August 29, 2011

270-Degrees: Getting Stuck in Transformational Process.

A model for moving forward on your journey

Photo: Sharell Cook

Dear Yogis:  I adore you.  But some of you are getting on my last nerve.

I’ve been doing yoga for a decade, and for a decade, I teach it, and I love my students, my life of teaching, and my process. But I gotta say, too many of the people who do yoga really annoy the crap out of me.

What I’ve seen is that that many yogis are getting stuck in one phase of their developments, something I see as a fantasy phase that allows us to think:

If I just set my intention, and think positively, it will all work out.

The Universe loves me!

There is abundance for everyone!

I want to discuss this phase, and suggest ways to move beyond it.

But first, and key to this intervention: I know that I’m violating Sutra 1:33, which says we ought to disregard the wicked. As I interpret it, the Sutra suggests we ought just stay away from those things that we find distasteful. I find the stuck phase I’ve described distasteful.  Following Sutra 1:33 has done me a world of good. But sometimes, you just need to (gracefully—I’ve learned this the hard way!) call people out, you know?

There is a place for truthfully observing and critiqueing something we perceive as distasteful without engaging in gossip or defamation, or becoming a negative person ourselves.  Life is complicated—gorgeous and gruesome at the same time.  To insist that everything is always beautiful is to exist out of balance.  Disregard the wicked—yes—but live not under the illusion that wickedness and ignorance disappear when you do so.

Sometimes you need to take a stand to eradicate them.

Here are some examples of this ideal at work:

Reading Stephen Batchelor’s book Confessions of An Atheist Buddhist I ran across a vignette where the author is talking with a Buddhist about mandatory military duty. Incredulously the author asks,

you engage in violence?

The man he’s talking with, just as incredulously replies,

I’d fight for the principles I believe in!

This comes from the guy who save the worms from imminent death as they dig a foundation for a building.

In another example, of principled intervention, the Japanese movie 13 Assassins explores rote ethics versus applied ethics through the tale of a band of ronin samurai who plot to assasinate a horrible human, who is in line to become the Shogun. They kill others and sacrifice their own lives in the service of peace and justice.

Samurai were yogis of a kind—studying the art of being present, because they knew their deaths will happen in the now. The movie’s thirteen machines of war were sworn to serve the Shogun, yet they don’t back away from instigating his demise because it’s unprincipled to get involved with judging another’s truly despicable actions as wrong. They see that what is correct goes against all the principles they’ve been trained in, and they still do it.

With these examples in mind, I will say that too many of my yoga tribe are getting stuck in an ugly moment of their evolutionary process—the self-absorbed, life is good moment. You know what I mean: the let’s connect deeply by eye-gazing, don’t-you-dare-rain-on-my-parade-with-a dose-of-reality, if I go to another transformational workshop I’ll finally be free, moment.

We’ve all experienced it – but the question is, how to push beyond?

I think I’ve found a model for what’s after this phase, and I want to share it with you.  It comes from Korean Zen Buddhism.  But first, here’s a little background and gratitude.

I first learned about this style of Buddhism from Jonathan Bowra who, at the time of my 2006 Forrest Yoga Teacher Training, was married to Ana Forrest, and was her lead assistant and led much of the morning meditation teaching. Part of our required reading was Only Don’t Know, a collection of letters between Zen Master Seung Sahn and his students. It was in this book that I was introduced to some of the foundations of Korean Zen Buddhism.  Thanks Jonathan!  Thanks, Ana!

In the model I’d like to share with you, Master Seung Sahn uses a circle to map the entire cycle of enlightenment. On it there are five stations: at Zero Degrees, the beginning, there is Small I and Attachment to Names and Form.  Here, you think that you really are your body, and that the Sun is the Sun without realizing that the Sun doesn’t call itself Sun and it was humans that gave it that name and therefore are attached to the name and the form.

Being stuck here is to mistake the finger that points at the moon for the moon.

At Ninety Degrees, there is Karma I and Attachment to Thinking. Here you get really into the thoughts and ideas around your evolutionary process, and mistake your thinking as actually evolving. But, if you stop thinking, then what?  At One-hundred-eighty Degrees, there is  Nothing I and Attachment to Emptiness. Here you see that you emerged from nothing, and will return to nothing.

Therefore emptiness reigns supreme.

Nothing matters, everything is the same thing.

This can be liberating, and also very dangerous.

This is where nihilism comes from.

At Two-Hundred-Seventy Degrees there is Freedom I and Attachment to Freedom.

In Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, stage Master Sahn writes:

(This) is the area of magic and miracles. Here, there is complete freedom, with no hinderance in space or time. This is called live thinking. I can change my body into a snake’s. I can ride a cloud into the Western Heaven. I can walk on water. If I want life, I have life; if I want death, I have death. In this area, a statue can cry; the ground is not dark or light; the tree has no roots; the valley has no echo. (year: 7)

If you get stuck here, you live in a world of fantasy. The world is what you imagine.  Here too is the place of great possibility, quantum leaps, spontaneous healing.  Magic is real.

Finally, at Three-hundred and Sixty Degrees, there is Big I and No-attachment Thinking. Here things are exactly as they are. A book is a book. The sky is blue. You are entirely present to what is. You think of nothing, not even yourself.

The brilliance of this model is that it shows that all stages on the circle are correct, and all stages are incorrect. It shows how you arrive at where you are right now and see the perfection of it. This process model shows that the wisdom of before enlightenment, chop wood carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood carry water lies in the evolutionary journey. You see that the world we live in is at once magical and benevolent, ordinary and cruel. To err on one side or the other is to exist in some other kind of insanity, because your perception is out of balance.

We all will find ourselves at different degrees on Master Sahn’s circle. We may be in different stages of development simultaneously: 0 degrees in relationships, 180 in work, for example.  We may add a third dimension to this model, and spiral upward, grappling with the same issues again and again, but with added wisdom and insight as we repeatedly traverse the circle.

What I fear is that many of our yoga tribe are stuck on this circle, and have mistaken where they are stuck for arrival.   Using Master Sahn’s circle, my diagnostics suggest that many are jammed up around 270 degrees in the fantasy phase. It’s tremendously appealing and appealing to the ego to discover for the first time that you are Divine and perfect and beautiful just the way you are; and this is true. However, it’s really not an excuse to act like a jerk, or to sleep with your best friend’s girlfriend, because you need to fully express your truth. Nor is it reason to deny that even with the tremendous age-defying aspects of asana, you’re really not 23 anymore and ought to stop re-imagining and reliving the childhood you believe that your parents denied you.

This last one didn’t work for Michael Jackson—it won’t work for you.

This kind of affirmative, I-can-do-no-wrong thinking is ultimately just another form of not seeing the truth, which is part of what yoga asks us to do.  Moreover, to embrace only the light side of life, or yourself, is to exisit out of balance.  It produces a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde effect in humans.

It’s important to move on from 270-degree thinking and speaking. It is merely another form of delusion and attachment that impedes our own evolution.


I realized that I was stuck in this kind of 270-degree magical thinking after four years of struggling with adult onset migraine headaches. I thought that if I did enough yoga, thought really good thoughts, worked through my anger, drank chamomile tea, and rubbed lavender on my temples that they would go away. They didn’t, which left me thinking that I was just not doing something right, thinking enough happy thoughts, or that I was a bad person.

It was when a friend sat me down and helped me to realize that I was losing 36 days a year to this illness that I woke up. Reality check. It was at that point that I did what I really, really didn’t want to do, which was to begin to use pharmaceuticals.

This move went against all of my belief systems, but running up against those belief system made me see that my insistence on a particular thought structure was impeding my forward progress. It brought me to grips with a reality that I was determined to ignore, and a fantasy that I was clinging to. I was sick.

Spontaneous healing was not on the menu for me, then.

Now that I know yoga practice-related rationalizations, I see the pattern of magical thinking and stuck behaviors in many other practitioners. I often wonder, for instance, what solace someone can take when the intention to find the love of your life has not worked out? Does someone really feel like the Universe loves you when someone murders a loved one? If there’s abundance for everyone, then why is it that so many yoga people are struggling financially? These are real and hard questions that I find people in my community running up against.

The promise that yoga has made, of happiness and freedom, just doesn’t seem to offer up the necessary tools to help with some of these challenging questions, at least if we stay stuck in 270-degrees. Yes, you will feel 100 percent better after going to class, and you will get some excellent tools for dealing with many areas of your life, but more often than not, this is entry-level stuff.

I want our beloved yoga to help with the real problems that people have, and as long as our tribe stays in the world of 270-degrees, inside the fantasy where if I just think positively hard enough everything will be okay, we’re never going to up-level from a cosmic down dog to a handstand.

There’s a placard in the stairwell at Kripalu that says The goal of yoga is to see things as the truly are.

To do just this requires a multi-faceted view of the world we live in—a view that acknowledges that sometimes bad things happen to good people and sometimes good people behave badly.

A view that sees the cheetah is beautiful as it runs down and tears out the gazelle’s windpipe.

A view that acknowledges the truth is sometimes ugly, and there’s beauty in the quest for truth, even if the journey is messy.

A view that sees sometimes I need a friend to deliver me a hard dose of the painful, liberating truth.

Let’s help each other and ourselves make that last quarter-turn on the circle, yeah? 360 Degrees—here we come!


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