There's a Rat in It
Remember when you learned how to spell separate (S-E-P-A-R-A-T-E) in grade school and they told you there's a rat in it? (Was that just my weird spelling teacher? Ok.) In any case, the Yoga Sutras tells that there isn't just a rat IN separateness, but that all our obstacles to liberation stem FROM it.
Focus on the positive! :) :) :)
Like most platitudes, this is only partially true. While, yes, it is really destructive to swim around in misery and to indulge in negative story, if we take this advice too literally and choose to totally ignore or reject things that feel painful or wrong, we end up living in a delusional and dangerous reality. It is important to be able to pause and turn toward the suffering we encounter, so that we might learn what it has come here to teach us.
Put another way, it can be extremely helpful to know what you are NOT looking for on your sincere search mission, to know what is NOT in your diet as you put together a healthy meal, to get clear on where the bleeding is so you can apply pressure to the wound.
In this post, we will talk about how important it can be to acknowledge the rats and to follow them home to their origin.
the mark of separateness
A few years ago I had one of those peak meditation experiences. The kind that you cannot know is possible until you are sitting in it. I was on a silent meditation retreat (more about that weekend here) and I had just been struck by these two sutras, here translated by Mukunda Stiles.
"Solely from the sense of individuality are mental fabrications produced." IV, 4
"There is a multiplicity of activities of the mind, yet one thought is the originator of the diversity of thoughts." IV, 5
Nothing in this section of the text had never done much for me in the past. But this time I was blown away. It's like someone handed me a key to a secret treasure box.
The whole project of yoga, as outlined in the first sutras of Book 1, is to stop identifying with all that thinking you're doing. The promise is, that once you quiet the mind, your true nature is instantly revealed. (Spoiler alert: it's not your thoughts!)
But here, in the Kaivalya Pada, the Book on Absolute Freedom--which some believe to be the book Patanjali prepared for the most advanced student, the one who has already well-established her practice--we find that there is one origin thought. All those citta vrittis that we said we wanted to deal with? They came from the same place, the same thought: asmita. They were all born from the idea: I am separate.
Learning this taught me what I'm looking to avoid in my meditation practice. Anything that relates to "me" or "I" is going to take me away from the present moment, away from the power that I sat down in my cushion to connect with. Anything that is all about my ego, anything that bears the sticky mark of separateness, is going to lead me astray. Meanwhile, everything else can come and go--sounds, smells, sensations, cosmic thoughts passing through the ether. It's only those ego thoughts that are manufactured, manipulated, man-handled that promise to get me stuck.
I closed the book and settled in for my late afternoon meditation and instantly fell into a sense of wholeness, completeness, interconnectedness and presence. Any time that I heard the mind formulate an "I" or "me" statement, or I felt the body cling toward identity or push away from identity, I softened and released. It was so simple. Anything that showed up as asmita, that was allowed to simply and sweetly melt away. Everything else was allowed to come, stay or go as it pleased.
Before this I had been feeding the separateness; yes, even in meditation. I empowered the ego and gave it more strength every time that I let the "I" and "me" thoughts draw all of my attention.
I also empowered the ego when I tried to refuse, reject and push the "me" thoughts away! Who was doing the rejecting? Who was putting up a wall and saying, "Hey, you ego thoughts, don't cross this f*#%ing line!!!" Why, "me" of course! So, to disempower the source of all those citta vritti, something besides the ego had to step forward: the observer. She just sat and watched, without pushing or pulling or manipulating in any way.
As soon as I stopped empowering separateness, oneness is all that was left. And it felt good.
the culture of separateness
As promised, all my posts this month will tie back into the social-political situation. We currently have a big, brash "ME! ME! ME!" ego sitting in the fanciest chair in the land. I see our 45th president as a kind of Anti-Buddha: a nearly-perfect embodiment of what happens when the myth of separateness is allowed to thrive unchecked, an archetypal image of what will bring us away from our heart's intention. And, once I got over the initial wave of shock and grief and fear, I have managed to actually learn a great deal from having thrust in my face such a clear example of what I ought not become.
Here are a few things that feel extra true right now:
1. The current administration is not a new disease but a glaring symptom of an old one. The results of the election should be shocking us into action but let's observe first. Let's learn what this flare-up is trying to tell us so that our actions are meaningful catalysts for real and lasting good. While it's important to keep your eye on the rash and try not to exacerbate it, etc., if you don't want to be waking up with a new rash in a few years you better find out what's going on below the surface, what is wrong in the system at large, and do your damndest to address the disease at the root.
2. The personal and the political are mirrors of one another > micro and macro. The discoveries that we find in one place can often intelligently inform what we will find in another. So if you've had personal breakthroughs, expect them in to show up in one way or another in your culture. And if there are issues in your culture, you better believe that they are functioning inside of you somehow or another.
3. There must be time for entering into safe space, for healing, recovering and building up one's resources again. And there must also be a time for standing up, declaring ones intention to fight for good in the world, and directing ones resources toward a meaningful goal. If you just do the former, you will never feel satisfied in life and you will fail to evolve. If you just to the latter you will burn out and lose a connection what this is all about.
If we get too overwhelmed by anger toward elected officials and at the people we consider responsible for their election (be it the T voters, the non-voters or others in power), we run the risk of (1) attacking the symptoms while ignoring the spread of disease (2) attacking something outside over there while ignoring the work we must do to heal our inner world (3) wasting our resources in moments when quiet self-care or communal care would actually be more constructive.
Likewise we ought not use the spiritual card as a cop-out, squeezing our eyes shut, shouting OM as loudly as we can, eagle wrapping our arms and legs and fingers and just hoping that it all works out. "Focusing on the positive" alone is not going to help us evolve as individuals or a society. There IS a problem, it IS causing suffering for every single person who participates in our culture, ESPECIALLY for those who are blind to that problem and thus barring their own entry to healing. As I wrote about some in my last post, yoga is not just about feeling good, it's about aligning with the truth of reality. And until you're ready to open your eyes and face things as they actually are, you're living in avidya, ignorance, the very root of all suffering.
While I do practices every day to remember how beautiful the world is (if this place weren't extraordinary and ridiculously love-worthy, what would we be fighting for?!) I also allow myself to see the ugliness.
What do I see?
I see too much war. Brothers and sisters forgetting their shared origins, shared experiences, shared make-up, shared desires and inflicting pain upon one another. Every time we hurt another being we may gain some short-term resource--money or land or status, for instance--but what have we traded in for that short-term gain? The sense that we live in a world of unity, harmony and goodwill. The suicide rate among vets was 22 per day a few years ago--that is one vet ending her or his life every 65 minutes. Is it worth it?
But war doesn't just show up as one bearing arms against another. It shows up as division and violence of all kinds.
I ask you: Where is there war, division, violence in your personal life? Are there times when you put down another person in hopes of snatching a personal gain? Do you see yourself as a combatant against colleagues, friends or family members? Where is there war inside of your own self? Does your mind lead you one way while your heart wants to go another? Is your body sometimes saying, "stop, please" while your pride says, "GO!"?
Can you pay attention to these moments and, when they arise, soften and release? A mantra for this work: "peace is my power, and power is my peace." Another is, "I am harmony." Or just sing out: "I won't study war no more!"
I see too much greed. The fact that less than 1% of humans control the majority of the financial resources is clearly a sign that we are out of balance. And we should absolutely hold the ultra wealthy responsible for taking better care of our shared world. But we must also attend to the root of the problem, which is not these individuals. It's a culture that idolizes material wealth.
The more that we see money as the most power-bringing thing in the world, the more we lose respect for and access to other non-material assets such as: care, connection, creativity, passion, joy, nourishment, harmony, rhythm, humor, intelligence and beauty. Think about your most pleasant moments in life--likely you were in a deep appreciation for a quality like this. Look at a child. These kinds of qualities are all they seek. But somewhere on the road to adulthood, most of us learn to only appreciate such qualities as a MEANS to some material END. Will you get paid for it? Great, then be creative! Will it lead to a promotion? Then be kind to your boss! This is us losing sight completely of what makes a good life.
As someone who grew up without much money, I know all too well that we need some financial stability just to feel safe enough to do the rest of our work. I don't mean to discredit that it has a role to play. But I also know that all kinds of resources flowed into my life when I started to see through the myth that cash is king.
I ask you: In what ways are you nourishing greed? Do you find yourself with a crazy amount of anger toward the wealthy? If so, consider that this anger might actually be feeding the cultural myth that money is more important than everything else, and thereby making the problem worse. Do you discredit qualities that can't be quantified? How might you take the power back from money and the monied, and start giving it back to yourself and your community? Maybe it starts with really looking toward the resources you already have, honoring them, cultivating them and directing them toward your vision of a world with less competition, selfishness and greed.
A mantra for this is, "money is just another form of energy." Or, "my wealth comes from the heart" or, "my wealth comes from my connection to the earth."
I see too much fascism--a will to control others, to take away their uniqueness, their rights, their power, and make them conform to a single mode of being. This one I've been really watching lately. Living in the mountains I have learned to appreciate how much the natural world thrives on diversity. I have seen dozens of birds I didn't know existed and, I don't know, maybe a hundred forms of insect that are totally new to me. And, as we learn to farm and forage and generally be good stewards of the land, I learn that every single species plays some role in the ecosystem.
The dictator tries to suck all the power of the world into his or her own mind, believing that she can then use it to create a perfect world. Mother Nature, on the other hand, empowers each creature to evolve its own important place in the order or things, and entrusts each one to cooperate, synchronize and harmonize. I am doing my best to be like the Mother and less like a dick. Oops! I mean dictator. :)
I'll admit I find that I quite often catch my inner fascist rearing her head. I often find myself attempting to take strong control of situations, environments, and other beings. When I get angry on the highway and insist that everyone drive at the same speed as I want to. Oh my, and ESPECIALLY when I pass by a driver I have deemed to be a shitty one and get a good look at them. I did this for years before realizing that I do it for two equally horrible reasons: (1) to shame the driver with my mean expression and (2) to get a profile on them so I know "what kind of person" sucks at driving. How fucked up is that? I am coming clean to the world on having a quite temptable and contemptible inner fascist. She lives. But I am doing my best to make sure that she doesn't thrive.
So I ask you what I've been asking myself: Where am I being too controlling? Where am I snuffing out diversity and insisting that everyone be like me? Where am I displaying a lack of trust in the beings and forces around me to harmonize and create something good without my dictating every aspect of it? Can I soften in those moments and drop back into trust, interconnectedness and healthy variety?
A good mantra for this is, "All is well" or "Love, surrender."
In a culture that has been totally debilitated by the diseases of greed, fascism, selfishness, competitiveness, and the will to be master over another being, can we be the bringers of peace, harmony, generosity, cooperation, encouragement, empowerment and surrender wherever we go?
It might help to remember that NONE of these ills can exist when we remember how intimately we are all connected. The disease of separateness makes all of these other diseases possible. Spend a little time each day where you sense into interconnectedness instead, a sense that you are part of something much bigger.
You can work with the ancient mantra, "so hum." It means "I am" or "I am that." "That" is everything you see and everything you don't.
PROMPTS FOR YOUR OWN PRACTICE
STORYTELL: Make a list of all the ailments that drive you nuts about our current culture for example. Then pick one that gets the most under your skin. (a) Write about your past experiences with this (b) Articulate why it is so harmful for society to function this way. (c) Sketch some possibilities for healing this issue.
CONTEMPLATE: Is there a deeper root issue to these ailments you see? To get to the deepest root, ask "why is it that way?" And ask "why" again of each answer you come up with.
MEDITATE: Sit for a few moments just feeling your breath. Feel into a sense of wholeness, completeness, interconnectedness and presence. Any time that the mind begins to formulate an "I" or "me" statement, soften and let it roll away. Anytime your body clings toward identity, soften and let it wash away. Let everything else just come and go. Try my guided meditation, Sensing out of Separateness, up on the meditation page.
MOVE: Next time you are doing yoga, notice how the things around you aren't really separate. Connect to the earth through your body. Connect to the air through your breath. Connect to the other beings in the room through your heart. Notice the slight, subtle resistance of space as you move through it.
CHALLENGE: Next time you're in a challenging experience, pause, take a deep breath in and a slow breath out, then ask: Is there a way for me to connect more fully right now? To stop reinforcing my separateness? If the answer is NO, honor that! There is probably some reason you need to be protecting. If there is even a tiny little window of YES, honor that and slip through it.
PRAYER OF ST. FRANCIS
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is dispair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.