Integrity

You’re made up of a million different parts. Perhaps even an infinite number.

It’s like the night sky. You can look up, and see twinkly lights — you know that some are stars and some are planets. You even know there are some that you can’t see because of light pollution. You know there are more than you can’t see because there so far away, but you still trust that they’re there. Millions of stars. Spread out across the universe – perhaps an infinite number across an infinite universe.

The gift of this life is exploring all the different pieces — and trusting that just because you can’t see some of those pieces right now, you trust that they are there. You keep exploring, keep looking closer, deeper, farther.

Despite being made of infinite parts, you also know you’re one whole. You’re both things: the pieces and parts of you that you can take apart, and the whole together. The old adage says your whole is more than just the sum of those million parts.

The remarkable thing about the matrix that is you is that one part also carries with it the connection to every other part. Sometimes the connection and relationship is easier to see, sometimes it’s more tricky. You know when you move your foot forward to step, something happens in your pelvis. It may be harder to experience what’s happening in your neck when your foot steps forward – but the more aware you are, the more willing you are to explore that connection.

It’s even harder to see those connections in the parts of us we can’t see — but know are there. When you offer someone a kind word, you know that’s connected to your history of experience with them. It might be harder to connect the kind word you offer to that person with your history of experience with someone else, but you’re willing to explore that connection.

What if it’s all connected? What if your foot is connected to the kind word? What if your history of experience is part of the miraculous matrix of your body?

Are you willing to see it? You’re one thing, refracted and reflected from an infinite number of angles.

Integrity is moving from that one thing in an infinite number of directions. You’re brave enough to make decisions from your center, instead of trying to be one thing in your day job and something else at home with your kids. You know the things you say to coworkers affect how you kiss your lover goodnight.

An infinite number of stars, one whole you.

Is Your Practice Protection or Prison?

Physical yoga (asana) comes from tantric schools of yoga. Tantra, however — contrary to everything your mother fears — is not all about sex. Instead, tantric practices are a concrete exploration of the divine. Tantric practice, in any tradition, involves ritual, movement, mantra, and other practices that give us a chance to experience the miracle of the world instead of just ruminate about it.

The word tantra comes from two Sanskrit roots – “tan” means expansion or stretching, while “tra” and it’s variations means protection or tool. Tantra, in its earliest forms, is often translated as “weaving” or “loom,” – in a way that we must stretch thread, and then bring it together, then stretch again and so forth.

If you have a physical yoga practice, that might sound familiar. You roll out your mat, take some sun salutations, and then settle into a yoga posture. Your practice expands into more and more challenging poses, you begin to stretch and extend your body, find more space, and then dive into that space. You’re constantly expanding, settling in, expanding, and settling in again. This is one of the reasons we call it a practice: because there is always more to explore, always more to stretch, always another pose. Perhaps paradoxically, there is always more contentedness, more ease, and more stability to be found in each of those shapes.

Mantra might be another piece of your yoga practice — another word adopted into our modern vocabulary. Mantra hasn’t been as misunderstood: most of understand it as a word or phrase repeated that comes to represent an idea or ideology. In yoga practice, repeating a mantra has a very similar meaning.

Etymologically, you can see the similarity between mantra and tantra. They both have that “tra” – protection or tool at the end. The “man” comes from “manas,” which means mind — sometimes just the thoughts, sometimes the entire space between your ears including emotions, senses, and all the rest.

So then mantra can both protect the mind and be a tool of the mind. We can use mantra to direct the thoughts — and by directing them in one singular direction, we direct the mind AWAY from all the crazy we’re trying to avoid most of the time. It’s like the banks of a river: without those boundaries, the water spreads, sits, and stagnates into a swamp. The edges keep the water moving in a certain direction.

But what happens when those boundaries feel stifling? What’s the difference between protecting the mind from distraction and putting blinders on? What happens when the walls you built up to protect yourself become like a prison?

This is where tantra returns. There is no final answer, but instead a constant dance between feeling restricted and feeling protected. Every time we get complacent, we can challenge ourselves, expanding our thoughts and our body. Every time it feels like too much, we can always retreat back into the safety of our practice.

The Two Kinds of Darkness

This epic super moon eclipse on the vernal equinox has me thinking about darkness. This is what I’ve been thinking:

There are two main flavors of darkness in our life. Because its easier to see what happening in the world outside us, rather than the world inside us (although I think they are the same), I’ll use meteorological metaphors to talk about these shadows. First, there’s the darkness caused by a great big, ominous, angry storm cloud covering the sun. And then there’s the darkness of midnight, in the void before dawn. It’s two completely different kinds of darkness, and yet we tend to respond to them in similar ways.

The storm clouds show up in our life as suffering — we are abandoned, disappointed, betrayed, or otherwise wounded. When we’re in the midst of this kind of darkness, it’s impossible to see the brightness in our life. When friends suggest the silver lining (i.e. getting laid off means you have time to pursue that side career of your dreams!), we quietly resent their perkiness. We try to be more cheery, we know we should be more positive – but when things are dark, sometimes you just have to wait for the darkness to pass. Because no storm can last forever.

The other kind of darkness is the darkness right before the dawn. The black sky, the void, the emptiness. This darkness is terrifying to many of us, because we aren’t sure what will come next — and we are paralyzed by the idea the we might have to begin to paint the picture of dawn.

Both kinds of darkness pass, but while they’re happening they seem like they’ll last forever. When we’re in the depth of heartbreak, we imagine we’ll always be heartbroken. We’ll never find love again, we’ll be alone eternally — might as well get a grocery cart and 12 more cats now. It the moment just before daybreak, when we have no idea what the next step on this path is because no one else has ever tread this path (because it’s our path), we can’t imagine we’ll ever know what the ground feels like under our feet or that we’ll ever be able to do anything at all.

Here’s what I see as the difference: the storm cloud offers a kind of security blanket, a kind of familiar bleakness that will neither surprise nor disappoint us. Sometimes it just hurts so good. That blackness before daybreak, however, is terrifying – it’s emptiness, eternal possibility. I will do anything to get out of that space.

And so this eclipse is a little like that midnight darkness — a little reset button on the sun. It can be terrifying to realize that our entire life might change forever and we could move in a completely new direction, especially if we think we have to chart the course from the beginning.

I suggest just start with the daybreak – start with the streaming layers of red and ochre, that painfully exquisite sight of your life rising over the horizon.

Receiving Gratitude

This November, it seems like all of my Facebook friends are writing gratitude lists: every single day, expressing appreciation for everything they have, from nice weather to tasty dinners. My reactions range from a light smiles to subtle groans: “Oprah wins again.”

My mind is so screwed up that I feel guilted into gratitude practice: “I should remember what I have more. I should appreciate the people in my life.” I wonder what I would be grateful for, but my list never seems like enough.  I am reminded again that my mind can use everything as a weapon — every medicine can be poison if taken in the wrong dose.

I am not, by any means, undermining the practice of gratitude.  When I’m humble enough to remember, I have found it a very useful practice.  Our minds tend to focus on what we lack, the things that are missing, the things that hurt, and gratitude gently focuses our attention on abundance and joy instead.  But I think there’s a more subtle practice that might be even more powerful: receiving gratitude.

Despite trumpeting the power of expressing gratitude, the “mindfulness community” spends little time on the practice of being receptive to it. We fill our lives with so much offering and service and generosity, that when someone says “thank you,” all we can think is, “That wasn’t enough. I could give more.” Perhaps we offer service not out of deep love for all beings, but instead because we feel we must serve in order prove that we have earned being here.

An underlying message of gratitude practice: If I don’t remember all the gifts I have been given, I couldn’t possibly deserve them.

What a dangerous, yet common, thought — and a thought that completely eliminates the possibility of grace. Grace is what we receive in exchange for nothing – grace is what we receive just by being. We don’t have to do anything, we don’t have to give anything, we don’t have to sacrifice anything — and thus you don’t have to know anything, understand anything in order to get it. They say: “God gives grace not because of who you are, but because of who God is.”

Perhaps this concept is seems odd: that’s normal. Intellectually, you can understand getting something for nothing (it’s nearly the American dream, right?) — but when it comes down to it, we can’t sit still and simply receive what is being offered to us. So… we practice.

Take a moment to sit quietly, and settle yourself into the present.  Let your breath become steady, and your list-making mind subside for a moment.

Once you’ve found this moment, think of a person who might be grateful for you. A parent, child, partner, friend, sibling, pet… maybe someone who sent you a text on Thanksgiving “I’m grateful for you!”  How many of those texts did you get that you can’t remember?

Give yourself a moment to remember what you’ve been for that person, what you’ve done for them in your time together.  Maybe it’s hard to a imagine a person like this — maybe you don’t have children, or your relationship with your parents is so strained that you can’t imagine that they might be grateful for you.  Maybe you have a dog or cat: imagine, for a moment, how your dog might see you.

If you can’t find anyone — think of me.  Because I guarantee I am grateful that you’re on the other end of the screen, reading what I’m writing.  I’m grateful that you’re spending your precious time with me, grateful that you bring all your experience to this moment, and are willing to process this receiving of gratitude with me.

Imagine the sense of gratitude that person or being feels for you — not just because of what you’re done, or presents you’ve given.  They’re not just grateful because of the checks-and-balances of life, they’re grateful for the space you hold, for how you make them feel about you and themselves.  Feel what that gratitude feels like.  Feel the fullness of your presence in their life.

Notice the effect on your breath.  Notice the effect on your thinking mind.  It might make you nervous.  It might make you really uncomfortable.  Maybe it calms you down.  You might think it’s a silly exercise: all of this is information for next time’s practice.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’
– Rumi

 

What Ingress Taught Me About Yoga: A Confession

Ingress has been my dirty little secret for the last four months. Ingress is a mobile, geolocation capture-the-flag style game. Anyone with a cell phone anywhere in the world can play, capturing real-world locations on behalf of their team, and creating imaginary links between those locations (called portals.) When you link three portals together, you create a field for your team. There are only two teams – and you pick which one the day you sign up. No takebacks.

It’s a drastically simple game — as a player, you build a score based on how many places you go, capture on behalf of your team, how many you link together, and how many fields. The team is scored on how large all current fields are, based on population density and not geographical area. There are a number of things you can only do with a team of 8 players (or more) – which mandates teamwork, especially the further you progress.

The logistics of the game are the same over and over and over again: go to a place, claim it for your team (maybe after taking it from the other team), link, field. Capture, link, field. Repeat. Over and over and over. The game is always being played. Always. Everywhere. The official slogan of the game? Ingress: The World is Not What It Seems.

*   *   *   *   *

For the last four months, I have played an embarrassing number of hours of this game.  Sometimes it was just stopping in between appointments (‘let me just capture this portal on my way to work’), sometimes it was hours at a time (linking and fielding all 54 sculptures at City Park’s outdoor garden), sometimes driving long distances through the night with fellow players to reclaim key portals from the other team. I’ve been a little ashamed of it, to be honest — it didn’t seem like something a yoga teacher “should” be doing. I never crossed the line into secretive, but I could see how this could become a compulsive addictive hobby for even well-intentioned players. It got too close for comfort for me.

On November 15th, Ingress came to New Orleans for a special event called an “Anomaly.” These monthly events have special rules over a period of 4-5 hours, and players come from all over. All told, we probably had nearly 800 people on both sides playing in New Orleans.

As the host city, our local team pulled out all the stops — coordinating hotel blocks, events, tours, as well as the on-the-ground strategy for gameday. We had help from other teammates from across the country for weeks leading up and over 400 “agents” from out team played. And we won.

Perhaps the strangest irony is that this series of events is called Darsana. In yoga, darsan is what we receive from our teachers when we sit with them. It means “audience,” being able to sit in the presence of the guru. Nothing about Darasana felt like darsan to me.

This event was just like every event I’ve ever been involved in producing in many ways — the core team was stressed to our breaking point, regardless of how much we tried to prepare in advance. Teammates disagreed over strategy, tactics, coordination… and as everyone got more tired, tempers grew short and feelings got hurt. At the end of the event we all were happy to win, and yet… we were also just a little sad. Friendships and romantic relationships are permanent changed, and our team will never be the same.

As we came to the big day, I fell into my old patterns of caretaking while putting my own feelings and experience on the back burner. I ignored my own needs, because it was easier to pay attention to others’. I told myself I wouldn’t do it again, that I could set boundaries this time. But old habits die hard. We all learn the same precious lessons over and over and over again.

*   *   *   *   *

The morning of the Anomaly, I ran into a yoga teaching colleague and mentor and told her I was going to “the opposite of yoga.”

This had become my narrative about Ingress: it was the antithesis of everything I was doing in my life. It was decidedly un-yogic. In some ways, it became an outlet, an escape from the intensity of my day-to-day life. Everytime I played, I felt like I was cheating on yoga, breaking some unspoken rule for yoga teachers. Shouldn’t I be meditating somewhere? Or planning a class? Or practicing myself? Instead, I snuck around “hacking portals” and “blocking links” and “destroying fields.”

I spoke exactly that way about yoga – and still do, sometimes – for the first year of my teaching. Yoga was frivolous, “woo-woo,” a thing relegated to ditzy hippies. Three years ago, every time I told someone at my old suit-wearing job that I was training to be a yoga teacher, I apologized. To my surprise, everyone I told was curious, interested, and impressed. After three years, I’ve finally begun to accept that yoga is more than I imagined, and being a yoga teacher is a more significant job than could have I expected. I might still snicker to myself when my Reiki teacher says things like “auric field” — but I’ve begun to recognize that hint of doubt as the signal of somewhere I need to grow.

When I told my friend I was going to the “opposite of yoga,” she smiled knowingly. “It’s all yoga,” she said. What a pat, trite thing to say, I thought. Lightbulb: it’s where I need to grow.

My doubts, my self-doubts especially, are the shining light where there is work to be done.

Through this whole process, I thought “these poor people who spend all their lives on Ingress. Don’t they have anything truly meaningful in their lives? What are they running away from?” Such sneaky self-righteousness. Ingress taught me just what my yoga practice teaches me: humility and compassion. Because now I’m asking myself: “Don’t I have anything meaningful in my life? What am I running away from?”

Aren’t we all running from something? Don’t we all look for an escape sometimes?

We can use yoga as an escape from the real world, or an opportunity to see it more clearly. We can imagine the yoga studio is a retreat from our daily grind, or we can see it as a place to reveal our lives to us more clearly. Every medicine can be poison if taken in the wrong doses.

I thought Ingress was an escape. In fact, it gave me an opportunity to see myself more clearly.

Now I need a new hobby.

The Veil is Thin

This time of year, we sometimes say “the veil is thin” — the division between the waking world and the sleeping world, the conscious and unconscious, the embodied and transcended.  Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) gives us a chance to remind ourself that we’re all just dressed up in costumes and masks all the time.  My teacher Mitchel Bleier once suggested that we get all dressed up not to disguise who we are, but instead to discover who will recognize us despite our external trappings.

We all know that feeling of walking down Frenchmen Street in 7″ platform boots, giant wings, a mask, elaborate costume — only to have someone see us, recognize us instantly.  Maybe you don’t know the feeling of platform boots and the smell of Frenchmen Halloween — but that recognition, that being seen, is something we all deeply crave.

But what is it that we’re seeing when we see another person like that? And how do we cultivate that vision?  Is it their walk?  Their “aura”? (Aside: I hate words like aura — I think they separate us more into the in-the-esoteric-know and otherwise.)  Do we hear that specific lilt in their voice, glint in their eye?  Why is it that the year I dressed us as The Angel From Montgomery, my fake white eyelashes veiled me from the man I was sleeping with at the time, but not my yoga DJ?

How do we reveal our own true self – not the one we costume with careers and status, fancy clothes and perfect hair – but the one that those who know us recognize?  And how do we train our vision to look beyond these external veils, to the true nature of the people around us?

When you mask this Friday — I encourage you to explore if you are trying to hide or reveal your light.  Sometimes, when we entirely change our external layers, only most real parts of ourselves remain.

Die in a Fire: Kali, Full Moons, and Transformations

“Go die in a fire.” It’s one of my favorite off-the-cuff, half-joking missives. I try not to use them so much anymore, especially in mixed company, but my Edward Gorey-loving self still holds on tight to those passive aggressive idioms.

Kali, by Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This morning was a “blood moon eclipse” – which even if you aren’t superstitious sounds pretty foreboding.  According to astrology experts on the internet, any eclipse is a sign of transformation — a changing from one thing to the next.  Add blood to that.  Woof.

Sometimes transformation happens gradually, like the unfolding of a beautiful flower. Usually, however, it’s uncomfortable, frustrating, and downright terrifying.  Fire is a central element in most pujas (Hindu religious ceremonies) — and not by accident.  We offer things to the fire to be devoured, destroyed, permanently transformed.  What do want to be transformed, to be burned up, to be completely dissolved in order to make way for something new?

That’s Kali. She is fierce, transformative. She is the darkness — that we can’t quite see, the fire in our belly we don’t quite understand. She is nearly uncontrollable, as we see in the end of her myth, which goes a little like this:

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a band of demons had taken over the earth.  They were pillaging towns, taunting yogis, and tipping cows.  The humans on earth grew very frightened, and began to pray to the gods above to rescue them.

The gods looked down from their celestial mountain tops, and saw all the devastation happening on earth.  They gathered a group of their greatest warriors to go down to defeat the demons.  They were gods, after all – what could go wrong?

The gods descended to earth and began to fight the demons – chopping off heads with long sabers, skewering torsos with tridents – but something went wrong.  The enemy only seemed to get more plentiful as they fought.  Finally Shiva, one of the most powerful gods, realized every time a drop of the demon blood hit the earth a new demon sprang up.  They were Raktabijas — literally “blood seed” demons.

Once the gods realized their usual methods were useless against this opponent, they retreat back to their mountaintops. They gather in heaven, a little panicked and afraid themselves.  After much discussion, they finally turn to Durga – the chief goddess – and plea for her help.

After much urging, Durga transforms into Kali – the black one – and descends to earth. Kali is vicious, ferocious, with her near-black skin and long tongue. She begins not just to fight the raktabijas, but to devour them whole.  She continues fearlessly, fiercely, until she has consumed all of the enemy.  She’s like a whirlwind of destruction.

The gods and humans are grateful for her victory, but then something terrifying happens: just like a fire that spreads through a forest, uncontrollable, Kali has developed a blood lust. She begins searching the countryside for more demons, becoming almost as terrible as the demons.  She’s not

Shiva, Kali’s consort, descends to earth trying to snap her out of it — but she even doesn’t know him, she is so singly focused.  Unable to get her attention, Shiva literally stands in her way, and allows himself to be trampled by her fierce dance.  Once he is under her feet, she realizes what she’s done — and her rage settles.  Shiva and Kali return to heaven, and the villagers on earth begin to return to their lives.

Yoga is traditionally a practice of transformation.  We use tapas (heat) in our practice to burn up the things we don’t need anymore.  My favorite translation of yoga sutra 2.1: “Purification, Refinement, Surrender: these are the practical steps on the path of yoga.” Some days the purification is a slow burn: allowing our practice to work gradually but inevitably in our bodies and minds.  And some days we need to light a firecracker in the middle of the TNT in our spirits, and watch the sparks fly.

That’s Kali.  Kali is the beast unleashed.  She’s in each of us, waiting, ready to pounce.

Sometimes by lighting that match and putting it to the proverbial fuse, we break through the barriers that won’t be eroded by the gentle, gradual process.  Let me clear: this is not comfortable.  It’s usually not fun.  But sometimes, Kali is necessary.

Kali’s blackness is relevant. Even as children, what we fear the most is that which we can’t see. It’s the sound in the darkness that starts our overactive imaginations building giant monsters on their way to devour us — at least when we’re kids they give us night lights. In my own life, it’s the things that are just beyond my vision or grasp that are the most frightening. That amorphous foreboding feeling that I can’t quite wrangle. Like my finances. Or my future.  In fact, sometimes Kali is translated as “time.”

I encourage you to own the darkness in your life that is growing like a monster in your childhood bedroom.  Recognize the thing that you’ve been avoiding, that has morphed in the background into a giant demon before you knew it.  And then give it to the flames.  Tell it to go die in a fire.

And then just wait.  Let the fire do its work.  After the last ember burns out, see what’s left in the ashes — it might just surprise you.

An important post script:

“Purification, Refinement, Surrender: these are the practical steps on the path of yoga.”  Yoga doesn’t end with the purification — Kali cannot be left to run wild.  We can’t live in Kali energy all the time.  As Nietzsche says, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

Shiva, Kali’s lover, descends to earth, to stand in her way.  He represents pure love in that moment, willing to sacrifice his self, his ego entirely to rescue Kali from herself.  I wouldn’t be a yoga teacher if I didn’t add: Love is the antidote for transforming permanently into the monster.

Never Without Fear

Nataraja’s Abhaya Mudra

One of the more common mudras in the yoga tradition is the Abhaya mudra.  Bhaya is often translated as fear, and a- is the negative modifier, so the abhaya means literally “No Fear.”  The gesture means “be not afraid,” or “have no fear.” It’s a welcoming, inviting mudra, and we often see the murtis (statues of hindu gods) with one of their hands in this position.

One of my teachers, Douglas Brooks, has a fascinating translation that may appear counterintuitive for this word – but I truly love it.

“While the raised open palm may appear to us a signal of caution or even warning, it is also an invitation and an opportunity to approach, then come closer, open the heart, and accept the journey of self-inquiry. Fearlessness is the beginning of all such journeys, not just the end. Fearlessness is never without fear but rather that way in which we step into our courage and bring the heart, mind, and body into a deeper appreciation of each and every situation.”

Douglas also suggests that a hero does the thing we are afraid to do, so that we don’t have to watch him do it.  In the oldest sense of this, we don’t want to watch the warrior defeat the enemy — we know without thinking that witnessing slaughter of another human would be traumatic — but we understand this is a “necessary evil,” and we’ll even throw him a parade when he returns.  Once we have matured past a certain age, we know that heroes are human, and if fact we want human heroes, since those who find joy in the slaughter are monsters, not heroes.

So is it possible that what makes a hero is her fear?  One who knows the power of her action, who steps strongly the direction of the task at hand although they may be terrified of each step.  The hero must understand the gravity of her action, and be aware of the inherent conflict of taking such a step.  The true hero is never without fear.

So for us, today — who hopefully have no experience of armed combat — what are our fears?  And how can we walk both fearlessly and never without fear into the things that frighten us the most?

What’s it like to walk into a room of people you haven’t seen in over ten years?  Or to start a new job or business?  How does it feel to walk into a first date with someone you don’t know well?  Or to ask someone on that first date?  How does it feel to ask for a raise? To stand up to your parents (or your partner, or your best friend, or your children) when you make a decision that they don’t like? To tell your partner you’ve been fired?  To end a relationship when you know it will devastate the other?

Instead of repressing that feeling, that anxiety, that fear, can you lean into it?  Can you be never without fear, instead using your fear as a guidepost, accepting it for what it is, and allowing it to inform your actions without ruling you?  Fear can only paralyze us if we resist it.  Next time, can you instead raise your hand, abhaya — fearless and never without fear, breathe, and take steady steps forward into and through it?

This playlist invokes Kali – that fierce quality in all of us that defends the ones we love – and Nataraja, the dancing face of Shiva who’s abhaya mudra invites into the dance of life, both through and despite our fears.