Photo: VegaStar Carpentier / Flickr
by D. H. Lawrence
Slowly the moon is rising out of the ruddy haze,
Divesting herself of her golden shift, and so
Emerging white and exquisite; and I in amaze
See in the sky before me, a woman I did not know
I loved, but there she goes and her beauty hurts my heart;
I follow her down the night, begging her not to depart.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Photo by Dana Wyss
Every drought-resistant plant has its own story
each had to learn to live
with less and less water, each would have loved
to laze in long soft rains, in the quiet drip
after the thunderstorm
each could do without deprivation
but where drought is the epic then there must be some
who persist, not be species-betrayal
but by changing themselves
minutely, by a constant study
of the price of continuity
a steady bargain with the way things are
- Adrienne Rich
(taken from The Desert as Garden of Paradise, as found in Time's Power)
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Photo: "Before the Storm" by Dana Wyss
‘‘Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence.’’
- Martin Luther King, Jr., from Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
In the United States, today is a federal holiday dedicated to celebrating the birth, the efforts, the presence, and the person of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In honor of Dr. King and his extraordinary efforts to wake up this nation to injustice and oppression through non-violent action, my class at Dharma Yoga Austin focused on the yogic practice of Ahimsa, non-violence. In the 8-fold path of yogic discipline, Ahimsa is the very first practice we are called to make. It sits as the first guideline within the first limb (the Yamas or restraints), coming long before asana, before pranayama, before meditation. Ahimsa can be seen as a foundation of all of the other practices in the discipline of yoga, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Most of us could agree that murder, war, police brutality, rape, physical assault, kidnapping, bullying, road rage and fist fights all constitute violent behaviors. Most of us abhor these things, seek to minimize our risks of encountering them, and hope to protect others from encountering them, at least at some level. But violence does not only exist in these grosser forms, and many of the more subtle forms of violence are also socially sanctioned. How deeply does violence pervade our own thinking, our own actions, our own worldview? How commonly are we contributing to a more violent world, without even acknowledging it? And, are we willing to look, to acknowledge our own complicity? Are we willing to see where we perpetuate suffering for ourselves and others?
When we are unwilling
to look deeply and
our own lives, we can
easily violate others in
many subtle ways that
we may not even be
aware of, thinking
that we are actually
- Deborah Adele
It's a tall task, an enormous endeavor, and one that promises to be uncomfortable. Why engage in such a practice, why enter such discomfort in the first place? Because the violence within us - our violence - is the one that we have the ability to work with, it is the violence that we can change. It is not my intention to define these more subtle forms of violence for anyone else. This inquiry, in order to create an effective foundation for you, is deeply personal and must be so. However, since the more subtle forms of violence in our lives can be slippery and difficult to detect, I would like to offer some questions and quotes below for your reflection. Before entering into this inquiry, I invite you to commit to non-violence toward yourself, regardless of what you discover. Commit to offering compassion to yourself as you endeavor to see yourself more clearly:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
― Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
How does it affect me to overfill my schedule? How does it affect my family when I do so? My friends?
Is there any violence in my efforts to achieve, or to meet my goals?
Is verbally attacking another (online or in person) whose views differ from my own a form of violence? How does it make me feel to do so? How does it make me feel to receive such an attack?
"It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too." - Henry David Thoreau, from Civil Disobedience
How do I engage in violence through the decisions I make in how I spend my resources?
Is purchasing clothing and equipment I know to be made by people who are oppressed, enslaved, or treated deplorably making a contribution to the violence in our world?
Am I willing to change my purchasing habits in order to reduce suffering in this world? My traveling habits? My diet? What alterations or sacrifices am I willing to make?
"The service that springs from peace is the idiosyncratic, particular fruition of a seed that has found its nourishing soil. It is the overflow of a well that has struck the underground source. It has its own interior origin, and its own rhythm of growth or dormancy. It is independent of someone else's measurable accomplishment, since its origins and intentions are in eternity...It kindles motion that fills us like sap, and our leaves open, and the sky comes nearer, and the winds of life turn what had been personal gyrations into the rustle and music of foliage in the canopy of life."
- Paul Fleischman, M.D., from Cultivating Inner Peace
Is comparing my offerings to those of others a way of extending subtle violence to myself, or to them? Am I commonly seeking the approval or interest of others towards the gifts I have offered the world? How does it feel to be in that place? Does it honor my own creative inspiration to do so? Is it damaging to put others in that position?
Can offering assistance to others ever be a form of violence? Do I ever force my ideas, plans or morals upon others under the cloak of helping them? Do I try to control people and situations through giving? How does it make me feel to do so? How does it make me feel when others do this to me?
Is it violent to feed hateful thoughts toward others - to allow myself to fantasize about revenge, or to wish harm upon those who've wronged me? If I knew there was a physical or emotional impact beyond my own mind in response to my hateful or violent thoughts, would I change my answer? How does it make me feel to spend time creating and nurturing such thoughts? How would it make me feel if I discovered their subject - my enemy - could feel them?
"Ghandi once said that nothing we do as individuals matters but that it's vitally important to do it anyway. This touches on a powerful paradox in the relationship between society and individuals. Imagine, for example, that social systems are trees and we are the leaves. No individual leaf on the tree matters; whether it lives or dies has no effect on much of anything. But collectively, the leaves are essential to the whole tree because they photosynthesize the sugar that feeds it. Without leaves, the tree dies. So leaves matter and they don't, just as we matter and we don't. What each of us does may not seem like much, because in important ways, it isn't much. But when many people do this work together they can form a critical mass that is anything but insignificant, especially in the long run. If we're going to be a part of a larger change process, we have to learn to live with this sometimes uncomfortable paradox."
- Allan Johnson, from Privilege, Power and Difference.
How important is intention in my assessment of violent behavior? Can an action be violent, even when it's acknowledged intention was positive? Can an outwardly kind action actually be violent if it's underlying intention is manipulative, dishonest, or cruel? Am I disciplined in seeking to understand my own intentions to speak, act, or engage? Or do I tend to assume that whatever I do, I'm doing for the good of self and/or others?
Certainly, I've left many topics untouched here. These few queries and reflections are meant simply to open the process for you, if indeed you choose to engage with it. What I love about this practice is that it's both challenging and empowering. Even when it's sticky, icky and difficult, we ultimately leave lighter, clearer and more aware. This is an ongoing practice, and one that can deepen and expand through our observations of self, others and our world. As we continue our looking, perhaps we can remember these words of Dr. King, that we don't add suffering to what we find:
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil.’’
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Where Do We Go From Here
Wishing you strength and depth in your practice, and even joy in the doing.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.
Photo by Dana Wyss
By Denise Levertov
A voice from the dark called out,
'The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense,
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.'
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can't be imagined before it is made,
can't be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
A cadence of peace might balance
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light - facets
of the forming crystal.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Photo by Dana Wyss
"...Your way begins on the other side. Become the sky. Take an axe to the prison wall. Escape. Walk out like someone suddenly born into color. Do it now. You're covered with thick cloud. Slide out the side. Die, and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign that you've died. Your old life was a frantic running from silence..."
- Rumi, excerpted from the poem "Quietness",
translated by Coleman Barks in The Essential Rumi
Recently, I attended my first 10 day silent meditation retreat. I'd been wanting to do this for nearly 10 years, and either lack of internal readiness or external schedule demands had prevented me during all that time. This past summer, while in the midst of an intensive yoga teacher training (my second), I realized three things:
1) Every internal barrier to undertaking such an adventure had been removed or resolved. I was ready.
2) My own development as a teacher and guide to others necessitated a deepening of my meditation practice. On another level, again, it was time and I was ready.
3) If I were ever going to make this happen, I simply needed to commit, put it on the calendar, and make it a priority.
And so, commit I did, and in December I joined more than 120 people from around the world to spend Christmas, New Years and several other days in deep practice. We woke very early and began our days on the cushion. We spent 10 hours a day in focused meditation, either together in the group meditation hall or alone in our rooms. We learned to sit in silent observation of the moment-to-moment sensations rising up within these bodies we call home. We learned to set an intention to maintain complete stillness for 60 minutes at a time, regardless of what emergency the mind created to buck at our decision. We watched as these "emergencies" - in the form of intense bodily pains, fear-filled fantasies, or assurances of doom - all faded at some point and alas, an hour had passed and we were all in one piece and the world had not ended! Hmmm.
At breakfast and lunch, we were nourished by food provided by the donations of previous students and cooked by volunteers - those who had made this journey before us and wanted to support others in turn. We abstained from most of our daily habits and activities, including reading, writing, practicing yoga, using technology, communicating with or touching others, and eating dinner. We got to see our attachments to all these things clearly, to see the cravings that our minds insisted were necessity. And then we were able to see those thoughts and feeling pass. There was a coming to know in our own bodily experience that rising at 4 am and skipping dinner aren't torturous (or even particularly difficult) practices with the right support. The torture and difficulty really existed in the thoughts we'd had about what might happen, our assumptions about what it would be like. Hmmm.
Over the course of the retreat I experienced nearly every emotion on the feeling spectrum, in varying degrees of intensity. I also experienced an incredible diversity of bodily sensations, many I'd encountered previously and some I'd never experienced or even imagined before. For a gal who's spent many years in body/mind awareness practices, this was a real surprise! Over and over, whatever came up, I was guided to return to awareness of what was happening (if I could stay with the sensations in my body), or to return to simple awareness of my breath when the intensity of bodily sensations were too much for me to handle. Over and over, I was supported to practice noticing what was happening, without adding anything to it and without moving away from it.
Every person's experience of such a practice differs a bit, and indeed every meditative sit, even for the same person, will differ from the last. And my guess is that the results sprouting in the lives of the other meditators vary as well. In my own life since returning home, I've noticed that some previously difficult decisions became very clear, and thus easy to make. No fuss, no fanfare, just a clear realization of what must be done and the action to support it. Done. I've also noticed a deepened sensitivity to beauty, kindness, and especially to nature. My eyes and heart are captivated and nourished by ordinary life and everyday moments in a deeper way than I've experienced in life thus far. My feelings are flowing more freely and being recognized more fully, and therefore don't get stuck and lodged, causing ongoing pain. My appreciation of silence is even greater than before, and I'm finding myself able to enter deep silence more swiftly and easily. At times, at least!
Life has been lovely in offering me several tests since returning home, in the form of situations that previously would have created some degree of emotional upset for me. And in the majority of these moments, I had the experience of seeing and feeling clearly that I had a choice: to create suffering for myself by taking something personally, or to simply not do that. In the instance where I really fell into my old reactive habit, I was able to catch myself within a few moments and to notice how deeply painful that reaction felt in my body, which both allowed and inspired me to choose something else for myself. I was able to return to my breath for some moments, go for a walk outside and return with a clearer perspective on what had actually happened and a deeper understanding of myself and the old pattern. What a gift!
Upon returning, I've engaged in daily practice, that I may retain some of the understanding and discipline that opened to me through this experience. Even in a week, its clear to me that daily practice and intensive retreats each support and allow for very different experiences on the cushion. So for now I'll sit to practice noticing what is, to practice observing that without attaching to the sensations of any particular moment, any particular experience. Because I know I can use a lot of practice! One of the assistant instructors described what it feels like to leave an extended retreat this way:
"It's like you opened the door to your apartment and have realized its a complete disaster. It's filthy and full of junk and its hard to know where to start. So you start cleaning the kitchen. You scrub and scrub and clean and clean, and you look at every inch of the kitchen. And you stand up and look around at the sparkling kitchen and think "beautiful! Good work. This looks great!". And then you turn around to face the rest of the apartment, to see the enormity of the mess. And you realize how much work you have left to do."
Couldn't think of a better way to describe it myself! At any rate, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have attended retreat. And I'm grateful for the time and the space and the energy with which to practice in regular old daily life. It's not possible or appropriate to share most of what I experienced, but I've attempted to share enough to answer your questions about what I was up to and what it was like for me. I'm happy to be home, back to work, and back in connection with all of you. Whatever you're practicing in this new year, I wish you the energy, commitment, time & space needed to do it, and I wish you joy in the doing.
As a seed of inspiration for your 2016 yoga and meditation practices, I offer you another gem by Rumi:
"Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible."
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.