Nevertheless She Persisted
In Game of Thrones, Bran Stark asks his father, "Can a man still be brave if he is afraid?" Ned Stark responds, "That is the only time a man can be brave."
"How poetic and profound!" I thought, from the comfort of my couch. This post is the first of several about how we can take wisdom like this and not just nod our heads, but actually get up and out into the world with it. About how we might become the brave ones who save the world. About how we can respond with clear-headedness when the daily news seems as far-out as a fantasy novel. About how we can respond with integrity when the nation's capital seems as corrupt as King's Landing.
This post in particular will be all about how spiritual growth requires us to step up in moments of discomfort, resistance and fear. Most people get into yoga because it provides a pleasant reprieve from the irritations of daily life. In addition to the physical benefits, it can give us a momentary break from our cluttered apartments and our cluttered minds. It can be a kind of laxative for our stickiest relationships and emotions.
But anyone who has stayed with the practice for some period of time will acknowledge that many of the most lasting gifts of a yoga practice come through the difficult moments. It's great when you ace a yoga pose, but it's actually more beautiful when you crash land. Because then you have to stop flirting with that crush you had on your ego--it's just an idea(l)--and learn to love what you actually are.
If you're willing to be restful and open while you experience difficult thoughts and emotions on the meditation cushion; if you're willing to be steady and present through uncomfortable sensations on the yoga mat then, inevitably, more and more mature responses begin to enter your repertoire.
If you've kept this up for a while, you've surely experienced something like I'm about to describe. A day that is both the most challenging and the most gratifying you can imagine. On this day a situation arises which once would have caused you to throw a tantrum, run away, play the victim, pass the pain down to another, or to do some messy-ass combo thereof. But, while you weren't looking, you have graduated to a new way of being. And today something different comes forth. On this day obstacles call forth wisdom. On this day fear forges bravery.
"In the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists."
- Mahatma Gandhi
In preparation for my upcoming ENLIGHTENED ACTION RETREAT (June 15-18! There are still spots!) I have been soaking in the teachings of great spiritual activists. While listening to a Gandhi speech last week, the above quote glittered. As I paused to write it down I realized that it is a reference to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, I.iii.28, a popular Sanskrit mantra that has changed my life completely.
asato ma sadgamaya
tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
mrtyorma amrtam gamaya
Here are two alternative translations, side by side, to mull over:
Lead me from the untruth to the truth. / Lead me from the unreal to the real
Lead me from darkness to light. / Lead me from ignorance to understanding
Lead me from death to immortality / Lead me from a mortal identity to a cosmic one
This mantra is for the times when you fear that death, untruth and darkness might win. When your heart is drowning in the suffering of the world; when your mind splits itself infinitely and scatters; when you feel your spirit barreling headlong into the abyss. This mantra is a call to a force bigger than you: "Please lead me home to reality!" (Beware as you use it however. For it may insist that you move deeper into fear before you are guided back to higher ground.)
At some point, about 5 years ago, for reasons I wasn't totally conscious of, I started singing this mantra all the time. If I had consciously known what I was calling into my life by singing it--a really weird Friday/a dance with death--I surely wouldn't have done it.
One afternoon, a few months into my mantra practice, I discovered that one of our laying hens had a terrible infection--something called flystrike that I strongly advise you to NOT run a Google image search on unless you have quite a high tolerance for gross things. It was gnarly to look at and I could tell that she was suffering. Discomfort all around.
I called Kyle. Obvi.
When he told me that he couldn't come home from work until nighttime I was in disbelief. This was the first big disaster we had experienced since getting the chickens and I couldn't compute how there might be anything more important. "What do you mean you can't come home? Well you should have thought of that before you bought farm animals and installed them in my backyard! I never wanted to be a Brooklyn homesteader. I got into this farming shit with a raised eyebrow followed by a shoulder shrug. I most certainly never signed up for picking maggots out of a live chicken's ass!" (Yup. Don't Google it.)
After disbelief came anger. But I couldn't tarry too long there, because this chicken--Dot was her name--was suffering in real time.
I took a deep breath. I stepped up.
I did a bunch of internet research and called the vet. I then made a decision that no one else could make for me: It would be kindest and wisest to put the hen down. My brother came over to help, thank goodness. We looked into various methods for killing a chicken. We steadied our hands and we took a life. It was intense. We appreciated each other. We appreciated the chicken. We cried.
Then I had to clean myself up and head into Manhattan for my friend's performance. Some of you know this friend, Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith. I've written about her a lot. At this point she had been diagnosed with ALS for about a year. This would be her first performance with the disease and, frankly, I was resistant. Hadn't I already been through enough today? Wasn't it time to crawl onto the couch and disappear into a fantasy?
I took a shower. I put on fresh clothes. I stepped out into the Brooklyn evening.
I had known Lindsay's body well--from watching her move it beautifully on stage, from rehearsing and performing together, from all-night dance parties, and especially due to the fact that Lindsay has a tradition of being covered in paint and only paint at her birthday parties.
The body I knew could run and leap and spin and stomp and shimmy and send lightning laughs from the core of the earth to the stratosphere. But now, at age 33, it was lurched and hunched and relied on a cane. It lowered itself slowly into a mound of dirt and rolled around, asking for help from the Earth.
Those fingers had just a short time ago constructed delicately adorned puppets and articulated their miniscule lives beneath stage lights. By some fucked up irony her fingers had been the first parts claimed by the disease. It had since moved up her arms, devastating her muscles, as if five decades of aging had taken place in five seasons.
In the program we read the origination story of the performance piece: The day before her diagnosis, she dreamt of a plant goddess who came to her and said, "You will have to manifest differently." We were watching her bravely move forward into this new manifestation. But we were also watching her say goodbye to the old one--to the nimble skills and spritely athleticism. To the physical robustness and independence. Goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye.
We, the audience, made up of her friends and family and colleagues, all cried. And cried and cried. Yes, in mourning. Yes, of course. The performance called up those mortal fears that normally rest down deep in the dredges. It called forth that grief we feel for every ability and energy that we have known and loved and lost.
But we also cried in gratitude, learning how tears have the power to draw up fears, but also to wash them away. Grief cleansed our hearts and streamed our fears back into that great ocean of human feeling. It was difficult, but it was real and true and we were all in it together.
What a relief to release sole responsibility for my sadness, my confusion, my discomfort, my fear. Once I didn't have to hold it all alone, my heart was free to hope, my mind was free for perspective and hands were free for holding others in light.
I was so freaked out about Lindsay's situation, but just look at her in the light. Though her body had weakened, her essence had somehow grown stronger. Though her technical capacities had lessened, her ability to transform an audience through art had expanded. Whatever she is--spirit, light, love, soul--it has not suffered. Her challenge is immense. Nevertheless she persists. She prevails. She is.
I realized that death is life's dance partner, not its enemy. And this has freed me from endlessly struggling against it--trying to squirm or sprint away from it, to try to manipulate it or out-maneuver it. I realized that I had been existing with a constant, low-level anxiety. And that, if I could keep up the work of this realization and integrate it into my life, that my days could be more dance and less doom.
On my way home, the mantra came into my mind.
GAMAYA means LEAD ME. This prayer says, "Look, Universe. I can't do this alone anymore. I've been trying to reason my way out of this mess and it has only severed my connection to reality. I have tried to will myself out of despair, but it has only fortified the walls of falsehood around my being. I'm finally ready to try surrender. Please help me. Please send me back to What Is. Please lead me back to the real, the true, the whole."
The enlightened being is the one who has finally allowed Grace to deliver her to this place of trust--the place where bodies are allowed to come and go, because we know that Love is never harmed. This is where the bodhisattva, the sadguru, the prophet stands when she delivers the gospel. It is from the place of this realization that Gandhi's speech originates.
Here is our quote again, along with his conclusion--that the Universe is a benevolent one.
"In the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists. Hence I gather that God is life, truth, light. He is love. He is the supreme Good."
His use of strictly male pronouns should strike us as problematic, but for now let's chock it up to an old fashioned way of speaking. (A feminist post is coming soon, don't worry.) As is central to his talk, it is impossible to speak about that which is beyond the senses, beyond logic, beyond this plane of temporal reality, beyond birth and death. Talking about it is besides the point. We must instead realize it through our spiritual practice. So he calls God a He, but what he means is, of course, that which persists in all of us.
When death requested me to dance, I responded with a hard NO.
I tried to make the farming thing--the taking responsibility for our food thing, the life/death thing, the stinky, dirty inconvenient thing, the real thing--Kyle's thing. I said, "eew," "ick," and "that's too much work." I said, "This is all your fault! This isn't MY path" But I had been asking for it and it WAS my path. I had been crying out for it with that mantra.
I tried to make the illness thing--the youth falling away thing, the farewell to physical prowess thing, the we're not in control thing, the fearful, heavy, unexpected thing--Lindsay's thing. I tried to let her keep it there with her on stage. But mortality belongs to all of us. Theater and art and language and mantra and song and ceremony and yoga are all here to help us share it.
When I finally gave up trying to control my experience, when I fell into the dance, I touched on something more powerful, more liberating, more life-affirming than anything that I had ever known. I touched on the very spark of reality.
Sometimes, when we ask for life, God/Universe/Infinity shows us death. Sometimes when we ask for light, It shows us darkness. As if to say, "If you want to live in light, deal with your darkness. Stop creating so much of it. If you want truth, start seeing your own ignorance and dispelling of it. If you want a cosmic consciounsness, stop being so obsessed with your body, your moods, your personal preferences, your personal wins and losses."
I used to do yoga with the intention of getting a kind of recess break from the prison of the mind. And it would grant that. It would escort me out to the courtyard where I could feel the air and trust the sun and run around a bit. But then I would fall back into old patterns and, of course, end up back in my prison.
But when I chanted all that spring, I was asking to free myself for good. I wasn't asking for a quick frolic in truth, I was asking to blow up the prison of falsehood. So, instead of a pleasant glimpse through a chink in the walls, my practice pushed me up against the cold solidity of their interior. Instead of a taste of my innate power, it directed my attention to the chafing of my chains.
If you're like me, and you're looking for real liberation, look to the difficult moments in your life and find a way to say, "Thank you."
PROMPTS FOR YOUR OWN PRACTICE
STORYTELL: Think of a time when you screamed and kicked and said, "NO! I don't want to deal with this!!!" Write the story of that experience out. Then name the gifts, strengths or lessons you gained from that experience.
MEDITATE: As you sit in meditation, feel your central channel running up and down the front of your spine like a strong pole that goes down into the earth and reaches up to the stratosphere. It is a totally steady center. Then let the experiences that flow through come and go--sounds, thoughts, emotions, etc. Respond to them like a the centerpole of a tent would react to the beings moving and dancing in the tent.
MOVE: Next time you use your body, remember that it will not last forever. Love it, honor it, revel in it. It is a gift that goes fast.
CHALLENGE: Next time you're in a challenging experience, pause, take a deep breath in and a slow breath out, then ask: What here is temporary? What here will last? BE the thing that lasts. Let the rest go.
CHANT: Try doing the chant every day and contemplating its meaning.
asato ma sadgamaya
tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
mrtyorma amrtam gamaya
But make sure you're ready to meet the challenges of life. This might bring those up. Here's a video of me chanting for you to follow along with: