Wednesday, June 12, 2013

anupassana: to see on and on and on

I recently spent some time in New Mexico, studying, practicing, and taking silence in the presence of my primary teachers Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, and their Zen teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax. During one of our sessions with these amazing teachers, Roshi Joan recalled how at a previous intensive with Richard, she had tried and in her words, 'failed' to practice much of the asana, and in the end she was feigning the corpse pose on her mat. What she said next about her experience was what drew the most nods of recognition in the room: 'my body felt different just listening to Richard talk.'

All of us were there because we had at one point, had a similar experience with him. Perhaps his power is in the way that he maps out the physical body with metaphor, or, his esoteric sense of humor that comes out at the right moment to pop the balloon of our internal stories, or, the fact that his presence alone makes one relax and let go, I don't know, but any time I am in the same room with him, it feels like a homecoming of sorts in my own body.

Each day began with an hour of Zen meditation, followed by Mysore practice (the slowest moving Mysore room ever!), chanting and philosophy talk comparing Buddhism and Yoga, Pranayama, more sitting, and an intimate, sweet Dharma talk. All of this with the backdrop of silence and the powerful energetics of Santa Fe, made for a perfect container for transformation. We were cooking! Every day, in mysore practice, the fire alarm would go off at exactly the time for backbends! Such was the tapas that we generated individually and as a group...

Maybe it was the silence, but my experience was that communications were heightened on an intuitive level: each day it seemed that Richard and Mary would pick a topic that had at least for me, come up during the sit or the mysore practice. For example, during the first Mysore practice, my joints felt dry and the altitude made breathing difficult. My thoughts were of the 'I don't belong here' variety, which tend to be deep-rooted because of my upbringing (hyphenated identity, even before I moved to the U.S.) and an adolescence of migration. It was a hard practice to just stay on the mat, and not take myself to the airport. Then came the afternoon talk, and here are my paraphrased notes:

In Indian philosophy, shadows are not obscured, rather observed. Contemplative practices give you the ability to integrate the shadow, so one can have clarity. Proprioception and interoception, sensation and residue, together create shadows. The ego creates shadows: Halahala. The poison of halahala needs to be transformed into amrita. We neither swallow it nor spit it out: we observe it as it is. As you see through halahala, you get a glimpse into amrita. In the same vein, one does not simply become sattvic without experiencing rajas and tamas. Our reactions feed the samskaras. 

The talk got to the heart of my struggles in that morning's practice. The halahala that I experienced, as bitter as it was, was much needed if I had any chance of experiencing the nectar of amrita. A reaction would have been to walk out or do a half-hearted practice. Instead by shedding light on the thought pattern of 'I don't belong', the practice was uninterrupted. Rubbing up against my resistance to practice, created a perfect container for tapas, so that I could see the 'silliness' of my thoughts, their eventual empty nature.

During our Dharma talk, Mary urged us to ask ourselves 'Why am I here?' as a part of our practice. She told us that the answer is always evolving, that things tend to stagnate when they are out of relationship. I asked about where they see the Ashtanga asana practice fitting as a contemplative practice. Why are we doing this? The response was once again, what I needed to hear to further process what had come up in my practice earlier.

The Ashtanga practice is set up as a game to expose your mind, to slow it down long enough so you can see the silliness of its contents. Like any contemplative tradition, the set of rules, the ritual, the repetition: the bandhas, mudra, drishti,  and breath, allow opportunities for the mind to dissolve. It allows for a platform to ask over and over: who am I? why am I here? It allows you to continuously draw a circle, then erase it and draw a bigger one, moving toward boundlessness. Without a sense of purpose, this practice is completely absurd. 

What unfolded in the next few days for me were a set of tangles so deep-rooted, that I do not have the proper words to describe them, and anyway, to put them into language would strip them of their meaning. The sense of pure gratitude that I feel for having found my way, somehow, to these invaluable teachers is overwhelming. As Richard is fond of saying, one must practice all day, everyday. I feel like each time I am in his and Mary's presence, I understand this truism a bit more.