now pay attention to the part of you that is the teacher of teachers, the dispeller of darkness.  As the teacher of teachers, you recognize that all of the experiences of life are opportunities for growth and evolution.  What's the bigger lesson you're learning in this situation?  What's the big lesson you still have to learn?
  7. Finally apply pranidhana to isvara.  In other words, you're job is to stay with the wisdom and knowing of that part of yourself rather than letting the self-sabotaging voices take over.  Make a practice of reminding yourself of what you know deep inside.  Consider that the practice of isvara pranidhana is not one you'll ever master, but it's a powerful practice that will take you very far on your journey, much farther and much more interesting than the journey your self-sabotaging voices will lead you down.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the fourth installment of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts!

 

Sat: The Sanskrit Term for "The Real Deal"

In the last two blogs I've written, I have been discussing Sat-Chit-Ananda, an ancient yogic compound that describes the experience of yoga.  Each of the three Sanskrit words, sat, chit, and ananda, all speak of different aspects of the one, unitive experience called yoga.  It's almost like a description of the Holy Trinity, which connotes the three various qualities and aspects of the one God.  The same is true of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  While each word is a world unto itself, the experience of yoga occurs when all three of these worlds take form at the very same moment.

Non-Doing

In this blog, I intend to write about the Sanskrit root, sat.  Sat is really the part of the compound of Sat-Chit-Ananda that has less doing or action than chit.  Chit is the active part that we play with our minds.  It's how we direct it.  And, specifically, we direct the mind on 'what is,' as opposed to the way we think it is; the way it might be; or the way think it ought to be.  Chit is a direct form of seeing without interpretation. Sat, on the other hand is not active.  It's just who we are, essentially, when we’re not trying.

It is an interesting word because it can mean two different things when we translate it from Sanskrit to English.  On one end of the spectrum, it can be used to describe something that is either true, right, and/or good.  On the other end of the spectrum, it can mean being, existing, or abiding in.  So we have these two very different usages of the word, and yet when we join both together, we have something along the lines of "true being" or "abiding in the truth."   So the term, sat, is pointing to a sort of presence or quality of being that is right good, and true.

Authentic Self

So when we put it together sat is really who we are at the very core of ourselves, namely the authentic self.  Given the intensity of change and the fast-paced times we're in, it isn't always easy to connect to or even know who we truly are.  We're so hyper-stimulated that to look for and discover what this is seems only for the elite, for those few monks and yogis who live in monasteries and caves somewhere in the Himalayas. The problem is that if we don’t start to look to see who we authentically are, we run the risk of flitting about life, never feeling truly anchored to a sense of the sacredness of who we truly are.

Initiation

So where do we start?  How do we uncover our authentic selves?  In yoga we start from where we are.   It doesn’t matter whether we’re coming from a bright place or a dark one. I personally started practicing Ashtanga from a place of tragedy. My journey began more than 20 years ago when my brother committed suicide.  Why is suffering such a powerful initiator?  Because the experience of suffering wakes us up to our vulnerability. It’s often from this place that we go looking for answers. Some of us, like my wife, was initiated into her journey into Ashtanga Yoga in order to “ get a six-pack abs.”  It doesn’t matter where we start.  The journey toward the heart of who we are on the level of being, our authentic self, starts where we start.

Asmita

We all start the journey with an identity that you and I call, “me.” Patanjali’s Sutras call an excessive sense of me, asmitaAsmita is often translated as “ego” but is, in fact, more like that part of us that overly identifies with our opinions, our beliefs, our moods, and, in general, the way we think things are.  When we’re locked in our fixed ideas, we may feel superficially safe, but if given even half-a-scare, a loss, or physical pain, we immediately come face-to-face with our fragility, our aloneness in the world, and sometimes, even, the meaninglessness of life.  And it’s worse when what we thought we knew or understood is, all of a sudden, pulled away from us.

When I lost my brother, everything I thought I knew about life, got mangled.  In one moment, nothing made sense anymore.  I’m not just speaking about the horrible grief of losing a brother, which is heartbreaking in and of itself.  I’m also noting the sense of having the rug pulled out from the identity of who I thought I was.  My asmita wasn’t able to cope with the stark reality that my brother could end his life so tragically.

When the asmita is particularly strong in us, we feel a sense of separateness from our world.  We feel a sort of disconnect.  That can show up as malaise, frustration, low-grade anxiety, bouts of rage, and the sense that something just doesn’t feel right. We often regard these feelings, as “bad news,” but, in yoga, we regard them as, in fact, “good news.”  The reason why is that if we apply consciousness or chit to them for any sustained amount of time, we begin to develop deeper insight into who we are.

If we do not face what’s right in front of us, these feelings can give us the sense that the world has no luster.  This is what in Hindu philosophy is called maya, the illusion of our separateness.  But illusion and insight are two sides of the same coin.  Through the application of chit, the veil of illusion opens up to a sense of greater unity or harmony with the world we live in and the relationships we have, both to ourselves and others.

A coaching client has been struggling with low-grade anxiety for the last three days.  His wife and he are in a disagreement.  His employee just can’t seem to get things done the way he’s requested.  His boss is acting like a ‘bull in a china shop.’  He’s been trying to get a product ready for market by traveling back and forth from San Francisco to Southern California every week for the last six months.  He feels anchorless and reports feeling like “a ship out to sea.”  As we sat in conversation, I asked him, “What are you feeling?”

“Anxiety.”

“Where?”

“In my chest and belly.”

“What does it feel like in there?”

“It feels hollow in my belly, and at the base is this heavy stone.”

“How heavy?”

“Like one big brick.”

“Great.  Just notice that.”

After a few minutes… “What are you noticing, now?”

“The heaviness is gone.”

“What’s here, now?”

“Sadness and fear.”

“What does that feel like in the body?”

And so the conversation went on like this for about 20 minutes.  We just kept applying chit to the body, checking in every once in awhile to report on what he was experiencing.  After a period of time, the intensity of feeling shifted from anxiety, fear, and sadness to clarity, insight, and wisdom.  At that point, he realized that he needed to reestablish trust with the people around him, that he’d been so unmoored by trying to get the product to market, that he hadn’t really given his relationships the time and energy they deserved.  “I’ve always prided myself as a ‘relationship guy,’ and I’ve been stuck on just getting it done.  Boy have I been missing the boat.”

In the case of my client, anxiety, which is normally regarded as something that needs to be overcome, was, in fact, a great teacher.  Because he had the courage to apply chit to the discomfort in his body, he was able to wake up to see how his overemphasis on accomplishment rather than relationship was affecting not just others but mainly himself because he wasn’t being congruent with his essential self.  That’s sat.  It’s often through pain and discomfort that we wake up or our reminded of who we fundamentally are and what’s truly important to us.

Gratitude, Chutzpah and The Long Slog

But it’s not just suffering that puts us in touch with sat.  It also shows up when we’re connected to the practice of gratitude.  I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I have the space and time to write about topics that mean a lot to me.  Writing is my gratitude practice.  I feel more truly who I am when I can slow down enough to distill my thoughts and feelings into something that can be read by others.

For many of us, passion is a doorway into Sat.  It takes incredible passion to be willing to face ourselves on the mat the way we do.  Even though Guruji used to say that Ashtanga is universal, that it’s for everyone, I’ve always been clear that it isn’t for the faint of heart.  You need the fire of passion burning in you to face the things we face on the mat.  Sometimes we show up and feel a llittle broken, sometimes we face limitlessness, but we’re always face-to-face with ourselves.  The practice becomes the mirror expression of how we are each day. And it takes incredible chutzpah to look each day.  It’s this passion for practice that uncovers an aspect of our sat.

One of our relatively new yoga students is in the stage of her practice that I call “The Long Slog.”  It’s the point where she’s experienced the initial thrill of learning a portion of the primary series, but now she needs to practice what she’s learned in a continuous manner to both develop some mastery and, more importantly, to really extract the deeper learning that the sequence has to offer her.  This is the point in the practice where we unpeel the layers of holding, old injury, childhood wounding, and boredom, lots of boredom.  During “The Long Slog” many new students give up because they see the work that’s in front of them, and it appears daunting.  Others recognize it and see the value.

During ‘The Long Slog” we’re doing the same thing over and over and over again, but each day it’s different than yesterday’s practice, last weeks practice, or the practice we had a year ago.  We start to see what it is that is constantly changing.  Behind all the change, we cannot help but notice a part of ourselves that always remains the same. That’s sat, the one self, the eternal part of us, the one that never changes.

Sat and Chit, Being and Doing

Recently, I’ve been watching old Ashtanga video footage on Youtube.  One of the videos that I recently became reacquainted with and that has always particularly moved me is the 1993 Yoga Works footage of Guruji leading a class with Tim Miller, Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern, and Karen Haberman.  I saw this video a few years after I started practicing Ashtanga.  This was a time when all-things-Ashtanga absolutely thrilled me, and I remember being totally enthralled by those ‘masters’ on the screen.  It must’ve been a bit like what it was to see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Led Zeppelin at the Greek Theater.   What I most loved--and still love--about that video was that even though they were practicing the same sequence, each was approaching the practice from a very different place.  To me, Tim was all heart.  Chuck was depth.  Eddie was laser intensity.  Richard was pure grace.  Maty was fiery passion.  Karen was herculean strength.  I could not help but see a portion of their authentic selves shine through in the footage.  What I saw and still see in those yogis and yoginis was the merging of doing and being.  This is the same thing as sat and chit being one.

It isn’t yoga to me when I see yogis practicing the way pianists practice scales, without connection to their essence. It’s a lot like those people who go to the gym, turn the Stair Master on high, and look up at the Today’s Show to see what Ann Curry is wearing today.  It’s vapid.  It’s like saying, “I have a body somewhere below me that needs to be exercise, but I am somewhere else. And, hey, at least it’s yoga.”  When I see this 1993 footage, I am reminded that when sat and chit are one, something beautiful and graceful emerges that is both pleasing to the eye and puts us in touch with our sense of aliveness, ananda, and our essence, sat.

When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

Ashtanga is physically very hard.  There’s a ton to do and remember.  From the moment we arrive on the mat until the moment we leave, we are in an incredibly detailed choreographed set of movements, breath cycles, internal contractions, and endorphins, lots of endorphins.  By the time we complete the practice, a defensive part of the psyche is sometimes so pooped out that our authentic selves just magically appear.  In other words, the practice exhausts us in such a way that a lot of walls we put up that keep us away from ourselves and the world around us fall down.  Many of us experience this in savasana.  Sometimes we experience it for 30 minutes after practice.  Sometimes it lasts for a whole day.

One of our new students clearly had it for seconds last Monday.  As I was leaving the studio, I noticed him looking at the sky in a meditative way for about 5 seconds.  Most of us just glance up to notice whether it’s sunny, cloudy, or rainy.  We don’t often really look.  Something about this students practice allowed a part of his automatic responses to not take root in that moment.  It was actually breathtaking for me to watch him appreciate the simple beauty of the blue sky.

Remember...Forget...Remember...Forget...Remember...Forget

In those rare moments when sat, chit, and ananda appear simultaneously together, the moment is sublime.  Once we’ve experienced this union, we can’t help but keep looking for it.  Why?  Because it feels both expanded and natural, transcendental and normal, and deeply and profoundly true, good, and right.  We often label ourselves by what we do, and we describe ourselves by the lives we’ve previously lived.  When sat coexists with chit and ananda, we know who we truly are.

And the game of sat is really a game of remembering and forgetting.  Remembering who we essentially are and forgetting who we are, remembering and forgetting.  Once we think we’ve understood it, we haven’t.  In order to continue to remember, it can help a lot to make choices from this place, to follow the thread of resonance that sat presents.  When we do, we cannot help but create lives for ourselves that are true, good, and authentic.  In the next blog, I will speak more about how to choose sat as a way to remember more than we forget.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the third part of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts

 

Chit: Noticing What Is

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.

Chit-Ananda

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.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the second part of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts!

Choosing "The Yum": Sat-Chit-Ananda

  As Ashtangis, I think we're missing a pretty significant tool, the tool to describe and put us in direct contact with our inner experiences.  So much of what we learn in the classroom is technique. "Lift the arm a little higher."  "Drop the chin down."  "Ekam. Inhale. Dve. Exhale.  Trini. Inhale.  Head up.  Catvari.  Jump back...Jump back, I said!!!"  This is all what needs to be done in the way of yoga. Very little is spoken about the experience of yoga within this tradition: what it is? what we're truly after? how we know when we've achieved it?  The instruction has always been, "You do!"  But what about the being?  Isn't the doing in service to the being, the subjective, inner experience?  That's why I've taken time to write this blog series.  My hunch is that without a language for the experience of yoga, we'll always be caught in the doing, and the doing, and the doing.  Frankly speaking, I see and do enough that when I come to the mat, I don't need to keep doing.  So what follows is an inquiry into the language of being.  What does that language look like and how do we use it to describe states of consciousness and where we are in reference to the direct experience of yoga.

I find that most of the descriptions of the experience of yoga or union don't fit our everyday, work-a-day-world language, and, as a result we make up the story that the the end-goal of yoga, is only for advanced practitioners, gurus, and saints.  But, in fact, most descriptions use wording that is either outdated or way, way too esoteric.  Descriptions often include words like "beatitude," "rapture," "absorption," "emptiness and fullness," or "exultation."  I've recently become acquainted with an ancient description of the qualities of this union that works for our everyday lives.  It's called Sat-Chit-Ananda.  Devorah and I will be leading a workshop in the Spring on May 11th, 12th, and 13th in Santa Cruz, CA that is all about this very topic.  We both feel strongly that the experience of yoga is something we all have access to all the time, even, in fact, in the very moment that you are reading this.  It's not something "far out" or obscure.  It's here and now, easily experienced, and not just for the advanced yogi.

Put Your Mind on "The Yum"

Sat-Chit-Ananda, as a compound, is a description of the quality of experience that's occurring when we're "in yoga" so to speak: when the mind and, ultimately, our being are directed toward and fixed in the direction of what deeply feeds us. The compound is made of three Sanskrit roots: Sat, Chit, and Ananda, each with their own meaning, but together connoting qualities of the experience of yoga.  Sat means being or existing.  Chit means to understand, comprehend, and to fix the mind.  Ananda is often translated as bliss, but the problem with that word is that it sounds somehow way too insubstantial in everyday language. Ananda isn't some rarefied experience that only mystics experience but, rather, something accessible to each of us now.  It's a normal, everyday experience.  So, I am translating it as "the yum!".  When you put all three together, what you get is the following:

A state of being in which the mind is fixed on "the yum!"

Ananda: The Resonance of Yum!

When I say "the yum" I am not pointing to pleasure.  Pleasant feelings are temporary and fleeting experiences.  They come and go. The ultimate experience of yoga doesn't come and go.  It's always present, always accessible, and here and now.  Instead, "the yum" is the 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 in life that are especially rich, rewarding and poignant.  "The yum" shows up in these moments and experience that remind us of our innate of love, peace, joy, and compassion.  "The yum" is another way of describing our essence, who we essentially are.

One of our students recently lamented that she was unmotivated to come to practice yoga. She was finding it rather drab.  Clearly, she was in "the yuck," so I asked her, historically speaking, what "the yum" of practice had been for her.  After a brief moment of reflection, I saw her eyes light up with mischief, and she said,"I love the play of it."  The practice had become way too serious for her, so serious that it had led her away from her essence.  One of the ways she finds it is through fun and, from what I could tell, a little mischief. So her access point to experiencing the transcendent in the practice was to reawaken the sense of frolic in her practice.

Fixing "The Yuck" In Order to Get to "The Yum"

I sometimes hear students say the following: "I don't like the way I look, and I don't feel good in my body.  I just need more discipline in my life."  That's the equivalent of what I call: following " the yuck" in order to get to "the yum."  When we do this, we attempt to put a noose around what we don't like about ourselves and suffocate it to death in hopes that an experience of the sacred and profound will magically appear.  The problem with putting effort on getting rid of, fixing, or overcoming "the yuck" is that instead of getting rid of it, we actually grow it and make it stronger.  The practice of yoga shows each of us that whatever we focus on, we grow more of.  And if our orientation is on getting rid of, destroying, overcoming, beating down, or fixing "the yuck," more often than not, we find ourselves with more and more of "the yuck" to get rid of, fix, or overcome.

I remember when I was about to graduate from college, and I was thinking about all that I had to complete in order to graduate: the papers, the exams, and the lectures.  I thought, "once I'm done with all this shit, then I will feel free."  Well, I finished the work necessary and graduated, but then I was confronted with the stark reality of what I was going to have to do to earn some money.  And, of course, I thought, "Once I have a job, then I'll be okay."  And the struggle went on and on because once I had found a paying job, it wasn't the job I wanted.  I was looking at the whole experience of life from the perspective of trying to overcome "the yuck" in order to get to "the yum."  The only problem I found was that it just led to more yuck.

What We Place Our Attention On is What We Grow in Our Lives

Trying to overcome "the yuck" in order to get to "the yum" doesn't work.  When our attention is placed on fixing what doesn't work, we get more of what doesn't work.  And if we put our attention on what feeds us deeply and profoundly, which is the ananda in sat-chit-ananda, our lives become filled with more resonance, more fulfillment, more aliveness.  Invariably those students who learn to connect with their version of "the yum" don't need to develop discipline.  When they find, what one student recently called "the bubbles in her Coke," discipline naturally shows up as a byproduct.  It's not something that they need to force or foist on themselves when they bring passion to what they do.

A Context Wide Enough to Hold the Opposites

Following our own, individual sense of what "the yum" is for us can be a subversive act.  It takes us on what the poet, Robert Frost, called "The Road Not Taken."  We often don't end up following what our parents wanted for us; what society deemed acceptable; or where we thought we would ever end up.  Often times we find ourselves walking down glorious roads and sometimes on lonely ones.  But no matter how elated or alone we are, when we follow "the yum", we realize that we have no choice, anyway.

That's why ananda or "the yum" isn't pleasure.  It's what transcends pleasure and pain.  It is a context for life that is wide enough to be able to hold opposites: pleasure and pain, good and bad, right and wrong, sthira (stable) and sukha (pleasant). When we truly follow "the yum," we know deep down that rain can come, sun can come, but we're on our path, and we wouldn't have it any other way.  What's your "yum?"

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the First part of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts!