Yoga and Finding the True Self Beyond the Self

At the conclusion of yoga class last night my teacher said “Just remember, this is all you have to do to come back to your true self.” I felt a smile wrap itself over my lips as I heard her voice exactly what I had been trying to lose myself in order to find.

The practice of living has made my studio yoga attendance rather erratic. Time constraints but also the demands of the hermit aspects of my soul have caused me to become a more solitary yogini (with the help of Elsie and Hillary‘s podcasts). Somehow, I had almost begun to parallel my inability to find a place in an organized religion with my resistance to getting back to class. Both injuries and the discovery of the spiritual potential of my practice made me avoid the dictates of a teacher; I sought an unmediated relationship with the yoga muse and any resulting revelations.

Finally, last night, however, I got back to the yoga space that has been such a vital part of my life for four years.

I have always enjoyed this particular instructor’s classes even if I am often contemplating collapse halfway through (she sometimes tends toward the “ass kicking” style that Suzi at Yoga Like Salt mentions), so I was joyfully surprised that last night’s session was marked by long forward bends and a creative take on sun salutations that was more about deep lunges than constant movement through the Vinyasa. The fact that her class was exactly what I needed again showed me that I need to be open to the promise that the Universe will always send me guides and that everyone and everything can act as a teacher.

It had been a long week, and I arrived on my mat heavy with an exhaustion I had willingly invited to consume me. I knew deep down that focusing on my practice would energize me, but I was taking a skeptic’s stance on such a miracle: “ok, yoga, you think you are so magical, just try and wake up this sorry excuse for a body.”

The miracle on the mat settled over me despite my disbelief. Instead of fighting my way through a warrior pose sequence that set my quadriceps screaming, I remembered my own rhetoric and applied the wisdom I spend so much time studying. I allowed myself to realize that yoga truly is a moving meditation and an essential part of my spiritual practice, not just an alternative to the gym.

It became such that truly being present in a pose meant to forget that my arms were outstretched to the edges of my being and that my legs were the pillars connecting me to the earth. It meant that all thought and breath could fall away so that I could lean into a back bend and feel my inner vision clear to reveal a deep, sweet void full of everything and nothing, a space that was infinitely larger than the individual yet sized perfectly to hold me. In this forgetting of my body, I could find my truest home within myself and realize that my limbs were stretched to their truest expression and my breath had found its essential rhythm.

In reading James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints I found voice for my worry that to cast off elements of the false self (the proclivities and neuroses and dramas that make me me) in the search of the True would leave me somehow bereft of personality. Finally in finding glints of bliss in surrender did I begin to understand “Our personalities are not eradicated as much as they are made fuller, more real, and finally more holy.”

My Expanding Vision of “Believing in Everything”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevefe/18931518/Last week while I was reading the Bhagavad Gita I listened to Christine Kane‘s album Rain & Mud & Wild & Green even as I went through the part about “one-pointedness” that described how background music keeps one from being fully aware what she is studying. The iPod was necessary to block the rest of the sounds from a busy Sunday afternoon at our house; plus, splitting my attention lead me to realize the way the lyrics of “One Once More” spoke directly to me, especially a past, cherished version of myself.

The song starts:

Saints and Valkyries
Runes and rosaries
I believe in everything I guess

As I sift through various traditions and sacred writings, I feel I am someone who can find something beautiful and worthy in countless corners because I am not worried about finding the One in a single book or building.

An old friend’s comment on my blog today reminded me of the person he first got to know when I was on my year abroad in Galway during the junior year of college. The twenty year old that I was railed against governments and religions over endless pints of imported lager, shocking as many people as possible with her feminism and her convenient radicalism and her ecstatic pagan ways. Now, my political views are more informed and less strident, but mean more to me; my feminism is a softer, lived-in ethic rather than a jubilant in-your-face volley of girl power. At this point, my radicalism is stewing more quietly, but with a great deal more potential as I actually feel poised to be the change I wish to see in world, opposed to just arguing in the pubs about what ought to be done. These days I’ll drink a bit of Guinness and become still as I tell you that I think I’ve finally discovered what I am meant to do in this world, that this spiritual quest may just be it.

A few years ago, the symbols in Christine’s song would have been what captured my imagination, esoteric collector of sacred talismans that I was. I was an indiscriminate and undisciplined believer, just looking for a few traces of magic in a world that seemed all too cruel and mundane.

As I feel what it might be to mature into my relationship with the world and the sacred, and I look beyond the spiritual souvenirs to the truth behind the rituals, I can reevaluate the habit of believing in “everything.” Now, I can begin to understand what it is to look at all paths to the Divine with an open heart, even the one with the weight of two thousand tumultuous years of Western World defining history behind it. The major religions today are tied to terrorism and sexism and homophobia and countless other prejudices. Due to these social concerns, I do not have to subscribe to any of them completely, perhaps, but I cannot assume that my modern political consciousness makes me wiser than millennia of saints and mystics and prophets. The beauty of their thoughts may not nullify the contemporary manifestations of their respective faiths, but it makes their religions worthy of much more than a second glance.

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.

Thanks to Those Who Inspire Creativity and Delight

Sailboat skyThe wise, wise Painter of Blue at Art of the Spirit posed the question:

“How much natural creativity would flow out of us if we just opened completely to the One?”

Immediately I felt the power of that question, the way in which, if followed to its conclusion in the depths of my being I might reveal a new face of possibility I had never dared envision. At the same time, perhaps because her site is graced with such amazing artwork, I could only imagine fulfilling that vision with a paintbrush in hand. Though I suspect that buried somewhere inside me there may be a creature who could fill canvases, she is generally too afraid of making a mess and spoiling a perfect white plane with mistakes and wasting money on paints and paper. This fear seems to be related to the same sort of mysterious trepidation that made me afraid of ruining my shoes when I was young, causing me to leave too many trees unclimbed and too few mud puddles explored.

Of course I know that deciding that such a flow of creativity did not apply to me is just another way that I obstruct the flow of the Divine through my life. I was able to only see my chosen mode of expression – these written words – to be instantly limited and less. Words are cheapened currency – used to curse and abuse and sell fabric softener and describe nuclear missiles. Instantly I longed for a more profound method of conveying whatever it was that the One was trying to say through me, because clearly I had chosen an inferior medium. It had nothing to do with a basic refusal to just open myself up and listen, to become liberated from distractions like my addiction to my own inferiority. No, no, I just careened off in the direction of all I ought to have done: should have stuck with dancing, or the violin of the flute or the saxophone, or invested myself more in art classes, or reveled innocently in nature when I had the chance. And off I wander down a path of regret, negligently slamming the door of my heart shut with a thud that reverberates all the way back into this gloomy past of my own creation.

But I can spot such foolishness and avoid such wasted thought, right? I am too smart to be enticed by such dark detours now that I read the right books and dabble in a new vocabulary of the soul. Sure.

If I have learned anything so far is the intense difficulty and absolute simplicity of opening myself to the One. The process can be forgotten the instant I leave the books or meditation chair. So today I am going to try something simpler and less plagued with the wisdom of the ages. I take a cue from Christine Kane who talks about delight.

How much more creative could I dared to be if I let myself truly feel overcome with delight at:

– kittens finding new comfortable contortions to sleep in
– snoring creatures in my bed (husband included) who just prove to me I am surrounded by trusting love
– a stretch that makes me sigh “ahhhhhhh”
– an unexpected letter from a friend
– the smell of snow
– the glow of the rising sun on my tea kettle
– discovering a new love of classical music and cellos
– the poem that suddenly makes everything clear
– nicknames
– a smile of recognition in a face I barely know
– those free flowing moments of joy when I forget I am on any sort of a journey at all

Savasana, With Feline

Seamus in reposeSavasana, also known as corpse pose, is a pose of deep relaxation most often practiced at the conclusion of a yoga session. It is about letting go completely both bodily preoccupation and racing mind and simply observing and integrating experience into the being. Often savasana is called the most difficult yoga posture to master because we are so programmed to run from thoughts that disturb us and plunge back into the constant “loops of distraction“; witnessing the process that is our own being can be a scary thing.

Cats are masters of savasana. Though known for napping, I have witnessed our own felines spend hours with lids half open, never moving but somehow conscious of the world around them. Despite the strong winter sun streaming through the windows, or perhaps because of it, Seamus and Banshee spent a remarkable amount of the day curled up or sprawled out in complete peace (why they cannot seem to strike such poses while I am cooking dinner and constantly shooing them from the countertops is another matter…). Unlike other days when they do excellent impressions of downward dog right there with me (and leave lovely little punctures in my mat), both were motionless for my entire practice (thanks to another great podcast by Elsie Escobar) . Somehow Banshee seems to have radar that wakes her from deepest slumber as soon as I lie down on the floor; she found true bliss purring on my belly right before I started my final bridge poses. I decided to take this as a sign from the universe to embrace savasana a few minutes early – who can deny an ecstatic black kitty who has persevered in her loveliness (most the of the time) despite the addition of a twerpy little brother last month?

Rather than surrendering to the earth and allowing my practice to settle into my bones and my spirit, my mind continued to spiral. I considered how the beauty of this moment in which I enjoyed complete simpatico with another species was a blessing beyond measure; I wondered how long she might want to stay like this before I got cold or bored; I tried to use this time to meditate and enter my Interior Castle. Generally I pondered how this might be good blog fodder and enjoyed the warmth that was a perfectly contented cat.

Because I guard these solitary Saturdays with a calculating ferocity, I plotted how to maximize this enforced period of relaxation while I was beyond the reach of my computer or a book. It was becoming painfully clear that I was not embracing the spirit of corpse pose, though I am guessing if the dead do any thinking my brain will be more active than most. Instead, it seemed a good time to do some really deep thinking – about God, the nature of my existence, and whether my husband would mind vacuuming on his day off (I did it last week).

My mind drifted to more of the James Finley lecture on Meister Eckart I had been listening to that morning and I began to realize the impossibility and the absurdity of my task. Luckily there is a transcript of his talk: “Every idea of God is God, no idea of God is God, every idea of God is infinitely less than God even a true idea, even a revealed idea is infinitely less than God, and therefore to the extent we cling to any idea of God – clinging to that ideal thought is the obstacle to God.” Even if simply existing in the present moment in savasana is difficult, apparently it is easier that conceptualizing the divine!

In jest Finley also said,”We are not created by God to think about God, that’s why Jesuits were created.” That seemed to prove why I was drawn to Boston College despite my disinterest in the Church at the time – unknowingly I had surrounded myself with people like me who long to ponder the unponderable!

Believing, Questioning, Knowing

PEI goldI risk echoing Edie Brickell and getting choked by shallow waters before I get too deep on this post, but I was struck by what must be a rather elementary epiphany.

The only way I can get through house cleaning is with some podcast or another blasting louder than the sounds of running water in the sink; last night I was listening to James Finley talk about Meister Eckhart on Caroline Myss’s website. Finley was once a Trappist Monk who studied with Thomas Merton and is now a psychotherapist; Meister Eckhardt was a 13th century mystic and theologian.

The problem with cleaning with a spiritual soundtrack is that I can only really absorb 15% of what is being said, but the rest of the time is generally spent getting inspired by one particular idea and then running with it. This time, I was taken by the fact that I was listening to quotes from a medieval scholar while chopping vegetables, opposed to singing off key to an Alison Krauss song or catching up with the NPR news I have been ignoring lately. One of the most fascinating things about my fascination with matters of the spirit is the fascination itself (get that?). I am constantly left to wonder what draws me to meditate and study these discourses on the soul when it would be so much simpler to stick with fiction and watch a little more tv. Part of me is perfectly contented to know that faith is an integral part of me, in the same way that I have red hair and love animals. But the aspect of me that is never quiet, that must interrogate everything around her needs a response to those who cannot comprehend “because I just believe, that’s why.” And frankly, there are times when I need an explanation of sorts for my own questioning heart.

Certainly atheism seems to be a bit of a fad right now, and I have to admit I have read none of the best sellers on the topic; there is too much to read about what people actually believe to spend time on what they do not at this point (I’m sick of all this definition by negation these days anyway: “we’re the good people because we are not like them, the bad people”). So this is just the first breath of an epiphany that might stand as a response to those who seem to imply that faith in a Universal Being is mark of weakness, of a lack of self reliance or reason. This little revelation of mine is not informed by any systematic knowledge of theology, so it might be painfully obvious and been said a million times, but it is something that has suddenly become clear to me.

Countless multitudes believe in a higher power, in a universal being, in a creator. Even if, on the off chance, this faith held across so many traditions is just a ubiquitous myth, a global bedtime story that keeps us from panicking in the face of the void, couldn’t it be that this collective belief, this shared essence, is the Divine itself? “God” as we call her could just be the unity of all beings that springs from the very act of contemplating the sacred, in seeking a higher power. Shared belief (across creed and country) and the energy it creates is in itself something to believe in.

But beyond all of these examinations, “I just know” is both the final answer and the beginning of endless questions.

Just Three Breaths – My Practice

“Like milk and its whiteness, the diamond and its lustre… [the] Divine Mother and Brahman are one.” (full passage)

When Andrew Harvey first quoted this bit of wisdom from the nineteenth century Indian saint Ramakrishna I had my first introduction to the intertwined nature of transcendence and immanence. I began to realize that the adoration of the Goddess did not preclude God and that, in fact, the two faces of the divine are inextricably bound to one another.

For whatever reason, these metaphors made sense to me almost immediately, as if they were elucidating something I had always known but never understood. Brahman is the supreme spirit in Hinduism, the unchanging heavenly power associated with the transcendent Father God. The Mother is the energy that dances through us and all of creation, the universal love of the heavens in action upon the earth. All that we know is the union of these two aspects of God.

At the conference at which I first heard these ideas everyone was high on potential spiritual power (both real and imagined), yet there was a palpable sense of worry because people did not know how these feelings would translate back at home in reality. I think this little practice that I cobbled together from the ideas I gathered that weekend is my response to the concern that I would forget the resonance of such words. It is informed both by Harvey’s description of the divine and Caroline Myss’s journey into the soul, Saint Teresa of Avila’s interior castle.

* * *

After closing my eyes I search around to find my center for a little while until I remember yet again that only in stillness can one find that peaceful place of silence within. When I have stopped struggling with my own mind, I can just experience what it is to be for a few moments until a breath that seems to come from the earth itself begins to fill me. It is the power of the Mother, the earthy glory of the Goddess that I have identified with for so long, but here there are no rules or separations, just the wash of creation and growth itself. It is green, it is gold, it is the rich black of fertile soil. I pull this breath up and all the way through my body, filling with the Mother’s love and then release it, letting this energy flow back into the universe.

The second breath comes from above, the transcendent essence that arches over us all. It is the peace that lifts me out of my body to a place of complete freedom. There all human definitions of God might fade away so that the power that is the Absolute can wash the ego away. It is white and silver, it is cool and warm all at once. I pull this breath down through mind and heart, down and down to root the heavenly in my feet, and then release it, letting this energy flow back into the universe.

Finally there is the breath of synthesis that pulls every facet of creation into my own soul. It comes from every side, it is the very air around me. It is every color, texture, scent, taste. The beautiful mixes even with the horrible because to be truly present is to recognize all threads in the tapestry of this life. With this inhalation I realize my place in this incredible universe, this constant interplay of the divine with itself, of the sacred with the material. Rather than retreating from the world because I find solace in the spirit, I am driven to delight in all that is so that I can see the spiritual in everything.

Om Tat Sat