June 30, 2011

Duhkha and Sukha: A Rhyme and Whales at the Heart.

Patanjali put a neat rhyme in the middle of the Sutras about the klesas.

Sukha anusayi ragah
Duhkha anusayi dvesah

Pleasure may invite desire; Aversion lights pain on fire – The Yoga Sutras II

The mirror-words for pain and pleasure, duhkha and sukha, at the root of the passage are like two seeds from the core of an apple. Once they’re planted in your life, they know how to propagate. Try pursuing pleasure or pushing pain away. According to Patanjali you’ll regret it soon enough.

Come on Pantanjali, this is definitely backwards. What are we supposed to do, pursue pain and push away pleasure? Why shouldn’t we go after what makes us feel good and run away from what hurts? Even the Declaration of Independence advertises the “pursuit of happiness.”

The Yoga Sutras say it’s bad for us though, and I wonder why.

I’ve had a couple of outstanding opportunities to think about this lately. Last week my wife made one of those pain-producing comments that only someone you’re intimate with can make. Not to blame her; the hurt was mostly unintentional. But it went right to my core, and it hurt like the devil.

Attempting to be a good yogi, I didn’t react in the moment. Instead I did my best to give my feelings internal space and to let them play out inside myself. I tried not to magnify or attach to the physical sensations or to the thought patterns the pain evoked. I spent most of the night alone, watching it live inside me and waiting for it to go away.

Photo: Lisa Yarost

As the clock scratched by one of the wee hours I had a kind of epiphany. I realized that while this pain was not at all pleasant, I couldn’t honestly say that I was suffering. In that moment I experienced the difference between feeling pain and suffering from it. For me, here’s the difference. When I feel pain, I can remain calm at my center, but with suffering, even my center is turbulent.

As full of pain as I was during those dark hours, my center was still.

Digesting this insight that night and the next day, I felt calm and evolved. Very yogic. The feeling stayed with me for several days.

A whale-watching trip the next weekend brought me down a few pegs. We had registered for an all-day seabird and whale watching tour sponsored by the Mass Audubon Society. By virtue of their size and otherworldly grace, whales epitomize for me a kind of calm we humans can only aspire to. I had looked forward to seeing them for weeks, and our excellent guides took us near dozens. What I saw exceeded my deepest dreams.

The seas were very heavy that day and our little boat yawed and crashed relentlessly throughout the tour. After the first few sightings I became seasick and remained that way for the rest of the ride, sometimes violently. The waves convulsed around me; my stomach heaved inside. I utterly lost track of the still center I’d found earlier in the week.

I did look for it with all my might. Lying there with my eyes closed for several hours, looking for my center was about all I was capable of doing. But everything around and inside me was spinning, and there seemed to be no center anywhere. It was a long and challenging day.

Photo: NOAA's National Ocean Service

Looking back on the whale tour now, I believe I actually could learn to keep still at the core during an unpleasant physical experience like that. With yoga, I repeatedly experience something still within me that persists during turbulence, even if I temporarily lose track of it. I think I could learn to hold onto it.

This core is very much like a whale for me. Gliding beneath the surface, it’s full of grace. It breathes slowly. It is large beyond my imagination. Unfortunately also like a whale, my deep center is often out of view. But I’ve sighted it often enough in my yoga practice to know it lives on regardless of weather.

Considering in retrospect my momentary epiphany in the wee hours, I think it may actually signal an internal change: the emergence of a new ability to hold emotional pain with equanimity.

If so I expect incremental change – evolutionary growth, not revolutionary. Surely some other event will come along before long that makes the world seem turbulent again. My emotions will heave, my body will seem to reject its purpose.

But for now I’ll hold that dark evening’s perception for what it was. Glimpsing the difference between pain and suffering, I experienced meaning and beauty, however briefly.

It was like sighting two whales side by side in the gray ocean, or discovering sounds and significance rhyming in the heart of an wise old text.

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