judgement

Ashtanga Mind, Beginner's Mind

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Some of the clearest and most open people I come across within the practice of Ashtanga tend to be new students.  They're filled with the excitement and possibility that the practice engenders in them.  These newer students are ripe with what Patanjali, the author of yoga's source text, The Yoga Sutras, calls vidya. Vidya is a lot like what the Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, called the beginner's mind. A beginner's mind is clear, open, alert, receptive and without limits. A beginner's mind isn't fixed in opinions, judgements, or beliefs.  Instead, it's like  an empty vessel for spirit to move through.  It sees from perspectives but isn't fixed in one as if it's "the right" perspective. In the beginning, the practice itself and the experience of what we discover on the mat can be exciting.  When I first began the practice, I was amazed by my capacity to respond to situations that previously might have appeared paralyzing with great calm and clarity.  Just showing up on that mat on a day-in-and-day-out basis began a clearing away of what had been blocking me for years.  I'd been living in an experience of post-traumatic stress for a few years after my brother's suicide without any effective means of working through the painful emotions.  Showing up on that mat everyday forced me to face what I'd been frightened of facing, but once I did, it somehow alleviated the suffering I'd been living with, and I was able to start to feel alive, again.  The practice gave me this direct experience that it was possible to transform avidya to vidya, by learning to be with and not be afraid of painful emotions.

Knowing and Understanding are Booby Prizes

Eventually, though, a sort of pride started to appear because I started to "know" something.  I'd learned and, thus, thought I knew that there was a process to transforming painful emotions.   Knowing anything is a booby prize within yoga.  Knowing is not what we're after.  Whatever we know creates a kind of fixity, and it removes us from the direct experience of discovery.  The experience of yoga is about evoking a profound curiosity to what is right in front of us.  We're awakening the capacity to meet mystery rather than trying to pack it neatly into a box of comprehension.

And when we've dedicated years to the practice, we can't help but understand a lot of things.  That's natural, but being an authority has the potential to steer us away from the experience we had when we first discovered the practice.  So when we start to "know more," we tend to end up boxing ourselves into fixed perspectives, beliefs, opinions, and judgements. When we already know everything there is to know about something, we end up strengthening muscles that we came to practice to let go of.

And so it's critical for all of us who stay with the practice--or any practice for that matter-- over a sustained period of time to be aware of how our approach to it is supporting our evolution or engendering structures of rigidity.  This inflexibility is a natural byproduct of anything we do repeatedly and yet is something we have to be constantly aware of so that it doesn't halt our transformation.  Below are some questions that we might employ to prevent this form of mental tightness from taking form in our practice:

  • How is my practice either growing me
  • How is it keeping me narrow?
  • Where am I caught in being right in my relationships with others?  Where have I shut down?
  • What situations in my life could use my curiosity?
  • What's the feedback the people around me are giving me on a regular basis?  What's the feedback I could take in that would benefit my evolution?

The longer we've been in any tradition the less others will question our authority.  And that can be a pitfall for any progress we hope to make on the path from avidya to vidya.  That's why it is critical for each of us to continue to seek wise counsel and to surround ourselves with people who trust enough to question us, no matter how much we know.  It's also important not to forget that whatever we know, whatever sidhis (powers) we've accrued in and through our practice, that that's not it.  What we're after is not the acquisition of more power or attainment but, instead, letting go, not grasping at anything, and opening so that we, too, can show up on the mat and into our lives as beginners do, with a mind that is limitless, boundless, and clear.

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)