July 16, 2013

Owner’s Manual for a Burning Life. ~ Katy Hawkins

Photo: Light Matter

Setting darkness free to the ether is not a simple detox; it’s a process of fiery transformation.

I’m talking to you from rock bottom.

We’ve all been there: mopping the kitchen floor with an amalgam of tears and Lysol, listening to Tori Amos on a loop, cowering against the radiator with the box of tissues. Driving and examining that guard rail and wondering whether it would catch us, or if we’d just fly over the edge like Thelma and Louise. We all know the wish “not to be,” although we all read the “to be or not to be” question in grade 10 before we’d actually experienced anything like this.

These moments are what our mat is made for: we practice to change this pain into something else.

We all know how to avoid pain, how to run away from it, how to bury it in the hopes that it will disappear—which of course it doesn’t. When we refuse to enter into our own suffering, it rots inside us and poisons our interactions. The physical practice of yoga teaches us how to lean into steep sensation, how to stick with it.

In the words of Susan Griffin: you, yogi, are “not some light stone skipped on the surface of things, you travel below, sounding the depths where only the dauntless go.”

We have six feet of rubber on which we roil and move, to melt and mold our own darkness. Setting these feelings free to the ether is not a simple detox; it’s a process of transforming them. The mat is a magical space of alchemy that can offer a model for transformation in our lives.

Thich Naht Hanh offers the image of mulch, where we use our anger as fodder for growth. Icky, gooey, intolerable feelings hold potential for renewal, serving as compost that can grow something rich and strange. Of particular beauty in the gardening analogy is the notion of planting seeds. Often in a yoga class the teacher will say something, or some little moment of wisdom will occur to us and plant a seed for growth later. You can’t grow anything from nothing, and searching out your seeds is key. It doesn’t matter where they come from, but we need to make it our business to figure out where to look for them—maybe it’s the voice of a teacher you find inspiring, or maybe it’s going to the science museum, or maybe it’s reading Nietzsche.

Our job is to continue to gather these seeds—we’re only responsible for planting them; we have no control over whether or not they grow.

The problem with the mulch metaphor is that it doesn’t reflect the pain of the process. There’s a lot of pleasure on the mat, for sure, but there’s also a lot of effort and hot sensation—staying in that pigeon for just five more breaths can feel like being held in a fire. Rumi’s image of a chick pea, being cooked in a pot and begging to be released is more along the lines of the feeling of the transformation. The chick pea is a hard, raw little nub of potential that needs time in the heat to be softened and seasoned to make a delectable dish.

Photo: rajkumar1220

But being with the heat ain’t easy. When we are cooked alive by life, we must sign up to lie down on the mat, and cook ourselves a little more. Ouch. But the incentive is to sweeten our flavor, to make more of ourselves, and it’s a worthy goal.

I’ve come across some tips for enduring the flame and hastening the alchemy we do on the mat. We need to carry the wisdom of our physical practice of asana into our approach to our pain. Central to a compassionate approach to holding ourselves in the flame of a pose is the balance of effort and surrender, or vairagya and aparigraha.

As the Buddha teaches, any meditative form should be not too tight and not too loose. We all know the alarm signal of a too-specific or shooting pain that’s a signal that we’ve gone too far, instead of the safe-feeling, generalized ache of change. We stay shy of the very edge of sensation in order to allow the nervous system to give the cue to the muscles that it’s safe to release. This practice translates to a firm commitment to self care off the mat. We don’t think of sticking a blanket under our knee in double pigeon as a form of selfishness; likewise, the recognition of a need to go easy on ourselves emotionally is no more selfish.

We nurture ourselves not as an indulgent form of pampering, but for the sake of those we love.

We hear it over and over again: when we are kind to ourselves, we are kinder to others. This is a particularly hard message for the ambitious, type-A yogi to absorb. But when life is holding us in the flame, we need to translate our intuitive approach to asana into our interactions with ourselves and one another.

On the mat, rigidity in the facial muscles, a locked jaw or the clenched fists we sometimes feel when we’re going too far into a pose and bullying the body is the same palpable feeling of tightness that arises when we are strained to the limit in conversation with someone we love: it’s all discipline that’s holding us back from going too far and regretting it later. Just as clenched teeth on the mat indicate that it’s time to back off, the feeling of heat in the face or tightness in the belly our human interactions point to a need for self care.

In confronting life’s fire, I’ve found it useful to consider some new cognitive research about the ideal diet for a brain. There are seven “food groups” that the brain needs for optimum function, dubbed the “Healthy Mind Platter,” and we need an adequate dose of each to remain sane. Two of these are—obviously—sleep and exercise. Another is connection—seeking out true companionship inside the fire. The others are more subtle, but we can use our physical yoga practice to understand better how they feel off the mat, and to recognize where we need to round out our diet.


Some teachers keep students in this highly focused zone for the whole of class: sounding out non-stop physical cues so we’re held inside intense concentration—“press the inner edge of your right foot rise through the lower back inhale higher exhale from above the navel open the right collar bone”—there’s no space for our own experience. This concentrated mode is dharana, and it has its place in yoking, or disciplining, the crazy scattered monkey mind. Dharana can feel like sweet relief—like the body is being firmly held inside ropes of concentration and there’s no need to go in beyond our muscles—and the deeper regions of the psyche can be a painful place to visit. Outside of our practice, when we have a mental challenge that requires figuring out, staying with a puzzle and seeing it through: this is focus.

It has its place, but most of us overachievers spend too long inside the focused mind, cheating ourselves of the other foods the brain needs.

Time In

Time in is what’s called “mindfulness”—when we abide closely with a simple task that doesn’t have the same ‘figuring out’ element involved in goal-focused activity. Mindfulness on the mat is different from dharana—we could be feeling the rubbles on the mat with our feet when we walk from the front to the back. We could be tasting the air or the residual flavors in our mouths, or just sensing the movement of air on our skin. Off that mat, it could be washing dishes, folding laundry, walking to work, swimming laps, or petting a cat. We attend closely to the details of an activity, refraining from tightly focusing on multiple things.


That moment we are set free in dhanurasana to point or flex our toes, to rock on our bellies or roll over on one shoulder and then the other, to decide when to rest: these are moments of play. It feels like freedom, exploration, stakes-free discovery. When we hear the teacher say that we can “have a little play with it,” we are relinquished for a time to figure out our own thang.

If this cue leads to bafflement or discomfort, it’s a clear sign that we need to up our intake of play in general, but even when we relish these moments in the structured environment of a yoga class, it’s hard to remember how to cultivate play in our daily lives. All we really need to rediscover play is to do something new: brush your teeth on your fire escape. When you’re driving in February, open the windows. When you’re dressing in the morning, put on a great song on high volume and give yourself permission to dance, even if you don’t. Buy one thing you’ve never eaten every time you hit the grocery store. When you take your dog out to pee, walk backwards. Shake it up. There are little things that bring a spirit of play back into our lives, but it’s also good to get a dose of sustained play at least once a week. Sustained play might look like playing mini golf with your nephew, but it also might look like painting or writing a poem.

If creative play is what feeds you, it requires time out.

Time Out

Creating optimum circumstances for creative play involves—unfortunately for most of us—time. We need a half an hour just to do nothing, to allow the mind to acclimate to a goal-free environment, before we can find any enjoyment in sustained play. This is what savasana was built for: we are told that final relaxation at the end of class is different from seated meditation, and we know this intuitively. There’s no script for savasana—we let the mind do what it wants to do. If we’re rehearsing our ‘to do’ list for the afternoon, it’s a signal that we’ve spent too much time in our practice in dharana, or a focused mind.

If we tap into some Samadhi, or bliss, then we give ourselves to it and thank the Samadhi gods for giving us a taste. Time out is like this. We just carve out time for the mind to wander—five minutes of staring at the sky, zoning out while we drink our coffee, putting off our evening Facebook check long enough to sit on the corner of the couch and look at the shadows on the wall.

But in a dark time, how should any of this comfort you? In the words of Adrienne Rich, “Who will number the grains of loss and what would comfort be?”

Recently in my Quaker meeting, someone reframed darkness for me with the following example: baby sea turtles find their way to the ocean by using the full moon; its light on the water makes a path so they know where to go. Somewhere in the Caribbean, all the lights from the hotels were confusing the turtles, and they lost their compass of the moon’s light in the brouhaha from the island. All the businesses agreed that during the full moon, the island would be in an artificial blackout so these tiny creatures could find their way to the sea. Sometimes the universe creates a lot of darkness in our lives just so we can find our moon, see our path, and commit to the center of things.

That commitment, that clear vision, requires a lot of surrender. Author Stephen Mitchell, whether he’s discussing Job or the Bhagavad Gita, insists that the difference between submission and surrender is rooted in agency. Submission is when we quietly bear suffering; surrender is when we stand up tall, embrace change, and bravely work towards transformation. The classic model for spiritual transformation, quoted time and time again in yoga classes everywhere, is Rumi’s chick pea—we are roiling in the pot, crying out for release, and the divine chef assures us that we will be  sweetened into deliciousness if we can only be patient.

Another wise Quaker from my Meeting, Susan Lee Barton, offered a very different model of transformation, this one from the Western tradition. In the book of Daniel, three young Jews suffer execution Babylonian-style by being thrown into a furnace. Fun. But when folk gather round to watch them burn, they see not three but four figures in the flames—they are joined by someone or something. More miraculously, according to one translation of the Aramaic, the men were dancing.

The divine role in our suffering in this fire metaphor is very different from a remote blacksmith holding us in the flame—here, we are held, companioned. We are actually embraced in our burning, to the point where we are taken over by a strange and purifying joy, bringing us to dance. If we can go deep enough, if we can dauntlessly sound the depths of the furnace, a strange, clarifying release awaits us. We do emerge as something new—rich and strange. To me, that is the answer to Rich’s question of darkness—that’s what comfort could be.


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  Assist. Ed: Katharine Spano/Ed: Brianna Bemel


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