I read a piece recently in the New York Times written by a doctor working in hospice, who very honestly confronted and articulated her experiences – both practical and emotional – when relating to people who are transitioning. In other words, dying. And yet these people are still living. They are said to be transitioning. The use of the word ‘transitioning,’ and the story she told of both beauty and fear, struck me.
The word’s usage in this context describes a very specific transition, arguably the most challenging of our lives. And sometimes these transitions are described as liminal phases. Somehow the word liminal resonates more deeply in my heart. It is evocative of something more than a transition.
Liminal is defined as “of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of a boundary or threshold.” It is to me, a beautiful word, a beautiful idea, but it can be terrifying. Rilke writes “let everything happen to you, the beauty and the terror, just keep going, no feeling lasts forever.”
I remember being too scared to visit my grandmother as she lay dying in a hospital bed. I was just a teenager at the time, and finally did visit, but I was terrified. I loved her so much and could not process or comprehend what was happening. Since so much is changing, and changing so rapidly, when you are a teen, adolescence felt like a free fall for me. I would awkwardly tumble in and out of the various rights of passage and seminal experiences.
After I saw my grandmother in the hospital for the last time, I went to see my best friend. We used to hang out sometimes at her father’s furniture store. It was a bizarre small town thing, but they had a trampoline in the back of the store. I remember bouncing up and down on the trampoline that day and crying. The embodied experience of repeatedly falling, again and again, allowed the tears to flow. There was anger and laughter, too. But until that moment, I had not been able to let myself fall into the present and experience the feelings of love and loss flowing in and out of me.
When I spent time with my father as he was dying, it too was a liminal place. But when I gave myself permission to feel fully the beauty and terror of this liminal place, I found myself, with him, on some strange yet familiar plateau. It was extremely quiet, and peaceful and full. It was an expansive liminal place of love. I say liminal because it is as if with in the stillness, I was also falling. And so letting life, love and loss, happen. “Let everything happen to you, the beauty and the terror” says Rilke.
That nothing feels completely certain anymore feels odd but true, or truer than any of the ideas or stories that take me away from the immediacy of these feelings, which as Rilke said, are always changing. But in that liminal place or phase there is a call to stay present – to the beauty and the terror – since no feeling lasts forever, and nothing lasts forever.
My mother is almost 90 and I sense, in myself, a certain uneasiness when we speak sometimes. There is an intimacy, but also a distance. The distance is actual (she is in New Mexico) but on some other level, emotional. But there is also a tenderness. A tender and at times tentative quality, or slightly awkward quality in our conversations. And sometimes we traverse the gap and find ourselves connected in that beautiful, scary, liminal place. It is as if we both know just how delicate, precious, and fleeting life is, liminal, and eternal in that.
I have never walked on a tight-rope (but are fascinated by those who do), never jumped out of an airplane, and have never even been on one of those bridges in the jungles that are made of twine and swing as you traverse them – but I imagine them at times. I imagine looking down at water moving and around at trees swaying and the fluid and ephemeral clouds above. What ground is there in this context except presence? The fierce, yet loving presence that allows us to connect to each other, and to ourselves, to the beauty and the terror.
I like feeling in control. But I also find myself drawn to those circumstances where I literally fall into presence. It is scary. It is beautiful. It feels like love.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things” is a lovely poem by Wendell Berry. To me, it so perfectly epitomizes what I love about yoga, teaching, taking a walk – and just being and breathing.
He writes, “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” The experience of freedom is an aim of yoga. Do you feel in this moment the peace of wild things? Barry writes, “When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,” Do you know this feeling? Dis-ease or dis-quiet.
One of my cats has a tendency to cry when my husband leaves the apartment. Sometimes he doesn’t realize that we are in the other room, and his anxiety is evident in his confused meow. Then his brother jumps down from his perch on the refrigerator and bites the back of his neck in a sustained manner. He holds the scruff of fur on the back of his brother’s neck like a mother cat would when she picks up her kitten. This calms our anxious kitty down within seconds. The peace of wild things.
“I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” Forethought. But what about now? When my cat holds his brother, it is as if he is saying “feel this now.” And apparently studies have shown that a kitten’s blood pressure can drop within seconds of being held in this manner. It is so beautiful to witness this dance of the peace. The peace of wild things, even if they are technically domesticated animals. What are we? Domesticated animals/wild things?
“I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”
Sometimes at night I listen to the sweet sounds of my cats purring as they sleep, along with the sound of my husband’s snorring. These sounds make me profoundly happy and contented. These boys, who sometimes have trouble resting, are at peace. And I rest in the beauty of this sound, their sounds, the peace of wild things.
“I come into the presence of still water and feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
When I listen closely to the flowers in the park, the luscious pinks, and vivid reds and oranges, the cool inky blues and purples, I hear a vibration. Yes, colors have sound, and they move, and breathe. Everything breathes and vibrates and pulses. Many hearts beating, many organisms breathing, all at once. A cacophony of sound and color that is at the same time peaceful, for it is as it should be. Peaceful and wild.
In yoga we are taught to ask the question, again and again, “who am I?” and “who is the breather?” In practice we can observe that the body breathes itself, the heart beats itself. We might observe, extend, condition or even stop our breath for a time. We can affect the rate and quality of our breath, the rate and force of our heart, our vital energy, our life force. We can watch and affect the flow of our thoughts and observe their stoppage for time. And yet the body will breathe itself, the heart will beat itself and the life force will pulse at a certain frequency – until it doesn’t. But the breath, this breathing, beating wide world of wild things goes on. And the peace is in the watching, the witnessing, the widened view, that takes in the wild things. And the peace that they are.
“For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
May we all.
“What you are seeing is only a drop, one raindrop containing a sample of what remains of the millions of lives lost in these camps.”
These were the words occasionally repeated by our Polish guide during a visit to the former concentration/extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. This was the most difficult but most profound aspect of my recent trip to Poland. After teaching a yoga intensive in Warsaw, I traveled to Krakow and then took a day trip to Auschwitz/Birkenau. My experience teaching in Poland was incredible, and I will return again next summer, but my visit to the camps is what I am choosing to share right now.
Having read about the Holocaust and seen many excellent films depicting the horror of life and death in these camps, nothing quite prepared me for the experience of being there, and seeing and feeling the earth and air of this place. It was very cold late March day when we went, it had been snowing the day before (it snowed pretty much every day of my two weeks in Poland) and was overcast and blustery, especially at Birkenau. Birkenau is the largest of what were the three camps of Auschwitz (usually referred to as “Auschwitz 2″). It is a huge, stark, and exposed plain surrounded by a forest of white Birch trees (hence the name Birkenau) and was the site of the some of the most horrendous living conditions and mass extermination facilities during the war. Since so much is simply incomprehensible and indescribable, I will share only a few verbal and visual images. My traveling companion Jen Roy took these pictures (she took very few pictures at the camps) but captured very well some of the small things that were emblematic of this “raindrop” described by our guide.
It was difficult to see the hair braids of the small girls, and the eye glasses and shoes, hair combs, hair cream, and tooth brushes, cookware and precious valuables by the thousands that were displayed in the museum. These small artifacts were pieces of what was once a part of someones world, “just a drop” in a universe of families, perhaps full of hope of setting up a new life somewhere.
“One can look at the world/through the magnifying glass of amazement/the diminishing glass of doubt/through the fingers through the tears/black blue and rose colored glasses/and through/(…)the thousands of empty glasses/of the Auschwitz Museum”
There were rows upon rows of photos lining the walls of the museum. Many photos of the faces of those young and strong enough to be worked for a few weeks or months before losing their lives. With their heads shaven, and their eyes open, these pictures spoke volumes and were heartbreaking to view. And there are no words capable of describing the photos of the emaciated and mutilated bodies of the children used for medical experimentation, or the emaciated bodies of the few beings that had survived long enough to see these camps liberated.
You who live secure
in your warm houses,
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces
Consider whether this a man
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no
Consider this woman,
Without hair or a name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.(…)
And then there was the remnant of a single rose, only the dried up stem and leaves still present, that a visitor must have left on what was once a long row of exposed concrete holes that were part of a mass outhouse. The prisoners were allowed a few seconds a day to use these holes to relieve themselves. Most of the time they were not given any facility for this purpose. Of the many jobs those prisoners strong enough to work were given, the job of cleaning the bottom of the latrine pit was a considered one of the best. It was good job since the outhouse was covered and somewhat protected from the elements. The remnants of that rose so tenderly placed on what was once a toilet was gesture of so much respect, a little flower of dignity placed over a site of intended humiliation.
And another rose recently placed (its bud still intact) in the padlock of a freight car used to lock in and transport people for what must have been hundreds or even thousands miles from their homes and homelands to this stark and desolate place.
The railroad tracks at Auschwitz/Birkenau are a cold hard steel, a distillation of the unimaginable. These tracks made by humans, used by humans represent both a cruelty and a utilitarianism utterly lacking in humanity and empathy. And yet, here in the soil and in the air, and in the roses so tenderly placed, one can feel the presence of so much humanity. In hearts and minds of the survivors, descendants, and fellow human beings who visit this place to bear witness, remember and respect the honor the dignity of all who lived and lost their lives here, is a drop of humanity. Maybe just a raindrop, or a teardrop, or a rose, but still a drop of dignity in this incomprehensible sea of utter depravity.
It was a harsh reminder of the importance of recognizing the innate dignity in everyone, and how essential it is to cultivate empathy and an experience of relationship with our fellow beings as unitive, rather than separative. And to look closely, very closely at all the little and perhaps insidious ways that we might (if only in our minds) denigrate, diminish, or even dehumanize those who are not like us.
Never shall I forget the night
the first night in the camp
Which has turned my life into one long night,
seven times cursed and even times sealed.
Never shall I forget this smoke.
Never shall I forget the little faces of children
whose bodies I saw turned into wreathes of smoke
beneath a silent blue sky.(…)
What is the paradox of discipline and playfulness, which could be described as detached attachment, or effortless effort, so often described in the Yogic texts? B.K.S. Iyengar says “be cautious, be bold!!!” So what is this special combination of control and abandon, or controlled folly, that allows us to “care and not to care” (as described by T.S. Eliot) that so captures an essential aspect of any creative act and the yogic endeavor particularly?
It is interesting to challenge oneself and methodically yet playfully explore this theme so as to uncover within ourselves that which is free within the form. Form can provide a context for deeper explorations, and most importantly, for freedom. If we loose the openness, the curiosity, and the willingness to play in our practices, we stand to loose the joyful and childlike freshness that can support us cultivating states of being that are both relaxed and wakeful. It is this freshness that supports our ability to be present, and perhaps even astonished at the beauty and mystery of even the smallest of things.
Thomas Merton (Trappist Monk and student of Zen) said that the issues of life were not so much problems to be solved, but mysteries to be entered. But entering these mysteries in practice or in life can be scary, and that is where play comes in.
When I ask myself what are the poetics of practice, the answer invariably involves some form of playfulness. And the opposite is true when I contemplate a poetics of play. Form provides a context for freedom. And in any good game, or form of play, certain perimeters or rules are established which help provide a safe space for the letting loose, and the letting go. The poet Mary Oliver calls these the Rules of the Dance. It is paradoxical, but in practice we employ boundaries to explore boundlessness.
It seems then that the poetics of practice (and play) must have something to do with exploring this curious space of control and abandon, the paradoxical space of care-filled folly. It is in this paradox that the mystery abides. This space is a sacred space. And it seems that it is also important that it not be too serious, or that we might benefit by not taking ourselves too seriously in this endeavor.
I read somewhere that the German word for holy (selig) is the root the English word silly. So perhaps we can bring a sincerity to our silliness, and by doing so we can support ourselves, and each other, as we enter freely and fully, with a care-filled abandon, into the mysterious dance of existence.
Please take 10 minutes to watch the above TED talk. A student sent it to me, and at the time I happened to be teaching a workshop called Practice and the Poetics of Play. In a completely different context, this artist summed up through her adventurous and arresting work something quite central to what we were (in our own small way) attempting to explore in the workshop.
What is being explored here is indeed a poetics of play. Perhaps this might inspire each of us to explore a poetics of life and practice that includes play, a poetic imagination, the ability to wonder, and a willingness to think outside of the box. When Thomas Merton writes that the issues of life are not problems so much as mysteries to be entered, we have an amazing opportunity to examine all the ways that we may be limiting ourselves, and each other, by an inflexible imagination.
The poet Kabir asks the following question:
If you don’t break your ropes while you are alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
Clearly the artist in this TED talk has done just that.
Have you ever been in yoga class, in the middle of a practice of backbends, for instance, and the person next to you begins to speak to you or their neighbor? Or you suddenly start speaking to your neighbor? It is interesting when this arises (often when poses become difficult or generate a lot of energy); sometimes it occurs when there are spaces and silences between movements and the students are not being told what to do, but rather must simply be – and be with themselves along with the thoughts, sensations and feelings that arise at any given time. Or there may be the tendency to comment on every experience. Whatever the reason, there is a break, or a crack. A crack occurs in the space of interior time. Love can support, protect and honor this space of solitude even within the context of togetherness. We can do it for each other, if not for ourselves.
I am reminded of Rilke, who writes “a love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect, border and greet one another.” Some (and all of us probably at times) find that solitude can be a great friend, a loving and accepting companion, or a cold and stark space.
As I reflect on my relatively short life and the hours and hours spent alone with myself and in a type of solitude with my closest companions (husband, cats) I am acutely aware of how this peace that I feel when alone could turn on a dime, say, if I were to lose my great love or my little friends. And yet we will lose each other some day. And we have known loss, some small, some large, many times over. But the space of solitude can even be a comfort during times of loss if we have been befriending it as a daily practice. And that includes the little pieces of solitude we afford each other, when we are actually together, sharing a space for instance. I so enjoy how my husband and I are able to hold spaces of solitude for each other even when we are together. It is in this that we, as Rilke says,”protect, border and greet one another.” And in the continual nurturing of this supportive space of solitude in togetherness, even in the smallest of ways, we gently strengthen our ability to access it when we are visited by the inevitable, and are in some way, truly alone.
As a child I spent hours, literally hours walking, running, and being alone in the rural New Mexico of my upbringing. And I do not remember feeling lonely in those times. I loved, just adored, space. Space to play, to think, to dream, to be. Even boredom had its appeal. Contentment is how I would now describe those feelings – looking out over Johnson’s Mesa at the early morning sunrise, or to the west in the evenings toward Vermejo and the rounded foothills that looked like saddles above the remnants and ruins of the abandoned coal mine. It was if the environment itself was my family, or partner, and we, in love, protected, bordered and greeted one another.
I remember the sound of nothingness – no-thing-ness – and how the rhythm of my breath withstood in stark temporal contrast to the eternal stillness of this space. It was truly like looking back in time through generations and generations of humans and pre-humans, to the species and landscapes and seascapes of the dinosaurs and beyond. A bubbling volcanic plain it/I once was, and now/then silence, except for the wind or breath. Or the sound of the occasional train whistle as it pierces the immense silence in the early evening, like the cry of bird or a coyote.
In that space of solitude, I did not feel alone or lonely because so much was present in the expanse of that space. The sanskrit word sthira comes to mind. It means steady and comes from the root stha which means to stand. The space seemed to stand. Sthira and Sukha. Sukha means ease or “well axle-hole” as in a good ride. There the space stood, it was well, a steady presence holding history as it rolls along. Protecting, bordering, greeting all in its midst with open arms, the “soft arms of the atmosphere” so beautifully described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay The Oversoul.
In solitude we are given an opportunity to tune the very special frequencies that exist therein. Like tuning the radio as we used to do on summer evenings while sitting in a car on the sparse New Mexico plain. We would tune in to the space, and perhaps catch a signal from some far away place like Amarillo or Colorado Springs, or maybe even Nebraska…or sometimes just listen to sound of the great nothingness, together, in solitude.
The Indian poet Kabir writes:
The flute of interior time is played whether we hear it or not.
What is meant by “love” is its sound coming in.
Holding this space for each other is a type of love. In a yoga class, we can do this together, for each other. So when the day comes to sit, alone, in the dining hall of a retirement home to eat Christmas dinner in solitude (as I recently witnessed through a window on West End Ave) we will be as we already are – alone, together.
The flute of interior time is
played whether we hear it or not.
What we mean by “love”
is its sound coming in.
When love hits the farthest
edge of excess, it reaches
And the fragrance of that
It penetrates our thick bodies
it goes through walls.
Its network of notes has a
structure as if a million suns were
This has a truth in it
Where have you heard a sound like this?
Sometimes through the corner of an eye, or in a moment of freshness, we are surprised to find we have slipped into another realm, which is always here, but not always seen, or felt.
We have seen snow before. But this snow? This totally new, fresh, never seen before, never to come again, first snow? When we touch or breathe these little frozen clouds, these one of a kind crystals of dust, space and water, these particles of spirit, they melt. And their filaments of form dissolve in our very human warmth.
The first snow. Looking out my fifth floor apartment window I see what is for my eyes the first snow of this winter season. And quite unexpectedly it fills me with delight, and, to my surprise, a quiet astonishment. Because today something in my heart knows about the secret in snow.
This first snow, softly swirling and streaming down
in vertical, and angular sheets.
Natures lace curtains moving gently, in
different directions and rhythms, revealing
Slips of space
A sweet and silent symphony
When the snow is falling, softly falling, we are so close to everyone, to everything. Because we fall at once into a silent dance that can be felt only through the slivers of the snow curtain. And here is a soft song heard from within a snow fabric so gauzy thin it barely conceals the sound of other worlds. Here are the glimpses of past and present, and we know where we are. In this snow we are so close to those who have come before us. This snow is the frozen particles that have been formed of the space, water and dust of those we feel we have lost. And now, with this first snow, we touch them once again, until the warmth of our still beating hearts melts away this brief moment of contact. Nature has a way of tenderly reminding us that we cannot hold on to this form that is meant to dissolve.
Today’s snow is gentle. And for this, I am grateful.
Sri Patanjali defines memory as “the unmodified recollection of words and experiences” or “memory retains living experience.” (Sutra 1.11). Patanjali also says that memory, like all forms of thought or mental activity, can be afflicting or non-afflicting. It depends on use. It depends on us.
Geeta Iyengar once said that we always remember “peak” experiences. But why? Is it because perhaps in those moments we were more wholly present? Present with the totality of ourselves? Is it because at those times we were truly awake? That we were open and receptive? Vivid memories or recollections often include our sense perceptions and emotions, and some proprioceptive and interoceptive sense of how we felt at the time. Perhaps our ability to remember is affected by how integrated we were at that time. Or are at this time. When we are in a truly integrated state our minds and hearts tend to be open and receptive, or inclusive. Fragmented states of being tend to exclude large chunks of experience. Sometimes this is born out of necessity, as a survival mechanism. Sometimes it is just how we tend to live, and get by.
Memories will often be inclusive of how our senses, our bodies, and our emotions were at the time. They can be rich, multifaceted and complex. They can also be difficult or, in some cases, terrifying. But, whenever possible, to incline our hearts toward presence and to invite the whole of ourselves into experience is to cultivate an integrated state of being. And memories that have been integrated into our present experience, because memory can affect how we are now.
Sometimes when we attend fully to some present experience we are visited by the past. This may be an invitation toward integration, an opportunity to integrate our memories of past experiences into the present. Because we are never really without our past, in some way or another, or without our future, when we embrace the present moment. It is this knowing, this felt sense of how fragile and fleeting life is that wakes us up to the now.
Ever since I was small I have have had a fascination, and a love, for aspen trees. They stand in clusters, or groves, like small families with their white barks, delicately mottled with black, like friendly skeletons wearing coats of gold sequins. Their fragile beauty is especially brilliant in a few shorts weeks in fall when their bright, round leaves quiver and quake in the thin mountain air. Their leaves seem so delicate, almost fragile. They are small, with roundish teardrop shapes and seem coated with a very light wax-like substance that makes them shimmer in the sunlight – shimmer like sequins attached by thread to cloth, or bone. They appear to shiver. And then there is the sound. That sound of time, of heartache, and of love.
My most recent memory of aspen trees (which we do not see in NYC) was evoked by seeing the birch trees this fall in Riverside Park. They share a similar white, silvery bark as their aspen brethren. That silvery white so evocative of snow or bone. And then there is the gold of their leaves, the short but beautiful life of those golden leaves.
When I close my eyes to remember the aspen trees, my heart literally aches. I can feel the cool, dry rocky mountain air on my nostrils, hear those leaves quaking, as if they were speaking some primeval secret of life. It is as if their leaves are softly whispering of what has been and what is to come. Listening to their quiet song was both sad and beautiful. It was like many a memory.
My aspen memories include my family. They include our sweet adopted border collie Allie, a young stray that we had taken in to our home and hearts. When we took a Sunday drive one fall afternoon to see the aspen trees she became terrified. When we stopped the car, she began to shiver and shake just like the trees, perhaps remembering being abandoned on a road somewhere. Her fur was a beautiful pale gold and white. She reminded me of the quaking aspen trees that surrounded us. That day she would not leave our station wagon to play or go for a hike among the trees. She was terrified. So we stayed. We stayed with her, and her fear. We surrounded her with love as she shook in anticipation, or in memory.
I remember how the light that day reflected off the shimmering sequins of golden leaves. And off the fur of my scared dog Allie. It was clear and brilliant and all encompassing like the air. The clean and crisp air that held light and sound, that held that smell that dogs emit when they are afraid. It held the sweet and yet frustrated voices of my parents, and my brother. It held us all in the very breath that knows past and future are here, now, in this moment. And the breath that is inclusive of the complexity that is experience. And the breath that is inclined towards acceptance and love.
This is the use of memory:
For liberation- not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.
“If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it. The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.” -Christopher Hitchens
Sometimes someone says something that stops you, stuns you, reawakens and fills you with a vision of life, some past event or person in a ways that they may never have calculated.
I recently taught a workshop in Philadelphia, and one of the students in the class, Kathyrn, happened to be someone who had lived in the same small town in New Mexico where I had grown up. She mentioned that I had taught her swimming (I had been a teenager at the time, and she, a young girl), as had my parents.
She told me that she had such fond memories of my parents and especially of my father who, she said, would always encourage her to swim that extra lap, to go a little farther even when she thought she could not, and not give up on herself. And she said that it was my father who taught her about practice. It was the vision of his example, his embodiment of practice. She watched him practice his diving, dive after dive, quietly focusing his mind and body before each attempt. And that she carried this vision of practice with her to this day, so many years later.
My first thought was, “I must share this with my mother, it will mean more to her than either of us can possibly imagine.”
And I later realized–as if for the first time, which is astounding–that it was my father who taught me about practice. He taught me about finding that which you love and sharing it. Swimming and skiing were not his professions, but they were his passions, as was teaching, and sharing his love with others. He would spend hours (when not at work or doing chores) swimming and diving at the local pool. Or skiing at the local ski area. Moving in the water, or on the snow, was a dance for him, a celebratory dance of life in nature. At those times he moved and breathed with such grace and contentment. He was in a state of flow, in a zone of integration, in harmony with himself and the environment. And he shared this with his students. It had an impact. Maybe more than he could ever have envisioned.
Sharing Kathryn’s memories of my father with my mother was a type of tapas for me. Tapas is a Sanskrit term which is sometimes defined as heat, or discipline, something like a willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation. I knew that I would feel extremely vulnerable when sharing these memories with my mom. Sometimes it feels easier to avoid these conversations, or to wait for what we think will be the right time to share. But how can we be sure that there will be time? Why postpone sharing something that might very well impact someone else in more ways than you can possibly imagine?
Christopher Hitchens wrote that the last year of his life (he had terminal cancer) was “his year of living dyingly.” Perhaps it is possible to live dyingly, and so live very fully, in some small way right now. By making that call. Writing that note. Facing the heat of tapas not for your own transformation, though that most certainly will occur, but for the sake of another. And another and another. The impacts of sharing a memory, of kindness expressed, “will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.”
“Let me not cry for my own disapointments, but because life is large and touching.” -Saint Tyaagaraja
The lovely and wise Jaganath Carrera recently said that it was important not to mistake the cup for the elixir. It was such a simple statement and yet so profound on many levels. His words and their implications have continued to resonate in me since I heard him speak of this relationship. So I ask myself the following questions: what is the elixir here? What is the cup? Where does one end and the other begin? What is this relationship?
As a teacher and practitioner of Yoga, and more specifically Iyengar Yoga, I have found myself living this question on a daily basis. Some deeper aspects of the question engage me: what is consciousness? And is the mind more than the brain? And am I more than the sum of my parts? Are we more than the sum of our parts? What is that which connects us? The cup, the elixir, the space between? All these questions not withstanding…what is this cup? Is there really an elixir?
Containers are important. They hold things. Fluid things, solid things, disparate things. And nothing at all. Containers focus the eye and create a frame, a frame of reference. They give form to what feels formless and make things appear solid that aren’t solid at all. They can be calming and comforting, or constricting and confining. It is a relationship. And it is temporary. The vessels are temporary. But what about the elixir? Is it too temporary? Can it evaporate and never become rain again?
My experience in the microcosm of teaching a particular style of Yoga, is that though the cup serves a purpose, and an important one, it can easily create a sense of exclusivity, of separateness. And this can be an unfortunate consequence of relationship. When we get caught up in the cup, we get caught up in that which separates rather than joins. This sense of exclusivity isolates and diminishes, and we loose sight of our potential to open, accept and expand. To include.
Some of the most important experiences that I have had as a teacher have involved sharing a cup, and its contents, with those who are not as familiar with the cup that I hold. Especially students and teachers from different styles, who have insight into and have experienced the elixir, even though it is held by a different cup. These relationships have helped me examine the relationship of cup and elixir. In the act of sharing the contents, attempting to discover this elixir with others, as we drink from the same cup, or different cups, there is a connection and a realization that that which nourishes, quenches, and sustains us, is not the cup at all. The cup is a vessel. The communion, the connection, the relationship is the elixir.
I have learned more about yoga, and myself, and the elixir, by living these questions with students and practitioners who may have sipped from a different cup. I have learned more about my own cup, my lineage, my body, heart and mind by venturing out and into the world of relationship because relationship provides another type of cup or container. This means I have learned to approach, rather than withdraw, from that with which I am unfamiliar, the different container, the unusual cup. It can be challenging, but makes all the difference. Because this is, of course, about our inner realm as well. In a sense there is little difference. The elixir may appear to be contained by the cup, but it is more than the cup.
Whatever the cup is, ultimately, it seems it must be open enough, flexible enough, generous enough to contain (if only temporarily) something as vast and immeasurable as this mysterious elixir. Or perhaps it is fine just as it is, because the elixir is such that it cannot be contained by only one cup. It is in the cup but beyond the cup. Of the cup but more than the cup.
In order to discover that which is greater that the sum of its parts, in order for the elixir to flow like a river from one limited vessel into even greater and greater containers of relationship, it seems as if these questions of form and function, container and contents are to be lived and reflected upon. With affection and appreciation, again and again.