Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Observe Don't Disturb

My son is very observant. He is always pointing out bugs, camouflaged animals, unusual plan-life. Observation leads to curiosity. Curiosity can lead to squished bugs, fleeing animals, and plants no longer connected to the ground. A saying I have adopted, and my son has responded well to is: Observe Don't Disturb.

We learn when we observe.  We see patterns, we gain understanding.  Things happen because that is the way they happen.  When we disturb, when we interfere, we are placing our ideas first.  This bug looks gross <squish> I want to pet that turtle <snap! ouch!> Instead of learning, disruption leads to attachment (this flower looks great on the table) and aversion (squish).

This axiom forms the cornerstone of our yogic practice.  If yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, before we can consider attempting to cease those fluctuations, we must first observe the mind and the fluctuations which occur. Once we do make it to the point of employing practices aimed at cessation of the fluctuations, we still observe.  There is an ongoing cycle: apply technique, observe results, adjust as needed, apply, observe, adjust, repeat.

Where we get into trouble is that we tend to combine observing and disturbing.  We try to DO instead of watching. We believe, quite incorrectly, that if we are not DOing something, especially some sort of active masochistic, sweaty practice that leaves us sore for days, then we are doing nothing.

Both Swamis Sivananda and Vivekananda liken the mind to a monkey, drunk and stung by a scorpion.  If you try to bring the monkey under control, it will fight you with all its might.  If you give it some space, eventually, eventually, it will settle down.

Let's take asana.  Asana is a wonderful place to start our practice.  We are forcing ourselves to pay attention to two things we do constantly: move and breathe.  We are purposefully putting ourselves in difficult situations to see how we deal with being in difficult situations.

All to often, instead of observing, we find ourselves disturbing. Does this sound familiar:  OK, legs straight, toes together, grab the big toes, wait, is my back straight? I think my greater trochanter is not internally spiraling correctly. I could do this yesterday.  Do I need to pick up milk? Why aren't my legs straight? Push a little further. OUCH! That's it! I'm (Jesusjesusjesus) DOing it!

To make matters worse, the teacher comes over in the middle of this little monologue and "adjusts" you by forcing your body to a place where is shouldn't go then tells you you're doing a good job.

Here's the truly difficult part of asana: observing.  If we could just for one minute forget all the BS that yoga teachers tell us about the proper alignment in this or that pose, that "advanced" means you have to be a puddle of sweat with a popped hamstring and a heal behind your head, and just learn to observe ourselves without judgement, our practice would become much more fruitful much more quickly.

Yes, we don't want to get hurt, so there is something (not much, but something) to be said for alignment.  We need to have our knees pointed in the same direction as our toes so we don't have to deal with the fluctuations caused by a trip to the orthopedic surgeon, but we do not need to focus on creating a 23.56479 degree medial spiral of our spleenoid process as a measure of success or failure.

Try this. During practice, notice if you are building a pose like you are building a model (set A here, rotate B, align C...) and if you are chastizing yourself for not being in a certain expression of the pose.  Notice if you fall over, are you mad, laughing, or indifferent.  Then, here's the most important part:

Go onto the next pose.

Just becoming aware of the monologue is the first step.  With no judgement.  Without trying to stop it.  In time, with continued observation, it will stop.

Observe, don't disturb.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


My four year old son asked to hear the story of Visvamitra and Vasistha. I reached for a copy of the Ramayana.  He checked me and said "I don't want you to read it, I want you to tell me by talking."  How could I argue?

Listen Billy:

Long before the birth of Rama, Visvamitra was of the kshatriya caste, a warrior king. We know him now as a Brahmin.  Caste is not decided by birth, rather by a person's fundamental nature.  It is possible to elevate one's self, as Visvamitra did, but it is not easy.

During a tour of his kingdom, Visvamitra visited the hermitage of Vasistha. He was not yet the royal priest of Ayodhya, yet his spiritual power was well known even then.  Upon Visvamitra's arrival, Vasistha sought to provide the welcome and hospitality befitting a visit from the king. Visvamitra appreciated the gesture, however, he did not want to disturb the ashram, insisting Vasistha's desire to perform service more than fulfilled any obligation as a host.

Vasistha was not to be deterred. He reminded Visvamitra that the host who does not feed his guest is destined to dine on his own flesh in the next life.To avoid upsetting the Brahamana, Visvamitra accepted the invitation to dinner.

Vasistha called upon his cow of plenty, Sabala. The cow produced the finest foods of every variety, which was offered first to Visvamitra then to his entire entourage of thousands. Visvamitra was amazed by the power of this cow and became overcome with the desire to possess her.

"Brahmana, I will give you 100,000 of my finest cattle, along with all of the attendants necessary to care for them, in return for this one animal."

"Dear king, I appreciate your gift, but I cannot part with this cow.  This wonderful animal has assisted me with the performance of many rites which have benefited the entire world. Without her, I will not be able to continue my bound duty to serve and protect creation."

"Brahmana, as a King, the scriptures state that I should be offered the finest of everything.  It is your duty living in my kingdom to give me what I ask for."

Vasistha could not argue.  Visvamitra spoke the truth.  Although saddened, he relented and Visvamitra took possession of Sabala.

Sabala broke free and ran to Vasistha. "What wrong did I commit that you so easily send me away? How have I not served you correctly?" she asked with tears in her eyes.

"Dear Sabala, you have done no wrong.  It is a king's duty to take what he desires, using any force necessary."

"My master, it is said that a Brahmin's spiritual strength eclipses the physical and martial strength of a king."

 "I am required to exercise forgiveness and non-violence."

"All you need to do is to order me to stay, and the King will not be able to move me."


At Vasistha's word an army of thousands sprang from Sabala instantly subduing Visvamitra's party.

Visvamitra became entranced witnessing Vasistha's power.  He resolved to gain that power for himself and set upon severe ascetic practices as a means of pleasing Shiva and receiving a boon.

Through years of practice, Visvamitra mastered difficult asanas and succeeded in restraining the flow of breath for hours at a time all while focusing his thoughts on Shiva. Pleased, the god appeared before him and offered a boon.

"Great Lord, as a King I am skilled in the art of human warfare.  But I have no knowledge of the weapons used by the gods.  Grant me this knowledge."

"So be it," declared Shiva.  Instantly Visvamitra understood the weapons of the gods, knew the mantras to call them, and possessed the skill to wield them. Feeling unstoppable, he returned to Vasistha, convinced victory was already his.

Standing outside Vasistha's ashram, Visvamitra called: "Oh great Vasistha, you had bested me previously.  Through severe penance, I have become more powerful than you.  Feel my revenge."

Vasistha observed Visvamitra from the entrance to his cottage in silence, leaning on his staff.  Visvamitra called upon all of the divine weapons. The sky darkened. Visvamitra blazed like a thousand suns and all manner of arrows, maces, spears, lightening, and countless other forms of weapons sped toward Vasistha. There was a blaze as the weapons found there mark.

Then nothing happened.  Vasistha stood as before, having absorbed and dissipated all of the divine weapons.  "Great king, I bow in respect to you and the austerities you have performed.  I reject the gift of violence you have sought to bestow upon me." Vasistha returned to his ashram.

Once again Visvamitra stood in awe of the Brahmin's power.  He resolved to increase his austerities. He traveled to the Himalays and spent the entire winter submerged to his neck in an icy lake.  In the summer, he traveled to the south, passing the hottest part of the year naked in the blazing sun surrounded by bonfires.  For hundreds of years he stood on one foot, with arms upraised, chanting the names of Shiva.  Through these severe ascetic practices, his spiritual power increased.

During this time, Vasistha was appointed as the royal priest of Ayodhya by King Trishanku, a distant relative of Lord Rama. Toward the end of his reign, King Trishanku came to desire to enter heaven while in possession of his body.  He asked Vasistha to perform the necessary rites.  Vasistha replied that this is forbidden by scripture.  It is the immortal, undying soul which unifies back with the Divine, not the limited, finite vehicle of the body.

Upset that his priest would not help, he sought out Visvamitra, whose intense practice was by now well known.  The king also knew of the rivalry between the two and used this to his advantage to convince Visvamitra to perform the necessary rites.

Visvamitra  conducted the sacrifice.  King Trishanku began to rise and ascend toward Heaven.  Indra, King of Heaven, observed the fleshy body of the King approaching. Offended by the king's attempt to enter Heaven in the flesh, Indra send the king back to Earth.

Visvamitra became enraged.  If the gods would not let the king enter their Heaven, he would create one of his own.  Visvamitra exercised all of his spiritual power to bring forth a new Heaven and installed Trishanku as king of both the Earth and the new realm.

The gods quickly realized that the creation of this new Heaven disrupted the balance of the created universe.  Indra went to Visvamitra and begged him to stop.  In a moment of clarity, Visvamitra realized that his pride and anger got the better of him.  He asked Indra how he could still honor his promise to Trishanku.  Indra shrunk the new Heaven and placed it in the Southern sky.  There Trishanku still enjoys the bliss of final unification, while the rest of creation remains in balance.

Realizing his error, Visvamitra again adopted a severe ascetic practice.  This time he sat if silent meditation.  Hundreds of years went by and his power grew.  The gods, worried that he would once again use his power to destroy the universe, set out to divert him from his efforts.  The sent the Apsara (a nymph) Menaka to him.  Menaka bathed in a lake near Visvamita's meditative seat. Hearing the tinkling of her ankle bells, Visvamitra opened his eyes.  He became entranced, and they sported together.

One hundred years passed in the blink of an eye.  Visvamitra realized that he had fallen victim to his lust, thereby expending his spiritual merit.  He sent Menaka away and re-doubled his efforts.  Again the gods sent another Apsara, Rambha, to seduce him.  Upon sensing Rambha's presence, Visvamitra glanced at her and turned her to stone. Realizing that he was overcome by anger, he resolved to completely control his senses.

Another thousand years passed.  Visvamitra's storehouse of spiritual merit grew and eclipsed that of many of the lesser gods.  Brahma, fearing that Visvamitra's penance would disrupt the balance of the universe again, appeared before Visvamitra and granted him the status of Brahmin.  Brahma then went before Vasistha and requested that he personally visit Visvamitra and welcome him as an equal.  Vasistha did just that, and the two formed a strong friendship.

We are reminded of this story through the asanas dedicated to the two sages.  Visvamitrasana and Vasisthasana are similar, but the former is more difficult than the latter because Visvamitra had to endure severe penance to become a Brahmin, whereas Vasistha was born a Brahmin.

Vasisthtasana (lt) and Visvamitrasana (rt) by Sri Dharma Mittra. Photos publicly available on