Yoga Teacher, Buddhist Teacher, Psychotherapist and Activist, Michael Stone, reflects personally on some core teachings of yoga.
When I first started practicing Yoga, I thought the practice would lead to a cessation of thinking altogether. I also imagined that I’d be able to somehow leave my body, especially since my body was in pain. It was surprising when I began to realize that the practice of sequential Yoga postures, combined with full breathing and the stillness of meditation, actually stabilized the chattering of my mind and body long enough so there was room for my more difficult and challenging habitual drives to arise. What was left when my mind became almost still was not quietude but discomfort—and the discomfort certainly didn’t feel like oneness.
One of the ideas that I had about perception was that I could somehow have such pure attention that my human perspective could dissolve altogether. I hoped I could float above my body so that I could witness experience but not partake of it. Of course it was easy to become still enough that my name and past and gender dissolved for a time. At least, it took a backseat to the tree and the snow and the sound of the ice breaking up. I imagined I could just swim away from my name. When this happened I conceived that this was momentary samādhi. In actual fact, it would always lead to the arising of intense loneliness and disquiet. Was there any way, I wondered, that I could move through the world without putting human handprints all over it? Could I find in myself a kind of protected neutrality, untouched by dramatic feelings and internal conflict? Was there a way out? One day on retreat I had finished āsana practice, and the wind was blowing against the meditation room as the rain clouds moved dramatically overhead. The sky looked like it was filled with heavy black party streamers. I was on an island in the Pacific Northwest, and the birds had come in from the ocean to rest on the windowsills. I sat still and looked at the birds sitting by the window, and I was filled with anxiety. I was taken back to my new home at six years old. . . .
The bay window leans out over our front yard. I sit in the window seat and look into the red Japanese maples that brush against the front of our house. It smells like vinegar and newsprint. The bus goes by, and then it’s silent again. I see the reflection of my mother, behind me, in the glass, and as in a dream in which you try to speak but your voice is muted, I try to make contact with her, but only her reflection remains. I feel incredibly lonely. My mother, the one I most need, is unfindable. No contact. There she is in the dark glass, and all I can do is touch her image with my eye. Not her body, not her skin, not her words. She could not listen. She could not hear me. I can’t recall any other details. I might even have fallen asleep.
As I sat on retreat looking at the glass windows, my body was filled with these old emotions, memories of loss and disconnection. But there was nowhere to go. Just this solitary room on a desolate island on the Pacific coast. As the clouds collected outside, I felt my body was going to explode, but I had nowhere to go. Absorbed by this past-present pain, I sat and sat until I could feel the floor, the ground, and the breath. And as I sat, the eruption of anxiety and loneliness slowly began to pass, like the clouds overhead. With sudden choreography and a loud whoosh against the window, the birds took off back toward the ocean. The storm had passed.
So much of our discontent has to do with distrust of our body knowledge, mistaking what is transient as permanent. On this morning of the retreat I described, the walls and the floor and the breath became an intuitive mother-body support, holding me without saying a word. I was five and six and seven and ten, and I was also thirty, allowing the envelope of the sky, the birds, and memory to hold me together. Ambivalent memories of unavailability and cancellation were held together by stillness with such a lasting effect that over the hours that passed, I felt cleaned out and alive.
We all have attacking or unwanted figures in our memories, both physically and emotionally. And as the shaft of awareness drops down lower and lower, as the breath draws deeper into the core of the body, these competing and unwanted emotions arise. The practice teaches us how to open to these experiences. Equanimity (upekṣā) is not a silent witnessing of our psychic lives but an opening toward what is. And these difficult emotions are not distractions or impingements on the meditative path. They are the very path itself.
Our lives all take a unique shape, like grain in wood, veined stones, codes of DNA. Opening to the way these past impressions (vāsana) appear in the body-mind (saṁskāra) and emerge into awareness as specific symptoms (granthi) is the heart of Yoga, the path of intimacy. This is how we embrace the heart of the world. Taking care of ourselves, we take care of one another. One hand will always wash the other.
Meditation practices are essential for realizing this level of intimacy because through stillness we learn that underneath the surface distractions of consciousness in body and mind, there is a visceral sense of connectedness with all of life. At first this feels like connection to a mood or a thought, but over time we begin to see that what we think of as our character or even our truest self is, in fact, the entire world. With such a realization, how can we not respond with kindness and action? Sometimes compassion begins as a very small drop, like the way white skeins of mist drift across the sky from nowhere. We are so much more empathic when the mind is not skittish, when we are not unhappy with ourselves. I stood looking up at a tree yesterday trying to see if it was the same green as my sweater. I noticed how quiet it was, and so I closed my eyes and just stood there. Suddenly a crow darted out from a tangle of shadow, startling my eyes open, and I saw its glassy eyes. That bird had been there the whole time. Maybe compassion is mixed in with everything too. Maybe the practice of yoga is a method of cultivating attentiveness so that this whole body becomes one great vow: To Include Everything.
Excerpt from Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life (in stores now), Shambhala Publications.
Awake in the World Mini Film by Andréa de Keijzer, therainydayparade.net