The Power of Devotion, Faith and Friendship in Practice
What Does It Take To Make Your Own Leap and Make Your Leap Your Own?
Are you facing a big leap in your life? What are you waiting for?
That's a question I had to face recently when I received bad news about my mother’s health. I knew it was time to make the decision to return to a life in Ireland. It had been 18 years of making my life elsewhere and I had been afraid to make this leap because I knew it would lead me away from everything I felt comfortable with; it would lead me to a place where I had no yoga or dharma community, no job, and I would be flying solo into this space of unknowing. Of course every breath, every step, every moment ushers us into unknowing, but we forget that reality in the regular habits and patterns of everyday living. We think we know what's going on. And we do, but only to an uncertain extent. As my teacher Eugene Cash says “Reality is wild!”
In addition to fear of the unknown, my heart has unfinished business in San Francisco. But who knows how or when the business of the heart will be finished. As a dharma buddy wisely said to me the other night at Sangha, sometimes there are things you just never get over. She recounted a story she'd heard about an interview with the Dalai Lama: he told the interviewer about an old monk who came to him to ask about a particular meditation practice and the Dalai Lama told him not to bother with it, that it was a practice intended for young monks. The old monk later took his own life, presumably hoping to reincarnate and be a young monk able to engage in the practice in question. The interviewer asked the Dalai Lama how he got over the tragedy of his advice been received in this way. He answered simply. He said he has not gotten over it.
We live in a world that expects us to get over things, to take charge of situations, to know how to go about things the "right" way. In other words, to be in control.
Being in the know and being in control is prized. It’s what is expected of us and often it becomes what we expect of ourselves. The space of unknowing scares us, it makes us feel powerless, small, and quite alone--we assume other people have "got it together" and we're the only ones who don't know everything.
So it's no wonder we hesitate when faced with stepping, let alone leaping, into the unknown. We usually wait because we don't feel courageous enough, strong enough, supported enough to jump! We hesitate because we want so much to get it right and we think we should know what "getting it right" looks like!
This is where our yoga and dharma practice comes in. On the mat and on the cushion, we practice not getting it right, but setting our intention on acting with intelligence and heart. We sow seeds and we accept that we don't always see the fruit in ways that are exactly predictable. We practice with being uncomfortable, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. In many ways, I think the most powerful yoga happens as we maintain an attitude of friendliness with what we don’t control, with what we’re not “getting right.” If we can remind ourselves that ultimately, yoga practice is grounded in a wish for our connection to wisdom and well-being, we can soften around the difficulty and bring a curiosity to the practice; What’s needed here to best serve myself and others?
It's the Chinese year of the monkey, AND it’s a leap year, so not surprisingly, many Yogis are thinking about Hanuman, the Monkey God from Indian mythology. There are many stories about Hanuman, but probably the most famous is that of his great leap from the southern tip of India to the island of Lanka. In the service of Ram, Hanuman was in search of Sita who had been kidnapped by the demon Ravana. The story of Sita and Ram is the subject of the Indian epic, the Ramayana and this episode of Hanuman’s leap is just a small piece of a vast narrative that recounts many adventures and contains many important teachings, but the story of the leap to Lanka holds a special place in my heart. My introduction to this story of the separation and eventual reuniting of Ram and Sita was from my first yoga teacher, the beloved Katchie Ananda and in Katchie's telling Ram represents wisdom and discipline and Sita represents love and devotion, which are two aspects of one reality, the wise and loving heart. The reality (Sat) is made up of consciousness/wisdom (chit) and bliss/love (Ananda). The demon Ravana is the knot of ego that confuses this interrelationship of wisdom and love, obscuring the awakened intelligence of the heart. The ego likes to separate things, to categorize and label them so that it can feel in control. This is a helpful function at times, but if we forget that we are just projecting our idea of separation and categorization onto what is essentially a oneness of being that we do not control, we are in big trouble. Great suffering ensues; all kinds of prejudice, bigotry and conflict follows from the egoic insistence that categories we create are real and unimpeachable. So Hanuman is acting in the righteous mission of re-uniting what the demon ego tries to separate; reunite wisdom and love.
If we can remember, like Hanuman, that our intentions are are in the service of wisdom and love, or the awakening heart, we are more able to overcome the hesitations of our scared egos. By infusing the practice with an attitude of friendliness and loving-kindness we can build a tolerance for falling out of challenging poses, not quite getting into them or not even getting near them at all, and not knowing whether we ever will. Such friendliness towards the practice itself allows us to come back for more and we get to work the muscle of compassion every time we fall and think we fail. This crucial work of the heart is what really builds confidence and courage.
And we may find as we devote ourselves to this practice of making friends that we are able to soften around the idea of getting it right. The poses that elude us are no longer hostile territory we need to conquer, but fascinating puzzles we can have fun playing with. We become more interested in what they can show us about our bodies, minds and hearts than how they look on the outside. And we can be our authentic selves in this friendly yoga, accepting that we will all look different as we deepen our poses. So, for example, my Hanumanasana is not a spectacularly open split with a proud chest and arms raised in triumph, but it’s strong and stable, and I’m taking care not to hurt my body as I nuzzle up to and expand my edge. My body and I are good friends. I love her and appreciate all she has done and continues to do for my happiness and healing, so I want to care for her and do whatever I can to protect her from harm, so I practice a sustainable yoga and my poses may not always seem big on the outside, but I feel their power, intelligence, and vibrancy deeply. For that, a deep bow of gratitude to my first teacher Katchie Ananda and my currant teacher Stacey Rosenberg.
Although my Hanumanasana is still not as open as the classic pose, I’m steadily making my way there and every step feels expansive, feels exciting, feels sweet. Every time I do the pose, it takes me deeper into my faith in the sweetness of devoted practice as being both the goal and the fruit of devoted practice. As my pose deepens, so does my devotion to showing up on my mat or meditation cushion whether it feels like a good day for practice or not. Just as Hanuman was capable of great feats once his friends reminded him of his powers, so we are capable of much more than we think possible if we make friends with our yoga practice, not just on the mat/cushion, but in life. The trick is not to assume that friendliness means sloppiness or that we know what our leap will look like. True friends hold us in integrity and yet allow us to evolve, to take shape as who we are, not what we think we should be. It’s a day by day dynamic relationship that requires ongoing engagement—we can’t say in advance what it’s going to look like.
Life is not a play of ideal forms. Like Hanuman in other parts of the Ramayana, it can take a stunning variety of shapes and sizes. We can’t get stuck on idea of form and say “It’s got to be like this.” That’s why I chose the Hanuman in the picture above. He is making a leap that’s not the classic Hanuman expansive split; it’s more relaxed but it's still bold and beautiful and it fits him perfectly. The question becomes, "can we relax into the perfection of our own heart as it expresses its potential in the present?" Can we find our authentic balance of our wise effort and our heart's ease. Now that’s yoga!
Yoga practice is not a solitary practice. Sure, it requires a certain amount of solitariness, but ultimately it is a practice of relationship, with the mysteries of self and not self, and the mysteries of other and not other. So we must work alone and we must work together and we must understand that these are not actually different. As our practice deepens, we really get to appreciate the power and the peace in the paradox of "alone/together." In one of the most beautiful dharma talks I have ever heard, Love is the Fabric of Reality my dharma teacher Pam Weiss says "Love is not a feeling; it is a force." We are magnetically drawn together by the reality that we are of one Beingness and while no one can do your practice for you, but you cannot do it alone. This is the message in the story of Hanuman. He is not acting for himself and he is not acting by himself. As he hesitates at the edge of India, unaware of his divine powers, it is his community of friends that remind him of his true nature, and his great capacities. I write in the present tense, because the greatness of myth lies in its power reveal truths in the present; a potent myth is true because even though it never really happened, it is always happening.
So what are you waiting for? I was waiting for courage. For healing and strength in my heart. And thank Goodness I found it. In my friends and in my practice. I found capacities I didn't know I had. And I found them through failure, loss and grief and the compassion that sprung up to meet them, like healing spring water.
Like Hanuman, we are all in the service of love, even if we don't yet know it, our mission is one of reuniting, reconnecting, with ourselves and with one another. We try to do it in a wide variety of ways, some more or less skillful, but the drive to connect is what propels us. Let's do it with more wisdom and kindness. Let's allow ourselves to fully make friends with practice and deepen our friendships in community. Let's allow ourselves to give and receive support, courage, and devotion. Let's leap into the wild future together.
In the words of poet Mary Oliver
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.