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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Two Special Holiday Classes

 On Friday, Dec. 21 (the Advanced Practice at 4:30-6:30pm) and Saturday morning Dec. 22 (an All Levels class from 10am-noon), I’ll lead two classes for donations only,  with 100% of all proceeds split equally between two wonderful and worthy causes.   Note, the Friday practice is just that, our regular allegedly-advanced-but-definitely-hard-work practice time, where we together do a practice derived from the work of our wonderful senior teachers.  The Saturday class will be a holiday sort of restorative class, with me leading the sequence and giving instruction and assistance, and maybe talking too much or too little, trying, you know, to keep you conscious and not snoozing.  

Regarding the charities, the first is Mr. Iyengar’s project to provide health care, sanitation and higher education in his home village, Bellur, near Bangalore in the south of India. This project has been ongoing for quite some years now, and still more work and financing is needed to support such a large undertaking.  

The second charity is one of my personal favorites, Doctors without Borders, (because I saw them in action when I lived in Africa).  They provide medical care to the neediest in the most dangerous and forsaken parts of the world today.  Come enjoy what you love to do, and your donation will benefit the neediest.

Hot cider and snacks will be provided.  Come enjoy yourself.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Little More About This Emotion Thing

[note: slightly edited from first posting]
Here is another way of looking at the importance of getting one’s emotions under control (see the post below) before you try to do your work or engage in any sort of interaction with others.

Malcom Gladwell has written an interesting book called Blink, that explains the way we are able to make subconscious, intuitive judgements about things and people in the blink of an eye.  This capability is critical to everyone, from the teacher evaluating a student in class, to the customer and the salesman bargaining for a car at the dealership, to the appraiser evaluating a piece of art as genuine or a forgery, to the policeman or soldier figuring out whether or not to fire a weapon at an individual suddenly running toward or away from him. 

Gladwell makes the case that we do this sort of instant, subconscious observation of minute details in peoples’ facial expression, vocal tone, or body language, and we look at all sorts of other clues that the five senses provides us all the time, and we are by and large good at it.  He also makes two other points that are huge:

1) the more training you have in the particular work in question, the better the intuitive “blink”evaluations will be.   As a car dealer, you can better evaluate who is likely to buy and who is not when the person walks in the door; as an art appraiser, the more genuine art or artifacts you see, the better you can evaluate a new item; and the more experienced policemen are the ones more likely to hold fire and not react precipitously in a suspicious situation.

2) Except sometimes experience does not give any advantage at all.  It turns out that when ignorance and stereotyping exists, or fear or anger, or greed, or some other negativity enters the mind of the individual, the ability to use experience to evaluate and correctly respond to the situation in the moment is reduced.  Decidedly.  And at an instinctual level--in that "blink" moment. Because the mind is clouded by what we yogis see as the kleśas, clues that might ordinarily be clear to us are overlooked.  The mind reflects our klesas more than it does reality.  And bad decisions result.  Sometimes very bad.  Cornell West, Harvard professor, is arrested trying to enter his own house.  Amadou Diallo is shot 42 times in his own vestibule in New York, trying to get away from the policemen he thought were going to harm him.  The Getty Museum bought a forgery of a Greek statue for $10 million.  

Tell me you have not made some probably less newsworthy but still bad decision under the influence of ignorance, ambition, greed, hatred, or fear. 

This is not to say that these negative emotions have no useful purpose.  There are genuine reasons why anger and desire and fear arise, and those who do not acknowledge their arousal, or who never even feel them, might be missing parts of their neural circuitry, and are certainly suppressing or outright missing huge clues about themselves and the world around them.    But they are not helpful in seeing the deep truth of a person or situation, or in the development of yogic wisdom.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Be Happy or it's Hard to Practice

I’m picking up on something we discussed in the teacher training this past weekend:  the “theme” sutra was I.33 (see below).  Patanjali’s context is this:  three sutras before, he names the range of obstacles or disturbances to practice, and their concommitants (YS I.30-31), which to avoid for once my natural tendency to digress, I won’t go into here.  But you should look at them because this sutra here can be read as part of Patanjali’s explanation of how to resolve those obstacles.  Well, read the whole pada really; it’s all of a piece, and all relevant. 

To eliminate the disturbances, Patanjali says we should practice fixing the mind on one object. 

I.32:  tat-pratiṣedhārtham eka-tattvābhyāsaḥ
[Bryant]  Practice [of fixing the mind] on one object [should be performed] in order to eliminate these disturbances.
[Iyengar] Adherence to single-minded effort prevents these impediments.

Vyasa states that the disturbances in I.30 are to be counteracted by the practice and dispassion mentioned in I.12-I.16.  He considers this sutra to be Patanjali’s final statement in this pada on practice. 
The ‘one object’ is sometimes understood by commentators (see Vachaspati Misra, Iyengar and probably Bryant too) to be God, though other commentators (see Aranya, Vijnana-bhiksu, Bhojaraja) point out that Patanjali does not himself indicate anything other than exactly what he says in the sutra itself.  And throughout the entire Sutra (look particularly at the third pada), Patanjali gives us many different focal points for concentration and practice, all aimed at overcoming delusion and limitation, or developing capacity, or yielding lucidity and deep wisdom and understanding of existence.

Iyengar points out that for most of us the notion of surrender to God is not comprehensible, let alone attainable.  Throughout most of our practice, we ordinary people remain caught up in the delusions and disturbances of our myriad likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks.  I would add here that regardless of the God issue, for most of us this act of concentration on anything is not easily attainable.  We often spend our time on and off the mat or the cushion caught up in some form of negativity.  We relive a problem, we have imaginary yet vivid conversations with those we feel are our antagonists, or in other ways burrowing deeper into our fear, dislike, or delusion. Only when the tendency to dwell in these negativities and distractions is eliminated, is the mind clear, calm and capable of prolonged concentration on one object. 

So then comes a series of sutras (I.33-I.39 ) on the topic of how to cultivate that steadiness of mind and consciousness that allows this single-pointed focus.  The first sutra of this section is our subject:

I.33 maitrī-karuṇā-muditopekṣāṇāṁ sukha-dhḥkha-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam
[Bryant] By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.
[Iyengar]Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent. 

The general idea from all the commentators, Vyasa and onward, is that the sutra is telling us to be happy when we see others’ happiness; to be compassionate when we see others suffering; to be joyous at others’ virtues; and to be detached or benevolently indifferent toward those who are not virtuous.  In other words, no negativities allowed.

Here is Bryant explaining additional points made by both Hariharananda and Vacaspati Misra: “ By being a well-wisher toward those who are happy, as well as those who are virtuous, the contamination of envy is removed.  By compassion toward those who are miserable, that is, by wishing to remove someone’s miseries as if they were one’s own, the contamination of the desire to inflict harm on others is removed.  By equanimity toward the impious, the contamination of intolerance is removed.  By this removing these traits of envy, desire to inflict harm, and intolerance, which are characteristics of rajas and tamas, the sattva natural to the mind can manifest. “

I think Patanjali is telling us that we cannot progress beyond the superficialities of yoga until we take a deep look at, and clean up the roots of our emotional interaction with the world around us.  Every mind state Patanjali and the commentators bring up—happiness, compassion, joy, benevolent detachment; and the “contaminations” they dispel: envy, anger, and intolerance—are all what we Westerners would think of as emotional states.  They exist not at the intellectual level (buddhi in yogic terms), but at the more instinctive and visceral level, the level of feeling (manas).  They are whole body-mind states, certainly recognizable to ourselves, and also to any who look at us. 

Once again, note the primary placement of this sutra in the list of ways of cultivating sattvic lucidity and the calmness necessary for concentration.  As we know, when something comes up first in Patanjali’s lists of things, it usually means that first item is a sort of primary or baseline thing that needs to be attended to first before what follows can be practiced or understood properly.  The message is that in order for the mind to be lucid and level enough to concentrate, it must be emotionally balanced.
Proof of this is to be found in an examination of the sutras that come next:

I.34  pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyāṁ vā prāṇasya
[Iyengar] Or, by maintaining the pensive state felt at the time of soft and steady exhalation and during passive retention after exhalation.
[Bryant] Or [stability of mind is gained] by exhaling and retaining the breath.

If you did your reading on sutras I. 30-31, you have already noted that the direct concommitants of the obstacles or distractions to practice are (I.31] suffering, dejection, trembling and unsteadiness of body and breath.  In other words, that “pensive” state that comes from a steady breathing pattern is likely to be rather elusive if one is suffering in a negative emotional state.

Likewise, the rest of this short series of sutras are all about ways of cultivating “steadiness of mind and consciousness,”  contemplation of a “sorrowless” light or the sages who are “free from desires and attachments” (in other words, free from negative emotional states).  They are all aimed at arriving at a calm, steady and negativity-free mind state.

Many of us practice without understanding the primary necessity for emotional stability, because nowhere does Patanjali speak of it using that term.  But this does not mean it wasn’t important to him.  It’s only that he didn’t use the word we use for that part of our selves.  And why that is is for another post, another time.