I've always loved flowers. Plants. But flowers in particular. This is not to say I am an ecologist or have anything like a green thumb. I tend to ruin. But you can love a thing and not be very good at it at the same time. Indeed, we mostly are this way.
The day I learned I could buy my own damned flowers was a revolution. Self care tends toward the revolutionary. Almost by definition, the actions we take toward self healing and self care are decisions made against prior learning and prior experience. There is a lot of breaking of chains involved in this work.
I once stumbled uninvited into a party in the East Village. My friend and I were out on the streets, I don't remember what we were doing or why, this was back when nights only ended when the drugs were gone or I passed out. There was an open door and music pouring out of it; this was enough. Inside, there were disco balls and champagne fountains. We grabbed a bottle and snuggled into a corner. We figured out this was Patricia Field's place. We were surrounded by queens and the prettiest shoes to come in size 14. I laid my head back on the dais - yes, a dais - and I played with a rose I'd plucked out of the decor. In the midst of a conversation about love, sex, and isolation, I said we should eat roses for breakfast. We should consume beauty, since it so consumes us. I implied defiance and poetic justice. But mostly I was high.
There is a poetic justice in this practice. The things of our lives come back, proving they were wisdom from the very get go but we weren't ready to understand. It's stunning the way the most simple, natural things turn out to be medicinal. It is inevitably the simplest things that change people's lives - not the complex or the 'advanced' or the esoteric. We often have to go deep - deep years or far down rabbit holes - in order to figure out the truth was way back there at the beginning.
The poetry of justice is never quite literal. It may be. But it is more often subtle, essential, metaphorical. Divine.
I have always loved flowers, but not roses. Roses are cliche. Roses are drunk with saccharine implications. Their popularity of the rose renders them obscene. Whatever original beauty there was is ineffective through overuse and all that's left is trite.
But it also isn't.
I'm talking about my own prejudice, not roses themselves. There is a difference.
It isn't that roses are cheap, it's that I didn't believe I deserved them or anything they implied.
There is a technique in this practice known as bhavana. We're using it all the time, but we're generally unaware of it. On the simplest level, bhavana refers to the power of language. Words matter. The genius of this system is always the way it takes what is and gives it back to us as a technique. Everything is a tool. Use whatever means necessary. Do what you can. Everything is workable. This is revolutionary because it means anyone can do yoga, we already have everything we need, etc etc. It's difficult because we tend to not want or value what we have.
The hidden reality of this technique is that the tools are completely arbitrary; we're not given tools so much as we are given our own selves.
I am very aware that some students are drawn to me because of the way I talk. The obverse is also true: my language turns a good many people away. I'm okay with this because I recognize it's irreducible; in an uncanny process that looks like synchronicity, people tend to find the teachers who work for them. And at the same time, I am terribly mindful of my words as a teacher. I know how hurtful they can be. Words can deceive. Words can lie and language can oppress. Care in what I say, developing skill and vocabulary, working for greater clarity and veracity have been important and intentional parts of my development. Finding one's voice and all that. One mentor literally suggested I work with a voice coach or take acting lessons. Another has worked very carefully with my singing. Someone else just pointed out that my barmaid swagger comes out when I need to project my voice; Be careful with that, he said; and use it, he said. That is a whole other chapter, a whole set of technique. But this technique, bhavana, is best understood as the use of imagery and the power of suggestion and the astonishing way it reveals our minds.
When a core strength teacher tells us to feel the burn, a lot happens in the room. A lot happens in our heads. This also happens when an alignment teacher suggests you step your feet three feet apart or turn your toes out to 45 degree angles.
Words evoke something in our minds, and this in turn does something in our bodies.
And at the very same time, what a word means varies from person to person.
Bhavana is the technique of working with our own mythology.
In order to work well, bhavana can't be arbitrary. We can't just make shit up. Invoking chakras is generally bad technique, and the only students who tend to get something out of it are students already invested in that mythology. A good bhavana draws us toward reality. It has a certain accessibility, but it also has to have a certain relevance. What is relevant changes, depending on the context.
Given an opportunity, bhavana becomes evocation. This is wild. It becomes not merely suggestive. We feel, certain things. What we feel has an effect on our chemistry. Associations and memories and assumptions gurgle forth. Suddenly, we're rooting around in psyche. Given variation, we have different perspectives on the same techniques. Given repetition, we glean familiarity. And it is no small thing, to become familiar with a feeling or an experience. It can counter a lifetime of lack, fear, suppression or neglect. You don't know how to love, for example, if you've never been loved. Given a chance, we build resilience, wisdom, dig a deep reserve of personal experience.
Evocation teaches an underlying truth of yoga darsana by giving an experience of the interconnection between body and mind, memory and perspective, perspective and the lives we happen to be living. It also teaches the idea of subtlety itself.
And evocation becomes provocation. We all have our own backstory, our own ancestry and life lived thus far; bhavana is an intentional tripwire, crash course, or maybe lifeline. You cannot do this practice for very long before your personal assumptions show up, your self-awareness increases, your character traits become obvious and you begin to re-story the foundations of who you are.
And generally speaking, none of this is explicit. We'll never know the entirety of what practice is doing on our deeper levels. We only notice, once in a while, that we can do something we've never been able to do before. We catch our anxiety or tension as it arises. We find ourselves more patient, more steady, more tolerant. It's hard to explain, but after a very little bit of this practice, we become aware that we have changed.
Bhavana is vehicle for abstraction. It's the poetics of yoga.
Investigating our own mythologies
In the name of Him who taught the soul to think,
and kindled the heart's lamp with the light of soul - Gulshan-i Raz
I've been using the bhavana of a rose for the last few months of the online techniques sessions. I have dozens of reasons. I have reasons I'm not even aware of.
I lived across the street from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens for years. Without meaning to, merely by association, I became hitched to seasons and ecology. This is perhaps only interesting because I learned more living in Brooklyn than I did growing up as a kid in the Minnesota woods. Or perhaps I absorbed in Brooklyn what I'd taken for granted at home. Whatever: I took in earth science every time I walked to the subway, I smelled trees and flora when I lay on my roof top looking at the sky, I studied tree lines casually as I sat on my fire-escape. So I can never think of June without also thinking of roses. June, in the Botanic Garden, was Rose Month.
So I wanted to place us in time, but I also wanted to suggest cultivation and familiarity with the organic processes and cycles of time. I wanted to create familiarity with the spirit of blossoming, blooming, coming into fullness and fruition. But if I had suggested lotus flowers, I would have been taking students away from their own experience. I would have superimposed imagery of eastern spiritual tropes. We know lotuses as foreign archetypes. Roses, however, are personal.
I also wanted to invoke the lushness of summer, the sweetness of petals under hothouse conditions, the coolness of beauty amidst the rush. There is both fragility and resilience to the natural world, and exquisite aesthetic pleasure. Awareness of this tends to stimulate all sorts of humane reverence and insight. You can't observe the sway of nature and not be, somehow, moved.
Finding the beauty in our contemporary world is a hard thing to do. I wanted to deal with this directly and forthwith.
I wanted, too, to elicit the medicinal qualities of roses. Roses are more than merely pretty. The perfume of a rose is said to soften the jaded and comfort the weary. Rose balances disillusion. It soothes depression. It stands for lineage and the gifts passed down through generations. A rose is said to contain the essence of love, and love is said to heal all things. The fragrance of a rose is rumored to have the power to crack open the gates of the most guarded heart.
And it seemed this was something we needed. We've needed, out of self-preservation, to guard our hearts in recent times. There isn't anything wrong with this. It's important that we set boundaries. It's vital that we be able to tune out the noise.
But we also need access. We can't simply shut down. Not, any way, if we want to be effective in the world or go on with our lives or find some sweetness in the difficulty.
Smarmy platitudes aside, the rose has been used in literature, cuisine, painting and fashion for centuries. Rose is said to sooth the communication between sadhaka pitta, the fire of the heart, and prana vata, the wind of the mind. Pitta tends to inflame over the summer. Prana vata tends to make us wild and neurotic by the time late summer has blown all the roses. Throw fire and wind together and you ravish fields, forests, whole landscapes. This is true of the world, and it's true of the inner world.
If that's a little too esoteric, just know rose is said to sooth emotional issues, allow a processing and digestion of past hurts or grievances, so that we may experience joy in the present moment. There is no possible, other joy.
Physically, rose is cooling and uplifting. A counter to inflammatory issues and heavy ones.
Thich Nhat Hahn said something to the effect of becoming so gentle, so kind, that we touched every surface and looked into every face as if it were delicate as a flower.
Roses are iconic and transculturally so. In the pre-Christian era, the rose symbolized devotion to Venus. Once Rome was Christianized, that symbolism became associated with the Virgin Mary. Rosaries, for goodness sake. In Islam, Sufism, and the offshoots of Persian culture, the cultivation of roses has held pride of place in the extravagant and symbolically rich art of gardening, let alone poetry. Roses are prominent with folks like Hafiz.
The imagery of lover and beloved, and a surfiet of roses, became a vehicle for expressing the mystical quest for divine love. Roses are both the beloved's blush and associated with the divine names and attributes.
Roses are regional, historical, rife. One of my favorites, though, is its symbolism of anti-authoritarian association. Resistance has always carried roses.
It's fascinating what comes up when you work with a practice in this way over time. Fascinating how varied people's experiences can be. I'd love it if you join me in practice, or join us to talk about these practices the first Wednesday of each month via Zoom.
But the nature of gunas, or qualities, is that they are not limited to one thing. They are universals, and as universals we can start to recognize them on the daily if we want to. We can have language practices, visualization practices, nutritional practices, gardening practices. There are thousands of ways you can practice with rose. Notice color, texture, stories, symbols. Stop and smell them. Indulge in beauty, even if it's common and gaudy. Take what you can get. Notice your judgeyness.
And at some point you realize you're practicing love. Meanings change. This is important.
It Felt Love, Hafiz
Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give this world
It felt the encouragement of light
We all remain