October 12, 2012

At the Feet of the Mountain of Mercy: Recapping 3,000 Sun Salutes for Clean Water.

Dear friends,

It is only through the grace of the Divine mountain whose blessed rains are as showers of mercy, and only with the help and support of many hundreds of shining souls around the world that the 3,000 sun salute parikrama of Arunachala is completed.

Though there are certainly tales to tell from the physical effort itself, this was never about the sun salutes or who did them. It is about another opportunity to connect, to breathe, to surrender, to open to the Divine, and through the force of that connection to provide a stream through which others can connect, and through that communal connecting to redirect some energy in a way that fills the cups of the needy.

Through this outpouring of love and community, over 500 people will not die of waterborne disease (and there’s still time for more to be served). This is the greatest result that any of us could have asked for. Everything else is secondary. I feel a deep gratitude for all the hundreds of people who donated to the effort and all the studios that held—and are holding—classes in solidarity. Thank you and deep pranams.

I also feel a perennial gratitude for India, the country and culture that birthed such phenomenal traditions of devotion. Devotion here is not about who is doing it or how much they are doing. It is simply done. Devotion isn’t a service or favor that we are doing for the Divine, nor is it a transaction that we undertake to try to bargain for something back. Devotion is the natural result of the true recognition of how things are; when we truly feel the greatness of the Supreme Light—the sublime force of Shakti that sends the galaxies spinning and that drives the infant to its mother’s breast—awe and devotion are the natural response. We don’t ‘acquire’ devotion. We remove the blockages within us that keep us from being a vessel for that flood of grace that has always been there. Then the devotion is like a deluge; it is like the lake, remembering the rain.

And who are we to keep such devotion locked away? Who are we to qualify or modify or repress or downplay that light?  Let us be vessels for this great devotion, transmitters for the great vibration, instruments for the true song.

As I write this, a devoted soul I met along the path is doing a three-day parikrama around Arunachala rolling on the ground the entire way. Every full moon, half a million people circle the sacred mountain, singing its holy name, remembering and honoring, the same way the earth remembers the sun.

Parikrama is the enacting of the exact relationship we all have to the central column of this universe, that bright pillar, in whose gravitational arc we are eternally bound and whom we eternally circle. With this orbit of the individual around the center point, we understand a bit more of our right relationship with this world and we understand a bit more about our relative size to the vastness and power of the Prime Mover.

This relationship is something we can understand conceptually, but conceptual understanding is not always enough. Sometimes we literally need to come face to face with the ground—over and over again—to remember how small, and how blessed, we are. So parikrama is not about making ourselves big through some external feat, it is about remembering—over and over—our small, bright place in the eternal sky of the larger order. Thank God.

When we see a person rising up to their feet and falling back to the ground 3,000 times, the tendency might be to think they are crazy, or to question why they would subject themselves to such exhaustion, dirt, grime, and pain. And then we take a step back and examine our own lives. And maybe we can see how many times we rise up only to fall back down again. How many times do we enact repetitive cycles? How many times do we put ourselves through the ringer in order to learn that same lesson… again?  How exhausted are we by our habitual tendencies? How many hours, days, years, lifetimes, have we spent circling the false mountain of a toxic relationship, or an old way of thinking, or an addictive behavior? What are our own daily parikramas and to whom are we performing them? To that old relationship we haven’t let go of? To money?  To our facebook page? To the false sense of comfort we gain trying to control the world around us?

The Shiva texts speak of the Divine as yujyaya, the “one worth yoking to.” So in this practice of yoga, we are seeking to align ourselves so that we are circling the right mountain. It is a testament to the literal beauty of this tradition that one way we can practice this alignment is simply by actually circling the right mountain.

There is not one step that one takes around Arunachala in which the Divine is not present. Everywhere is a worshiped stone, or a meticulously cared-for shrine, or a little temple, or a sidewalk Nandi or Ganesh. Everywhere we look there is an opportunity to reconnect to the center point. We paused at each of the sacred points around the parikrama path—the stone of the sun, the stone of the waters, the stone of the wind, the stone of fire…

The brief, shiny glimpse of each dark stone in its shiny, hidden resting place, seen and felt from the place of exhaustion and surrender, is a reconnection. It is a re-ligation to that precious point within ourselves, where in our own hearts sacredness waits, burning and bright. This is the place Thomas Merton called the point vierge, the Virgin Point. The space where the Divine Light of this universe and the individual heart connect.

This constant, repetitive reconnection is the heart of practice. Yoking the mind and heart that stray through repetitive effort while at the same time opening to the flood of grace that waits. Examining our lives to find the well-worn paths of harmful and negative tendencies that we might still be honoring, and seeking to adjust our orbit to that which is worth yoking to.

When we finally do commit to follow that bright current, then we almost certainly find a place of friction between our old habits and tendencies and our commitment to the mountain that is the greater order of this universe. The space in which we navigate that friction is the space in which the true practice of ahimsa happens.
The completion of a physical effort that some would call extreme might seem like a strange opportunity to begin discussing ahimsa.  In fact, a three-day parikrama—if we come to it with the intention of service rather than individual accomplishment and from the place of alignment to the greater rather than to ourselves—is a constant practice of ahimsa.

Each time I returned to the ground, each of those 3,000 times, I was given an opportunity to approach that one pranam within the delicate balance of holding and allowing, to pace rather than force, to surrender rather than hold on. Each time the whirling vrittis arose to tell me that I needed to get somewhere fast, to move it, to rush, I had the opportunity to recalibrate, to breathe, and slow down. Each time I started to wander towards thoughts of the end of the effort, and if I was going to make it, and when it was going to come, I had the opportunity to return to the moment, again.

By about the fourth hour of the first day, after the initial forceful vrittis that take us charging out of the gate in so many of life’s situations had settled, I knew full well that this parikrama wasn’t going to happen through any act of willpower or grit of my own but through surrender to the larger. So I focused less on myself and more on the object of devotion — observing and adoring the distinct faces that the mountain presents: how some times it is like an orange-red flame that seems to be lit from within, and other times like a cool green place of refuge, sometimes like a distant fortress, other times like the source of all bounty.

By practicing in this way, I was not at risk of harm. In an act of submission to the love and true will of the Greater, there is never harm. The Divine has nothing but love for us. If in every moment of practice, we can ask of the Divine: “What is your will, not mine, in this moment?” then this is the greatest guardianship against harm that we can have. This is the place where every pranam becomes more healing than the last.

Certainly, the three day effort involved discomfort and pain, as the practice of parikrama often does. The Tibetan devotees that circle Mount Kailash on their bellies in the snow experience pain, as do the grandmothers who do full pranams around Govardhan Hill in 95-degree heat. Yet would anyone consider these practices of selfless devotion ‘harmful’?

It is important as yogis in a culture that places an inordinate emphasis on physical comfort that we understand the difference between discomfort and harm.

Harm is action that creates vibrational disruption that leads to suffering, both for the harmer and the harmed.

Discomfort, on the other hand, is as natural and fundamental to human existence as water. How we work within this world of inevitable discomfort, inevitable friction…this is our practice.

Discomfort is an invitation to let go. Suffering is what happens when we don’t.
It is usually some form of discomfort—a tangible friction in our lives, a crisis that provokes the hero’s journey—that leads us on the path of practice in the first place. Then we revisit this place in our practice, over and over again.  In Vipassana practice, perhaps it is that one itch at hour five that will not go away that ends up spurring the deepest dive into mindfulness. This space of friction — whether caused by an itch we don’t scratch or by sun salute #1,949—has been described in every spiritual text from the battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita to the bright and numinous Cloud of Unknowing.

Do we have to do a zillion sun salutes to get there? No, absolutely not. That practice is reserved for the particularly restless. This space awaits us every time we return to the yoga mat. It awaits any time we face uncertainty. Any time we take a breath, we have the opportunity to work there.

Regardless of the methodology, the fundamental practice is to develop willingness… willingness to go into the space of the unfamiliar—the space where we cannot hold onto what we know any longer and must let go to something larger—and sit there. When we position ourselves like this—when our asana, our posture, our seat, our yoga practice—is to align ourselves face down on the ground, at the feet of this vast and providential universe, at the feet of the Prime Mover…then the floodgates open.

From what other place than that place of total willingness do we receive the flood of grace and mercy?

This is the space that our deeply rooted tendencies—our well-worn paths of negative parikrama—might sternly warn us about. They might go to great lengths to keep us from this place. All of our structures of identity, all those old habits, ways of treating ourselves, ways of treating others, all those bargains we’ve made with ourselves and the outside world out of fear—all these depend on our lack of willingness to go into the space of unknowing and to brightly rest, there in the place where opening happens.

There, in this place, those structures we have built start to burn away.

Let them be burned by great fires, washed away by even greater seas… Let them dissolve in the waters of mercy, be scattered by vast and empty winds.  So they are of dust, and to dust ever returning…

And once they have burned away… that is when it all gets interesting.

That is the space of only your will, Lord. The space where raindrops are your grace upon our upturned feet. The space where every green leaf is singing your name. The space of the unending flood of milk that flows into your mouth. The space of the gleaming cobra’s hood of jewels.

We could call this space the empty center at the heart of the flame. We could call it Arunachala, the pillar of stillness. The place of deep silence at the epicenter of the great fiery shockwave of all creation that is shakti-ma.

From the heart of this space, one word kept returning. Mercy.

Merciful, merciful world. Can we feel for a moment, truly feel the Love that this Universe has for us? Can we let it drive the tears from our eyes? Let it empty the places we have been holding, all out of fear? Fear that we are alone, that we are separate, that we will not know that love? That Love is the very matrix we inhabit. It is the ocean, and there is no place that is dry. We are showered in its graces, washed clean by its love, sustained by its mercy. Forever.

From the heart of this place called willingness comes the fountain of mercy, and all who drink from it are quenched.

In deep recognition of all those who contributed to this effort and those who will receive benefit from it.  How would it sound if I were to wish each and every one of you more time face down on the ground, at the feet of the right mountain?


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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