उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान् मृत्योर्मुक्षीय मामृतात् ॥
When a generous and well-spoken Ayurvedic practitioner gives me a free dosha consultation and then offers a glass of cooling cucumber-water to wash it down with, the best thing I can possibly do is to accept it with humility and grace. And so I accept and take in all of the beautifully crafted words that Matt Remski has to offer; in our brief interchanges, he has already taught me a lot about how to carry oneself with respect in this strange space known as the blogosphere.
Yes, as Matt says, the written word is a faulty vehicle when it comes to conveying the person behind the words and the intent that the person brings with the words. Words on a computer screen can carry a little light — and I do my best to infuse the words I bring with that light — but the spoken word carries much more. The light in a person’s eyes says a lot — the twinkle of knowing that cannot come through in words. There’s a reason our greatest teachers aren’t on here, blogging noisily away. They sit back twinkling, while the rest of us have it out… in matters of perhaps some small consequence.
I met a man in Haridwar once, who perpetually dwelt in an ocean of peace so clear and sweet that its nectar was palpable for half a mile around. There are True Teachers in this world. It has been my great joy in this life — having spent my entire 41 years immersed in, reacting against, rediscovering, studying and practicing the profound and beautiful traditions of Eastern Mysticism — to discover that there are indeed True Teachers in this world. The truly Golden, whose practices are citadels of light, are out there, sometimes closer than we think.
What little I can offer from what I have received on this path has come from my Teachers and from the greatness that is the Supreme Light. I offer the very small bit that I can, so that others might learn from my mistakes and benefit from my insights. I speak with conviction for the simple reason that I have it. For me to dim that conviction would be a disservice to my students, my peers, my self, my teachers, and my Lord; I fully trust that anyone who reads my words or comes to my class can — in this day and age — sift out what they relate to from what they don’t, but my words do not come pre-sifted; we don’t perpetually serve gruel in fear that someone might chip their tooth on heartier stuff, so if the result of me delivering my words unsifted is that occasionally I have to swallow some cucumber water — or even stronger medicine — its a consequence I’m willing to take. Life is sweet, God is good, the stakes are urgent — bring it on, as long as it doesn’t turn my throat blue.
Before it comes to seed and eventually is liberated from the stalk, the cucumber grows, bound to its source in the Garden of eternal and fragrant nourishment. Despite any illusion of freedom, neither the growing, the flowering, or the moment of release happens from the effort or will of the fruit itself. The Gardener who harvests the bounty of the Void plucks the fruit when He deems it ripe, or He lets it rot for seed. Therefore consider the following words from the smallest cucumber in the smallest corner of the garden, one who is fully yoked to the stalk and has no control over the time, place, or means of his own liberation.
Matt Remski has framed our discussion as the interchange between a Yoga Protector and a Yoga Evolutionist. I appreciate such generous terminology, but I am not a protector of Yoga. I do not seek to keep Yoga exactly the way “it was”, because it was and is not one particular way. I revel in the fact that the science, art, and practice of individual liberation that is yoga historically flowered in thousands of beautiful varieties, from the white-hot devotion of the Bhaktis to the transformative nectar of the Tantrikas. Like any yogi teaching in the West in this age, the Yoga I teach bears little to no resemblance to the Yoga of the ancients. We are not sequestered in caves or practice huts, we are not self-mortifiers, we are not ash-smeared graveyard dwellers, and we are not drying sheets with our internal fire. Our bodies are not made of diamonds. Our veins do not pump vibutti or rasa instead of blood. We do not stand on one leg for twelve years, seeking Divine Weapons. We do not incinerate others with the single syllable: ‘HM!’ Do we?
What I do strive to see is that certain very distinct treasures — the ones that are perhaps easiest to overlook but hold deeply profound medicine for the maladies of our extreme times — are understood, explored, and practiced. It is my experience that all of the spiritual traditions that provide the individual an opportunity to grow from seed through flower through fruit to liberation require patience, gradual letting go, gradual release, gradual growth, constant attention, and constant care. This is most valuable for us to reflect on now in times when the culture of immediacy and gratification and impulse is the deeply ingrained norm.
This long-term view of our practice — seeing the full spectrum of the journey from the seed to the liberation of the fruit – has as its basis the development of a strong foundation. Foundational practices are the bedrock of all spiritual traditions — from Buddhism to Bhakti to Tantra to Sufism. Matt is right to give such lustrous examples of the variety of spiritual practice and mythology, and yes, there are of course many practices based around emotion and catharsis. But there is no spiritual tradition I know of in which a strong foundation is not built in order to keep the practitioner safe from harm, establish context, and to serve as fertile soil in which to cultivate the fruit of the vine. In fact, the wilder the energy being accessed the more structured and stringent the foundational practices tend to be. Those white-hot Bhaktins he references do not drink alcohol, they do not eat meat, they do not drink caffeine, they do not eat eggs, they do not eat garlic, they rise before dawn to purify themselves every day, and – on the side – they are required to always recite the name of God with every waking breath.
Foundational practices generally involve what we call ethics and morals, daily observances of purification and meditation and prayer, and are specifically designed to be practiced over a period of many, many years – preferably the entire lifetime. One of the greatest, profoundest illuminations of the great minds of India — from the Vedas through the Puranas through the Mahabharata through Vashistha through the Yoga Tantras of Tibetan Buddhism through Patanjali — is how the human organism energetically works in the context of regular dedicated practice. The entire glory that is tapas – the development of spiritual heat — is based around the direct revelation that practice is cumulative. When you build a fire, you rub in a regular, repetitive manner to create friction, and you keep at it. If you stop, at all, the heat that you have worked so diligently to create dissipates, and rather quickly.
These practices arose from direct observation of physical reality, and the spirit of foundation finds root in every aspect of how we interact with the world, from how we grow a garden to how we play music to how we raise children to how we connect to the Supreme. However, given that they require commitment over time, and given our modern aversion to commitment and to reigning ourselves in, foundational practices are the ones that we in the culture of immediacy least like to practice, and — not coincidentally — are the practices that perhaps we need the most.
It is a very clear sign of the times and culture we live in that even the suggestion that practicing restraint is a large part of historic yoga and might have some small benefit or relevance to modern life brings the grumbling reaction it does. In the comments and rebuttals to the articles I’ve written, I’ve now been called a ‘fundamentalist,’ a ‘conservative’, and ‘austere,’ which, given my story and given my teaching style, is, well, quite something.
I realize of course that part of this is the tone of the writing that I put forth, and I own that, but there’s a lot more to it as well. I find it extremely telling that when anyone suggests to a free-thinking North American — whether a Tea Party libertarian or a liberal new-age Californian — that they ‘hold back’ or ‘regulate’ anything the answer is almost always a resounding “Get off my land!” Our cultural sense of individual freedom and expression being of paramount importance is so much a part of who we are that it is seemingly impossible to step outside it.
And there’s the rub. Our Western misperception of restraint as limiting and individual ‘free will’ as paramount is the exact core of the matter. That’s the Divine Paradox that has been given to us straight from the time of the Rg Veda. That’s the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra with its seemingly obscure reference to cucumbers. The entire Indian spiritual examination of mind is geared around the reality that following the impulsive instinctive callings of our immediate mind is not freedom – it is the exact opposite. Nirvana happens through total obliteration of the self. Moksha happens through re-chaining to the Supreme will, not our own. The cucumber is fettered to the vine, and it is not our call when or how it is released.
We live in a culture that dwells within a playground of immediate gratification and nearly limitless choice; it may be Matt’s perception that yogis are generally OK within this and people are generally ethical and everyone’s doing pretty much fine; I would put forth that this perception is greatly skewed by the culture in which it comfortably sits. Even what we consider the most moderate of lifestyles involves living more excessively than the Kings and Queens of antiquity did. We have no reins on our behavior, no limits to the types or amounts of food or alcohol or drugs we can consume, no restraints on who we can sleep with, nothing holding us back and quite often nothing guiding us. Along the way, we are bombarded with the incessant message that discontentment is the natural state of the human being and that we need more of everything immediately in order to be happy. Our state of ‘being OK’ – even those of us who are relatively OK – in a world diseased with depression and anxiety and obesity and cancer and heart disease and addiction – is nowhere near the health that is the human being’s birthright and that is possible through practice and re-alignment.
I know with conviction that the ocean of multitudinous and real forces in which we live today has a profound effect on our psychology, our physiology, our spirituality, our level of contentment, and our level of peace, and that all of us can use more foundation in these turbulent waters. I know all of us can use more guidance so that it’s not all up to us to navigate on our own. I know all of us can benefit from building structures in our lives in which we can feel more fortification and more support. When I spoke in my last article of ahimsa and building an unassailable citadel, this is not hyperbole and this is not theoretical. It is actual reality. The reality of what we can structurally create through consistent foundational practice is more than we can even imagine at first. A deeper calm, a deeper peace, a deeper health, a deeper light than any we have known in our lives is available to us. This is the transformational promise of Yoga. But if we continually modify Yoga to fit the spaces in which we feel most immediately comfortable, we don’t get there.
What we end up with when we modernize everything within the yogic lexicon to fit our current cultural needs rather than turning the lens on ourselves and questioning where exactly our needs might be coming from is a self-betterment toolkit that is almost entirely based on our cultural values of comfort, immediacy, and individualism. In doing so, we are turning Yoga into us, rather than letting it change us. We are sticking with what is closest to home, rather than challenging ourselves with what it offers from a completely different perspective. My feeling is not at all that beautiful practices of expression and catharsis and drama and emotion should be shunned or even modified in our modern world, my feeling is simply that this is not Yoga’s greatest offering for us.
It is worth asking if there is deeper transformational practice to be found in updating the Yoga Sutras with a new vocabulary of free-expressive self-empowering modernism or in diving into the places in the Yoga Sutras that challenge our very sense of what it means to be a free-thinking modern individual. It is worth asking if there is deeper practice in casually ‘revising’ the word pratyahara – the direct and specific practice of meditative sense-withdrawal – to mean ‘freedom of the senses’ because we feel that’s the way that modern humans should be relating to the senses, or in diving into the discomfort we might have around the traditional practice of sense withdrawal. Certainly not every piece of outdated fantastical dogma needs to be preserved; but when we alter words that are distinct practices, we lose some very specific preciousness. And when we change the meaning of the word to its exact opposite it quite possibly illuminates the exact place that we need to practice the most.
In my own life and my own practice, I did not begin to change some very deep self-serving behaviors and attitudes until I was required – on the mat and in my life – to directly go in and start to work with the exact things that I found the most uncomfortable. I have my Teachers to thank for that. The poses I find the most uncomfortable on the mat show me where the real opening needs to happen in order to build a structurally sound body. The mental tendencies and behaviors I have off the mat show me where I need to practice in order to build a more structurally sound human being. This conversation, for example, shows me a lot about myself. It is precisely where I resist the most, where I exert the most individual will, that I am repeatedly cut down to size. This is the time-hallowed lament of the devotional poets, the Bhaktins, the Alvars who are Drowned in God, and of lovers throughout history. Damn you. You know everything about me. You know me better than I know myself. You hit me right where it hurts. And I love you all the more for it.
As I wrote in my India journal last year after a particularly intense practice:
You put a thorn through the scab on the wound that you put there,
I would have cried out, had I not already been singing your Name.
In the Great Garden that is our lifetime, that is our spiritual selves, that is the fragrant and real expression of our spiritual, emotional, physical being — we are not in control. We don’t get to determine when we die, when we suffer, when the ground is swept out from underneath us. This is what’s at stake here – death; the abyss that awaits all of us at any given moment on the other side of the thin eggshell of our skulls; the glorious, loving removal of the cucumber from its stalk. We put the foundations in place as best we can, and then we fully surrender. If we don’t want to work on the foundation at all… well, my experience is that we’re in for a rougher ride somewhere down the line.
To practice in a way that builds a true foundation, we have to take the small and immediate choices of our lives seriously. It starts with preciousness. It starts with the deepest, most loving, forgiving, peaceful recognition of the preciousness of ourselves, our bodies, our breath, and each and every moment we are blessed to inhabit this jeweled world. In every Tantric vision of physical reality I know, the physical universe is the mandala of our practice and the physical stuff it is made of is the stuff of liberation itself. As incarnate beings living in physical reality, we directly inhabit The Realm in Which All Things Deeply Matter.
So we need to start to move away from the worldview and mindset of everything just being kind of fine, and no big deal — our interactions, people we meet, how we treat them, how we treat ourselves… We need to move away from the mindset of belittling ourselves and our choices in this world, or downplaying, or fostering the attitude of ‘”Oh its just…” “Oh its not that important…” “Oh its basically OK…” If we’re not cautious, that can end up becoming the story of our entire spiritual life. How we carry ourselves in this world is how we carry ourselves in this world, and the threads we weave in each moment are the beds we lie in.
The matrix of this world is deeply sensitive. Everything we take into the waters of ourselves or put forth into the waters of the world is held afloat in an ocean of significance, and the ripples from every breath and every interaction permeate the field around us. As we start to examine we see that it is precisely in the small ‘insignificant’ moments where the Gardener is challenging us to grow.
This sensitivity and awareness causes us to see the choices we make differently. It causes us to see our breath differently, to see the words we speak differently, to see the interactions we have all throughout our day differently. We start to choose our partners respectfully and carefully and build trust and preciousness first as foundation to any relationship we enter into. We also start to see substances we take into our bodies — like alcohol — differently. We see greater significance in those moments in which alcohol plays into or exacerbates a vritti-cycle of craving, gratification, reward, and guilt. We feel more acutely the subtle ways that it exerts influence in choices we make, how it interacts with the energetic layers of our koshas, what it does to the nourishing womb of our tapas. We become aware of many small moments, and of opportunities that shine like life-giving jewels in the stark landscape of the Great Cemetery.
The specific moments in life in which there is friction between the impulse of immediate want and the opportunity of larger surrender, where we can either follow the path of the vrittis of our short term mind or open to a larger order, these are incredible access points to practice. It is good to pay attention to where these access points arise, because they arise all the time. Its good to find them in the words of our fellow yogis, as I have found plenty in Matt’s words. And, my tennis-loving colleague Bob Weisenberg, its good to find these access points in the teachings that we study every single day.
Is it an accident that the crisis point, the Yoga of Arjuna on the Divine Battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita happens as a direct result of the friction between what Arjuna’s immediate emotional being desires and what the larger structure requires of him? And in the end isn’t his practice to follow according to his place in the Divine Order? Those ‘insignificant’ moments of friction are exactly where the Divine Battlefield lives! Those moments in which we are sometimes forced to forsake that which is most immediately comforting to us, even as Arjuna was asked to fight his own family! The Divine is revealed in many-limbed glory, right at the overlapping of wills, right at the place where our short-term will seeks to control or modify and the Larger Will demands we let go. How many of those access points do we miss every day, because we don’t see them for what they are?
My wish as a teacher is not to diminish creativity, judge practice, tell people to quiet down or be miserable or any other such stern and bitter offering, nor do I do any of these things in my classes. My wish is for us to be a truly healthy human family, truly, deeply healthy and steeped in the warm light of Goodness. And the best way I know how to offer this health is through the sublime preciousness of the foundation. I do not seek to fit students into a pre-conceived order, nor do I do so any more than Matt uses the doshas as context in which to prescribe individual treatments. If a student is holding grief in their heart and contracting back, we work on slowly working to open outwards, if they are over-extending themselves, we work on drawing in. We work around that glorious place of true center, True Alignment, that I am humbly discovering more about every single day.
I can only hope that the growth and opening of the tradition of Yoga in this modern world happens the same way that opening happens in a healthy asana practice – that we open and change the tradition gradually, from a place of awareness, from a place of solid foundation and sound structure, so that no injury occurs and so that the body — in this case the actual precious Body of all that is Yoga — is benefited rather than harmed.
So Matt, I drink the cucumber water gladly, and hopefully deliver something back of small value. To mark the occasion, I’ll embark on one year of daily Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra recitation beginning today. And I’ll reflect back on how it’s going throughout the course of this ever-growing conversation.
Steeped in the Divine Fragrance and Offered In the Spirit of the Nourishment that comes from the Care of the Gardener, who Moves us all to Fruition in our Time.
Om Tryambakam Yajamahe…