Why our choices matter…

(If you don’t wish to read this post in entirety, please do watch the video below)
Yoga can sometimes appear to be a bit like a slippery ball of yarn; difficult to grasp onto one comprehensive meaning that gives a lay person an understanding of the enormity and spectrum of the practice. While the direct translation of the word is solid – to yoke or unite – the interpretations and understanding of what yoga is differ enormously, and most of the time only capture a limited aspect of an all-encompassing practice. Regular practitioners can generally agree on one thing; there can be a passion regarding the practice that is on the same level of importance of life itself; in fact, the yoga practice is embedded into all aspects of life.

My experience with yoga is that it is a practice of relationship: relationship with self and relationship with other. The state of yoga is seeing ourselves in all other human beings; treating every living being as oneself. The world most of us live in is not created from this fabric. Holding a job, a home, a family implies a sense of self, or ego (‘my’ job, ‘my’ family). These labels, or containers, help to define and separate, it becomes a way of managing ourselves in the world. Yoga, however, is the process of integrating.

To the outside world, or those new to the practice, it may seem that the teachings of yoga can be radical, or extreme. These are two different words, with very different roots. Radical actually stems from the word ‘root’, or ‘inherent’, while extreme stems from the root word ‘outermost’, or ‘utmost’. These subtleties can easily be mistaken and overlooked by the dedicated practitioner, but make a very big difference in the intention of the practice and the ability to be integrated in the world, and in seeing ourselves in other beings, versus living a life of separation that opinates and judges.

In the eight-limbed path of yoga, otherwise referred to as ashtanga (literally translated to eight, ashtanga, attachments or limbs, anga) there are guidelines for practicing yoga in an integrated way in life; not just on a man-made yoga mat, and not just as a specific time in the day when one works on the body-mind relationship. Yoga states that the body-mind relationship extends well beyond time and our body, for yoga inter-relates all of animate life; yoga states we are one.

The first limb of the eight limbs are the yamas, or restraints. These restraints refer to how we relate to others. While we still see ourselves as separate, individual beings (jiva in Sanskrit), the first yama states that we should be kind to all other beings. In Sanskrit the word is ahimsa, or non-harming. This is a rich topic because there are many interpretations and mechanisms for harming others, some without even knowing it.  For example, we may think non-harming suggests that it is better to lie to another being to avoid conflict, or to lie to ourselves to avoid a painful truth. Ahimsa does not imply lying, or making judgements (in fact, the second yama is satya, or truthfulness). Non-harming does imply compassion, the act of experiencing the suffering of others as one’s own. As yogis, we practice both not harming others, as well as identifying with others who suffer. The next step is an obvious one, and that is to not only not harm others, but to actively do something to prevent the suffering of others.

The link between practicing non-harming behaviour, consumerism and activism is a well documented topic, which my teachers, Sharon Gannon and David Life have spent their life articulating. Most of us can agree that when it comes to consuming other beings as food, it is clear that harming is involved-one being must be killed in order for the other to eat it. However, there are many misunderstandings of the conditions the animals in the average factory farm are treated, and the horrific conditions the workers in those factories must endure. In practicing ethical vegetarianism, or veganism (the practice of not consuming animal products), it is a proactive measure to not participate in the cycle of harming. Even so, lifestyle and diet choice can become a fixation point where other relationship falls by the wayside. It is possible, for example, for ethical vegetarians to harm to themselves if left undernourished for a lack of knowledge about how to eat healthfully in this manner or due to specific health reasons. There also may be a tendency towards harmful thoughts, or even actions towards others who do not assume the same label. This often is guided by ignorance, of relying labels which only ultimately feed the ego instead of relating to the other being. Practicing the yamas and yoga in general, implies having the awareness to catch and eradicate critical thought when it enters the mind. It is a practice, and like all practices, we each do the best we can within our abilities and constraints.

What is important to note is that as consumers, the choices we make and our purchasing behaviour is powerful. The more knowledge we have, the more we may make informed decisions and implement changes where possible. If the choice is to eat meat, for example, know where it comes from and how the animals are treated; subtleties and small details matter. This small step may change the lives of thousands, not to mention your own.

Abel and Cole
Planet Organic
Books at Jivamuktiyoga.com


Sowing the seeds of time

As I wait for my weekly clinic appointment at the hospital, a white blackboard looms in front of me with large black letters. A message reads “We ARE SORRY FOR ANY DELAYS. DELAYS: 45-60MIN.” By the looks of it, it was scribbled in a hurry. The waiting room is heaving with people who are all expecting to be seen in the next hour, when the clinic closes.

Looking around, people are eating, chatting on the phone, texting–doing whatever they can do to not ‘waste’ time by simply sitting. Such is life in the world we live in; we have more and more expectations of ourselves and others to achieve more in less time, and as a result we don’t always do things to the best of our ability, or to the benefit of those around us who might be impacted from our work.

Case in point. Last week it took me hours to fill a medical prescription, including four trips up and down the hospital stairs to and from the pharmacy. The doctor kept having to rewrite the prescription because he was rushing and did not follow the instructions for submitting a script for said medication. He even mixed up my name sticker with another patient’s at one point. The pressure and demand we place on ourselves and others is not only often unrealistic, but unsustainable, leading to injury and accident. Sadly, to move out of this high paced system of operation, we need time to understand, envision and implement another way of being in the world.

Just as agricultural fields need time to lie fallow, so do we as human beings. Time to rest, digest and dream is essential in the practice of living mindfully in the world. It not only provides us the space to listen deeply for our authentic voice, but enables vision and intention to become clear. Once we have heard and understood our internal needs and goals, it becomes easier to move to a more active state of understanding and planning how to live in a more sustainable way.

Of course, a part of filling up our schedules and not providing time for quiet and rest may also be due to a general fear of being alone. So many of us either don’t know how to be on our own or don’t like what we see, that rather than change or practice being in the quiet alone space, we escape to activities, work, or people. Only when we learn this skill, however, will we be happy humans being rather than doing in the time afforded. As the Celtic proverb goes, ‘When God made time, he made enough.’

Time doesn’t speed up or slow down. It is our own perspective and management of time that contribute to our expectations of ourselves and others. There must be some truth to the old adage “less is more” and a more enticing way to package the benefits of being idle. When we look back to our roots as beings dependent on the earth’s natural cultivation cycles, perhaps we will remember the practice of taking time out for rest and reflection, and integrate this into our weekly to do list. We may all contribute to a more mindful, effective society if we could only learn to pause and reflect before rushing forward with eyes closed. It may even change the way we see.

a blip in the continuum

Well, folks, I am still in the hospital, week seven starts tomorrow. The nurses and doctors are frustrated. My regular visitors are frustrated. I’m practicing patience (hard) and doing my best not to be frustrated; some days it even works.

Today I’m getting blood results back from the CMV test, which, if negative, means that I will need one more negative test on Friday to be discharged. My fingers are no longer crossed because, frankly, it doesn’t work! If the test is positive, they will put me on a stronger but more controversial medicine that my kidneys will not like. C’est la vie. If it’s positive I’ll be in at least another week. The hospital stay has become Groundhog Day on steroids.

In other news, the drain lodged through my stomach and behind my new liver is has just come out, and hopefully, some of the pain will go with it. It was actually due to come out yesterday, but then, that’s sometimes the way time moves in the hospital.

Most of us think that seven weeks is a long time to be in the hospital. It sure feels like it to me. Eight of the nurses have undergone dramatic hairstyle changes. Three of the doctors have had haircuts. I’ve seen the leaves on the trees change from green to red to brown, and start to disappear to the earth below my window. The passing of time is evident, yet there is a bigger picture that reminds me that the haircuts, the transitioning of seasons, my stay in the hospital are all just a blip in the continuum.

I have been watching the BBC series called Earth: The Power of the Planet. Not only very educational and beautifully filmed, the episodes each highlight one key point: the earth is changeable and changing even as we speak. The moon moves 4cm away from the earth every year. Glaciers melt and meteors collide into the earth’s surface. We humans walk around so concerned with our individual lives, worrying about things that could be rendered meaningless in an instant if the universal forces were to interfere. And they will interfere, at some point, just look at the dinosaurs, or to the most recent planetary disturbance, the typhoon in the Philippines moving towards Vietnam. The Jurassic Coast of south western England is losing ground every year due to erosion, and as the climate warms, the delicate ecosystems in our oceans and on land are jeopardized with global impact. It is a fact that the earth is changing. What we do with those facts, how we perceive those facts in relationship to our own lives, that’s not so measurable.

Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutras:
vastu-samye-chitta-bhedat tayor vibhaktah pantah (YS IV.15)

Which translates as “Each individual person perceives the same object in a different way, according to their own state of mind and projections. Everything is empty from its own side and appears according to how you see it.”

Everything and everyone we see is coming from our own minds. Our perspective is actually just a product of our past actions; in yoga we call this karma (action). Those of us who are invested in the practice of yoga are interested in cleaning up our actions. Through practice and shastra (self-study, reading the ancient texts) we come to understand that many view the world as black and white, or the good guys vs. the bad guys. In reality, there is no black or white, good or bad.

Through the practice of yoga, we come to realize that everything is in our mind; the world as we know it is a figment of things we have done in our past. This is a massive concept to fully comprehend, but when it sinks in, we realize that the way we treat someone will be the way we are treated in the future. We see the value and expansiveness in our actions, and become more aware of how we want to automatically respond when someone is unkind to us or things don’t go the way we want them to. We may even come realize that we don’t have to wait for others to change the world so that we can be happy.

The practice of yoga is (in part) about taking responsibility; responsibility for the earth we live on, for other beings, and for our own happiness. I’m amazed at how many people openly voice their frustration at my situation. I have certainly had moments of frustration, sadness, even anger and the moments of feeling like a victim; however, these have been fleeting and rectifiable. Through my practice, I am brought back to the other ‘reality’, the one that reminds me how lucky and blessed I am to have holy beings looking after me; how grateful I am to have been given this monumental gift of a healthy liver.

Time moves slowly and quickly, all governed by our perspective. There is one fact, and that is that sooner or later, everything will change and disappear. It’s our responsibility to find the pockets of happiness in the present moment, where time stands still.

Progressing Toward Kindness: Jivamukti Focus of the Month: November 2013

samniyama-indriya-gramam / sarvatra sama-buddhayah
te prapnuvanti mam eva / sarva-bhuta-hite ratah
Those who are able to control their senses, have equanimity of mind and rejoice in contributing to the welfare of all creatures are dear to me.
Bhagavad Gita XII.4

Sometimes we all fall into negativity and despair, particularly when the news is filled with tragedies like school shootings and senseless wars, harsh political rhetoric and greedy behavior by banks, and the atrocities we humans are committing against ourselves, other animals, the oceans, forests and the body of the planet herself bringing us all closer and closer to an environmental, physiological and psychological collapse. From one perspective, things seem to be getting worse and worse. But is that the only perspective, and do we have the power to change it, if it is?

We can look to entertainment culture to get a picture as to what is in our psyches—what fears and longings lie beneath the surface of our consciousness. For example if you read 18th and 19th century literature, you will find a lot of class struggle and emotional unfulfillment. The characters are mostly dissatisfied and feel victimized by society. But there is little, if any, mention about the real slaves of the system—the horses who are harnessed to the carriages pulling human beings to this party or that, or the cows who are tied up in the back alleys of tenement buildings anemically producing blue-tinged milk. The other animals only appear as extras, insignificant to the important stories that are being enacted between the human beings.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, war and science fiction/monster/alien films were very popular. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, the hero of the story has been shrunk down to a half-inch tall and has to battle a “giant” spider with a sewing needle. Many, if not most, of the films of that era reveal a deep mistrust of Nature and a feeling of human fragility and vulnerability in the face of Nature and other animals. The protagonists annihilate and conquer, rather than communicate, collaborate and get along. It was “us against them.”

More recently, films like The Matrix, which asks questions about the nature of reality, and novels like Cloud Atlas, which explores the concepts of karma and reincarnation, introduce characters who are empowered to work within reality as they find it to solve problems or improve their situations. It is inconceivable that works like these would have been understood and accepted in the 1950s; it would have been over people’s heads. In this regard I would say we are making good progress. The message is less “us against them” and more a reflection of shunyata (emptiness)—putting the cause of problems on the individual as opposed to the faceless other and exposing corporations and/or governments for what they are—amplified personifications of greed and boredom that arise out of ourselves. So from this perspective, there does seem to be cultural progress, and yet so many of us still feel disaffected and dissatisfied. How can we align our increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world with our emotional and spiritual bodies? The answer is through kindness.

Often when I talk about animal rights, people ask me, “Why care so much about animal abuse when there is so much human abuse in our world?” I care about animal abuse because we are all animals, and I choose not to be locked into the prejudicial system that proclaims this animal to be more worthy than that animal. Human beings are animals too—that is a biological fact—and the systematic and unquestioned abuse of non-human animals creates a cultural environment in which abuse is accepted, which in turn results in the abuse of humans. If we want to solve a problem, it is best to look for the root of the problem and change that; otherwise our efforts will be limited to the surface and the problem will inevitably recur. As my holy teacher Swami Nirmalanda said, “This picking and choosing who to love promotes schisms and prejudices and causes us to feel separate from all of life. We should be more cosmopolitan and feel ourselves as a citizen of the cosmos—a friend to all.” Kindness can lead us in that direction.

We all want to be successful. Yoga teaches that success comes to one who is friendly and kind towards others. For Yoga to happen—for us to experience freedom from the need to consume material products and exploit the Earth and other animals, for us to experience the joy of needing nothing and feeling whole, as Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati described the state of Yoga—we must explore kindness. We cannot remain tight and miserly, only doling out kindness to those whom we like or who are like us, or to those who will give us something in return. When we begin to shed the limits of our kindness, we begin to understand our potential for being the limitless beings that we really are. This is truly the great adventure: to break the self-centered chains that bind our hearts and begin to see the other as our own self. This equanimity of mind will lead to God-realization.

—Sharon Gannon

Fresh Air

Today is my one month liver transplant anniversary. It is also the first time in a month that I have stepped outside of the hospital for a breath of fresh air. What a revelation! To feel the sun on my face, the breeze in my hair; it was delicious.

My body is now accepting my new liver and the liver function blood tests are normalizing; it is the first time in nearly ten years. The infection markers in the blood are also normalizing, indicating that whatever infection I’ve had has been treated with multiple courses of antibiotics. Most importantly, the stent continues to work; the drain has nearly stopped leaking bile, something the doctors hoped would happen during the course of this week. For the time being, a second surgery is off the table.

The new plan is to have the drain removed on Saturday and to try going home at the beginning of the next week. It seems a long way off at the moment, but I’m getting very excited to see my Louis and Xavier again regularly, and settle back into the place I most enjoy being — at home.

Today’s fresh air reminded me of the changing of the seasons, the passing of time and the joy of being outside; something most years we appreciate and enjoy by going to the countryside for a long weekend of hiking. Though realistically hiking may be a little way off for me, today was a first wonderful taste of walking in the open air.All the senses were stimulated and rejoicing in the moment of remembering how simple and wonderful the event of being outside, moving on two legs can be. While tired and still experiencing pain, I feel my energy increasing and my will to resume life outside of the hospital uncompromising. I haven’t been overly focused on leaving the hospital because I’ve known that my strength and stability need to increase before I leave. While leaving tomorrow would be premature, I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even while having no idea of what exists between here and the light, I have no doubt that when the time is ripe, my fruit will fall from the tree and I will be ripe to return home.

The Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra is a beautiful chant about becoming ripe to the cycle of birth and death, to surrendering to Shiva just as a ripe cucumber at the perfect moment falls from the vine. The beginning and the end are a perfect reflection of each other that melds into a whole life cycle made of moments happening exactly as they should.

Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra
महामृत्युंजय   मन्त्र:   ॐ   त्र्यम्बकं   यजामहे   सुगन्धिं   पुष्टिवर्धनम् :

Om Tryambakam Yajaamahe
Sugandhim Pussttivardhanam
Urvaarukamiva Bandhanaan
Mrtyormukssiiya Maamrtaat

ॐ त्र्यम्बकं यजामहे
सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनम्
उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान्
मृत्योर्मुक्षीय मामृतात् ॥

Om, We worship the Three-eyed One (Lord Shiva), who is fragrant and who nourishes all beings; may he liberate us from death, for the sake of immortality, even as a ripe cucumber is severed from the bondage of the creeper.

My (short) translation:
When we are ready, things in life happen with ease. We can let go from the gripping of the side of the cliff and know our fall will be padded by warm, welcoming waters. We land whole, untarnished, perfect, into a new reality where every moment we are present, at one with all of existence for eternity.

Translation of words:

AUM/OM: Absolute reality. That which encompasses the three states of waking, dreaming, deep sleep, represented by AUM, the three levels of gross, subtle, causal, the three levels of conscious, unconscious, subconscious, and the three universal processes of coming, being, and going. Absolute silence beyond the three levels is the silence after AUM.

Tryambakam: Trya means three. Ambakam means eyes. It means the three eyes of the Absolute, which are the processes of creation, existence, and dissolution, as well as the other triads, which are part of AUM. The three “eyes” means experiencing these three stages and triads at one time, from the higher, all pervasive vantage point of the Absolute. (Relating to Shiva, the god of destruction, calamity and rebirth)

Yajamahe: We rejoice in meditation on all of this.

Sugandhim: Means fragrance. Like a spreading fragrance, all of this permeates the whole of existence, while at the same time being that existence

Pushtivardhanam: Means that which sustains and nourishes all. Thus, the fragrance that permeates all is the sustainer of all beings, while also the essence of all beings. (Pushti means ripe)

Urvarukamiva: Urva means big and powerful. Arukam means disease, like the spiritual diseases of ignorance and untruth, which are like the death of Wisdom or Truth.

Bandhanan: Means bound down, as in bound down to the ignorance and untruth.

Mrityor: Means ignorance and untruth.

Mukshiya: Means liberation from the cycles of physical, mental, and spiritual death.

Maamritat: Means please give me rejuvenating nectar, so as to have this liberation, like the process of severing the cucumber from the creeping vine.

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