01 Feb Fire & Rain
I find myself dwelling into bookstores and finding shelves of books written about “living” and “wellness” — how to find mindfulness and peace of spirit, how to hold one together once it’s found, how to survive its falling apart, how to find one again. Churches offer classes, preachers preach, teachers teach, therapists counsel about how to get and stay sane. I eagerly dove in head first, trying for a glimpse of how these authors lived out enlightenment in a world that seems so exclusively to celebrate the outwardly, that sees insight- or inwardness as tragic. In search of a rich perspective on the seekers life, I embarked on a learning tour of the work and lives of writers, yogis, artists, teachers and gurus. I hoped to learn what they had to teach about the dignity and challenge of such living amid a barrage of technology that is hell-bent on ensuring that we are never, ever alone with our thoughts.
I wanted to consider those who seek solitude as essential threads in the human weave — figures in the carpet — outcasts and loonies without whom the social fabric would be threadbare, impoverished. I wanted to rethink my understanding of solace and of seekers and seers, of those who live in reverence or who dedicated much of their time to the task of endeavouring the loneliest corners of their spirit.
Fast forward many years into a dedicated practice – of Ashtanga Yoga -, and I find a writing on a digital wall that reads “ I practice because there’s so much pain inside”. For the first time in my life, I had found the most honest description of what I’ve tried to answer countless times, whenever I was questioned on why did I practiced yoga, and the only words I could spit out were “this is a practice of Love”, ad nauseum. No doubt a very fortunate cliché, in my case always accompanied with a stomach twist and a familiar discomfort.
The suffering at such times can be great, you know? But it is somehow comforting to learn, even through suffering, how large and powerful love is. I would latter modify the above paragraph by substituting “especially” for “even” — for how else do we learn the dimensions and power of love except through suffering? Living amid the culture’s obsession with fleeting passion, the seeker and seer exists — let us not deny it — in a state of continual suffering, which is to say, in a continual opening to the possibility and grandeur of love.
So, I practiced. And I read and I learned and I studied and I continued to practice. Silently. In solitude. Even group practices were – are! – very lonesome, breath being the sound fixture and reminder of the presence of bodies in journeys of their own.
To define a solitary person as someone who is antisocial— to define solitude as the absence of togetherness — is like defining silence as the absence of noise. Solitude and silence are positive gestures. This is why Buddhists say that we can learn what we need to know by sitting on a cushion. This is why I believe that you can learn what you need to know from the silent, solitary discipline of practicing yoga, inward seeking, and the discipline of the soul. This is why I believe this to be the key to saving us from ourselves.
As I spent time studying these yogis, writters, artists, gurus, and as I practiced more and more under the caring hand of one – very – specific teacher, I began to experience them speaking to me, haunting me, appearing as visions, their voices urging me onward in my quest to see their hardships not as tragedy or bad luck but as an integral and necessary aspect of who they were. In their works and stories they spoke as witnesses in a great cloud around me.
I am not interested in the possibility that these seekers and seers might lead more carefree lives. My search carries not less but more responsibility toward the self, the surrounding word and the universe. For me this task imposes on its practitioners a choice between emotional atrophy and openness to the world, with all the reward and heartbreak that generosity implies.
But now we come to the nub of the question, the hub of the turning wheel of the teachings: What figure does the seeker or seer cut in the human tapestry? What is the usefulness of standing alone at one’s yoga mat and practicing, especially going through those vast seas of asana (postures)? What is the usefulness of meditation, or of prayer? What is the usefulness of the solitary journey?
I was born into a catholic family, and grew into a fierce atheist through my adolescence into adulthood. Life’s designs had showned me that there was no place for a God in my hearth. It was impossible for me to imagine that this institution of non belief that I’d created, around which I grew up, would not be a fixture of my life — but soon enough, I may not have to imagine its absence.
Does ascetic practice require bricks and mortar? In our practice, might we devise ways of supporting and disseminating ascetic virtues without shrines? Did the disappearance of the culture that built the Vedas, apauruṣeya – which means “not of a man, superhuman” – mean the disappearance of the virtues they were intended to cultivate and inspire? Surely there is a vital place in our ramped-up world for simple contemplation of what is. This was my frame of thought and belief, but destiny had other plans for me.
Fate suggests submission to the circumstances of life; destiny suggests active engagement. The former implies some all-powerful force or figure to whose will we must submit. The latter implies that each of us is a manifestation of one of the infinite aspects of creation, whose fullest expression depends in some small but necessary way on our day-to-day, moment-to-moment decisions. We are caught — trapped, some might say — in the web of fate, but we are each just as surely among its multitude of spinners in the Samsara. In our spinning lies our hope; in our spinning lies our destiny. In this way, just as habits or partnerships are not given but made, I could only consciously embrace and inhabit my practice and seeking, with glimpses of seeing.
I discovered that within my practice I would seek the most natural of unities: the unity with breath, movement and gaze expressed and embodied in the act of vinyasa, a word that means “to place” in “a special way” long before it came to be associated with a form of yoga. Or twelve.
Little did I know that it was ofering me a supernatural unity.
It whispered, “You have more of God”.
In that moment, I felt it, this supernatural unity; it became my interior journey’s goalless goal.
I seek to live not in anticipation but in embrace of the life I have been given. A great deal of virtue is born of necessity. I may not have chosen to be who I am today, and I may not have chosen to be what I am today, but here is me, I am it, – I am THAT- so ham. I can choose whether simply to endure my condition with my attention focused elsewhere and outward, wondering whether I will find enlightenment in any other asana, or if this pain will subside if I continue to practice reverently for the rest of my days. Or I can inhabit it, against all the messages of contemporary yoga culture, as a legitimate way of being, an opportunity to focus all that longing on my heart’s desire, whether that be a catching of the toe or to end world starvation.
All the same, “fire” — desire not as a conflagration but as a steadily burning, light-giving lamp — strikes me as a fine description of what the yogi aspires to. The yogi does not set himself above desire. He takes charge of desire and so successfully focused it inward that he could then turn its energy outward. The yogis, seekers and seers sought not to raise themselves above the created world — the errand of a fool or a tyrant — but to more thoroughly integrate themselves with it.
But then what is the purpose of a vow? Why make a promise regarding any practice, whether it be trivial or life-changing, to oneself or to another human being or to God? And if that promise can be easily undone, what is the point?
A vow is an intensely personal gesture — a means of placing limits on desire, of creating an engine for its fuel. I salute the courage of those who make such declarations in public, but I admire more deeply those who honor their vows in the solitude of their hearts. A vow may be taken for a lifetime, but it’s lived out day to day, hour by hour, one encounter at a time, by little and by little. Like virtue, it defines itself in the doing.
I hear the answer in this quiet practice room; my Shala. I see it in the angle of the summer sun. The great, incomparable reward of being alone with myself and this practice is the opportunity, if I can be large enough to rise to its occasion, to encounter the great silence at the core of being, a silence that is both uniquely mine and one with the background hum of the universe, the Om. To live for the changing of the light seems adequate reward for the vow I took.
It does not offer a rose-strewn path. The yogi’s journey is fraught. Again and again our practices present us with this bedrock philosophy of previous ages, this truth so unpopular in our consumerist age: The path to liberation runs through suffering. The journey to peace runs not around but through suffering. The self is the vehicle, the boat that takes us from loneliness to aloneness — that takes us on the journey to solitude, where we find and save ourselves. From ourselves.
The appropriate response is not more noise. The appropriate response is more silence.
To choose to be in this journey is to bait the trap, to create a space the demons cannot resist entering. And that’s the good news: The demons that enter can be named, written about, and tamed through the miracle of the healing practice, the miracle of breath, the miracle of silence. The omnipresence of great aloneness, the infinite possibilities of no duality, no separation between you and me, between the speaker and the spoken to, the dancer and his dance, the people and our earth.
One might say that it is ridiculous to implore others to embrace faith, as I once did — one either has it or one does not, it is not a choice that can be made consciously. Faith, love and emotions do not follow the instructions of the rational mind. But the environment in which we must live out our lives has a great influence on our emotions, and we can make rational decisions that will affect this environment. It should be possible to work to change an environment that is hostile to faith and love into an environment that will encourage it. Our task must be to engineer our world so that it is a world in which people can and do fall in love, find faith, be emotional and thus to reconstitute human beings so that we will be ready for the journey to solitude — so that we will be able to find meaning and happiness in our lives, seeker or seer.