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September 2012

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Day 5 – Rejoicing in where you’re at

Chapter 5 – Renounce and Rejoice
Yoga Teacher – Ellen Bain at Equinox Marina Del Rey

In my experience I find that with many people, including myself, who embark on a spiritual path a great paradox is unearthed. When one goes deeper the question naturally arrises “why am I doing what I’m doing?” For what purpose are any of these actions I do in life? Why not just give it all up and renounce everything?

It’s a paradox because a spiritual path can give so much meaning to everything yet at the same time make everything seem small because of the realization that everything is impermanent. So what does it matter what I do? How do I find purpose in life? How do I find purpose in even the mundane?

Krishna wisely sees that the path of renunciation would not be right for Arjuna. Arjuna’s dharma is one of action or of yoga. Through the path of yoga his self inquiry or Sankhya is realized. I find this to be very wise and intuitive of Krishna because he is giving Arjuna instruction based on Arjuna’s own unique dharma and circumstance and not telling him that he must do something that doesn’t feel right to him.

Chapter 5 Verse 3 “The immature think that knowledge and action are different, but the wise see them as the same. The person who is established in one path will attain the rewards of both.”

This is a very beautiful way of saying do whatever you do with your intentions set on being unselfish. The thought gives so much purpose to everything we do because in it’s perfect essence everything we do can be an act of devotion when done with “unified abandon of all attachment.” A “supreme peace” will be realized.

Again, I’m falling back to previous themes when mirroring these teachings against my own yoga practice. The only thing that matters is that I do the word without any attachments to the results. Yoga in Los Angeles can very deceiving because the fruits of the labor are very sexy and shiny. So many people who practice in LA have great physiques or can do incredible poses with their bodies but if practice to attain those things you will most likely fall short because it never ends. The beauty of yoga is that there is nowhere to arrive to, you’re already there. The success of each pose in ones life is completely subjective and should never be compared with others. However, like I said…it’s tricky. I’d like my body to be more toned, I admit it. I’d like to be able to a forearm handstand – I admit that also. This is why it’s tricky, my ego wants a lot of things that perhaps I’m just not ready for yet or do more practice to attain.

Chapter 5 Verse 8 “Those who know this truth, who consciousness is unified, think always “I am not the doer?” While seeing or hearing….moving about…letting go or holding on…they understand that these are only the movements of the senses among the sense objects.”

When you add individuality to this concept – the idea of a unique incarnation – it takes shape because everybody’s manifestation of how the move, breath and engage with the material world in unique. Therefore, to each their own yoga. Each persons sadahna is unique.

Chapter 5 Verse 27 “Closing their eyes, steadying their breathing and focussing their attention on the center of spiritual consciousness the wise master their senses, mind and intellect through meditation. Self Realization is their only goal.”

Everything is yoga if you look at this way. Making breakfast or taking out the trash is an act of yoga because a union is needed and executed upon.

Looking forward to Chapter 6 and Govind Das at Bhakti Yoga Shala tomorrow.

NOTE – please know the word “yoga” is being used lightly and in different context through out these posts. Sometimes I use the word to mean “hatha yoga” that we just call “yoga” in the West and sometimes I use the word to refer to the all overall system of “yoga.” Most readers will know this but it’s worth pointing out anyway.

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Day 4 – When in doubt, take action.

Chapter 4 – Wisdom in Action
Yoga Teacher – Heidi Rayden

Krishna – “Arjuna, cut through this doubt in your own heart with the sword of spiritual wisdom. Arise; take up the path of yoga!”

Even at the precipice of what may feel like the most hopeless bondage of mortal worry and doubt, Krishna reminds Arjuna that the wise take action always. In my own personal experience the only liberation that I’ve ever experienced has come from just putting one foot in front of the other – from just “showing up” to the dance. As Ram Dass says it’s “the only dance there is.”

There have a been a few issues that have come up for me in recent weeks that classify these times as being difficult. There are so many forms of pain that range from the inevitable (people dying, sickness, etc) to flavors that are a little more participatory like heartbreak, friendships, financial and all that. It’s all part of the journey. At the same time, it’s important for me to realize that my problems are no greater or no less than what anyone else is experiencing. We all have our stuff and all are all experiencing it through different channels.

Chapter 3 starts off with lofty mystical nuances that Krishan is merely hinting to Arjuna, much of which will appear in later chapters of The Gita. Things like reincarnation, remembering karma’s from previous births and Krishna’s all around transcendent nature all take mature form later but are teased upon here. After that is done, Krishna realizes that Arjuna is still stuck in his “stuff.” He’s still dwelling upon his current predicament of having to wage war against his own family. Because that is such a major life problem for Arjuna he can’t get passed that just yet.

Therefore, Krishna must guide Arjuna back to the material world ropes of action and inaction.

He says “What is action and what is inaction? This question has confused the greatest of sages. I will give you the secret of action, with which you can free yourself from bondage…”

“The wise see that there is action in the midst of inaction and inaction in the midst of action. Their consciousness is unified, and every act is done with complete awareness.”

“The awakened sages call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results…”

Krishna Das, in his kirtans, talks a lot about just returning to the practice or the chanting of the names. To just sing and go back to that. When the mind wanders, go back to that. When you’re not sure what to focus on, just go back to that. It sounds simple but it’s really not, there are many subtle layers of complexities in it. Like with every meditation, the mind will wander and start to play tricks.

In todays Yoga practice the thought of “why why why” kept going through my head. Why am I doing this? Am I trying to prove something to myself? Am I just trying to get in better shape? All of these are true. But none of them are important. The only thing that I’m committed to is using this experience as a method to return to my practice no matter what the circumstances are. When in doubt, take action. This has never failed me. The stuff that I’m going through today – attachment, expectations, longing, worry, doubt, fear – will without question cease to exist in a little while. They are stories that my mind is telling itself as a way to distract me from shining brighter.

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Day 3 – The Stuff We Do

Chapter 3 – Selfless Service
Yoga Teacher – Brian Campbell at Exhale

At it’s best the practice of Hatha Yoga is a moving meditation. When breath and movement are merged and struggle ceases to exist the sensation of the senses and even thought go away for awhile and merge into the oneness of the practice. In my experience, this is the ideal state that arrises when practicing hatha yoga.

Like most practices it is a very difficult state to attain because it requires regular practice and attention. Like anything if you only do it now and then you’re not gonna be very good at it and you will only flirt with the full bounty of that actions success.

The “stuff we do” is karma yoga, it is the way of action. If we occupy our daily actions with righteous efforts and activities then we are in essence practicing karma yoga. This comes in many forms of course and is different for every persons dharma.

Krishna says in Chapter 3 “It is better to strive in ones own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another.”

I’ve been really getting into this stuff lately with a lot of my friends on the path. The practice of bhakti opens one up to so many limitless possibilities. When the soul cries out to God in the form of kirtan God reveals back to us an awareness that puts us (hopefully) closer to what is our dharma and what isn’t. For me, it’s not black and white like “oh my dharma is to be a painter” or whatever. I’m here doing my thing and adding and subtracting the things that either work or don’t work. It’s that simple. Constantly tweaking my actions and activities that feel right to me based on the feedback I’m getting from God.

Chapter 3 of the Gita not only introduces us to the way of action but also to the three Gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas. Going in reverse our life usually goes from tamastic to sattvic. The way of action that gets us in touch with our karmas gives us the ability to lead a sattvic life. It’s something to strive to. What’s pure? What isn’t? When I get angry and lash out what in me is afraid of loving unconditionally?

“Selfish desire if found in the senses mind and intellect, misleading them and burying them in delusion. Fight with all your strength Arjuna” – Krishna

The Bhagavad Gita is a book that is rooted in action. That is why I believe it is so potent even in the 21st Century. The Gita does not necessarily support the idea of being an ascetic. It merely says that do whatever you do with a fixation on the divine – in this case Krishna. Even the mundane – do it with an act of devotion.

So if I am practicing asana for 18 days straight does this bring me closer to some realization that I’m going to be a better yogi? Maybe and maybe not. The point is to be detached from the results – this is the core of selfless service or seva. Do the stuff you do without any attachment to how it might end. Do it because it feels in alignment with the best sattvic dharma you can possibly manifest in this incarnation.

I am finding it very comforting how the Gita does touch on certain aspects of what one might experience when going through a difficult physical practice like hatha yoga. It doesn’t address these things using asana as it’s context but if you glance at the page differently you can see how the nature of Krishna’s instruction can be used for all matters in your life.

For instance – asana is not always pleasant for me. It is more than it is not or else I wouldn’t do it at all. But I struggle. By body hurts and I have to remember to get back to my breath which will lead me to the pleasure of the practice. Constant ebb and flow. Krishna supports this notion by saying “The senses have been conditioned by attraction to the pleasant and aversion to the unpleasant. Do not be ruled by the them for they are obstacles in your path.”

Later on when we see Arjuna embracing these ideas we can see him toying with the subtle ropes of the material world – the three gunas.

With love.

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Day 2

Chapter 2: Self Realization
Yoga Teacher: Micheline Berry at Exhale

Day 2 began at 530 am this morning. I had to shorten my own morning bhakti practice at home so I could eat a little food and make it to Micheline Berry’s 7 am class at Exhale in Venice.

I wanted clarify a few things. The perceived struggle for me here is the act of actually going to a yoga studio for 18 days straight of challenging physical practice. I’ve done the 40 day Mark Whitwell approved home practice of 7 minutes of breath and body movement that he calls “The Promise” but feel the need to explore the physical parts that push me into a deeper surrender a little more. Mark if you’re reading this, I love you and you helped set me on my path in a huge way.

To go deeper into the physical part of this journey (which is really mental anyway FYI) the act of leaving my house and scheduling the time to engage with a teacher in a studio is very difficult for me. There are so many obstacles. Traffic, work, friends, being lazy, wanting to sleep in, etc. I can make up a myriad of reasons why this is hard to do while in the middle of my urban yuppie existence. The outpouring of support has been great so far, so much so that even a couple of friends have expressed solidarity and are doing the 18 day immersion too!

So as we stand on the obstacle laden battlefield of the senses we tend to question some of the very nature of why we do the things we do, or why we don’t do the things we want to do. Our minds will lead astray if not properly trained to focus ones innermost nature. Chapter 2 of the Gita will awaken Arjuna from despair to self-realization by teaching him about the basic principles of yoga, the soul (jiva) and sense control.

Krishna, Chapter 2: “When the senses contact sense objects, a person experiences cold or heat, pleasure or pain. These experiences are fleeting, they come and go. Bear them patiently Arjuna. “Those who are unaffected by these changes, who are the same in pleasure and pain, are truly wise and fit for immortality. Assert your strength and realize this!”

Such is the case when asana feels painful, difficult and beyond a certain level of comfort. Krishnas position here was an important one for me to remember when I was in Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) this morning. My legs are hurting these days, but the pain when in this pose will pass. Just a few breaths into it I can begin to settle. Yoga isn’t about pushing oneself to the point of discomfort and injury but it is about walking the line between what is real and what is perceived.

Krishna goes to tell Arjuna why he should fight in this battle “Considering your dharma you should not vacillate. For a warrior nothing is higher than a fight against evil…for it comes as an open gate to heaven.”

Is it my dharma to have a master asana practice? Probably not. But is it my dharma to seek wisdom and peace within my own incarnation at this time ridding myself of all the nonsense that goes in between my ears? Yes. This practice is a manifestation of that. It’s setting out to finish something that I set out to do.

“On this path effort never goes to waster, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear” – Sri Krishna Chapter 2

And so it is.

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Day 1

Chapter 1: The War Within
Yoga teacher: Stephanie Phelan at Maha Yoga

Today is Day 1 of an 18 day yoga immersion that I’m setting out on. The twist is that I’m doing one asana class a day for each chapter of The Bhagavad Gita. Eighteen classes for eighteen chapters. About mid way through the day (today) it occurred to me to go forth on this little experiment. So this is not something that is pre meditated or that I’ve put much thought into. However, a number of things fell into place today that makes this feel like it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

One, I’ve really been feeling the need to re-engage into my asana practice. It’s been sporadic lately and I feel a little disconnected from my body so that I’d like to remedy that. For as long as I’ve been practicing asana I’m not very good at it. I realize that just because there are some things that I can’t do physically, even after all this time, it doesn’t make me any less of a yogi but it does create a personal chasm in my own personal practice that I’d someday like to fill. Second, I started rereading the Gita this morning as I do a couple of times a year and the thought occurred to why not combine the two activities. The Gita is my core manual for a spiritual life and if one looks closer perhaps there could be some correlations between the wisdom that Krishna speaks and ones personal struggles (and triumphs) when engaging on a mini immersion like 18 days of consecutive yoga.

Additionally, it’s an interesting undertaking because the Gita has nothing to do with asana and asana has very little do with the Gita. I’m an expert on neither which also creates an interesting opportunity to reveal little nuggets of clarity that haven’t appeared to me before. Blogging about this will be a self indulgent mess at times but maybe through that mess a discipline will arise that will force me to put pen to paper thus holding me accountable to finishing all 18 days in a row. I’m lazy so this may be the perfect way to work through that!

In Chapter 1 the stage is set for the battle that our protagonist, Arjuna, must undergo. Arjuna must engage in a fierce battle against his own family members to restore control and dignity to the kingdom that is rightly his and his brothers. Their evil blind uncle Dhritarashtra is one the other side mobilizing his armies to take down Arjuna and his brothers on the battle field. Right as the battle is about to begin Arjuna sees the internal conflict and begins to question everything about the nature of life, war, virtues, purpose, God and so much more. The good news that Arjuna’s charioteer and most trusted spiritual advisor also happens to be the supreme personality of God himself, Krishna. So while in peril Arjuna has the right guy around to ask questions to. The answer to these questions come from Krishna in the chariot on the battle field and is “The Song of God.”

In Chapter 1 the core metaphor of battle and war is set. In many orthodox Hindu traditions the war element is taken quite literally under the understanding that while war is inherently evil it is also the dharma of a certain class to fight just wars. However, in the mystic traditions of ancient India the war is a metaphor for the wars and battles that we must all fight on any given day. The great sages, saints and rishis of ancient India are mystics and this is the point of view that I relate with and will discuss. It’s a very important distinction and what that must be clarified.

The war within my own mind on whether or not I have the ability, discipline and wherewithal to accomplish a modest task like 18 days in a row of yoga is potent and there is no better manual than the Gita to reflect on my progress. The war within my own mind has also been very juicy lately. Not in a self doubting torturous way but in more of a reflective way that is forcing me to look at my journey with more sensitivity to the things that I really want.

Day 1 of Yoga was good. No struggle. Good flow. Onward. 7 am class tomorrow morning.

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What I’ve Learned

This post is dedicated to the memories of Tony Scott, Tom Davis, Jan Sharp, Nelson Lyon, Jeb Abrams and Geoffrey Gordon. All of these beautiful souls left this mortal coil within the last six weeks.

“What’s the difference between loss and change? Attachment.” – Ram Dass

It’s a Tuesdday morning and I just returned from Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, CA. After four days of immersive practice I can’t say that I’m any more equipped to write about death than I was a week ago however, I do feel a renewed sense of clarity that comes from loss. This post isn’t really about death anyway. Plenty of people have written on that topic. It’s more about how profound and sudden change can rock you into a new understanding of some of life’s basic principles.

Specifically regarding death though…the mysteries of our physical nature are elusive, frustrating and profound. I think that because we take form in these bodies at this time we really seek to understand why that is. So when it all suddenly ceases to exist we equally try to understand why that is. Right now I feel that it is the “not knowing” how it all works is where the ultimate peace lies. I’ve grown comfortable with the notion that our physical incarnations are so fragile and so precious. Every moment is a gift and as beings taking form right now we must understand that everything is impermanent.

Over the course of the last 6 weeks I’ve experienced radical shifts in my consciousness as it relates to the time I’ve been given on this planet. It’s helped me to understand why I will miss the people who have died, why things like suicide are terribly tragic and why it’s important to fill your time with things that you love.

In Joshua Tree these past 4 days I had to take a look at my practice and what is working and what isn’t. My “practice” is primarily based in methods that seem at face value to be rather structured and formal. For instance, yoga asana has a set of physical sequences that most people do the same way or kirtan has a set of mantras that are sung the same way. However, when one personalizes these practices to let them take on their own form within your own consciousness doorways open that are yours alone. The constant repetition of the names gets so far out that different activations and realizations are available at different times depending on what is you are going through or chanting for. Personalizing ones spiritual practice really helps to make the method malleable thus making the journey constantly rewarding.

All os this loss and funky transitional life structure change all took the form of loss. After an intense four days of practice that included kirtan, discourse, friendship, a little yoga and satsang I feel like I’m come to an awareness of some life qualities that are very important.

The Big Picture

This has been said to me in a variety of ways over the years but it’s becoming very clear in a crystalized and visual way. When we encounter events like sudden and unexplainable deaths or terrible heartbreak it’s important to remember that we are not equipped to understand the bigger picture that makes up all the moving parts of the universe. We are barely equipped to understand ourselves. It’s also become clear that spiritual practice, of any kind, reveals to us glimmers of what the bigger picture is. Perhaps practice can reveal a little shard of universal truth. So when someone decides to loose their will to live we can take refuge in the acceptance that the not understanding is perfectly ok. There’s no reason to understand everything at all times. The mind will constantly go back and forth with the thoughts of “why me” or “this hurts” or “how could she” etc etc. And yes it does help to gain knowledge that can settle the heart but ultimately it’s up to us alone to walk through pain and to move on.

Our minds make up such strong stories that we perceive as our reality. This is in part true – certainly we can be responsible for shaping our living conditions. As Sharon Gannon says “want to change your life? change your thoughts.” Even so with that knowledge there is still a pervading underlying reality that makes up the universe that has nothing to do with us. I don’t believe that the universe and all it’s splendor is a dream that’s going on between our ears, I believe we are one small part of a countless collective that makes it all work together. How the rest of it works I only have slight glimpses into, universal truths that work for me.

Reach Out

If there’s someone in your life who you love or miss but have lost touch with do yourself the favor and reach out and say hello. I’ve always been bad at this because I get shy and reclusive. It’s a very worthwhile thing to do because there may be limited time for you to see them on the physical plane. They might literally jump off a bridge tomorrow. Honestly, I have some sadness in that I didn’t try harder to reach out to Tony in recent years. I have this thought that he would really have loved to see my ’73 Chevy Nova SS and would have been so proud that I bought it with my own money via hard work. I’m sad I didn’t get to share that moment with him.

This can also take on the form of combatting loneliness. I can’t imagine why someone who has so much would take their own life but I suspect it’s because they feel very alone in this world. For myself, I know that I’d be nothing or nowhere without my friends. Yes, there has been a degree of self actualization that has made my life whole but my direct lifeline to my friends and teachers has kept me afloat when I couldn’t find the strength. Don’t be lonely. My shyness has caused me a lot of grief and I’m doing everything I can to keep good association in my life through reaching out.

Do What You Love

We’ve all heard this from a million spiritual teachers in a million different forms. My favorite take on this is from Steve Jobs:

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

I’ve seen more people, including myself, wallow away in a rut because they “think” that they have so much to loose if they give up a traditional route or do things out of convenience or comfort. The rationale mind will tell you that you have so many excuses for not following your heart. Society fills us with fear of scarcity – that not having enough will someday become a reality when in fact all of our needs are already met. I for one don’t want to be that guy who wakes up when they are 75 wishing I had done something that I only dreamed of. That’s enough motivation to not postpone joy, ever.

I got so freaked out a couple weeks ago that a large portion of my life has gone by so very quickly. An old group of my friends gathered at my house three days before Tony Scott checked out and it started this unraveling process of being somewhat frightened that so much time has gone by. And then the Tony thing happened and it really drove home the notion that if I’m not doing what I love then what’s the point? Granted we all have to show and up and do the dirty work from time to time but if we can fill our time here with as much joyous activity to occupy ourselves then we stand a better chance of leading a life full of fulfillment.

Take risks. Everything great comes from great risk or vulnerability. Going for that big career jump that we thought was beyond us or asking that girl out that made us so nervous. We have nothing to loose. That’s my mantra for the day.

Don’t Care What Other People Think

I have work to do here. Far too often my decisions are dictated by the results of what it is people think of me or want from me. One of my main character defects is paranoia and people pleasing. It’s a lousy combination. I want everyone to be happy and then I get so freaked out if I’ve let them down or haven’t made them happy. At the end of the day we’re really all doing the best we can. Even when we make mistakes it’s important to let them go and just be right with yourself and with God.

Spiritual communities can also be perilous in this regard – because they are so tight knit the “gossip” becomes such a huge part of the fabric. Distancing yourself front this pattern takes work and lots of awareness. The moment you start doing stuff to please someone in the community and/or your ego the intention gets lost.

All of this makes it seem like I have some idea that I know what I’m talking about. Trust me, I don’t. During Krishna Das’s Saturday night set at Bhakti Fest he went on some rap about karma and interrupted himself by saying “as if any of us know what the fuck we’re talking about.” So true. These are just thoughts that came to me during a very difficult month and I thought I’d share them.

For the first time in my life I really have no idea what’s next and it’s so completely wonderful. Be good humans.