Monthly Archives: March 2011

On Giving Advice

I started this article before the tsunami. One thing my son noticed, while watching the news of the horrible events that have befallen this vulnerable land, was how contained these poor people were, in the face of what seems an unthinkable tragedy. I now dedicate this post to the Japanese. May we learn from their composure and grace.

The comedian Joan Rivers used to be famous for her tag-line, Can we talk? Well I’ve got one, too: Can we listen?

Can we sometimes simply share with one another? Can we reside in that state of neutrality, where we are completely without the compulsion to advise and judge, suggest and recommend, as a perfunctory response to any confidence shared or any word spoken?

Now, I’m not suggesting advice doesn’t have its place. It is with immeasurable gratitude that I think upon the dear ones in my life that I can go to when in need of reassurance or encouragement, or simply to bear out my own feeling on a matter.

What I have in mind is casual conversations between individuals, when unrequested, almost mechanical consultation, routine advice-giving, takes the place of simply sharing.

For example, in these snippets from actual conversations:

Tom: I’ve been sort of melancholic lately.
Anna: Try walking on the beach.

Mary: Dan’s been getting on my nerves lately.
Josie: You need to be more patient with him.

Lori: I just don’t enjoy traveling as much as I used to.
Sam: Well, you need to be adventurous and find the beauty in it.

It was a moment of great accord that I happened upon an old book from my study room, while researching for class. It was on Japanese culture. The European writer described with great emphasis, how disinclined these equable people are toward issuing criticism or judgment of any kind. This is no less true of the changing moods of those around them, as it is of the changing seasons and all the elements of the world as a whole. In the spirit of acceptance, they take the bad with the good. All of it is part of life. As Karlfried Graf Durckheim says of the Japanese:

The Japanese are not fond of making moral judgments, except in rare instances. But their characteristic attitude is to affirm life as it is, to accept it and give it its due in its uniqueness, instead of trying to compose it into rational and ethical systems.

He goes on:

For the Japanese, pointless grumbling is considered weak, and narrow-minded judgment despicable.

We can learn from their phlegmatic disposition. We can simply be with what is. Upon reflection, my feeling is that we don’t believe in the power of simply being, of simply paying attention. We don’t believe that merely listening is good enough. We feel we have to validate our presence, make ourselves worthy, by helping or fixing.

The other more profound phenomenon at work is largely cultural. We have an expression: It’s all good. We like to say it, but we don’t actually believe it. It is a slightly different point than the one made above. Here, our tendency to fix is a national compulsion, a cultural tic. It’s a western thing–we are set to do, to make, to fix and to solve, not merely in order to validate our presence, but because we don’t truly believe, in our heart of hearts, that everything will be fine. That is to say, we don’t truly believe that the natural ebb and flow of everything–our moods, our weather, our happiness–is normal and fine.

The result is an unconscious rush of recommendations, well-meaning guidance and endless instructions, even in the context of a casual conversation, where the simple act of sharing is, alone, delightful, welcome nourishment. It may be an effortless, but sincere gesture of compassion–a look that says I feel that way, too, sometimes. A gesture that communicates our shared human experience is like balm on a wounded soul.

I have a feeling this commentary might irritate people. But again, I’m not referring at all to those instances where council from a trustworthy friend is sought, nor to any such situation where we actively seek the guidance and the wisdom of others. And thank goodness we can. It is, rather, a casual observation of the freely dispersed, the automatic and impulsive. That which is given as if by reflex, without limit or restraint. I assert, at the risk of pissing people off, that it’s a subtle act of imposing, of pushing our ideas of what’s right on others. It is, in short, the imposition of ego.

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10 Reasons to Chant

In yogic parlance sound is related to the dimension of space. So when we use sound in specific ways, we positively affect our internal space, our most subtle element. We trigger transformation from within.

I am particularly happy with my latest blog-post for Spirit Voyage, on sound and mantra in yogic meditation–not only because mantra meditation is such a beloved part of my own practice, but because, well, simply put, I worked hard on putting together intricate material in a readable format. The reward is that it has already reached over 350 shares! Here is an excerpt:

#1

The Benefit:

Reduces Anxiety and Depression

The Technology:

By combining sound, breath and rhythm, mantra meditation channels the flow of energy through the mind-body circuit, adjusting the chemical composition of our internal states and regulating brain-hemisphere imbalances, contributing to a natural abatement of fear and despair–emotions that underlie both of these common afflictions. By balancing the nervous system, chanting regulates the chronic stress and tension that is the norm for many people in today’s hyper-stimulated lifestyle. And by balancing the endocrine system, chanting normalizes hormone production, which balances our moods and overall sense of well-being.

#2

The Benefit:

Releases Neuroses

The Technology:

Chanting delivers us from the excessive preoccupation with our bodies and with material concerns. It delivers us from fear of old age and death. We begin to identify with the timelessness of the soul and consequently begin to shed neurotic habits that no longer serve and that no longer seem relevant. By returning us to what is essential, it clears away subconscious habit patterns. Embraced by the steady rhythm and by the vibration that connects us all, our thoughts combine wholly with the sound current. As the captain sets the canvas to the wind, thus pulling the boat out of trouble, it is through mantra that we steer ourselves out of our own stormy seas and into clear waters.

#3

The Benefit:

It is Soothing

The Technology:

The power of mantra is betrayed in the roots of the sanskrit word, man, meaning mind, and, tra, meaning deliverance, or, projection. Thus, chanting the sacred sound of the mantra delivers us from our sense dependency, from our unrelenting habit of looking toward the senses for gratification; pleasures that are and that will always be, fleeting and limited–how much can you eat? Or drink? Or buy? Sense gratification never really gratifies. We are always left either unfulfilled and guilty–wishing we had never started, or else, wanting more and lamenting the loss.

Chanting is a pleasure that transcends the senses, it takes us beyond the bounds of time and space (which is why we don’t have to understand the mantra). Thus it soothes in a most profound way. It soothes on a cellular level. It merges our finite identity with the infinite, and so dissolves us. It relieves us from the sights and sounds and stimulation of the material world and delivers us into a spiritual space, where the sound is God. The material needs are reduced to nothing but mind chatter, and like smoke pumped into the sky, will be scattered into the expanse. Through the sweetness of devotional surrender, mantra turns the negative into positive. I once heard it said: “as music has charms to soothe a savage beast, so the spiritual sound of mantra soothes the restless mind.”

Hop on over to Spirit Voyage to continue!

Oneness

This lovely question landed in my youtube inbox the other day. I think it is the kind of question others probably wonder about, too–it is the same kind of question I wondered a lot about, so I would like to share it.

Sent to: profquesada

Hi, I’ve been watching your videos, and have been reading Alan Watts and I have a question that keeps coming up whenever the concept of no self is talked about. I understand very well the fact that other things should be considered vital and important to us such as the air, the trees, ect., because without oxygen our lungs would be useless. But where I start to lose understanding is why this vitalness of other things is linked with the concept that we are the same as them? Yes everything is interdependent, but the difference between an earthworm and I is that all of my cells have a certain DNA structure or code that is different from the earthworms’, and even different from other peoples’. This is a question I thought a lot about that I don’t ever see discussed. Thanks for your videos they were very interesting to watch — Ellie

Hi Ellie,
I’m happy to know you enjoyed my talks. I’ll respond to your question very simply. You’re quite right, on the material plane, I am very different than an earthworm! However–and this is the whole point of meditation, really–the idea is to transcend this material identification. It is the same tendency that is at the root of our body identity, and all the suffering we bring upon ourselves because of it. Our physical identities are like masks we wear for a limited time, then, as a snake sheds its skin, we shed that persona. What’s left? That’s where different traditions come in, but that doesn’t matter for now. The practices nudge us out of our illusion, our delusion of separateness and dissolve us into this, whatever-it-is. Call it suchness, call it Brahman, call it God, call it energy. Everyday, we can simply call it beauty!
~DQ

The Yamas–What Yoga is Really All About


Patanjali–Composer of The Eight Limbs of Raj Yog

Here I offer a study on the foundation of Patanjali’s path, with additional insights from the perspective of Kundalini Yoga.

Although Patanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga were penned some 2000 years ago, they are more relevant today than ever, not least of all because of the horribly mistaken, but popular belief that yoga is but a system of exercises, but because the function of those eight interconnected branches is better thought of as the route to a balanced mind–a most dire need, now as always.

The first of those eight limbs, the yamas, are themselves, divided into five parts, and serve as ethical restraints on our behavior. Patanjali saw it as imperative that we get our act together, morally, before we can ascend our spiritual paths.

Ahimsa, or, non-violence–the first of the five yamas–brings our attention to the the violence we direct toward others, as well as toward ourselves. The idea of violence conjures up all kinds of dramatic images, but it is really about the ill-will that starts in our hearts and that shapes our attitudes. It is reflected in everything we do–in what we eat and in what we consume. And it cultivates powerful habits. Even the judgments we fling out so freely toward others is a form of violence, which ironically, only keeps us trapped at the level of the behavior we are criticizing. In Kundalini Yoga, this tendency toward fault-finding and pointless grumbling is simply the nonsense of the negative mind, and it is specifically these restraints that call it to a halt. The yamas help us help ourselves.

Consider now, the second mark of the yamas, satya, or, truthfulness. Again, looking deeply, we don’t think of ourselves as liars, but every time we gossip, we take part in tarnishing someone by spreading what we don’t know to be true. Every time we make a false promise, or indulge in exaggerations, we participate in a form of lying. Even saying that nothing is wrong when something is clearly wrong, is a form of mis-communication, that will likely explode in the wrong way later. But worse, trust breaks down, relationships break down, and on a larger scale, social balance breaks down. We end up causing suffering and feeling alienated by the karmic effects of unskillful speech.

The third instruction within the five yamas is asteya, non-stealing. Again, no one wants to think of themselves as a thief, but we steal in the most subtle ways, all the time. Taking credit where it’s undue–seeking fulfillment in superficial acclaim. Every time we’re late, we steal someone’s time. Every time we take more than we need of anything, we magnify our role in the earth’s depletion and simultaneously draw it away from those who need it more–making us participants in the mass gluttony of consumerism. But, we are driven on by the hope that temporal things might deliver lasting joy.

Next is brahmacarya, the most misunderstood of all. Normally interpreted as total renunciation of sexual activity, the householder’s practice of Kundalini Yoga holds it as a reminder of the pitfalls of abusing sexual energy. It means we don’t engage in activities that involve taking advantage of others or that degrade ourselves–behavior that lies outside the confines of a balanced relationship. Not only do such situations leave us depleted, but they prevent growth into higher realms of yogic practice, such as pratyahar, or, commanding the senses. How can we harness the whimsical diversions of the fickle five senses, if we’re drunk with desire? And dharana, or, concentration. How can we hone our powers of concentration if we’re following every fancy?

The last yama, aparigraha, means fulfilling our needs rather than our interminable parade of wants, lest we live out another existence without having known the subtleties of a heightened awareness. In our commercialized world today, it means seeing through the seduction of the dazzling array of things we’re told at every turn, we must have–the biggest screen, the fastest phone, the greenest car, the greatest package, or the latest version.

The yamas strengthen our will so that we may master our impulses and master our selves. The idea of spiritual progress otherwise would be like the smoker trying to meditate while fighting the nagging thought of his next cigarette. But with compassion, consider that we are all like that smoker, every time we jump up to check our e-mail for the fifth time that hour, every time we lose our tempers and every time we overdo whatever we weren’t supposed to do in the first place.

In Kundalini terminology, it is the negative mind giving vent to its usual nonsense. But through the yamas, we train that trouble-maker, so that we may meld freely into the clear space of balance and neutrality; where the judgments, frustrations, doubts and insecurities subside; where we connect to our infinite, boundless, divine selves, and where that radiance that lies within, may shine freely on the whole world without.

It’s true, the yamas serve as an external check, but it works like a loop, since behavior tends to reinforce itself. We’re setting up conditions for new ways to act. And when we act differently, we begin to feel differently, until finally, we begin to be differently. We experience life in new shoes, so to speak, and the new gear reshapes us. New behavior takes the place of the old, and new responses follow. Through it all, we experience life differently while engaged in habits that serve. As we experience, we become.

Is Sparring the Same as Fighting?


We were talking about breathing again, in class. And again, we started by taking a deep breath together. But this time, I told them to rest a hand on their bellies and  see if they could direct the breath to that magical region called the “tan-tien,” by the Kung-Fu masters, the “hara,” by the Zen masters, and the “solar plexus” by the yogis. We are increasing the oxygen delivery to the brain, and thereby balancing our nervous systems, as well as our state of mind.

One student shared his experience with Judo and the instructions given by his teacher to breathe from the belly in order to combat nerves and conserve strength.

If the martial artist reflects steadiness and calmness, why do they fight? Isn’t that violent? another student asked.

Excellent question.

The point of sparring isn’t to fight, as you might suspect, I said. It is to train.

It is in the face of challenge that you put your tools to use. In the martial arts, you don’t confront, you don’t go against, you don’t use brute force. You learn that you don’t have to reside in a constant state of opposition to what lies within nor to what lies without–impatience, anger, discomfort, provocation from others. You learn that you have power over the impulse to react to all of it.

Thus, there, on the training mat, the martial artist learns patience. He learns to become intimate with his calm center, the source of his power, balance and composure. The source of his stillness–the stillness that gives way to heightened perception and intuition.

The Dojo is the training ground for what would be better thought of as a game of skill, like chess, or a dance, rather than as a fight. The student of any martial art is taught to always avoid confrontation. The point is about personal development, rather than public display.

On this point, here is an anecdote written, in 1979, by Joe Hyams, who took direct study with Bruce Lee:

Some time later I watched a “crossing of hands,” or match, between two martial arts masters. I had gone expecting to see a magnificent display of flashing acrobats and whirling limbs. Instead I saw two men in fighting stance study each other warily for several minutes. Unlike boxing, there were no feints, no tentative jabs. For the most part, the masters were still as statues. Suddenly, one of them burst into movement so quickly that I was unable to grasp what had happened, although I did see his opponent hurtle backward. The match was over and the two masters bowed to each other.

Equally poignant was the comment Hyams’ teacher made afterward:

Now you have seen the power of controlled patience on the mat. The same thing applies to problems in life.

And I would also point out the power of humility, as displayed so elegantly through the tradition of the bow. If only that were a value held dear in life today.