October 2, 2011

Freely Receive, Freely Give: Of Water, Tapas, and Why I’m Running Barefoot for Charity

On October 7th I will run a 26-mile barefoot circumambulation of Govardhan Hill in Uttar Pradesh, India in order to raise funds for water.org, a charity dedicated to providing clean drinking water to those who need it the most. It is an unfortunate reality of our world that hundreds of millions of people lack access to clean water and that millions — up to 24,000 per day — perish from waterborne diseases.

I decided to do this run for many reasons, not the least of which is the dire importance of the cause. The fact that so many in our world live in overabundance while others die in misery from lack of access to the most basic agent of life itself is a direct measure of the mental, physical, and spiritual health of humanity. When we view human beings as one interconnected whole — which we are — we see a whole that is extremely sick, with one side suffering and dying from the diseases of gluttony and the other side from the diseases of lack. Across this spectrum, the most fundamental agent of spiritual and physical replenishing and healing — other than breath — is water. There is a reason water has played such a vital role in so many indigenous spiritual and medical traditions. Water is life — spiritual life, physical life…. Life. And the most fundamental right of human beings is access to the substance that is our pure source.

For myself, I see bringing clean water to those people who need it as an integral part of my yoga practice. It is obviously part of the path of karma yoga — the yoga of engaged giving. But it is more than that. The nature of water is that of an open and fluid transfer between receiving and giving. The reservoirs of water that are our dearest treasure on this planet receive continually from above even as they give continually back to us below. Water does not hold for itself, but exists constantly in the act of receiving and giving as it molds to meet the shape of its container. In the words of Christ that became the adage for many of the earliest physicians, ‘give freely, as you have received.’ I know of no other force so vital to life that embodies these words so perfectly. The action of water reflects the way in which human beings — if we want to be in alignment — can and should approach giving, and healing, and our lives. We become, through our practice, vessels for goodness, and we pass that goodness on as freely as it comes to us.

In our practice, we can also directly connect with the water that makes up such a huge part of who we are. 70% of our bodies — and up to 80% of our brains — are water, and the health, vitality, and life of the human being is held and fostered in water. Similarly, we are as impressionable as pools of water, the samskaras and emotional impressions that we take with us from our day and our interactions as present and real as ripples caused by small stones. Tantric texts speak of the ‘Lake of Consciousness.’ Ajahn Chah’s beautiful manual on meditation is called the ‘Still Forest Pool.’ It is important in our practice to realize that these are not just metaphors. There is indeed a Lake of Consciousness. Its real, true water, and we can bring stillness and equilibrium to it very directly through conscious practice.

As we develop awareness of the state of the waters our being, it is good to practice taking care of those waters properly.  Frequent visitors to this site are certainly aware of my interpretations of the yogic perspective on alcohol. Regardless of how we choose to view this substance or how much of it we consume, the practice of receiving all we need from water for a set time period — either through fasting or cleansing or simply through cutting out alcohol and heavy oils from our systems — can be a very, very healing one. Vrindavan, where my run will take place, is a ‘pure’ town — in other words, people are asked not to consume alcohol, meat, or caffeine so as not to interfere with the inherent purity of the waters of their being. From a homeopathic perspective the most potent healing happens when our bodies are clean, just as the most potent homeopathic medicines are small energetic pinpricks suspended in pure distilled water.

In yogic thought there is a direct relationship between the heat of tapas — sustained spiritual effort — and water. Water is part of the yogic trinity — along with fire and light — that forms the three prongs of the Shiva trident, that is mirrored in the body’s primary energy channels, the ida and the pingala and the shushumna.   In the stories of tapas that come down to us from the Vedas and the Puranas, we hear of the relationship between the primal heat and the primal water that brings creative eruptions of spiritual steam. In one tale, Shiva performs a great tapas, and begins to sweat profusely.  Everywhere a drop of his sweat meets the earth, a new God or Goddess springs to life. To shed water so that water might grow: this is the alchemy of how I view this practice and this run. I undertake this very minor tapas with devotion in my heart so that whatever fire is generated from my small effort might bring clear water to the thirsty, and in the mixing of water and fire there might grow a little light.

Finally, some people have asked why I plan to do this run in bare feet. I hate to disappoint, but it isn’t from any grand self-mortification or extreme practice of tapas — its for the simple reason that this is a holy site and there are no shoes allowed. I have never run a substantial distance barefoot, so I have no idea what to expect. However, there is not one shred of me that does not Know that freely given devotion can bring guardianship. So as I enter Vrindavan I’ll make my way to Gopeshvar Mahadev to ask Shiva’s permission to enter the holy city, and I’ll offer my rupees and flowers and coconuts and ask for a little help. And, in the place where Krishna raised up the mountain and offered his villagers shelter from the deluge of Indra’s waters, I will ask for shelter for my friends, my family, my human community, and for all those in need. Let the waters that we drink be pure, let the waters of our being be still, and may we all be healed in our own time, in our own way… All, sipping sweetly from our deepest source.

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