Thursday, June 9, 2011

So why this search for stillness?

It may be obvious for those of you who have shared the hot room with me over the past few years, but not all of my friends and readers fall into that category.  For the latter,  a few words of explanation may be helpful. 

I like to see my life through the lens of yoga;  my kids remind me of that each time that we talk and I offer up some words of advice, which tends to elicit the response " oh no, not another yoga metaphor!".  And, of course, that is exactly what falls from my lips - yet another yoga metaphor.  I am indeed that predictable.

It is a truism that aging brings with it the accumulation of experience. In the worst of cases, it tends to be the same experience over and over again. In the best of cases, and if you are really lucky in life, it brings many assorted experiences, gleaned from dipping your toes into this and that. I like to think that Bikram saw that when he said to me “just teach from your worldly experience and you will be alright”. It was one of our longer exchanges – barely a conversation – but I reached out and caught those few words, wrapped them up safely and carried them with me ever since. A rationale for what I do: share my experience.

And this conversation today, this blog, this short exchange of words that is offered to you, is simply that: a sharing of experience. It is no substitute for the learning and the healing that goes on in the yoga room. It is not didactic in nature nor in spirit. For that you need to keep on listening to the teaching, focusing on the underlying meaning of the words and staying in that pristine awareness of the yoga practice – you may remember that from our past conversations in the hot room.

This experience of mine with yoga has been good; but more than that, it has changed my life. I began to see things cropping up in my practice that were a direct reflection of issues that I was experiencing outside the hot room. More and more as I practiced, I saw a reflection of my life laid out before me, in the mirror and on the mat. Challenges in my life reappeared as challenges in my practice. The line between my life and my yoga practice became blurred, and then slowly, over time, disappeared. No wonder then that yoga metaphors now come so easily to my mind when I am seeking to find answers to life's everyday practical problems.

Bikram tried to define yoga for us one day. Of course we started with the simple definitions that we could write down in our note books and memorize: words like “union” and “yoke” and phrases that imply the partnering of mind and body. But it came down to the fact that so much of what we do is a combination of mind and body, and that can be simply explained as yoga.  It is all around us – all the time. He calls it “the science of life”. Reach for a glass of water: yoga;  stand up and stretch your arms above your head:  yoga; lie down and close your eyes and nap:  yoga; write a blog: yoga. I like that.

Each time that our mind and body connect, there is yoga going on – initially a battle, that coming together, that tension, that stress, that pushing and pulling. A conflict between mind and body - one wins and the other loses - unless the conflict can be resolved in some way so that there is no need for winners and losers.  And that's where yoga comes in. It resolves the conflict between mind and body.

Our physical yoga practice came into being many years ago ( roughly three or four thousand years) specifically to prepare the body for meditation.  Yoga was a set of preparatory exercises to quieten and relax the body so that the mind could meditate without interruption from cramps or spasms or the like. Nowadays, Bikram calls his practice, his sequence of postures,  a “moving meditation”, but its origin is firmly rooted in preparing the body for a still meditation.

Look carefully and in each posture you will find a little point of stillness. It might not last long – in fact it might not always be there. But if you are lucky enough to see it, then you know it. You don't have to be this year's yoga champ to find it. Just do the best you can, the best that your body can do on this day, and breathe. Then the stillness finds you. Remember the definition of a hatha yoga asana: executing the posture as best you can, in stillness, breathing always normal. That is my Trinity, right there, at the “still point”.

We borrow this term “ still point” from a poem written by T. S. Eliot in the 1930's. He is perhaps best remembered for his poems The Waste Land and the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, or his plays like Murder in the Cathedral, or his work that resulted in Practical Cats – the source for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats. But it was four poems written between 1935 and 1945 published as a collection called The Four Quartets that earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The first of these poems, Burnt Norton, is where we find the term “still point”. 
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving”

I've seen this still point – albeit briefly and from a distance. But I know it's there, and that's what I am looking for now. It's there where the body does something special - it heals itself - and then that sense of quiet, that healing, that “white light” feeds straight into the mind and everything just slows down.  Perhaps not very much - maybe just a few cycles, but it's enough to notice. It's like body temperature:  a very small change in finite temperature can create a very large difference in the way you feel.  And that is my experience.

My yoga and now my life is about that still point – searching not just in the asana in the hot room but in everyday life, in getting the shopping and washing the clothes, in the mundane and in the ridiculous. I know that it's there. One day I'll get another glimpse and maybe inch just a little bit closer to that still point, where the dance is, and where there is only the dance.

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